Day 10: Decorah, Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Day 9: Wausau, Wisconsin

Well there is a nude beach near Mazomanie, hence our last cliffhanger post -- and in the morning, after leaving Don and Verna's house, we headed over to it. It was a little brisk out, and with thunderstorms the night before, there was no one on the beach. But the 3/4 mile walk to the sandy land on the calm Wisconsin River was peaceful, and the location so gorgeous -- we took a dip until we were too cold to bare -- I mean bear -- it anymore.

Wausau was a special stop on our trip, as we got to visit my Aunt Babs, Uncle Tim, Cousin Tricia, and Great-Grandma Robbins. We had a lovely time seeing them, family we don't get to see very often, and our relaxing time with them was complemented with a tour of town. We even got to tape up some rough edges on our rig and test out our rain rig in the comfort of a familiar home. But we had to keep up with the purpose of our project, so we set out to downtown Wausau to find a place to stay, all of us unsure whether to hope for luck or not so we could stay back at Aunt Babs and Uncle Tim's house.

The park in the center of town was supposed to have a concert, but the music got moved indoors in the afternoon with predictions of rain. By the time we got to the park around 7, the concert was in action but a number of people had decided to just remain camped out in the park -- if you bring lawn chairs and a picnic, why go inside? So we got to meet some interesting folks sitting outside, and although they were very friendly and proud of the community, the first few people we spoke to just dodged our ultimate question -- not a negative thing, necessarily, but certainly interesting. A little later, Sarah and I ended up speaking with two different groups at the same time, and unknowingly, we both got yes's at the same time -- from a relaxed single guy named Ty, and from an older couple, Chuck and Sue, who were petitioning for Chuck to run for local government. After some discussion and Chinese food, we ended up taking Ty up on his offer. We'll never know what we missed with Chuck and Sue, but we had to go with the first person to say yes.

And we had a great time, a very relaxing time in fact -- casual constant conversation with Ty and his friend Dawn (while Dawn's kids slept on the couch), a comfortable futon, then a great breakfast of chocolate-chip-cinammon-clove pancakes (made by Sarah) and eggs with tomatoes and onions (made by Ty).

We have one of our longer driving days today, heading down to Decorah, Iowa, where we're doing our first night of Couchsurfing. We're looking forward to a new experience and conversation about how hospitality via the internet creates community and comfort, and maybe even a pot luck dinner.

Day 8: Mazomanie, Wisconsin

We are sitting together near the computer in the downstairs portion of Don and Verna's home.

There is a hot tub outside waiting for us. And an American flag themed room just behind us with all of our equipment perched on the carpet.

Today was awesome. The town is tiny - the people friendly. Don and Verna made us their friends almost instantly. They took us to a concert  in the park where we ate giant cream puffs and listened to the editor of the local newspaper rock out with his band. Then we went to a wine bar and met a few more friends, talked for a long time - comfortably and casually.

Don and Verna are lovely. As simple as that. So accepting and trusting and interesting. They used to run a small two-room Bed and Breakfast and the idea of trusting strangers is not unfamiliar to them.

Mazomanie is somewhat divided between the old and the new: those who have lived here their whole lives, and those who have recently moved here, each with different approaches to turn the small town into a small town with thriving businesses. There are the stores on the highway like Gordon's, where we ate lunch and spoke with the owner about business slowing down, and a tough year with a break-in and a vehicle actually  running into the restauarant; versus the stores in the historic downtown, like the cafe that, for its manager Pat, is part of the fresh growth the give the little town a huge push. Our conversations with local business owners created a lot of questions about who will benefit most from a stronger downtown, and who needs the benefits as well.

The first four people we talked with weren't as receptive to our experiment as the people in Roscoe and Avoca, similarly small towns with similar demographics, where our hosts were the second or third person we talked to. We wondered if we were doing something differently -- maybe we've lost some of our nervous charm as we've become more comfortable with our idea -- as it's become a routine. But our first conversation with Verna brought us back to how we felt on Day 1, as she said yes without question, surprising both of us. Maybe the people are changing with us.

Today felt different. For a lot of reasons. The conversation between us, the interactions, our nervousness returning. It felt great.

Tomorrow: Nude Beach.

Frozen Motion

A visit to the Corning Museum of Glass in New York -- or at least its bathrooms.

