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02.24.10

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Phaedra

From the film 'Take A Seat'
INFINITY AND BEYOND: Dominic Gill in the Salar de Uyuni, or Bolivian salt flats. 'I imagine this is what it would feel like if you had to walk across a massive wedding cake and you're tiny,' says British schoolteacher and stoker Adam Pochee, who accompanied Gill across the flats.

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

A cyclist's feat of derring-do becomes a lesson in human kindness

By Maria Grusauskas


IN JUNE 2006, 25-year-old Dominic Gill set out from northern Alaska on a tandem bike dubbed Achilles and headed south. Way south. His goal: to reach the southern tip of South America in 18 months, picking up random strangers along the way. Armed with bear spray, a video camera and a questionable sense of sanity, Gill rolled out of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and into the bleak tundra with a small British flag fluttering encouragingly behind him. He had just one rule: "I never asked anyone to get off!"

Along the 18,000-mile long journey, he was chased out of town by a man with a machete, pedaled through snow storms and deserts, encountered landslides and scorpion-strewn beaches and picked up 270 "stokers" who mounted Achilles' open back seat to help him push. Generous volunteers, since Achilles and its trailer of provisions tipped the scales at 220 pounds. Their contribution made a deep impression on Gill.

"I knew this challenge would be tough. I knew I would see incredible places. I knew I would experience fear, sadness, loneliness and sometimes delirious happiness," says Gill. "What I didn't expect was to have my faith in humanity so massively reinforced over two years of trusting in people."

The record of his journey is his documentary, Take A Seat, which won the Special Jury Award at the BANFF Mountain Festival 2009. The film will show in Santa Cruz this weekend when the BANFF Mountain Film Festival rolls into town.

Born and raised in England, the self-proclaimed adventurer, climber and videographer dreamed up this human power journey after realizing his responsible nine-to-five desk job as an environmental consultant was sucking the life out of him. Tired of working with large corporations that weren't interested in environmental improvement if it didn't save them money, and in possession of degrees in biology and environmental studies that weren't being put to use, Gill left the world of business in search of something more meaningful. Drawn by the sprawling expanse of the American continents, he combined the three things he loved—adventure, video and physical challenges—into the adventure of a lifetime: a filmed journey down the entire western latitude of the Americas.

"This idea was conceived always with filming in mind. I'd be a fool to pass up an opportunity to document not only the places but the people I encountered while I rolled south," he says.

Ed Stobart of Ginger Productions, a documentary film producer, liked Gill's idea but asked him to add a twist to make it "crazy enough" to entertain viewers: do it on a tandem bike. Gill accepted.

As expected, the spare seat on Achilles added a dimension of unpredictable possibility—one that would alter his itinerary completely.

"After an initial plan of 18 months, I soon realized that rushing south was a waste of an opportunity to get to know people and places," says Gill. He scrapped any sort of strict cycling regimen and slowed his pace to savor the scenery and the rich company of new friends.

"In a world where there is so much fear and you are encouraged not to even get involved with your neighbors, it was life-affirming," he says. From its initial timetable of 18 months, the trip swelled to 26 months and became a completely different kind of journey.

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From the film 'Take A Seat'
PEDAL PALS: Some 270 'stokers' helped Gill power his 220-pound bicycle 18,000 miles, from Alaska to Argentina.

Stoked

Who were the lucky (or unlucky) 270 who took a seat?

"Curious city dwellers who invited me to stay, tourists wanting to go anywhere, anyhow with a cowboy hat and a few bags of herb, or a Peruvian villager welcoming an alternative to the overcrowded and unreliable rural bus service," he recalls. "In South America, kids would jump on whenever the hell they wanted."

A number of people found him online before they found him on the roadside, like Jules Kresko, a flight attendant from Colorado who overheard some people chatting about Gill in a bike shop. She rode with him for six weeks.

Yet two people on a tandem can be a hard lesson in patience. "As soon as they get a sore ass they start moving around and it makes for really hard pedaling," he says. There were only a few stokers he didn't get along with, and in such cases he found ways to trick his own system—not directly asking them to get off but using "hen-pecking comments" to inspire their fold.

The female-to-male ratio of guest riders was 60-to-40. "I guess something about tandems is particularly attractive to women," Gill muses. Add a pair of tight bike shorts and a charming British accent to the machine and the mystery dissolves. 

But it wasn't all fun and companionship. Gill pedaled about 50 percent of the miles alone, enduring long stretches of loneliness. Like the day of his 26th birthday, when he crashed Achilles in the middle of nowhere and later realized his wallet was missing. Or the freezing nights he spent in his tent waiting out the snowstorms in southern Chile, or the endless expanses of high-altitude desert in Peru. "It was like a scene out of a Dali painting," he says of the landscape 15,000 feet above sea level, where night temperatures plunged to minus 13 degrees. Some of these moments are documented with raw honesty in Take A Seat, but his journal offered the real asylum. "Writing kept me sane," he says. "It was constant." 


