This blog follows the journey of Sarah and Greg as they made their film. To see a trailer, read more, learn about the progress of the film or share your story visit AMERICANBEARFILM.COM

60 days. 25 States. 5 Bears.

Sarah and Greg are setting out on an adventure exploring American trust and fear through hospitality. Armed with their charm, courage, and a camera, they will rely on the kindness of strangers for a home each night, and if they're lucky, a few meals along the way.

The story began in summer 2009 when Greg exclaimed in his sleep, "We have to go to Bear, Colorado!" Unfortunately, no Bear actually exists in Colorado. However, there are five Bears in America, fortuitously located in a perfect a 'U' around the continental U.S. - in Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, and Delaware. Following the trail of the Bears, Sarah and Greg will travel through 25 states of all different cultures, demographics, populations, and Americans.

Through conversations with locals, we will explore our themes on a personal level and embrace the stories that turn strangers into neighbors. Our discussions with scholars and professionals will dig into the philosophy and nature of a core aspect of what makes us human. We will understand why (or if) we let people into our hearts and our homes.

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Day 11: Grinnell, Iowa

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.

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.