Couchsurfing in Seattle

(August 9)

The westbound Empire Builder train into Seattle runs along Puget Sound.

Traveling overnight on the Empire Builder train from West Glacier to Seattle, I slept most of the way. Normally after sunset, I take my inflatable sleeping pad to the observation car and stretch out in the narrow space between the seats and the windows, but on this particular stretch, I was so exhausted from hiking the Highline the day before that I dozed off in my seat. I woke the next morning a little groggy and stiff, but right outside my window, the Puget Sound glittered off into the horizon. It was my first time back in Washington state since my 2017 writing residency at Willapa Bay AiR, and it felt good to be back on the West Coast, though I also felt a bit somber on account of it being the birthday of my older sister, Chelsea, who had died of cancer when I was 16, just before she would have turned 23.

Chelsea and I, probably 1984 or 1985

Seven years older, Chelsea looked out for me, especially during the volatile years prior to my parents’ divorce. My memories of early childhood are mostly violent and upsetting, but she did her best to shield me from what she could and to teach me how to fight. When I was five or six, she instructed my younger sister and me to stand on our parents’ waterbed and showed us how to protect our faces with our fists, bouncing from foot to foot so as not to become an easy target. Then she showed us how to jab, hook, and uppercut. These skills came in handy years later, when I was a freshman in high school, and a bully in her senior year decided she didn’t like me. For months, she called me names every time I passed her in the hallway, and then one day, she was waiting at the top of the stairs after lunch with several of her friends. I was by myself and certain I was about to be jumped, so I dropped my books and immediately punched her in the face. Her friends stood back and watched, and after that, no one messed with me. Earlier that year, Chelsea had been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma. The doctors couldn’t find the primary tumor and thus could not stop it from spreading.

We lived in rural, Southwest Ohio and never had cable, but when Chelsea’s health had declined to the point that she spent most of her time on the couch, we got a satellite dish so she could watch boxing matches. Her favorite was Lennox Lewis, and she would yell at the TV whenever he was fighting.

Like most of the adults in the area at that time, my mom had a factory job at Airborne Express, and one of her co-workers knew Aaron Pryor, who had recently been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. When Chelsea was dying, he came to our house, and we all talked at length about what it means to be a fighter. He signed a glove for her, and we buried her with it. Until a few years ago, I had completely forgotten that when she died, I wrote to him, but my memory was jogged when I came across the response he had sent back to say how sorry he was.

Chelsea with two-time light welterweight world champion, Aaron Pryor. I think this was early 1998.

It’s a strange thing to go from being a middle child to the oldest. For one thing, I lost the person who had looked out for me when I needed it most, and beyond that, her death shifted some of the most fundamental aspects of my identity. All of the stakes felt higher because my older sister was no longer there to rely on if I faltered, and my sense of responsibility was profoundly amplified. I helped my mom choose a casket, a dress to bury her in, and flowers. Then four years later, I assumed custody of my youngest sister when it became clear I was the person in the family best equipped at that time to do so. In many ways, I feel I’m as functional as I am now only because Chelsea looked out for me in those early years, and that knowledge carries with it–not guilt, exactly–but an enduring sorrow.

On any long journey, there are times when weariness subsumes you, and Chelsea’s birthday was the first such day on my trip. I felt it from the moment I woke up on the train and knew I was in for a challenge. After the Empire Builder arrived on schedule that morning in downtown Seattle, I found an ATM, withdrew some cash, and bought a coffee to get change for bus fare. I’d lined up a Couchsurfing host in advance whose home was a 45-minute bus ride north, but because I accidentally navigated to the Northeast portion of her street instead of the Northwest, I had to catch another bus and reached her neighborhood an hour later than anticipated. Her house was a steep, downhill walk 20 minutes from the bus stop, and in addition to battling fatigue from poor sleep, I was wincing along on legs that still throbbed from the 17-mile hike I’d taken two days before. Every step with my 30-pound pack reiterated my soreness and exhaustion, and to top it off, my skin was coated with a sticky layer of dust and sweat that had accumulated over five days of camping.

“I apologize in advance for the way I smell,” I texted my host before my arrival.