Border Bound

Gill rolled down the Northern California coast in October 2006, recording this in his blog:

"Through valleys of vineyards to the Californian coast, where the sea had been shrouded with a billowing blanket of cloud. Through giant Redwoods, along darkened forest corridors in which the air is guarded by trees and remains silent and still. Above the roaring waves of the Pacific, on hillsides void of anything but dry grass and turkey vultures circling on thermals in the cloudless sky. Through small communities with wooden shingled walls and weather beaten fences. And then on, over the Goldengate [sic] Bridge, glowing in the last of the sunlight that the dusk had offered up."

He picked up his first bona fide surfer in Santa Cruz, a young man named Jared whom he found skipping class. Jared appears in Take A Seat.

The empty saddle created a kind of social experiment. Although he found a healthy supply of friends in California, Gill apologetically admits to registering a sort of phoniness, what he called "too much money and not enough brain, and a lot of attitude," which intensified the further south he got.

He was also getting nervous as he pedaled through Southern California. Five thousand miles of warnings about banditos, pickpockets and murderers waiting for him in Mexico left Gill cycling toward the border with his fight or flight instinct fully engaged. He crossed over into Tijuana with vivid scenarios of being robbed flashing in his brain. What he found was a far cry from the worst he had expected: some new friends and a place to sleep.

"Marco Kelly sold tacos from his stand and his 'loncheria' round the corner. He spoke English, French and Spanish perfectly and provided me with more than a soft landing in Mexico," says Gill.

What started with tacos and friendly conversation turned to shelter and company for Gill's first night south of the border. As the blog says, "He instructed his incredibly able cook Esmaralda to feed me with delicious tacos, and there, in fading light, on a busy street, sitting on a stool next to a filthy but functional mechanics shop, a love affair started. Not with Esmaralda, but with tacos. I love them more than life itself. Simplicity. Satisfaction. Perfection in a moist tortilla."


Southern Hospitality

As Gill speaks of these first days discovering Latin America—the new smells, the colors, the people—he has a glazed look in his eyes. Latin America surprised him on many levels. Although he was received "incredibly well" in the States, the social landscape of South America positively overflowed with warmth, hospitality and cariņo, or caring affection, he says. The contrast between North and South America made an impression.

"There was a direct correlation between how wealthy people were and how hospitable they were—a negative correlation," he says. "[Wealthier people] have a harder time trusting people, and more to lose by inviting a stranger into their house."

In Latin America he was invited to family celebrations, offered homes and yards and even a schoolhouse to sleep in. One of the most destitute areas he passed through was Pisco, Peru, months after it was shaken by a devastating earthquake. "There were areas that smelt of death, bodies still under the rubble and people living in tents," says Gill. But it was there he remembers a local soft drink truck stopping on the road to hand him a Coke.

"I fell in love with so many places. It wasn't so much because of how a place looked. I could go through a country that was completely average. I spent three days in Honduras, and on the second day a family took me in and treated me like one of their own."

Such generous hospitality also meant eating what the locals ate. With a family in Ecuador, Gill helped to slaughter guinea pigs, a delicacy reserved for celebrations. "After which the lady of the house painstakingly cleaned the intestines with a knitting needle," he remembers. Whether it was crickets or cow stomach in Mexico, sheep's-head soup in Peru or days of nothing but stale bread and sardines in the Bolivian dessert, Gill survived on whatever opportunity offered him. When he could, though, he would stock up on mayonnaise and pasta, the concoction he says tasted "like coming home to my favorite meal."

The most challenging element of his trip began to take on a new form. Saying goodbye to that kind of friendship and hospitality produced an emotional exhaustion that brought him close to quitting the expedition on more than one occasion. It was a feeling he didn't want to get used to. 


 

A Story to Tell

In August 2008, Dominic rolled into the icy city of Ushuaia in Patagonia's Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), named for the cooking fires seen burning on the beaches by Magellan and his crew five centuries ago. It was the end of an incredible journey, but the joy he had anticipated was absent. Instead, an emptiness filled him where every day there had been new people and places to meet.

"Here (South America), I am different. I'm almost blonde and I've got a story to tell. But when I go home, I'm just going to be me. Walking down the street ... without a bicycle," Gill had told the camera in a moment of reflection.

A year and a half later, more than 200 hours of film footage, an extensive journal and scores of new friends have enabled him to bring part of that story with him. Two years after the adventure ended, Dominic Gill is pinching pennies, but he hasn't yet succumbed to the nine-to-five grind. He has, however, returned to the world of business.

"I've turned what I loved into my work ... which was the goal, for good or for bad," he says. His book, a compilation of the image-rich prose of his journal and blogs, will be published in May of this year.

And Achilles? Presently, sitting in his aunt's house, reconditioned and ready for a book tour around England.    

TAKE A SEAT screens Saturday, Feb. 27, at 7pm as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Festival runs Friday–Saturday, Feb. 26–27 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 general, night/$12 student, night at www.ucscrecreation.com or at Bugaboo, Pacific Edge or Sprockets.


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From the film 'Ultimate Skiing Showdown.'
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME: 'The Ultimate Skiing Showdown' screens Saturday as part of the Banff Mountain Film Fest.

The Other Olympics

Banff Mountain Film Festival serves up white-knuckle footage of extreme sports

By Curtis Cartier

THE OLYMPIC sport of curling involves two teams of players carefully sliding large stones down an icy lane while "sweepers" use brooms to polish the rocks' gradual paths toward a target.

