Warmshowers (Warmshowers.org) is a hospitality website (and app) that connects self-supported traveling bicyclists with hosts who open their homes. Lou Melini, a Utah native/resident, regaled me with his experiences of the platform. Lou was on the Board of Directors for Warmshowers from 2012 to early 2016. In his emails to me, Lou tells stories between answering questions, largely comprising elaborate bike excursions that he and his wife have made. These stories were frequent throughout the dialogue. The appeal of a free overnighting app is apparent, but this underlying note of storytelling/story-creating piqued my curiosity. Why are stories such an important part of this touring-cyclists-hospitality app?
Warmshowers’ service revolves around two central characters with separate storylines: the guest and the host. Through the app, these experiences can intermingle, but you are one or the other in each experience. It’s an app for self-supported cyclists only, meaning you must be traveling by bike and traveling by your own means. After that, you’re free to establish contacts along whatever path/trail/tour you intend to conquer. Once you’ve found a host, you have the opportunity to create a dialogue and establish a plan about your intentions. As a prospective host, you are never required to do so in any given circumstance—though this is a community-based organization, so engagement is a part of it. You can be a host to whatever extent you like—a free couch is a free couch, but conversations over prepared/presented meals together, snacks and refreshments are encouraged as well. For example, Lou says, “In 2018, Julie and I rode across the U.S. One of our stays was in the backyard of an organic farmer who provided us with organic zucchini for our dinner.”
Lou notes that the originators of Warmshowers (called “Warm Showers” in 1993), Terry Zmrhal and Geoff Cashmen, were a couple of Canadians who followed the example of biking-hospitality organizations dating back to the late ’70s and created a database from the existing members of those organizations. In 2005, Randy Fay became involved with the organization and created the website and platform from the existing database, which we know as warmshowers.org. Now, a small but dedicated group of volunteers manage the site and communication between its members.
Warmshowers.org is functional and direct. After a few clicks and some of the aforementioned dinnertime conversations, this is where you really get to tell your story—the story so far, if you will, under the profile section while creating your account. The profile creation for hospitality services encourages honesty. You could really meet these people, and this is a chance to show an authentic you. These people could be in your living room. You could be in their living room. It’s a ground-level, mutual understanding that does not show up in the profiles of other media platforms.
“Due to our touring experience, we have had the pleasure to host a number of traveling cyclists,” Lou says. “They would contact us via the WS website a week or two in advance, and we would stay in contact as the actual day of arrival came closer. As with all guests, we negotiate length of stay based on needs of the guest and how long they have traveled.”
The brief stories Lou shares involve 10 weeks of overnight travel, hosting travelers since the ’70s, crossing foreign terrain—all while politely paraphrasing 22,000 miles of biking experiences (13,000 of those with his wife, Julie Melini) of their own. He explains how he and his wife ended up on a “must stay with list” for long-distance travelers from Japan, Argentina and several countries in Europe. Some of these relationships turned into lifelong friendships.
I’m overtaken by opportunity for such story creation and connecting. Warmshowers gives you the chance to experience new cultures in your very own home. I found myself leaning into the website as I read through all the different tales. These weren’t super athletes traveling across the country. They were “Debbie from Ohio” and “Marcus from New Hampshire”—stories of regular people having these incredible travel experiences. You think of travel as “something for yourself,” “a journey,” “you end up better”—that sort of thing. But as I read through the site, I learned that traveling, especially as a cyclist, seems to be about everything else. The individual is the only constant in these stories. Everything else is the variable, the wildcards, stuff that makes for great stories to tell over a drink sometime.
On the website, the host can list what they provide, i.e., bed, breakfast, shower, laundry and/or bike repair. You are encouraged to keep in touch with your travelers, and I was surprised to learn that some of these overnight reservations can be a whole decade in advance. Not only is Warmshowers a community, but it’s a community who stays in touch with one another. In these conversations, you can establish your evening with the guest/host and what level of involvement you prefer. Of course, before contacting a prospective host, read their Warmshowers account carefully and as always, read the recommendations for the host and guests you intend to come in contact with.
It’s a hosting opportunity for like minds, different-minds, minds from Nepal, Peru and all over Asia. You can be the traveler or a destination, two separate stories coming together—and the best part of being in someone else’s story is that you get to be the wildcard, the part that makes their story the best!