She respond to say that I was in luck because her bathroom had “the greatest water pressure you’ve ever experienced unless you’ve been doused by a firehose.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. I messaged A first from the list of possible Couchsurfing hosts in Seattle because 1.) her accommodations included a detached, private room with a real bed, and 2.) other surfers had spoken so highly of her in their reviews. When I arrived, I knew I’d made a good call as I walked into a small, gated compound and was greeted by two adorable Yorkies. From the time I was little, I’ve felt a strong connection to animals, and being around pets tends to make me feel at peace. So when the two tiny furballs emerged from the main house, snorting softly with excitement and wagging their tails so fast their little butts wiggled, I forgot my weariness for a moment and felt a wave of joy.

A walked me to a toolshed off the garage that she’d converted into a Couchsurfers’ paradise. On one counter, there was a bowl full of snacks, a book of house rules, maps, brochures for local attractions, and lots of memorabilia from and about Couchsurfing, including a funny New Yorker article and a book by Gabriele Galimberti called My Couch is Your Couch. The opposite wall was lined with what looked to me like every tool imaginable–“In case you need to fix anything,” she said. Beyond that was a door that led to another narrow room with a twin bed positioned between rows of shelves lined with hat boxes.

I plopped my pack on the floor, and A told me to get settled and come find her in the house when I was ready. “So I can show you your bathroom,” she said, handing me a set of keys.

After she left, I skimmed through the house rules, which among other things, instructed me to tell the neighbors, if they asked, that I was a friend visiting from out of town. I’ve gotten similar instructions from a few other hosts over the years. A lot of people just can’t comprehend the ethos of Couchsurfing, to the extent that one time, a woman told me that what I was doing was “incredibly stupid.” Another host’s father referred to his Couchsurfing guests as couch potatoes–a description that, although it made me laugh, I don’t find to be at all accurate. A, for instance, was a successful entrepreneur who had opened a men’s clothing store in Seattle in the 1960’s and then branched out into several other successful endeavors that had left her quite comfortable. Other Couchsurfers I’ve crossed paths with over the years include an inventor who made a small fortune improving some aspect or another of tractor design, a tech genius working who was working on driverless cars for Apple, and a business executive at Lionsgate.

After I familiarized myself with the rules, I mosied into the house with my shower bag. A was sitting behind a computer, crunching numbers, but she took a break to show me a luxurious little bathroom I’d have all to myself and the laundry room, which I’d read that I would be permitted to use once during my stay. (It was a good thing, too, because I was down to my very last clean pair of socks and underwear.) I gleaned from our short conversation that she would be busy with work most of the day and then out for the evening, and that meant I could shower at my leisure and then take a nap, which I desperately needed. Getting to know my hosts is normally one of my favorite parts of Couchsurfing, but in this case, I was grateful that A was busy. I scrubbed the grime from my skin, returned to the shed, and collapsed into a dreamless sleep for a couple of hours.

When I woke, it was late afternoon, and I walked a path I’d read about in A’s book down to Puget Sound. I texted a friend from grad school who had moved to Seattle a few years back and made plans to meet up with her the next day. Then around dinner time, I walked to a nearby shopping complex for ramen. The restaurant had spaced the tables out to follow social distancing protocols, and as I would notice in most places along the West Coast, people were following the mask mandates a lot more strictly than they had been back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Patrons removed their masks only to eat and then put them back on if they got up to use the restroom or leave the building. Having been vaccinated back in March, I felt relatively confident that if I did get a breakthrough case, it probably wouldn’t be catastrophic, but since I also knew I would be crossing paths with plenty of unvaccinated people on my journey, I was glad to see reasonable precautions being taken.

That night before bed, I put a load of laundry in the washer, and A showed me where to find the coffee, granola, yogurt, and berries in her kitchen for breakfast in the morning. I fell asleep in gratitude for the safe haven I’d found at A’s and got the best night of rest I’d had in recent memory.

7 Couchsurfing Tips for Everyone, Especially Women Traveling Solo

Since several of my forthcoming posts pertain to my Couchsurfing experiences this summer in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and Boulder, I thought it would be a good idea to preface those posts with some general information and safety tips.