The storm rolls towards the wind turbines near Avoca, NY. We counted 42 more in the surrounding hills.

Checking those mirrors.

Thunderstorm at 3:30am in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Monticello, IN.

Some of the kind folks at Ribfest in Fort Wayne, IN.

A few more kind folks, here at Indiana Beach in Monticello, IN.

Having fun at Indiana Beach!

Transferring footage in John's Bakery after sleeping at Wal-Mart. The thunderstorms kept rolling through.

Trying to find dinner at 10pm in Chicago. Why is nothing open?

Day Seven: Chicago!

Waking up in a Wal-Mart parking lot is not at all what I would have expected. Especially early in the morning when the parking lot is still mostly deserted and the light is faint and wet. In some ways it was kind of nice. I slept well - minus a few much needed stretches and a rainstorm that passed through at about 4 in the morning.

Our lack of electricity overnight meant we had to go to the local bakery and borrow all of their electrical outlets to do our daily downloading of footage and charging of batteries. The whole process took almost 3 hours. After a couple home made donuts we left at around 10:30am and started the drive to Chicago.

I think the hardest part of our day was picking an exit from the freeway. We guessed perfectly though and ended up just outside Millenium Park (we payed $29 dollars for parking! gah!). Greg has never been to Chicago and I wish we could have shown him more because it really is an amazing city, but we mostly experienced the Loop area - a good first glimpse I suppose. We stopped at the bean and the fountain - meeting people along the way.

Our first stranger was David - a fiddle player from Louisville who had moved to the city about a year ago. He played us a short tune as he was warming up and had some fascinating opinions about Chicago and the fear of strangers that seems to pervade cities and most towns. "I have noticed a change in myself moving here," he said. "In Louisville, you make eye contact with everyone you pass, or most people, but here, you don't." and "I did at first, but now I wear my sunglasses and my ipod so I can pretend that I am oblivious if people try to bother me." He didnt seem to like this idea, but was in a way resigned to it, "What I have done essentially is let people become part of the scenery." Interestingly enough, he spoke very highly of the community in Chicago, especially the home he found in the music scene here. He mentioned the openness and kindness of the musicians he had idolized enough to feel distanced from them before he tried to befriend them. "They really are just right here."

Eventually we met up with Rick and Jennifer on their way home from work. They were both clad in Johnny Rocket uniforms and comfortable strolling towards the L (read: train station). Rick said some amazing things about why we help people, or mostly why we don't. He said that he doesnt really trust people until he gets to know them, that no one really does and that's just the way it has to be. Then he called in a favor and found us a hotel for the night. We were shocked. Jennifer said she would have taken us home right away but she didn't want to put us through the three hour journey back home for the night. In shock and awe, we headed off to our first planned interview for the day.

But here is our dilemma: This is kindness in strangers. This is a HUGE favor. This is hospitality. But is this really what we are getting at? Because there is something about staying in a hotel that doesn't quite feel like really accomplishing our project. We relied on an incredibly kind stranger for a home. We are certainly experiencing a sort of kindness that is completely unexpected and completely amazing. So what's missing? I think it's the transformation. The change we watch and experience every night with the people we stay with - they slowly become our friends. This morning we woke up - well rested, clean, wet swimsuits hanging in the shower, we went downstairs for breakfast - but we hadn't made a new friend. We hadn't learned anything new about a person, a place, a culture, a country. We had nobody to leave a bear for. No one to hug good bye; no one to wish us good luck on our journey.

I think that's what makes a day feel like an important day - the days we wake up alone - those are the days that worry me. I want to hear stories, I want to tell stories. I want to see someone excited for us and with us and about us. We talked a lot about the stories that turn strangers into friends - and that's important, but maybe it's not the stories. Or maybe the stories are just a part of it. Maybe its sharing a home with someone, letting them take care of you, taking care of them. Peter, Stella and Becca in Oberlin had a point when they said that in some ways what we are doing is almost as "difficult" or important as being the person actively helping the other person. There is an exchange that happens. When someone helps you. When you help someone. When you sleep in the same house as somone. Joe would say energy. And Patti and Randy would probably say that the relationship is just the Christian thing to do. Susan might make a joke or just smile a little knowing smile. But they are all right - something happens. Friendship. Connection.

