I needed a vacation.

After working Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. day, it was about time I took a break. But… where to go?

Home to Indiana? Nope, just saw my folks for three weeks.

Visit friends in Chicago? BRRRRRrrr. Not worth it.

Roadtrip up to Santa Cruz? Did that already.

New York? Florida? Timbuktu?

As I skimmed through the ads on TravelZoo for cheap getaways, something caught my eye: “Sundance Film Festival package (incl. airfare)”.

Sundance? Wasn’t that in like, Utah?

Doesn’t one of my closest friends from college, Pat, live out there? Hasn’t he told me a dozen times how great it is and how I should come visit?

Cha-ching! Salt Lake City, Utah, here I come!

I found a great price on airline tickets (one of the perks of living in an extremely large metropolis), squeezed an extra day off of work, and began to do a little research on the Sundance Film Festival. I knew it was a “big deal”, but wasn’t exactly sure what all it entailed. Turns out, over 13,000 films are submitted every year. A little over 200 are selected to be shown throughout the two-week festival. That’s a lot of films not quite making the cut. A friend of a friend works for the selection committee and said that after the decisions are made, they get calls from small-time film directors in hysterics, saying “I mortgaged my house to make this movie!”

Sundance is a big deal.

I also learned, though, that you didn’t need to be a big name or have a pocket full of cash to get into the premieres of the films. Locals could simply show up at the theater and stand in the waitlist line. If there’s an extra seat, it’s yours for $15.

I arrived in Salt Lake on Friday afternoon. Or at least, I thought it was the afternoon. As I stepped out of the airport (bags and snowboard in tow), I was prepared for the cold. I was not, however, prepared for the dense layer of fog that hung in the air.

I asked Pat about it as he wedged my snowboard into the backseat of his car.

“Oh no, that’s not fog. That’s pollution.”

Oh. Gross.

Pat explained that the surrounding mountains cause pollution-trapping inversions in Salt Lake City. With no wind to circulate the air out of the valley, the pollution lingers and pools. He hurriedly went on to say that Park City was a whole lot better.

Off to a good start!

Pat’s friend Tikka was also in town, so the three of us explored the greater metropolis for the afternoon. We went up to the capital, past the Mormon Temple, over to a quaint coffee shop… and eventually said “Okay, enough of this. Let’s go see a film!”

Over a dozen theaters host Sundance films and one happened to be close by. We were a few minutes late, but managed to wheedle our way past the volunteers and into prime seats for “Crash Reels”: a movie (ironically enough) about snowboarding.

The film was excellent. Part documentary, part exposé on the lack of safety regulations in the world of competitive snowboarding, it truly captivated its audience.

I never cease to be amused by audience reactions. This particular afternoon showing drew in a rather high percentage of middle-aged women. Vocal middle-aged women. Quite a number of times, gasps rebounded through the theater. And when Kevin Pierce, the star of the film who had a traumatic brain injury from a snowboarding accident, decided that he wanted to go back into competitive snowboarding, oh did those women tell him what’s up.

“Don’t you dare do that to your mother,” the woman next to me mumbled under her breath. A chorus of audience murmurs seemed to suggest that nobody was interested in seeing Kevin Pierce snowboard ever again.

Oh, did I mention that Kevin Pierce was in the audience, preparing for a Q&A session after the closing credits?

Yup, that’s how a film festival works.

Afterwards, Pat, Tikka, and I were psyched to see more. We checked the Sundance schedule and decided to go waitlist for another showing later that evening. After standing outside in the cold (remember, this is Utah in January) for nearly an hour, we were told that the theater was full. Feeling rather dejected, we hoofed it to the nearest restaurant for some hearty Indian cuisine.

“Guys, there’s one more showing at this theater tonight. It’s at midnight, so I’m sure it won’t sell out,” Tikka said encouragingly. We decided to go for it.

The movie was called: “Interior. Leather Bar.” That should have been our first warning sign.

I looked it up on IMDB, saw that it was directed by James Franco, and was totally sold. “Ahh!! I hope he’s there tonight!!” I squealed to the boys, who rolled their eyes at me.

I didn’t even bother to look at the description.

We got to the theater early and snagged tickets. No problem. Hmm… third warning sign?

We sat down amidst a much younger, hipper crowd than earlier in the day (I can’t call this another warning, it was midnight! Of course it was a younger crowd).

And then it began.

Dear goodness.

What did we just get ourselves into.

I felt squeamish from the dim lighting and throbbing bass of the opening scene. When I realized what was actually taking place on screen, I wanted to run away. Just out of sheer shock. Thankfully, the camera cut away moments later and suddenly there was a well-lit James Franco, holding a script and talking to one of the actors about the scene that just played out. Very “avant-garde”.

Essentially, the movie was Franco’s attempt to confront society with its great hypocrisy: Americans are completely fine with watching straight sex (“Everybody watches porn! Everybody watches porn!” was one of Franco’s lines in the film) but even though we are all for gay marriage and yada yada… Americans are completely non-accepting of gay sex in television and movies.

Umm…

Ummmm….

Wait, is this even really a point? Or do you just want to throw extreme footage in our faces, James Franco? How about all of us who don’t watch porn? What about the people like me who still get all weird when people kiss too long in a PG movie?

I didn’t want to seem innocent or naïve, but this whole thing was way too much. The problem was, we were seated in the balcony, surrounded by people who seemed really into it (I say “seemed” because afterwards I read several reviews of the movie and nobody was really impressed by it at all. It was clear from the written reactions that the film was simply not in good taste). Again: audience response was quiet tangible throughout the whole showing. I didn’t want to think what would happen if I picked up my bag and walked out of the movie. So, I squinched my eyes shut during all the uncomfortable stuff and pictured the epic snowboarding that would occur in the morning.

Why am I telling you all of this? I was tempted not to. Definitely not one of my more brilliant moves. But, it happened. And it was a learning experience (as in: always at least try and figure out what you’re getting yourself into). I love being compulsive and experiencing new things, but sometimes that behavior leads down roads that are a little slippery.

I have become so proud of my ability to tackle any challenge and dive into any new opportunity that comes my way. However, this instance, along with several other poignant examples of late, have made me realize that planning is not altogether a bad thing.

Speaking of plans, the next couple days occurred without major incident. We had excellent weather for snowboarding and no serious injuries were incurred (besides a sore rump from a few falls early on). We spent the last two nights hanging out with Pat’s friends (mostly members of InterVarsity at the University of Utah). I ate some delicious street tacos, rediscovered my mad checkers-playing skills, and enjoyed stimulating discussions about drugs and prison sentences.

Adventures… Memorable moments… This was exactly my kind of vacation.

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