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.