So we leave Chicago today - having met some amazing people, experienced some pretty Chicago-y things. But I dont think we know Chicago quite as well as we know Roscoe or Avoca - or even Oberlin.

Maybe tonight we will make a new friend or two.

Day 6: Monticello, Indiana

The route from Fort Wayne to Monticello is entirely on Route 24, a highway that drifts from four lanes to two, and from 65 mph to 35 mph. It’s a great way to see some local Indiana land and make quick progress at the same time. We spent a chunk of our evening at Indiana Beach Amusement Park, featuring the slogan, “There’s more than corn in Indiana!” We sure saw both sides of the coin.

Monticello: small town mixed with vacation resort – sort of. Campgrounds and inns abound near Indiana Beach, and it’s a very popular tourist destination particularly for folks from Chicago. We explored the town a bit, met some locals, then headed to the amusement park for something special. We had been in touch with the park in advance, but had never heard back from them, so we began by meeting with John, the General Manager. His permission went from an apologetic no, to a complimentary Father’s Day buffet dinner, to finding us a guide to travel around the park with. Kyle, a marketing manager at the park, became our third crew member and park supervisor.

We talked to whole bunch of people at the park, and got more attention than we did anywhere else – people waving to the camera, asking us about our project, very interested in our equipment. We heard a lot of positive thoughts about the park and the community, with a lot of people focusing on how “family-oriented” the park and town are. One woman, Shirley, opened up to us right away about her son who died in an accident 17 years ago – this was her first time visiting the park since, this time with her daughter and her grandson. But for the sake of our experiment, it wasn’t the best location: very few people were locals, and even the employees mostly commuted from even an hour away.

Our longest conversation of the day was around 10pm, after leaving Indiana Beach, with a man named Pops hanging around outside John’s Bakery (it happens to be the same place I’m typing this, the following morning, having enjoyed some incredible donuts and using their power outlets to transfer footage). Pops had fascinating things to say about the peaceful little community here, the KKK-spirited area he used to live in, his time as a cross-country truck driver, and his experiences as a homeless man. Nowadays he lives in just a “garage,” as a young feisty friend put it. No cable, no internet, Pops had no problem being very vocal on camera, but he was disappointed that he’ll probably never see the product.

We met a lot of people in Monticello, and everyone fell into three categories as relates to our search for a home: tourists, commuters, or with a home barely big enough for themselves. Surely there are folks who would have let us stay – our luck in previous towns has already made us optimistic about everywhere we go. But the random folks we chose from didn’t yield a home. Fear didn’t seem to be much of a factor – the means were the problem. A few people shirked being on camera at all, but most people were clamoring to be interviewed or have their picture taken, and all those people touted the friendliness of the area. But we’re starting to see a different side of America: where the friendliest people may also be the least wealthy, and where a fireworks store refuses any filming, for fear of the footage being shared with competing fireworks stores in town.

So at about 11 we settled into the Wal-Mart parking lot. We washed up in the bathroom then rearranged the car so we could lean the seats back. We cracked the windows, and embarked on a rough night of perspiration, thunderstorms, the hum of industrial lights, the growl of semi engines, and even a little bit of sleep.

Day Five: Ribfest 2010 in Fort Wayne!

We left Oberlin behind for a three hour drive.

A long stretch of cornfields, mills and farms sped past us as we drove down the highway. We have been very excited about crossing the borders between states and when the Indiana sign popped up we had our camera ready. On previous road trips our approach has been just to scream at the sign: “INDIANA!” – this exclamation has been replaced by anticipation as we have made it our business to know exactly when the sign is coming – we wouldn’t want to miss it.

It’s been an interesting journey so far – an experience so different from any of our previous road trips. The way we are learning about each location is through the people that we stay with and the people we meet in our wanderings. It’s completely happenstance, but it's so much more informative. So much more personal. It doesn’t feel like a road trip anymore – its not so much about the place as the people. We aren’t excited to be someplace new because of the landscape or because we have never seen it before, we are excited because the people tend to be so different. And not so much in a way that lets us categorize them. People in Indiana are not x, y, z but different from each other in ways that are really just special to them as individuals.

