This is the original travelogue recorded by Sarah and Greg while filming American Bear

Check out the stories, the people, the moments, and the surprises that couldn't be captured on film.

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The Original Return Date

Today was meant to be Day 61 of our trip. We would have had our last night relying on strangers in New York City, then arrived back to my family's house in New Jersey. 60 days had been the timeline from the very beginning -- the perfect length for us to explore the entire country and drive an average of three hours a day. And that final night in New York was meant to be the perfect ending, especially after having heard so much about New York from people we met around the country, many of whom had never been there. It's got a scary reputation, and it's expected that everything moves too quickly for people to be nice. We were confident that we would disprove that.

On Day 39, in Bear, Arkansas, we had our car accident, and when all was said and done, our U-Haul got us home to New Jersey on Day 49, wrapping up our journey. The accident was, of course, very stressful -- but Sarah and I quickly realized that to stay positive, we should focus on the movie. And for the sake of the movie, the car accident was awesome. It couldn't have happened at a better time: we had already captured dozens of hours of fantastic footage, and it was now about 2/3 through the project, the perfect time for a turning point (or an action-packed climax). Nor could it have been a better location: not just one of the five Bears, but literally at the intersection that Mapquest deems the center of Bear, Arkansas. We used the Bears to reflect on what we were learning, what was changing -- we found way more to reflect on in Arkansas that we ever expected.

It's one thing to have the camera to talk about the crash; it's another thing to have footage of the crash. We had the incredible luck of having the camera on when the accident happened, a clip meant to be just us driving around and exploring Bear. We watched it the night after the accident, and haven't watched it since. The camera is facing forward, so the impact isn't seen so much as felt and heard: our escalating voices, the camera shaking every which way upon impact, and the movement coming to a stop seconds later as Sarah starts to cry. Sounds upsetting -- and it is. But if "silver lining" is this footage, we'll take it.

We knew that if we had no solution other than to fly home from Arkansas, our movie would be fine. We had the footage, we had plenty of experiences, and giving in to the drama of the accident would be fine. But instead, we had three days experiencing the kindness of strangers, with our hosts Tom and Becky, and then continued our project in a U-Haul truck for six more days, still visiting another region of the country (Bible Belt and Southeast), another big city (Atlanta), and the last Bear in Delaware. Fittingly, Bear, DE was our last night, and while it's not quite New York, it felt right to be there. We ended up sleeping in the back of the U-Haul in a kind stranger's backyard and leaving at 4am so we could get to my house and surprise my family before they left home at 8am. Our last day, and our first sunrise of the trip.

In the last 12 days, Sarah and I have both been working on plenty of other projects -- it's hard to imagine how we would have felt comfortable preparing for the upcoming semester if we were just getting home now. But while it's been more relaxing than making our project ever was, I can't stop thinking about it. Every day I tell a story from our adventure, I think of a particular host, I look at the necklace Jolene gave me, the whistle Wade made us, and I note the absence of the car from the driveway -- still being repaired in Arkansas. This project has such a huge future ahead of it, and plenty of work involved, but the actual adventure, the countless experiences, those will always be present with me. It's a shame that we didn't get all 60 days, but only because there are friendly people we didn't get to meet. That will always be true. Instead, we got 90 hours of fantastic people, places, conversations, and memories -- including a turning point that we could never have planned, but that provided a different breed of lessons altogether.

Sarah Reflects on the Weeks of Filming American Bear

The last week has felt so much different.

There is so much to think about and so much to process that I dont even know where to begin. I dont think I've stopped experiencing our adventure and I dont think I'll realize how important was for a long time. And that's simply the personal side of things - the cinematic is going to be something I've never experienced before.

The biggest thing for me is the memories, or the way that anything anybody says reminds my of our time on the road, reminds me of one of our amazing hosts, reminds me of an encounter or a place or a time. And I feel weird talking about it all the time but I dont think I've ever had so many new experiences in such a small period of time. Those six weeks are huge for me, and ever present.

I had never seen the Grand Canyon, never seen Mt. Rushmore, never been to most of the states we visited, never tasted the foods we tasted never had conversations like I had with strangers.

I keep thinking that everyone should do it, everyone should go out and try and help each other and experience new things and get to know strangers. And there's this overwhelming trend that everyone in America thinks that other people are bad, but they themselves are so willing to help. People think that the world is chaotic and dangerous but they as individuals are calm and kind. So there's this inherent sort of contradiction. BUT because everyone is a little nervous, the risk and reward in staying with a stranger, or helping a stranger, is so much greater. It's part of what makes it so rewarding and part of what makes it so interesting. If everyone did that we'd lose that extreme risk and extreme reward. Which sounds a little sad to me. But it also sounds wonderful. What if we could travel that way? Or always feel safe when driving across the country because we know someone will help us if something goes wrong?

That sounds amazing to me.

I want this to show people that we can trust each other. I want that so badly. That was the initially point of my journey. But there is so much more in there - in the details, in the characters in the cultures that are so different. Everyone takes care of people differently, every one's understanding of hospitality is so different. First, we can trust each other. Then we can learn from each other. And at each layer is something different.

Have I changed? Yes. Definitely. I feel a little older, a little wiser, a little less afraid of the world, and maybe a little chubbier from all the pie.

This was a journey through the entire spectrum of my emotions. I think I felt almost everything I've felt before and some amazing brand new feelings.

It was a journey of stories. Everyone, everyone, everyone has a story to tell - a real, human story with real, human drama about real, human things. Beautiful things.
And everyone wants to share it (well almost everyone) - they want to share it with someone special - a stranger is the best candidate because they can't tell your friends, because they will listen openly, because you wont surprise them or confuse them. But the thing about strangers is, after you tell them your stories, they become your friends. Or maybe you only tell them that you are scared to tell them - well that's a pretty big weight, a pretty big secret - a story in itself.

I love that I have new friends all over the country. And that I can call them. Just to talk, to tell them stories.

I think about his everyday. About trust and fear. And the patterns we discovered. There is so much to learn there.

And I feel at a loss for words. Because this was profound for me. And my greatest hope is that it will be profound for someone else who sees it. For everyone else who sees it.

Greg looks back on the 48 days of American Bear

Yesterday we took a walk with my family’s dog Daisy, down a path near my house, visiting a pretty lake. We passed two people, each of whom were walking dogs as well – as we held Daisy back (she’s not very friendly with her own species), I smiled and spoke to the dog owners, “Hi, how are you – sorry, she’s not very friendly –” and was surprised to get no response from them. Not a word, not a smile. I don’t think they were perturbed by the dogs’ relationship. They just didn’t seem very friendly.

I don’t want to analyze each of my interactions with strangers based on their friendliness. We did that for forty-eight days and I don’t think it’s fair to do in every situation. Maybe I have a sympathetic nature. Every time we got brushed off by someone, and as our statistics built to show 45% of people we approached declined to speak with us, it was easy to describe those experiences as unfriendly. Neither Sarah nor I believe that to be the case – we acknowledge that people are busy, people are shy, people are worried they’ll be asked something that makes them uncomfortable (and asking for a stranger to take us in sure made some people uncomfortable). So we learned a lot about tone.

In Atlanta, dozens of people declined to speak with us, and most were extremely polite about it – surprising given the stigma of unfriendly cities. We didn’t find a place to stay, but we agree that Atlanta was one of our most positive days. We recently got an email from a couple in Wells, Nevada, who had read our blog post about Wells and were fairly enraged. They believed we were biased and rude, and their email was full of venom. In fact, it only furthered our interpretation of Wells, where we met plenty of people who were busy or disinterested, but whose tone made their cold shoulder truly chilling.

