I’ve slept on plenty of couches in my life.
[half]I’ve also slept on floors, air mattresses, hastily arranged pillows, in back seats of cars, in front seats of cars… you name a sleeping method, and I’ve probably been there. When you like traveling, that sort of thing just comes with the territory.
Last summer for example, a friend and I drove round trip between Portland, OR, to Chicago, IL. Along the way, we didn’t stay in a hotel once. Between us we were lucky enough to have somewhere to crash every night, and even though scooting a few chairs together to form a makeshift bed wasn’t as comfortable as a room at the Best Western, we had something even better — a local host to serve as a tour guide, and more importantly, a friend.[/half]
[half]Your host lets you see the town through their eyes, exposing you to things you otherwise might not experience. In Idaho Falls, ID, for example, we got a chance to go to a local farm and eat fresh ice cream, made from the milk of those very cows. In Missoula, MT, we got to hike to the hillside letters. In St. Louis, MO, we got to go to a local BBQ joint. If it wasn’t for a knowledgeable local host, we never could’ve done those things.
We were fortunate enough to know folks in all the cities we were hitting, but say we were on the other side of the coin — say we didn’t know someone in St. Louis, but we wanted somewhere to stay (for free) and someone to show us around. Well… that, my friends, is where Couchsurfing comes in.[/half]
[half]If you’re unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, it’s pretty simple. Basically, you sign up for the site, build your profile, and choose whether you’re available to host people who are coming through your town. If you’re available to host, you may or may not start getting requests to stay with you, which you can accept or decline. Each town also has its own “community” on the site (we’ll get to Portland’s later), and the message boards there are a good way to find other travelers to connect with if you’re looking for things to do in a foreign place.
While I’ve been a member for a while, I’ll admit, I haven’t been very active. I’ve hung out with some folks before, but it wasn’t until last week that I actually hosted someone via the site. My guests were a trio (Kenny, Katie, and Alex), and they were on their way across the country from Pennsylvania.[/half]
[half]Their journey brought them down the East Coast, across the Southern half of the US, and then up the West Coast, and it was accompanied by the most comforting thing of all — no stringent deadlines. They came to Portland on a Monday night with a plan to leave to Seattle the next day, but during our first round of beers, they admitted that it might be a bit longer.
“It depends on how we feel, I think,” said Katie nonchalantly.
“It’s been a month, and I’m getting super antsy,” said Alex.
“We’re kind of ready to settle down again,” Kenny added.
After a slight pause, Katie summed it up: “But every time we say that, we end up in a city way longer than we expected.”
“Yeah,” chimed in the other two, knowingly. They obviously understood their travel habits by this point, as they were right — the Pennsylvanians spent the next 4 days taking in Portland before finally making their way up to Seattle.[/half]
[one-third]A few days before they arrived, I met up with Brie Roper, who I would call a seasoned Couchsurfer. Brie had been all over the States, racking up almost 30,000 miles traveled using Couchsurfing as her main housing method. She’s been from San Diego to Maine and just about everywhere in between, and her travels had brought her to Portland, where she decided to settle down for the next 6 months.
She wasn’t always so active, though — as a matter of fact, when she first heard of it, she wasn’t convinced. “I was like, ‘That concept sounds absolutely ridiculous. That’s not safe. There’s no way a single, 23 year old female traveling through the country, sleeping on people’s couches…,’ I just wrote it off,” said Brie.[/one-third]
[one-third]After a little bit of traveling with her aunt (who’s an avid Couchsurfer), Brie started to come around. “Couchsurfing had kind of hit a nerve with me,” Brie recalled. “I was like, ‘If that didn’t sound as dangerous, I’d totally be into it,’ so I started Googling it. I got on the site, and I made a profile, and I started looking at other people’s profiles, and I realized, ‘Oh… there’s a lot of community involvement and responsibility.’”
Brie had been through ups and downs as a Couchsurfer, but at the end of the day, her take on it was positive. “When your friend comes into town, and you wanna show them all the coolest stuff… [with Couchsurfing,] it’s like that in every single city you go to.”[/one-third]
[one-third]That sort of positive experience comes from buying into the system. Brie isn’t someone who just comes to Couchsurfing as a last resort — she stays plugged into the community, genuinely seeking to connect with hosts and guests alike. She doesn’t see someone’s hospitality as merely a stepping stone, and I think her attitude tends to be echoed across the Couchsurfing community.
