Couch Surfing My Way Cross-Country

I heard passing mention of couch surfing about six months ago on the Indie Travel Podcast, but I didn’t know much about it. Then, when I was budgeting for the West-to-East-Coast portion of my trip, I realized that I was going to need to find very inexpensive—or, better yet, free—accommodations along the way if I was going to be able to afford to park my car and eat for the week I’m spending with a friend in New York City before my next residency in Saratoga Springs begins. I thought about car camping, but then I remembered couch surfing and decided to Google it.

Obviously, as a woman traveling alone, I am conscious of safety, and while I understand that very little of life is completely risk-free, I didn’t want to crash with just any random stranger. Couchsurfing.org is set up very smartly, though, so that both the hosts and the travelers create profiles about themselves and leave reviews about their experiences with each other. So I found profiles that had good reviews—especially from women traveling alone—and I sent requests to crash for a night with hosts in Kalispell, Montana and Dickinson, North Dakota. The hosts then had the opportunity to review my message and my profile before they said, “Sure, come on by!” or “Sorry, I’m out of town!” or “Tomorrow is no good. Sorry!” Luckily, I was able to find hosts in both locations with only about forty-eight hours’ notice.  

My experiences have been incredible. I have been so astonished by the kindness and hospitality of these people who are willing to share their homes with total strangers. The best part, based on my admittedly limited experience so far, is that there seems to be this couch-surfing code whereby you arrive early enough to sit around, share some stories, and get to know each other a little bit. I daresay I’ve even made some pretty fantastic friends.

Since my house back in North Carolina was robbed a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had these nagging feelings that the world can be such a lousy place, and that’s true. It can be. But then I find people like the ones I’ve met over the last few days, and I remember that it can also be damn cool.

I also visited Glacier National Park, which was gorgeous, and will post some pictures soon, when I get to my next stop (Minneapolis with a dear friend I met last year at The Anderson Center). For the next five or six hours though, I will be driving down I-94, basking in this incredibly green countryside, wide open as my heart. 

Walking the Vera Wagner Memorial Labyrinth, in Tribute to Elspeth Pope

On May 18, I arrive at the Holly House in Shelton, Washington, about an hour and a half south of Seattle, down a long, gravel drive shaded by grand, impossibly green cedars and maples and oaks, all draped in a fine filigree of moss. I am so grateful to have been granted a month-long writing residency here by the very generous organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Approaching the cabin, I pass a pebbled labyrinth that winds through the late Jim Holly’s orchard, a small meadow hedged in by blackberry brambles and dotted with a few pear, cherry, and apple trees. A wooden box at the entrance contains pamphlets describing the spiritual tradition of walking the labyrinth as a mirror of our lives’ journeys.

I am reminded of a book I have just picked up, Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior. “The sun and moon are eternal travelers,” it begins. “Even the years wander on.” I am greeted warmly by the writers Carolyn Maddux and Marilyn Vogler, but I do not have an opportunity to meet the director, Elspeth Pope, who during the previous week, while I was winding my way cross-country, checked herself into hospice.

Bashō’s opening paragraph continues:

A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still, I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.

The night I arrive, Elspeth passes, so this time, it seems I have wandered into someone’s death. It feels as if I am arriving as the curtain falls on a great play—one I have never seen—the audience still standing in reverential ovation, then shuffling out slowly and leaving me alone with the set: a charming cabin in the woods alongside the house of a generous scholar who made it her mission to provide other women with a creative sanctuary. The stage is still cast in the quiet spell of its absent heroine, and I am surrounded by what she left behind: shelves of books inscribed with heartfelt thanks, paintings, a sculpture, various drawings and prints, journals penned full of poems, musings, and sketches from previous residents, and a handmade box filled with remembrances of those who helped her create this place. A soft, but almost constant rain, chimes through the trees for the next two weeks, shedding white petals from the blackberry brambles and swelling the fruit to a deep red on its way to sweet.

Travelogue, 05/18/2013: Portland, OR

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I don’t know if I could stay forever in Portland, but I would definitely try it out for a year or two. We had dreary weather, but people were dressed so brightly, and the smell of wood smoke carried through the streets, which were lined with giant calla lilies and great, drooping peonies. We visited Powell’s City of Books—a blissful place—and I drank chai and browsed through shelves and shelves and shelves of excellent poetry. Bought a bunch. Wanted to buy more.

I picked up was my dear friend Sheila’s new fiction book, Keeping Safe the Stars. I don’t read much children’s lit these days, but Sheila’s work is really special. Last summer, I picked up Sparrow Road, a book about a girl who lives for a summer with her mother at an artists’ colony (the setting is loosely based on the Anderson Center, where I met Sheila), and I was totally enchanted.

After reluctantly pushing ourselves out back out into the daylight, Ally and I visited the Japanese gardens and spent awhile admiring the meticulously-sculpted shrubs and trees and the way the reflections all wavered in the koi ponds.