Place is discovered through those individuals because they fit inside the geography. Joe from Roscoe was interesting because he was the only reiki healer for many miles, he had the only spiritual center in the area, he loved it there because he was “creating an oasis for people." And he fit there because of his New York history, his patriotism and his experiences as a paratrooper. Patti’s ghost hunting belonged in the town that felt like the smallest we’ve seen so far – with teenage drama that is much bigger than any we had heard of. It belonged there because the ghosts are her drama and in some ways they let her bring the outside world in. Each character fits their geography in a way that illuminates them and their location. So we don’t scream "Indiana" – we prepare ourselves for it and we can never imagine who we are going to meet.

With this in mind we crossed into our next state – debating the crimes of eating meat as we headed towards Ribfest.
We were greeted in Fort Wayne by the parking attendant first, a college student named Parker. He was incredibly friendly and had a lot to say about the festival culture of the city. As well as its abundance of churces and strip clubs.

Ribfest is a huge event. I dont think Greg and I realized its scale before arriving. There were maybe 15 rib stands, a few barbeque stands (selling grills), some sauce stands, ice cream, funnel cake, fried foods and maybe 3000 people packing tables in the main quad, listening to music - a choir trying to get to China for the summer Olympics, a couple blues and rock bands. It was crazy. People meandering from stand to stand, getting their fill of unlimited barbeque options. Stickers, free samples, the owners of the stands themselves, grinning and greating people. We talked to a man who had just started his cart and was here for his first festival - "If you gotta put sauce on it then the meat, well, it just ain't right." We talked to a photographer who had a damaged optic nerve and turned to barbeque when his friends told him he was great at it. We talked to a man who'd lost his job and started making ribs to pay the bills. Everyone had a great story and a great name. One cart, Fat Guys, was passing out stickers that said "I [Heart] Fat Guys."

At the suggestion of Stella from Oberlin, we made it our mission to approach people in red shirts. She said it seemed like a way to make our hunts more random. I love the idea because it puts everything in the hands of the energy of the world. Maybe, like Joe said, we will meet the people we need to meet and tell the stories we need to tell. And like Susan said "It's an interesting group of people you have here" - there are so many people to meet. We wouldn't want to miss someone - and this seems like a fair way to find people and an easier way to be sent in the "right" direction.

Everyone we spoke to was friendly and covered in barbeque sauce, but at the end of the day we ended up taking Mark Chappuis up on is offer for a room in a hotel. He tried to feed us too. Mark is the Executive Director of the festival, and was incredibly excited about our mission. He spoke for a while about the kindness of the midwest. He said that this festival would give us a taste of some Hoosier hospitality, and it did! Our amazing deep-fried-barbeque-friendly-conversation-too-hot-in-the-sun kinda day was at its close. The sun was still up and it was already almost 9 pm.

It took us a while to find the hotel, but once we settled in, I think we were a little lonely. As grateful as we were, we missed the idea of home.

American Bear, Day 3: Ashtabula, Ohio

We got to Walnut Beach just as everyone was getting off work and piling onto the sand. Or so some teenage girls said when we asked if they thought we'd find someone to stay with. They were positive - but the opposite of loquacious. Most of the people we spoke to seemed less than eager to share stories with us. But then again, most of them were teenagers excited about the first hot breaths of summer.

Finally, we found Susan Hamme. She was nice from the get go - and also interested in answering our questions. And then - after a subtle but thorough background check, she invited us home with her. After, of course, the party she was attending wrapped up. But then she invited us to come play bocce with the group starting in a couple hours.

It was a perfect situation really. Because we got to explore Lake Erie.

I have never seen a Great Lake, until yesterday. And let me tell you - that is not a lake, it's an ocean. Without salt. The only thing that felt different to me - that really felt like someplace I'd never experienced, were the woods on either end of the beach - [small and light and more like clusters of trees than woods. But thats what they were called: woods.] - and the pebbles. There were pebbles and stones everywhere. Round and smooth and colorful. I spent most of my childhood obsessed with rocks; my 5th grade science fair project was basically just a survey of the different kinds of rocks. And the tide of this great lake had rubbed these rocks into smooth little pebbles in so many colors - bright orange to a jasper green - sand stone and granite and something the color of Greg's shirt.

