It would have been a lot easier and way cheaper just to crack open a book. There would have been the same four walls and the random insistence of poking dog noses and the cat that likes to remind you that he is there by finding a small patch of bare skin to test the sharpness of his claws on while you’re not looking. But there is also the tale of the curative catharsis that one can achieve by changing one’s regularly scheduled scenery. And so it was that as the date for the film festival approached, that I actually paid attention to one of those TV advertisements and searched one of those sites that claim to get you the best room for the best price and I found something that seemed to be even better than I had expected, and so I booked a room and then purchased an all access pass and then kept a wary eye on the upcoming forecasts for Missoula, Montana, because that’s where the fifteenth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival was soon to be happening, and was where I planned to be for its ten day run.
A part of my preparation for this adventure was the purchase of new tires for my car. Having been caught out in last fall’s snow here, I knew that the four tires I had on there were not necessarily to be trusted, and they were even a bit slidey in the rain. I started swimming up at the Vashon pool, and was starting to feel like some semblance of shape was returning to my body. There was the regular regimen of ingesting vitamin C as a preventative for winter ailments. I spent time reviewing the film schedules for the five venues where groups of shorts and feature films would be playing, and then started to figure which workshops I might fit in around the various films I really wanted to see. And then it was time to go.
The seven plus hour drive went faster than it seemed, and I arrived in Missoula in the dark. After checking into my motel I went out for a walk around town to shake off the trip and get oriented as to where at least some of the venues were. Part of my plan had been to find a place to stay within reasonable walking distance of everywhere I needed to go. Because a river runs through it, Missoula has a number of bridges that span that waterway, and at night they are lit with multiple strands of white lights, which even in the dead of winter make for a festive appearance. It was not horribly cold, but I felt a bit of a chill as a slight wind passed over the water. Even in the dark I could see clumps of ice flowing fairly quickly by below- it was a bit dizzying to watch from above, so I carried on back across the river and headed back to the motel.
The next morning I checked the ten day forecast and noted a steep plummet predicted in the temperatures- it was possibly going to go below zero in two days, so part of my day’s activities were directed to finding a warm coat. Once that had been secured I noticed a cough and a throat scratch coming on along with a growing tiredness that I thought an hour or so of napping would serve to resolve before the opening night screening. Three hours later things were not much improved, and since this film had other screenings scheduled later I decided to stay in and hopefully feel better as the rest of the festival got underway the next day.
As it turned out, I missed not only the Friday night opening, but everything else on both Saturday and Sunday. I’m not sure what I had, but my overall lack of energy had me sleeping on and off around the clock for forty eight hours. As Monday rolled around I was on the verge of giving up hope, but when I stood up that morning I did not immediately feel like falling back down, so I got dressed, donned a number of layers and my new coat and headed out into the eight degree day. It actually took me a while to get going, not getting to my first screening until 3:15. I wound up briefly talking with the director of the first film of the day, ‘Fail State’, a piece about for profit universities and the various problems they are running into, and then stayed on to see a first person account of the rancher occupation of the Malheur Wildlife refuge titled ‘No Man’s Land’, which wound up getting the Big Sky Award. Then it was on to a film I had been looking forward to, as it had a connection to an Islander. I was surprised to find out how much of an advocate and proponent Otto Silha had been for a domed, experimental city in Minnesota back in the late sixties and early seventies. While it had offered radical solutions to transportation, energy production, water and solid waste, it ultimately fell victim to politics and local opposition. Stephen Silha got a big credit for his help with the film.
The next day, the last film offered up a big surprise for me. ‘Dirtbag: the Legend of Fred Beckey’ was a fascinating look into a northwest mountain climbing icon and how Beckey had made an unbelievable number of first ascents throughout the western U.S. and Canada. And while he was based in the Seattle area, what came totally out of the blue was a story about how Beckey and his brother had built a raft out of scrap wood and logs and had paddled it to Vashon while avoiding freighters and other hazards as kids back in the forties, all of which was retold in one of the films animated recountings. And finally the next day, after spending the morning in a number of workshops, I stopped in one of the local eateries and noticed that one of the presenters had also stopped in to refuel. I had a brief conversation with him and even though he was based in New York, he knew of Vashon because he has relatives who live here. It seems that even though one can get away one cannot really get away from here, which was re-emphasized the next day in a conversation I had at a social media workshop with someone from Wenatchee with connections to Vashon as well.
As it is, I still feel like I am recovering from whatever it was that took me down when I first got there. The drive back was not too challenging, although the first couple of hours was over roads covered in snow and ice and in places lots of de-icing solution. I think that once I fully recover from all that transpired I will feel that it was all worth it- that going somewhere else was a necessary exercise in documentary film immersion and exposure. I’m struggling a bit at the moment in an attempt to maintain momentum- hopefully as the residuals of the crud finally pass out of my system I will be able to fully grasp what I have learned and go somewhere else with it from here.