How much do you really know about the travelers you meet in hostels while surfing and backpacking?
Not that much if you ever crossed paths with Ross Ulbricht. The 33-year-old Texas native is perhaps better known as Dread Pirate Roberts, creator of the Silk Road. The defunct site on the Dark Web was a highly encrypted marketplace where users could buy and sell anything they pleased — heroin, MDMA, Oxycodone, murderers for hire — using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Ulbricht is currently serving life without parole in federal prison in New York City, following his 2015 conviction for money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. When he was arrested in San Francisco in 2013, the government seized $28 million from Ulbricht, a tidy sum to fund a trip or two.
As a free man, the Austin, Texas native (and Eagle Scout who also attended graduate school at Penn State) roamed far and wide, hitting many spots on the global backpacking circuit. While he was creating the biggest drug trafficking network ever, Ulbricht lived in Sydney’s Bondi Beach, took a monthlong lark to Thailand, and holed up in Costa Rica doing exactly what you might think — surfing, partying, exploring — and a few things no one knew at the time.
Ulbricht’s story is detailed in the new book “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road” by writer Nick Bilton.
Here are the best excerpts about Ulbricht’s life as an uncommon surfer and traveler:
In the site’s early days, as Bilton tells it, Ulbricht lived it up in Australia:
“Ross spent his days surfing at the golden beaches, drinking beer with his new pals at tiki bars, successfully flirting with girls, and, in between these social gatherings, working on the Silk Road.”
But Ulbricht put in long hours building and administrating the site using nothing more than the crappy wi-fi connections at hostels, cafes and hot spots:
“Looking just like every other backpacker trekking through the islands around the Pacific Ocean, he stayed in youth hostels and ate noodles from roadside vendors. The only difference between him and the throwaway friends he met along the way was that they were mostly broke college students exploring the world before they moved back to America or Europe to get a job and settle down. Whereas Ross was surreptitiously running the biggest drug-dealing Web site in the world and was personally worth millions of dollars.”
If you see someone of the following description at an international hostel, maybe don’t get too involved with them:
“While on his travels, Ross had set off to a sleepy surfer town in the middle of the jungle in Thailand. The plan was to lap up the waves, enjoy the beach, hike through the palm trees, maybe smoke some weed, and (if all went well) meet a pretty young backpacker. Except something went catastrophically awry on the site the moment he pulled into town. Someone had started stealing Bitcoins from his account as a result of a major programming error. Ross had no choice but to fix it right there and then — and it wasn’t an easy fix.”
“He was holed up from morning until night in the local Internet cafe, incessantly biting his nails while he tried desperately to stop the Bitcoin robbery, all while locals and backpackers lackadaisically wandered down the jungle town’s dirt roads, drank beers, and surfed in the warm ocean waves.”