It was cold. Very cold. But bareable. And I pulled Greg in after me. It had a small tide - a little rumble really - nothing exceptionally dragging. We swam around for maybe an hour, Greg stuck his tongue in the water multiple times - I think he was shocked to discover it wasn't salty. He said it was the first time he had been in a big body of water since he was fifteen - and it showed on his face.

Then we watched the sunset.

And then we met up with Susan, Lindsey, Chris and the gang for bocce. It turns out Greg is an amazing bocce player. He saved the day on multiple occassions - mostly after I had just messed something up. I had a few good rolls - even earning us a few points, but Greg, whoah, someone needs to buy him a set. And force him to compete. For money. Their family is amazing - a collection of the most interesting people: loving, nurturing. We used bug spray for the first time this summer, spent a few hours in the lights of the bocce court, caught some lightning bugs (that is another story from my childhood), played with the dog, and made sure to keep the feeling of competition up.

As we were playing, Sabrina (Chris' daughter) suggested an adventure for the morning. And I latched on - even if it meant waking up before 7am to go to the river.

Our time in Susan's home was short - at least while we were awake. But she was so kind and hospitable. She had an amazing shower - by the end of the night I felt cleaner than I had in days. We were joined in our night with her by Lindsey's two children: Gwen and Ian who were cute, cuddly and tired. They also loved the stuffed bears that we give out as thank you presents.

It was an all out sleep over - Susan, her dog Maddie and 4 guests.

After a delicious breakfast - Chris kindly treated us all - we pulled on our swimsuits and drove to the ford to jump into the cool (read: very cold) waters of the Ashtabula River. From a ford. Which is a bridge made of concrete that also functions as a dam. It was beautiful. The entire river bed was made of solid rock, the edges covered in the same colorful pebbles. Sabrina, Jose, Tatyana and Chris were fabulous company. We walked upstream, tried to catch some fish and told stories about algae and home. ATV's drove past, revving their engines as we counted to three and jumped into the river.

One. Two. Three. JUMP.

Day 4: Oberlin, Ohio

The drive from Ashtabula to Oberlin was a breeze. Less than two hours down the interstate, curving around Cleveland, catching glimpses of Lake Erie with the tall buildings looming above. I drove for the second day in a row and Sarah conducted a pre-interview phone call with one of the professors we're meeting next week. We're averaging about ten minutes of radio or iPod usage a day. The quiet and conversation just seem to fit the passing landscapes.

Oberlin is a pretty typical college town. I'm not trying to knock it, and I'm sure there are staunch advocates for its unique qualities, which are probably discovered over more time than one night. That's just my impression: the cute, small downtown with a few restaurants, a few stores, a lovely quad, decorous older buildings -- it's great, but I sort of felt like I had been here before.

We spent most of the afternoon working without the camera: a long creative conversation sitting on the grass, some phone calls, using the internet in a coffee shop. We did sneak in some ice cream from Gibson's, and my Frosted Cookie ice cream brownie hot fudge sundae was pretty phenomenal.

Sarah got the camera out of the roasting car and cooled it off in an air conditioned bead and art store while I called my mom. We finally set out to find our home for the night. We talked to a few people, and heard different opinions about the much-touted diversity in Oberlin: an African-American woman who moved here from Los Angeles was on a mission for truth, as she put it, and the truth is that diversity is a myth; but a Caucasian high school student immediately praised the diversity and open minds that make Oberlin a wonderful community for anyone.

We were directed to the Bike Co-op, where anyone in the community can pay a small fee for renting bikes and repairing bikes (they even have great programs in which you can build your own bike in exchange for helping out). We got a tour from Stella and Peter, college students who are some of the Co-op's hardest workers. Most fascinating was the bike graveyard, where dozens of unfinished bike projects are hanging on the wall or piled together in an unfinished space underground. When all was said and done, we had seen a wonderful example of community sharing, and we had found a place to stay: Stella and Peter live in a house with Becca, and they immediately offered their space.

Sarah and I wandered a bit more as the sun began to set -- we sat in the park again, where I continued cultivating bug bites and Sarah lay down in the grass, a relaxing moment as the day turned into night.

We headed over to the house, which slopes in the kitchen and bathroom and has cracks and holes in the walls that suggest a long history. If Patti from Avoca was here, I bet she would feel the ghosts.

