Couchsurfing in the American Southeast

I moved to Georgia a little more than a year ago–for the second time. Well, kind of. I lived in Atlanta during the summer of 2012 while working at my first engineering internship. I always knew I was returning to Ann Arbor, yet despite this, I always felt I didn’t take advantage of the nearby gorges, mountains, or countryside.

So for a second time, I moved to Georgia for employment. And while this story isn’t about the Peach State, it is about my decision to spend ten days traveling around the American southeast including my experiences, observations, and recommendations.

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Beautiful fall foliage (or lack thereof) in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountain range.

My trip to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee marks my longest domestic road trip to date. I learned enough from living in Seattle, that seeing the region where you live requires swift and intentional action. Three years after calling the Pacific Northwest home, I had but a three-day weekend as my longest venture. Retrospectively, I failed to visit many surrounding states and cities.

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This 2,500 mile trip brought to you by my pre-owned 2012 Honda Fit Sport.

I headed due west along north Florida’s I-10 corridor to Louisiana, where I turned north through Jackson, Mississippi, and eventually the Ozark Mountains. I visited Memphis for a short 24 hours before heading home through northern Alabama. I supplemented my drives with plenty of phone calls to friends and family, and a healthy dose of American music (so many influential artists/bands are from Mississippi!).

I’m roughly describing the ‘southeast’ as Gulf states from Louisiana to Georgia, including Tennessee and the Carolinas. Texas is too distinct in culture for me to feasibly identify it as part of the southeast, and Florida–which recently exceeded New York for 3rd in estimated population–is commonly identified as “the north of the south”.

I struggled to dig up statistics about travel throughout America, however based on my observations of major cities, financial and entertainment hubs, and perceived historical importance beyond our country, I wouldn’t be surprised if these are some of the most overlooked states when it comes to domestic and international travel. Right up there with the fly-over states of middle America. (That said, I find Brits have a strong affinity for Savannah, probably due to climate, cost of living, and laid back lifestyle).

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The white sandy beaches of Seaside, Florida is like a pastel painting in your grandmother’s bathroom.

From my continued observations of people and places in the southeast, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville serve as major economic and cultural influences in the region. Cities like New Orleans, Charleston, Nashville, and Memphis are consistent tourist destinations for southerners and people throughout the United States. There appears to be a heavy disdain between Georgians and Floridians which I can only liken to Michigan and that one state in which we share a southern border.

Seaside Florida

Instead of making the long Savannah-New Orleans haul in one day, I decided to break it up with a stop in the urban utopia of Seaside, Florida. I wrote a couple articles about my visit and the urban elements designed into the city. Florida is a vast, populous state, which–in my opinion– deserves a dedicated trip, to places such as historic St. Augustine, Miami, the Everglades, Disney World, and various beaches. Hence, I made this trip to the Sunshine State a quick one.

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The early morning sun rises beyond forests outside of Seaside.

My roadtrip involved a mix of hostel living, camping, and Couchsurfing. I’ll quickly remind readers that Couchsurfing is an online platform connecting travelers and hosts throughout the world. You can read profiles and reviews of one another and request a stay or offer a “couch” for someone passing through your town. A place to stay may be a literal couch, or something more luxurious like a room, treehouse, or suite.

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My Couchsurfing profile includes basic information and past host & traveler references. Of my 13 total references, four are stays with a host, and all four are positive.

This application creates a community of travel-minded individuals and couples, offering no-cost accommodation in exchange for being a kinda, pleasant, and rewarding human being to interact with. As with all voluntary human actions, using good judgement  and common sense is advised. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences (as you’ll learn below) with this community.

My first night in Florida was a nerve-racking camping stay in a seemingly middle-of-nowhere state park down the road from Seaside. On a 10-day trip, you’re bound to have what I describe as weekday desolation–where no one is camping on a Tuesday evening. It’s unlike camping in Michigan or the Pacific Northwest. Sure, the weather is favorable for a long period of time, and pine straw is a natural cushion. However, sand makes for a shitty tent anchor, and you hope no ‘gators visit your campsite 😂

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Being minutes from the Gulf’s white sandy beaches and warm water is an understandable draw, especially for many cold-weather northerners. I recall Florida being a very popular travel destination for family friends while growing up, but I never had the chance to go. Living elsewhere in America, it’s easy to forget there are vast states of palm trees and mild weather all year long, yet here are millions of people living that Mediterranean-esque life.

