Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Perfect Wave (Culpeper & Unionville, VA)

Top: Me and Nancy in Culpeper on Wednesday night
Below: Art, me, Ginger (attacking me) and Ann in Unionville on Thursday night

After my night in Opal I needed to believe that better things lay ahead. What was immediately in front of me on this windy Wednesday morning was the walk to Culpeper. Today I would be surfing for the first time. Culpeper isn't known to the casual enthusiast as a surfing mecca. After all, it is 150 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Yet one home in Culpeper had thrown its doors open to me in the spirit of a surfing tradition of another sort - couch surfing. The name comes from a website started some years ago with a mission to "participate in creating a better world, one couch at a time".

Multiple friends told about this website when I started to plan my trip. In June I created a profile and sent my first couch surfing request to a couple in Poughkeepsie, asking if I could stay with them in the beginning of September as I started my walk. I got a very kind email back from the woman, explaining she would love to offer me a place to stay but her boyfriend was a little wary because my couch surfing profile didn't have any friends or references on it.

It turns out that is how couch surfing works, how it allows its users to separate the wheat from the chaff if you will. As you meet people and can vouch for their kindness and reliability you add them as friends and write references on their profiles. Those references can not be changed by the profile owner. So if you stayed somewhere and made a fool of yourself or promised that someone could crash with you and then rescinded the offer, the chances are that story is going to be on your profile for everyone to see.

I set about becoming a part of the couch surfing community even though I wasn't able to offer my apartment in NYC as a place to stay because I had a roommate. I put my status as "Available for Coffee & Conversation" and then went looking for events where I could find some friends who could then attest on my profile that I'm not an axe murder.

Speaking of axe murderers, why is that always the metaphor people use to describe the kind of stranger they don't want to run into? How many axe murderers have there been in the history of this country. 100 maybe? 200 tops over the past 300 years? Shouldn't the metaphor more be like, "I hope you aren't a slovenly narcissist who incessantly complains about co-workers and ex-girlfriends"? Because really, there are tons of those guys out there and precious few axes murders. For the record, I don't even own an axe.

I digress. Turns out there is a never ending list of couch surfing events in the New York City. I went to a dinner at an Indian Restaurant in East Harlem where only I and a nice bloke from Sydney, Australia showed up. I followed that with a dinner at another Indian restaurant - this time in the East Village - where way more people showed up than could fit at the table. I also toured Coney Island with a Costa Rican man, two wonderful French women, a Manhattan music producer and a 10 year old Japanese electric guitar prodigy who was on his way to LA to perform on the Tonight Show. Those are the kinds of sentences you get to write when tapping into the world of couch surfing. Without exception, all the people I met were super nice. That is why I recommend this community to anyone looking to broaden their horizons and meet new and interesting people.

With two weeks to go before my trip was to begin I had five or six friends and as many glowing references on my user profile. Time to start sharpening my axe. Only kidding of course. But as I started to piece together hosts in different places, it became apparent that I knew enough people that I wouldn't be needing to surf in the Northeast.

Thus Nancy Halgren in Culpeper, Virginia became my first surfing experience - on land or on sea. To strain an already exhausted metaphor, she was the perfect wave to wash away my experience in Opal. She picked me up at the Culpeper Library, set me up in her son's room who was away at college and got to working on a home cooked meal while I did my shower & stretching ritual.

When I came downstairs her friend Ann Sanderson had arrived. When I first contacted her Nancy had told me about friends of hers about 18 miles south of Culpeper who would also be willing to host me. Ann was one of that couple and since she works in Culpeper had stopped by to say hello. We all chatted, she left and then another friend of Nancy's named April came over to join us for dinner.

Nancy served us Cuban chicken and rice and some sauteed spicy green beans she had picked from her own garden. For dessert, I once again laid eyes on my personal Holy Grail - a fresh pie. She had baked an apple pie with homemade crust in honor of my visit and I demonstrated my thanks by eating a huge slice and then graciously accepting seconds, both with ice cream.

With only four hours of fitful sleep over the past 48, Nancy sensed that I was ready for bed. She had an early digital photography class the next morning way up north but without hesitation she told me, "Go ahead and sleep in, get up whenever and have some breakfast and then just shut the door behind you when you leave." It was like music to my ears. I thought it was so beautiful that someone who had been a complete stranger only four hours ago was so comfortable with leaving me at her house alone to get ready at my own pace.

I made the most of her offer, falling asleep at 9 and walking up the next morning at 8, long after she had driven off to her class. I changed my schedule a bit, content to get a much later start. I left her house at 10, wandered down Culpeper's Main Street, got a cup of coffee, checked my email and didn't hit the road in earnest until 11.

Once I got beyond the town limits of Culpeper, my walk to Unionville was all country roads, distant Blue Ridge mountains and fields of soybeans turning golden under the autumn sun. It was one of those afternoons where I felt at peace with myself and at one with the world. When I am most in touch with this sense of oneness my trip takes on a whole different dimension. I experience in those moments that there is very little separation between me and the people who host me. There isn't even much separation between me and the people who refuse to host me or don't respond to my inquiries. We are all birthed from the same beautiful, divine creative mystery and to that we return. The more we can experience this feeling of unity with all of creation in our time on earth, the more likely we are to see ourselves in others. The more likely we are to see ourselves in others, the greater chance we will treat them as we would like to be treated. And when that happens it is my experience that open doors and a freshly baked pie often come of it.

Ann and Art Sanderson extended me the same trust as Nancy. Neither of them would be home by 5pm. Ann told me just to walk on in and make myself at home. A note was on the kitchen table telling me where my room was and that fresh towels were behind the bathroom door. I showered and then sat out on their deck to do some writing while their 6 month old rescued pup barked at me from the yard where she was tied up on a line. Art arrived at 6:30pm and we made an evening of it while Ann had to work late. Art has an easy, affable manner which immediately put me at ease. Like any two self-respecting men at home without a woman around, we grilled. Well, he grilled. I sat around and asked him questions about his life. Our conversation ran the gamut - UVA football, chimney restoration, psychological counseling, politics, cross country hitchhiking, family, NPR. He even convinced me to add Car Talk to my podcast rotation. For someone who takes podcasting as seriously as I do, that is a big step. Hopefully Click and Clack and I will live happily ever after.

Ann came home at 9:00pm in time for me to gather everyone for a traditional group picture. Their dog Ginger was sitting on the other end of the living room, but as soon as I would hit the timer button and go sit down with Ann and Art she would sense the occasion and come bounding over to sofa. Thus the picture above which I have entitled "Dog Attack". I like that picture. It captures a warmth and a sense of humor that I experienced in their home.

Two nights ago in Opal there wasn't much laughing. For the two days following, thanks to Nancy, Art & Ann, my spirit had been restored. I am grateful to them and to everyone who embraces the mantra of couchsurfing. If we are all one on some level, every house can be our home, regardless of who is in it.


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