This online exclusive follows a story from my regular column “Where Are They Now”.
Nicole Arnold can sleep wherever she lays her head. She’s slept on the floors of airports, she’s slept on strange couches, and deep in the starry desert. Sometimes, she’s chosen to go without sleep altogether.
Not content to take the requisite summer cruise or well-trodden trip to Paris before diving straight into college, Nicole graduated high school early and defied expectation when she toured the U.S. coast to coast by bicycle. There’s no doubt this journey of a lifetime steeled her travel ethos.
Now she lives in Chicago where she works as a nanny and attends online college. But Nicole has been racking up weekend outings well outside insulated hotel walls and scripted paths. Instead, she’ll throw some toiletries into her small North Face pack Thursday morning, and head to the airport straight off work for the long weekend, flying standby to the newest destination. She stays with friends, friends of friends, and even strangers she finds on CouchSurfing.com. Nicole knows that in the digital era, it’s easier than ever to cut out the middleman and to get in touch with the local pace of life.
Together, we chose to highlight three adventures. I wanted to showcase the very natural storyteller in Nicole that I found compelling straight from our first phone call. So I’ve chosen to leave some stories in her own spoken words, only correcting for flow and grammar and clarifying facts when necessary.
Stranger Kindness in Mexico City, March, 2017
“I had an extra long weekend off work, from Thursday through Monday. I had been in New York City for the weekend with a friend. We left Thursday morning and returned to Chicago Sunday morning so my friend could get to school the next day. But I was like, ‘Wait. I don’t have any plans. I don’t have work tomorrow and I don’t have anything to do.’ It was like 8 a.m. in Chicago and I hate having nothing to do. Sure I could have gotten to my apartment, grabbed my bike and biked up to Milwaukee or gone camping overnight. But I was really feeling spontaneous that day so when I landed at O’Hare, I took the train back to my apartment, grabbed a change of clothes, grabbed my purse, turned around and headed right back to the airport. At this point I just knew I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere.”
“On my way to the airport, I’m looking up flights on my phone and I’m like man, I really haven’t been to Mexico City in a long time. I listed myself on the flight, got to the airport on time, for once, and frantically looked for a place to stay that night. I’m not usually worried but Mexico City can be dangerous. So I reached out to a few people on Couchsurfing.com. This gay guy, Diego, responded within minutes.”
“I got to his house at 10 pm on Sunday but he was really sweet and gave me a driving tour of Mexico City at the perfect time (because Mexico City traffic is brutal during the day). He showed me the central historic district, he told me all about the monuments, he knew everything. And I was not expecting him to be that generous and take time out of his evening to give me a private tour even though he had to work in the morning. He even took me out to dinner. So we went back to his place and I slept. The next morning, he told me, ‘Sleep in. I trust you, just lock the door behind yourself when you leave.’”
“I ended up getting out fairly early that morning and I walked for about two hours. The first place I went to the was El Mercado de San Juan because one of my favorite things about Mexico is the freshly squeezed orange juice. So I had to find some. And I’d already had two cups from random street vendors on the sidewalks but I love the atmosphere at the market, and Mexico City has so many. I feel like there’s so much culture there, it’s very lively. I got some breakfast, and bought like forty of these finger-sized bananas, a lot sweeter than regular bananas, to bring back to the States. It was Monday and my flight was pretty early that night, maybe four or five in the evening, so I spent my last hours visiting parks, sitting and watching people.”
Utah, Unrehearsed October, 2016
For Fall Break, Nicole decided to fly to Salt Lake City. Landing mid-morning, she took a train downtown and strolled aimlessly, people watched. From there, she hopped in an Uber and asked the driver for recommendations. Funny enough, he then took her up to Oktoberfest at Snowbird Ski Resort where she took the aerial tram to Hidden Peak’s amazing views. Back in the city, Nicole met up with a couch surfer who offered to host her and they pulled together a spontaneous party with other travelers they found met through Craigslist with whom they made dinner and played music deep into the night.
Nicole woke to her host fixing smoothies for all his guests while she hunted for cardboard and a sharpie to draw a smiley face beside the word “MOAB”. From the entrance ramp of the highway, she stood smiling with her new sign. Within 3 minutes, a Toyota Corolla stopped, whose occupants happened to be a Mormon couple, 20 years old and engaged. They drove Nicole 45 miles south to the town of Provo, where she took some time to explore its main street but it was Sunday and most stores and even restaurants were closed.
Nicole’s next ride was a single mom in a big truck who only drove her about 10 miles. But then she struck gold (this was the West after all). Her last driver was a woman from Reno, Nevada who was going to Moab on a research project. Her company rented a two bedroom house and she was the only person on the trip, so she let Nicole stay in the spare bedroom for the night.