Peter made a wonderful dinner of noodle and vegetable soup with a vegetable stock they had made a few days earlier. We brought in our remaining half of a loaf of bread that my neighbor Mr. Goode made and gave to us as a departing gift -- it had served us wonderfully as a daily snack, and now we could contribute it to a hospitable meal, literally breaking bread with our new friends.

Stella, Peter, and Becca were great to talk with -- when we did a more formal interview with them, Sarah was very impressed with how articulate they all are, discussing their belief in trusting people within our American culture of fear. Peter, a music composition major, described his creative process with us and gave me some music by his favorite composers -- modern, Italian, pushing the boundaries of instrumental music and perception of sound -- I can't wait to listen to it, but the car might not be the most hospitable place.

After a long night of conversation, we set up our computer work space (computer, two hard drives, camera, sound, all transferring, lasting almost three hours). Our hosts headed out to a friend's house, leaving us alone to wrap up our work and set up our sleeping bags. It was around 2:30am that we finally eased into sleep, the room softly illuminated by white Christmas lights hanging above the windows.

Now we're back in the coffee shop, about to find some snacks at the Farmer's Market across the street, then heading off to Fort Wayne, Indiana for -- well, we'll tell you in our next post.

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.

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.

13 hours. Tick tock. We hit the road, drive through New York City, and curve west in upstate New York till we hit Roscoe, our first small town! The car is 95% packed, practically airtight!

Our rig includes our Canon 7D, our sound recorder with three microphones, and the shoulder mount, as well as a light and bounce for the planned interviews. It actually gets pretty compact in a handy Canon backpack, and when assembled, it's not only remarkably convenient, but looks both homemade and technologically advanced. Then again, it's all in the eye of the beholder. But we love it!

Our sweet ride with sweet magnets. Hopefully it won't cause too much rubbernecking.

This is out pretty darn finalized route. We've got 60 precise stops that aren't labeled here, but they're all along that blue line. We had hoped to make it out to the west coast, but due to interviews we had already scheduled back east, it looks like we'll be saving the Pacific for our next adventure.

After our wonderful test shoot last week, we've assembled our final to-do lists before hitting the road for the full 60-day journey on June 15th. We submitted our last grant application two days ago, got giant magnets made for the car, received our order of 120 teddy bears to leave as thank-you gifts for the people we stay with, and we've got business cards and thank-you stationery on the way.

Sarah's in Italy right now, and I'm trying to balance three projects at once before committing to "American Bear" 24/7. But we've got four hours of footage from our test shoot just begging to be edited into something fun, so check back soon for some kind of trailer, music video, or video story from our experiences.

And if you haven't caught our conversation series or promo from New York, check out our videos here!

Our day started wonderfully, waking up slowly in the Maine sun, a chilly, but SUNNY morning. I don’t think we’ve mentioned that in the last two days, we did not get even a glimpse of the sun. So waking up to blue skies was incredibly exciting. I took a hot shower in a white bathroom filled with light and put on my shorts and flip-flops.

Greg and I said goodbye to Chris (we said goodbye to Michelle before bed) and headed out.

Our drive started back the way we had come – through Ogunquit (yes, I made Greg stop so I could put my feet in the ocean when it wasn’t pouring rain.) I had actually worn my swimsuit under my clothes from the get-go so I could go splashing into the ocean. But let me tell you – the Atlantic near Maine is cold in May! I ran in at least up to my hips – by the time I made it that far out my feet were numb.

We stopped for ice cream; it felt like summer.

The drive into Vermont was beautiful. Probably the greenest land I have ever seen. (I wonder if that will change in the next 60 days). The thing about trees in Vermont is that they are so many different colors of green and so many different textures – but consistent. A consistent muddled green and hilly landscape. We stopped at the Cabot cheese-sampling center near Quechee to sample some cheeses and maple syrups and attempt to chat with locals in order to find a place to stay without our camera. I love talking to people, but I hate asking for favors and so I really never made it past small talk and general chatting.
We drove a little further, into Woodstock to try and do our experiment without the camera. We decided that the best approach was to be honest – we don’t need the camera but we should tell people what we are doing.

Aside: This has been a constant source of debate. Will people treat us differently if we have a camera? Will they feel like we are manipulating them if we ask for a favor and then ask to film them? Will they feel like we are manipulating them if we ask to film them and then ask for a favor? How can we do this experiment in the way that is the most honest and straightforward? But also how can we do this experiment in a way that represents the journey of any American.