Mobile

On my drive to New Orleans, I stopped off in the coastal city of Mobile, Alabama for a urban bike ride and some craft beer. It was a cloudy afternoon as I passed by the shipping container port and into the central business district. Despite it’s population rivaling that of Savannah, I was surprised to see a handful of skyscrapers disappear into low-hanging clouds.

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Under-construction urban art decorated the Mobile tourist center’s neighboring park. I loved the blend of animals and agriculture.

For a weekday afternoon, it had a oddly quiet feel to the main square and surrounding restaurant district. However, I roamed with camera in hand searching for a spot to grab a drink. There were beautiful churches, Egyptian inspired temples, and second-story, zero-setback galleries along Dauphin Street–reminiscent of New Orleans (as I came to find out).

Lo’ and behold, I got myself a history lesson on the home of America’s original Mardi Gras. Touting a family-friendly vibe, Mobile hosts a multi-week festival which they are very proud of. Along with this nice couple from Maine, I got a very personal tour of the museum by a lovely Mobile native.

The annual even begins nine months out when a King and Queen are crowned the festival’s “royal family”. This is determined by the nominees’ family’s civic involvement, historic significance, and any previous kings and queens in their lineage.

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The subsequent months are spent creating the most absurd million dollar gowns and trains worn by the royal couple, during the entire three weeks. These are hand-stitched by local seamstresses and uniquely reflect each person’s interests and heritage. Some of the pieces weigh over 80lbs, enough to draw concern for people’s neck health!

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These million dollar, hand-sewn gowns are on loan from former royal families.

There’s a long history which I can’t reiterate with any justice, but the Mobile Carnival Museum offered an immense collection of expensive gowns, floats, photographs, and historic items for only $5. The unifying nature of this event bridges racial differences in a way which deserved almost no formal acknowledgement, because that is just how they do business in Mobile.

New Orleans

Much the like northeast, New Orleans has a long history of colonial settlement and subsequent French influence to this day–far more than I expected. According to a local waitress I spoke with, they still follow Napoleonic law, which is uniquely Louisianan. The Napoleonic code was adopted shortly before Louisiana became a state in the early nineteenth century, and impacts the manner in which the law is interpreted and applied to civil cases.

This influence is far beyond the legal, as roads, architecture, culture, language, and cuisine are all influenced by the French, Spanish, and Creole cultures which permeate New Orleans to this day. My three days there rose New Orleans to damn near the top of my list in terms of US cities worth visiting. I was blown away by the oldest continually operating street cars, French Quarter, historic traditions, nationally-renowned museums, and delightful food scene.

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Wandering the campuses of Loyola and Tulane was a great afternoon activity, and made me wish I went to a university somewhere warmer than Michigan.

Using the Quisby hostel as my home base, I took a plethora of local recommendations to make my three days memorable, which included nightly live music venues, delicious cocktails, and magnificent street food on Frenchman Street. That area of New Orleans turned out to be a perfect mix of locals and adventurist tourists alike.

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Furthermore, November was an ideal month to visit as the weather allowed for plenty of venues to spill music into the streets and neighboring open-air, late-night art markets to flourish. After looking awkward long enough, I was quickly adopted by a few fantastic locals and whisked away to excellent restaurants and bars for a pretty great evening. My expectations were beyond exceeded in New Orleans, and I’d quickly recommend it to people looking for a weekend trip to the American southeast.

Mississippi

Heading north from New Orleans, you drive over one of the most impressive byways I’ve seen–for tens of miles across bayous and swamps that you can’t help but deem impassable without such a road.

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That afternoon journey brought me into southern Mississippi and seemingly endless fields of cotton. After a few hours of driving, I concluded there’s quite a bit of natural beauty in wavering cotton plants, including the occasional tuft blowing across the road. As I hummed down the highway, I wondered what happened to the cotton balls fluffy nature after a hard rain. Thankfully I never got my answer as I only experienced a light drizzle one afternoon.

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A memorial to women that supported the Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, MS.

The drive north brought me to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi (gotta check these off my list!) and my first Couchsurfing stop with a middle-aged gentleman named Matt. One of the most dedicated hosts I’ve seen to date, Matt proudly showed me his “Wall of Surfers”, which are dozens of people that have stayed at his home over the years. People from all over the world, and many times over!