She woke early the next morning and set out walking along Highway 191 North, towards Arches National Park with the intention of hiking all day. Within a minute, she got a lift from a twenty-something man who shared her desire to hike, so they set off on trails with names like Devil’s Garden.
Around 3:00 pm, they left the national park without further plans, just driving on Moab's Main Street when they saw a billboard for skydiving. She asked him had he ever gone, and when he replied negative, she exclaimed, “Let’s go right now!” She called the company who had slots for a departure in half an hour. They proceeded to the airport where they filled out forms. Nicole jokes, “I sent my mom a picture of the waiver, and I think she almost had a heart attack.” The new friends dove through the sky above the painted desert below. She says, “Skydiving was like falling to freedom.”
After the heart-stopping thrill, they stopped for dinner at a grocery store before driving down Sand Flats Road, a beautiful and remote one lane dirt road, to watch the sunset. Nicole goes on, “This guy who I had spent the entire day with had rented a campsite and offered to share the dirt with me, so we each pitched our tents (I rented my gear from my school) and went to a local bar for a few beers before returning to sleep in the desert.”
A Sleepless Blur in Tokyo, February, 2017
“The weekend I went to Tokyo, I was supposed to go to London to visit a friend. She really likes to party and she got invited to this grand club opening along with a pass for one friend, which would be me. So our plans were to go to London but since we were flying standby, things can change at the last minute and you don’t always know if you’re going to be able to make it on a flight. It was winter and there was a huge storm in the Northeast, flights got redirected, and we lost our seats. It was Friday evening and I had to be back at work on Monday but I was already at the airport with my bags packed so I walked over to the board of departures, looked at all the destinations, and just sort of asked myself where do I feel like going. I wanted to go somewhere new, exciting, and definitely international, so I decided on Tokyo. I looked on the app and saw there were 119 seats available. I managed to snag a first class seat on a standby seat for cheap. It was so luxurious and I slept the entire 14 hour flight.”
“When we were landing, I did not see a city but just rice fields everywhere. From the airport, I took a super fast, and expensive, train into the city. This was Saturday evening, Tokyo time. I had no idea where I was so I got off on the train stop with the biggest crowds, which turned out to be Shibuya, basically the Times Square of Tokyo. I had dinner by myself and then wandered until I reached the busiest crosswalk in the world. I’d read on a blog that there’s a really cool view from the sixth floor of this one building so I went up there and sat there for awhile watching cars go buy.”
“So then I found this place on my phone called Golden Gai so I took the train there (and the train in Tokyo is so confusing!). Golden Gai is an area of three or four streets just opened to pedestrians and these streets are lined with over 200 bars, some of them the size of my bathroom. I managed to find a karaoke bar with a bunch of cute backpackers from the Netherlands, many with dreads. I met a local there who spoke English who was telling me about all these clubs in Tokyo, like, ‘Oh my god, it’s your first time in Tokyo, you have to go clubbing tonight,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m doing since I don’t have a place to stay and the trains stop after 11, so I’m just going to party all night instead.’ He assured me that the clubs had lockers and directed me to this club. What was it called?…Womb! So I went there and danced all night. I have some random pictures on my phone of me and some Japanese girls that wanted to take selfies with me. People were very fascinated by a Westerner, the rumors are true. I was there until it closed, around 5 AM.”
“I met another local at that club and I told him that I was just in town for a few more hours and he was like, ‘Oh my god, you haven’t slept, you must be so exhausted, so why don’t you come back to my place to shower and rest, whatever you need,’ and that was really generous of him but I was like, ‘Look, dude. I’m only here for a few more hours; there’s no way I’m going to spend my time sleeping.’ So we went out for Ramen together as the sun rose, the best I’ve ever had. There were only locals there and it was so flavorful. And it’s really cool the way you order. There’s a digital menu outside that you order and pay from, like a vending machine. It prints out a receipt and you hand that to the chef.”
“After that, my new friend went home to sleep and I went on to the biggest fish market in the world, ‘Tsukiji’. By this time, it was 6:30 AM, I thought I could catch the fish auctions but it was a holiday. But I still got to see lots of fish and sushi. So after the fish market, I kept walking. I found a train stop, rode it to a random stop, and walked around some more. I found myself at a temple in the middle of the city. By that time, it was time for me to go, so I hopped on the train back to the airport, went to the lounge, took a shower, had free sushi and wine, and I hopped back on the plane, once again on a first class seat and slept the entire way back. I was at work the very next day after a 28 hour trip.”