It came on the fourth day of my ride back. I wasn't sure if my legs were gaining strength or if they were on the wane from all the climbing I had done in the two hundred miles preceding the Pass. My cycling muscles had somewhat atrophied during my month of tending to the shipping office of the Telluride Film Festival for the twentieth-sixth time. Though I had been physically active lifting heavy boxes and making deliveries on my bike, my mileage had been minimal, especially compared to last year when Janina and I had an eight-mile commute from our accommodations in Mountain Village to the shipping office. It was nice to be housed in town this year, less than a mile from "work," but our bicycling suffered.
It never takes long for me to regain my fitness on a tour. I knew that Wolf Creek Pass would be a test, regardless of my conditioning. I began the gradual ascent to the 10,550 foot summit from Pagosa Springs, twenty-two miles away, two hours before dark. My goal was to find a place to camp within ten miles of the summit. The first fourteen miles were through a valley of cattle ranches before the grade jumped to six per cent for the final eight miles. When I reached that ten-mile point, barbed wire fence still lined both sides of the road.
There were no cattle to be seen, just inviting pasture land with clusters of trees. If I couldn't find a gate, I'd happily pass my gear, then bike, over the fence, as I've done on occasion, but there was no gap in the traffic long enough to accomplish the deed without being seen. Instead, I burrowed into a clump of bushes and trees below the road alongside the fence. I'd have to turn off my headlamp whenever a vehicle passed, but it was still an amply secluded campsite, and one that felt secure from prowling bears. My first night, forty miles before Durango, I had slipped a loop off a barb wired gate into a forest. And the night before I had passed into a forest through a gap in a fence.
My present campsite may have been on the makeshift side, but the surrounding scenery of mountainsides covered with aspens and pines framing a tight valley had all the splendor of an idyllic alpine setting. And so it had been all the way from Telluride, soul-embracing scenery that would entrance any landscape artist. I had to remind myself not to take it for granted after weeks in the national park beauty of Telluride, knowing full well that it would soon all be a dream when I descended to the bland sameness of The Plains. I knew the transition from the spectacular would commence after my descent from Wolf Creek into more arid, though still mountainous terrain.
The temperature was in the 40s when I began riding the next morning, but I was quickly shedding layers after a couple of miles when the road ramped up. At four miles per hour, a mile gained every fifteen minutes, I had two hours of hard effort ahead of me. I took a break every half hour when a guard rail presented itself to lean my bike against, providing me a back rest against a pannier while I caught my breath and ate and read a bit.
Two cyclists on unladen bikes flew down the road, the first I had seen since climbing Lizard Head Pass just past Telluride. I rode a few minutes up Lizard Head with a guy who grew up in Wilmette, one suburb over from where I grew up. He had been living outside 'ZTelluride for twenty years with the enviable job of looking after the 128-acre ranch of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshalll, big-time Hollywood producers and benefactors of the film festival. They had two films in the festival last year, including Clint Eastwood's "Sully," but missed this year's festival as they were on a film shoot.
As I continued up Wolf Creek Pass, I was accompanied by the cycling podcast of my friend Randy Warren. I had fallen behind on my news of the cycling world at Telluride other than keeping up with Chris Froome's conquest of the Vielta, finally winning it after finishing second three times, becoming the first person to win The Tour de France and the Spanish three-week Tour in the same year since the Vuelta switched from a spring to a fall event. I had saved Randy's last four weekly podcasts to help me over this climb.
Among the news I learned from Randy was that Taylor Phinney had been kicked out of the Tour of Britain for ignoring a flashing railway crossing and that Ben King had confessed to an eating disorder as a teen using extreme measures to shed weight and the shocking news of Andrew Talansky announcing his retirement during the Vuelta at the age of 28. Talansky had finished tenth in The Tour a few years ago and had been one of the two great American hopes along with Teejay Van Garderen ever since. He didn't start The Tour last year under mysterious circumstances. Evidently he had grown weary of the extreme demands of the sport. One has to be continually asking, "Is it really worth all the pain and suffering."
Two of Randy's podcasts included interviews with young American riders getting a taste of the highest levels of the sport commenting on the suffering they had to endure. Sepp Kuss learned that the key to success to racing in Europe was being able to "out-suffer the next guy." Chloe Dicker said that her coach Andy Sparks had taught her how to suffer "in ways I never thought possible." I was happy that when on tour I can pretty much ride at my own pace and not have to push myself so hard that the riding becomes suffering, though Janina might not entirely agree after our experience of riding in France this past summer.
It was a fast descent to South Fork from the summit of Wolf Creek and its ski resort to a different ecosystem than what I'd been in the past month. I would remain at 8,000 feet across an eighty-mile valley of sagebrush whose main product was potatoes. Monte Vista, a town with a classic Carnegie Library, had held its annual Potato Festival the weekend before.
There were rugged 14ers to the left and right. After fifty miles I came to Alamosa, the first town since Durango large enough to have a Walmart. I had no need of it as I was overnighting with my friend Joel, who I have worked with in the shipping department at Telluride for years. He's a retired physician who has lived in Alamosa since 1981, just before a group of radical nuns brought 200 Guatemalan refuges to the town, who remain a strong presence and participate in a large communal garden that Joel helps out at, even though he has an ample garden of his own that was producing a bountiful crop of tomatoes.
