(To view some of Ariel Zlatovski's photos from his journey, click one of the thumbnails at left beneath the 'Related Links.')
It was day 35 on Ariel Zlatovski’s journey across America. He had just made his way to Readfield, Maine.
Zlatkovski turned onto the street where Linda, his host for the evening, lived. His GPS told him he had arrived at her residence. He knocked on the door and introduced himself to an elderly gentleman.
Without a second thought he shook the man’s hand and walked inside. The man spoke for the first time and asked who the young man in front of him was.
He responded: “Ariel. I’m staying with you tonight.” With nothing more than “oh,” they walked into the living room and met an elderly woman. Suddenly panic struck and Ariel realized he had wandered into the wrong house.
He had stumbled upon Linda’s neighbors, who eventually helped him make his way to his host’s home.
Less than a year ago Ariel Zlatkovski collected his high school diploma with his Eagle River High School classmates.
But now, at 18 years old, the first-generation Israeli immigrant is touring the United States courtesy of the kindness of strangers.
Primarily using the website CouchSurfing.org to find places to crash, Zlatkovski is on an extensive tour of the Lower 48 – something the Alaska resident said his parents fully support.
“They’re big fans of traveling young, when the experience can be enjoyed as much as possible.”
But according to the young adventurer, his parents are not the only ones supporting what some consider the opportunity of a lifetime. “Pretty much everyone has been supportive of the trip,” said Zlatkovski. “I still do have a couple of naysayers who keep telling me to go to college, but usually as soon as I tell anyone that I’m [on a] tour of all 50 states they want to come along.”
His journey began February 27 when he left Alaska and headed to Washington D.C. There he purchased “Laila” – a Toyota Yaris. The $12,000 purchase is intended to take him through 48 states.
From Washington D.C. he headed up to the East Coast toward Maine, and then began a journey westward.
For some this kind of trip would seem overwhelming, but Zlatkovski has a plan – kind of.
He will continue traveling west for the remainder of the summer, head down the West Coast, and then head east before veering towards the southern part of the U.S., and then heading up the East Coast in time to make it back to D.C. for the presidential inauguration.
But despite a detailed map of where to hit next, he still travels with spontaneity. “I am constantly in the process of finding hosts because I [only] plan my trip a day or two out.”
Couchsurfing.org is an online website where adventurous travelers look for potential hosts. The online database has people from all over the world looking for company. Each individual person has a profile that says a little bit about themselves, as well as other recommendations (or criticisms) from travelers who have stayed with or hosted the couch surfer.
Surprisingly, counting on strangers isn’t a scary process for Ariel. He tries to check references, but there are plenty of times he hasn’t. “I am a fairly trusting person,” he said. “I’ve never had an uncomfortable moment.”
Zlatkovski has some tricks up his sleeves and knows what to look for.
He tends to scout out couples or groups of people to stay with. He said for him it feels “safer” and more fun because it gives him more people to spend time with. Also he finds staying with couples, families or groups is easier on the host than staying with a single person.
“People who have kids, [who are] used to feeding many more people, generally have more resources than, say, a college student, so I tend to look for families.”
Staying with a younger crowd has its benefits too, though. He said that way he gets more “action-packed surfing.”
While in upstate New York, he stayed with Jack, a young seventh-generation farmer in the Adirondacks. He said the duo had a “crazy weekend” that included roller derby, climbing trees and gathering eggs.
Then there were Ernie and Elma, a couple with several “beautiful” children in Amish Country, Pennsylvania. While at their house, he stayed with two Italians who were also using couchsurfing.org.
But his most powerful experience so far has been visiting Ellis Island. “As a first-generation immigrant – I was born in Israel – it was really incredible to see where immigrants used to start their American dreams.”
Surprisingly enough, the serial couch surfer rarely stays on couches. Usually he has his own bed or an air mattress in a room of his own. Once he even stayed in a teepee in Montpelier, Vermont – something he said was an “awesome experience.”
In return for the hosts’ hospitality he tries to set the table or clean up – which some hosts stop him from doing – or he plays with the kids to help give the parents a little bit of a break. He said he would try to cook for them, but “my cooking skills are terrible.”
He has learned a lot about the way other people live, but sometimes it’s also about what he can teach them. “Yesterday, I taught my host how to frolf [Frisbee golf].”
Zlatkovski said his new friend Alex was a quick learner and “a good time was had by all.”
But it’s not always a “tit-for-tat” exchange. “I find that being from Alaska is almost enough experience on its own,” said Zlatkovski. “Everyone thinks it’s so cool I’m from the Last Frontier.”
At 18 years old, most people couldn't afford such an adventure, but with careful planning Zlatkovski pulled it off.
After graduation, Ariel worked for seven months at the Apple Store until he had enough money to head out. His parents pitched in to help him buy the car (with plans for Ariel to repay them).
“[The car] was more than I was looking to spend, but was almost brand new, so we figured it would be a good investment for the trip and I’ll sell it after I am done to repay them.”
He’s budgeted $6,000 for gas, food and all other expenses, and he finds that couch surfing has made the trip monetarily more manageable. But the memories and experiences are priceless, Ariel says.
Right now he looks forward to being in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the hot air balloon festival in October. And he never knows what he’ll encounter next on his trip.
“From going camping this summer and roasting marshmallows with random people, to going to little league baseball games, to riding horses at a friend’s in Wyoming… all of these quintessential Americana moments.”
After he wraps up his journey, he wants to go to Hawaii to reflect on his newly learned life lessons. He then wants to travel internationally, but those plans are too far out to be set in stone. Right now he is focusing on each day as they come and making the most out of his unique journey.
"I’m really proud of how it turned out,” said Zlatkovski. “I had a dream, so I went out and worked to be able to make it come true.”
For pictures of his journey click the photo gallery on the left. You can also follow his journey on his blog, www.arielacrossamerica.com.