Couchsurfing is an online, global, social network comprised of surfers and hosts. In general, the surfers are travelers looking for a place to stay, and the hosts are locals willing to open their homes to strangers without charge. There is a small subscription fee of $2.99/month or $14.99/year, but beyond that, there is no charge either to surf or to host. Members are encouraged (but not required) to use the site in both capacities, as it’s often described as a pay-it-forward system; however, beyond the fact that surfers and hosts leave one another reviews, there’s no real mechanism for keeping track–just a general consensus that if you surf when you’re traveling, you should also try to host if and when you are able. Travelers can create public trips that anyone in the vicinity can see, and they can also send individual requests to stay with specific hosts. All members are able to see one another’s reviews, and hosts can accept or decline requests as they see fit. The lack of monetary exchange makes Couchsurfing distinct from services like Airbnb or Vrbo, and consequently, there is a different set of cultural expectations.

I first tried Couchsurfing nine years ago and have since used the site extensively as both a surfer and a host. In 2013, 2017, and again this summer, I used it while traveling solo cross-country (twice via rail pass and once via car). At the moment, I have 41 reviews–all positive– that are split pretty evenly between hosts I’ve stayed with and surfers who have stayed with me; with very few exceptions, my experiences have been wonderful. Thankfully, even the few times I’ve felt uncomfortable, nothing truly bad has happened, and I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons I can share, ranging from basic to more advanced as the list below progresses:

  1. Profiles should include the member’s full name, recent photos that clearly show the face, and plenty of detail.

When you sign up for Couchsurfing, you create a profile that includes pictures and written components like a description of your “current mission” and an “about me” section. It’s important to fill out your profile thoroughly and accurately, as well as to read carefully about any members with whom you want to interact. For one thing, it’s a matter of general consideration, and for another, many hosts will say things like “Mention the word babushka in your request so I’ll know you read my profile.”

More importantly, for both hosts and surfers, it’s a basic safety precaution to make sure you know who you are dealing with. Be cautious of anyone using only a first name, initials, or a nickname and of anyone without clear photos of themselves. Although a lot of people simply don’t like their given names or pictures of themselves, it is nonetheless necessary to be transparent about your identity when you are hosting or staying with someone you’ve never met. When evaluating the profile of any potential host, I ask myself, “In the unlikely event that I went missing, could the police immediately tell from this profile who they ought to question?” If the answer is no, I do not under any circumstances–no matter how cool the person sounds–request to stay or allow that person to stay with me.

It’s also good to look for verified members (people whose phone numbers, addresses, and/or government ID’s have gone through extra screening). This service does cost a fee ($60), but you can also earn free verification through hosting.

  1. Initially, the best way to get references is to attend Couchsurfing events or meet up with nearby members.

Once you have a lot of positive references, you can usually find a place to stay in just about any major city and sometimes in places more off the beaten path as well; however, a lot of members (myself included) hesitate to host or stay with anyone who doesn’t have references. Therefore, it’s a good idea initially to find Couchsurfers in your area and invite them out for a cup of tea or a drink. Since it’s generally safer to meet people in public, many members are perfectly happy to meet up at a cafe even if they wouldn’t necessarily host or stay with a newbie. If you reach out to a member, explain that you’re interested in finding out more about the community or swapping travel stories, and after the meeting, write a reference. Often, the other Couchsurfer will return the favor.

To find members in your area, you can use the “Hangouts” section of the app, or you can simply search your city. If using the latter method, try setting the search filter to sort members by last login date. The site has a lot of inactive profiles, so using the “last login” filter will help you find members who use the site more regularly.

Additionally, some areas (especially larger cities) have Couchsurfing events to which all members are invited. This is another great way to meet people in the community if you’re lucky enough to live in such a place.

  1. Familiarize yourself with the search filters.

I mentioned above that you can search members by last login date, but there are lots of other filters as well–most notably, perhaps, the “Accommodation” filter, which allows you to specify whether you’re looking for “Private, Public, or Shared” accommodations. This is where things get interesting because–yes–some people use Couchsurfing for dating, and I’m told that those looking for a potential hookup click the “Shared” accommodations filter. In other words, “Private” typically signifies that you’ll be sleeping in a guest bedroom, “Public” usually means you’re crashing on the living room couch, and “shared” at least sometimes means you’ll be sharing a bed with someone. So even though the graphic accompanying the “Shared” filter is a very innocent-looking bunkbed, you may want to be careful with that filter!

