May 26, 2016

The Joy of Walking: Ace and the Desert Dog

Could they really make a film about walking? Forest Woodward and Brendan Leonard set out to film man, his dog, and an epic hike through Utah.

“Let’s make a film series about walking,” my friend Brendan Leonard suggested after a weekend watching adventure films at the Telluride Mountain Film festival.

I looked at him to see if he was joking. He likes to joke.

He wasn’t joking.

“That could be interesting,” I replied, weighing whether or not to tell him that I organized a strike against walking when I was 9. My parents wanted to drag us around the world on backpacking expeditions and I thought that much walking was sadistic.

“Yeah, no one is really doing anything like that,” Brendan said. “Good stories don’t have to be extreme.”

“That’s a good point,” I answered without the slightest bit of enthusiasm. All I could think about was how boring it would be to watch a movie about someone just walking. Well, unless the subject of the film was an actress with sun-kissed hair flowing in the wind as the sound of a pan flute played in the background.

“Who do you have in mind as a subject?” I ask.

hiker and dog

“Well, there’s this guy named Ace,” Brendan said. He turns 60 this year and he’s going for a long walk with his dog in the desert outside their house, down in Utah.”

Visions of the blonde actress disappeared as the flute music in my mind stopped abruptly. I had a flashback to scenes of dog walkers in New York, their pockets stuffed with grocery bags as they stop every five steps to pick up a steaming pile of poo. I started to wonder if anyone made backcountry wag bags for dogs, but Brendan had a vision and in the end, I decided to join him despite my doubts.

Fast forward a few dozen emails, a handful of phone calls, two stacks of french toast from the Walnut Street Cafe, 17 cups of coffee, 350 miles of driving, and Brendan and I found ourselves in a sleepy little town* in Utah, with a van full of camera equipment (half of which only half of us know how to use).

It’s hard to say why I decided to join Brendan in the quest to make a film about walking.  It was probably the overwhelming trust and respect I have for Brendan, though it could have been the fact that deep down I know that despite my childhood strike against walking it’s actually served an important form of transportation, meditation, and exercise for at least 200 years (and probably a lot longer than that)**.

Whatever the combination of forces, whether it was God or nature or caffeine that brought us together to shoot this film, I’m thankful.

That fateful summer day in the sleepy frontier town marked the start of one of my favorite creative collaborations to date.

man and dog on trailOver the course of the next 60 days, we would follow Ace and Genghis as they traced a loop through some of the wildest country in the southwest. They relied on game trails and an intimate knowledge of ephemeral water sources in order to survive the labyrinth of canyons and mesas that few have ventured to explore since the Anasazi.

Mary McCintyre joined our fellowship and filmed about half the better part of half the journey.  Max Lowe came down from Montana to film aerials. And Brendan hiked in for an intercept mid-trip. But they weren’t the only guests.

Ace and Genghis attracted a revolving cast of friends from around the world who joined them for various legs of their journey.

hiker with beardThey hiked through snow and rain and desert heat, bathed in rainwater pools, grew beards (well, the Ace did), and by the time Brendan and I reunited again with them some 54 days after their initial departure, they had begun to take on the rugged, rusty hue of the desert.

For those final six of 60 days, Brendan and I hiked with Ace and Genghis along the game trails that took us across rolling white sandstone formations, through a cow pasture, and over a split rail fence that marks the back edge of their yard.

I had to hustle to keep up with them even after they had already walked some 450 miles. Still, I couldn’t shake the doubt that festered.

Were we actually making a film about walking?

dog in tent hiding from snowThere wouldn’t be any flute music to manipulate the audience and there were no shots of a beautiful actress standing against the setting sun with her blonde hair blowing in the wind. We weren’t even going to introduce special effects to enhance the dangers of the desert. So what was the draw? What was our hook?

As I thought about it, I soon realized there were other things that were just as compelling as a Hollywood tale, and maybe even more so. Like simple truths, understated and quiet but rich in substance like the bond between Ace and Genghis. Stripped of distractions, it was pure and strong, and a joy to watch as they paced in stride, hardly leaving a trace  on the landscape into which they effortlessly merged.

The silence at night was haunting and beautiful, broken only by the popping of embers, the rustle of the cottonwood, or the far-off call of the coyote. Ace spoke with clarity and strength and Genghis, with all his canine sense attuned, watched Ace’s every move.

campfire at nightOn the last day we woke early. Ace built a small fire and prepared a hearty breakfast of oats and coffee—much as he had each during his journey. Genghis lazed contentedly in the morning sun.

From the outside there was no big Hollywood ending. In fact, the last day might have appeared anticlimactic. The cows out in the pasture stared blankly as Ace hopped over the gate and into his yard. There was no fanfare outside of a few neighbors waiting for them with cold beers and lasagna. Genghis ignored them though and ran ahead to claim his spot on the couch like they had just returned from a morning stroll.

man hiking with dogFrom where I was sitting, behind the camera, this was the Hollywood ending. We didn’t need the blonde actress with the flowing hair It was authentic. Real. And I was inspired.

Don’t be surprised if you happen to find me doing a bit more walking myself.

Special thanks to Brendan for encouraging me to use my legs and for being the man with the plan, to Ace and Genghis for so graciously letting us share in their pilgrimage into the desert, to Mary and Max for their hard work filming, to Seth Nielsen for his artistry and ideas, and to Stefan Hunt and all the crew in Australia for the good creative vibes, garbled Skype calls, and hard work to turn our foot-forward-footage into a real, live film.

hikers on bench with dog

*Name of town omitted at behest (read: under threat) of residents

**I am not a historian, and do not claim complete factual knowledge of the history of walking. Please consult your local public library for more info.

Read Forest’s Gear Guide and watch the Ace and the Desert Dog film below!

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