"Greg Grano"

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.

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 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 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
frowned.

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.

"American Bear" has reached the halfway point of our 60 day journey!

We are wrapping up Day 30, currently typing at a Taco Bell in Tuba City, Arizona, while our footage from the morning downloads.

We've met hundreds of people in the last 30 days -- 544 people, in fact -- and had incredible experiences. Maybe you've been following our blog (BearDocumentary.blogspot.com) or our Facebook page (facebook.com/BearDocumentary), please keep reading, we've got new adventures every day!

Every day, we arrive in a new town, often a new state. Usually we have the camera out and approach people to do an interview with us. We've also tried some alternative approaches, including without the camera, and a quick approach where we just describe our project and ask "Do you know anyone who could help us out?" We've heard amazing stories and fascinating ideas about community, America, fear, trust, and what's going on between Americans.

Of the 544 people we've spoken to, 47% decline to even interview. Of those who say yes to an interview, 89% say no to hosting us. Fortunately we have that other 11%. We've stayed with hosts (or, in two cases, in hotel rooms courtesy of a kind stranger), for 24 of our 29 nights.

54% of the people we run into are female, while 46% are male. We have tried to be pretty random, some days picking "qualifiers" - we will only talk to people wearing red, for example. Of the people who have said yes, 49% are male and 51% are female.

We've traveled through 15 states from New Jersey to Washington, and south to Arizona. We've driven almost 6000 miles.

We've talked to 3 newspapers so far, 2 TV stations and 2 radio stations about our adventures, and we hope to talk to many more.

We've slept in private guest rooms, on beds, futons, floors, in a camper, in an empty cabin, in a rock showroom at a shrine made of rocks and gemstones, in our tent, and in our car. We've met people of all races, ages, and economic circumstances. We've stayed with families of up to 10 children, couples, college students, grandparents, and even people living alone. We've heard stories of tragic loss and great joy, and been taken on adventures by our hosts to jump in a river, see a baseball game, enjoy 4th of July fireworks, and go to local concerts -- often we stay up late, the conversation between us and our hosts never quite ready to end. We've experienced, almost every day, our kind strangers opening their lives to us, becoming a friend.

There is a beautiful exchange that happens, an exchange of kindness and experiences, an exchange of friendship. With many of our hosts, we already can't wait to go back to visit. We've learned that most people are friendly and kind, but maybe only when confronted by friendly and kind people (like us). But most of the friendly people we speak with seem to think that Americans are generally rude and that their town is friendlier than the rest of the country -- an odd stereotype that we are disproving almost every day.

We've done some mini-experiments to test variables in our appearance, but over and over our hosts tell us that their trust in us came from a gut feeling, intuition, good vibes, the energy between us. There is something intangible that manifests trust and kindness, and although appearance (and our friendly attitudes) definitely have an impact on those good vibes, it seems like this energy almost defies words -- maybe it will be captured in the magic of cinema.

We've talked to scholars in sociology, psychology, philosophy and gender studies who have informed the way we look at all of our experiences.

We've also visited three of the five Bears in the country -- in Washington, Idaho, and Arizona -- and used each remote and beautiful location to reflect on our experiences and have a personal day -- not quite a break, but a chance to speak to each other instead of dozens of strangers. Whether we're in a Bear or meeting new people, we shoot nearly two hours of footage a day.

To those of you who we met in the last 30 days -- it was wonderful to meet you, and thanks so much for sharing a story, a home, or just some time with us. And to those of you who've been following us and supporting us for months, we are putting together an incredible film because of you. Thank you.

American Bear, Day 28: Las Vegas, NV

The road to Vegas:

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We hit the big city at about 1pm. I had never been to Las Vegas, and I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it much – drinking and gambling aren’t really my thing, and I was pretty sure there wasn’t much else to do there. We weaved our way off the highway and onto Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip, and for once we enjoyed the traffic: slowly passing the hotels and casinos, amazed but already wondering how it transformed at night.

Found free self parking at the Excalibur; walked through the Excalibur and New York, New York; met locals on the Strip. A bartender with a huge smile who recently moved back to Vegas after eight months without a job; a drifter currently hawking club passes; a chef with an Australian accent. An employee at Hard Rock Café got so excited about our project that she led us into the Hard Rock, guiding us and insisting we meet with the manager who might put us up in the hotel, or have another employee help us out – but it turned out we were too short notice for either option. We spoke with people between 20 and 50, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and there were some similarities: most believed that people are generally rude, that Las Vegas is mostly made up of transplants, and that the native Vegas folks are the rudest of all. But everyone we got to speak to was incredibly friendly – and I guess we can’t be sure about the dozens of people who declined to speak with us.

We toiled along the Strip for 4 ½ hours, talking to 36 people before deciding we needed a dinner break and a change of scenery. California Pizza Kitchen was probably our most welcome meal, after the heat, sweat, and stress of our afternoon – even if it was much more expensive than our usual meal. Afterwards, we used the tried-and-true pick-a-hand method to decide which direction to head for a neighborhood of Las Vegas locals. Sarah’s right hand was east.