You can also filter according to gender, language, and age, as well as whether a host can has children or pets, can accommodate children or pets, allows smoking, or has a living arrangement that is wheelchair accessible.

  1. Become adept at the art of reading reviews.

When I’m evaluating potential hosts, I look specifically for recent reviews from women traveling alone, and when I find them, I read them closely. If I see a review labeled “negative” or “would not stay again,” that is a big red flag, but those kinds of reviews are rare because that kind of direct confrontation is a challenge for many women. As children, we are repeatedly told things like “If he’s mean to you, that means he likes you. Just ignore it.” We are socialized to remain polite and deferential at all times–which sometimes works to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment.

The title of a Yale News headline puts it very bluntly: “Most Women Are Not Confrontational When Faced with Sex Harassment.” Basically, the article summarizes a study that shows the majority of women, when presented with a hypothetical scenario, say we would not tolerate sexual harassment; however, when we encounter sexual harassment in the real world, we most frequently ignore it. The discrepancy between what we say we’d do and what we actually do may sound illogical, but it makes a great deal of sense if you factor in fear of retaliation–a consideration that is not so visceral in a hypothetical scenario.

So in lieu of expecting all women to speak freely in their reviews, I look very closely at tone and try to read for subtext. I’m skeptical if I see too many generic, lukewarm reviews that say things like, “It was so nice of X to host me. Thanks for the eggs and bacon.” And I am equally cautious of reviews in which the post-hookup oxytocin seems to be seeping into every sentence.

If this tendency toward politeness seems counterproductive to you, consider this passage from Natasha Trethewey’s recent memoir, Memorial Drive:

“When he [the man who later murdered Trethewey’s mother] chose a seat just in front of my friend and her father, I could no longer pretend not to notice him, so I waved, smiling and mouthing the words, ‘Hey Big Joe’….Years later I would read in the court documents that he told his psychologist at the VA hospital he’d brought a gun with him, planning to kill me right then and there, on the track around the football field, to punish my mother. He hadn’t, he said during his trial, because I’d waved and spoken kindly to him” (144).

Politeness is a defense mechanism that is drilled into girls at a very young age, with good reason. We are masters at disingenuously politeness especially, and you’d be wise to keep this in mind when you’re reading reviews.

  1. Share your plans with a trusted friend or family member.

There are many ways you can go about making sure someone knows where you are and who you’re with. Typically, I turn on the “Location Sharing” function of Google Maps to make sure at least one person can see where my phone is at any given moment for the duration of my travels. I also have one trusted friend who knows my Couchsurfing login information and can find out if necessary who is hosting me or who I’m hosting at any given time. Additionally, when I’m traveling, I take care to screenshot one clear photo of my host, document the address where I’m staying, and make sure my trusted friend has that information.

  1. Trust your instincts.

When in doubt, get the hell out. When you’re traveling, don’t unpack right away, and if you realize you’re not comfortable, make up a family emergency or do as I did one time in Little Rock and simply bolt while your host is in the bathroom. (If you want that story, you’ll have to wait for the completion of my memoir.)

  1. Prepare to meet some amazing people.

Aside from the online component, couchsurfing is a little like a hospitality culture the ancient sense: hosts provide sanctuary to strangers, and although not obligatory, it is customary to spend time getting to know each other, often over food and drinks. There is a code of values whose tenets encourage members to “share your life, create connections, offer kindness, stay curious, and leave it better than you found it.”

Over the years, I have made friends from all over the world: An Australian couple who flew to L.A., bought a shitty van, and were woofing their way cross-country; a Polish scientist who twice had quit his job and sold everything he owned to go sailing around the world; a South African man with a nine-year plan to run around the entire globe, raising money for orphans with AIDS. (That guy literally jogged to my doorstep, pushing a little pram with all of his belongings, and then jogged away at the end of his stay.)

As with any culture, it’s not perfect, but if you are comfortable with measured risks and appropriately cautious, I highly recommend trying it. If you are surfing, please keep in mind that it is customary to show your host your appreciation by offering to help out in some way (with cooking, cleaning, etc.) and/or leaving a small gift (one of my favorites over the years was a hand-stitched passport cover someone had made out of leather from an old couch, but I sometimes leave something simple like a good bar of chocolate and a thank-you note).