And our tone with people was probably the most influential factor in our good luck finding a home. We were always smiling, always friendly. When we were stressed or unconfident, we either had an unsuccessful interview, or we were very grateful that someone else’s energy could lift our spirits too. Our experiments with appearance had almost no direct effect – and although we discussed race with most of our hosts, and heard some racist comments, I think our friendly nature had much more to do with our luck than our white skin. And we often considered the discrepancy between the needy who are deserving versus those who are not deserving – some people didn’t help us because we weren’t deserving, as we were clearly not poor or truly homeless. But many people don’t actually help the homeless because they don’t want to fuel bad habits, including panhandling as a career detour. I hope even a homeless person could have the luck we had, as long as they did it with a smile and clear motivation.

I want to feel more surprised. I think I’ll find surprises while we’re editing – as I grow more distant from our experiences, and as I look at different experiences next to each other, I am sure new lessons and perspectives will arise. After a couple days, it felt so natural to be in a stranger’s home, to be in a new bed, or new floor, around new smells.

But the part of a stranger’s home that I found most interesting was their shower. Something about showering is so much more personal even than sleeping in someone else’s home – maybe the fact that you’re naked. But seriously, every time I showered somewhere else, or was even just offered, it was kind of a rush. And very exciting. Some people have amazing showerheads. But I also had a few stretches of up to four days when I didn’t shower, which hasn’t happened since I was a kid. While four days ended up feeling pretty gross, I think it’s an interesting new comfort level for me. And that’s kind of a goofy example in the context of cleanliness-comfort throughout this project: lack of showering, or staying in a messy home, or sleeping on a floor, or in the car, all of these are a lot less clean than how I normally live my life. My house in New Jersey is extremely clean. I am very comfortable walking around barefoot. My room in New York is cleanish, but I always wear my flip-flops. I am not high-maintenance or hoity-toity, so it wasn’t like a lesson, or a release – but I definitely appreciated living in different environments, if only for a night. This is kind of a silly way of getting to the fact that the messy houses were exciting because they opposed what so many said to us: “I would let you stay, but my house is just a mess right now.”

There is definitely a pressure of hospitality, of being a host, of having guests. Fearing that your guests will be judgmental. Or disappointed? It’s a fair pressure. But a little bit sad. And part of why our messy homes were so comfortable – and even exciting. Those hosts were often the most open. The most comfortable with themselves and with us. I’ve generally considered myself an open person, not much to hide. But many of our experiences have inspired me to be more open. We made seemingly close relationships with a number of the people we stayed with, over the course of just a couple hours. We’ve stayed in touch with some; others, we’ll talk to only about the progress of the movie. The definition of “friend” is very nebulous in the context of our film, because we often refer to our hosts as new friends, even some of our shorter interviews as friends. We also stayed with someone who would outright tell us that we are not friends: for him, it’s a process that takes years. I love the idea of calling people friends after just a couple minutes. Connections aren’t something tangible, they are felt. I believe we can feel the connection of friendship almost instantaneously, and I only believe that because of this project. It’s a feeling that has no age barriers either – we often stayed with people who could be our parents, or grandparents, who have children our age. But to have open conversation, to call them by their first names, to eat a meal with them – it makes the feeling of friendship come alive.

I decided about two years ago that I wanted to wake up just before sunrise every day – I had written to a friend that “a sunrise is the most nutritious breakfast,” but the joke inspired me. I felt more energetic and excited when I started my day when the day really started. But it also only lasted for two months. So now, I want to proclaim that I’ll smile at everyone I see, that I’ll engage in conversation with people at the store, on the street, that I’ll be perpetually open and excited about everyone around me – and while it’s nice to have that attitude, I don’t imagine it being quite as consistent as all that. But more outgoing, more invested and interested in the stories behind the faces around me, those are attitudes that can always be “more,” that I’ve always had, but that I have now in a brand new way, in a directly inspired way.

And when I introduce myself to new people, I have a feeling that this summer will be one of the first things I talk about. It was the most exciting and dynamic experience of my life. Inside and out – personal growth often through public experiences. An adventure of discovery – maybe rediscovery – of broad ideas I had about Americans. Rediscovery because I had some sort of general open optimism and faith in humanity that this project created a solid foundation for. Discovery because I explored the country and a random assortment of its people. And people sure are complex: we’d hear contradictions as people invited us in and later described how much crime there is going around, how they have to fear for their space. Or people who would be incredibly positive about their town, their openness, and then be taken aback when we said we were relying on strangers for a place to stay. We heard a lot of opinions that I don’t agree with: in conversations of politics, or religion, or tolerance, or diversity. But I don’t agree with them in a personal way, and I can appreciate individuals as a bittersweet mixture of positive and negative, respectable and distasteful. I think this summer helped me encounter some of that for myself. Sarah and I had arguments; I rediscovered some of the darker parts of my personality, and regretted some of my words and actions. Halfway through the trip, I had a brief breakdown: frustrated at Sarah, frustrated at the camera, the pressure of filming our experiences, the disappointment of being behind a camera rather than experiencing something firsthand, and above all, frustrated at how this film might portray me. What if I come across as a jerk? What if I’m captured being rude or short with Sarah? What if I’m the cautious, lame so-called “adventurer,” paling in comparison to Sarah’s energy? Strange to be self-conscious while hoping to meet people who are open, who will welcome a camera into their home without warning. Strange to doubt my good nature and personality because a camera is around. But maybe it also made me more sympathetic to the people who decline to be on camera. It’s another contradiction.

This is the first sizeable documentary I’ve ever made. In one of my classes last year, we discussed the potential impossibility of “nonfiction filmmaking.” Documentaries are supposed to present reality, but there’s really no such thing: in an abstract way, nothing is reality but our own minds and our own interpretation of direct experiences. In a more concrete way, there’s no nonfiction in film because people are generally conscious of the camera, conscious of the future audience – and people are usually conscious of what is considered taboo. The racism we encountered was for the most part tangential, mentioned briefly, revised later in the conversation. Everyone wants themselves portrayed positively – everyone wants to be liked. Many people who declined to interview with us probably had this subconscious motivation. Sarah and I discussed our fear of ending up in a house of domestic violence – but everyone knows domestic violence is wrong, and I don’t think we would have ever been invited into such a home, for fear of it being seen. Many people took us in and believed it was simply “the right thing to do.” I bet there are just as many people who think it was the right thing to do, but still said no. We often defy our own morals, and we often don’t treat each other as we’d like to be treated. Our footage captures many people telling personal stories, personal opinions, engaging in personal activities – but where do some of those things lie on the scale of white lies? That goes for the conversations Sarah and I had on camera as well.

And yet one of the most exciting parts about this film, exciting from the planning stages, and most exciting while it was actually happening, is the freedom. Another contradiction, as it was very stressful to be concerned with filming everything, but this is a film without walls. A film in which the camera and the person behind the camera are main characters. A film around the country, inside homes, inside heads, inside beds. The film fueled the adventure, and the adventure fueled the film. Someday, my memories of this summer will be warped into images from the film and stories created by the film, by putting different experiences in conversation with each other. Another way film extends reality. Maybe the most important part is the feeling, just like the way we trust each other and the way we experience friendship hinges on a feeling – I know that this project, this summer, this movie, this adventure, feels pretty damn good.

American Bear wraps up their journey -- the first stage, at least!

