November 4, 2008

mountainfilm-danaustin-4.jpg  By Dan Austin, author of True Fans and The Road Trip Pilgrim’s Guide. Dan has been involved in the festival as a speaker, featured author, filmmaker and audience member.

I have attended Mountainfilm seven times and nearly every time have chosen to camp.I live in Brooklyn, so the chance to spend a few nights under the stars, next to the river, is not to be wasted. Lance Waring, in his infinite kindness, always proffers a room, but I usually decline.

In 2007 I brought my girlfriend Heike, a stylish German model, to MountainFilm. She was excited, but skeptical. “Are you sure it won’t be too cold to camp?”

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“Oh no, Memorial Day weekend is always really nice.”

It’s very quiet in our rental car as we drive into the glacial village. Where I promised glistening spring meadows—there is half a foot of snow.

“I can’t believe this,” I say, as if surveying a massacre.

We arrive at the deserted campground and scrape wet snow off the picnic table. The air is cold, the sky brooding.

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“Why did you tell me to bring all my t-shirts and tank tops?” She shivers.

“Because it’s never like this!” I say.

It’s time for the filmmaker’s party. Heike has nothing warm, so she changes outfits three times and finally opts for a white summer dress with sandals. The sandals probably aren’t the best idea, but they go with her outfit and Heike will always choose fashion over comfort. We squeeze into a shuttle.

“Where are you guys staying?” Asks a fellow passenger.

“The campground,” grumbles Heike.

“In this weather?”

“I campout every year.” I squeeze Heike’s hand. “Where are you staying?”

“Oh, we’re staying at the blah blah blah hotel. It’s amazing. Jetted tubs, king bed, fireplace!”

Heike glances away in embarrassment and sinks lower into her seat.

At Skyline Ranch everyone huddles around heat lamps outside, stamping their feet and warming their hands. We load up our plates and take a seat inside the lodge, which isn’t much warmer. Bill and Debra, a couple from Arizona, join us.“So where are you guys staying?” Why does that always have to be the first question?

“The campground,” says Heike.

“Isn’t it kind of cold?”

“Yes,” says Heike immediately.

“They always try to give me a place,” I say, “but I tell them—no thanks, I’d rather camp.”

“My feet are cold,” says Heike.

We move to a couch and I give her a foot massage.

“Well, at least I can take a hot shower,” she says.

“Yeah…” I say, Then I stop dead.

The towels. I forgot the fucking towels.

“You what?” she asks.

“The towels. I think I forgot them.”

Heike is silent for a few moments. And then she gives me a look I have never seen from her before, and only on rare and extreme occasions—maybe once or twice—during my decade and a half of dating. It is not the sort of look you ever want to see from the woman you love. Romantic dinners, all-night chats, thoughtful gifts, spontaneous kissing on subway platforms be damned—if you ever see that look—you had better remember those towels!

“You know, actually…” I say casually, as if completely unaware of the warhead aimed my direction. “I remembered the towels, of course I did.”

“All I’m looking forward to right now is a hot shower,” she says slowly, deliberately, rage and desperation trembling just below the surface. “And I can’t dry off with a t-shirt!”

“Don’t worry, towels are in the trunk.”

My mind races. Somehow, I must produce a big, fluffy towel by the time we get back to campsite #36. I cannot borrow one from friends; I cannot buy one tomorrow—no, nothing short of remembering the towel will do.

“Excuse me,” I say.

I walk out of the dining area, down a hall and slip into one of the guestrooms. Inside the bathroom—thank goodness—a towel! It’s dark green and fluffy—a perfect imposter for my own back in Brooklyn.

I take off my Polartec fleece and wrap the towel around my waist. I have never stolen anything before in my life. I smooth out all the wrinkles so the towel is flush with my torso. Then I put on the fleece and zip up.

I return to Heike. “Let’s go.”

