Do you live you in Utah? (If no, proceed to paragraph two.) Do you love movies? (If no, proceed to paragraph two.) Can you successfully sit for a couple hours? (If no, reflect on your unusual inability and its possible causes for a moment and then proceed to paragraph two.) If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, why don’t you go to the Sundance Film Festival? The Sundance Film Festival, unlike polygamy, is an actual perk of living in Utah so why not enjoy it?
Jason and I have been attending Sundance for many years now. Through it we have seen both obscure indies that have never been heard from again and shows that have gone on to earn Academy Award nominations. This year we saw five films, which is our typical Sundance load. They ranged from science nonfiction to science fiction but were all worthy of a watch.
Whatever your political position, you can’t deny that Al Gore is a remarkable speaker. We were thrilled to hear from him in person.
Our first festival film was Plastic China. Plastic China is a documentary that focuses on one family in a little Chinese village where thousands of small recyclers barely get by through melting down the world’s wastes. We thought it a poignant commentary on both the costs of global consumerism and the social norms in China. We attained some interesting insights from the film’s director and producers following the show.
This gang of scientists and crew members led a fascinating Q&A after Chasing Coral.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power was our second show. Yes, as the name suggests, it is a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth and has a similar theme. We quite enjoyed this cinematic call to action. As a bonus, Al Gore himself did a Q&A at the end of our screening; it was cool to hear from him personally. I have a policy against waxing political in public places so, without deviating much from that dogma, allow me to bring up one discussion point that’s been bothering me for some time: Why is there resistance in parts of the political arena to the possibility of global warming? If there is even a small chance that global warming is happening, why not embrace changes to counteract it? For if it isn’t happening and we act as if it is, what is the consequence? Cleaner air. Hmmm… cleaner air sounds okay to me. However, if we act as if it is not happening and it is, what is the consequence? A whole lot of catastrophic and horrible things… oh and, in the end, we run out of fossil fuels anyway. So why would any politician deny the possibility of global warming? Sadly, the answer is obvious. You fight against the notion of climate change if oil companies and other fossil fuel industries fund your career. And that is why I never trust politicians that proclaim global warming is irrelevant or a hoax; they either lack simple reasoning skills or they are looking out for their own best interests instead of those of the people they allegedly represent.
Danny Strong, the director and writer of Rebel in the Rye, was happy to interact with fans after his screening.
Chasing Coral was the third show we saw and our favorite film this year. It won the Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary category so we weren’t the only ones captivated by this vibrant movie. It provides a bittersweet look at the mysterious underwater forests of coral that have been dying at an unprecedented rate in recent years. (Spoiler alert: it’s global warming that’s killing them.) Chasing Coral is both a beautifully wondrous and incredibly distressing show.
Marjorie Prime, our fourth movie, won the Sloan Feature Film Prize, an award given to outstanding pictures with a science or technology focus. It offers a thought-provoking, and somewhat depressing, look at the science and science fiction of memory.
Along with fantastic films, part of the appeal of the Sundance Film Festival is hanging with friends.
The last screening we went to was for Rebel in the Rye, an excellent way to finish up the festival. This well-done film is about J.D. Salinger, the cloistered author of Catcher in the Rye. Jason and I both appreciated its themes about the process and price of creation.
The Sundance Film Festival supplied ample company, commentaries, and curiosities of thought this year. Good thing this event is for real, unlike Utahans extra wives.
Jason and I are more about accumulating experiences than accumulating things (with the exception of my LEGO Minifigures collection of course). Therefore, one of the primary gifts I gave him for Christmas this year was a break from winter’s crankiness via a long weekend in Phoenix.
Although not too opulent by today’s standards, the Wrigley Mansion was interesting.
Our first night in Phoenix we visited the Wrigley Mansion, the house that gum built. No, the bricks were not held together by Big Red but one room was completely lined with foil from the factory.
Saguaros are a classic emblem of the American Southwest.
