March 11, 2016
By Victoria Ortiz
Photo at right: Warm Showers guests (from left), Tyler Alves and story author, Victoria Ortiz, both from South Lake Tahoe, CA, Benjamin Lee Grant, Corvallis, OR, Michael McGlynn, Gainesville, FL, and Logan Deschler, Breckenridge, CO, pose in front of the smiley face painted on Neil Branson’s garage door. Photo courtesy of Victoria Ortiz
Neil Branson’s generosity is becoming legendary among cyclists and travelers in the sleepy coastal town of Seaside, Oregon.
Branson, a beloved lodging host on WarmShowers.com, a website that connects touring cyclists with places to spend the night, has hosted hundreds of travelers since opening his home in 2009. Travelers know they’ve arrived when they see the giant hand-painted smiley face on his garage.
Similar to other online hospitality sites, touring cyclists and hosts create profiles on the Warm Showers website for free. The cyclist sends a private message to the prospective host, who then offers a place to sleep or camp, do laundry and, perhaps most importantly, take a warm shower.
Last summer my boyfriend and I stayed at Branson’s Seaside house as we pedaled down the Pacific Coast. When reserving our dates, he told us, “I won’t be there, but there may be other people sharing the house.”
That evening we split his home with three other cyclists, none of whom had ever met him. Although I was grateful, I couldn’t help but wonder, who is this man who opens his home to strangers and why does he do it?
For 68-year-old Branson, who has logged hundreds of cycling miles down the Pacific Coast and across the U.S., joining Warm Showers has helped him contribute to what he dubs the “traveler community.”
“I have had the world come through my house,” says Branson. “It’s really about being part of the larger community of travelers.”
Branson has hosted an average of 150 people annually, including people who contact him through the hospitality site, Couchsurfing.com. Branson’s Warm Showers profile features close to 100 glowing reviews.
His voice speeds up with enthusiasm when recalling one story about why he loves contributing to, and being a part of, the traveler community.
A young lady traveling solo had a flat tire near his home, he recalls. While moving her bike off the road someone stole her bike bags.
Meanwhile, an older couple riding tandem had an accident and the woman could no longer continue.
All of them stayed with Branson, including a few more guys traveling down the coast.
“The couple loaded the young lady up with stuff (the only stipulation being that she return the gear in person),” says Branson. “I got her some more things, and the guys invited her to ride with them. Together they rode all the way to San Diego.
“It’s that extension of travelers helping travelers and the kindness of strangers…to me, that’s just amazing!”
Branson’s one request of guests staying in his home is that they sign his guestbook. The book goes beyond the conventional style of leaving accolades to the host; Branson asks guests to answer deeper questions.
“I think the first question I asked was something about appreciation,” he says. “One person wrote, ‘I appreciate a glass of water when I’m thirsty.’ The simplest things in life are things we can appreciate the most.”
With hundreds of people staying in his home, has anything bad ever happened?
“There was one time,” he chuckles. “I bought two boxes of cereal, and when I came home from swimming the boxes were both gone.”
“Well they drank all of the coffee too.” He laughs, and then adds in a more serious tone, “Things have been broken because things fall, but no one’s ever been destructive or inconsiderate.”
Branson’s experiences as a traveler and a host reaffirm his belief in human solidarity.
“If you give people a chance to show their goodness, they do,” he says.
Often cyclists thank Branson and tell him, “I’m going to reach out more,” and “I’m going to trust more.”
“If I get five people to be a little more trusting, or a little more curious, even if one person does it, then, success!” he says.
“So take that curiosity and let it rip,” suggests Branson to those interested in Warm Showers. And if you find yourself in front of a smiley face garage door in Seaside, Oregon, welcome to Branson’s community.
Victoria Ortiz is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. In 2015, she took the plunge and quit her job for a couple of years to indulge in cycling, backpacking and travel adventures across the globe. Find her at earthtickle.com.