Jolene in Lame Deer had recommended the KOA campground in Big Timber -- it even has waterslides! No matter where we go and what we hear about it in advance, we're always apprehensive that we won't have good luck -- of course, we've only slept in the car once, and we're also optimistic, otherwise we wouldn't do this project. I guess I mean to say that we prepare. We're open-minded. I always check for a cheap motel, a Wal-Mart, and a campground on our way into town, just as a back-up. On our way into Big Timber, we saw the KOA waterslides, but we would never get on them.
The gas station just off I-90 told us to head to the bars in town, especially The Grand, the main hotel/restaurant/bar/saloon. We went there first, and didn't get much farther -- we were in the restaurant for the next three or four hours. The waitress, then bartender, then manager all got involved in introducing us to the locals. It was our first experience like this: the first people we told about our project didn't offer their home, but spread their kindness by making us public celebrities for the night. We met everyone in the barroom when we arrived -- and one customer anonymously gave us $40 on his tab so that we could have dinner.
The manager, Karen, somehow passed our presence along to Sonny Todd, a 72-year-old real estate broker who's a local celebrity and lifelong resident of the Big Timber area. We got word that Sonny wanted to speak with us, but after his meal. So we milled about a little more, spoke with some more people, including some tourists (always a problem for us, even though they're usually darn friendly). Eventually we were led back into the dining room to sit with Sonny and his 16-year-old stepdaughter Brooke. We discussed the area -- one of the most conservative counties in the country -- and Sonny himself -- his cowboy hat, his acknowledgement of and comfort with change. As he put it, "A couple hundred years ago, an Indian chief stood on that hill, looking over all the land that belonged to him. Then we came and took all of it. The same thing could happen to us."
After a hearty conversation, we told Sonny about our project -- and he immediately invited us to his home and promised a great breakfast in the morning.
We hung around The Grand for a while longer -- we had our dinner, courtesy of a kind stranger, and met some other fascinating people. Then we called Brooke, still in town with friends, so we could follow her home. By the time we got to the 800-acre ranch, Sonny was heading to bed, but Brooke was an incredible host, providing a tour of the house, the property, the horses, trying to catch a glimpse of the bear who rummages their garbage. We finished our evening in the heated pool, with pretty purple lights and a rickety and fast waterslide. Brooke was one of the most mature and personable teenagers we've met, and it was great to hang out with her. We even became Facebook friends after saying goodnight and getting on our computers two floors apart in the house.
Sonny's promise in the morning was more than fulfilled: western skillets of eggs, cheese, vegetables, and meat (but a vegetarian skillet especially for me), plus toast, canteloupe, and orange juice. Then he took us on a more extensive tour of the ranch -- we were hoping to see elk and maybe even the bear, but in lieu of wildlife we got to see beautiful land, so expansive, with the Crazy Mountains sitting comfortably in the distance. Sonny was the perfect ambassador of Big Timber and traditional Montana life for us.
We hit the road up to Great Falls, and the scenic drive through the Lewis and Clark National Forest ended up being my favorite drive yet -- winding through the mountains of pine trees, a fast-flowing creek of clear water guiding the highway. We made it to Great Falls and met up with Kay, a reporter for KRTV, the local CBS news station. She interviewed us, then followed us as we spoke with about ten people in Paris Gibson Park -- the first and maybe only time we've been documented with two video cameras. It was a lot of fun, and Kay offered her home as a back-up -- which would come in handy.
We explored the park some more, had a greasy but delicious lunch, met some locals in the downtown shops, and were met mostly with ambivalence -- a smile, an "I wish I could," but the more we receive the same answers from people, the more we understand them as superficial. And understandably -- it's our most common response because it's the way to be nice while in an uncomfortable situation. But it also helps us recognize the sides of the spectrum -- the people who can't hide their disinterest or fear, and of course the people who have no fear and whose smiles are of genuine excitement.
I think we found that genuine excitement in Bronson, a 21-year-old working in the candy shop who recently started his own t-shirt company. He lives with his parents, so he couldn't offer his home -- but he spoke with his coworker, who ended up saying yes to us. She wouldn't be home until 9:30, so we had some time to ourselves, but we had a home to look forward to.