The next day, we hiked to the top of Camelback Mountain via the Cholla Trail. This path gains 1,253 feet in only 1.4 miles. In combination with some rocky sections where scrambling is necessary, that steepness has earned Cholla a double black diamond rating. But that grade doesn’t adequately elucidate what we saw up there that day. I’ve never come across so many timid hikers (or so many pairs of yoga pants) in my life. As a Utahan, I was shocked by the number of trekkers that were seemingly puzzled by the concept of putting one foot in front of the other or clinging to rocks like they were dangling on the edge of the Great Pit of Carkoon. Were these natives or were they tourists? And how did they not know how to walk up a hill? Double black diamond or not, this trail seemed pretty standard to us but the people we encountered on it didn’t.
Camelback’s spine twisted like a stony serpent.
We spent that evening wandering around the Desert Botanical Garden. Its display of 23,000 cacti, succulents, and other desert flora was both informative and picturesque. Desert plants have always fascinated me, perhaps because I can relate to their inventive stubbornness.
The Cholla Trail was a little intense but not intense enough to account for the petrified and confused hikers we encountered.
Our last day in Phoenix, I requested more time out in the mid-sixties sunshine, something essential I’d be missing in Utah for a while. So, we headed to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and trekked around the Bajada Nature Trail, Saguaro Trail, and Saguaro Loop Trail. We walked about a mile and a half while looking at educational signs and examining native spikers. It wasn’t exactly exercise but it was peaceful and pleasant.
Phoenix’s mountains are sporadically spaced- a peak here, a peak there- with urban sprawl spanning the gaps in between.
Strolling through the Desert Botanical Garden was Jason’s favorite part of our whole trip.
Next, we stopped at Butterfly Wonderland, the largest butterfly conservatory in America. There, 3,000 butterflies and moths, some of them startlingly enormous, flitted around us like graceful and animated bobbins weaving a lofty tapestry. Pretty awesome!
Bristly saguaros silhouetted by a technicolored sky make for a mighty memorable sunset.
We finished off the day at the Musical Instrument Museum. At that institution, we saw everything from Johnny Cash’s guitar to the first Steinway piano. Also awesome? Yes!
At Butterfly Wonderland, thousands of butterflies and moths fly freely around you.
With so many winged creatures fluttering about, it was difficult to decide which way to flutter ourselves.
On a side note, during this trip we stayed at a resort out in the desert. It was both inconveniently located and beautifully situated. Nature seemed barely held back by its bits of development. Bunnies and birds bobbed about each morning and at dusk coyotes howled twilight serenades.
The Atlas moth is the biggest moth in the world. It’s bigger than many birds and Jason’s hands.
On a far side note, one night we tried to start a fire in our casita’s fireplace with wood provided by the resort, strange desert wood. It refused to light but then, three hours later at 1:30 AM, it set itself ablaze suddenly. Waking up to flames is not a comfortable experience.
Saguaro cacti only grow in the Sonoran Desert but they do so with zest, living hundreds of years.
We flew to Phoenix less than a week after our return from Yellowstone so we underwent a 100-degree temperature variation within a few days. Warmth was the point of Phoenix but I wasn’t sure what else we could fill a few days there with. Now I know, we could have filled a few more easily. Merry Christmas my love!
Despite a great tragedy in Jason’s family, Jason and I made a planned trip to Yellowstone National Park with my family work out. Although there were some schedule hiccups, weather glitches, foot wrenches, and strain-induced illnesses, I’m glad we chose to make this outing happen regardless of the circumstances. The experience was perfectly contrasting; cruising around Yellowstone in winter felt as alien as hanging with my family felt familiar.
Due to all the runoff from thermal features, the Madison River doesn’t freeze so wildlife congregates along its path in the winter. That was where we found these bald eagles.
Jason and I reserved a posh condo in West Yellowstone months ago for the purpose of exploring Yellowstone National Park during its most inhospitable season. We invited the hardiest of my family to join us. Via a self-selecting method, the “hardiest” ended up being my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and two nephews. The whole group, except for my parents, spent a day snowmobiling through the park; my parents opted to take a milder snowcoach.
