By Erin Crowell
Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting.
Robert Thomas Allen
When he was young, Jesse Coots heard the story about his grandparents leaving the farmhouse back porch light on every evening.
For travelers, Coots said, so they knew they had a place to stay overnight.
He recalls stories from his father about the hand-dug well and how there was always a ladle there for thirsty passersby.
Weve lost that, Coots said reflectively, now 33 and living in his grandparents 1826-built farmhouse in upstate New York. Everyones afraid nowadays.
In 2007, Coots continued his familys tradition of inviting travelers a place to stay by joining CouchSurfing.org, a worldwide community that connects nomads with their hosts.
Weve hosted quite a few people from five different countries including Germany, Russia and France and from five or six states, he said.
Coots, along with his wife Jolene, have opened their home to complete strangers.
I found the Coots family when I joined CouchSurfing (CS) this past October while looking for lodging options along my route to the East Coast. I had recalled vaguely hearing the term couch surfing in passing, so I Googled the phrase and came up with the website.
CouchSurfing.org was established in 2003 by Casey Fenton, along with a handful of think-tank professionals including software, graphic and interface designers. Since its launch in 2004, CouchSurfing has skyrocketed from a community with 17 weekly signups to over 15,000.
The website boasts 2.4 million worldwide users in over 245 territories and countries, with a representation of 334 languages. Most surfers are from Europe, representing over half of the CS population.
How does it work?
Lets say youre headed on vacation to a place youve never visited. Perhaps the idea of exploring that place sounds daunting and intimidating. Maybe you just need a place to stay for a night or two.
CouchSurfing.org allows you to connect with a network of hosts in that area who have opened their homes to travelers. You begin your search wide, starting with the continent. From there, you choose the country, region/state and finally the city.
Hosts are listed on the following page and include a slew of information such as space availability, gender, age, education, CS experience, languages, interests and mission for most, theirs is to learn about other cultures and experiences. For some, its simply finding a place to crash for the night. Both host and couchsurfer are interchangeable, looking for space while out of town and offering theirs when home.
Couch surfing isnt a new concept. Throughout my childhood attending Catholic mass, I heard the Bible versus of Jesus being welcomed into the homes of complete strangers. Even Hebrews 13:2 advices to Welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it.
Hospitality is an ancient practice, but the concept has changed a narrowing scope that encompasses only the people we know and trust. We invite a friend to stay the night.
But a total stranger? Hospitality is a business, and we charge those we do not know.
RESTORING A LITTLE TRUST
Coots and his wife live off a desolate farm county road near Le Roy, New York somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester. With three little girlsone barely a month oldI was surprised at their willingness to invite me into their home.
When we first mentioned couch surfing to our friends, some of them werent very open to it, telling us they thought it was dangerous, said Coots. But, its like anything else you go into it using your best judgment. Its not like we open our home to just anybody.
Coots said he checks a surfers references upon request, reading first-hand accounts of other hosts and surfers who have come in contact with that person. Plus, a simple profile evaluation can go a long way.
Once you look at their profile, start communicating through email and read their references, you get an idea of who the person is, said CouchSurfer Jesse Jason of Traverse City (who, at the time, was expecting a surfer from Ukraine), unless I was some super smart bad guy who created 30 profiles as references. But, whos going to take the time to do that?
Surfers and hosts can also dictate their level of contact with others. For example, one person may just have a yard available for pitching a tent (couch surfing isnt limited to sofas) while others will share the whole house, including bathroom.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Thats what Sally and Keith Dykhuis of Kalkaska offer to visitors of Northern Michigan.
When someones sharing your space, you really get to know them, said Sally, especially when sharing a bathroom. Its interesting because you get some people who take 20 minute showers and Germans who take three minute showers.
Dykhuis referred to a couple from Germany who stayed with them over the summer.
Having them here was probably the highlight, bringing a non-American into our home and seeing their perspective. We talked about everything from economics to politics.
They showed the couple around the area, taking them on hikes and to popular local destinations.
Surfers can also simply request a place to meet for coffee or a pint.
As the website states, its more than just finding free accommodations; its about making connections worldwide.
For my time with the Coots Family, we made our connection around the dinner tablealso considered a fading traditionand talked about everything from regional food and haunted homesteads to videogames and hot rods (I learned that Jesse owns a fabrication shop out of his home. A pristine white 54 GMC truck sits in his shop, which is covered under Hagerty, the Traverse City-based classic auto insurance company).
Surfers at the Coots home stay in a guest room, which is separated from the house by a breezeway. Its a private space, with a cabin feel highlighted not just by the cedar walls or the open landscape of fields beyond the sliding door, but the elk head above the bed and dozens of antlers surrounding it.
Coots is a hunter, so I decided a cherry barbecue sauce from Northern Michigan would suffice as payment for my night (a friend sent me off with a baggie of tomatoes grown from her Detroit garden, as well).
Bringing a gift is just one suggestion on CS. Others include sending a short request message for surfing and not making your request too early in advance.
Planning my East Coast trip went smoothly, with the execution just as easy. I saw new places, experienced new things, put myself out of my comfort zone and drove over 2,500 miles with the first miles being the only time I actually felt nervous.
After seeing Niagra Falls, I drove along I-90 in a tremendous downpour. It was getting late and I was getting hungry. With directions in hand, and a GPS on the dash, I exited the expressway and onto the secluded county roads of Le Roy.
I arrived at the Coots farm in the dark and pouring rain, my headlights passing over a sign nailed to a wide oak announcing the birth of a baby girl named Souly. I turned into the drive as my lights passed over the yard and white farmhouse until, finally, I saw what I was looking for.
The welcoming glow of the back porch light.