He was a friendly man who lived in a positively beautiful home located in a gated bedroom community of the capital. His house was decorated with signed sports memorabilia, stocked with every liquor imaginable, and adorned with plenty of art. Despite accidentally double-booking his plans for the evening, Matt tossed me the keys and left me HOME ALONE with all of his stuff–he doesn’t even know me!

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Couchsurfing in Jackson, Mississippi.

But alas, these are the joys of free exchanges on Couchsurfing. I was a respectable guest, and he provided more than adequate accommodation, a king-size bed, and my own wing of the house. He shared plenty of advice for the remainder of my roadtrip including a stop over in Vicksburg, to see the infamous National Military Park. It was here that Union soldiers took a remarkably risky advance deep into Confederate territory and laid siege on the city of Vicksburg. This campaign led to a victory for the northern army, giving them control of the Mississippi and cutting off Confederate lines west to Louisiana.

Each state that participated in the Civil War commissioned a monument to their citizens. You could drive through the park, hopping in and out of your car to hike up to monuments, former bunkers, vantage points, and valleys.

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This is the USS Cairo iron clad war ship retrieved from a mud-encased slumber at the bottom of the Mississippi River. It was pretty top-notch technology for its day.

Ever since I can remember, I didn’t care much for history. From world, to European, and state, I struggled to understand the point of taking in all these facts and figures. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t have enough life experience to draw the larger societal connections on how these ideas can help me understand the world I live in. However, over the past year, I’ve developed a much greater appreciation for understanding where we’ve come from, why we’re at the present condition, and what the reasoning was behind it.

In any form of international traveling, I prioritize the understanding of past events to explain the nuances–or blatant differences–in the culture around me. I now realize that’s a gift. It has helped me do a better job at understanding racial, political, economic, and societal issues people rail against (or for!), complain about (or champion!), and clarify (or misinform!). A deeper knowledge of history is equipping me to be better at understanding my own culture and the issues we perceive within it.

Arkansas

I didn’t originally have Arkansas on my list of states to visit, but am glad I changed my mind. That firmly sealed my visit to every state in the American southeast! My second Couchsurfing experience was spent in a new-construction four-story + roof access townhouse in the former warehouse district of Little Rock.

I stayed with Josh and Ryan, an awesome couple in their 30s, both working-professionals in the surrounding area. Regretfully I didn’t get a photo, but Jason made incredible New Orleans-style gumbo and homemade bread pudding. They invited over a handful of friends and supplied plenty of wine and VR-headset game playing. The following morning was spent crossing off another state capitol building from my 50-state journey!

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The Little Rock waterfront park hosts a variety of locals along its banks.

The Little Rock riverfront greenbelt is an impressive urban design project to encourage more activities along the Arkansas River. The area incorporated art sculptures, playgrounds, bike/walk paths, and a plethora of greenery. I was really impressed and apparently the locals view this revitalization as a catalyst for the surrounding business and resident environment.

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Trees lit ablaze by a campfire in Pettigrew, Arkansas. I spent the evening on the land of an entrepreneurial family’s retirement strategy, renting to campers and RV’ers passing through. Being in the middle of nowhere, the stars were stellar.

My time in the city wasn’t meant to last. I parted ways with my second host and headed further northwest to the Ozarks, a mountain range mostly located in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri reaching nearly 3,000 feet in elevation. This was one of my greatest outdoor adventures on my trip across the southeast, and it didn’t disappoint. Hawksbill Crag is a famous rock formation jetting over the valley. I woke up early for a sunrise hike and found myself dangling over a beautiful cliff side.

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Enjoying a sunrise hike at Hawksbill Crag in the Ozark Mountains.

Memphis Tennessee

Memphis was one place on my trip I wish I spent more time, as opposed to the less-than-24-hour stop I made. I stayed at Hostel Memphis, a church hostel (certainly a first!) which was exactly what you imagine: the church rented out a portion of their facilities for a short-term lodging business. It was in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Cooper-Young, complete with nifty city urban beautification projects and trendy places to shop and eat, such as Memphis Made Brewing Co. and Aldo’s Pizza Pies. On that brisk fall afternoon, you couldn’t help but wander the streets.

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Bass Pro Shops can claim this as the tallest free-standing elevator in the United States.