In a grocery store parking lot we met a very elderly man who got a kick out of telling us about his crazy kitten. Then Bobby called us to his car, a former singer who used the phrase “oldies but goodies” about four times in our short conversation, who was yet another extremely friendly person. He told us to keep heading east, which we did.

In another grocery store parking lot, a couple more miles east, we had our first offer of cash throughout our trip: a woman who, upon hearing our story, offered us a dollar, which we refused. We saw more ethnic and economic diversity, including a very hip-looking white man on a bicycle who it turned out was homeless, having recently lost his job and his unemployment benefits. He was the most disappointing case in a community where everyone we spoke to brought up jobs: either they were lucky enough to recently find one, or they came to Vegas to find one, or they lost one.

We also met one of our most interesting interviews of the whole trip, an 18-year-old employee waiting for his grandpa to pick him up. Julio, with shaggy black hair, a huge grin, and a tendency to scratch his head and laugh at the end of sentences, spoke about people’s unwillingness to change, and that society changing towards kindness is the only way progress can happen. He said the world is unhealthy, and it needs to embrace change and diversity and its children in order to grow and make people happier – no one is happy, especially when money is perceived as the key to happiness. Julio and another young guy agreed that “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – but you stay too!” Once the money runs out, tourists become transplants.

We spoke with over 50 people in Las Vegas – several dozen declined to interview, but everyone we did speak to was very friendly, even though they believe that most people aren’t. We didn’t find a home, but we had our first day that went pretty much as we expected: before we ever started this trip, we anticipated distrust, and little generosity. We expected people to talk about society negatively. We planned on multiple nights sleeping in the car. So far, we’ve only had two.

In some ways, our experience in Las Vegas fulfilled the expectations of so many other people we meet. Advocates for small towns always say that folks in the big city are too fast, too rude, too selfish. People did brush us off, and people were busy. As for selfish, I don’t think it’s the right word: most people we met were interested in our project, but kept it external. Even when we described our project, no one seemed to catch our indirect question. In every other community, we tend to have people respond quickly with “Oh, well I can’t because…” but the people in Las Vegas never took it upon themselves to respond directly. It’s not selfish, it’s just individualistic, maybe self-centered – maybe living amongst panhandlers and homeless people creates that wall, where the idea of directly helping someone is phased out. As for the small town advocates, I bet a lot of their impression of rude city people comes from their few friends in the city; if all the friendly people in the city talk about how rude people are, they’ll never overturn that generalization.

Talking to mom in the grocery store parking lot before heading back for some fun.

So at 9:30pm, we drove back to the Strip to become tourists for a little while. We walked through several of the casinos, fairly overwhelmed by the lights, the people, the broad diversity. As I said, I wouldn’t really drink or gamble in Vegas, but I could have a great vacation of watching people and admiring the spectacle. Or playing in the eight pools at Caesar’s Palace – they were closed, but we went out anyway and got a wonderful introduction to Caesar’s and the many amenities the pool offers (personal cocktail waitresses, massages), courtesy of a security guard. As we headed back in, he said “See you tomorrow!” I wish I could have had just one night in that man’s reality, in which Sarah and I were just casual tourists staying in the Palace.

Instead, we got to the Wal-Mart parking lot at about 12:45am and settled in for a very sweaty four hours of sleep.

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Sweet dreams.

American Bear Explores Rural Nevada

Wells Nevada - our first town in the state, probaby not the best choice. The first thing that Greg said when we got out of the car was, "what a sad town." The historical down town was crumbling - salvaged brick in piles outside the storefronts, broken glass, brightly painted splinters of wood. Elma and Jack had told us that Wells had an earthquake and never received the funding required to fix the town, but I don't think we imagined it quite like this.


Signs for bustling old west themed shops suggested it was once a fun - if touristy - place.

The first place we stopped was the volunteer fire house. No firemen were there but a couple of EMTs chatted with us for all of five minutes. It took almost all five of those five minutes for either of them to warm up to us and try and help us find people to talk to - they also refused to be on camera and didn't really wanna talk about the town. They suggested a grocery store and the city manager's home. We've never knocked on doors before, but we decided this could be fun and the city manager must be friendly.

No one was home.

We went to the tiny privately owned grocery store where the manager said no shooting allowed.

We talked to people in the parking lot. Almost everyone turned down an interview. And not politely or apologetically. Their words may have been normal, but their tone was harsh. "No, ma'am" "Nope." "Sorry, can't" Everyone was afraid of the camera or unwilling to spare a few seconds.

I had started the day in sort of a weird mood - as always, we were exhausted, but also, waking up in a stranger's home with said stranger watching you sleep can be a little jarring. Even if that stranger is now closer to a friend, and a sweet old man going through his daily routine.

So my mood and attitude were sinking. Fast.

We headed to the hardware store and had our first interview of the day - we had already been in town for almost two hours.