American Bear completed their Journey! (Or at least the first stage)
We left home 49 days ago to do something that sounds simple – rely on strangers for a home each night  –  but what we did feels a lot more complex than that. We traveled around the country, learned about trust and fear between Americans, experienced American culture in a very personal way, and made many new friends. We’ve had tons of new experiences and tried lots of exciting new foods; We’ve learned about ourselves and our relationship and therelationships we form with other people.
We’re now at Greg’s home in New Jersey – the last couple hours of footage transferring to the hard drives, Greg’s mom making lunch.  We slept in a familiar bed last night.
The project was supposed to be 60 days, but we got caught in a bear trap – a car crash that happened at the exact intersection that directions say is the center of Bear, Arkansas. We were both fine, but the car was not drivable. A stranger we contacted via Couchsurfing.org led us, by three degrees of separation, to a couple in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who took us in for three days while we figured out what to do next. We ended up renting a U-Haul truck to drive ourselves home – but for the six days that the rental allowed, we continued making our project, dipping into the south and even visiting the eastern shore – or at least the Chesapeake Bay.
So our project was cut short, but we still went through exactly 30 states and visited the 5 places called Bear. We relied on strangers for 40 of our 48 nights – we had one break night, two nights with Sarah’s family in Colorado, and the 5 Bears, where we camped, stayed in a motel, or, for our last night in Bear, Delaware, slept in the back of the U-Haul. We stayed with strangers for 36 of those 40 nights, only failing to find a host in four towns.
In total, we spoke with 711 people around the country. 55% of those people agreed to do an interview with us, and 7% of all those people offered us a place to stay. Of all the people who offered us a place to stay, 51% were male, and 49% were female – the same percentages we discovered at our 30-day update. However, of all the people we spoke to, 47% were male and53% were female, suggesting that women said no to us slightly more often than men. Another interesting fact: If you recall our 30 day update, about 47% of people declined an interview. After our experiences in the South that number is down to 45%; In the two weeks we spent in the South the number of people who agreed to interview was raised by 2.5%.
We stayed with families, grandparents, single men, single mothers, college students, and retired couples. We spoke with people of a wide variety of races and backgrounds, but the majority of the people we stayed with were white and Christian – a tendency that may represent the communities we visited rather than a label of hospitable people.
Every day we spoke with dozens of strangers, on and off camera. Every day, we woke up knowing where we were headed, and nothing else – where we went within a town, who we met, and what adventures we would experience on our own or with our hosts, were all surprises. Every day was completely fresh, as were all the personalities we discovered.
We began this project feeling optimistic about Americans – a friendly, welcoming, and fascinating culture. In our 48 days, our optimism was not only proved correct, but expanded exponentially. Even when we slept in our car, it was after talking to many friendly people and learning about interaction, culture, and kindness. We started with a theoretical faith in the goodness of people and ended with an actual one.
What’s next? In the next couple days, we will each post a personal reflection on the blog –BearDocumentary.blogspot.com. We are beginning to compile our footage, organize it, and create outlines for the structure of the finished film. Soon, we will have a richer website, and we’ll definitely let you know when that happens. And in approximately a year, we will have a film that shows 49 days, the best of 100 hours of footage, and hundreds of Americans, through the lens of two young adventurers and an unbiased camera.
Thank you so much for your interest in our project – whether we met you in the last two months, whether we stayed in your home, whether you supported us months ago – you have made this entire project possible, and you have been essential in representing the kindness of Americans.
Greg and Sarah

American Bear visits Cape Charles, Virginia

Lexington, South Carolina was old, Cape Charles, Virginia was older.

And it felt old.

It felt sea washed. Everything colored like ocean spray and bleached by the sun.

Greg was going to do the approach alone thing. While I sat in a café and worked through his resume, my resume, details for the upcoming month.

But the drive there ended up being almost 8 hours. With traffic and pit stops, we were late and Greg was exhausted. He decided to try going out despite this. Brave boy.

My stomach was hurting from trying the biscuits at Bojangles. So was his.

I sat at the computer, sent out a couple emails, did some virtual organizing, ate a piece of peach pie and chatted with the people walking in to try and find us a home as well.

After forty minutes Greg came back, exhausted from a long conversation with young people at the local bar. He said he felt like he had to try so hard to grab their attention. That he wanted to stay with people who weren’t going to be out partying all night.

So we built the camera and headed toward the beach.

Most people were visitors, but eventually we stumbled onto some locals. A very interesting guy invited us to stay at his squatter house. He said he couldn’t be sure when he’d be home but the door was always unlocked and we could visit whenever we wanted. He gave us directions. He was super friendly, but had plans for the night. Then we met another young guy from the area, he was having a major party at his place and we could come party, and sleep there. When I mentioned release forms, he said he’d have people sign em at the door. Smart. But really… not the best place for fancy equipment.

We told both the boys we’d let them know, that their offers were very generous, but we wanted to keep exploring. As we headed down to the beach we walk bust a very cheerful young man who told us we had just missed the dolphins swimming by as the sun was setting.

We tried to speak with other people but eventually ended up at the end of the beach, talking to that same boy – Stuart for almost 45 minutes about his adventures traveling around this summer.

We told him our story and we got our most enthusiastic yes ever – from an 18 year old whose family was visitng for the week.

He took us home. His younger sister, Caitlin, made us a DELICIOUS salad. His two youngest sisters Brigid and Maureen told us stories, offered us ice cream and kept asking us to watch Elf with them – which we happily did eventually. When his parents came home they were surprised to see us, but distracted by a small vehicle emergency.

We watched the movie, ate some popcorn and chatted with the girls.
Maureen fell asleep and had to be escorted up the stares to bed twice. She came back down after brushing her teeth and going to the bathroom to fall asleep in the room we were all in. Stuart carried her back.

I slept in the extra bedroom on a futon with the tech stuff, Greg was on the couch with the AC (which was so COLD, but he LOVED it).

In the morning Brigid and Greg walked together on a hot chocolate run.

It felt so comfortable, something I am only realizing fully now. We were sort of instantly insiders. Nobody said make yourself at home – but we almost had to. I don’t know why this happened at all. I keep thinking it had to do with Brigid and Maureen and their comfort with us. But also the way weren’t exciting to them as strangers, but rather just someone to sit with and watch a movie. Someone to tell stories to, but not someone to fight over. I felt fine grabbing a blanket from the other room when I was cold, and getting a glass of water. Maybe it was because their family sort of functioned like mine – just a little chaotically.

But it was a great night – and an even better morning.

I think I like getting to know people. Which I suppose is obvious. But I like the conversation that starts to come so easily after doing an interview. I love sharing stories. Listing to Stuart and Mrs. Hickey talk about the ways in which they help strangers and why caused a lot of discussion

After we talked some more Brigid and Maureen ran into the yard with teddy bears – our presents had been discovered! They helped Greg load the car and when Brigid asked for another bear, he gave her one – naming her two Sarah and Greg.

It was awesome.

American Bear visits Lexington, North Carolina

Lexington doesn’t feel old. But it is.

It felt like a place that had recent become a lot slower than it used to be. It was sort of still sweating after a race. And maybe it didn’t win.

Everyone was friendly. Super friendly. I think I beginning to accept that as a normal thing for the places we visit in the South. Finding a home is more difficult, but finding a friendly smile takes only a few seconds. I think about the morning after our night – we stopped at IHOP at 7am and after eating (we had the most friendly waitress since Julie in Bonner’s Ferry) I held the door open for a family coming in. They all, one at a time, turned to me, smiled and said “Good morning, thank you so much.”

But rewind.

We started downtown after an interview with the executive director of the homeless shelter, Gayle. Gayle was super friendly and super empathetic. She had made taking care of people her biggest responsibility, possibly her biggest joy.

Everyone in town was friendly but most had fallen on hard times. We talked to a man who had taken in a friends young daughter to lessen their economic struggle; we talked to a woman who believed that no one else could take care of her, that it was her responsibility to take of herself and no one else; we met a man who talked openly about his sadness at work in a deli rather than making furniture, what he was trained to and enjoyed doing. Everyone seemed to be helping each other.

The first few people declined an interview – but nicely, or at the least not rudely.

We stopped at a country store – one that had been in town for almost 100 years. The local favorite was cheese pimento salad. As we interviewed the manager, then the owner, everyone who came in was buying it. It was bright orange and kind of scary looking, but my curiosity was spiked. So we bought some.