This coyote was waiting to be served a dozy-bird breakfast burrito.
Our many-layers look was stylishly completed by coveralls.
When we headed out the morning of our snowmobile reservation, the temperature was -39 degrees F. Yes, you read that right, as in almost 40 degrees below zero. We had to wait for about an hour at the snowmobile center for the temperature to rise to about-20. Evidently, if you go snowmobiling in weather below -20 it’s a lot like an ice cream truck came into town and you’re the popsicles.
Kristen and I rented telephoto lenses so we could give wildlife a zoom.
That a.m.’s -39 was about 30 degrees colder than I have ever been in my life. What did it feel like? It felt crunchy. Everything crackled from car doors to backpacks. Touching metal felt a lot like stabbing yourself in the hand. Sound seemed slow and muted. Oddly, other than a few weird things like that, -39 didn’t feel much different than 0. When you’re unthinkably cold, what’s 40 degrees less?
I had to remind myself that I was still on planet Earth when this scene came into view.
Yellowstone’s bacterial mats seemed even more striking when surrounded by a blanched palette.
When temperatures finally hit the balmy negative twenties, we were able to depart on our private snowmobile tour of the park. Kristen didn’t take to snowmobile operating. After an incident with a snowbank, which resulted in a sprained ankle, she wouldn’t drive above 5 MPH. I was therefore tasked with taking over the driving of her machine. I was starting to come down with a respiratory infection, one that would eventually become my worst sickness in years, so I wasn’t feeling exceptional to begin with and the mighty negatives were taking their toll but when we hit the splendor of Yellowstone all of that was forgotten.
The Lower Geyser Basin contained many marvelous fountains and pots.
Yellowstone looked like a misplaced land with snow-masked hillsides and meadows framed between wavy vapors and steamy rivers beaded by ice chunks. It was unreal! Since only about 1000 tourists enter the park daily during the winter, the animals are rather sociable and uninhibited while they are unpleasantly cold. (That sounds like a lot of people until you consider that over 30,000 visitors encroach on Yellowstone every day during the summer months.) We met bald eagles, coyotes, elk, and trumpeter swans. We plowed right through a herd of lethargic bison. Moving among them on a snowmobile, with nothing but frigid air between you, is quite a different experience than passing them in a car. We traveled through a valley where plumes of geothermal steam billowed toward the sky and crept along the horizon in a hazy dance full of a motion at odds with the utter stillness of the rest of the scene.
Red Spouter’s name makes more sense after seeing it in the winter. In the summer, it’s too dry to do any spouting.
The trees near pools, pots, and geysers looked more like gritty beasts than plants.
Did I stay warm? Shockingly, yes. Thanks to -60-degree boots, two pairs of socks, various foot warmers, a down jacket, a down coat, a thermal top, a snowboarding jacket, three layers of thermal pants of various sizes to allow for their overlay, two glove liners, mittens, two balaclavas, half a dozen handwarmers, and one hideous one-piece snowmobiling suit I stayed unexpectedly cozy. How I even moved while wearing all of that remains a mystery. I wasn’t the exception; no one in our group got cold. In fact, Miles was so comfy that he kept falling asleep on the back of Jason’s snowmobile. It was nerve-racking cruising behind them while he slid this way and that in a speedy slumber.
Even the more typical features of Yellowstone’s landscape didn’t look typical.
Although our trip passed too quickly, we still reserved some time at the condo for poker and conversation. It was pleasant and mellow thanks to my great family.
The only time we were assailed by other tourists was when everyone was heading out of the park for the day.
Spending time with my family was a delight as always.
What a memorable vacation! I will never forget the astonishing scenery, chummy wildlife, crinkly cold, and family warmth. Of course, I will also never forget how sick I was afterward. The day we left, my body was so worn out and ill that I could barely move. I slept the entire way home and had a fever the whole night. Yet, oh what a trip!