The guys there were pretty friendly, if a little nervous about the camera. But they were all going to the boss's daughter's wedding and didn't think it was a good night for company. The surprising thing that they told us was that the businesses on mainstreet had been deserted for years. Mike told us that as a kid they used to play in the deserted buildings and jump from window to window and roof to roof without ever hitting the ground. He said in some ways the earthquake was a blessing, it got the town thinking about what to do with those buildings.

We talked to a newly married, newly pregnant couple who was newly moved to the area - they said sorry, not enough space. They were very friendly though and like the men at the hardware store had a lot to say about the community - mostly positive.

On our way out we ran into Devon - he couldn't chat here but invited us home to his yard sale. Everyone at his house was super friendly, the friendliest we'd met so far. They were talkative and happy and though unable to host us themselves, they had lots of suggestions, including the golf course and a small concert at the brewery in Clover Valley at 7.

The golf course was in the midst of a large tournament. So they asked us to be quick. Everyone we talked to refused to be on camera, some people ignoring us outright. Then a man pointed across the room - "she's the city manager, she'll tell you about Wells!" This excited both Greg and I a lot, because it seemed like we were supposed to talk to her.

So I turned to her, asking if she would be up for in interview, and in that same rude tone she said "No thank you," and walked out the door hastily. I was in awe. What a town. Even the city manager was inhospitable.

****

From there we went to the brothels. Two of them. We thought it would be great to interview one of "the girls", or the manager, or the owner of one of the two very famous brothels in Wells. The Casino and the brothels were a big part of the community in Wells - a sort of complete opposite to the broken old shops on main street. Greg asked which one first and we played the pick a hand game - our usual way of making a decision when neither of us really cares. We ended up at Bella's - its electric sign flashing "The hottest girls in Wells" and "Cum before you go" along with a couple other cum references and a few other messages. The manager was busy cooking dinner and asked that we come back in thirty.

So we headed to Donna's - the oldest legal brothel in Nevada. The woman behind the bar was very friendly, she had the saddest eyes I think I've ever seen for reasons unexplained. She said she used to work at the casino and now she was a bartender here. The shift manager called the manager for us who couldn't call the owner because he was on vacation, so we weren't allowed to film. But we went on a tour of the facilities anyways. I had a glass of water as we walked the halls. A beautiful black woman in a tiny white outfit and huge heels was checking her email in the common room, looking like a teenager home from school. In a back room we caught a glimpse of a brunette in red who was doing her makeup casually. The VIP room was really impressive, a giant heart shaped bed and a jacuzzi tub - red wall paper and sultry lighting - $500 a night. But other than this room, every other space we saw was casual and blue - not really what I imagined. The space felt calm, quiet.

We went back to Bellas and arrived just as two skinny young truck drivers pulled up separately. Again, not really what I imagined. These clientele were not your average truck driver - The first, an Indian 25 year old in adidas sweats and sandals, strong arms and a clean shaven face, looked like someone I might see walking the halls at one of the NYU dorms. The second, a redheaded cowboy in tight wranglers with a large golden rodeo belt and a hat, looked like someone from home that I might see at the grocery store on a quick stop after picking something up from Big R.

***

On the recommendation of the bartender, we went to the casino and ended up talking with her son. He was my favorite interview of the day (I don't think I am really allowed to say that) - because he was incredibly frank. He was very enthusiastic about the project and took our card.

Next Stop: Brewery.

At this point we were both exhausted. From the heat and from our moods. We were arguing. We drove to Clover Valley - about 12 miles away. One of the owners of the brewery, Maggie, greeted us. I was awkward and uncomfortable. I couldn't phrase what I was asking, but she offered to let us pitch a tent on the property anyways. So we bought our admission and joined the crowd for a show.

After hours of working with no success, we stumbled upon on amazing evening.

On the table there were three kinds of hummus. I hadn't seen hummus in weeks. It was a big pot luck so we contributed a loaf of bread (seems to be our usual contribution to meals) and ate an amazing meal while listening to music and stories told by Mike Beck.

Everyone there was so nice!

By the end of the evening we had not set up our tent. So Maggie and Steve generously let us sleep in the house on a SUPER comfy bed. We woke up for coffee with brown sugar (the way Maggie takes it) and cookies and good conversation and tried to help Maggie's son Ryan and his wife Alissa with their application to be on a fireman cookoff show for Regis and Kelly. Greg's computer didn't work for some reason - but his friend Adam's did. It was a lovely morning. Steve even gave me a 6 pack of amber ale to take home to my dad who had asked for some when I sent him my nightly text.

Today was a day for breaking stereotypes and learning about things that I am sometimes afraid to ask about. I learned so much about a culture that I previously knew nothing about.

And again we had the experience of earning someone's trust and making our way into their house. Starting outside and eventually earning an invitation inside.

We learned that even on the crappiest of days, while in the crappiest of moods, with the crappiest of energy, people are still willing to extend a helping hand.

We learned that sometimes you dont even need the lengthy interviews and conversations to form a friendship.







Pioche Nevada - smaller than wells and also much friendlier.