I’m hoping for a clean get away—especially since it looks like I gained 15 pounds over dinner. This is my sixth trip to Telluride—how would it look? Longtime MountainFilm author/filmmaker apprehended stealing a towel!

But we’re barraged by friends, including Carrie Regan, my great pal from National Geographic. Carrie immediately takes to Heike. “You could be a Bond girl!” She gushes.

I try to get away before the inevitable question: “Where are you staying?

“The campground,” says Heike in disgust.

“The campground?” Says Carrie, incredulous. “What kind of boyfriend are you?”

“I thought it would be fun,” I say. “It’s not usually this cold!”

Someone asks me for my card. I zip down my fleece just enough to reach the inside pocket, without revealing the towel.

“Zipper jammed?” She asks.

“It does that sometimes,” I say.

Heike is freezing. Her feet are numb, and she’s hardly talking, which is the rarest of occurrences for her.

We escape to the shuttle, but—“It just left,” someone says.

“I hate you Dan Austin,” she mutters as we stumble down the dirt road. I flag down a Pathfinder and we hop in. She props up her feet. I return to massage duty.

“Cold out there,” the driver says. He introduces himself as “Shimmy”, a member of the festival’s Board of Directors. “Where can I drop you off?”

We hop out at the cold, dark campground. Heike looks at me with the warhead stare again. “I really hope you didn’t forget that towel,” she says.

She climbs into the car for her toiletries and I pop the trunk. When she isn’t looking, I slip the towel out from around my waist. “Here’s your towel,” I say casually, handing her the contraband from Skyline Ranch.

Heike takes the towel with a mixture of relief and disbelief. “I can’t believe it,” she says. “I guess I don’t hate you.”

Thank God for that towel, I think as she prances off to the bathroom and I get the bed ready.

Twenty minutes later, Heike returns. Something’s wrong.

We crawl into the tent. And she begins to cry.

“Heike, baby! What’s wrong!” I hold her tight and cradle her under the blankets in the cold. But she just keeps crying.

“Heike, please! Whatever I did, I’m sorry! Sweetheart! Please stop crying!” Finally she gathers herself. “The bathroom… it looks like a women’s prison!” She sobs some more. “It’s so dirty and cold! And the mirror in there—it isn’t even a mirror! It’s just a piece of metal! How am I supposed to look good with that?

This is clearly not turning out to be the romantic weekend I had envisioned.

The next morning is freezing. I make tea on the Coleman. We take the Gondola to the symposium where we run into Carrie and Heike retells the traumatic events of last night, grateful for a sympathetic ear.

“You really are a lousy boyfriend,” Carrie says. I hope she’s only half serious.

We enjoy the gallery stroll that afternoon and have dinner at La Cocina. Things seem to be loosening up.

“You know,” says Heike as we walk back to camp, “I’m actually looking forward to my shower tonight in the women’s prison.”

But when we get back to the car, I’ve misplaced the key.

We sleep in our clothes. No shower, no PJs.

I scour the campground the next morning but the key is gone. Heike is running out of patience. The tension between us mounts by the minute.

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On the Gondola ride everything finally explodes.

“But don’t you see!” She says. “It’s really not about the key…” The break up chat has begun.

She needs coffee. We make for the Coffee Cowboy, an al fresco coffee stand where locals and filmmakers have gathered in the too-little-too-late sunshine.

“I got you a chai latte,” she says grimly, my favorite drink. She’d bought a chai latte for the first time the night we’d met, in a Starbucks, at midnight in Manhattan, full moon and light snow falling. It was the auspicious elixir that inaugurated our love—and now it would end it.

“This is definitely NOT what I signed up for,” she says—and she wasn’t just referring to the weekend.

“Let’s go someplace where we can be alone,” I say, feeling the relationship slipping by the second.

We end up at the cemetery and sit on tombstones because the grass is wet and cold. I reach out to hold her.

“Don’t touch me,” she says.