My thoughts: Bleck. And my stomach complained for the rest of the night.

I don’t want to insult a local favorite, but it was just not my style. It was a mushy sort of paste made from mayonnaise, American cheese, sugar and pimentos. A sort of egg salad made of American cheese, but sweet. Thought: If egg salad and jello salad had offspring. Plus cheese.

No one in the store could help us so we decided that we would stop at the Japanese restaurant (A Japanese restaurant? Here?) before heading back to the homeless shelter to chat with a few residents.

That’s where we met Dan, Jimmy and Doug. We walked into the bar and the red walls were covered in a patchwork of paintings. The Shins were playing.

We chatted with the guys for a bit and then Doug – in a half round about way – invited us to stay with him for the night.

Doug was reading a book about zombies after we returned from the homeless shelter. He talked a little bit about racing – citing his home in Milwaukee as responsible. He talked to Greg and I about shows he’d seen.

We talked about performance art and Karen Finley and we contemplated buying some art. The artist, Stewart Knight came by later – check out his work here on Myspace.

It was a very pleasant and entertaining evening. In someways it felt almost weird to be hanging out with people my own age (older, I suppose, but…) again.

That night, we did an interview with Doug. Who told us that he didn’t like facebook because it created false friendships and he described the forming of friendships as a lengthy process. When I asked him to tell us part of his story he explained that we hadn’t earned it yet, that it would be unfair to the people he calls friends, the people who spent the time earning those stories, if he shared with us, and with an audience.

It’s tough for me to explain Doug. Because I think in many ways he was my opposite. He understands that he is guarded and he uses that word – but for him its positive. I am open with everyone, and he is closed. Not rude, or harsh; not the regular connation of those words. He was friendly, just private.

When we asked him why he took us in, it was sort of a mixed thing. He thought of himself last when he went through his list, realizing all of his friends were working super late, had children or no space. He seemed to think of himself as a last resort, and he wasn’t really hesitant, just logical. He said, “I couldn’t lie. I had so much space, “ also, “It was to weird to be bad.” We often wonder if people are making up excuses, or suggesting that in order to carefully avoid us as strangers.

He believed that life experience creates suspicion. That we are born trusting, as children we want to be everyone’s friend. But that experience teaches us how to distrust.

American Bear Visits Atlanta!

Atlanta, Georgia - Is Southern Hospitality really a Myth?
We didnt find a home in Atlanta. I'll tell you that right now.

But we did have an amazing day. We met so many fascinating people.

It was a fast approach day. That means once we get someone to consent to an interview we tell them what we are doing and ask them if they can help us. Then if they are friendly and up for it we follow up by asking all the usual questions.

Everyone had a pretty cynical understanding of trust - we met only a few who seemed to think the world was going to be okay. Jim, a stranger who invited us to see his show at a "creepy David Lynch, Rob zombie bar" with "cheap, strong drinks" and probably would have offered us his floor if he wasn't crashing with a friend himself, said "When you can trust someone, that's when you are truly alive, when you can trust the world. When you can't, you start dying."

"Is the rest of the country trusting?"

"No, not really."

"So do you think we're all dying?"

"A little bit. A little bit."

He said the Southern Hospitality was just a nice way of saying back handed. "Where I come from we shoot people between the eyes, in Atlanta, in the south, they shoot em in the back."

Another man suggested that maybe the hospitality becomes innate. That kindness is habitual even when you don't like somebody. So that makes it seem like a facade, but its not.

But everyone agreed that people in the south are somehow different. I don't know that I felt that really - maybe in the thank yous I got from holding open the door for someone or in the courtesy with which people declined an interview. But that didnt feel all that different from Ohio, except for the drawl.

We met so many friendly people - Atlanta is a beautiful city and I never felt put out, I was never treated rudely - but we ended up without a home.

American Bear visits Tupelo, Missippi

Tupelo, Mississippi - Our first lesson in Southern Hospitality.

We've been arriving late every day of our journey - late meaning no earlier than 4pm. With the time changes working against us, the five hour drives and the necessity of experiencing the occasional tourist oriented peach farm, waffle house or panoramic view 4 has become our new earliest start time.

So we arrived in Tupelo at 4 - We had to television interviews scheduled. Our first, with Julie, happened just after we parked the car. As she was tailing us in her car (lucky her, air conditioning would have been amazing), we ran into our first strangers. Brock and Scott. And of course Scott's sweet dog, Belle.

They said yes the second they heard the question and Scott got really excited about having an amazing interview later that night with his roommate Eric, his friend who is a poet by nature, not trade, and a few other friends. And so did we.

The guys mentioned southern hospitality without so much as a hint. "Its just another way of living, " they explained to us, "People here are just raised better."

After we asked our big question, Scott jumped at the opportunity to walk us to his house just a few blocks away from downtown. So we all trotted down there. On the way Scott asked "You guys are clean right?" We nodded, no drugs here. "I am a recovering addict, so I always ask, just to be safe." Brock nodded, "Me too." It was amazing that they were so open and so clear about what was allowed in their home.

When we got back to the house Jennifer was sitting on the couch. Scott said teasingly, "She's a Yankee too, you guys ought to get along." Jennifer was from Wisconsin. It's amazing for me to be able to connect to so many people on the basis of place. Just knowing where someone is from is an easy way to form a connection. And perhaps I feel more that way because hardly anyone knows where I am from, but there is something really cool about being able to say "Yeah! I've been there." or "Yeah, I drove through there on my way across the state." So Jennifer and I bonded over Wisconsin.

Then we had to go to our other interview. Our interviewer, Chad, had a full time job at the local Baptist news station and a part time job for the company that he was making our piece for. He was super friendly, energetic and excitable. He didnt fail to remind us that we were in the bible belt, that people might not take so kindly to the idea of us sharing a bed.

We went back to Scotts, ready for whatever they had planned. We ordered pizza, talked more, watched a movie. Scott kept calling me "darlin" and we talked about the southern drawl. Brock and Scott both agreed that the people on TV never get it right.

The evening interview was amazing as promised - even when it was interrupted by some very drunk friends doing impressions of a Mississppi stereotype. Both Chad the interviewer, Scott our host and his friend Nick with a jiggle in his shoes seemed to think that the rest of the world thought that everyone in Mississippi was a shoeless hillbilly or hick. Greg and I laughed at that. Perhaps we were fortunate to miss that somewhere along the line, but it sure was amazing to see the impression. Especially for me because Nick took his shoes off behind my chair as I was filming and came out with his pants rolled up.

Scott kept referring to himself as country (adjective not noun) and when Greg asked what that meant to him, he hesitated. Someone offered up, "hick" and he didn't like that much. He said, "maybe its slower." In my understanding, being country just means your lifestyle is different, you were raised a little bit differently than the rest of the world (but aren't we all?) - maybe its the roots of Southern Hospitality, a sort of pride in your culture.

Brock seemed to get a little frustrated at the way the interview shifted into mayhem. And yes, I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to explore more of those ideas, but I don't think I've seen Greg laugh so hard during our entire trip.

Brock went to bed early, he was starting his new job at 6am. Scott fell asleep on the couch and Eric, Greg and I stayed up watching a movie.

It was a wonderful night. Totally American - and totally a lesson.

As Scott tiptoed off to bed a little later, he turned to me "G'night Darlin'".

American Bear's Time in Hot Springs

Let me tell you about Tom and Becky.

Tom and Becky came to us from nowhere. Or rather, through a distant connection.
We had originally intended on going to Fayetteville the day after our accident. In Fayetteville, we had arranged one of our few couch surfing nights. Philip, our host for our evening in Fayetteville made some calls for us when we called to cancel. He called a friend whose parents lived in Hot Springs - those parents: Becky and Tom.

So our stranger for the night called a friend who called her parents and we had a phone call from Tom asking what he could do to help.

