23 Feet

| May 24, 2011 | 2 Comments
23 Feet

Credit: GREER GLASSER & ALAN KAHLER

By Lisa Montierth

Last July, we packed into a 1970 Airstream and hit the road. Our goal was to produce a short adventure film about people living simply in order to pursue their outdoor passions. We logged 2,600 miles through five western states documenting a colorful cast of dirtbag climbers, surfers, and soulful adventurers. Allie Bombach produced a film based on our adventures, and I reflected on lessons learned from the colorful cast of vagabonds.

Where are all the men?” I was standing in the gravel parking lot of a rural gas station in central Utah, pie-eyed and caked in red desert dust, staring blankly while I tried to think of an answer for the gruff man in front of me wearing cowboy boots.

“Why do we need ’em?” answered Allie Bombach, my traveling companion and a woman I can count on to have the perfect retort to unanswerable questions. Cowboy Boots laughed. “I thought they might have been in the john,” he said as he walked away, shaking his head.

But there were no men with us—in the john or otherwise. Allie, our friend Greer Glasser, and I were encrusted in dirt and sweat, traveling in a white truck loaded up with bicycles, water jugs, and a homemade hula hoop, towing a shiny, 23-foot 1970 Airstream.

We had just started filming “23 Feet,” a short film that would turn out to be a story that’s a little about a road trip and a lot about people whose love of the outdoors inspired their ultra-simple lifestyles. Allie, a filmmaker and co-owner of the new media company Red Reel, took a cue from the “dirtbag” climbing culture—dusty troupes living out of cars or tents to spend more time on the rock—and dreamed up our project as a way to explore, rustle up a bit of adventure, and pay homage to lives lived off the beaten path. She bought a vintage Airstream as her own back-to-basics home and christened the whole affair “23 Feet.”

I met Allie in the summer of 2009 in the musty basement of a run-down boarding house in Durango, Colorado, where I was living. We bonded over live music and a shared love for micro-brewed IPAs, and over the course of a year we became close. I admired Allie’s gusto—she talked in far-reaching metaphors and punctuated her speech with cartoon-like zeal—she started sentences with a BOOM! and wrapped them up in a POOF! Plus, she was living her passion—she made a living chasing down cyclists, ice climbers, and outdoor athletes with a camera in hand.

23 Feet

Credit: GREER GLASSER & ALAN KAHLER

When Allie gave me the pitch to join her for “23 Feet,” I had a few reservations, but I couldn’t resist five weeks on the road with my two best friends: three women sharing 23-feet of aluminum trailer, traveling 2,600 miles through five states, and finding and interviewing a cast of wild vagabonds. My role was to write about our experiences, and to help maneuver the hopelessly awkward Airstream Safari—a bulbous extension that we affectionately nicknamed “Roma.”

Filming would wrap in Portland, Oregon, a city that beckoned with promises of progressive sophistication and scrawny single men riding bicycles. I quit my job, broke my lease, sold every piece of furniture I owned, and committed myself to the project. It was a gamble—there were no guarantees about who or what we would find on the road, and there wasn’t anything waiting for me in Oregon except my own expectation for lush, green grass. But in the end, the gamble paid out. The men and women I met on the road deeply inspired me to change my life.

We started our trip with four days in the red-rock surrounds of Moab, Utah, and by the time we ran into Cowboy Boots in the center of the state, we’d already stumbled into a few adventures and found a few of the outdoor-loving vagabond types we sought out for the film. We’d spent time with a couple living in vintage buses at the base of a canyon, taken a blind-folded yoga class, mountain-biked among desert rock formations and natural bridges, and suffered at least twenty mosquito bites each. We were headed toward one of Utah’s famous climbing destinations, Maple Canyon, to meet a rowdy band of climbers who were waiting for us with a cooler full of cold PBR and an ornery blue heeler. Just another chance to embrace the unexpected and the ordinary chaos of life on the road.

23 Feet

Credit: GREER GLASSER & ALAN KAHLER

Through canyon country, down into the Mojave Desert, then approaching the blue saline fog of the Pacific Ocean, the habits of conventional life dropped away, scattering like broken glass on the highway. Our car troubles turned into romantic adventures, and cans of baked beans sparked poetic appreciation of all things simple. When we met Patrick Rizzo in California’s King’s Canyon National Park, I was fully lolling in the depths of a road-trip honeymoon.

Patrick grew up exploring the hills of Berkeley, California, on his skateboard, and he credits a lust for bigger slopes for his introduction to nature. A self-described naturalist, Patrick splits his seasons: working for California’s National Parks during the summers and packing into his maroon Westfalia and snowboarding all winter long.

