Solo Backpacking, Travel, Strangers and a Documentary

Backpacking, Travel, The Kindness of Strangers and a Documentary

I am not an un-nervous person. I am not comfortable in all situations.

Backpacking and the kindness of strangers...I am writing this from a cemetery and it’s muggy and hot, but I also feel very isolated and a bit nervous. It turns out traveling the country relying on strangers doesn’t make you unafraid. I didn’t start that way and I didn’t end that way.

I go on trips a lot – it’s part of living so far away from family, while simultaneously being a homebody. Thankfully, home is a short plane flight away.

It seems, though, that every time I fly, I meet a new stranger that I connect to. The people sitting next to me on the plane, the people waiting with me at the gate. We are forced to occupy the same space, but we aren’t forced to talk to each other. And yet we do. We talk a lot. About everything. Last time I flew to Colorado I met a man in the concrete business named Jerry who wanted to help me make films. On the way back I met a young girl flying home after visiting her boyfriend who lived in Pennsylvania, but had never visited Philadelphia or New York City. Each time I travel, I meet someone. Someone who has a story that intrigues me, someone who offers to help me, or someone I can help.

And I am not quite sure whether it’s my own interest in their stories, my own openness that initiates the conversation, or whether I just draw those people to me accidentally. Not sure whether its my force of being, or theirs.

But traveling is such a perfect way to meet kind people.
It doesn’t provide the same disconnect as our other modes of operating. We have to look each other in the eye; it’s much more comfortable to know the name of the person you are accidentally falling asleep on or squeezing by on the way to the bathroom than it is to understand them as un-named (less than a person). And when we travel alone, we miss companionship, we reach out to strangers for laughter or commiseration.

I think that’s part of why people with wanderlust love strangers. But again, I am not sure which came first – the wish to travel or the wish to connect. They are so entangled in me. And most, I think.

So my partner Greg and I made a documentary about the union of these two entangled pieces – a film about that curiosity, that intrigue with others, with new spaces, with the journey. We set out to travel the country relying on strangers for a home each night. My silly boyfriend and I, with big smiles, traveled through 30 states in 60 days and stayed with strangers almost every night. Because we wanted to hear their stories, we wanted to share them. Because not everyone can travel when they want to connect with strangers – but hopefully most of them can watch a film.

Backpacking the country...
linkAmerican Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers is our exploration of the country through trust, fear and hospitality; we set out to visit each town in the country called “Bear” by traveling in the most adventuresome way possible. But we wanted to expand – to paint a portrait of Americans and answer the questions we all have about the people who aren’t us and the places that aren’t our homes. From the daughter of the last warrior woman of the Cheyenne mountain tribe whose grandson is still facing bigotry in Montana; to the twice married ghost hunters trying to synthesize their experiences in small-town New York; to young friends in Mississippi trying to understand the “country” stereotype, maybe even reclaim it – each character has a compelling story to share.

We wanted to make a movie that advocated for the differences in their stories but also for the similarities — the goodness in others. Because my particular set of circumstances growing up made that a part of my life right away – but most of the people I know can hardly talk to the clerk in the check out line. And we don’t want people to forget how to make friends. We don’t want people to forget what small talk is and how to flirt face to face rather than via text message.

And that feels really important to us. That connection. Because it does wonders for me on a daily basis – and it’s so simple. The craziest piece of the whole thing though, is that you don’t really realize how much you miss the contact, how much you need the brief conversations, and what those connections can do for you, what that feeling of helping someone else can create in you, until you do it. And its easy to do.

Next time you travel — by car, by sea by land — chat with someone you don’t know and see what you can do for them. Ask them how their day is. Or even just where they are going.

American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers
Twitter: @RelyonStrangers
Facebook: American Bear or

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  • Stella Sotelo Says

    I had a similar idea like this but you beat me to it. Its hard but if you can make it work its a wonderful way to travel.

  • How sweet and inspirational, can’t wait for the documentary…

    • Sarah Says

      Hey Ali! We are doing nice things for strangers around the doc all the time.
      So if you wanna do something sweet and inspirational yourself we will totally help you. (find us on Facebook for weekly missions, fun activities and of course some inspirational quoting)

      (From Sarah, the Co-Director of the film)

  • Jorge Ellman Says

    I’m planning for a journey for my 3 buddies and myself after are graduation. The trip will be a mix country journey to each one of the 48 continental states of america, with the potential of Alaska and parts of Canada. I hope it goes a little like this video.

  • 30 states in 60 days… Wow!

    Very much looking forward to seeing the documentary!

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