Greg told him our dilemma - we have no way to drive, no room to stay in and no place to go.

He said - I'll come pick you up in fifteen minutes.

Tom and Becky fed us (most nights delicious vegetarian food), housed us, let us print new directions, do our laundry, swim in their pool, use their internet. They took us on a boat ride on the lake, we got to play music together - a small recital of sorts.

This was a totally unique situation, because for the first time, we NEEDED help. For the first time we didn't have a car to sleep in.

It was kind of a break - but filled with phone calls and organization; planning and trying to figure out how we were going to get home.

After three days with them we felt much better. And now we had the resources to go and the arrangements all lined up.

So with a hug, we said goodbye.

American Bear in Oklahoma

Albion and Talihina Ohklahoma

It’s strange writing this so long after it happened. And with a mindset so different from only a few days ago.

I remember that I wanted to note that our day in Oklahoma was a day of peaches. We ate four peaches that we bought in Texas but didn’t try until we had pulled into the parking lot of a milkshake place in Oklahoma. Peaches are by far my favorite fruit and these peaches were ripe and perfect. I think I’ve converted Greg – he wants peaches everywhere we stop now.

Then, in a small country store in Albion (the only business in town, up a hill and attached to this couples house) was a collection of peach scented everything: soap, shampoo, lotion. In the bathroom: peach hand soap. In Pam’s Hateful Hussy Diner in Talihina, peach hand soap. I don’t really know what this means or how it relates to our day there, but it made me excited and it was a recurring theme. Later, at the grocery store, peach nehi soda – I bought one, remember my dad’s stories about nehi. It tasted like each jello , the kind we used to make when I was little. The kind that I still make.

As hinted, we started in Albion, the tiniest town on our itinerary. Population: 146. The main strip of the town was deserted, and when I say main strip I mean the few scattered houses and boarded up businesses. We knew we would try the post office but we thought we’d start at the Bent Can – the country store. When we arrived there was a man buying some canned fruit. We waited for him to purchase his items and then started talking to the owner – who was originally from Denver.

We had chosen a camera-less approach for the day, so there was no asking whether or not she was up for an interview. But we asked the same questions. She was friendly, if a little twitchy. She had moved here to escape her relatives, something she was very animated about. She loved Denver and she would much rather be there than Albion if it weren’t for her family. And all I could think about was how much I missed mine.

We talked to with her and her husband, Eli for over an hour. And then we told them what we were doing. And she froze up. She said, Sorry. No space.” She asked if we had a tent, then Eli said we shouldn’t sleep in a tent because we might get eaten up by chiggers. In high school I had a history professor who had chigger eggs laid in his arm, leaving scars that I never wanted to see on my own arm. I cringed and then told Greg what they were.

As we were leaving she said, “Sorry I can’t. Like I said, we have company.” Greg and I looked at each other and then went to the post office. Which was closed. And that was all we could do in Albion short of knocking on doors. Which would have been a difficult thing there, because I would have wanted to avoid the homes with chipboard for windows – and that doesn’t seem quite fair.

So we made our way to Talihina. 9 miles away.

Before we got far we saw a couple of young Mormon men strapping their bikes to a car on their way home. I stopped to chat. They were friendly and talkative and had good stories to tell. In a sense they basically do what we do every day – except they do knock on doors (though they have time to knock on everyone) and they have more of a mission than we do.

We went to the grocery store – most everyone was willing to strike up a conversation, but we couldn’t find anyone to take us home. Though we gave out a few cards.

Then we stumbled into Pam’s Diner – full name: Pam’s Hateful Hussy Diner.

We just wanted to fill our water bottles but got nabbed by the pie. We had a slicof coconut meringue. It wasn’t made in house and it wasn’t anything amazing. We told our waitress what we were up to. She took our card and about five minutes a smiling face arrived at our table, “You can stay with me. It’s just me and my two girls, but I don’t mind havin ya, “ a cheerful voice said. I turned to see Amber smiling at us. She grinned as we said, “Really? That would be great!” and then she said be right back and disappeared. As we waited (we had finished out pie), Amber’s mother, Pam (THE Pam) came and chatted with us. She did a full background check, not quite so subtly as checks we’ve had in the past, very upfront and direct with her questions. We told her what we were up to. “Well we don’t got much, but what we have we share,” said Pam about the town, herself, her daughter. We told her we’d be very grateful for just a floor – we’re low maintenance after all. “Well, we’ll work
something out, “ she said before disappearing herself.

We sat there confused. It seemed like Pam didn’t want us staying with Amber. We had no idea what was going on. We had finished out pie. Should we order more food? Should we leave?

Eventually Amber returned to us. “My mom says she’ll put ya’ll up in a motel.” We

Somehow it became clear that we wanted to stay with Amber. And somehow her mother became okay with that.

And then we got to meet Laney and Alyssa – ages 6 and 9. Very friendly girls with very different personalities and very different appearances.
We stuck around to eat dinner and talk to Amber’s friend Ron who offered to take us parasailing.

That night we had a very long conversation with Amber who spoke openly about her past and her future. She discussed her previous addiction to drugs and her struggle to get over it, her relationship to god, her mother and her girls. She cried when she told us how bad she felt and how much she loved her family; she showed us some of her her poetry; and she and I played with bendaroos as we talked (I called them wiki stix – one of my favorite toys when I was little) . We talked with the girls a bit too – they showed me some tricks with the bendaroos and kept asking Amber to do the “glow stick trick”.

So she did. We went into her bedroom and she brought four glow sticks with her – green, pink, blue and yellow. She poked holes with a push pin in four places on the top of each one and she and I shook the neon liquid all over the place. Like Pollock. Like wild children. Then Greg and the girls came in and we turned off the lights. And the whole room glowed. Colorful stars made three dimensional shapes. The kids rolled in it, then they stood out. It was spectacular. And kind of smelly.
Amber was an amazing host. She slept on the couch so we could share a bed. But she didn’t let us know she was doing it until it was too late. She fed us snacks. She took us to breakfast in the morning.

Amber didn’t talk to us before she said yes. She didn’t worry that it was just her and two young girls. She trusted automatically. And that was amazing.
We said our goodbyes, the thank you’s and Amber’s kind words – “thanks for reminding me that its okay to trust people, “ a bendaroo version of Alyssa for our dashboard and hugs all around. As we were walking away Amber stopped us, “Drive safely,” she said, and then, “If you need anything I have a friend who owns a garage.” We smiled and walked on.

After the car accident, I called her (she had actually called me first, just to check in), I told her we’d been in an accident and she said, “I am glad you are okay , “ and then, “I don’t know why but I had a feeling about ya’ll.”
The accident feels eerie to me. Because of Amber’s feeling, because it happened in Bear, in the center of Bear, exactly where mapquest said Bear was. Because I have no idea how it happened – a mistake, a simple mistake, a mistake that I would not make. And here we are. A few days in Hot Springs and driving our U-Haul across the country.

Stories about our rescue-ers Tom and Becky to follow.

Onward and Upward

After a lot of deliberation and phone calls, we've decided to rent a U-Haul truck and drive home to New Jersey. We can't get a standard rental car because 1) Sarah isn't driving since she just got in an accident and 2) I'm under 21. The U-Haul gives us plenty of space (a 14 foot truck is the smallest vehicle they had available...), and has no age restriction. We get 6 days and about 1500 miles to get from Hot Springs, AR, to Morristown, NJ, which provides some leeway -- we're not getting down to New Orleans, or out to the coast, as we had planned, but we are going to wrap through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and up the Eastern states. We'll be driving about five hours a day, but still doing our project each afternoon.

The car is still in a garage in Hot Springs. The claims representative should be there in the next couple days to decide if it's totaled, or if it will be repaired and hopefully my dad and I will come get it and drive it home in a couple weeks.