His right arm hung heavy in a sling, the elbow dislocated in a fall, and he was struggling to keep his tiny cabin in order with the use of only one hand. Before we sat down to film him, he asked me to tie up his brown, curly hair so that we could see his face. I tugged it into lopsided pigtails, my pulse quickening a little, thrilled by this sudden intimacy.

Patrick had just starred in the short skate film, “Second Nature,” and we watched footage of him barreling down roads through huge mountain passes on his longboard, barely holding on through the curves. He looked fearless. “I think everyone should have adventure and passion,” he told us. “I’d rather see someone be extreme about something, and be alive and passionate, than to see someone who’s totally dull and lifeless.”

As we explored the trails and trees of King’s Canyon and neighboring Sequoia National Park with Patrick, he opened up about the loneliness of living on the edge. His honesty and readiness to articulate his anxieties brought me down to earth a little, and I considered that the romance of simple living might be coupled with a brutal lack of stability. Patrick found an unlikely balance by reveling in the extremes he craved. “Pain is just a secondary form of pleasure,” he told me one night. His vulnerability was heartbreaking, and I wondered if there was some sort of method to his madness—a way of finding his center in the midst of chaos.

Days later, after our truck died and we stumbled through the chaos of an unexpected hitchhike into Yosemite Valley, we met climber Katie Lambert. Katie has been climbing for 15 years, and after leaving the promise of a conventional life in Louisiana in 2005, she’s become a Tuolumne Meadows fixture. The Valley, she says, is her true home. Within it she finds an almost spiritual connection to the rock—a sentiment many diehard Valley climbers echo.

23 Feet

Credit: GREER GLASSER & ALAN KAHLER

Katie took us to a wall she loves. We clambered up a rough trail and sat up on the slick gray stone as the sun slowly crept down behind the western ridges. “Coming out into nature … it’s life changing,” she said. “It’ll show you a lot about the world, and it’ll show you a lot about yourself.”

Katie survived a traumatic fall a few months before, and when the wind blew her hair back, I could see the scars on her face. Rather than letting those jagged scars put her off climbing, she believes that they’ve drawn lines of wisdom on her soul. For Katie, the lessons learned on the rock translate into lessons on life, and she wears a badge of affirmation for her love of climbing and for her home among Yosemite’s big walls.

“Places like this remind you what you’re doing and who you are,” she said with a palpable sense of peace. As we sat in the fading light amidst a sanctuary of rocks and trees and mountains, Katie’s eyes glowed citrus reflecting the California sun and I was reminded of the healing nature of wild places. My own eyes opened by her energy, I began to notice little glimpses of the sacred everywhere I looked in Yosemite.

Following my own spiritual awakening of sorts, our next stop in San Francisco felt coldly surreal. After weeks of dirt and mountains and cold streams, I felt groundless in its concrete streets and overwhelmed by our small crew’s togetherness and the pressure of writing—mining content from our adventures. My love affair with the road was on the rocks and this reintroduction to mainstream society near the end of our trip triggered an uneasy reality check into my uncertain future. I was suddenly terrified. The chaos of busy streets and the passing of short-term friendships left me full of uncertainty and languishing in a sense of danger that contrasted so starkly against the peace that I had found with Katie. By the time we left the city, my sense of adventure had all but evaporated, quietly stolen away into the freezing ghost-mist of summertime San Francisco.

Nellyda Anslow helped to bring it back. We met Nellyda in Newport, Oregon, and I was still grappling with my uncertain future. Newport is a funky town full of hard-core Oregon surfers and it was our last stop before we ended our trip in Portland. Nellyda welcomed us with an invitation to join her on a local beach, where we could film her surfing with her friends—most of whom she’d met on the water.

Allie and I watched from the shore as they bobbed in the surf. Nellyda was easy to spot through the coastal fog, as she was the only one in the frigid water who wasn’t wearing the hood of her wetsuit. Nellyda’s path to those waves had been colorful. As a young woman, she’d constantly reinvented herself—as a surf bum in Hawaii, a snowboarder in Colorado, and as a bartender in northern Alaska, serving drinks to roughnecks. Later, she experimented with a conventional lifestyle: going to school, becoming a nurse, and buying a house. But she was deeply unsatisfied with that experiment, and the experience of “normal” life eventually pushed her farther off the grid.

23 Feet

Credit: GREER GLASSER & ALAN KAHLER

“I started living in my car at the coast,” she said. “I was like ’This is it. I’m just going to spend all my time surfing.’” She was on the road, searching for more waves, when she received the devastating news that her mother had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Immediately, Nellyda moved to Newport to be with her. Now, she works as a nurse, cares for her mother, and surfs every day.

