Thursday, November 3, 2016

Adventure Film Festival DC- Bringing it home

Eight years ago I went out to Boulder for my first Adventure Film Festival at the urging of festival founder Jonny Copp, and I had no idea what I was walking into.  I never imagined that the weekend would change my outlook on climbing, and redefine what it meant to be part of a community, with the festival's "Make Your Own Legends" tagline weaving itself through my life and reminding me never to settle for an existence of "what if" and "could have been."

For three days, I was surrounded by legends... watching breathtaking films with the real life superheroes who had made and starred in them, and all those who came back year after year to be a part of that energy.  It was like the coolest family reunion in the world, a collective celebration of success, with friends coming home to share their latest adventures, and seeds planted for greater ones to come.  And not just climbers.  I watched skiers, bikers, kayakers, environmentalists, and countless others living lives that continually reminded the world of the magic that we humans are capable of.  I had spent my whole life sad to leave those Colorado mountains, but now I found my dreams filled with even loftier ones, and my waking desperate to be part of such an inspiring community.  How could I go back home after that, back to a state not known for an abundance of either rock or climbers?

It got even harder for me to leave that next year, both that summer for Jonny's memorial services and in the Fall when the Adventure Film Festival carried on.  I watched an already strong community pull even closer together, friends dropping everything to go look for three of their own.  I watched people rally, hold each other up through a tragedy that wasn't the first for many of them, and wouldn't be the last.  And I watched the festival that inspired me not only survive, but flourish.  As time passed, the Adventure Film Festival spread its message across the globe, its community rippling its energy outward with their own adventures, all the more driven to make their own legends.

And again I went home.  It wasn't so bad actually.  My wife and I had good jobs, a house in a nice Maryland town, many good college friends still in the area, and were finally starting to make a few close friends at our climbing gym.  Plus, as beautiful as those mountains were, they didn't compare to the bright blossoms of our spring trees, or the dense green of our summers.

With Jonny's death making my alpine dreams a little scarier, I started bouldering more.  A lot actually.  Maryland may not have big mountains, but it did have boulders... if you knew how to find them.  With no guidebooks available, and few online resources, getting out there could be tough for those of us who were less connected.  As Jonny once told his friends in Colorado, we actually need to walk through the woods for our boulders.  We have to want them.

The last night of the 2009 festival, I dreamed that a friend and I started up a guide service to promote local bouldering.  That morning at breakfast, that same friend texted me to see if I wanted to write a Maryland bouldering guide with him.  And suddenly I knew I had things I had to do at home before I came out to the mountains I so desperately wanted to be in, to the community that it pained me to leave.  While we never wrote that guide, I did start this blog soon after that, which among other things I envisioned as my own little way of making our bouldering more approachable than it had been for me.

And a funny thing happened.  The more I put myself out there, the more I met people who wanted the same things.  

And as we searched the woods and developed new bouldering areas, and others pointed us toward the places they had found, we realized that we had not just enough rock to keep us busy until we moved out west, but more tucked into the hills and stream valleys of our home than we could ever touch in a lifetime.  

All that I missed was that mountain community.  Sure, I could take the easy out and go to Colorado, but there was still so much here to do, something that grew more true by the day.  But on top of our lifetime of rock, we had an ever growing population of climbers looking to get outside.  

And we had bikers, kayakers, BASE jumpers, kiteboarders, and trail runners.  

                                                                     Photo: Peter Jensen
                                                        Photo: Michaela Carpenter

We had photographers, film makers, artists, writers, and musicians.  We had all of the pieces, waiting to come together.

Around that time, I started volunteering for Mid Atlantic Climbers.  Not just climbing in, but taking care of our areas, showing landowners that climbers could be one of their greatest assets...

And meeting some of my favorite people along the way.

As we expanded our reach and partnered with other regional groups, I found my network increasingly crossing state lines.  Everywhere I went, I had people to climb with, people who like us were always looking for and sharing new places to climb, all while doing what they could to ensure access for future generations.  

Make Your Own Legends.  Really, that's just another way of saying that community is where you look for it.  And two weeks ago, it was right there in front of me when I had the honor speaking at the Adventure Film Festival's first DC showing, sharing much of what I have just written here.  

                                                                       Photo: Chris Irwin
Brought in by the American Alpine Club to play in Silver Spring's beautiful AFI theater, Adventure Film Festival DC featured a selection of films tailored to the climber-heavy audience, while retaining enough of its signature variety to remind us that there are countless paths to an adventurous life.  

                                                                       Photo: Mike Brest 
                                                                      Photo: Mike Brest
As nervous as I was about holding it together while I spoke, I looked out into that crowd and saw the community, my community, that I had dreamed of belonging to all those years ago.  Initially excited just to share this festival with them, bringing my experience full circle in the most fitting way possible, I now realized that there was more to it than that.  Many of them were me, still searching for that connection, for a sense of belonging to a community and lifestyle hiding in plain sight in such an unlikely place.  

                                                                                              Photo: Mike Brest

Over the next week as feedback rolled in, I heard many of the things I expected... "the films were amazing," and "I left feeling so inspired!"  It was a more unexpected comment though, from someone I had just met, that meant the most...  "I felt like part of the family."

A common criticism of DC culture is that for many people here, career comes before everything, and yet we still have those who find the time to get out and push their limits.  Isolated from a strong community it can be so easy for them, for you, to feel stuck, thinking like I did that fulfillment lies elsewhere.

As a special ed teacher who gets out of work at 3 and has summers off, it's easy enough for me to find the time to climb.  But I'm married to a climber who works in international disaster response and was 7000 miles away as I spoke that night.  Some of my best friends play funerals at Arlington, deal with cybersecurity, or work on space missions.

Yes, that ideal of a life free to travel at will is appealing.  The simplicity of living out of a van and climbing whatever we want can seem like the greatest thing in the world.  But a community full of those dedicated to making the world better every day, and then chasing daylight to explore and inspire afterward?  That's a beautiful thing, and it's something I'm so honored to be a part of.  If any community can make its own legends, it's the one right here in my home.

                                                                    Photo: Peter Jensen
                                                                    Photo: Peter Jensen

For those of you who were in the audience that night, thank you so much for listening, and I hope you left the theater as inspired as I was after my first Adventure Film Festival.  If you missed it this time around, but still want to catch some of this year's films, the Richmond chapter of the American Alpine Club will be hosting a showing on November 5th.  And whether you made it out or not, keep an eye out for the Adventure Film Festival's return to DC in 2017.  See you there!

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