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Being Called a Twat on an Otherwise Lovely Day: Travelogue 5/17, Yellowstone to Boise

We had an uneventful night in Cody and moved on the next morning through Shoshone National Forest into Yellowstone. Exposed rock rose up dramatically along the Sylvan Pass, and as if right on cue, the bison, still shedding their winter coats, appeared along the road just as we reached the park:

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Much of the forest near the east entrance had been damaged badly by fire, but the melting snow made stunning cascades down the rocks, and the distant mountains provided a lovely backdrop for Yellowstone Lake, still an expansive, slushy pool of ice in mid-May:

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On down the road, we stopped at some geysers and discovered Dragon’s Mouth Spring, a rock-cave that belches sulfur-scented steam and waves of boiling water. I saw on a documentary once that no one believed the descriptions of those who first discovered Yellowstone, and I can totally see why not. It’s totally other-worldly. We continued on to a lovely view of the Lower Falls at Artists’ Point:

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As the name promised, there was a painter perched on a stool nearby, trying to capture the colors of the falls with his oils.

We exited the park into Montana, where I was promptly accosted by a woman behind the counter at Kiwi’s Takeaway. I’d been sitting there for about five minutes while she was attending to some other customers, and I decided that while I waited, I would iron out the route to Boise on my smart phone. She eventually approached and said to Ally, “I’ll take your order, but she’ll have to email me hers.” Haha, I thought, putting my cell phone away to indicate I hadn’t planned on sitting there and fiddling with it while she was trying to take our order. (I worked in restaurants for ten years and know how annoying those people are.) I looked up and smiled, but she didn’t take the clue–just glared and proceeded to yell about how rude I was being. Not in the mood for a fight, I just shrugged, said, “Nevermind,” and gathered my things to leave. (I certainly wasn’t going let her anywhere near my food after that.)  As I was on my way out, she yelled behind me, “Enjoy your Twitter, twat!” –which I admit was amusingly alliterative. Still, I hope some local hooligans vandalize her restaurant, and she is forced to spend a whole Sunday sandblasting spray-paint vaginas off her building. So much for beauty.

 

Travelogue 05/16/2013: Scenic, SD to Cody, WY

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This morning, I had perhaps the best breakfast of my life— fresh scrambled farm eggs, homemade apple cinnamon dumplings, a strawberry salad, homemade granola with yogurt, and blueberry pancakes made from wheat grown by our host’s brother—all prepared by Amy, one of the proprietors of the Circle View Ranch.

Over breakfast, Phil, the other proprietor, described Scenic, the all-but-abandoned town just up the road. In the 60’s, Scenic was renowned for the brawls that broke out at the saloon, but slowly, everyone had died or moved away until no one was left. The whole town then went on the market and was sold to a church in the Philippines for $900,000. Now one couple lives there and sells odds and ends (but no gas) out of the old gas station.

On our way toward Yellowstone, Ally and I stopped there and had a lot of fun creeping around the squat-roofed, stone jailhouse and snapping pictures of the saloon, which had strung across its roof many strands of sun-bleached animal skulls, coils of barbed wire, and a sign that, for years, had read “No Indians Allowed,” until someone finally got enough sense to climb up there and paint over the “No.” Next to the saloon was an open-air cell with a couple of rusty bed frames. I bet that place saw its share of soul-splitting headaches:

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By evening, the landscape had changed dramatically as the clouds’ shadows slid like butter over the mountains and valleys of Montana. On our way to Cody, where we stopped for the night, we drove through the Bighorn National Forest, and the shadowier hilltop roads were still lined with snow.

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Travelogue, 05/15/2013: Scenes from Scenic, South Dakota

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Tonight, we are staying in an 1880 homestead cabin (sans electricity) a few miles outside of Badlands National Park. It is stunning here. We built a fire, watched the sunset, and looked up at the stars until the coyotes erupted in this frantic chatter that kept seeming to get louder and closer. Nothing like a night on the prairie to electrify the senses. Before the coyotes, though, Ally treated me to her own rendition of Von Gluck’s “O del Mio Dulce Ador,” which was both eerie and beautiful to hear among all the flickering stars.

This is among the creepier places I’ve stayed, for sure, but I like it all the more for that. Earlier, after we checked in at the ranch, we were driving down this dusty gulch to our cabin when a very elderly man with watery blue eyes flagged us down and asked what we were doing. He put his hand on Ally’s door like he was going to open it, and to be honest, I was relieved when I saw that the door was locked. We explained that we had already checked in and were just on our way down to our cabin (it was obvious which one), and he said, “Oh, I don’t want to stay there.” I realized then that he was confused and told him I thought there was a misunderstanding—that he wasn’t staying there, we were—and I asked him who he was looking for. “I’m just looking for something to do,” he said.

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