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
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.
The road to Vegas:
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.
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.
Outside the schoolhouse.
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?
A field of wildflowers in Bear; the mountains in the distance are in Oregon.
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.
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.
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 =) ***".
Stanton Lake near Hungry Horse, Montana
I realized how little we exercise while hiking there. sigh.
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.
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?
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.
We started at the Capital Journal - the newspaper for the area - to do an interview with David, a young reporter who majored in Poli-Sci at Grinnell. David, unlike the previous people who have spoken to us, asked if he could follow us on our journey for a bit. So we set out with three instead of two.
We also started late. Maybe around 6:30pm. Maybe 7. Because the interview took a while. In Pierre, just on the line for Mountain Time, this looks like early afternoon, not evening.
The first local we found said yes. Instantly and sweetly - she joked about having us help her make bagels at five in the morning and was shocked when we enthusiastically said we would love to do that. We gave her our card and decided to do more interviews while she cleaned up her coffee shop.
BUT about an hour later, after a lot of long conversations with nonlocals and locals alike - conversation that did not include asking for a place to stay - she canceled on us. She said she didnt realize it was so late in the evening, that her husband had a baseball game until very late. When I assured her late was fine - we had many things to occupy our time, she insisted that it wouldnt work out. I think perhaps the fear hit her late, but that meant that it was almost 8:30pm and we were now without a home for the evening.
We asked a few more people - kept running into out-of-towners. We went to a bar where no one greeted us, and the own her said "no fucking way" to an interview. We went to an Italian restaurant: talked to the wait-staff and the chefs. They were super nice but coulnt help. We asked a woman as she was sitting down to her table. She sent us to another restaurant. We went. We spoke to maybe 5 people there, including a man who suspected us of trying to manipulate him through editing into saying horrible things that he didnt want to say. I'd say generally, people were very friendly, but many people were made incredibly nervous by the presence of the camera. It wasnt our request, premise or idea that got to them. It was the camera. And everyone said it would have the opposite affect...
This entire time David was following us. For nearly 6 hours he hung about diligently and waited for us to find our hosts for the evening. But that moment never really came for him.
Rewind. On our drive to Piere Greg and I stopped to get pie. Pie is probably my favorite food. And I have made it a quest of mine to try pie in ever state we visit - the ultimate goal being of course to eat the best pie in the country. I am mostly a fan of peach and berry pies, but the occasionally pumpkin, banana cream or coconut cream sometimes finds itself in front of me. So at this little restaurant I had homemade banana cream pie. It was not good pie. It was alright pie - it was very banana-y and the coffee was onlce 5 cents. But the woman who worked as a hostess was INCREDIBLY nice. She was curious about our project and when we explained it to her she gave us some phone numbers for people she would almost definitely help us.
As we pull on the highway Greg says, "you didnt get her name did you?"
Fast Forward: back to our second restaurant - we have just left the parking lot after the strange paranoid (and also probably drunk) man and Greg and I decide to call these numbers. David says we can be his fall back plan, but he'd need to stay objective for his article, so we call. Calling people is a new thing for us - even when people we stay with suggest someone, we generally refuse to find them. Mostly because it feels like cheating and because it feels better to meet someone in person. But we call. And this is how the conversation goes: "Hi Guy. My name is Sarah, I am making a documentary and I was told you were a good person to ask for help. The woman who told me works at Al's Oasis, she uh, she took a teaching class with you, and she buys organic millet from you for her goats. Funny thing is, we never exchanged names...so. Yeah. Yeah. .....Its about relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night...... Yeah? Really? That would be great.... Fishing? This late?.... Yeah. Sounds good. Twenty minutes?......Alright, Thank you so much!"
Guy, and his son Jack met us at the Wal-Mart parking lot and took us home. I think David was a little disappointed.
We had an amazing night. We stayed up till 2AM talking with Guy about everything from our first date to dinosaur bones, to the things we are supposed to talk about like culture and fear and trust, to the Spanish treasure his father is so adamant about finding. He showed us his sunglasses that record secret HD video. Guy is a sort of back country Renaissance man - he runs a couple of small casinos, a farm, and a few properties. He is an avid fisher and hunter (the walls of his home decorated elegantly with mounted trophies), a family man, a hopeless romantic, a collector of dinosaur bones - and he isnt that much older than us.
We woke up first in the morning, only three hours after we went to sleep - had to get the oil changed in the car - so we left without really getting to say goodbye, but made sure his thank you note and stuffed bear were placed in plain sight on the kitchen counter.
I tripped on his cowboy boots when we walked out the door.
Pierre was not the most hospitable town. Not unfriendly but definitely guarded. I never worry that we wont find a place to stay. But sometimes I worry about the movie. It's interesting the way that experiencing what is happening and experiencing what is happening sometimes come into conflict. And how some of the best moments never make it onto film.
So the beginning - our late start, our third person - created the end.
In Pierre we learned exactly how circumstantial everything is. By chance, we met mostly nonlocals. By chance, we met people who were afraid of the camera. I have never been more grateful for a fall back plan. Because our fall back turned out to be an amazing night.
Day 15 is our sort of day off. We knew we had a long drive ahead of us. And tons of National Parks to drive through, so we made a deal: If we got to our destination any later than 8 we would foot the bill to stay in a cheap motel for the night. We left Pierre late - almost 11am - after fixing the car, making copies at the public library, buying groceries. We drove for nearly 9 hours. Because we visited some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
We saw Mt. Rushmore - Greg jumping as high as he could to line his head up with Washington's.
We visited the Bad Lands - Greg found it incredibly peaceful, for some reason it completely destroyed my understanding for proportion, I could never tell how big the shapes I was looking at were.
We visited the Black Hills - Our first glimpse of a pine forest since our journey began.
We visited a town called Scenic and spoke to a wonderful woman named Kim. Her story made Greg nearly cry while he was shooting. She was a remarkable lady - a bison rancher who operated a second hand shop and was very open about her lack of trust and where it came from. She told us her whole story. You'll have to see the movie to hear it.
That night, we pulled into a tiny motel, and it was strange, it felt like one of the best shooting days we'd had. Our camera was full, and we were tired.
There is so much to see in United States. So many different people, whose lives are more complex than I could ever imagine or create. I think a lot about this from a fiction perspective as we go - how these people are so real, why they are so real. And even in the superficial ways that we understand people in narrative film - through small actions, hobbies, details - the people we meet are real even in those superficial details.
And the landscape is amazing.
(pictures soon, I promise. Also - Another blog post about last night)
Downtown Mazomanie, Wisconsin.
En route to the Mazo Beach three days ago.
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.
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).
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.
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.