Joel has led a politically active life since his days in the SDS when he was at Penn State in the '60s. His conversation is as welcome as his assistance opening boxes and stuffing the 1,500 goodie bags for filmmakers, patrons and staff that is part of our job. Like the majority of people who are drawn to Telluride for its preeminent film festival, Joel has led a full and fascinating life--attending Woodstock, traveling for months across Africa, skiing, foraging mushrooms, working in emergency rooms and on and on. Every year we learn something new of his past that we are shocked he hadn't told us before. This year was that he passed a joint to Allen Ginsburg on May Day 1970 at Yale. When Dick Gregory died he told us he autographed his draft card, which he later burned. It was no surprise that Joel wasn't interested in the several American flags I had gathered along the road, but he did accept the two bungee cords I had already picked up. He could always use reinforcements for the high deer fence he has around his back yard, which abuts the Rio Grande River. Deer come wandering by 365 days a year.
The film festival is so hectic neither of us had been able to read the program and the accompanying 110-page magazine with articles on all the films until after the festival. No matter how many films one sees, there are always a handful we regret missing. Joel didn't realize the Student Prints included a short on mushrooms that he would have certainly seen if he'd known about it. I most regretted missing Paul Schraeder's film, "First Reformed," starring Ethan Hawke as a small-town preacher suffering a moral crisis. Janina and I at least attended a conversation between the two of them in the intimate County Courthouse. Being in their relaxed presence was a rare opportunity. Schraeder knows the milieu of religion having grown up in a strict Calvinist household. He didn't see a movie until he went to college. He wrote a book on transcendentalism in cinema shortly after he graduated. Hawke said he read the book twenty years ago on the recommendation of his frequent collaborator Richard Linklater. He and Linklater at one time had considered doing a film on St. Francis of Assisi. Their hour of conversation flew by as they shared one insight after another into what made them the artists they are.
Greta Gerwig and Rebecca Miller had an equally fascinating conversation in the courthouse that was the equal of any movie playing at any of the nine film venues at that time slot. They were two of the nine women who had directed a film playing at the festival. Gerwig's was her first feature behind the camera, "Lady Bird." She said she had been inspired to direct after being directed by Miller. She traced her fascination with cinema as an art form to "Beau Travail," one of Barry Jenkins' favorite films too. Gerwig was as fresh and unabashed as many of the characters she has portrayed in her still young career. Miller was at the festival with a most personal documentary on her father Arthur Miller, which was the first film we saw after the Opening Night Feed on the town's closed off Main Street, a fine start to the festival.
We also managed to squeeze into the town park for the most mobbed panel discussion in the festival's history with Angelina Jolie, Billie Jean King, Natalie Portman and Alice Waters, Telluride has always attracted great luminaries of cinema. Tom Luddy, one of the festival founders and current co-director, has had an exceptional knack for bringing together extraordinary artists even before he inaugurated this festival 44 years ago. Alice Waters devotes a chapter in her recently published memoirs to the time she lived with Luddy when they were in their 20s and she decided to leave teaching and open a restaurant. She writes of a dinner in their home with Kurosawa and Spielberg and Lucas and of another with Godard.
Luddy has transported this concept to his festival. The artists who attend are thrilled to have the opportunity to meet people they admire and respect and are happy to return year after year, just like us attendees. Werner Herzog and Ken Burns and Errol Morris and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alexander Payne are regulars whether or not they have something to present. They are all relaxed and fully approachable. Janina and I were treated to a private performance by Payne speaking in a thick Greek accent after Janina told him he could make the ultimate film on a Greek restaurant, considering his Greek heritage. Payne responded, lapsing into a Greek character, saying his relatives in Greece regarded "Nebraska" as a film on the Greek family.
Two of my other festival highlights came with two of the guest director's six selections. This year's guest director was documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, one of three attendees who have won MacArthur Fellowships along with Errol Morris and Peter Sellars. He gave an impassioned introduction to each of his choices. He was joined by Rosalie Varda, daughter of Agnes, for his introduction to "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Varda was in attendance as producer of the documentary "Faces Places" by her mother and the artist JR, a film I was delighted to see again after having seen it at Cannes. Rosalie appears in the Cherbourg film, that won the Palme d'Or in 1964, as a six-year old. She spoke for nearly twenty minutes about the film directed by her father Jacques Demy. Janina and I couldn't stop shaking our heads over her extraordinary commentary, especially after spending a couple of days in Cherbourg this past summer.
I was equally mesmerized by the post-film commentary by Werner Herzog after Oppenheimer's screening of "Even Dwarfs Started Small," Herzog's second film from 1970. Herzog said he hadn't seen it in 30 or 40 years. In his brief introduction he said he hoped everyone in the audience had had a shot of brandy before coming to the theater. Oppenheimer said he watches the film three or four times a year and called it the best film of all time. The film finished at midnight in the Opera House. Herzog kept everyone in their seats for another half hour commenting on it. He admitted it was painful to watch, as the film reflected the nightmare of his life at the time.
Janina will have much more to say on all this and the many films we saw in her soon to be published Telluride Journal at her website merelycirculating.com, including commentary on a superlative documentary by Wei Wei on refugees and a tribute to cinematographer Ed Lachman and his latest film collaboration with Todd Haynes, "Wonderstruck." It was one of just two films that played in Competition at Cannes this year that were on the Telluride schedule. The other was the Russian film "Loveless," which included all the profanity that would be censored out when it plays in Russia. This was Janina's fifth Telluride and possibly the best. She was able to stay four days after the festival ended for the first time, since the course she is teaching this fall at Columbia meets on Monday evenings. That enabled her to see an extra five films in the After the Festival Festival for locals and staff.
A.O. Scott had a lengthy, gushing review of the festival in The New York Times. He loves the festival so much he brings his family each year, including a son who is a collegiate film major.