There will be no curling shown at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

Any activity—Olympic or otherwise—that graces the screen at this sports and culture movie fest will have to clock in pretty high on the adrenaline meter. Now in its 34th year, the touring festival will hit 285 cities and towns worldwide. In Santa Cruz, Banff will feature 12 films shown over two nights at the Rio Theatre.

After Kranked—Revolve opens the show Friday night with 11 minutes of mountain bike gyrations, Japanese director Masaki Sekiguchi presents his three-minute film Deep/Shinsetsu, like snowfall itself: pure, clean and wordless. With no voiceovers, sound effects or interviews, only a somber acoustic ballad playing softly in the background, skiers take on a wraithlike quality as they plunge through a seemingly endless ocean of deep, soft white.

Next, it's a childhood adventure worth bragging about in Finding Farley. Filmmakers Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison chart a course across the Great White North using locales that Canadian author Farley Mowat brought to life in famous nature tales like Never Cry Wolf. With their 2-year-old son Zev and spunky dog Willow, the family set out on a quest to meet Mowat himself in Nova Scotia. The travelogue captures the beauty and scope of Canada as well as the personal drama that accompanies a nomadic household.

The quirky MedeoZ brings back the high-octane action. In this film, a photographer tries to take a single photo of six different mountain sports: skiing, snowboarding, mountaineering, paragliding, speed riding and BASE-jumping. Pulling off the feat won't be easy, however, and director/protagonist Guillaume Broust has to marshal not only timing but egos as the six extreme disciplines come together behind one lens.

The cultural side of the festival flexes its muscles in the next film as director Will Parrinello presents Mustang—Journey of Transformation. The movie is set in the kingdom of Mustang, a 780-square-mile hunk of Himalayan pastureland located in northern Nepal. A secret kingdom that has long shunned Westerners, it fosters what many consider a "pure" form of Tibetan culture. Now, under steadily rising poverty, the ornate 15th century monasteries for which the kingdom is known are crumbling from neglect. Parrinello travels to the isolated land and documents the struggle to save the architectural and spiritual heritage with awe-inspiring shots of grand vistas and intimate moments, including an extended interview with the Dalai Lama.

Closing Friday night, First Ascent: Alone on the Wall tells the story of a young, possibly psychotic, man named Alex Honnold. Honnold lives in a van. Traveling from rock climb to rock climb, the fearless 24-year-old sacrifices home cooking and hygiene for his stony relationship with sheer mountain walls. His holy grail: to climb Yosemite National Park's legendary face, Half Dome, with no ropes and nothing to save him should he lose his grip. Honnold says he climbs his best without ropes. He'll have to—one slip and all that will be left of our hero is a smudge at the bottom of the mountain and a scary story climbers tell their children.

On Saturday, Revolution One introduces viewers to the exciting world of off-road unicycling, then ramps up the drama as four friends survive rock falls, freezing limbs and each other during 20 days on a rock wall in Azazel. The film documents the quartet as they attempt to chart a new route up the Trango Pulpit Tower, a nearly 20,000-foot cliff in Pakistan that holds mythic status among the locals.

The action jumps continents next, to the Americas for Take A Seat (see page 13) and back across the Atlantic when Rush Sturges' Africa Revolutions Tour shows what kind of trouble a group of kayakers can get into in Uganda and Madagascar. In many cases the crew of river rats represent the first lunatics to ride the crocodile- and wasp-infested rivers in kayaks. The white-knuckle action is undercut by group companion Rita Riewerts and the Sun Catchers Project, which gives simple, solar-powered ovens to rural villagers to use for cooking and sanitizing water.

Santa Cruz native Chris Sharma got his start climbing the plywood wall at Pacific Edge Climbing Gym on Bronson Street. These days he's on to bigger and badder walls, but none perhaps is more taxing than California's Mount Clark and its 500-foot overhanging monster, dubbed "unclimbable" by everyone who has tried to scale it. In First Ascent: Impossible Climb, Sharma is out to prove otherwise and spends days in the desert in "monastic devotion" as he battles the stone until only one remains.

Finally, ending this year's Banff offerings on a bit of a ridiculous note, The Ultimate Skiing Showdown looks to calm audiences' frayed nerves with a little comedy. Set to the Neil Cicierega song "The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny," which discusses a fight between Batman and Godzilla, David McMahon's four-minute goof pays both homage and insult to the sport of cross-county—ahem, Nordic—skiing. While the silly song plays, a group of trick-happy skiers bother, surprise and generally act the fool in front of a group of less talented, but seemingly reasonable, group of skiers.

The winter Olympics may have introduced Americans to some odd sports. But until there are gold medals given out for the best judged BASE-jump or the fastest climbing route up Half Dome, the Banff Mountain Film Festival will be there to fill in the blanks.

THE BANFF MOUNTAIN FILM FESTIVAL screens Friday–Saturday, Feb. 26–27, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 831.423.8209. Tickets are $15/$12 for students and seniors and are available at the Rio box office or at www.ucscrecreation.com.


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