As a matter of fact, the way I came across Brie was via the Portland Couchsurfing message board, where she had recently been one of the more active members. It’s fairly easy to get involved. “I posted on Couchsurfing: ‘Hey, these are the things I’m doing for the next couple days — who wants to join?’ and I got so many awesome responses,” Brie said excitedly. “They have awesome weekly events. There are so many people who are actually committed to doing the weekly events here.”[/one-third]
Couchsurfing can be a divisive topic, though. For every fruitful tale of unexpected adventure and everlasting friendship, you’ll get a recollection from the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and unfortunately, the negative experiences tend to get all the press.
After all, it’s way easier to get eyes on a story about a horrific experience than it is a positive one — “if it bleeds, it leads,” as they say. We take risks every day, and it’s only if something goes very wrong that it’ll be a story. It’s the nature of the media.[/one-third]
[full]It’s this sort of fear-mongering stance that leads to an unfair portrayal of a culture that actually is more welcoming than it is dangerous. “There are people who have bad stories, but once you actually talk to them about the bad story, you realize they maybe accepted an invitation from someone who had no references… and, I mean, you kind of have to push it back on them,” says Brie. “If you’re gonna be doing this — I don’t care if you’re male, female, how old you are, where you are — it’s common sense. If someone isn’t vouched for by other people in the community… I could just go knock on someone’s door here and hope that I have a good experience crashing on their floor, but that’s not sane. That’s not the Couchsurfing community at all.”
Still, Brie is pretty vigilant: “I won’t stay with someone who has less than ten reviews, and they need to have female and male reviews.”[/full]
[full]Sometimes, though, the most unexpected scenarios can blossom into some really great friendships. Take this one time that Brie stayed in Maine, for example.[/full]
[two-thirds]“I stayed in Bangor, ME — cold, beautiful, very outdoorsy — with this family who hosted me last minute. It was this Native American guy — he had long, crazy, gray hair and drove a giant, white, unmarked van. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be… so weird.’ But it wasn’t what I was expecting. He drove me by this famous author’s house, gave me all this history, telling me all about his town and how he had grown up there.
“He had two young boys — crazy unruly, but that’s just the way their whole family was. I’d never had live lobster before, so he took me to the store, and we got to pick out the lobsters. He taught me how to cook them — throwing them in the water, and his kids were there, and his wife was super awesome! I was just blown away by the hospitality.”[/two-thirds]
[full]Brie admits, though, that she wasn’t sure what to make of things at first: “We’re human — we judge. You’re just like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what this is gonna be like,’ and they treated me like absolute family. I still keep in contact with them, and I didn’t expect to connect with an actual family. It was so heart-warming to feel at home, literally on the exact opposite side of the country.[/full]
[two-thirds]“Everybody [in town] loved them as a family. They’d obviously been born and raised in this small town, and just seeing that everyone around town knows them, and they bring me into that… it was just so unexpected. And I felt like a complete P.O.S. driving up to that house going, ‘Ehhh, I don’t know what to expect!’ but they treated me like family.”
And this newfound friendship Brie forged didn’t just end there: “[Later,] when I got down the East Coast, I was alone for Thanksgiving, and I kind of posted something on Facebook, like ‘Really missing my family,’ and immediately I got a message from Derby [the guy from Maine] saying, ‘I have friends and family that will more than happily take you in! You should not be alone on Thanksgiving!’”[/two-thirds]
[full]That family Brie stayed with in Maine is a perfect example of the model Couchsurfing hosts. See, at the very roots of the Couchsurfing culture, there are a few basic principles that tie the community together, among them: respect for others, wanderlust, and a desire to learn and experience other cultures. When everyone respects those principles, some of the strongest bonds are formed.
“They were telling me some stories of people who just treated them like a hotel,” Brie recalled, “and that’s not what Couchsurfing is about in any way, shape, or form. As a host, when you get people like that, it’s off-putting because that’s not what you’re in it for. You’re there for the relationships and the experience and learning about their culture, where they’re from, why they’re doing what they’re doing — their journey.”[/full]
[half]While a good chunk of your experience can come from environmental factors, I like to believe that your attitude and headspace play a pretty vital role as well. Basically, there are good sports, and there are bad sports.
The Pennsylvanians were a prime example of good sports. Their first few days in town it rained almost mercilessly. They had heard great things about Portland, but when I asked whether it lived up to the hype, Katie responded, “It’s rained every day I’ve been here, so I don’t really know yet. I’m judgmental on the rain so far — I can’t make a judgment yet.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Oh, come on, it’s not that bad. Generally, I agree with you, but the week they were in town, it did rain quite a bit… more than average. In most circumstances, that would put a damper on things, but as with most obstacles during their trip, Alex, Katie, and Kenny just rolled with it.
“There was a sort of weird experience we had,” Alex began. “We had a place to stay, and I guess it was just miscommunication, but we had a guy meet us for dinner… and then he didn’t want to put us up.”