A couple hours later I have lunch with Carrie.

“She’s amazing, Dan—beautiful, intelligent, cool—don’t screw it up!”

I do a masterful job of hiding my emotions. The chat in the cemetery had not gone well.

“How’s the campground?”

“Not good,” I say. “I lost the car key. Heike’s freezing. It’s snowed every night. She thinks the bathroom looks like a women’s prison.”

“You know,” says Carrie, “there’s an extra room in our National Geographic condo—do you guys want it?”

Carrie Regan has been a savior to me many times, in many ways. She is one of the truest friends I’ve ever had, and now, unbeknownst to her, she was about to save my relationship.

“That would be awesome.” I say.

An hour later Heike and I meet up for the book frenzy. We sit at a table in the quiet filmmakers lounge at the Camel’s Garden.

“It was good that it happened, don’t you think?” Says Heike softly, all the acrimony from a few hours ago melted away. “I mean, it had to happen.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know if it was good or not.”

“Why?” She asks gently.

“Because,” I continue, “it wasn’t done with love. Everything about our relationship has been based on love, from Starbucks to that night at the First Avenue L-train stop to now. But this was the first time that it wasn’t love. It was a little bit ugly. We both said things and felt things. Our relationship hasn’t been perfect, but it has had love. I didn’t want it to end this way; it felt wrong to me.”

Our faces are inches apart, our hands clasped tightly, her eyes suddenly deep and loving.

“Let’s just forget about this crazy weekend,” I say, “and decide things when we get back to New York. If we don’t stay together, fine. But let’s at least do it with love.”

A girl walks by and says what a nice couple we are. If she had any idea…

“I found the key,” I say.

“Where was it?”

“In the grass by the tent.”

“So I can take a shower in the women’s prison tonight?”

“You won’t have to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have a surprise for you.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Carrie invited us to stay with her in the National Geographic condo. King sized bed, steam room, home theatre, jetted tub…”

Heike smiles. “What if I’d rather stay at the women’s prison?”

“Too bad,” I say.

I sign nearly all my books at the frenzy, thanks in part to sitting next to popular Steph Davis, who has become another instant Heike acolyte. Even she thinks I’ve been a lousy boyfriend—but gives me kudos for the last minute change of venue. Later that evening we walk to Carrie’s.

“Man, wouldn’t it be cool if she’s in one of those,” says Heike longingly, nodding at some beautiful lodges on the hill.

But as we follow Carrie’s directions and turn up the stone walk, we realize Carrie is in one of those!

“This is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed,” says Heike as Carrie gives us the grand tour. “And I’ve stayed in some nice places.” Having spent the last few nights freezing in the campground, such opulence was never more appreciated.

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On the leather couch in the massive, vaulted living room we recount the weekend’s ups and downs to Carrie with great laughter.

Then we walk out on the deck together and gaze over the alpine scene of mountains, forests and lodges. The sun has just dipped behind the distant peaks. We look at each other and I pull her close.

“Hello Dan Austin,” she says softly.

“Hello Heike Bachmann,” I say.

Late that night we curl up together in bed.

“I have a confession,” I whisper.

“Ok,” she says.

“I stole the towel from the lodge.”

She pauses. “It looked just like the one from Brooklyn.”

“I got lucky.”

“If you hadn’t stolen that towel, I would have never forgiven you.”

“I know.”

She laughs and kisses me.

After sleeping in, taking a long bath and thanking Carrie ceaselessly, we enjoy one last Gondola ride before returning to New York. The snow is gone, the day clear, the sun warm.

We share the cabin with an older fellow who turns out to be a sort of Telluride historian.

“Well you know, there used to be a prison in town a hundred years ago,” he says, gesturing to the sparkling village below.

“Really.”

“Yeah. It was out there where the town campground is now.”

Heike and I exchange a glance.

“In fact, the back half of the bathhouse used to be the prison. You can still see the walls…”

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