We drove through Twin Falls, a much smaller town than we anticipated after seeing signs for it from hundreds of miles away -- but much bigger than Council and Bear from yesterday. We decided to return to the Target parking lot we had passed. Target, and most grocery/department stores, attract all demographics, and they're almost guaranteed to be local. This is one of the ways we're getting away from our most common method of meeting people, in which we explore a cute downtown by foot, maybe a park, and meet families and small business owners.
We were trying one more variation today: wearing a cross necklace. More than half of our hosts have had Christian decorations at home and cited religion in their decision to take us in: "It's just the Christian thing to do." We wanted to see if including Christianity in our appearance would make a difference in finding a home -- maybe it would be quicker. We both had mixed feelings about wearing a cross -- for both of us, it's a lie. I was most nervous that we would meet a wonderful host, who would eventually point out our necklaces, begin a religious conversation, and then feel terribly betrayed when we confessed that we weren't observing Christians. But I also figured it would be a pretty fascinating part of the film.
So in the Target parking lot we approached about 12 people and half declined to interview. Of those who did speak with us, no one offered us a home, but several took our card, hoping they would think of someone and give us a call -- we were actually impressed by how friendly a couple people were given our abrupt approach and the spontaneity of conversation with strangers. Of course, we had that experience to the extreme when we went straight to Larry and Judy's door in Bear, Idaho. After asking about a dozen people, we were kicked out of the Target parking lot for "soliciting."
We moved about two hundred feet and met more people in the WinCo grocery store parking lot. We had about the same rate of half-yes/half-no to interview, until we met our last interview of the day: Elma, 60s, putting bird seed in her trunk to bring home for the birds and squirrels in her backyard. She later told us that Sarah's smile and my eyes made her comfortable right away, and that she had even been smiling after witnessing a failed approach with four men just before we met her. We told her our quick story, and she didn't bite right away -- she read the release form carefully, and asked "What does a host have to do?" Sarah described that we're pretty low-maintenance, we have sleeping bags, we'd love to do an interview with our host... and Elma looked up and said "You can sleep on my patio."
We followed her home and over the course of the night met her daughter Beth, son-in-law Chuck, and Elma's husband Jack. Elma never stopped offering us things: dinner, water bottles, books -- and by the end of the night we were sleeping in the living room instead of the patio. Elma shared many stories with us, getting comfortable and personal almost immediately: discussing her family, her history with Jack, and her daughter who passed away three weeks ago. We formed one of our strongest connections with Elma; or maybe it was formed from the beginning, something about intuition and timing and Sarah's friendly smile. We sat on the patio with Elma and Jack for a couple hours, until it got dark and we moved inside. This morning, I woke up in my sleeping bag with Jack sitting a foot away in his armchair, sipping his coffee -- just because two new friends were sleeping on the floor didn't mean Saturday morning routine had to change.
Elma was our first direct success with our quick approach: knowing next-to-nothing about us, she felt instantly comfortable having us at her house. But in talking with her for hours, we also learned that she generally doesn't trust people -- she'd much rather spend time with animals, because people can hurt you. Above all, she trusts her instincts, and knows that if someone rubs her the wrong way there's a good reason. We talked about religion, and although Elma and Jack are both Christians, they "don't need to put on fancy clothes and go to church to prove it." Elma said she never even noticed the crosses around our necks -- and Sarah and I were relieved to take them off after feeling guilty all day. For the first day of this test, it seems that appearing Christian made no difference. Over and over again, we learn that our attitude is the most important way we find friendly and hospitable people. For Elma, it was Sarah's smile; when we looked gross in Couer D'Alene, it was our enthusiasm that matched with Cortney and Amber. Friendly people attract friendly people. The connections we make haven't been because of our appearance, they've been due to something intangible, trust and comfort and curiosity that comes to life between two strangers' smiles. Every day, I'm reminded of a pithy quote that I fall in love with more each day: "Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet."
Of course, there are dozens of people who say no to us, who don't smile, who don't speak to us at all. The documentation of our experiences mostly focuses on the positive, the one person or family a day with whom we have a wonderful time -- and the positive experiences are what we remember most as well. But maybe we need to explore the negative a little more too, find a way to acknowledge the 19 out of 20 people a day who say no to us, recognize the countless factors that lead to a cold shoulder, or just an "I'm sorry." Sarah wrote about the pressure of hospitality a couple days ago, and we've surely experienced that many times. But what about the people who decline to interview and never even find out what we're doing?