We stopped at Mac’s grocery store – deciding to tell people that we were traveling through, making a documentary (not mentioning specifics) and asking if they knew of a place we could pitch our tents for the night. The first woman we asked, Cathy, offered almost instantly to take us home. We bought some juice and granola and followed her up the winding road. But her home was not just any home – it was a beautiful farm nestled comfortably on over 1,000 of the most lush acres I have ever seen – complete with cattle, chicken and the cutest blue healer – Roo.

Cathy’s husband, Bill, took us on a tour of the farm – telling us many wonderful stories. We got to see their event space, which is currently being built – it’s beautiful. I really really really would love to have a screening there sometime. We talked cameras and travel and grants and adventures with Bill, did a quick interview and piled into our tent for the evening. The weather was lovely! And Greg got a real glimpse at stars. We passed out with in seconds and didn’t wake up until early morning when the farm started rustling – chicken cooing, wood pecker pecking, Roo running around. Bill and Cathy had us in for breakfast. Yum!

Then we were off – back to New Jersey. Time to reflect, replan and keep working until June 15th, when the adventures begin again.

(Our last planned stop was in Brattleboro – a town Chris and Michelle told us we couldn’t visit because it would be too easy. They were right, the people we spoke to were very friendly and recommended a great diner for pancakes with real Vermont maple syrup.)

Day Two. Lightyears away from Day One. Partly because we learned so much yesterday and partly because Kennebunkport, Maine, is not Worcester, Massachusetts.

This morning we woke up early in Shrewsbury – I experienced Ellie and Jim’s incredible showerhead – and we hit the road at 7:30, the same time Ellie left for work. We headed northeast towards Maine, and as our morning progressed, so did the rain. It was pouring (and freezing) when we pulled into a Target parking lot in New Hampshire to use a bathroom and get some breakfast snacks. Sarah conducted two great pre-interviews over the phone today, speaking with our scholars from the University of Maryland who we’ll be interviewing in person on August 8th, when we enter Maryland on our official 60-day journey.

Despite the rain, we got onto Coastal Route 1 upon entering Maine, driving through several beach towns – I’ve had a fantasy about moving to Maine for a while now, and today pretty much sealed the deal. We got out and ran onto the beach in Ogunquit, but the pounding rain and wind sent us back to the car pretty quick. We drove. We turned sometimes. We were getting tired. We were ready for our day to begin. So we pulled into the Cape Porpoise Kitchen where we had our first interview of the day with Tim, met some locals, got recommendations about where to go, and also had one of the best cookies I’ve ever had: a Buffalo Chip cookie stuffed with chocolate and walnuts and gooey like a fresh brownie.

Taking the recommendations, and eager to get out of the car and experience a specific community, we parked in Kennebunkport, just ten minutes away. We loved the small-town atmosphere, cute shops, and water all around. The rain was even calming down to welcome us. We had a great feeling about Kennebunkport.

We got a purple plastic bag from Poofberry’s toy store to protect the camera from rain. We tried the Chamber of Commerce, but they were too busy to speak with us. We went to BH Provisions, a town landmark that let us shoot in the store and speak with customers. We would actually return later and meet Audrey, a college student our age, who was home for the summer, who was eager to help us and said she’d talk to her mom and give us a call (more on this later).

We went to Maine-Arts and several other stores and spoke with owners and customers along the way. Everyone we met was very friendly, and very enthusiastic about how friendly everyone else was, but once we popped our question (paraphrased: “Can we stay with you?”), everyone said that they couldn’t personally host us, but they had no doubt we’d find someone. We were often directed to go to a certain place to meet people, but no one wanted to invite us themselves.

Once we met Karen in her store Daytrip, our day began to take a turn. Karen is part of an artistic sub-community that clearly stood out from the people we were mostly speaking to. Although she couldn’t invite us to her home (her wedding is in 16 days!), she said she’d contact people via phone and Facebook and try to get us in touch with someone that way. She also recommended two people to visit in town, other storeowners who we might have good luck with. The first of her recommendations we visited was Chris at his store Minka, which features artwork by Chris and jewelry by his wife Michelle. Chris was a little nervous, and then a little taken aback by our ultimate question, but he actually said yes – with the catch the he had to talk to his wife first so he would call us later. In the meantime, he passed us on to his friend Finn.

