Harbingers of the changing season: ripe berries, migrating bluebirds, the arrival of the first ski magazines, and, most emphatically, the coming of the 34th Telluride Film Festival.
This will be our – Ellen’s and my – 32nd TFF. We know that the weekend will, like all of its predecessors, result in cinematic sensory overload. We know we will feel as if we have been projected to some extraordinary place beyond the known world. (It is no accident that the hospitality tent down on the river is called Brigadoon.)
We also know that the Labor Day holiday often signals the end of summer in dramatic fashion. Nights will be cool. There will be a few early-turning aspens, maybe a hint of the high tundra’s fire orange. In 2004, I remember leaving the Sheridan Opera House after a movie and walking out to butterfly-sized snowflakes falling purposefully through a charcoal sky.
Next morning snowline was only a couple of hundred feet above town. It was so bright you couldn’t cross the street without shades on. I saw the raven-haired Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi (House of Flying Daggers, in which she plays a blind warrior), standing alone in the middle of main street immobilized by the white brilliance.
In the high country last week, Ellen and I got another visceral shot of the season. Our timing was perfect to pick black currants. Some years the bears, or the birds, get them first. Some years the rain and the heat come at the wrong times and there are no berries. Some years we’re too early or too late.
This time, in silence and a sprinkling rain, we sat on rotting logs and slowly filled our bags. The smells were of earth and downed spruce, sweet, tangy juice on fingers and lips, plus something ancient and indescribably wild. Every so often I glanced over my shoulder half expecting to see a bear sitting working a patch nearby.
I first experienced this smell and taste combination during the winter of 1973 when Ellen and I had just met. She spooned a dark purple syrup from a mason jar onto her yogurt at lunch in the ski school room at Keystone. She had picked the berries that fall and boiled them down with a little sugar. She let me taste. And, well…ambrosia is a weak word to describe its effect.
We were both ski instructors, she the more experienced and higher up the teaching ladder. I was an apprentice. (One of the reasons I tried ski teaching was this word from the Middle Ages, this lovely concept of mentoring skills that could scarcely be acquired on one’s own.) We taught for seven more years, ending in Telluride in the late 1970s.
But the skiing bug never ends. And the publishers of the ski magazines know that the juices are flowing at vicarious flood stage right about now, with the end of the hot weather and the onset of skiing dreams. The first magazines are equipment issues: buy these sleek, peacock-tinted, outrageously expensive toys and you too will ascend with that person in your skiing dreams.
I know the hype, the limited, bro-speak evocations, the physiological hooks by heart – and still I read every issue cover to cover. It is part of the alchemy, the run-up to actually doing it. Like tuning and waxing skis. Like finding yourself slaloming down the empty asphalt on the bike. For me, it’s an admission, a harmless, happy admission, that this is why I’m here. Why a lot of us “elective mountaineers,” as Lito Tejada-Flores once described us, came here in the first place.
We stayed, in part, because of events like the Telluride Film Festival. This year marks a special passage for the TFF: it will be the first without founders Bill and Stella Pence. We miss them already – Bill’s preoccupied Cary Grant to Stella’s cool Kate Hepburn. Ellen and Stella were pregnant together in the tiny festival office during the summer of 1979, plotting the visits of Abel Gance and Klaus Kinski. And the bonds, if it’s possible, grew deeper from there.
But seasons change. The Pences knew after 33 years they were “toast” (their word). And now, under the direction of Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger (Tom Luddy remains from the original troika), the festival moves on. With anticipation, with a heady mix of promise and memory, with the scent perhaps of snow in the air.