A soft place to land

Cyclists find free lodging, lots of hospitality on the road

Ryan Reaves and Kelly Brown made use of cycle-centric hospitality exchange site <a href="http://warmshowers.org/">Warmshowers.org</a> during a cross-country bike trip in 2012. They are pictured here near Lake Tahoe (left) and in the desert (below) with other riders they met on the road.

Ryan Reaves and Kelly Brown made use of cycle-centric hospitality exchange site Warmshowers.org during a cross-country bike trip in 2012. They are pictured here near Lake Tahoe (left) and in the desert (below) with other riders they met on the road.

Photos courtesy of ryan reaves

While planning a cross-country bicycle trek in the summer of 2012, Chicoans Ryan Reaves and partner Kelly Brown initially planned on staying at campgrounds as they traveled through the Southwest. They registered on Warmshowers.org, a website that networks touring riders with hosts willing to offer them free lodging and other hospitality, as a backup plan when they hit big cities. However, they found themselves using the site’s services more than expected.

“When we got to Fallon, Nev., we looked around and found a few RV parks, but everything was really expensive and didn’t look too promising,” Reaves recalled. “So we ended up using it sooner than we’d planned.”

At that point, the couple were traveling with two others they’d met on the road from Portland, Ore., and called a Warmshowers member to see if he could offer last-minute accommodation for four. The host told them two other riders were already there, but said he had plenty of room on his lawn. Brown and Reaves arrived to find familiar faces—they’d camped with the other guests, two men from San Francisco, the previous night. They also discovered a level of hospitality from the host, a taxidermist whose home was a menagerie of animals in various stages of the preservation process, unlike anything they’d expected.

“It was kind of weird at first since we’d never done it before, but as we were standing around, he shoved some clean towels in our hands and offered his shower to wash up,” Reaves said. “After that he drove us to the liquor store to get some beers, and we spent the afternoon in his garage shooting the shit, talking bikes while we tuned ours up, and drinking.

“I asked him what his wife thought of hosting all these strangers,” Reaves said, to which the man replied, “Well, she’s in the kitchen right now making you guys some tacos.”

Dinner included quinoa—or “fancy rice” as their host called it—for some of the other visitors, who were vegetarian. The cyclists rose while it was still dark to get on the road before the desert heat set in, and were surprised to find fresh-baked banana bread and hot coffee.

“After that, we weren’t so hesitant to use [the site],” Reaves said.

According to the website, Warmshowers was created in 1993, predating the Internet age. Back then, members shared contact information via word-of-mouth and printed lists, and stewardship of the service passed through several hands. In 2005, then-Warmshowers overseer Randy Fay converted it into a searchable map and database online, and since Fay’s retirement in 2009 the site is overseen by a small collective of volunteers. Today, there are thousands of Warmshowers members on six continents.

In order to join, members must agree to host, and can choose from a list of services they’re willing to provide (i.e. beds, campsite, kitchen space, prepared meals, and the eponymous warm showers). They can also specify what type of diets they adhere to, whether drinking and smoking are welcomed, and other lifestyle options to ensure good matches. Hosts also can detail how much advance notice they prefer, and usually offer a little information about themselves and their cycling habits.

In a section on personal security, the site recommends exercising good sense and explains that membership doesn’t obligate you to provide shelter for everyone.

Reaves said he and Brown made use of Warmshowers connections about 10 times during their trip. Highlights, he said, included a couple in Chicago who were hosting to beef up their feedback on the site in preparation for their own cross-country tour. They stayed with the couple, who took them to their favorite locations in the city, for two days.

In Texas they washed a trucker’s horses in exchange for board, and a couple in Cornville, Ariz., introduced them to the local bicycling community at a cycling association potluck, where the long-haul riders were treated as guests of honor.

A bike-loving preacher in Milwaukee offered them a bed, cold beers and a memorable parting gift. The man said he understood Brown and Reaves were nonbelievers, but that he would be remiss as a pastor if he didn’t give them a token of his faith, a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with what he called a “special bookmark” inside, remembered Reaves. They opened the book later to find a $100 bill.

They also met a touring British cyclist eager to get to San Francisco to meet with people who had stayed with him overseas through Warmshowers.

Reaves said they had only one negative experience with a Warmshowers host, in New Mexico, but that it was more awkward than creepy or dangerous, and not so bad they wished they’d kept pedaling. They also couldn’t find accommodations through the site in New Orleans, but say that likely was due to their lack of planning ahead.

The pair estimate they saved at least $1,000 in food and lodging on their bare-budget trip through Warmshowers hosting, and the kinship and hospitality they found were immeasurable. The couple were recently contacted by a Warmshowers member cycling to a music festival, and plan to host for their first time in mid-May.

A number of other Chico members contacted through the site say they’ve hosted, but haven’t used the site themselves … yet.

“We have hosted a few different people through Warmshowers and have had really positive experiences,” said Katie Timmel. “We have had people from a couple on a round-the-world tour to a mom and her 4-year-old from Sacramento just taking a weekend trip.”