The Rider and the Wolf

The Rider and the Wolf is a documentary about famed mountain biker Mike Rust. Rust was integral to the mountain biking communities in Crested Butte and Salida, Colorado, which were instrumental in the development of mountain biking as a popular sport in the 1970s and 1980s. Later in life, Rust moved south to the San Luis valley where he lived in relative solitude. In 2009, Mike disappeared, and the evidence suggests that he was murdered. His case has never been solved.

The film is evenly divided between the first half of Rust’s life as part of the burgeoning mountain biking communities in Salida and Crested Butte and the second half in which he retreated from those communities to live on his own. In both cases, the documentary is searching for Mike – trying to discover who he was and why he did the things he did in the first case and where he went and why in the second. The spilt between the two halves is kind of sudden, and the documentary doesn’t question Rust’s decision to retreat. The film simply casts it as an extension of what he loved about biking – the simplicity, self-sufficiency, and direct connection to nature. Rust’s disappearance remains an unsolved mystery, and since Rust isn’t around to comment on his own life, the intricacies of his personality ultimately remain a mystery as well.

The footage from Crested Butte and Salida detailing Rust’s early days is compelling. In one particularly touching chapter, he and his brothers attempt to popularize penny-farthing bicycles. They ride them all over the Rockies together and even take them to Ireland to participate in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. The images of Mike and his brothers joyfully riding their eccentric bikes together and in the company of all their friends in Crested Butte and Salida made me long for that kind of innocent, simple fun and jovial camaraderie. When Mike leaves that life for life in the wilderness, it is a truly heart-breaking turn, because of all he is leaving behind.

The film doesn’t mourn this loss though. Perhaps out of concern for Rust’s surviving family members, or perhaps because the filmmakers chose to follow that thread of simplicity and self-sufficiency instead, the documentary celebrates Mike’s retreat. The film’s story reminded me of something Werner Herzog would have told, and I wished a filmmaker like Herzog had told this one. There’s more complexity to Mike Rust’s life than we see here.

That tension between the desire to be alone in nature and the community that develops around that desire is at the heart of every outdoor experience (and outdoor film). We go “out” to be alone together in nature. In the best moments, we regain a bit of that unself-conscious, childlike sense of play that used to come so easy to us when we were young. We laugh and play together in “God’s playground.” In the worst moments, we surrender to the stresses of our lives and cast aside our communities, hazarding both our bodies and psyches to the wilderness. Most often, we return with a renewed appreciation for both the wild outdoors and our homes “inside.” Sometime the wilds claim us, as they claimed Mike Rust. That’s the movie I wish The Rider & the Wolf was. It’s the life Mike Rust led.

The Rider & the Wolf is being featured in the 38th annual Denver Film Festival. More information and showtimes can be found here.