The purple dusk was giving way to night and, still, the scattered lamps were dark. In the dingy, rutted yard, half-buried in trash bags and teeming with rats, my cell phone screen gave the only light. The message, "I'm here," sat waiting on the screen; my finger traced figure-eights in the air above the "send" button. It wasn't too late to get a motel. Though geographically near to loony bin New Orleans, Baton Rouge is a thoroughly conventional city, and amid the endless short-grassed suburban lots, I had spotted a Super 8, a Ramada, and other peddlers of cheap, predictable sleep. A warm, drowsy evening in a warm, familiar room, takeout from WaffleHouse, and sports on the cable: all this I could have, plus a bath, and for no more than $79 and tax.
The creak of hinges, and a square of light erupted above the courtyard. A tall, bearded figure, silhouetted in a doorway that seemed to hover, called down to me.
"Matt? Is that you?"
"Robert?" I asked.
"Well, don't just stand there lollygagging. Come on up if you're ever gonna."
The matter was settled. I locked the bike, undid the panniers, and slowly climbed the stairs to the utter stranger's apartment.
It had been about a year since Rachel Miller turned me on to Couchsurfing.org. "You love meeting new people!" she said, grinning wildly from beneath bright-pink bangs. "It's perfect for you. We'll make an account right now."
This business about loving to meet new people was sheer projection on her part—if I am in any way a social butterfly, then she's a full-blown shark—but there were obvious upsides to the site, free accommodation being the first. It seemed too good to be true: you type in the city you're going to, message likely-looking hosts, and wait to be invited over. Not a penny changes hands: "I won't mind if you came to stay for a while," wrote Robert, a law student at LSU, and that was that.
It was only now, on the verge of meeting my first host, that I began to wonder why. As in, "Why won't he mind if I stay with him?" "Why invite a stranger to your house?" "Why couldn't he have picked someone he knew already, an acquaintance, say, or a distant cousin, for his sadistic, cannibal experiments?"
I lingered near the door, scanning the room for knives, garrotes, and other common torture devices. It was hard to distinguish anything amidst the rubble. To call Robert messy would be like calling Stalin disagreeable: there were enough beer bottles lying around to set a hobo up for life. Ubiquitous cigarette ash put one in mind of Pompeii, though the old takeout containers were more reminiscent of the mycology lab. Besides the sheetless bed, shared under God knows what arrangement with his friend Jerome, two reclining chairs—blue, faded, and as hard as playground slides—constituted the furniture. It gave me a pretty healthy pang to realize that Robert expected me to sleep on one of them.
Overnight arrangements aside, I had to confess Robert a congenial host. He was a Southern Gentleman: I could tell. There was his accent, for starters, slow, drawled, and thick as sofa foam. Understanding him was a process of acclimatization. Like a hiker on Everest, I started small, one word at a time. He displayed a big pink pill to me and I pointed to it and asked, "What's that?"
"Oh," I said with dawning insight. "Isn't it awfully late? It's almost 11:00 p.m."
"Yeah," he said and shrugged his shoulders as if it couldn't be helped. He crushed the pill with the flat of a bus pass, diced it into a fine powder, and offered me a line. That was the other reason I could tell he was a Southern Gent—his innate generosity. He had already given me three bottles of Corona, and it pained him when I rejected the drugs. He snorted up half and offered the rest to Jerome.
"Damn," said Jerome, "I didn't know you wanted to go balls deep on that shit."
Robert looked at him with contempt. "Suck it up, boy."
We grabbed some road beers from the fridge and got into Jerome's improbable car. The VW Bug doesn't exactly scream "Southern," yet Jerome hailed from the same Podunk, Louisiana town as Robert. We drove around aimlessly, ogling girls and plunking stop signs with bottle caps, then decided to hit up a classmate named Gatsby for more drugs.
"I don't have any dealings with this kid unless I'm buying Xannies," Jerome explained. Observing me scribbling down what he said, he politely flipped on the overhead light. "Put this in your book: Gatsby is a retarded ass sniffer."
"Hush," said Robert. He had just dialed Gatsby on the phone.
