Day 16: The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana

The first person who talked to us in Lame Deer became the perfect example of how welcoming the community was. He talked for a while, then invited us home to talk more later if we were up for it. He said just ask around, everyone knows where he lives.

The day was hot and dusty - the second we pulled up people started recognizing us as outsiders. They were curious mostly - asking questions and then asking to be interviewed.

One of the things that we have been noticing is how eager people really are to talk to strangers. How exciting it is to share your life with someone who doesnt know it. Especially if that someone is recording it onto video. People love to tell stories. They love to pick the parts of the their lives that they find most important, and they love to share. But also there are the darker stories, the sad ones. Telling a stranger those stories feels good because you start with a blank slate, and in some ways sharing lends validation to the things that have happened to us.

We met Jolene as we wandered towards the cold drinks. She was pushing a cart and watching her grandson Evan as he danced around. He wanted popsicles, and I couldnt blame him, it was a hot day. [This makes me really nervous for Nevada and Arizona in a couple weeks]

Before we even had a chance to tell her what our project was about - we mentioned that we were making a movie and we had just started asking her about the area - she said "Do you have a place to stay tonight?" We laughed, told her what we were doing, she said come on over before 5:30 because she was cooking a big dinner. She said, "As long as your not vegetarians." and Greg and I laughted pretty hard before telling her that Greg was in fact a vegetarian.

Evan told us his full name was Evan Angelo Walkslast Spiderman.

We talked to some people around town - the Pow Wow was the following day and everyone was preparing for the big celebration - Later Jolene would tell us laughingly - "We aren't really celebratung your independence, it was just the only free weekend on the calender."

When we arrived to the house the the sky was big and dark and filled with lightning. We were later suprised to discover that dinner was actually a reunion of sorts - a neice was coming to visit after being away for almost ten years. We were excited to meet Jolene's sister Charlene, her husband Joe; Sharlene's niece Crystal and her new boyfriend Paul (Jolene kept joking that they were new sweethearts); Crystal's daughter; Joe and Charlene's grandson and grandaughter; and Jolene's other grandson Sheldon occasionally made an appearance with his girlfriend Mariah.

Before we ate Jolene said a lengthy prayer in Cheyenne - when I asked her about it later, she said she had just asked for a blessing, said thank you and wished her family well. She said that she wished us a safe and peaceful journey and that we would meet kind people.

After dinner we went to see fireworks and all the while Jolene was telling us stories. Her personal story; stories about the Cheyenne; stories about some of the issues they have been facing lately; stories about family and friends.

We learned so much so quickly. About a culture we were unfamiliar with. About Jolene and Evan. About how the world works.In the course of the evening we heard a lot of upsetting stories, but the honesty and frankness with which they were told made them very impactful.

Evan was one of the friendliest four year olds I have ever interacted with. He was very much at Jolene's side all the time - both were still suffering the pain of the recent death of Jolene's husband Jimmy. Jolene was a little concerned that Evan still used a bottle - but she said the doctor and dentist both think its fine, so she'll just wait until he decides he's done. And Evan is proud of it - he knows its not exactly normal, but he thinks its pretty cool that he still uses a bottle.

The issue of alcoholism and drug use came up in every conversation we had - whether it was our first interviewee saying that he had worked on a program for drug users for years - or the cashier at the grocery store saying that drug use was down to about 10% of what it use to be - or Jolene telling us that both she and Jimmy never drank, smoked or did drugs. It was mentioned sometimes as an issue that is being delt with, an issue that's no longer really an issue; and it was sometimes mentioned as a big problem.

After dinner there were fireworks.

And in the morning Jolene made us pancakes and eggs - she says its part of her culture to feed people, part of her culture to take care of strangers. We did a long interview, played with the dogs and cats for a few more minutes [Almost everyone we stay with has animals] and raced with Evan through the yard. Then Jolene hugged us both, tried one last time to get us to stay for the powow, and handed us both necklaces that Jimmy made before he passed away. Mine was slender and colorful, with shiny green beads between inside out rainbows. Greg's is thicker with less colors - but still very orange and green and all of his beads have a nice metallic sheen. Both have small carved turtles in the center.

We handed her a bear and a note and she smiled and said, "Evan, A Knuckles." Evan
repeated her, then she turned to me and said "like knuckles, but na-ah-kose. It means little bear." I smiled, "I call Gregory that sometimes." So she wrote it out for us, along with her mailing address and we hit the road.

"Stah -vah - see -woah", Greg said as we left [Thats my poor phonetic spelling of the sentence].

That means see you later in Cheyenne; There is not word for Goodbye.

Days 12 and 13: The Grotto at West Bend, IA, and Vermillion, SD

West Bend, Iowa, is a tiny town, stuck in the middle of county roads that drive past vast farmland and hopefully have a stray gas station every few dozen miles. But it's also home to Iowa's most spiritual and unusual tourist attraction: The Grotto of the Redemption. Built over several decades by Father Dobberstein from Germany, this shrine occupies one square block, and features its own campgrounds and cafe for the many Midwesterners who visit.

Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa.

Jane, the tour guide, couldn't take us to her home in Pocahontas, as it was filled with her recently passed mother's belongings. However, she struck a deal with the Grotto Director, Rhonda, to let us sleep in the rock showroom -- a huge air-conditioned room with rock displays. And thank goodness -- the thunderstorms pummelled West Bend for the second night in a row, flooding fields of crops. We could see the lightning all around the town.

