Bridging the great divide
Sometimes, bringing folks together is as simple as bikes and a banjo

Bridging the great divide

Keenan DesPlanques, a graduate of Animas High School, filmed his journey along the 2,700-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with fellow rider Ben Weaver. The film is entitled "The United Divide." It's dedicated to getting to the heart of what divides – and more importantly – brings people together./Courtesy photo

Martina Pansze - 08/09/2018

For the month of June, Keenan DesPlanques’ average day included a 5 a.m. wake up call, instant mashed potatoes and 120 miles.

But it’s not as bad as it seems. The 21-year-old Durango native and aspiring filmmaker was experiencing one of the crown jewels of bikepacking lore: the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Established in 1997, the 2,700-mile route criss-crosses the Continental Divide from Canada’s Jasper National Park to Antelope Wells, N.M., on the Mexico border, making it the longest off-pavement route in the world.

And, DesPlanques was not going it alone. He was joined by musician Ben Weaver, of St. Paul, Minn., after the two met through the nonprofit organization Adventure Cycling Association. Based in Missoula, Mont., the group is North America’s largest bike-travel organization, mapping nearly 50,000 miles of cycling routes, including the Great Divide.

The two hatched the idea for the trip to mark the occasion of the route’s 20th anniversary. The plan was simple enough: Weaver would perform free live shows along the way while DesPlanques compiled footage for a documentary.

But the journey wasn’t just about two guys finding an excuse to ride their bikes for a month. Rather, the two had a larger vision: to make a film that focused less on the hardships and victories of adventure and more on the story of the route. Using the “great divide” as inspiration, the two interviewed locals along the trail to get to the heart of what divides – and more importantly brings together - people.

Fittingly, DesPlanques and Weaver decided to title the documentary “The United Divide.”

“In a time that seemingly the whole country is divided, we decided we wanted to use (the trail) as a metaphor,” said DesPlanques. “It’s a divide that separates water, but in a lot of ways it brings people together. We want to look at what are the underlying causes that started these conflicts and all this disagreement and ask where we can come together.”

And what better way to facilitate the discussion than with the two great common denominators: music and bicycles. “It’s been roughly five years now that I’ve been touring with my instruments, and in that time I’ve seen the magic of my tools in action, how the bicycle and songs can draw other people’s stories out,” Weaver said in a video trailer for the tour.

Along the route, the artists spent a lot of time camping, but they also stayed in hotels and crashed at houses after playing shows, where they were grateful for the opportunity to shower.

DesPlanques and Weaver started the early stages of planning for the trip last fall. They accrued sponsors including Osprey, Adventure Cycling and Salsa Cycles.

Weaver’s bike was rigged with his guitar and banjo, and DesPlanques carried 20 pounds of film equipment in his pack, including a drone, camera, lens, computer and stabilizer. As a filmmaker, DesPlanques said he aimed for a more minimalist aesthetic in this documentary, utilizing movement for a raw, handheld feel.

The camera gear was tested by summer storms, and at one point, DesPlanques found standing water inside the lens of his camera.

“I felt a little bit like a ping pong ball,” he said, describing bombing down mountain passes sopping wet. Of the route’s 800 miles through Montana, most days consistently dumped rain.

The weather cleared up in Wyoming, where the pair had more space in their show schedule and were able to get into a flow of “crushing big miles.” But by the time they made it south through Colorado and into New Mexico, summer had set in. The two faced sweltering midday temperatures of up to 115 degrees. While DesPlanques grew up riding in the deserts of the Southwest, the heat was a new challenge for Weaver, who previously toured mostly around the Midwest.

Fortunately, by then, the end was in sight. On July 9, after a month in the saddle, the two reached Antelope Wells, the end of the route. In that time, DesPlanques managed to amass 40 hours of footage, which he is currently trying to whittle to a 40-to 60-minute documentary – nearly twice the length of his original plan.

DesPlanques was able to grind out a preliminary edit of the film in time for the Banff Mountain Film Fest submission dead-line on Aug. 2. Although it was a quick turnaround, the most extreme part of the process, said DesPlanques, was the transition from filming to editing. After several hours every day on his bike, he was not accustomed to full days of sitting and clicking.

DesPlanques plans on submitting the project to a variety of festivals before a premier and online release this winter. Although currently living and traveling in a “mobile studio” built from a box truck, he hopes to eventually organize a showing in Durango.

As an Animas High School student, DesPlanques got his first taste of film by playing with his dad’s camcorder and making GoPro edits of his friends skiing. After graduating high school in 2016, he began pursuing filmmaking full time. He opted not to go to film school, rather jumping headfirst into freelance work that included music videos, commercial content and short documentaries for clients including Oakley, Teton Gravity Research and the North Face.

In 2016, he produced a doc called “Finding Time,” following the story of himself and two friends on a bike tour across Europe. While most of the miles on that trip were pavement, the Great Divide Trail is almost entirely dirt. Through the recent trip, he said he came to appreciate the solitude of bikepacking, without cars whizzing by.

Combining his passions of biking and film, DesPlanques said he feels like he has found his niche within the documentary sphere. Rather than filming in a car following the riders, DesPlanques believes that being on the ground and riding alongside his subjects can tell a more genuine story. Plus, it’s more fun that way.

“One of my hopes is that this film goes well and that we can do similar projects in the future,” he said. “I’m also excited to maybe leave the camera behind. I love just as much to just be out there bikepacking.”


Bridging the great divide

Ben Weaver, left, and Durango native Keenan DesPlanques, right, ended their ride along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route at the Mexican border in Antelope Wells, N.M. Weaver and DesPlanques spent a month making the trip./Courtesy photo

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