While we were at the park, this time shooting some footage of ourselves, the beautiful necklaces Jolene had given us, trying the choke cherry jam and buffalo jerky from Scenic, SD, we got a call from our host, unfortunately saying that her boyfriend was uncomfortable with it. This is the second cancellation we've gotten on our trip -- the other was in Pierre, SD, a town with very similar vibes to Great Falls. Similar size, similar people, similar number of tourists and locals who feel taken advantage of once we tell them about our project.
We spoke with several more people, but as it was getting later, we decided to take Kay up on her offer -- we met her at the Great Falls Voyagers baseball game and later headed to her home. Our sleeping bags are set up on the floor, our footage is transferring, and Sarah is already asleep next to me.
It's only been two days since we stayed with Jolene in Lame Deer, but I'm ready to go back. We have had excellent experiences with everyone we've stayed with, but with Jolene, I wasn't just meeting a fascinating person, we were also exploring a community and culture that we've never really been exposed to. Everyone we stay with has a different individual culture, but our experience on the reservation really found its way to my heart and it's held on tight. Sarah and I now wear our matching necklaces from Jolene, and every time I see it in the mirror, I feel a reminder of connection, something amorphously profound. I think as I grow more distant from Lame Deer, and as we encounter new communities every day, I will focus in on this feeling, or find it dissipating. Our discoveries, lessons, and conversations are inspired by our experiences juxtaposed with each other -- our day with the Cheyenne does not wield greater power in our film about American culture, but it will be interesting to see how it relates to other experiences we have, and interesting to understand more clearly why it was the most memorable day of the journey. So far.
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)
We met some other folks -- like the Maahs family reunion in the Grotto campgrounds, where the kids loaded Super Soakers and the adults played cribbage. We ate at the Wagon Wheel in town, where the vegetable burger on the menu means a hamburger with lettuce and tomato.
Today we wound through more of those farm highways till we hit I-29 aqnd crossed into South Dakota. We had interviews with Dr. Jack Niemonen and Dr. Leroy Meyer at the University of South Dakota -- both exceptionally kind men whose knowledge and storytelling are only matched by their love to share. From Jack, we learned about race relations, the ambiguity of the term "racism," and the ideology of "whiteness." With Leroy, we learned about the philosophy and culture of religion -- he also waited patiently while we explored the National Music Museum, the world's greatest collection of historical musical instruments, and one of Leroy's favorite places.
As we did in Grinnell two days ago, we chose to do a camera-less approach today. From the Mexican restaurant where we ate dinner (staffed by one waitress and one cook, both young and white) to the Wal-Mart, we visited about eight different places and spoke with over 25 people. Having heard much about the Native American culture from Leroy, we were very excited by an offer of hospitality from a Native American in Wal-Mart -- but despite assuring us he would check with his wife and give us a call, we never heard from him.
Instead, we happened to run into Leroy Meyer's son, Andrew, working at the movie theater -- a bizarre coincidence, but Andrew, who is typically quiet and would have been much more nervous around the camera, ended up inviting us to the house he shares with three other college-age men. We ended up having a fantastic night with Andrew and his housemate Skylar -- the two are a hilarious pair, and they treated us to conversation, stories, and a trip to Spirit Mound, rich in Native American legend, and, unfortunately, hundreds of mosquitoes. My bite count is over 40, I'm pretty sure, but being on the mound, surrounded by plains, hundreds of fireflies, the nearly full moon, clear sky of stars, made it more than worth it.
Yet another great night -- but also a tougher day than most. Keeping the camera and the details of our film a secret means that our question catches people far more off guard, and although some express genuine disappointment that they can't help us, many simply seem apathetic or even bothered that we asked such a silly question. Today we got lucky by meeting Leroy's son and having a connection to him -- but we could have easily ended up in the car, and our interactions with people in Vermillion would have amounted to just an awkward minute or two with each person.
A woman at Wal-Mart warned us that as we head west, the people will get less friendly. So as we lay down on Andrew and Skylar's mattresses on the floor tonight, we hope we discover something a little brighter.