The first time Greg Mortenson showed up at Telluride's Mountainfilm Festival, he slept in his car. That was in 1981, and the festival - which then was mostly about mountain climbing - was only three years old.
Mortenson returned again on Sunday, his "Three Cups of Tea" now a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for 174 consecutive weeks and his name known and respected by generals and diplomats alike. If there is an ugly American, his work to establish schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes him the handsome American, unstinting in generosity and intense with good purpose.
Yet, for all of Mortenson's good deeds, the war goes on and on, no resolution in sight. "How do you work through that paradox?" the New Yorker writer George Packer asked Mortenson before a packed convention hall adjacent to the ski slopes of Telluride.
In his answer, Mortenson laid bare one of many dualities present during the four days of films, talks, and concerts. "This is going to take a long time," said Mortenson, a one-time big-mountain climber now of Bozeman, Mont.
Mortenson explained that having spent much of his youth in Africa, where his father helped establish a hospital, he had absorbed the view of multi-generational change. That, he went on to say, will be true also in Afghanistan. And the key, he said, will be the burqa-clad women. Women, he said, nurture life.
Other activists at Mountainfilm this year were - and are - less patient. Such was the case of Ernest "Rip" Patton and other freedom riders of 1961. The freedom riders, both blacks and whites, boarded Greyhound buses together to challenge the Jim Crow laws that persisted. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1956 had struck down the pretense of separate but equal, but Alabama, Louisiana and other states continued to defy the law.
Sides of the Greyhound buses carried the company's ironic message about riding in comfort. Tense with expectations, the freedom riders found no comfort, only challenge. Schooled in Christian teachings and the non-violent protest of Gandhi, they were prepared for violence. All had previously signed their last wills and testaments. There was. A firebomb was thrown into the bus, and as the freedom riders fled the smoke, many were clubbed by the local Confederate flag-waving bigots.
Yet they continued on, prepared but committed. The freedom riders had already signed their last wills and testaments. They hoped to trigger federal intervention, but the Kennedys - Robert was the U.S. attorney general, and John was president - wanted the freedom riders to back off. John Kennedy was concerned about the Cold War, and the case would have eventually been won in the courts.