“Everything fell into place,” she told us. “I got this awesome job, I got to be close to my mom, and I’m living in this great house a block from the ocean.” Nellyda’s ability to provide strength for her mother and to focus her passion in the face of a devastating situation was the wake-up call I needed. I sat on the floor of her beautiful home, surrounded by pictures and art and exotic totems from places she’s been—the rewards and mementos from the risks and uncertainties that she has faced—and I saw my own fear of uncertainty for what it was … manageable and designed to make me stronger.

As we pulled into Portland, my head was brimming with lessons learned from Nellyda, Patrick, Katie and dozens of others we’d met on the steps of our Airstream—the whole shifting cast of motley adventurers I’d spent a month documenting. I thought about Greer and the comfort of her friendship when I was overwhelmed by uncertainty and risk. I looked to Allie and was struck, too, by her support and conviction. On the road, nothing was certain, but we had had one another.

In Portland, we parked the Airstream in a long, mossy driveway, and I lived there for a few months, practicing living simply as much out of necessity as choice. I didn’t feel the acute sense of groundlessness I’d felt in San Francisco, but I didn’t feel the peace I’d found in Yosemite. As I looked for work and got to know the new city, I drew on the lessons I’d learned on the road and I struggled to embrace chaos.

I was barely surviving on spotty freelance jobs and, of course, my old abused laptop shuddered and died. Then one gorgeous sunny afternoon, I was hit by a car while walking my bicycle through Portland’s busy downtown streets. I escaped with a few bruises, but I was on shaky ground. I remembered Patrick’s unlikely ability to balance strength with vulnerability and find calm within chaos. I tried to recognize some thrill within the uncertainty I was facing; the pleasure in the pain of striving to find something I hadn’t yet defined.

I was lonely and felt disconnected. So I thought of Katie’s love for nature and went outside into the lush urban landscape. I took long walks at dusk and sat on the Oregon-green grass in city parks spotted with young lovers, and connected to the glowing natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

23 Feet

Credit: GREER GLASSER & ALAN KAHLER

Finally, when that wasn’t working for me any more, I took a cue from Nellyda—and reinvented myself. For a few years I’d been dreaming of a winter on snow-covered slopes, and since I was deeply inspired by the love of outdoor sports that I saw in the men and women we’d filmed for “23 Feet”—I packed up and moved to Utah, to learn to ski.

On the road, I was welcomed into a community of people thriving in the sun-dappled corners of our wild lands, driven by different passions, bound by a love for experiencing the natural world with their hands and feet and bicycle tires. I met every sort of soulful adventurer—bright and unusual drifters, dark and tormented escapists, wise and earthy philosophers. Though all different, they shared a common conviction for the worth of their unconventional community and the support of those they love.

As I move forward in my life, I will carry the simple lessons of balance, appreciation, and versatility. I know there is community around every corner, and the next adventure is only a short trip away.

Trailer Talk For 25-year-old Allie Bombach, life in a 23-foot Airstream wasn’t over at the end of last summer’s road trip. The shiny-sided trailer has been Allie’s home base for more than a year and, for the last few months, it’s been (mostly) parked in Portland, Oregon. This summer Allie’s taking Roma—revamped with a fold-away film screen and equipped with a high-tech projector—on the road once again to screen “23 Feet” in cities all across the west. She took some time away from her production company, Red Reel, and preparations for this summer’s tour to answer a few questions about her own lessons from the film, the roadtrip, and life’s little uncertainties.

WAM: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from making the film and what do you want people to take away from it?

ALLIE: I learned that reevaluating your life and making changes is well worth it. Each and every person we interviewed said that living simply isn’t necessarily simple, but I got an overwhelming feeling that they wouldn’t have it any other way. This idea goes for living simply to pursue your outdoor passion, and also in the leap we take in creating a film. It’s not always easy, but it’s so worth it.

I think I want what many outdoor filmmakers want: for our audience to leave feeling gleefully inspired to run wildly, hearts racing with wide-eyed childlike nostalgia, into the great out-of-doors! At the very least, I hope to continue the conversation about a lifestyle that finds beauty in simplicity.

WAM: Tell us about Red Reel: What are you working on and how does ”23 Feet” fit into the company’s big picture?

ALLIE: This film really shifted our mindset. My business partner, Sarah Menzies, and I are now looking at storytelling and reaching the audience through a whole new lens. We’ve had an amazing response from a passionate audience. It is very important to us that we continue to stay connected to that in future projects. “23 Feet” really started a larger conversation at Red Reel: How do we continue inspiring people to get involved in what they are passionate about?

Read the rest of Allie’s Q&A, see a trailer for the film, and catch a full listing of screening dates and times.

Category: US

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