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'In the Dirt' shines a spotlight on a passion for mountain biking in the Navajo Nation

A still from the new documentary 'In the Dirt' which explores the passion for mountain biking in the Navajo Nation.
Courtesy of T. C. Johnstone
A still from the new documentary 'In the Dirt' which explores the passion for mountain biking in the Navajo Nation.

In the 28,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation, where there isn’t a single bike shop, a group of enthusiasts come together, united by their passion for mountain biking.

The new documentary In the Dirt explores the popularity of the sport in the Navajo Nation. The film is being screened in communities around the Rocky Mountain West, including Boulder, Cortez, and Moab. The community events are also an opportunity to raise funds for the film's nonprofit partner Silver Stallion.

We spoke with the film's director, T.C. Johnstone.

T.C. Johnstone:  I did a film in 2012 called Rising from Ashes, which was the story of a group of cyclists who came out of the genocide in Rwanda and wanted to go to the Olympics in cycling. And I met a guy named Scott Nydam, who had just retired from professional cycling. Ten years later, I found out that he had moved to the Navajo Nation and had met a bunch of passionate cyclists who basically had started developing trails and created this amazing story that unfolded about how the bike brings people moving forward and thinking differently about the world that they live in and the world we all live in.

Maeve Conran: I think one of the most unique parts of this story is how this whole community of cyclists emerged in the Navajo Nation when there was such a lack of infrastructure. There wasn't even a bike shop in the entire Navajo Nation, which is absolutely massive. So, against those odds, to have this community emerge is pretty startling.

Johnstone: On the Navajo Nation, it's 28,000 square miles of land, and to not have a bike shop there, for most people, seems like it just doesn't make sense. But, I think it's a testimony to the resilience of the cast and their passion for their land, for the environment, for their people, and their culture. I think that's what I was fascinated with, and to earn the right to be able to tell the story was a true gift because they really allowed me in. But I think I learned more than anyone else on this project.

Conran: What did you learn?

Johnstone: Yeah, I think I had my own picture of what American history was. At the same time, I didn't realize that the Navajo Nation is in our backyard and a lot of people have traveled through it, but to get off the beaten path and to see where people live, in their life and their culture, and their values and to be treated so kindly. I think a big piece of this to me was just to learn that they were willing to look past my skin color, to allow me in, and to help me understand what this world looked like and we were having fun doing it. You know, I was seeing things that I had never seen and learning about culture and treated like family, and that's rare.

Conran: Tell us about some of the people that you feature in the documentary, some of their stories.

Johnstone: Most of the time when we do a film, they start out as cast, but in a film like this, I would tell you that these are now my close friends and, you know, we start with Scott, who then introduced me to Terrence and MT, a wonderful couple that lives on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation, and they were the grassroots. They came from the heart. They had been around this for decades and had been really engaged in the bike from probably the inception of the mountain bike till now. So they've been carrying the torch for a really long time, but unbeknownst to them, and to a lot of others, is that there were these little pockets just like that all over the Navajo Nation.

Scott was this catalyst to kind of get everyone together around a common vision. Then, all of a sudden, different people started coming to the table, and you'll see some of this in the film. It just kind of exploded. The bike is this incredible tool to move your life forward because nobody else can do it for you. And when you see that on a kid's face, and you see the story that will unfold in the film, it's pretty spectacular to see what can happen in the lives of someone when we all decide that we want to take a step forward.

Conran: Well, I know you're hosting all kinds of community screenings of this in communities all around the Rocky Mountain West, Moab, Cortez, and Boulder and all over the place. What reaction have you been getting?

Johnstone: The reaction to this film has been a little bit overwhelming. I was expecting that there would be some folks who would want to show it in their communities, but we had no idea that it would take off like it did. This film's playing all over the country, actually, and people are realizing that this film is a tool to be able to share and have a dialogue about something larger than just the bike. It's about humanity, and it's about what it looks like in some sense to get back up and to see the world through a new lens.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.

Copyright 2024 Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

Maeve Conran
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