Cycling the Americas II
Free beds at (almost) all costs in the Pacific North-West
“We had a young guy from Germany; he was quite nice. He stayed for a few days. There was also a young South Korean man about a year ago. I think he said he’s working in Mexico now. He sends us postcards every now and then,” says James, reclining behind his computer after welcoming me into the flat he shares with his partner.
“There are a lot of good people out there. We’ve been shown a lot of generosity in our travels throughout our lives and we just want to pay it forward.”
I don’t think many travellers end up in Osoyoos, British Columbia, besides Canadians looking for a patch of sun at the bottom of their country’s only patch of desert. The few foreigners that do pass through, however, all seem to have couch surfed with James and Sam.
The door opens and a little toy poodle trots in to greet James and eye me warily. Sam strides in behind and before any introductions are made he marches up to James and says, “Finally – you’ve found us a handsome young couch surfer!”
When he does introduce himself, it’s with a hug.
Sam has three questions for me. “First: we’re making pizza. Is there anything you don’t eat? Second: how good are you at taking (or giving) instructions? Third: do you toke?”
I reply that I’m fine to help with making the pizzas, assuming that’s what he means by “taking instructions”, and after pedalling into a stiff headwind for 60 kilometres, there is almost nothing I won’t eat. And yes, of course I’ll have a toke.
James is 62 and Sam is 51 – they made me guess their ages – and their stories are vivid, colourful and full of digressions. It’s a little like being in a time machine. They’re not afraid to share very personal details of their lives and in turn they ask personal questions. When I tell them about the girlfriend I broke up with to go on this trip, Sam’s response is “So you’re sure you’re straight?”
“He’s teasing you,” says James.
I make a move for the shower to avoid stinking up the apartment any more than I already have, and once I get in, realise the shower curtain is missing. I vaguely wonder where the hole in the wall might be, if there was one. I also wonder what the second door leads to. “Let the old perves have a gander,” I think. They are, after all, feeding and housing me for the night. Predictably, water sprays everywhere as soon as I turn the taps on and before long there’s a knock.
“I’m so sorry, we were washing the shower curtain,” explains James through the closed door when I shut off the taps. “But I have a spare right here.”
Sure enough, once I’ve wrapped myself in a towel and opened the door, hair dripping, he’s there with a shower curtain in his hands.
“I’m so sorry,” he says again and I close the door.
I feel incredible by the time I return to the kitchen, light and airy after all the highway muck and sweat is washed away. Mere mention of the words “hot shower” is enough to quicken the pulse of any cycle tourist. Sam is sprinkling ingredients across three large expanses of hand-kneaded dough and he points out that I forgot to roll my own.
“It’s perfectly OK,” he says, “but you’re going to have to be punished.”
James sees the colour drain from my face and looks at me with genuinely reassuring eyes.
“He’s just teasing you.”
“No, I’ve been saying for a long time that we should add a second, younger sausage to our sandwich,” Sam continues with a chuckle. “And, well, I just think now would make the perfect time.”
I’m not usually confrontational, but in my addled mind things are starting to add up. The shower curtain “coincidence”. The “handsome” remark. The fact that all their past couch surfers had been young men on their own. Oh dear. I tell them I’m going to leave.
Instead of expressing anger or offence, James and Sam thank me for expressing my discomfort. These guys were queer long before it was OK to be queer. They’ve been dealing with all kinds of stereotypes and suspicion their whole lives. They apologise and I stay.
Over the best homemade pizza I ever had, fine scotch and many more tokes, they regale me with stories of school principals in BDSM orgies, being a hired friend for the terminally ill, friends and partners they lost to the 80s’ AIDS epidemic, San Francisco in the 70s and a local priest who must’ve spotted a girlfriendless James in his early 20s and advised him to go into the seminary. That last one I found particularly sinister.
In the morning, they send me off with breakfast – cereal and cold milk is another holy grail for the travellming cyclist (or maybe that’s just me?), and just a few kilometres up the road, I deal with my first land border crossing of the trip. After a brief search of my bags and a few stern glares, I was cut loose in the United States.
It’s wrong to look at couch surfing and other traveller-hosting websites such as warmshowers.org (which is exclusively for cycle tourists) as nothing more than free accommodation. As soon as you do that, you simply become a moocher, and nobody likes moochers. Instead of paying for your bed, hammock or bit of floor with money, you find other, less tangible ways to show thanks. Perhaps Sam and James (not their real names) wanted a quick look at some young dude in a towel, but more than that, they wanted to entertain and be entertained.
I learned to be a good guest as I pedalled south through the arid interior of Washington State, along the banks of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers. Parker in Omak just wanted a little help gutting, scaling and filleting the fish he’d caught that day. Judith and Peter in Wenatchee (a particularly friendly town) encouraged me to tell stories from my previous travels. They explained that housing and feeding grimy cyclists through Warm Showers was a great way of exposing their two kids to adventurous people from all over the world. Melvin and Keiko in Ellensburg wanted nothing more than to know what young people are doing these days. They kept hot food in my belly and a beer in my hand, and Keiko packed me a veritable picnic lunch the morning that I left.
I climbed the Cascade Mountains up past Mount Saint Helens (my odometer clicked over to 1000 kilometres on the way up), and screamed down the other side all the way into Oregon. When I arrived in Portland, I spent one of my four days in the city chopping wood with Justin, a Couchsurfing host who has opened his entire first floor to travellers. He treats his home as a hostel and gives every new arrival a detailed presentation on his city and a brief walking tour of his home and neighbourhood. Just up the road from his Sellwood home, locals have built a community noticeboard, a playpen for neighbourhood kids, a “tea station” where locals can share a cuppa with their neighbours and a book swap. Up the road, an elderly woman posts a new piece of poetry out the front of her house every few days.
Between all this couch crashing, old acquaintances and a whole lot of stealth camping, I’ve managed to not pay for accommodation in over a month in the Pacific North-West. It’s not the fastest and definitely not the most comfortable way to get around, but this cycling caper might just be one of the cheapest modes of transport I’ve tried. Just make sure to establish early on that you won’t be paying for that meal and bed with your virgin buttocks.
Previously: Cycling the Americas Part I
Quinten Dol is riding his bicycle from Vancouver, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. Like any scummy hobo, he’s scraping a bit off the top to feed himself. Throw him a bone by making a donation here.