Pioche is an old mining town, and it won't forget it. There are signs all over town, references in all the shop names, old mining buckets as planters, carts as flower baskets, railraod ties for parking stoppers. It's tiny and quiet and seems deserted on a Sunday at a first glance - save a few drunkards stumbling out of bars and falling in the street.

We actually started in a bar. Where we met Dixie, the manager of what used to be the Alamo (now the Bank Club) Bar - started in 1900, we got to see the old Bank vault and then the remnants of the old bar. Dixie lives in what use to be the brothel.

After a tour from Dixie, we asked her if she knew anyone to help us and she called her bartender, Robin (now off work, but hanging around) over to meet us. Robin said, "come on over" with only a little hesitation and a confirmation from her husband, Brad.

Brad was drunk and Robin was a little tipsy, but mostly she was friendly and excited to show us her animals.

We did a few more interviews around town - meeting our first pessimist that agreed to talk to us. She told us about everything she hates about people and politics and it was great to hear, because we know so many people who feel that way. Everyone we talked to expressed concern about Vegas.

And now we are on the road driving to Vegas - only 51 miles away - and I am, for the first time, scared. I just hope we meet someone amazing.

Before taking us home Robin introduced us to the cutest border collie I've seen, Gunner. She was small and mostly black (except for her little lite paws). Gunner seemed to like us, so Robin took us home and fed her four horses and her calf (with a bottle!).

Robin made me a very special mixed drink (she made me promise not to share the recipe) - I asked for an almost virgin drink - so that's what I had, but it was yummy. And Greg did shots. Of water. Robin says it's because she's a smart ass, but let me tell you, it was hilarious. And according to the shot glass and Robin, Greg earned his status as a redneck by taking 5 shots in a row. Greg asked if that's what she would call herself, she said yes.

Brad, after a long day of drinking hit the hay early and left the three of us to fend for ourselves.

We mostly just talked and looked through photos - Robin shared so much with us in so little time. We played with the dog and I tried to teach Robin how to use facebook - we found a picture for her profile.

Robin spoke extensively about the intuition of animals. "Thats why I wanted you to meet Gunner before I took you home," she said. "If my animals didnt like you, I'da had to find you a different place to be. Even that calf. Even she knows." Robin alluded to a lot of hardship -- difficult relationships, death threats at a bar she used to work at -- and her tendency to be too trusting. It was fascinating to hear her explain it, because her trust is certainly a virtue, but she's also seen the dark side of trust and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Somehow, we were up until almost midnight (after going over at 6). It really was a night of great conversation, with a true cowgirl nonetheless.

The sun setting over the horses at Robin's house.

American Bear, Day 25: Twin Falls, Idaho

New approach: quick, with camera. Approaching people and saying, "Would you be up for a quick interview? 30 seconds?" If we get a yes, or an "Okay..." we proceed: "We're traveling around the country for 60 days and making a documentary in which we're relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night." Pause. "So the question is, do you know anyone who could help us?"

We drove through Twin Falls, a much smaller town than we anticipated after seeing signs for it from hundreds of miles away -- but much bigger than Council and Bear from yesterday. We decided to return to the Target parking lot we had passed. Target, and most grocery/department stores, attract all demographics, and they're almost guaranteed to be local. This is one of the ways we're getting away from our most common method of meeting people, in which we explore a cute downtown by foot, maybe a park, and meet families and small business owners.

We were trying one more variation today: wearing a cross necklace. More than half of our hosts have had Christian decorations at home and cited religion in their decision to take us in: "It's just the Christian thing to do." We wanted to see if including Christianity in our appearance would make a difference in finding a home -- maybe it would be quicker. We both had mixed feelings about wearing a cross -- for both of us, it's a lie. I was most nervous that we would meet a wonderful host, who would eventually point out our necklaces, begin a religious conversation, and then feel terribly betrayed when we confessed that we weren't observing Christians. But I also figured it would be a pretty fascinating part of the film.

So in the Target parking lot we approached about 12 people and half declined to interview. Of those who did speak with us, no one offered us a home, but several took our card, hoping they would think of someone and give us a call -- we were actually impressed by how friendly a couple people were given our abrupt approach and the spontaneity of conversation with strangers. Of course, we had that experience to the extreme when we went straight to Larry and Judy's door in Bear, Idaho. After asking about a dozen people, we were kicked out of the Target parking lot for "soliciting."

We moved about two hundred feet and met more people in the WinCo grocery store parking lot. We had about the same rate of half-yes/half-no to interview, until we met our last interview of the day: Elma, 60s, putting bird seed in her trunk to bring home for the birds and squirrels in her backyard. She later told us that Sarah's smile and my eyes made her comfortable right away, and that she had even been smiling after witnessing a failed approach with four men just before we met her. We told her our quick story, and she didn't bite right away -- she read the release form carefully, and asked "What does a host have to do?" Sarah described that we're pretty low-maintenance, we have sleeping bags, we'd love to do an interview with our host... and Elma looked up and said "You can sleep on my patio."

