Two area educators who set out to backpack the John Muir Trail are now part of an award-winning feature length documentary.
Dolores residents Kelly Finlay, a science teacher at Mancos Middle School, and her husband, David, assistant director at Southwest Open High School in Cortez, routinely take adventure trips over the summer to unwind from the school year.
In 2011, the couple decided to backpack the 220-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. The epic journey started July 13, and ended 24 days later on Aug. 11.
The film, however, happened by chance. As the Finlays were camping the night before their journey, a group of Los Angeles artists arrived and simply requested a photo of the Finlays for a proposed viral video project. The film crew ultimately recorded 32 hours of footage, which would become the documentary.
“We kept running into this film crew,” said Kelly Finlay. “We started hanging out, camping together and at Squaw Lake they asked if we wanted to join them.”
Although the Finlays had neither plans nor intentions of being cast in a documentary prior to the excursion, cameras and microphones began documenting their every step.
“Our whole plan was to take a monthlong trip, just the two of us,” said Kelly.
“It’s another world, but it’s fun,” she added on turning from backpacker to film star.
“I still can’t believe that people are coming out to watch my vacation,” chimed David Finlay, chuckling. “It’s a little uncomfortable seeing people lined up to watch the film, but at the same time it’s pretty special.”
A screening of “Mile ... Mile and a Half” is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Gaslight Twin Theater in Durango on June 27. The Finlay’s and filmmakers will take part in a question-and-answer session following the screening.
“‘Mile, mile and a half’ is the answer to everything,” explained Kelly. “How far is it to lunch? How far is to the stream crossing, the fork in the trail ...?”
According to the Finlays, the documentary is a true representation of the adventure.
“It’s a beautiful film, but more importantly, it’s about people,” Kelly said. “It’s about life. It’s inspiring.”
The most difficult aspect of the journey for David was adjusting to a different rhythm. He explained that backpacking with a film crew requires lots of intermittent stops along the way, so the routine associated with backpacking is interrupted.
“Normally you wake up, eat and hit the trail,” David said. “All you have to focus on is making your miles, so stopping to film and record took a few days to get used to.”
Those interruptions ultimately turned out to be a blessing. David explained by the end of the trip, he found himself wanting to stop along the way to soak in the landscape.
“I started to become part of the process of trying to capture it all,” David said. “It was both a realistic and artistic trip. I think I became more in tune with my surroundings.”
A typical day consisted of backpacking approximately 10 miles. The journey fluctuated between 9,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level, and included navigating over 10 mountain passes. The John Muir Trail meanders through Yosemite, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Devils Postpile National Monument, John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks.
“We crossed water nearly 50 times every day,” said Kelly. “Some of the creeks were more like raging rivers.”
On the trail, David said he found descents easier than ascents, mainly due to the snow-covered terrain. “It was very steep, and there was a lot of snow,” he said.
While the L.A.-based trekkers relied on smart phones and digital maps, the Finlays relied solely on pioneering navigational techniques – a compass and topographical map.
“After about the third day, the folks from L.A. put away their smart phones,” David explained. “I think they found that the compass and maps were more reliable.”
Transporting warm clothes, a tent, goose-down sleeping bags and pads, a small cook stove, a pot and a couple of bowls, Kelly’s backpack weighed about 30 pounds. David’s pack weighed closer to 55 pounds. The longest the duo had to travel with food before restocking at pre-determined pick-up locations was six days.
“My feet took a beating,” Kelly said. “They got torn, up! At one point, I said I had blisters the size of Texas.”
Kelly’s most memorable moment of the journey ended atop Mt. Whitney. She described meeting Kazuyo, a Japanese backpacker, on the second day of the journey on Donahue Pass. There, Kelly learned Kazuyo was traveling by herself.
“(Kazuyo) had never done anything like this before, and we were all kind of worried about her,” she explained.
That was the last time the Finlay’s saw Kazuyo until they had just four days left in the journey. When they reunited and summitted Mt. Whitney together, Kelly said she and Kazuyo both cried with sadness and joy.
“It was a wonderful, tough journey, but it means a lot,” Kelly said.
Defining the most memorable moment of the quest is difficult for David, who said the experience was just too grand to compartmentalize.
“I really can’t rank one experience over another,” he explained. “It’s kind of the whole package.”
Spending nearly a month outdoors acts to retool your mindset, Kelly explained. Getting away from all of the daily tasks that you’re supposed to do only to be surrounded by magnificent views all day, all the time is rewarding, she said.
“It simplifies life,” Kelly said. “You walk. You eat. You talk. You sleep.”
Kelly said tackling the adventure required both courage and stamina, but it was a life-changing journey that she’ll treasure forever, especially the friendships that it spawned.
“Because of the people we met, which really comes through in the film, I have some very close, lifelong friends now,” Kelly said.
Inside her outdoor education classroom at Mancos Middle School, Kelly strives to instill the important ethical responsibilities and values of the Leave No Trace program. She also teaches geology, and with her first-hand accounts from being outdoors, she said she’s better able to relate curriculum objectives to her students.
“The students are most excited about wildlife stories,” said Kelly.
At SWOS, David said he has been able to take the photography and recording tips he picked up from the L.A. crew back into the classroom. He said students were even able to produce their own eight-minute film.
“The big thing that I’ve tried to relay to my students is just to get out and experience life,” David said. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, and allow the natural consequences that you come into play with in the outdoors to just happen. When you fall into that rhythm of doing what you have to do, things turn out pretty well. It’s when you try to shortcut that things can go wrong.”
“There’s a big, beautiful world out there,” Kelly said. “Go see as much of it as you can.”
“It will change your perspective,” David concluded.
“Mile ... Mile and a Half” premiered June 1 at the Dances with Films Festival in Hollywood on National Trails Day. It won the Audience Award for a Documentary Film.
From Seattle to Boston, film screenings for “Mile ... Mile and Half” have sold out. The Finlays urge filmgoers to the Durango screening to purchase tickets in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com.