We've been staying with Tom and Becky, incredibly generous hosts who contacted us after our CouchSurfing host in Fayetteville made some phone calls. In other words, they were complete strangers who reached out to us when we were actually in need of help. We have one last night here tonight before picking up the truck tomorrow morning.

The bright side is that we can continue making the project, if only for six more days, cutting the trip down to a total of 47 days instead of 60. Thank you so much to everyone's help -- we called dozens of people when we initially thought we might hop from planned stranger to planned stranger, and received a ton of help and contacts through Tennessee, Kentucky, and beyond. Ultimately, renting the truck was the quickest and most practical solution, but we will not forget the incredible responses and help we received.

The accident gets wrapped up. It occurred precisely where the center of Bear, Arkansas is, according to the directions: the intersection of Brady Mountain Road and Owl Creek Road. Hard to see the damage on our vehicle; and the other car is hiding behind the Sheriff's car. But it's in the movie.

And soon, we'll have a post to catch up on Day 38 in Oklahoma, plus some of the pictures from the last couple weeks -- the Grand Canyon, the glow-stick-trick, and the Hateful Hussy.

Day 39: Bear, AR

We had been in Bear, Arkansas for about seven minutes. We drove down the road that Mapquest told us to drive down; we saw the old church, now boarded up, but it does say "Bear, Arkansas, Est. 1934." We were headed across the road, easing out from a stop sign, when we got in the accident.

The car was probably going at 45 mph when Corey, the driver, slammed the brakes, noticing us crossing the street. He hit the passenger side -- where I was sitting. And filming. We haven't watched the footage yet.

We got slammed, ran over a stop sign, and came to a stop in the bushes. Corey's pickup truck was pushed up against us too.

Our passenger door was pretty banged in; the front right tire bent at an angle; both car doors have trouble opening. Corey, 18 and extremely friendly, drove a small GMC, and the hood and lights were obliterated, and the driver's door couldn't open.

We are all fine. I have a bruise on my head from having it banged against the window. The car is probably totaled. Doug, who towed our car to the garage, drove us to a hotel as well. The future is a mystery, and we need dinner and cold showers before anything else.
And this is after another phenomenal night, staying with Amber and her two daughters in Talihina, Oklahoma last night. That blog entry will still come. But maybe after we've had a long discussion about what's next.

American Bear visits Dallas and Paris in July

Dallas, TX -

We officially had our best meal of the entire trip (restaurants included) with EZ and Jules in Dallas.

EZ made vegetarian tacos - each ingredient was cared for and spiced and perfect. The options for taco insides: applewood smoked zuccini, portabella mushrooms, poblano peppers, bell peppers jalepenos, and chiles; oaxacan cheese; a bean concotion that was full of complex flavors; and homemade guacamole. Jules had warmed blue corn tortillas in a pan on the stove. We had a texas blonde ale as we stood around the kitchen and a yummy white wine with the meal.

Greg and I have had a lot of uninentional vegetarian food. But this was a meal of intention. And it was amazing. I could not stop eating.

Jule and EZ were both super friendly and playful (each in their own way). I loved watching Jules walk on the high ledge of garden planters and touch all of the plants that looked like they had an interesting texture. EZ told great stories and talked so openly about his love for Jules. Jules later told us about the way that EZ wrote - his letters like poetry.
Greg and I had so much fun. We got to see a lot of the parts of Dallas that we wouldnt have discovered on our own. I feel like I could live there - as long as I could still hang out with Jules and EZ.

EZ told many stories about helping strangers and Jules talked about how her family was so much different than EZ's - almost an opposite. They both talked about their pasts as huge contributions to their feelings towards others. And of course this is something we all understand but it is also something very important. Our families help shape us in such huge ways.

Paris, TX
I think the people in Paris are the friendliest we've encountered. Everyone we talked to sort of took responsibility for us, they became invested in our safety. Our first experience there (always influential on the outcome of the day) was at the public Library. I had an interview with KNPR and they needed a landline. A couple of days before hand Greg had called to see if they could he us. And the director, Priscilla had very generously offered to lend us her office. When we got there everyone was super nice.

Priscilla was friendly and offered to put us up if had some bad luck. And we met Leigh who
offered the same and had us follow her to a place to get an oild change on her way out because she was worried her directions might be bad. Priscilla called the local newspaper to get someone to do a story on us. Both woman were super energetic and friendly and funny and kind.

We got our oil changed at Paris Express Car Care (The Penzoil place across from Wal-Mart). For everyone in Paris - THESE GUYS ARE AMAZING. We mostly talked to the manager, Matt who was super friendly and did a lot of extra stuff for us for free. He was so nice and gave us safety advice as well as teaching us a few quick fixes for our car. So if you are ever in Paris, TX - go visit these guys. and the Library.

We had lunch and our waiter was super friendly, young and hospitable and funny.

We of course visit the eiffel tower.

Finally we made it to the downtown area to talk to some strangers. First stopping at Paris, Baby. A small baby botique. One of the co-owners was working and she was super friendly, offering to find us a place and (later we discovered) making her facebook status about our project, we got about three text messages later in the afternoon. We went to the wine shop - the only local place to buy alcohol for the last 30 years, because Paris had been a dry town until very recently. The son of the owner was super nice, talking to us for nearly 45 minutes and giving me a glass of very cold, very sweet, white wine. His pregnant wife was super nice too and had some ideas for us.

Eventually we found our way into Spanglers. Where we met John. John was friendly and spoke openly about the fact that he felt like America and Americans had changed - they were no longer true Americans. Usually I can tell when someone is going to take us in. I am almost always right. I wasnt sure about John though, and after some funny miscommunication - with Greg's phrasing and John's only occasionally poor hearing, John did not understand what we were asking. Greg, in our usually follow up question said, "So why didnt you invite us into your home" And John said, "What? Oh, I am sorry. " and then "I think that would be fine."

After a bit of faltering and explaining, we met his wife Stella, who also smiled and agreed right away.

John took us on a small tour of the area - we saw the factories and the other neighboorhoods and the Jesus in cowboy boots in the cemetary.

When we got home we waited for a bit for Stella and she came home with Mark, a friend of theirs who they had sort of adopted into their family.

The five of us went for Mexican food and conversation.

Then we talked inthe parking lot for a long while.

Then we talked over dessert.

It was a lot of interesting conversation.

John is an ex-rancher turned mortician turned local downtown shop owner. We heard about the time he contracted TB from a corpse, a time where he contacted another very painful disease from a corpse. We talked to Mark about his time in Alaska and his family.

Lesson of the day: surprises. The evening just kep suprising us. We kept stumbling into interesting conversation. An even John and Stella were a suprise. Because we thought they'd said no and then they said yes. Two days ago we had the opposite, but this feels much better.

American Bear Day 34 and 35: Clarendon and Wichita Falls, TX

Our scheduled stop after Clayton, NM, was Vega, TX, but with an early start leaving Clayton and a longer drive scheduled for the following day, we decided to head a bit farther – an hour past Vega was a town called Goodnight, which we got pretty excited about. But when we drove through Goodnight we discovered it was just a handful of homes, and the Wikipedia article suggests it only has 35 residents. So we continued to the next town, Clarendon, still fairly early in the afternoon.

A small Christian-flavored town on a Sunday, meaning only the chain restaurants on the highway were open. We started at the grocery store, but were told with no good humor that we couldn’t film in the store or even the parking lot. At the Clarendon Outpost, attached to a gas station, we only encountered travelers and the friendly manager, who said in Clarendon, you’re either Christian or you’re nobody. He happens to be one of the only non-Christians in the area, and wonderfully candid. His space was too small to host us, but he offered us dinner at the store if we came back later.

At the Dairy Queen, we met a local farmer who directed us to the Methodist Church. We happened to be wearing our crosses in Clarendon, our second time doing this mini-experiment, and as we got closer to the church, we felt the weight of the crosses more and more. The church was empty, but we met a woman across the street whose husband takes care of the church; they recommended we visit the new pastor who lives in the parsonage next-door.