Memphis is located at the western tip of Tennessee on the Mississippi River, which was visible from atop of the Memphis Pyramid, a massive Las Vegas Luxor/ Paris Louvre-like structure. Once a hopeful place for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, the Pyramid is now on a 55-year lease to Bass Pro Shop, which I view as a Mecca for all outdoor fishing, hunting, and adventure sport enthusiasts.

I mostly wanted to visit the Pyramid so I could access the rooftop, but little did I know the interior of this place was a magical Disney World of Spanish-moss draped trees, live animals(!), bowling alleys, restaurants, arcade games, aquariums, and even a hotel, complete with inward facing balconies. It was bananas. The birds, fish, and alligators lived among bridges, streams, and waterfalls. Of course, there was Bass Pro Shop merchandise scattered throughout the interior adorned with pre-Christmas sales, but I was too taken aback by the other worldly creation.

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Downtown Memphis, Tennessee as seen from the Bass Pro Shop rooftop lookout.

The weather and view from atop the Pyramid was ideal for a long-exposure photograph, but nothing particularly spectacular. What the skyline lacked, was more than made up for in Memphis’s beer, character, and of course, musical history. The city was a shining star in the development of American music from blues and country, to gospel and rock. And lest we forget home to one of the world’s most influential musical icons, Elvis Presley.

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An exterior shot of the infamous Graceland, where Elvis fondly called home for many years. He was originally born in Tupelo, Mississippi where his childhood home remains today (and I visited!).

Elvis Presley’s Graceland is the second most-visited home in America each year after the White House. Originally constructed in rural Memphis, the city has since developed far enough south to envelop the estate grounds. I spent the afternoon walking through the place in which Elvis, Priscilla, Lisa Marie, and Gladys (his mother) called home for many years. John Stamos graciously narrated an incredibly interactive and captivating iPad/audio tour throughout the premises.

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A letter to Elvis: “You will be amazed to know that I am now doing the Twist–not as well as you do, but I am doing it. It is the best exercise I have found. I have taken one inch off my waist and two off my fanny. Now I know how you keep so thin.”

I can easily attest to Graceland as one of the best museum experiences of my entire life, of course I’m quite partial to the untouchable legacy of Elvis. The sights and sounds within Graceland are that of which Elvis would’ve seen back in the 60s and 70s. You’re transported to a time gone by. The artifacts, clothing, letters, photographs, awards, furniture, pianos, linens, pool tables, and bars are all so fascinating. And to consider the events which transpired between those walls is exciting.

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The TV room displays radical interior design of the day. As the story goes, Elvis requested the installation of three TVs after learning that President LBJ enjoyed the same comforts in the White House.

Huntsville Alabama

The final state on my ten-day roadtrip was Alabama, potentially the last state I’d ever imagine visiting. Home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville has a long history with the development of spacecraft, missiles, and satellites. I attended the University of Michigan’s Aerospace Engineering program with a handful of people that ended up in Huntsville, giving me further reason to make the stop.

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The Saturn V rocket was developed and tested in Huntsville, Alabama during the 1960s to serve America’s Apollo space program. At the time of this writing, the Saturn V and it’s five F-1 engines hold the title for heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever made. Local Alabamans reported shattered windows along downtown streets during some of the first F-1 engine tests. The Saturn V successfully carried astronauts beyond low-earth orbit and to the moon multiple times until its retirement.

The Space and Rocket Center is a graveyard for old rockets, missiles, engines, and artifacts for adults and children alike. The weight of such human achievement is palpable as you explore the grounds.

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The F-1 engine, one of five use on the Saturn V, with its mothership standing tall in the background.

Once again skirting the cost of accommodation, I visited a former college colleague now working in the tech-heavy Huntsville metropolitan area. The concentration of industry was pretty impressive and surprising after driving across much of rural northern Alabama that afternoon.

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Reuniting with college classmates helped keep travel costs low and travel experiences interesting. No better way to visit a place than through the eyes of a local.

Thanks to my friend Dustin, I had a fantastic tour of the urban environment which included the downtown business district, Huntsville Museum of Art, Big Spring Park, and Twickenham Historic District. I was really impressed with the whole region, including the nearby Monte Sano State Park which offered a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains, at least what locals call the mountains. (While driving into Huntsville late at night, I was so confused at blinking lights hanging high on the horizon. Was it a plane? A cell tower? I didn’t realize Huntsville’s proximity to the Cumberland Plateau.)

