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I Couch-Surfed Across America—and Lived to Tell

How I used CouchSurfing.org to crash with perfect strangers and see the country on the cheap (without getting killed by an ax murderer).

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Sam Javanrouh/FlickrSam Javanrouh/FlickrWhen we met Hannah Perkins at a bar in St. Louis, a male friend staged an impromptu intervention: "You let these people stay at your house?" He meant no offense to us personally, he explained. It's just that, you know, we could be serial killers.

Perkins, a public policy grad student, has been hosting travelers since she was a college freshman at 17. CS is technically 18-and-older, so "basically I just lied," she says. As a rule, the bigger city, the harder it is to find a free couch, but Hannah's policy is to never turn away any verified member who needs a place to crash. She gives her guests keys so they can let themselves out; one time she let a surfer borrow her car. When Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans in 2008, she got a frantic message from a Gulf Coast farmer who had just found out about the site. (CouchSurfing has a special group for hosts who make their homes available in the event of a natural disaster.) Hannah was in the process of moving, and told him this wasn't a good time. He showed up anyway, black lab in tow, his life's possessions strapped to the back of his pickup truck.

"A lot of people see it as a negative, 'You're too trusting.' I just would much rather give people the benefit of the doubt and on occasion get burned than to miss out," she says. "I mean, this has been a fucking awesome ride. This has been fucking great! I'm 22 years old, and I've basically traveled the US by staying in my own apartment!"

The concerns of Hannah's friend, though, were hardly trivial. Upwards of 95 percent of all conversations with strangers about the project (and a full 100 percent of all conversations with parents) lead to The Question: What's to stop an innocent young surfer from being hacked into tiny bits?

Upwards of 95 percent of all conversations with strangers about the project (and a full 100 percent of all conversations with parents) lead to The Question: What's to stop an innocent young surfer from being hacked into tiny bits? 


In a word: references. After every stay, you're expected to write one for your host, which then appears, permanently, on their profile wall. They in turn, write one for you. By the time we met Hannah, we'd acquired at least a half-dozen positive references each from reputable CouchSurfers. Not enough to compile a detailed character sketch, perhaps, but enough to assuage any lingering fears—namely, that we were polite, "clean," and moderately engaging.

References are the currency by which CouchSurfing transactions are conducted. It's a system that encourages aspiring travelers to host as many people as they can and treat them like kings. In Iowa one host took us up in a WWII-era plane over the Mississippi River, then bought us dinner. All he asked, he said, was that we write him nice references; he was planning on going to Europe.

If you find Halvorson's Orange Acres Dharma Station through Craigslist, you'll have to fill out a 77-item "psychoanalytic" questionnaire, with inquiries likes "Do you like fruit roll-ups?" and "Do you have any metal plates or screws in you[r] body or any other conditions that would make you sensitive to electro-magnetic energy?" But if you find it through CouchSurfing, you can just show up—provided you have at least three positive and zero negative references.

A negative reference is more or less a death knell. It's also an exercise in mutually assured destruction. "DO NOT TRUST THIS PERSON. HE IS A FUGITIVE," reads one counterattack.

CouchSurfing isn't Yelp, in other words. If your host prattled on about the weather or there was no hot-water shower, keep it to yourself. Female surfers I met who'd had run-ins with creepy guys tended to keep it under wraps, explaining that, absent a serious threat, it simply wasn't worth launching the warheads. Rachael, a social worker who hosted us in Kansas, had traveled extensively in Europe without much drama, until an Italian host tried to put the moves on her sister. Or as Rachael put it, "He did everything to earn a positive reference, but due to some awkward moments and cultural differences things just never really click [sic] between all of us."

 

GUIL JONES' HOME in the Far West Texas town of Marathon might be the only place on CouchSurfing with its own form of currency (the "Chivo," featuring an illustration of a mariachi riding a goat, redeemable for a drink of water). Jones, a 63-year-old pilot, had given me a number to call when I got to town—"ask for Ingrid"—but no one picked up, and after a dozen rings, I got a recording of Guil reading from what sounded like something out of the Great Tao, followed by a beep. In his absence, we're greeted by Eric, an ex-Mormon from the Central Valley who tattooed his face in homage to Melville's Queequeg and who speaks with a lilt that suggests he was taught English in Spanish by a Russian. Eric moved to Mexico after a spell in prison, but crosses the border by foot to work for Jones three months a year. His first words to me are "Don't be scared; I'm not a cop."

As for Jones himself, well, he's in Illinois, and although there are Kurtz-like reports of sightings around town—someone saw him driving his Camino around Marathon; someone is sure he saw Guil at the watering hole—that's where he'll stay for the duration of my visit.

About a decade ago, Jones plopped down $2,200 for 17 city lots in Marathon, a pinprick of a town on US-90 in the Chihuahuan Desert, four hours southeast of El Paso. It was an impulse buy (the place "just seemed eternal," he says), intended to simply be a personal retreat. Then bicyclists started coming through the Big Bend on their way across the country, and Jones began to see the place as something different—a latter-day caravanserai, the great rest areas of the Silk Road, where travelers could tie up their camels, get a fresh meal, and talk for a while.

The result was La Loma del Chivo ("The Hill of the Goat"), part hostel, part organic farm, part three-dimensional Dali painting. The main building, dubbed "the goat shed," looks like a Conestoga wagon sprouting out of a Santa Fe B&B. All the buildings have names, too, ranging from the self-evident—"the Unabomber shack"—to the philosophical—the "McMushrooms," one-bed plywood sheds that are, like fast food, "no good unless you're hungry."

"Some people show up, drive by, and don't stay," Jones confesses to me later. "I think it's because it's such an odd place. It sort of evolved for free. I mean, it was given to us by the Great Wheel."

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