"Americans"

American Bear visits Tupelo, Missippi

Tupelo, Mississippi - Our first lesson in Southern Hospitality.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

"American Bear" 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.