Tuesday, April 26, 2011

lessons learned #5: hotels and motels as a last resort

I had to stop my 2008 walk for three major reasons, all of which converged like a perfect storm. First, there was my injury, a stupid and preventable fall that occurred early in my walk, and which worsened over the next 300 or 400 miles. Second, as I tracked my own progress, I began to realize that I was going to hit the Rockies at exactly the worst time of year: my timing had been poor. Third, there was the money problem. It's not as though I was pissing away my funds on gambling and frippery; I was simply doing what any normal human being does: eating, resupplying, and sleeping. Unfortunately, when you're out on the road, these three activities cost a bit of money.

One of the ways in which I tried to stem the financial drainage was by using a service called CouchSurfing. The website, couchsurfing.com, is modeled after a dating website in that it tries to match a traveler with people who would be willing to host him for a time-- all for free. A traveler builds a profile on the site, talks about his interests and some of his travel experiences, notes his itinerary, then connects with people along his travel path who are also members of the site-- people with an empty couch on which a tired rover can spend a night or two before moving on. The subtext of all this is-- again, like a dating site-- social networking. You're crafting a web of friends and acquaintances, sharing experiences, seeing new sights and eating new meals.

CouchSurfing wasn't my own discovery; it was suggested to me by a number of people, and overall, it turned out to be a very good way to save money while traveling. The problem, though, is that most of the available couches are located in larger towns and cities. Once you're out in the boonies, CouchSurfing isn't nearly as easy.

What, then, are the alternatives?

One would be camping. I camped in quite a few state parks, especially while moving down the western spine of Washington State. None of these places was free, however, although they were all cheap alternatives to paid lodging, i.e., hotels and motels. I was afraid to camp on people's property: I saw signs that said "PRIVATE PROPERTY! KEEP OUT!" and even "PUBLIC PROPERTY! KEEP OUT!" We live in an era where just about every square inch of ground is spoken for, and unlike other America-crossers, I wasn't willing to risk arrest by plopping down just anywhere.

Well, that's not entirely true. I did spend two or three days camping out at Exit 151 along I-84 in Oregon. I'm pretty sure it was PUBLIC PROPERTY, but it was also obviously a campground for fishermen, and there was no management office to which to pay a camp fee. I simply plunked my tent down there and rested my knee in the heat (see here). I didn't feel so guilty about potentially illegal camping when I was out in the boonies.

The problem with using hotels and motels is that you're nickeled and dimed to death over the long haul: thirty dollars here, fifty dollars there... it quickly adds up, and without any donations rolling in on a regular basis, the whole enterprise quickly becomes unworkable.

My feeling now is that I'll need to change a few things about my walking strategy-- and my personal outlook-- if I plan to use only a minimum of money during this walk. First, I have to be more willing to knock on random doors, if need be, to ask for a place to set up my tent or bivy sac. In 2008, I walked right through most suburbs (and past many farms) without ever trying that approach, despite its having been suggested by several blog commenters. Second, I may need to rethink my absolutism when it comes to setting up camp in a potentially illegal area. I'm not talking about the boonies, here: I'm talking about PRIVATE PROPERTY and PUBLIC PROPERTY in urban or suburban areas. Third, I need to continue with the CouchSurfing (CS). That was one of the absolute best ways of moving across the country. CS opportunities may be few and far between should I decide to hike the American Discovery trail, but (1) I'll at least be able to camp along much of the trail, and (2) the ADT does, in fact, run through many towns and cities, which means CS won't be irrelevant.

Even with the above shift in thinking, parks remain something of an anomaly. There are, for example, some national parks that charge visitors who arrive by car, but leave hikers alone, whereas other parks charge a "hiker/biker fee" to human-powered travelers. I may not have much choice as to whether I have to pay.

When I step back and take a larger view of this enterprise, I don't see that I'll be able to design a walk in which I pay for nothing. That's not a realistic strategy. Even if I minimize costs, I'm going to have to buy crucial items for my survival-- food, season-appropriate outdoor clothing and equipment, etc. So I suppose we should add a fourth change to the other three: an income stream. Asking for donations can only work if one markets well and aggressively; I hope to do a better job of that this time. But along with donations, I'd like to be able to earn income of my own-- and that's where the speaking engagements come in. Right now, I've got them pegged to eBay/PayPal, where the funds can be transferred either to my bank account or to the future 501(c)(3) account. I have a feeling that, if the lecture circuit idea catches on, it's something I could pursue even after the walk is done.

As for those hotels and motels-- well, they're still a possibility, but only as an absolute last resort. I need to exhaust all non-paying and minimal-paying possibilities first.


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