Couchsurfing facilitates culture convergence in Elizabethton

Published 9:22 am Friday, March 25, 2016

Star Photo/Rebekah Price  After a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, eggs, fruit and coffee, the members of the Tinderbox Circus Sideshow shared their stories with their couchsurfing hosts in Elizabethton. (From left) Zak Crouch, Kayti McCormick, Cheryl Tupper, Charles LaPorte and Joshua Coffman

Star Photo/Rebekah Price
After a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, eggs, fruit and coffee, the members of the Tinderbox Circus Sideshow shared their stories with their couchsurfing hosts in Elizabethton. (From left) Zak Crouch, Kayti McCormick, Cheryl Tupper, Charles LaPorte and Joshua Coffman

Charles LaPorte and his wife Cheryl Tupper have found a way to experience the world right from their home in Elizabethton. Through an online network of hosts and travelers called Couchsurfing, they host visitors from around the state and nation.
“When we host couchsurfers, we meet such a variety of people,” said Tupper. “Most have degrees; they’re not bums. Often they just want to meet people and to get to know the area better.”
With Couchsurfing, hosts are encouraged to leave reviews of their surfers, and vice versa. This creates a system of accountability, as reviews cannot be amended or deleted from a profile.
Through the Couchsurfing website, both hosts and surfers get to check each other out before any visit. Surfers review a list of host profiles and send requests to arrange a stay. The host can then review the surfer’s profile and either and approve or deny the request.
LaPorte said that many people, when they first learn about Couchsurfing, feel skeptical. After hosting surfers for four years and having a mix of experiences, he said safety and trust have never been issues.
Kayti McCormick, one of the LaPorte’s most recent surfers, said her three-member group of performers, Tinderbox Circus Sideshow, almost exclusively couchsurfs and has never had to leave a negative review about a host.
“Everybody is super accommodating,” added Sideshow member Zak Crouch.
Unlike Air B&B, a similar concept, Couchsurfing is free to guests.
Sideshow members said they couchsurf because it is much more affordable than staying in hotels, but their budget isn’t the only reason. “It’s fun,” said McCormick.
They want to develop familiarity with the places they travel, and said they can’t do that by staying at a hotel.
“A hotel is like a self-sustained bubble,” said Crouch. “Couchsurfing forces you out of that bubble because you’re going to have to interact with people, and that means you get to see their neighborhoods, drive their hilly streets and learn about their lives.”
He said hosts and accommodations vary, and some are more hospitable than others, but that overall, it gives them the opportunity to experience a place and to meet its people rather than just to pass through it.
Tupper said this is positive opportunity for Elizabethton.
“We don’t get people from other places here often, so it’s nice to get an idea of other places and experiences in an area that doesn’t normally draw that,” said Tupper.
LaPorte agreed that though tourist traffic is not superfluous, people that visit truly enjoy it. “People settle here because it’s a lovely place,” he said.
They believe Couchsurfing makes it possible for more people to see Elizabethton, when they otherwise might not.
Sideshow member Joshua Coffman said the LaPortes were “definitely in the upper echelon of their hosts,” and they were the second to serve them breakfast.
“I like to give people — especially guests from out of town — a Southern country breakfast,” said LaPorte. “It gives us a way to get to know them and to hear their stories.”
And like most travelers, their guests have interesting stories to tell.
The members of the Sideshow stayed with them Wednesday night after a performance in Johnson City. They work full-time as entertainers with the Sideshow and book venues across the East coast.
Crouch described a sideshow as a performance of people doing extraordinary feats of endurance and skill in a small venue format. Historically, they originated as literal sideshows to touring circuses, and performed more freaky acts than mainstream circus arts. Crouch said he loves when his audience is peaking through their fingers because it is so incredible that they can’t not look, but they are in a state of disbelief and must see the feats completed.
LaPorte and Tupper said it is not often that a sideshow visits this area, and that they have only seen one other in Elizabethton.
It incorporates music, comedy, bantering with the audience, and most importantly, extraordinary feats into an hour long performance. McCormick, known on stage as “Trashique,” cinches her waist down to the size of a small dinner plate using a zip tie, and swings weight from her ears, including a bowling ball. She also climbs a ladder of machetes. Crouch, also known as “…Captain Darin VonAwesome…” uses a bullwhip to knock straws out of Trashique’s hands, eats fire, hammers a 5-inch nail into his nose and inserts a 14-inch skewer into his arm and removes it without drawing blood. Coffman, known as “#Tucky Resident Possum-faced Hillbilly Mystique and Sideshow Troubadour,” sings comedy songs with a mousetrap on his tongue and a bear trap on his arm, among other feats.
LaPorte and Tupper attended the show Wednesday night and said it was highly entertaining. “They looked very coordinated and intelligent up there,” said Tupper.
“I don’t think we wore the right colors to be at the Hideaway — I think the appropriate color was black — but we had a great time and enjoyed the show,” said LaPorte.
It was the first time LaPorte and Tupper hosted a traveling sideshow, and it gave them the opportunity to learn about life on the road for a performer.
They have also hosted an array of other travelers. Because there are more than a dozen other hosts in Elizabethton and even more in Johnson City, LaPorte said he likes to ask why people they chose to stay with him. For a mother and her two sons from Kansas, it was because she wanted to stay in a child-friendly environment. One of her sons was really interested in music, LaPorte said, so they listened to records and visited the local music store. He said they ended up staying an extra day and exploring Elizabethton and later sent a thank you card.
“Some like to stay with us for the space we can offer, and others because it’s not a party scene,” said LaPorte.
One of their guests was a motorcyclist moving to California.
“It just so happened that I was having my men’s Tuesday night beer meeting and prayer service (we pray that good beer will never stop flowing), which he joined,” said LaPorte.
He said he thought they would be hosting more backpackers when they made their profile, but they have only hosted two. One happened to be the Bionic Woman, who in 2015 was the first woman to complete the Appalachian Trail with a prosthetic leg.
Two other couchsurfers were bikers, and LaPorte rode with them to Johnson City and still stays in touch with them. One bicyclist was visiting every state in the continental U.S. and stayed with them.
Another surfer was from Oak Ridge, and she has returned twice to visit. She was coming for Bristol’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion and stayed with them for what LaPorte called their “supposedly safe middle class ways.” She talked LaPorte into attending Rhythm and Roots, and while there, a photographer took a photo of them saying goodbye. It is now plastered on the wall of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum as part of a life-size mural. She now lives in Paris, France and works for the Nuclear Regional Commission.
Another group of surfers were three middle-aged musicians in a retro hard rock band from Queens, New York.
“They must have been the quietest and closest to our age,” recalled LaPorte. They were non-drinkers, non-smokers, and only one drank coffee.
LaPorte said they have only ever had one negative experience with a guest who wanted to stay for significantly more time than the days he had planned; and when asked to move along, he did.
For both Tupper and LaPorte, Couchsurfing has facilitated new experiences, hours of laughter and some lifelong friendships. They said it also gives visitors a unique view into this region and its people.
“It’s very interesting to hear people’s perception of our area,” said LaPorte. “We always ask what their preconceived notions were.”
LaPorte said he believes hosting guests gives him and Tupper the ability to make a positive, personal impression on visitors to the area. He said he would encourage anyone with an interest in meeting new people or gaining new experiences to try Couchsurfing. He said it not only brings people to the area, but it is also an affordable way to travel anywhere the world, as each of their children have done.
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