“Yeah,” added Kenny, “we were under the impression that he just wanted to meet us, and then he’d put us up.”[/half]
[half]“Right,” said Alex, “but then it was 10:30 and he was like, ‘All right, guys, have a good night,’ and we were like, ‘Wait, we were thinking we were gonna stay with you…,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t wanna do that.’”
They had to improvise and figure out another plan for that night, but that’s another thing that seems to be pretty pervasive in the Couchsurfing subculture: a sort of nomadic intelligence and ability to adapt. You never know exactly what’s in store, what your plan will be, or when you’ll unearth a hidden gem. For example, the Pennsylvanians fell in love with… Flagstaff, AZ.
“You know how Austin is to Texas?” asked Kenny. “It’s this liberal hotspot — I feel like that’s what Flagstaff is to Arizona.”
“It’s close to the Grand Canyon. It’s really close to Sedona,” observed Alex.
“Beautiful, metaphysical,” remarked Katie from a more spiritual perspective. “Yeah,” agreed Alex, “it had a good energy.”
Never in a million years did I think someone would so ardently sing the praises of Flagstaff, but lo and behold, I had found the Flagstaff Tourism Bureau’s street team.[/half]
[two-thirds]I was determined to show the Pennsylvanians that Portland could one-up Flagstaff — an unlikely competitor. Alex, Katie, and Kenny came from a small town in Pennsylvania called Lebanon (but pronounced LEB-nun — two syllables). When we got to talking about their hometown, they revealed an interesting tradition they had: every New Year’s, as New York drops their famed ball, Lebanon, PA, drops a massive, 150 lb. Lebanon Bologna. I shit you not. Maybe Portland was just weird enough for these cats.
Over the next few days, we experienced Portland together in a way that seemed to be the best of both our worlds — that of a bright-eyed, energetic newcomer combined with that of a cynical, jaded local.
To account for the former, the crew experienced some of the usual spots. They wandered around Powell’s ogling case upon case of books. They took a day trip to the Oregon coast. They meandered through Old Town, ducking into bars and fielding unusual requests from the homeless.
Specifically, Kenny and Katie helped one gentleman get his foot out of a pant leg that had constricted him and was cutting off his circulation — not something many people would be kind enough to do, which speaks volumes. “His foot was this big,” Katie told me later, gesturing a space about the size of a basketball. Maybe my guests had saved this dude from some serious trouble. Regardless, my first question to Kenny was heartless: “Did you wash your hands?”
I remember Alex being particularly impressed with the passion everyone showed for the Blazers. Fittingly enough, we got a chance to go play some pick-up basketball at Peninsula Park Community Center, a nice, low-key intro to our beautiful basketball town.
For my impression, I chose to take them to three of my favorite establishments in town: Beacon Sound, People’s Pig, and The Know. After all, what’s a better cross section of Portland than an amazing record store, a cart-turned-storefront restaurant success story, and a local dive with a great atmosphere and consistently fun shows?[/two-thirds]
[full]The last night of their stay, we went to the legendary Ground Kontrol, an appropriate middle ground of local flavor and touristy flash. Katie and Kenny had met some promoter who hooked them up with a bunch of free quarters, merely hours after setting the homeless man’s foot free — talk about good karma.
After we had frantically failed at Turtles in Time and crashed and burned at Crusin’ Exotica, Katie left our mark on Ground Kontrol forever, setting the high score on Joust. “This is like a more innocent version of gambling,” Kenny remarked. I liked that and felt it was a pretty great statement about our town as a whole.
Yes, it may be damp. There are tattoos and piercings galore. There are strip clubs everywhere. We wear lots of muted colors. On the surface, we might seem a bit rough and tumble, but in reality, we’re all pretty innocent.
“From what I’ve noticed so far,” Kenny observed, “the people here have been outstandingly nice.”
“Yeah,” agreed Alex. “I really thought that I’d get here and have to have a front or something, but everyone’s been super nice — it’s sort of exceeded what I thought it’d be. I haven’t really found that stuck-up attitude that I thought I was gonna see.”
Katie equated her experience with Portlanders to our version of Southern hospitality. “I was so surprised by it. That type of mentality is out here — the eye contact, the genuine smiles — it’s fascinating.”
If I had to wager, I’d say it’s because we all want to connect. We all want to empathize and relate. We want you to tell us your story. And all of that kind of makes Portland a perfect petri dish for Couchsurfers and travelers from all walks of life.[/full]
Written by Alexei Shishkin
Photos by Tyler Bertram
Additional photos courtesy: Alex Stanilla
Flickr Creative Commons