Couchsurfing the West Coast
Sarah Whiteley is one of the Internship Officers at The University of Birmingham. Sarah is the person who deals with all internships, work placements for students in the College of Arts and Law. This is her amazing story of a once in a lifetime Couchsurfing adventure with boyfriend Mike in the grand old U S of A… and Canada.
Sitting on a worn canvas chair in a forest clearing, I toasted s'mores over a crackling fire as the sun shrank behind the trees. In just one day, I'd seen the pristine Crater Lake, shot a 9mm hand gun and ridden a stranger’s quad bike. As the fire's embers danced and glowed and I shared stories with new friends, I realised that this was Couchsurfing at its best.
For someone who likes planning and routine, the concept of Couchsurfing had been a daunting one. In a nutshell, Couchsurfers make up a cyber community with a passion for travel and cultural exchange. Online members welcome travellers into their homes to stay on their floors, sofas, couches, even gardens, in order to have a unique and authentic travelling experience. No money is exchanged; the expectation is that surfers will, one day, repay the favour by hosting others in their own homes; global acts of kindness based on the notion that what goes around, comes around.
Our first stop was Denver, Colorado. My boyfriend, Mike, and I landed in Colorado and with foggy, post-flight heads, caught a couple of trains and bus connections to a quiet suburb in Denver. Complete trepidation gripped me as we knocked on the grey door of the strangers’ house we were hoping to stay in for the next week. Within minutes we had been welcomed into the house owned by a young, wonderfully friendly couple and their three boisterous dogs. Their hospitality was unbelievable. By the end of the first evening, we had been entrusted with their house keys and we shared stories with them over dinner.
In those first few days, we explored downtown Denver and hiked out to Dinosaur Ridge and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. We spent a solid day hiking across the Flatirons, taking in the sun, scenery and snake trails. It was during these first wonderful days in that I fell in love with travelling and exploring.
Our Second host was Brent, a College student living in Phoenix, Arizona. Brent had a more hands-on approach to Couchsurfing. In his small, homely dig, Mike and I spent our next few nights on two lumpy sofas. Straight away, we felt at home; we pulled our weight, cooked dinners and respected his home – a sure way to make friends quickly.
Brent took us up Camelback Mountain on a scorching day, with perfect views back down the mountainside of Pheonix’s grid city. Hummingbirds greeted us at the summit, looking out of place in the dusty basin that surrounded us. One evening, Brent’s friend invited us to a downtown bar. Having told us he would come to get us in his work vehicle, we were somewhat surprised to see a 35ft long yellow school bus roll down the street. Needless to say, parking that evening was an issue.
After a long bus ride to the west coast, we arrived in San Francisco, California. We stayed with a young, interesting guy called Shu in a tiny flat where we took up most of his floor space. We cycled the Golden Gate Bridge, found a deserted beach and wandered down endless back streets. Shu invited us to a baseball game at the AT & T Park and we spent an incredible day eating monkey nuts, singing along to the 'seventh-inning stretch' and watching the kayakers in San Francisco Bay frantically paddle after the ball when the players managed to whack it clean out of the park.
After another week, we took the rambling Amtrak train up the west coast. The trains in America are slow and lumbering, which, if you have the time, is a great way to see the country. We broke the journey in Klamath Falls, Oregon State, where we had our most interesting stay.
Red met us off the train and drove us back to his house through an eerie, deserted, run-down town. The first things to greet us in his home were two female life-size mannequins, adorned in seductive lingerie, standing sedately in his lounge. Jars and pots of plants, liquids and mixtures lined the shelves in his kitchen, odd pictures hung on his walls and downstairs in the basement (our new home for the week), was his collection of guns. Although completely out of my comfort zone, Mike reassured me that this was all part of the experience and (stupidly or not), we stayed and had some of our most memorable days with Red.
Red was very intelligent but completely nuts. He was our most attentive host, driving us around from dawn to dusk to tell us everything he knew about his state. We saw a fish farm, went to Crater Lake, met his friends camping on a hillside, shot guns and had tea with his friend who had a bath in her sitting room. I was happy to move on, but I was happier to know I’d never forget my experiences.
Further north in Portland, our hosts were two young ladies. Their house was very busy with a range of surfers coming and going. We were largely left to ourselves and enjoyed evenings in downtown bars, watching basketball and eating excessive amounts of cheesy chips. We had a tandem bike ride and the only game of underground, glow-in-the-dark, pirate themed mini-golf I expect I shall ever have in my life.
Seattle felt more like England in climate and the people seemed a bit more rushed; perhaps a by-product of trying to keep warm. Our host, Steve, owned a flat with a view of the Space Needle and the harbour. We went to the Fish Market and took a boat ride across to a small island for a wild and windy walk. This was to be the last of our USA adventures as we crossed the border into Canada.
Our final stop was Vancouver. We spent a few days with some of Mike’s relatives gorging on waffles with maple syrup in the mornings and homemade wine in the evenings. Their hospitality was incredible and after weeks of travelling, we indulged in the comforts of home and family. Vancouver has a lot to offer; a metropolitan downtown, quirky suburbs and beautiful parks. Our last few days felt comfortable and relaxed and seemed to be the perfect way to end our journey.
On the flight home, it occurred to me just how much I had got from this trip. We had seen American culture at its best; through meeting real people and hearing real stories. Couchsurfing is not just a free ride. It is a chance to learn and become more open-minded about how other people live. For me though this trip taught me something more. It taught me about myself; that I could let it all go - submit, listen and soak up everything I could without prejudice or judgement. My experience Couchsurfing was a safe and wonderful one. If you’re thinking about doing it, choose a good travelmate, use your brain and make the most of every moment you have to wander this world.