So, for the first time, we knocked on a door. Lloyd opened it, taken aback, and a bit bewildered by the camera, which he often referred to as our “contraption” later on. He invited us into his living room – the house was beautiful and spacious, but Lloyd and Shirley were still moving in, with boxes waiting in almost every room. We conducted a pretty straightforward interview with Lloyd, and he spoke brilliantly about people’s inclination to trust, and the media’s exposure of violence and the dark side of the news being somewhat responsible for growing suspicion among Americans. Eventually, we had to tell him more about our project; and after asking if we had found a place for the night, he asked Shirley, and they agreed that we could stay with them.

This was our first time trying a church directly, and knocking on a door; we had expected that speaking to a pastor might lead to him calling a family from the congregation to host us, but Lloyd was glad to help us himself. We talked in the living room for hours – and Sarah and I quickly came to terms with the guilt of our crosses, describing to the Methodist pastor that the crosses were only part of an experiment. Lloyd didn’t seem bothered; he said he noticed them, but that the camera and my shirt reading THINK stood out much more. Again, it seems that our crosses made no difference; although we were led to believe that Clarendon is an overwhelmingly Christian community, none of the people we spoke to wore crosses either – as Lloyd said, it’s just a piece of jewelry.

Lloyd, Shirley, Sarah, and I put together a bit of a potluck dinner. We brought our chips, salsa, carrots, hummus, and peaches in, to share with their quesadillas, chicken salad, watermelon, cheese, and crackers. It was an excellent meal, and the conversation just continued. Lloyd described his belief that everything we do prepares us for where we are now; our life is like a tapestry, and although sometimes we only see the ragged back of the tapestry, God and others see the beautiful front.

We talked about the violence and sex spoiling so many movies, and we watched a movie on the Hallmark Channel that was full of positive morals, family values, and was also extremely cute. Afterwards, Sarah and I went to bed – in separate bedrooms.

In the morning, we visited the church with Lloyd and Shirley, then they took us to the VFW breakfast, where a low price brings in a steady stream of regulars and cooks up some great food. It was a wonderful way to cap our Clarendon experience, noting the great community vibes, and having another hour to chat with Lloyd and Shirley. A couple hours after we left, I longed to be back with them – it was one of our most comfortable nights.

We headed east to Wichita Falls. Our first stop was a Carl’s Jr. right off the highway to meet Jason, a cameraman for a news station. He did an interview with us and then filmed us filming our first interview of the day, with Francine, the extremely friendly cashier at Carl’s Jr. She told me the food would make my mouth happy, and from then on I was pretty sure she was making me just as happy as that banana chocolate chip milkshake. After a great conversation, she said we could stay at her house; she took care of 6-year-old twins, and we could come stay with them after Bible study, around 9pm. She warned us that she gets up at 4am, and gets the kids up at 6am – no strangers to an early morning, we looked forward to seeing her again. We were to call at 8:30pm to check timing for coming over.

We headed into town to meet some more people and learn more about the community. Most people were friendly, and we met two people who couldn’t host us, but were eager to call a friend on our behalf – we felt awful interrupting them to explain that we already had a host. Our last interview of the day, Debbie, described that people are scared of what they don’t know. She said she’s scared of swimming in a lake; if it was clear to the bottom, she wouldn’t be scared, but since she can’t see what’s in there, she’s not comfortable with going in. People are the same.

We took a little break, then headed over to Subway for dinner – it was 8:30, so Sarah called Francine and left a voicemail. We ate our sandwich; the sun disappeared. We drove to the other side of town to be closer to Francine’s house when she called back; but she didn’t, so we called again at 9:30 and left another voicemail. We met some guys in the gas station parking lot who were traveling from Ohio to L.A. We quietly weighed our options as our excitement about Francine deteriorated. At 10:15pm, we received a voicemail from her, describing that she had to drive someone else home, and now it was late, and we should take a raincheck. We called back – no answer.

We can speculate, of course – maybe she got nervous. Maybe someone told her we could be axe murderers (a popular phrase around here). Or maybe she just didn’t understand that our project needed her – that a “raincheck” meant we had nowhere to stay. If she had been nervous all along, why did she say yes? Why did she wait until late at night to let us know? And what would have happened if we had answered her call instead of just missing it and letting it go to voicemail?

We had met people who would have found us a home, but after 10pm, it’s too late to call. The timing just wasn’t in our favor. But I was somehow full of energy, and, anticipating our long day in Dallas, decided to drive the two hours from Wichita Falls our to Dallas-Fort Worth to find a Wal-Mart parking lot for the night.

Sarah napped; I sang along to Fountains of Wayne and Vampire Weekend; and we settled into Wal-Mart at 12:15am. We got up at 6 to transfer footage and do some producing in the Chick-Fil-A nearby. In an hour, we’ll drive half an hour to reach the SMU campus for the first of four interviews with professors there. Tonight, we’ve got our host lined up already via CouchSurfing, taking some pressure off the day. We spoke to him on the phone yesterday, and I’m excited to help him make a spicy vegetarian dinner. But I wonder if our Wichita Falls experience will have a ripple effect – that it will make us a little less trusting too.

American Bear, Day 33: Clayton, NM

We are still sitting on the porch with our hosts for the evening. Telling stories, seeking advice.

Judith and Robert were the first people we met in Clayton. They sort of found us, not pandering to the camera, but casting a curious eye in our direction.

I think you can see when someone is going to invite you over before they actually do. Their eyes change when they hear the premise. Sometimes, we get shock, sometimes fear, sometimes surprise, but the people who take us in I think express one of two things (usually the first) 1- excitement or 2- concern.

Judith and Robert were most definitely excited, or intrigued.  I can't wait to string our usual reactions together and end with Judith, gasping with excitement.

Judy and Robert live in a beautiful prairie style house - with bright colored glass in the lighting panels upstairs and beautiful almost-period furniture in some rooms. It's symmetrical and filled with character.

At dinner later they would tell the story of me bending over the camera in the store - they were watching and thought I was maybe a classmate of one of their children with a newly born baby. Their curious glances weren't even about the camera, but sort of an interest in the community. A curiousity rooted in care.

Today has been an incredibly relaxing night. The conversation continuous and varied - we learned so much about the area, had a chance to lightly talk politics and ate a delicious meal (including dessert!).

Robbie and I chatted briefly about the physics of fate and we all got excited talking about the journey. As our first night after our one-day break, we couldn't have asked for anything better. But as a town, Clayton seems to have a lot to offer: we only spent an hour talking to people in the grocery store before we headed over to the house for dinner, but everyone we met was very friendly, even when they declined to do an interview. And we had fun seeing the manager, Janet, between interviews, to get the scoop on who we just spoke to, to fill in our experience. For most people, faith is a huge part of the town, but as in Grangeville, Idaho, the people who took us in were political and religious outliers in their town: in this case, Democrats and cultural Christians rather than by-the-book believers.

Robbie told us several times that the main reason he felt comfortable with us is that we looked like his kids. White, well-spoken, and clean-cut? It made me think about how few people we've stayed with have looked like my parents, or acted like them, or felt like them. By doing this project, we're purposefully not looking for people who attract us because they seem familiar, and therefore trustworthy. We're looking for anyone. Many people cite our clean-cut and friendly appearance as helping them trust us, but no one has said it in such a personal way: you look like my kids. I thought about Milton, the Navajo Indian in Arizona, who told his wife he was bringing home two white kids. I thought about the two African-American women we spoke to in Chicago: they were all about their openness, their community, their generosity, but when it came down to sharing that with us, they told us we wouldn't be comfortable in their community; we weren't like them. Familiar appearances have become a theme in our experiences, but they're both positive and negative, inspiring more trust with some and less trust with others. When our appearance as outsiders (due to geographic location or race) has made people resistant to us, it's not only about trust, but about their preconceptions about who we are, as in, outsiders don't understand ____. In some small towns, it feels like we're slowly cracking our way in. In others, it feels like we're welcomed immediately.

