Days 17 and 18: Big Timber, MT and Great Falls, MT

Jolene in Lame Deer had recommended the KOA campground in Big Timber -- it even has waterslides! No matter where we go and what we hear about it in advance, we're always apprehensive that we won't have good luck -- of course, we've only slept in the car once, and we're also optimistic, otherwise we wouldn't do this project. I guess I mean to say that we prepare. We're open-minded. I always check for a cheap motel, a Wal-Mart, and a campground on our way into town, just as a back-up. On our way into Big Timber, we saw the KOA waterslides, but we would never get on them.

The gas station just off I-90 told us to head to the bars in town, especially The Grand, the main hotel/restaurant/bar/saloon. We went there first, and didn't get much farther -- we were in the restaurant for the next three or four hours. The waitress, then bartender, then manager all got involved in introducing us to the locals. It was our first experience like this: the first people we told about our project didn't offer their home, but spread their kindness by making us public celebrities for the night. We met everyone in the barroom when we arrived -- and one customer anonymously gave us $40 on his tab so that we could have dinner.

The manager, Karen, somehow passed our presence along to Sonny Todd, a 72-year-old real estate broker who's a local celebrity and lifelong resident of the Big Timber area. We got word that Sonny wanted to speak with us, but after his meal. So we milled about a little more, spoke with some more people, including some tourists (always a problem for us, even though they're usually darn friendly). Eventually we were led back into the dining room to sit with Sonny and his 16-year-old stepdaughter Brooke. We discussed the area -- one of the most conservative counties in the country -- and Sonny himself -- his cowboy hat, his acknowledgement of and comfort with change. As he put it, "A couple hundred years ago, an Indian chief stood on that hill, looking over all the land that belonged to him. Then we came and took all of it. The same thing could happen to us."

After a hearty conversation, we told Sonny about our project -- and he immediately invited us to his home and promised a great breakfast in the morning.

We hung around The Grand for a while longer -- we had our dinner, courtesy of a kind stranger, and met some other fascinating people. Then we called Brooke, still in town with friends, so we could follow her home. By the time we got to the 800-acre ranch, Sonny was heading to bed, but Brooke was an incredible host, providing a tour of the house, the property, the horses, trying to catch a glimpse of the bear who rummages their garbage. We finished our evening in the heated pool, with pretty purple lights and a rickety and fast waterslide. Brooke was one of the most mature and personable teenagers we've met, and it was great to hang out with her. We even became Facebook friends after saying goodnight and getting on our computers two floors apart in the house.

Sonny's promise in the morning was more than fulfilled: western skillets of eggs, cheese, vegetables, and meat (but a vegetarian skillet especially for me), plus toast, canteloupe, and orange juice. Then he took us on a more extensive tour of the ranch -- we were hoping to see elk and maybe even the bear, but in lieu of wildlife we got to see beautiful land, so expansive, with the Crazy Mountains sitting comfortably in the distance. Sonny was the perfect ambassador of Big Timber and traditional Montana life for us.

We hit the road up to Great Falls, and the scenic drive through the Lewis and Clark National Forest ended up being my favorite drive yet -- winding through the mountains of pine trees, a fast-flowing creek of clear water guiding the highway. We made it to Great Falls and met up with Kay, a reporter for KRTV, the local CBS news station. She interviewed us, then followed us as we spoke with about ten people in Paris Gibson Park -- the first and maybe only time we've been documented with two video cameras. It was a lot of fun, and Kay offered her home as a back-up -- which would come in handy.

We explored the park some more, had a greasy but delicious lunch, met some locals in the downtown shops, and were met mostly with ambivalence -- a smile, an "I wish I could," but the more we receive the same answers from people, the more we understand them as superficial. And understandably -- it's our most common response because it's the way to be nice while in an uncomfortable situation. But it also helps us recognize the sides of the spectrum -- the people who can't hide their disinterest or fear, and of course the people who have no fear and whose smiles are of genuine excitement.

I think we found that genuine excitement in Bronson, a 21-year-old working in the candy shop who recently started his own t-shirt company. He lives with his parents, so he couldn't offer his home -- but he spoke with his coworker, who ended up saying yes to us. She wouldn't be home until 9:30, so we had some time to ourselves, but we had a home to look forward to.

While we were at the park, this time shooting some footage of ourselves, the beautiful necklaces Jolene had given us, trying the choke cherry jam and buffalo jerky from Scenic, SD, we got a call from our host, unfortunately saying that her boyfriend was uncomfortable with it. This is the second cancellation we've gotten on our trip -- the other was in Pierre, SD, a town with very similar vibes to Great Falls. Similar size, similar people, similar number of tourists and locals who feel taken advantage of once we tell them about our project.

We spoke with several more people, but as it was getting later, we decided to take Kay up on her offer -- we met her at the Great Falls Voyagers baseball game and later headed to her home. Our sleeping bags are set up on the floor, our footage is transferring, and Sarah is already asleep next to me.

It's only been two days since we stayed with Jolene in Lame Deer, but I'm ready to go back. We have had excellent experiences with everyone we've stayed with, but with Jolene, I wasn't just meeting a fascinating person, we were also exploring a community and culture that we've never really been exposed to. Everyone we stay with has a different individual culture, but our experience on the reservation really found its way to my heart and it's held on tight. Sarah and I now wear our matching necklaces from Jolene, and every time I see it in the mirror, I feel a reminder of connection, something amorphously profound. I think as I grow more distant from Lame Deer, and as we encounter new communities every day, I will focus in on this feeling, or find it dissipating. Our discoveries, lessons, and conversations are inspired by our experiences juxtaposed with each other -- our day with the Cheyenne does not wield greater power in our film about American culture, but it will be interesting to see how it relates to other experiences we have, and interesting to understand more clearly why it was the most memorable day of the journey. So far.