"Sarah and Greg"

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.

Day 11: Grinnell, Iowa

Downtown Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

En route to the Mazo Beach three days ago.

IMG_1154.JPG

On the floor in Julia's apartment, just two nights ago in Decorah, Iowa.

We interviewed two scholars at Grinnell College. Dr. Kesho Scott had a wonderful conversation with us about her work in “unlearning racism” and what it means to be American, and Dr. Lakesia Johnson discussed gender roles and race relations – both conversations energized us about the overarching themes of our project, and gave us inspiration for the conversations we could be having with our strangers, pushing at nebulous terms like “diversity” and digging deeper into the trust and fear within the American psyche.

So far, we’ve been working with our “camera” approach – bringing the camera along as we explore town and meet people, providing the opportunity to speak directly to people as they see the camera and we ask if we can do a quick interview with them – although these initial conversations are often 20-25 minutes now. We love this approach. It’s easy, in a way – having the camera not only provides more footage for our film, but also legitimizes our project and tends to make people more comfortable (although there are certainly cases where people shy away from the camera or refuse an interview).

To mix it up, we chose to do a “camera-less” approach today. It’s much more difficult to speak to people out of the blue, to start with small talk while knowing that we’re hoping to develop the brief conversation into our big question. And when I say difficult, I mean it’s really hard for me, whereas Sarah has no trouble starting a conversation with anyone – but for both of us, popping the question is a challenge. We chose to make this an indirect approach as well, as most of our interviews with the camera are, in which we tell people about what we’re doing but refrain from directly asking if we can stay with them. In most cases, people offer or back away right when we describe the project.

We met about ten people in Grinnell as we explored the community, and everyone was very friendly. We got two offers, but each offer was also throwing a party and noted that we might want more rest somewhere else. So we continued exploring, and had a couple more hesitant and confusing offers for later on – but our plans fell into place when Sam, who we had met earlier at Yumi’s Bakery, called us and said that his neighbor Bob could put us up in his camper behind the house. We always ask people if they know anyone who could put us up, and this is the first time a reference has actually come through – feeling a little nervous and certainly excited, we set off to meet the complete stranger who had already agreed to put us up.

Bob’s wife Rachel opened the door with a very welcoming smile, and our nerves immediately subsided. We had dinner with Bob, Rachel, and their 7-year-old son Davis, and later got a driving tour of the Grinnell campus and a trip to Dari Barn, sort of a local Dairy Queen with massive tractors nextdoor that the kids love to climb on. We had a fantastic conversation with Rachel about the decision to let us in based on just a recommendation. This was also one of our few nights with hosts who weren’t overtly Christian, which developed some different views on why kindness from strangers is a virtue even without religious affiliation.

Sarah and I spent the night in the camper, waking up occasionally to the thunderstorms rumbling around us – the storms keep chasing us, but at least they’re mostly at night. We’re now transferring our footage in their kitchen, anticipating Rachel’s French toast, and snacking on the best pastries from the best bakeries in town.

Every day is giving Sarah more reason to want to move to Iowa.

American Bear, Day Two: Avoca, NY

We're taking advantage of free internet at a Krispy Kreme in Erie, PA, on our way to Ashtabula, OH -- okay, we took advantage of the donuts too. We're looking forward to our third night, this time on Lake Erie.


Yesterday began with eggs and toast with Joe, and then we were off. With only a 2 1/2-hour drive to Avoca, we were able to take our time a little bit, visiting the Corning Museum of Glass, the world's largest glass museum. We didn't actually go in, but they had excellent bathrooms, and Sarah tried to tickle me a lot. In other words, it was like a break before getting back to work in Avoca.


Avoca technically has a higher population than Roscoe, but it sure felt smaller. Maybe it was the strictly logical arrangement of the town: the two-block downtown, with exactly 2 stores and 2 restaurants, is exactly in the center of the small grid of roads with houses. The house we ended up staying in was built in 1902, and most of the buildings look just as old, with signage reminiscent of the 1950s. A cute, slow-motion town.


We started in the Avoca Cafe, where one older resident was enjoying his lunch, and the waitress was always smiling. We spoke to the head of the kitchen, Robert, and ended up with a piece of carrot cake (their recommended dessert) and chicken cordon bleu casserole -- for free. For whatever reason, our out-of-town charm and interest in their town won them over. It would have been especially great if I ate meat -- but Sarah enjoyed some bites of the casserole before we gave it to our eventual hosts.


We soon ran into Randy on the street while he was walking Bobo, a German shepherd/beagle mix. Randy is a veteran of the Vietnam War who turned down a Purple Heart medal, and although he seemed nervous at first, he welcomed being on camera and quickly offered up his house for the night, mentioning that he and his wife had two extra bedrooms. But it was only 1:30, so we decided to continue exploring before we joined Randy and his wife Patti at their home. We would actually see Randy again before that, when he walked down the street with Dickens, their larger dog, while we ate some snacks in a gazebo in the small town park.


We spoke with some young people hanging out on their front porch -- with a "No Trespassing" sign complemented by a "Welcome" decoration next to the door. Two had dropped out of high school, and another had graduated and continued to hang around as one of the few people who claimed to love Avoca. We heard a lot of small-town drama, and saw many more teenagers walking around in groups, smoking, and otherwise enjoying the day. Kind of a strange energy in a town whose two churches were advertised from the highway.


We drove out of town and down County Road 415, until we glimpsed wind turbines over a hill -- Sarah and I have been fairly obsessed with the visual elegance of wind turbines since we drove by a wind farm in Kansas last summer. We turned off 415 and drove past several farms, chasing the turbines. As if by destiny, we found ourselves on an unmarked dirt road that led us right to the turbines themselves. There were three right there, and we counted 39 more on the hills in a several mile radius, which we could only see from the top of our hill, way up with the turbines. So huge, so graceful. 


We headed back to Avoca and straight to Randy and Patti's house. We had a fascinating evening with them -- Patti has been married eight times, and two of those are to Randy. Their house had its own energy, as Patti told us about the three spirits that live there -- a woman and a dog with good intentions, and an evil man who pushed her onto a piano, requiring stitches near her eye. We saw hundreds of pictures of the house in which strange orbs appear, and even had Patti's friend Judy e-mail us pictures of the spirit woman, complete with red lipstick. Patti says they're most active between 10pm and 3am, and maybe someday we'll come back to hunt the spirits with our camera.


We bought a pizza and hot wings from the Avoca Pizzeria and shared it with Randy and Patti. They told us about their history, all those marriages, Randy's time in Vietnam and his brother who served with him and passed away just a month ago. Randy and Patti are both born-again Christians, which has made the kindness of strangers an ideal they hold high, with many charitable donations as well as other experiences taking people in for the night. Christian images and phrases were all over the house, as plentiful as the images and figures of Maine and lighthouses, one of Patti's favorite things. We had our own bedroom, complete with brand new pillows that Patti was excited for us to break in.


This morning, Patti made eggs and toast (quickly becoming the most common breakfast in America), and I howled with Randy, Patti, Bobo, and Dickens in a beautiful chorus of dog noises. We didn't say goodbye, but simply farewell, and see you later.


Our donuts are long finished, and I think we're going to get some lunch before getting back on the highway for about an hour to Ashtabula. We can't wait to see how our adventures continue to surprise us.