WORDS: Eliel Hindert
It's midnight and Jean-Claude Van Damme is all too literally hanging out on the Sweetgrass tour bus. The ass-kicking movie star is not a skier, nor has he ever seen the film Valhalla for which the filmmakers are on tour. But I'll be damned if he hasn't found his way into the premiere after party and is in full suspended splits on the interior walls of the converted 1980 Crown School Bus. Turns out the film's tagline "Find Your Freedom" extends well beyond where the snow line ends, just so long as you have the proper vehicle to take you there.
The original Sweetgrass bus was born out of necessity to tour the Japan-based film Signatures. A seemingly endless army of handy friends helped restore and redesign it with live-in beds, an astro-turf exterior, endless layers of day-glow duct tape, and a 22-foot short bus frame.
After thousands of miles of touring for Signatures and Solitaire the original Sweetgrass bus finally met its demise in May of 2013, but only after ferrying drunken locals and extras from dusk to dawn to shoot one of the final scenes of Valhalla. In a final poetic gasp the transmission kicked the bucket just as the very last of the partiers were dropped off at the local ski resort. With reverse as the only option, the bus was driven backwards under the stars for several miles to Nelson, B.C. where it sits today. Luckily weird doesn't die, it only finds new spaces to thrive and grow.
The production team (Ben Sturgulewski, Nick Waggoner, Zac Ramras, Mike Brown) made a last-second decision a mere month before the film's release to procure a new full-length yellow school bus from the depths of Craigslist and with it a twisted parallel formed. As the footage from the past two years was ripped, tweaked, and glued back together, so was the new bus just a few blocks away. Filters were applied to footage and story lines formed, while seats were ripped out and ornately colored furniture was installed.
"I can't talk much about the sweat, blood, tears, and likely other bodily fluids that went into its renovation, but I can say it was birthed in a wild time and has never really left that weird fold," says Sturgulewski.
Over the past three months, the yellow Sweetgrass bus creased and cut its way across Canada and the U.S., starting with the world premiere in Denver, Colorado where dozens of athletes and attendees clamored over every inch of the bus from roof to mirrors outside of the Paramount Theatre in a thrilled frenzy. The merry band of Sweetgrass continued on to every stop—from Colorado to Utah, then Montana, up and over through British Columbia, and down the West Coast.
Following the premiere, after the final credits rolled, a raw energy hung in the air. A teaming mass of humans fueled for the coming winter and jacked up on visual stimulants left the theater and the bus would become a seamless transition to the next step in the night.
Perhaps pouring out into a local watering hole for bad decisions in Banff. Sometimes simply packing the bus well beyond capacity for a dance party to greet the sunrise on the streets of Nelson. The crew members asked me not to delve into too much detail on the highlights of the tour to avoid a potential DEA probe. But key words include fireworks, Fireball, strippers, bail money, and obligatory endless shame.
Beyond the excess, the true magic of the bus arrived as it left the metropolitan madness, twisting and turning back onto the open road. The smell of three months of putting rubber to pavement and last night's activities poured out a broken window, replaced by the mountain air intermingling with breakfast on the two-burner stove. Dull headaches paired with subtle grins on all the remaining bodies sprawled across the furniture.
With each turn of the wheel came a new vision of what striking out against the grain can bring. With every gurgle of the diesel engine came a whisper to a deeper and intrinsic part of what it is to chase something as simple as frozen water. With every creak of the axel, a cry to how young we really can be. Every pump of gas, reminders of how broke these guys really are. With each cold frosty morning, a memento that winter is here and another adventure is set to begin.
Valhalla is a nominee for Movie of the Year at the 14th annual POWDER Awards on December 6th at the Depot in Salt Lake City. Tickets are available for a donation to Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.