New Hope Alabama

After a lovely jaunt in the city, I deemed the remaining drive back to Savannah far too long to stomach in one afternoon (I can be a real road trip wuss), so I opted to Couchsurf for a night on my final return leg. This brought me to the lovely home of Lorna and her husband in rural New Hope, Alabama. She quickly became one of my favorite road trip personalities.

Lorna, an Alabama native, and her husband Steve, a former military man originally from Colorado, reside on an 84-acre farm acquired by her family from President Andrew Jackson approximately 200 years ago (and they still have the signed deed!). Their farm house is surrounding with chickens, cows, horses, peacocks, dogs, cats, and goats, many of which I got to visit and feed.

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Warm and inviting, Lorna and Steve have made a beautiful life for themselves on her family’s land.

Due to their age, location, and high standards for visitors, they rarely host many surfers, but are incredibly gracious when they do. Well-traveled and conversational, Lorna, Steve, daughter, grand-daughter, and I shared a delicious meal of meatballs, which I discovered was deer a couple hours later, to which Lorna and I shared a laugh. “You never know with people, they can freak out when things get game-y. But people never know the difference”.

Holding more degrees than I could count, Lorna spoke fluent German due to her and Steve’s military deployment in central Europe. They maintain good relations with a few German families and even sent their kids there for an overseas experience in high school, much to the dismay and fear of their neighbors and relatives. To those who found their international sympathies counter-cultural, Steve jokingly retorted, “they’re my kids! if I want to kill them, I have every right to do so!” This lead to a discussion about the growing trend of “gap years” and finding alternatives to college when appropriate for a child. I really enjoyed their conversation.

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Lorna and I parting ways after another successful Couchsurfing visit. She volunteers with the local Weight Watchers group to coach and inspire people during their weight loss journey.

We chatted fondly about our trips abroad and life in Michigan, Seattle, Savannah, Colorado, and Alabama. Their children expressed gratitude for the time they spent with family friends in Germany, considering it a formative experience relative to their life in America. We discussed the impact of mobile technologies on children, outsourcing of survival skills (food growing, home building, repair abilities, etc.), removal of nature from our increasingly-urban world, gun ownership, the ongoing Roy Moore accusations, and how to clean-up environmental disasters (a professional specialty of Steve’s).

Winding down the evening involved lightning a warm fire and sinking into their living room while their granddaughter and cat played on the carpet and adults chatted about their lives. AMAZING that I just met these people, and they were already inviting me back for Thanksgiving dinner (a 60+ person rager complete with drunk uncles, games, more food imaginable, and everything else you want from a large farm house party).

Birmingham Alabama

After such a wonderful experience in northern Alabama, I began my tenth and final day on a trajectory homeward through Birmingham. Considered the epicenter of the American Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham provided a really moving and sobering reminder of American–especially southern– history between black and white cultures.

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Markers along the Heritage Trail bring to life sights of the city during that time period.

Commemorating various elements of the Civil Rights movement, including educational, retail, government, etc, the Heritage Trail markers walk past statues, buildings, and civic places critical to the movement. I haven’t been the best student of history (mentioned above), so I took a few of these walks through downtown Birmingham to gain a greater appreciation for the black and white leaders that ignited a national conversation regarding legally codified and socially accepted forms of discrimination.

Much like Memphis, I wish I had more time to explore this part of the US, so I hope to return to Alabama, including a trip to the capital of Montgomery (checking off the list, remember) in the near future.

A Road Trip Complete

A week and a half later, I returned to Savannah exhausted, sunburned, and with a greater appreciation and broader perspective on American life, history, and its many people. Despite my tangents, the backbone of this story was a discussion of my experience Couchsurfing. So, to summarize: given my mix of camping, visits with friends, Couchsurfing, and hostel stays, I spent approximately $180 on accommodation during my roadtrip. What a great way to see the world! About $200 on gas, and probably more than I care to admit on tasty food!

From Tupelo, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, the southeast in November was a lovely time to visit. Beyond the weather, I discovered new cities and museums in which I’d quickly place at the top of my list, going as far to encourage American and international visitors alike to add the southeast as a potential destination if your interests align. Music, military history, architecture, unique cuisine, and Gulf Coast beaches all come to mind.

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