We followed her home and over the course of the night met her daughter Beth, son-in-law Chuck, and Elma's husband Jack. Elma never stopped offering us things: dinner, water bottles, books -- and by the end of the night we were sleeping in the living room instead of the patio. Elma shared many stories with us, getting comfortable and personal almost immediately: discussing her family, her history with Jack, and her daughter who passed away three weeks ago. We formed one of our strongest connections with Elma; or maybe it was formed from the beginning, something about intuition and timing and Sarah's friendly smile. We sat on the patio with Elma and Jack for a couple hours, until it got dark and we moved inside. This morning, I woke up in my sleeping bag with Jack sitting a foot away in his armchair, sipping his coffee -- just because two new friends were sleeping on the floor didn't mean Saturday morning routine had to change.

Elma was our first direct success with our quick approach: knowing next-to-nothing about us, she felt instantly comfortable having us at her house. But in talking with her for hours, we also learned that she generally doesn't trust people -- she'd much rather spend time with animals, because people can hurt you. Above all, she trusts her instincts, and knows that if someone rubs her the wrong way there's a good reason. We talked about religion, and although Elma and Jack are both Christians, they "don't need to put on fancy clothes and go to church to prove it." Elma said she never even noticed the crosses around our necks -- and Sarah and I were relieved to take them off after feeling guilty all day. For the first day of this test, it seems that appearing Christian made no difference. Over and over again, we learn that our attitude is the most important way we find friendly and hospitable people. For Elma, it was Sarah's smile; when we looked gross in Couer D'Alene, it was our enthusiasm that matched with Cortney and Amber. Friendly people attract friendly people. The connections we make haven't been because of our appearance, they've been due to something intangible, trust and comfort and curiosity that comes to life between two strangers' smiles. Every day, I'm reminded of a pithy quote that I fall in love with more each day: "Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet."

Of course, there are dozens of people who say no to us, who don't smile, who don't speak to us at all. The documentation of our experiences mostly focuses on the positive, the one person or family a day with whom we have a wonderful time -- and the positive experiences are what we remember most as well. But maybe we need to explore the negative a little more too, find a way to acknowledge the 19 out of 20 people a day who say no to us, recognize the countless factors that lead to a cold shoulder, or just an "I'm sorry." Sarah wrote about the pressure of hospitality a couple days ago, and we've surely experienced that many times. But what about the people who decline to interview and never even find out what we're doing?

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.

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Outside the schoolhouse.

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

American Bear Catches Up with Pictures


At Kootenai Falls near Troy, Montana.

With (most of) the kids at Wade and Brenda's house in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.


Sitting on Lake Roosevelt near Bear, Washington.

Standing over the Lake near Bear, Washington.

Some of the young folks in Grangeville, Idaho.

David and Nicki in Grangeville, Idaho, who led us to a hospitable friend of theirs -- we ended up with another option first though.

Sleeping in on Maura and Mark's futon in Grangeville, Idaho.

American Bear, Day 23: Grangeville, Idaho

There is a lot to talk about with Grangeville.

We've never given out so many cards. We've never had so many people turn down interviews.

We had a lot of really amazing conversations. A lot of really interesting talk.
But not a whole lot of leaps of faith - not a whole lot of people willing to help us.

We started in the grocery store. Our qualifier was curly hair. And Greg was doing all the talking (It's one of our mini-experiments). So we talked to a lot of women (because most men seemed to have short hair or no hair) and 2 in the store said yes to an interview.

While we were in the store we ran into Anna - who was passing through to visit the parents of her best friend.

Anna took our card and left a message with Mark and Maura.

We talked to a few more people in the pizza parlor and outside of the movie theater. Again, everyone took our card but no one could host us.

We talked to two women on a walk who were incredibly helpful and friendly. A man in the pizza store offered to treat us (but we had just eaten). He had some amazing things to stay about the state of the nation. The kids outside the theater had a friend for us to call. But no luck really. Just a lot of friendly, talkative people.

Around 9pm we got a call from Erin that was followed by a call from Maura - she said she wanted to talk to us first but we should come on by. This was the first time that we've had anyone want to hang out with us before saying yes. Every time we talk, I mention this to Greg, "Why dont people screen us more often?" I know thats what I would want to do. Chat with some to get a feel for them before offering them a place to stay.

So we headed down there and she and Mark told us AMAZING stories. They joked that we had stumbled into the only liberal home in all of Idaho. It was probably true.

Their daughter Lily, was very articulate and excited.

Maura made us blueberries with yogurt and cinnamon and we talked till very late.

In the morning the day care was open. Maura takes care of anywhere between 7 and 14 children on a daily basis and we woke up to giggling kids.

She made us a DELICIOUS breakfast despite her business and they sent us on our way.

It was an amazing evening.

and Maura offered to send me earrings that makes. I want to send her something too.

