After discovering Couchsurfing as a guest, Bobby Leonard began opening his Shockoe Bottom home to travelers. (Photo by Maggie Pope)
One night during a cross-country trip in 2015, Bobby Leonard stayed overnight near Olympic National Park in Washington state, not in a hotel or an Airbnb rental, but at a stranger’s home, or rather a refurbished shed in the backyard.
The stranger was an exotic bird keeper who had converted five sheds into bedrooms, complete with air conditioning and a refrigerator with food. The best part? Leonard stayed in one of the sheds for free. He found the place through Couchsurfing, a website that began in 2004 and has grown to reach 200,000 cities globally. Hosts provide lodging, seeking nothing more in return than cultural exchange and good company.
Leonard, 24, has used Couchsurfing as a guest in 20 states, mostly on a two-month road trip that he took with his girlfriend, Liz Wanamaker. Upon settling in Richmond last year, they’ve hosted more than a dozen people at their Shockoe Bottom home.
Fan District roommates Elise Bunch and Morgan Jones also became hosts after Jones moved to Richmond last spring to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. Among their recent guests were a young woman from Germany last summer, followed by three men from England who were traveling through the United States.
“I get the travel bug really bad,” Bunch says. “It helps calm that when you have somebody from somewhere else staying with you and telling you about their cultures. We’ve had so much fun with the people who have stayed with us, and they were only here for a day or two.”
The idea for Couchsurfing came about in 1999 when Boston resident Casey Fenton, then 25, was visiting Iceland and sent out an email to University of Iceland students in search of a couch to crash on. “I was reminded of how much I was able to learn about myself and the world,” Fenton says in a phone interview. “I wondered if there were other people out there that would want to do this.”
As the Couchsurfing community continues to grow, members hope it helps to bring the world a bit closer through personal relationships.
“I’d really recommend it for people who are traveling alone,” says Drew Fridley, another local Couchsurfer. “I’ve [met] a lot of people who have restored my faith in humanity.”