Finn runs an inn nearby, but wasn’t interested in being filmed – however, his eyes lit up with an exciting idea of his own. He called the Maine Stay Inn, just around the corner, and asked to speak with Johanna, the daughter of Walt, the owner. Once Johanna got on the phone, Finn said, “Johanna, I’m sending two very interesting people over to you now.” And that was that.

Excited, nervous, and with no idea what was going on, we went over to the Maine Stay Inn, where Johanna met us with a beautiful smile. She sat down with us in the dining room, heard our story, and wanted to give us a room. The discussion eventually included her father and mother, and turned out to be a no – obviously a wise business decision for a bed and breakfast. But Walt and Johanna were eager to pass us on to good luck, like everyone else, and recommended we head to the monastery in town.

We were visiting Karen at Daytrip again, to update her on our chain of events, on our way to the monastery, when Chris called me and said he and his wife would love to have us. And so it was that we didn’t make it to the monastery after all. Instead, we drove half an hour to Chris and Michelle’s house in Saco.

We arrived around 7pm, and had a phenomenal night. Michelle made the best pizza we may have ever had, as well as her own unique herbal tea experience for me to enjoy. We took a walk with Chris, Michelle, and their dogs Igby and Sophie, just past sunset, with a gorgeous blue sky, moon, stars peeking out, over to the ocean, the Saco river, onto the wooden marina, and through their neighborhood. It was beautiful, peaceful, and absolutely felt like strangers turning into friends. Later on, Michelle read our Native American medicine cards, a wonderful way to cap a night of positive energy – in our experiences and our conversation. Chris and Michelle were so friendly, so interesting, and so generous. Although we initially planned on sleeping on their couch, they decided to let us stay in the apartment above their garage – giving us plenty of space, privacy, and even a bed. Not just a home, but our own home, if only for a night.

Chris wasn’t the only person to call us back – later in the night, while we were already settled at their house, Audrey from the Kennebunkport HB Provisions gave us a call, offering us two places to stay! There’s a lot of truth in what they say about friendly folks in Maine.

I am currently sitting on the soft blue couch of Jim and Ellie Mangan. Greg is watching a show about elephants on TV. Ellie is working on her computer just next to me.

Today began slowly - we drove to Bear Mountain, spent some time in the greenest place I think I have ever been. I felt like I was walking on fluffy green blankets. It was misty and rainy and looked beautiful on camera. We've been using my DVX as we wait for our new camera to come in the mail, but it was shockingly scenic.

We stopped in Beacon, NY at BJ's Soul Food for the restroom and ended up staying for peach pie and Who Wants to Be a Millionare with the local residents who come by for lunch and trivia every Tuesday. It was pretty decent pie - especially since it was about 6oz of home made crust and filling for only $3.25. It looks like my search for the best pie in America is beginning early. yum!

From there we drove to the Auburn, MA mall just outside of Worcester, MA where people were not all that helpful or hopeful. After a discouraging stint in the mall, and a veggie sandwich - we decided to go to downtown Worcester to find more generous and curious people.

After only a couple attempts, we stumbled upon Jim and Ellie laughing and talking with another woman who left just as we approached them. We knew they were different because when we said hello, Jim enthusiastically said hi back, shook our hands and asked us how we were.

And now I am sitting on their blue fuzzy couch listening to Ellie type, sing, and occasionally tell stories, Greg's pen moving on his little white notebook and the narrator on tv talking about dying elephants. What a complete day. And a lovely night.

We're hitting the road in the morning for our test shoot -- four days of exploring New England and more importantly, exploring how to make this film. We've got some of our equipment, and a good approximation of the rest of the equipment, so we'll be learning about those logistics, as well as managing release forms, and learning about when to turn the camera on and what to expect. Of course, not knowing what to expect is a pretty huge, exciting, and inevitable part of the project, but we've got a lot to learn in the next four days, and then a couple weeks to continue preparing before we hit the road for good on June 15th.

When we're traveling this summer we hope to update this blog as much as possible -- once a day even. So part of the test shoot will be updating too! Visit again tomorrow and each day this week for an update! And if there's not an update, well... we're probably sleeping in the car.