The Lesson of the Day: There is always someone who is willing to help. Even in a town full of people who are scared of cameras and strangers. And there are always people who will try to help you, but cannot take you on themselves. And sometimes the people who are willing to help are incredibly friendly and have good stories. And sometimes they feed you amazing food.

I've been thinking a lot about my post from Bonner's Ferry. About the idea of excuses. I think excuse is the wrong word. There is something there that is important to get at, but I dont ever want to hold it against some one or accuse them of making excuses if they are unable to take us in. To some people being hospitable means having a bed for people to sleep in. Or a clean house. or food to feed them. And though we dont need all of that, it is still important to some people. Maybe its not only fear that stops people but the pressure of hospitality.

American Bear, Day 22: Couer D'Alene

I have yet to eat a potato in Idaho. Just like it took us a while to eat cheese in wisconsin. The local girls in Couer d' Alene said all the potatoes at the restaurants actually come from Washington. We have a few more days to try a potatoe and I guess I am looking forward to it.

We havent slept much in the last few days so it makes us a little goofy. Especially in the car. Greg won't stop saying everything in various accents and I cant help but sing just about everything I say. I am getting really good at fitting most things into well recognized tunes. It's fun but makes me feel sort of crazy.

Couer d'Alene was a long day. We talked to over 40 people and spent the day baking. We had decided to try what we call the "sloppy" approach. I put on tons of make up and smeared all across my face - I used a hershey's kiss to make little chocolate messes in the corner of our mouth. Greg made his hair really messy and we spilled salsa all of her his wrinkled shirt. He wore swim trunks for shorts and I wore my tank top kind of side ways and really messed up my hair - it was big and filled with tangled and quite greasy.

It didnt really seem to have a huge affect. A couple people asked Greg what happened to his shirt and a teenage selling snow cones told him he had something on his face. Generally people didnt really seem to notice. When asked about it they said we looked like beach bums, but nothing more. We were on the lake and everyone was looking kind of beach-bummy.

Greg and I decided that next time we try the sloppy experiment we need to buy/make him a sleeveless shirt and have him wear a bandana - and I'll to think of something equally as strange to accompany my dirt, smeared make up and funny hair.

We had many people take our cards in Couer d' Alene. No one could help directly but everyone wanted to find someone to help us out. We only got one call back - from Cortney and Amber who had just moved into their house a week ago and were newly independent hard-working 22 year olds. They were possibly the most enthusiastic people we'd ever met on our first encounter. The conversationd zoomed around and they shared so much with us.

While we were talking to them on the street we ran into another roup of young people who were equally as friendly and excited about the film: LJ, Macy, Jackie and Rhett. They invited us to taco bell with them and we had a lot of fun talking and eating. Greg and I have been eating so much mexican food lately, its kind of crazy.

Macy told us about the idea of fondly calling friends racial slurs. She said it was normal there. "You know, I had only known him for a few moments but I felt comfortable with him. So made sense to call him a beaner." This was really interesting to us because she didnt think twice about it. Until we started asking questions, "Now I feel all weird and guilty. Everyone does it here."

At around 10pm we got a text message - Amber and Cortney initially didnt feel comfortable having us over unless they checked with their third roommate - "our third roommate isnt coming home, sou can come over. ***" We called for directions and headed over there - getting a little lost in the process.

Just as we were about to pull into their driveway, we got another text, "ok our roommate came home and said no you cant come ***."

So we decided to knock on the door anyway. We were there and I needed to pee. For almost a minute no one answered. I joked that they were hiding in the bathroom - turns out (we heard later) they were.

Amber and Cortney opened the door together. They saw us and smiled and invited us in. Cortney said we could stay, she had just gotten scared. We offered to leave. They said no. And so the night began.

After Cortney and Greg both showered - we headed to the grocery store for a midnight ice cream run. It took us a while to pick flavors - not because there was a lot of disagreement but because everyone wanted everything. Apprently we all wanted ice cream. We took home two half gallons - mint brownie and frosted cake (or the fancy and strange renditions of those names). And then we found the pie. So we bought a chocolate silk pie. I was already feeling sick from too much sugar - but we were all excited.

Back in the house, Amber's boyfriend had arrived. He called some more friends over. Greg and I had no idea what was happening until we heard Nick say, "Yeah, we're staying up all night. Just come over. We bought ice cream." And so the night really began.

We watched New Moon (because Brock insisted) and ate ice cream and pie and talked and told stories and suddenly it was 4am and Greg was asleep on the floor. We had both been ready for bed before we met the girls at around 8pm.

Once Greg was asleep Amber and Nick went to bed and and everything sort of died down (Except Brock who watched another movie). Which is a good thing really. For all of us.

In the morning we did an interview with Amber. She talked about how scared everyone got - mostly because of the horror movies they had been watching lately. About Cortney having a panic attack and the two of them being scared. She had told us from the beginning that she probably couldnt sleep with strangers in the house. But she did. She slept from 4am till 10am and wasnt worried about us. She told us about her photographs, about her love of learning through experience rather than school. She told us about her upbringing and her family and the pain she experienced growing up. We talked about fear and trust. About intuition and how important it is. About being in someone's presence and how that can calm you or scare you.