"Hey, what are you doing? Sleeping? Sell us some Xanax real quick." Pause. "No, you come down here, we're in the Bug." He covered the mouthpiece and said to Jerome, "He says we should go meet him."
"Fuck 'im. Make him come down here," said Jerome. "I don't like that kid."
We waited five minutes, but Gatsby never showed, and we drove off. Jerome said they didn't generally do hard drugs, but since they were on probation for marijuana possession, they had no choice. "Pills don't show up in your piss test like weed does."
The road beers proceeded down our throats until none were left. Speeding on the straightaways, slowing up at corners where cops were known to lurk, we made it to a bar and chased the girls around, then dashed out again, reaching the CVS exactly three minutes before they stop selling beer in Louisiana. Back at Robert's place, we strode around the room with our fingers in each other's faces, brimming with vigorous political assertions.
It was I who noticed Jerome's phone light up. A girl we met at the bar had texted him: she "wanted his help getting high." Since they were on probation, this seemed like a bad idea, but only to me. In minutes, the boys had rushed out into the night, as eager for new and better kicks as Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. They could keep them. I crawled into the filthy bed and slept soundly until the boys crashed in at dawn.
"Did you get with her?" I asked Jerome, struggling to see through the gauzy sleep deposits in my eyes.
"I made out with her, but that's it. Fucking waste of time." He was on the bed, sitting where I had been, stripping off his shoes and socks. Robert hadn't bothered. Jeans still on and sweatshirt too, snores fluttering the fringes of his beard, he was already deep in slumber.
"I think I'll go and get a bite to eat," I announced. "Any diners around here?" "Yeah," said Jerome and closed his eyes.
By the third coffee, I was thinking logically again. And, logically, if all my Couchsurfing hosts were like Robert, then I was going to die. I had planned my entire three-month trip around Couchsurfing: if it wasn't a drunk-driving accident, or an "Ayderall" overdose, then sheer exhaustion would claim me. Like a lab rat offered beer every time it tried to sleep, I would simply lose the will to live.
What then? I couldn't afford to stay in a motel every night. Perhaps I ought to go home and ask for my job back at the bike shop? A sort of wrenching nausea in my gut told me that that wouldn't do. One other host had accepted my request to stay with him in Baton Rouge. If he sucked, OK: I would buy a tent and sleep by the side of the road. Anything would be better than one of Jerome's blue plastic reclining chairs.
But Jeremy didn't suck. He was a comfortable person with a comfortable couch in a comfortable house. What made him especially comfortable was the flu that kept him bedridden my entire visit. I had the run of his rooms. I used his razor and ate his frozen peas. When he finally roused himself to hang out with me, we watched a basketball game on the TV. He wasn't like Robert at all. He was quite boring.
The three months went by. I visited thirteen states and stayed with about twenty-five Couchsurfing hosts. Not one killed, raped, or robbed me. Don't get me wrong: some were god-awful. There was Alison in Atlanta, who got drunk and tried to mount me in the bowling alley. There was Rachel in South Carolina, who kept her profession a secret until, a little after three a.m., she and a client had a "business meeting" in the room next mine. And there was Tony in Connecticut, that fiend, who cornered me in his room and read me his poetry.
But. Who are the hosts that I tell people about at parties? Who are the hosts I'm writing about now? Couchsurfing may not, in fact, be for "people who love to meet new people." Couchsurfing is for people who love to meet loons. Call it an inverse travel aesthetic: the more intolerable the accommodation, the more ludicrous the host, the happier we are. Maybe not right then, right there, the moment after the dog has pissed all over our belongings and our host, trying to help, is drowning our backpack in soda water. That's not so great. But later, much later, as we recall for our friends just how foul the piss smelled: those are sweetest moments. When we travel, we are setting by a store of experiences, to be uncorked and savored on blank days at home. Too much comfort betrays the vintage. It is misery that makes a memory piquant.
About the Author
Matt Nestor is a writer, editor and photographer living in New York. He is shopping around his first book, Dropping In, an undercover guide to twenty-five American colleges and universities.