We met some other folks -- like the Maahs family reunion in the Grotto campgrounds, where the kids loaded Super Soakers and the adults played cribbage. We ate at the Wagon Wheel in town, where the vegetable burger on the menu means a hamburger with lettuce and tomato.

A glimpse at West Bend itself. No still photos of the terrible-smelling corn factory-type-place though -- but it will be in the big-screen version.

Spending most of our time in West Bend on our own was still an excellent way to expand our project. We took the opportunity to film a lot of ourselves, so the audience can go on the journey with us.

Today we wound through more of those farm highways till we hit I-29 aqnd crossed into South Dakota. We had interviews with Dr. Jack Niemonen and Dr. Leroy Meyer at the University of South Dakota -- both exceptionally kind men whose knowledge and storytelling are only matched by their love to share. From Jack, we learned about race relations, the ambiguity of the term "racism," and the ideology of "whiteness." With Leroy, we learned about the philosophy and culture of religion -- he also waited patiently while we explored the National Music Museum, the world's greatest collection of historical musical instruments, and one of Leroy's favorite places.

As we did in Grinnell two days ago, we chose to do a camera-less approach today. From the Mexican restaurant where we ate dinner (staffed by one waitress and one cook, both young and white) to the Wal-Mart, we visited about eight different places and spoke with over 25 people. Having heard much about the Native American culture from Leroy, we were very excited by an offer of hospitality from a Native American in Wal-Mart -- but despite assuring us he would check with his wife and give us a call, we never heard from him.

Instead, we happened to run into Leroy Meyer's son, Andrew, working at the movie theater -- a bizarre coincidence, but Andrew, who is typically quiet and would have been much more nervous around the camera, ended up inviting us to the house he shares with three other college-age men. We ended up having a fantastic night with Andrew and his housemate Skylar -- the two are a hilarious pair, and they treated us to conversation, stories, and a trip to Spirit Mound, rich in Native American legend, and, unfortunately, hundreds of mosquitoes. My bite count is over 40, I'm pretty sure, but being on the mound, surrounded by plains, hundreds of fireflies, the nearly full moon, clear sky of stars, made it more than worth it.

Skylar and Andrew.

Yet another great night -- but also a tougher day than most. Keeping the camera and the details of our film a secret means that our question catches people far more off guard, and although some express genuine disappointment that they can't help us, many simply seem apathetic or even bothered that we asked such a silly question. Today we got lucky by meeting Leroy's son and having a connection to him -- but we could have easily ended up in the car, and our interactions with people in Vermillion would have amounted to just an awkward minute or two with each person.

A woman at Wal-Mart warned us that as we head west, the people will get less friendly. So as we lay down on Andrew and Skylar's mattresses on the floor tonight, we hope we discover something a little brighter.

American Bear The Official Day One: Roscoe, NY

I can hear the brook outside the window, along with the frogs that Joe calls peepers. I imagine they are tiny, but I bet I am wrong. When I stepped outside I saw lighting bugs, pine trees and fading light. It smells like camping.

Joe tells us about the flood that happened here a few years ago - about how it somehow avoided his home and most of his belongings, taking with it only a small shed. He shows us the gazebo he built, pebbles in the center making a medicine wheel. "I didn't realize when I built it that I had put the door facing west. I didn't have a compass or anything. I just wanted it pointed towards the house."

And it does face directly west, an axis of stones like an arrow out the front towards the setting sun.

Everything here is so green. A darker green than Vermont and maybe more constantly the same color. And there's a lot of pebbles. Everywhere. Joe says the stones have a special energy - a heat to them. All stones really, but because this land is made of rock and stone it makes it a whole different kind of place. He puts his hand a rock by the brook - he smiles at Greg.

Greg and I started in Morristown - at Greg's house. We said good bye and headed out. I have a sense of something beginning, but because I have no idea what, I don't get the usual nervousness. I think mostly I am just curious. Excited always, but mostly I just want to know whats going to happen. I feel like I am going to learn so much about who I am in the next 60 days - about other people, about our country. So my curiosity is overtaking my nerves. And it always helps to sing with Greg in the car.

We passed through New York City on our way Northwest. It's such an important place for me, for both of us, that it made sense to see it as a sort of beginning. If it weren't for New York City this whole journey would never be happening. I would never have fallen in love with Greg, never made this film with him. But I moved there and that is where this all began. All of it.

New York is such a busy place. So many pairs of feet and clenched palms.

Our final destination: Roscoe, NY.
Now we are in an even smaller neighboring town, watching old movies and hearing Joe Modica's stories. But the destination was downtown Roscoe - nicknamed Trout Town, USA and filled with trout imagery and traveling fishermen. Everyone of the locals kept referring to it as a tourist town - and we saw some license plates from very far away, but it feels like everyone we saw knew each other. It was not even close to the level of touristy that we had encountered in a couple of our test shoot towns. It was quaint -the down town only two blocks from start to finish. Even the locals see it that way. Quaint and quiet and close.

Very close. We talked to Kimberly who told us about her sister's horse back riding accident and the town coming together in a huge display of community to raise the money for her operation.

And now we are home for the night, getting ready to tuck into the comfy bed Joe has generously let us use - I keep thinking about energy and Joe's stories. I keep thinking about the exchange that happens between people when they tell each other stories. Joe told us we were changing things, that we are living the American dream.

Today, it certainly feels that way.