American Bear, Day 24: Bear, Idaho

Bear, ID used to have a schoolhouse, a post office, a store – it was a mining community dating back to the early 1900s. The schoolhouse still stands as a community hall, with a little merry-go-round, swings, and His and Hers outhouses – supplemented by modern Porter Potties now. The other public places have disappeared, but a couple ranching families still live there year-round, as well as a few dozen summer residents. There are even signs for “Bear” and mile markers on the way, making it much more high-profile than Bear, Washington, if still the smallest community passing for a town that we’ve seen.


Outside the schoolhouse.


In the Hers outhouse.

As we headed towards Bear, we had a lot of fun noting the similarities between the two Bears we’ve visited so far: wildflowers, rolling hills, farmland, cows. We got out a couple times and Sarah collected some flowers to hang in the car. After exploring the schoolhouse property, which now features a bulletin board reading “It’s A Short Walk From Bear To Heaven,” we continued up the main dirt road until we reached Bear Ranch. We decided to turn up the driveway.

The road led us to two cabins, with about six dogs on short chains, barking like mad; we knocked on the cabin doors, then backed up to an offshoot of the driveway, with a sign saying “Ommen.” It led us to another cabin, and a man sitting on his porch. I was nervous; Sarah was determined; we got out of the car, camera and all, and met Larry Ommen, then his wife Judy Ommen, and ended up sitting on their porch for over an hour. Retired from a power company and kiwi ranch in California, Larry and Judy now spend their summers in Bear and their winters in the Baja peninsula, right on the ocean. This was our first experience approaching strangers at their home, and we were amazed by how welcoming Larry and Judy were, immediately agreeing to speak with us, offering us water and a bathroom. We learned about their lives, their daughters, and the area, and they recommended who to visit in Bear and the scenic route through the mountains to the next town, Cuprum. We were disappointed to move on, but maybe we’ll find Larry and Judy in Baja someday.

We knocked on the door of a woman named Tina, who used to be the schoolteacher in Bear. Larry and Judy said she was fascinating, full of energy, and rich with history and stories about Bear. Unfortunately, she wasn’t home. So we continued up the road, and just after Tina’s house, maybe 150 feet from the road, we saw a bear. We jerked the camera on, pulled over, got out, and watched this teenage black bear sniff around and jog up a hill. We’ve been hoping to see a bear this whole trip, and where better to find one than Bear itself?


A field of wildflowers in Bear; the mountains in the distance are in Oregon.


Between Bear and Cuprum.

We drove a great long circle on a rough dirt road (the car has never looked more rugged) until we reached Cuprum. The “Welcome to Cuprum” sign proudly states the population of 8 people; there are a few more who come for the summer, but only 8 live year-round, including the owner of the one shop, where we bought ice cream bars and took pictures with Bill, a stuffed mannequin.


Greg and Bill in the store in Cuprum.

We’ve chosen to use the Bear days for reflection; we also shoot enough to fill up our video cards, so rather than seeking strangers to stay with in the Bears, we go our own way. In Bear, WA, we stayed in a motel to do some editing and re-evaluate the footage we’re getting. Last night, we decided to camp, and after speaking to some folks in Council, we learned we could pitch our tent in the town park, with public restrooms just a block away. Council is about 35 miles from Bear and the closest full-fledged town. We’re at a coffee shop in Council now to transfer footage and use the internet.

In the last few days we’ve started doing mini-experiments to test some variables in our interactions with strangers. In Couer D’Alene, we got sloppy: making our clothes and skin visibly dirty, messy hair, mismatched clothes. We anticipated that our messy appearance would repel some people; or maybe make some people more hospitable if they figured we desperately needed a home and a shower. But with one exception, we don’t think we received special treatment at all. In fact, we ended up staying at Amber and Cortney’s home, the cleanest, newest house we’ve stayed in. We asked some people about our appearance, and they usually said they didn’t even notice it. Wondering if the camera distracts from our appearance, we’ll do a camera-less approach next time we purposefully look sloppy.

The exception was with a man who ultimately declined to be in the film due to his military affiliation – a shame, because he was open and honest in a way few people are, at least on camera. After he declined to let us stay with him, he described that the main reason was that I was a man, and he was protective of his female roommates. We assume that many people have this reason in mind when they say no to us, but this was the first time someone had directly stated gender and fear together. This man was also the only person to point out my sloppy appearance, asking me what happened to my shirt. I believe there’s a correlation here, that my appearance very well led to his outright concern. I’m looking forward to our next sloppy day to see how many other “exceptions” we find.

In Grangeville we tried a different experiment: we both wore dark clothing, and more importantly, I conducted all of the initial conversations with people. Usually, we trade camera evenly, and whoever’s behind the camera ends up speaking to our interviewees as well. But in Grangeville, Sarah stayed behind the camera and I did most of the talking. Our qualifier for randomness was curly hair, so we only approached people with curly hair, and in our particular time and location, that meant we mostly spoke to women. The fact is, everyone said no to us, and almost half of the people we talked to declined to even interview. Our eventual hosts, Maura and Mark, whom we reached via their daughter Erin via her friend Anna, were actually contacted by Sarah first, a flaw in our mini-experiment just because Erin called Sarah’s phone, not mine. Did people say no to us because I was doing most of the speaking? We’re not sure: we have to try this out in several other communities, and also ask more questions to learn about it, but it does seem to fit with the general consensus that men are more intimidating than women. Next time we do a gender experiment, we will be more rigorous about whoever is behind the camera staying quiet; we’ll see what happens.

We’re almost halfway done with the project, and every day we reassess our approach, try something new, discover we’re more comfortable, and sometimes even find something we’re scared of. With our last shower now three days ago, we’re probably going to try another new thing today: showering at a gas station.