And then we talked about good movies. Good non-horror movies.

The conversation as probably the lengthiest of our time there. And the most interesting and important.

This was the first time Greg and I had ever been asked to leave. And also the first time the people who asked us to leave changed their minds. The idea of fear is so present here.

They got scared by thinking too hard - by not being in the space with us. They got scared by scary movies and a cousin who liked to joke with them. (Amber says, "He was making jokes like. Can you hear that? It's knives sharpening." when I wasked if she thought he was scared, "No. He wasnt scared. He just likes to mess with us,") When they were with us and in public they were so enthusastic and comfortable - they approached us. There fear came about when they were alone, at home, at night, talking together. It's a confrontation of imagination and intuition, of public versus private. Maybe we are learning where fear comes from?

We become friends with these girls, but it took a lot of courage from them. And that's interesting too. Because maybe our friendship is stronger because they had to overcome something. Maybe it's weaker.

After our long conversation with Amber, I felt close to her. She got up for a second, went to her room and came back with a photo she had taken of the lake. It was in a bright purple frame. She handed it to me. "Do you like it?" "Yeah. It's nice." "Do you think its pretty." "Yeah, def-" "-You should take it."

People like to give you something when they feel connected to you. I think thats why we leave bears behind where ever we stay. It's a thank you but also a physical representation of the exchange that's occuring. It's why Wade carved as a willow whistle, it's why Jolene gave us necklaces, why Julia gave us a friendship pendant. Hugs and presents and offers. Thats all we can do to show some one that they helped us grow, that we will miss them.

I tucked the painting in my bag and hugged Amber goodbye. She was the most afraid in the beginning and the most comfortable in the end.

I think that's why we do interviews. To get to know people - to create a platform for sharing. It's why we talk too. A good conversation and a good interview can happen at the same time. We can share together.

We piled into the car and as we were driving away I got another text from Amber, "Hey its amber miss ya already haha but if u ever go anywhere beautiful on ur travels and happen to take any pictures i would absolutely love it if u send me some =) ***".

American Bear: More Photos and News

First! Two TV stations in Montana did little features on us:




Second! Photos.


Stanton Lake near Hungry Horse, Montana
I realized how little we exercise while hiking there. sigh.



Teal water!



Beautiful.


The only way we can take pictures together is to get help from someone. Or do it ourselves. This lake was deserted - we did it ourselves.


There are so many more, but my little computer cant post them from the car - many more soon! I promise.

Day 21: Bear, Washington

Bear, Washington appears on a map, and Mapquest and Google Maps provide directions to get there. We didn't know what to expect -- and we've both been building emotional expectations for a year.

We pulled off the road onto the beginning of a dirt driveway, exactly where the directions said "Bear, WA" is -- we got out, walked around, surveyed the dozens of bugs, many of which we had never seen before. While driving as well, we were astonished by the landscape, one of the most beautiful and unique we have seen -- rolling hills (the tallest of which I believe is Bear Mountain), covered in purple, yellow, and white flowers -- some hill faces just shimmer with soft purple color -- and to our right, down the hill, is Lake Roosevelt, thin enough to be a large river, and so beautiful, curving between these colorful hills and pine trees. We walked down some very old tire tracks, which we hope weren't on anyone's private property, until we found a place that felt secluded and comfortable enough to sit, eat some snacks, set the camera on a tripod, and have a hearty conversation.

We've driven about 4,500 miles and arrived at the first Bear. There was so much anticipation -- we both wanted something really big, something profound, a feeling we hadn't experienced anywhere else. Instead, we used the unique location to reflect. Every day we are meeting people and learning about a community; this was an opportunity to be on our own, to be introspective, to experience a location rather than experience its people. We even ended up staying in a motel -- it's currently the following morning, and while I write this, Sarah is assembling footage from our day in Mazomanie, WI, to learn about how we've been documenting our experiences and how we can expand, or condense, or reshape what we're doing. Every day we learn new things, and every day there are dozens of things that happen off-camera, and dozens that happen on camera that we know we'll never use, right after they happen. We've been shooting about two hours of footage a day, and now, in the couple hours of this morning before we have to travel to our next town, we're reviewing what happens in those two hours a day and learning how to make them the most interesting, dynamic, and story-driven two hours we can capture.

As we say every day, we've been meeting fascinating people. Most of the families we've stayed with have been unconventional families -- maybe a mother, a father, maybe divorce is involved, or adoption -- and we've started wondering how this trend works. If complex families are more likely to welcome guests and trust strangers, it then raises the chicken/egg question -- are these people inherently warm and trusting, which may have led them to their complex family dynamics, or did the complex family make them more open and trusting? Maybe we should start asking people what kind of family they come from -- how many of the people that say no to us are from traditional families? We've also acknowledged the Christian element, which hasn't abated -- but it's also geographical. We've visited many towns that are almost homogenous with white Christians. We want to experience diverse races and cultures, and learn about that interaction with strangers, but we also hate the idea of targeting other races just to have them in the film. It's a constant dilemma, whether we should seek out the community's outliers, or continue to experience people randomly. We often choose a culturally-neutral attribute, like glasses, or sandals, to help us randomly select who we approach. But maybe we need to explore the outskirts of town, or spend more time in the grocery store or Wal-Mart, in order to meet all stripes of the community, and not just its majority.