Tonight, we have our own bedroom, bathroom, and we're even going to bed earlier than usual. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But we've never had a day that wasn't interesting. Driving away from Alamosa, we were longing for a week of vacation. But we found the perfect night to get us re-energized about our adventure. Trust and kindness is in every town in the country, we have no doubt about that. The why, the how, and the people who make it happen: that's the exciting part.

American Bear, Day 31 and 32: Colorado and a fresh face

We hit Durango, Colorado two days ago at about 3pm, our scheduled stop for the day. Sarah's hometown of Alamosa is only three hours away, and we've always planned to visit her family and take a brief break there. But all day towards Durango, we were both quietly thinking that heading all the way to Alamosa would give us a couple more hours of break... So we decided to mull it over during our late lunch in Durango. The second we stepped out of the car, we met Bob, who later on refilled our parking meter and left his phone number in case we didn't find a place to stay in Durango. Then, at lunch, we ended up talking to Carl for almost three hours, about aliens, photography, and the dark side of Portland. Everyone we met was extremely friendly, and it sort of made us both feel more comfortable about taking that extra break -- we had experienced the kindness of Durango, even if it was mostly off camera. And besides, we've barely taken a break, and driving three more hours was worth it if it meant we didn't have to drive three hours the next day.

We arrived at Sarah's house at 9:40pm to surprise her family. It was so relaxing to have good food, our own bed, a familiar shower, to watch TV. A typical summer vacation. And of course, our "break" still included some filming, transferring footage, doing laundy. We recharged. And had a wonderful time. It makes me feel like the next 28 days will fly by. We've had glimpse of the end, of when the whirlwind trip is over, and although we haven't lost any excitement for this project, I think we're both more excited for the end than we were before we remembered what relaxing is.

Several months ago, Sarah and I began talking about shaving my beard. It originally came up as a potential mini-experiment, to shave in the middle of the project to see how people interact and trust me differently with and without a big bushy beard. At this point, I think we've determined that it doesn't really make a difference; my friendly smile and our positive energy outweighs a scraggly beard. But it was on the itinerary. And Sarah, along with anyone I've met in the last several years, has never seen my face before. So we did it.

I barely recognize myself, a very odd feeling when I consider that this is my face, the one I've had my whole life, the face I ought to be more attached to than my beard.

American Bear Day 30: Tuba City

Tuba City - sounds like it belongs nestled in the big open bowl of a tuba. But I think even the shiny gold of a tuba is duller than the colors here and probably much wetter. Though most of the homes were nestled against the curving hillside, it was no tuba we were looking at - it was a folded, holey landscape - maybe a harmonica or an accordian. Or a set of pipes woven with wool.

I love dry land. I have lived in a desert all my life and this feels comfortable. But I forget how chapped my lips get and how my skin starts to feel like dry clay.

I think we were scared of Tuba City. Our first encounter was with some intense, drunk, stumbling hecklers at the "dinosaur tracks". We pulled off the highway just a few miles before the city because I am very much interested in dinosaurs. I want to see dinosaur foot prints. Before we had even parked completely there were two men at Greg's window arguing over who got to give us the tour.

They said it was free, except for tips.

Finally, I said, "look if you guys can't stop, we are just going to go."
"Fine, just remember to tell them about the jewelry..." So a single man led us towards the red desert. And there were dinosaur tracks alright. Tons of them, in different kinds. It was actually pretty cool, but the visuals kept being interrupted by the stumbling broken sentences of our guide. He kept missing words, asked us three times where we were from and each time had a different response, "I used to live there," "I went skiing there once," "Ah, I hear it's beautiful." He tried to draw the outline of the less visible footprints with a water bottle, but what was left behind was just a lot of curling dots that obscured what we could already see.
The whole time he was talking about money. He awkwardly tried to get us to bribe him to see the t-rex tracks.

Back at the car he said he usually got a lot from people with cameras. I had two ones, a ten and a twenty. We had been on the sand bed for all of 7 minutes. I asked if he had a five (he had taken out his money during the tour to count it and I knew he had exactly 55 dollars), he said no. He brought out his money, said "Only twenties" and fanned it, revealing a five and a ten. "I saw the five out there. And I can see it now. It's up to you. I have two ones or you can give me that five for my ten." "I usually get more than that." "If you had been honest I probably wouldn't mind giving you more than that, but you weren't. You want this or not." "Nah." I handed him the two ones, feeling guilty but also frustrated at this drunk man trying to hassle me. "Dont forget to look at the jewelry, " he said, and then punched the car door as we drove away.

And so with that we toured out town. We discovered a museum, a trading post, a McDonalds, a Taco Bell, and tons of boarded up houses.

Today was a special day. I was going out alone, with just audio and a notebook, so Greg could transfer footage from our trip to Bear. I was nervous. And I am very rarely nervous.

I started at the museum. The woman I spoke to was nervous and shy. She said she couldn't but sent me to a manager. The manager wasn't in her office, so I ended up at a general store.

There I met Milton. He was the first person to agree to an interview. and the first person to say yes. He called his wife.

"I am with this crazy white girl and she wants to stay at our place tonight."
I nod.
"She says what if you kill us?"
"I promise I wont kill you."
"She says she promises she won't kill you."
They talk in Navajo for a while.
"She says yes."

And so I reported back to Greg and we spent three more hours in Taco Bell doing some producing and tech stuff. We met two very friendly girls named Kiana and Tiffany.
At 8 pm we still hadn't heard from Milton, so I called.

He said his tour was running late. Expect him at 10pm.

So we went to the Grand Canyon as fast as we could - stopping at Little Colorado River Canyon just in case we missed it. We were chasing the sun - speeding down the road towards the fading light.

It was beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful thing I have seen on our trip - and there have been a lot of beautiful things. Tiana had asked us in Taco Bell just a couple hours before - and we had cited the Badlands, the lake in Montana, the hills in Bear, Washington. But the Grand Canyon on fire - with the brightest reds and oranges fading into the deepest blues I have ever seen. After running down the slope to a view point. After speeding down the road. After listening to good music. That is a sight to see.

At 10:15pm we still hadn't heard from Milton, so I called.

He said the tour was still running behind. Expect him in 45 minutes. At a gas station.

Greg was getting nervous. The postponing of time and defnitely the fact that he had never seen or heard Milton, made for an eventful 45 minutes.

We went over safety procedures again, we made a backup plan. We brushed our teeth in the sketchy gas station bathrooms.

Then Milton arrived and we followed him home. The second Greg set foot in the door, I felt him ease up.

Milton's wife Lynette had to go to bed early and their son Tanner was asleep already, so the three of us sat outside under the stars for 2 hours.

We talked about art - about his photographs, some so vivid and crisp and swirling they looked like oil paintings - we talked about aliens and spirits - skin walkers and other worlds. We shared beer from the brewing company a few days past. We saw shooting stars.

In the morning we talked more - with Tanner on Milton's lap talking about bugs and heat and his older brother. Greg talked extensively about his nervousness and his fear. Why seeing someone is so important. We learned about the other side for just a second. The idea of not really knowing who we were staying with really frightened him. I am sitting next to Greg and he has two things to say, 1 - " I was a-scared" and 2-" four corners, schmore-corners. I'll just have to go to five corners now. Take that!" (we just passed the four corners monument on our way to colorado and it's closed...)

His discomfort was less about never seeing him perhaps and more about the way that our time to meet him was being pushed back. The mystery involved in those changes really made him nervous. It was a little hard to gauge. But in the end it was a great night.