Your Place or Mine
A century or more ago, travellers in the northern environs—think the Yukon or Canada’s Northwest Territories—didn’t have a lot of lodging options. You’d find an empty trapper’s cabin, make yourself a fire, cook something from his larder, and spend the night. Miles along the trail, that trapper was in someone else’s cabin, doing the same thing.
That’s kind of the idea behind WarmShowers.org and Couchsurfing.com. They are free, worldwide hospitality networks based on reciprocity. WarmShowers has nearly 90,000 members and over 40,000 hosts; Couchsurfing, likewise, is a global organization of like-minded travellers, though larger than the WarmShowers community.
“I think of it as hosting friends you haven’t met yet,” says Riah Irion, a local WarmShowers host. “ They are people I would already be friends with if they lived in my town. And if I’m in any one of these countries or cities, I have a place to stay, free, with people who know me and are interested in my life.” Riah and her husband, Aubrey, owners of Wellsboro’s Shady Grove Natural Market, have been members of the WarmShowers and Couchsurfing communities for several years. There are other Couchsurfing hospitality locations in the Tioga County area, notes Riah, but she and Aubrey are the only WarmShowers site.
During a trip to Europe in 2011, the couple used Couchsurfing to meet some of their accommodation needs. “It’s pretty popular in Europe,” Riah says. When they got home, they decided to try being hosts themselves—not a huge stretch as the two often have, as Riah laughs, “random people at our house.” Couchsurfing is for travelers of any kind, she says, and “I would get a fair amount of cyclists that way.” One of those cyclists suggested they sign up with WarmShowers, which is unique to those using two wheels and pedals as their mode of transport.
The initial set-up is similar for the two. If you're interested in being a host, you register with either one or both organizations and fill out an online profile, providing your house rules, the number of people you can accommodate, Internet access, your availability, a little about your interests, the kind of area in which you live, your pet status—in short, information that will help potential visitors decide if you and they will be a good fit. You can also make connections via free phone apps, Riah continues, adding that she likes to use them because of their immediacy. You are notified right away if a potential guest is trying to get in touch, and you can respond quickly, giving that person a heads-up regarding your readiness for company.
From that point, it's up to the host and the traveller to work out the details. With cyclists, Riah says it's important to be flexible regarding the timelines as mechanical failures or legs giving out on that last long hill might have an effect on the estimated time of arrival. When guests do pedal in, some just want a place in the yard to set up a tent and a chance to enjoy a real shower instead of a wash-up in a convenience store sink. She and Aubrey provide bedding for those interested in indoor accommodations, and they also offer meals.
“You can host to your level of comfort and ability,” Riah says. “You're not obligated to entertain them, but for us that's part of the fun. Most people who do WarmShowers are avid cyclists; we're not—we just like people. They are so grateful and appreciative for the place. Cyclists can consume a lot of calories, and they're usually sick to death of protein bars and gas station food.”
And the paybacks for clean sheets and dinner? The stories are fun, of course. Riah remembers one guest who took it upon herself to clean the refrigerator after noticing that chore on a to-do list. Another time, the guests were a father and son from France. Both were touring the country via pedal-power but had started their rides from different locations. They met at Irion’s. And obviously you, now the host, will have a friendly place to stay as a guest while you’re out and about on your own adventure later. Riah looks at it as building community, as “feeding your soul.” She comes from a family that welcomes visitors, and is grateful for the way that “opens you up.”
“I’m really lucky that Aubrey is of the same mind-set,” she says. “To have him there saying, ‘Yes, we have the food, we have the space, let’s share it,’ is so great.”