In Bear, we had the chance to reflect on our relationship as well. We are spending more time together than ever before -- including the few days in New Jersey before we hit the road, Sarah and I have spent 25 days together, 24/7. We have literally not been apart. It's a little shocking to think about that, because it feels so natural at this point. And we bicker, and we've had a couple bigger fights. But I've also been experiencing my love grow every day. I'm having experiences that I couldn't be sharing with anyone else, and we are at the height of our working/personal relationships being intertwined -- which is at once stressful and amazing. But it's also difficult to reflect on our personal emotions when the only time we have apart is in the bathroom. We recently decided we needed to document more of our personal experiences -- our conversations in the car, or between interviews, or buying a milkshake, or doing laundry (at a laundromat this morning) -- we want this film to capture our journey, our adventures, we want to bring the audience along. But it's scary to wonder if we're diminishing our experiences by making sure to turn the camera on; by having personal and creative conversations while one person is holding our rig and invisible behind it; by turning this adventure into work. We knew that was an issue months ago, but I think we're both really feeling the effects now, especially as we review our footage and wish we had more of us, more scenes to build our relationship in the film, more to connect and reflect on other moments.

We're more than a third done with the film, but we've also got almost two-thirds left -- how will the camera and the work and the driving and the lack of sleep and the togetherness continue to wear us down? Or create an even more dynamic film?

Day 10: Decorah, Iowa

Decorah, Iowa is a town of families. But I don't mean nuclear families - in fact, I think I only saw one child - but everyone I saw in the town had formed their own family from the best of friends. That was evident in just about everything our hosts did and said.

Tonight was our first night as couch surfers; our first night where we pre-planned who we were staying with. We arrived in Decorah to Julia and her friend Maria, waving their arms at us from below Julia's downtown apartment. They took us inside - I fell in love instantly. Their walls were covered in clippings and images and notes and messages. It felt completely like their space.

Julia took us on a tour of the town. Everyone we met in Decorah was incredibly friendly - and not just in the sort of superficial way - they were genuinely interested in us and many people offered up their homes (not realizing that we already had a place to stay).

Julia and Leah organized a potluck for the evening and we had a feast. Casserole, potato salad, fresh fruit, salad, the cheese we brought from Wisconsin, fresh tomatoes and goat cheese, pasta, wine, beer... and all vegetarian. Which made my body quite happy after our time at Ribfest and the incredible amount of junk food I find myself drawn to at gas stations. And of course, Greg was excited, we have really yet to have a real vegetarian dinner. Everyone came: Seth, Jared, Erin, Aaron, Brita, Steven, Jeanine and a few others who didn't stay as long.

The potluck was in a beautiful park with amazing views. The sun set. The light was amazing. And I caught fireflies. Just to watch them glow in my hands.

Seth's favorite ... I wanna say alcoholic beverage and I want to say snack... is poptarts and jager (I dont know how to make the dots). I turned to Erin, "this sounds disgusting. But I want to try it." Because if I can eat cheddarwurst, I can use poptarts as a chaser. I still don't really know how I feel about it.

As dinner wrapped up we decided to go to Dunning Springs - a beautiful waterfall that we could barely see in the light of Jeanine's car. I think that made it more stunning.

The night ended at the Hay Market - a local bar that everyone joked was really gross but a whole lot of fun. It wasn't so bad. And it had a pool table. Unfortunately, Greg and I had to abandon our new friends early to deal with our tech stuff. Sigh.

But the point is: Decorah is very welcoming place. We can't really speak to its tensions or its diversity, because we didn't get to discover that as much as we would have liked. And we really didn't get to test anything. But we did learn what it meant to be welcomed with open arms into an amazing community. Not just by individuals but by a group. The thing that I noticed about everyone was how willing they were to let us in. There is something very special about the comfort and ease with which friendships were formed. And perhaps it's because this was one of our first nights with people close to our own age, but the thing about the group we spent the evening with is that it was made of people of many different ages.

The thing about arranging for a place to stay ahead of time is that we don't really get a sense for the town's hospitality. We can assume and guess in this case that we would have found a home almost instantly. That's really the best we can do. And our hosts did an amazing job giving us a glimpse at all the other aspects of the town.

As we were leaving, Julia handed me a necklace she had made. She said, "I give these to all my friends when they leave. So there's not a single one in Decorah, they're sort of all over." And then we said goodbye. (But I have a feeling we'll come back).


Seth.

Aaron. Talking about diversity. And Russia.

An interesting photo of our short walk towards the falls at Dunning Springs. That's Brita in the front, Julia, Jeanine and I in the back.