Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains, between Salt Lake City and Provo, and well above the valley, Robert Redford found solace under the shadow of Mt. Timpanogos. Redford bought 5000 acres around the mountain in 1969–a former small-time ski resort. Through good stewardship and a love for natural beauty, he achieved a work-life balance like few others have. Redford makes his home here, a progressive enclave surrounded by conservative Utahns. Of course, the politics of one of Utah’s most famous residents rarely seem to intertwine with state politics. Redford is an international man. And his Sundance Film Festival generates considerable revenue for nearby Park City (where the festival is now held). As Robert Frost observed in his poem “Mending Wall,” “Good fences make good neighbors.” Utah and Redford benefit from the relationship.
Sundance Resort offers the skier challenging runs on it slopes, as does many a Utah ski resort in the Wasatch. Redford offers more than just skiing at his home–he offers a retreat for aspiring artists in the studios on site. The resort is a sort of art-commune utopia fueled by high-end ski bunnies and Hollywood A-listers. The Sundance Institute–Redford’s vehicle to drive independent film–was founded here. The Institute was conceived by Redford to be a sanctuary for the independent auteur to practice his craft–putting original stories to film away from the intrigue of corporate Hollywood and the nattering of the political class.
The art-making at Sundance is not just limited to high art film. Classes for beginners and day-trippers include wheel-thrown pottery, jewelry making, and glass blowing. On-site artisans working in reclaimed and recycled materials make crafts from the used liquor and wine bottles from the resort’s kitchens. The whole aura of the place seems to keep in harmonious accord the will of an American film legend, the majesty of nature, the muses of the arts, and the ambition of capitalism. As Redford said of his Sundance:
“This place in the mountains, amid nature’s casualness toward death and birth, is the perfect host for the inspiration of ideas: harsh at times, life threatening in its winters of destruction, but tender in attention to the details of every petal of every wildflower resurrected in the spring. Nature and creativity obey the same laws,
to the same end: life.“
My business partner and I were on a scouting mission of sorts. We were seeking a venue to host a corporate retreat, and Sundance was in the process of expanding their facilities to better accommodate corporate retreats for their off-season. We alighted right from the Salt Lake Airport, and this road trip marked my first visit to Utah.
I was completely unprepared for the vast contrasts in nature in Utah. The valley was reading 100 dry degrees in orange desert heat on the car thermometer. To the west was the Uinta mountain range, and to the east, the Wasatch. From the desert floor, at sea level, the highest ski resorts in those mountains reached 11,000 feet. And the difference in temperature could be as much as 60 degrees from the valley to the highest peak. Snow capped, those mountains are in July. In between the snow caps and the desert lie verdant hills of Aspen and Cottonwood, poking out of the karst. No wonder when Brigham Young saw the vista for the first time, he proclaimed: “This is the place.”
The roadway up to Sundance passes by icy mountain streams and a Piedmont filled with white-barked Aspen. I was there in summer, before the aspen leaves turned their signature golden hue. The road meanders up to the entrance, a monolith carved with the eponymous name greets us. We have arrived in a private, secluded place. A retreat.
Like any ski-resort, Sundance is trying to find a summer economy. However, unlike nearby Snowbird, this resort’s owner is a bit of a recluse. People do make the trip up to Sundance with the hope of getting a glimpse of Redford’s greying auburn locks, but they’ll have a challenge. Redford isn’t a hermit, but he is not the star attraction. Who is? The question is not who, but what. The resort is the draw. Our resort contact, let’s call him McKay, was there to give us the tour.
As we walk the grounds, the big nature is impressive. Timpanogos is a great proscenium for the stage play below in the valley.
“This is Mr. Redford’s favorite view,” offers McKay.
In the lunchroom, we are treated to a real west-coast-meets-mountain-man menu. Fish tacos with local caught trout, hand crafted wild berry lemonade with the little bits of berry tickling the tongue. Fair trade coffee and tea. And local goat cheese.
“Mr. Redford loves goat cheese” says McKay.
I am starting to detect a rather saccharine and slick strategy here.
“Do you have to say that? Mr. Redford loves this or that?” I ask.
“Well,” admits McKay, “Mr. Redford is part of the marketing.”
Redford doesn’t sell the place on me; the resort itself does. The main dining room, the “Tree Room” has an old oak trunk in the middle of it, piercing the roof. Taking his cues from Frank Lloyd Wright, Redford didn’t want to cut down the tree to make room for the new addition. So, he built around it. The tree itself is long dead. Its husk remains the centerpiece of the room. McKay offers that it is the most likely place Redford will be if he is in Sundance, taking his dinner, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, among the guests.
“Do people bug him?” I ask.
“No, most guests understand that this place is Mr. Redford’s home and respect his space,” McKay admonishes.
I take him at his word. After all, Robert Redford is an actor of a different era. He has not been tabloid fodder in my living memory. He is also not a no-talent celebutant. Hollywood autograph hunters are not going to venture into the deepest parts of Utah and take on the expense of staying at Sundance just to get a glimpse of the man. You can sense that the guests have an initial frisson upon arrival that is replaced by serenity. While you might be a paying customer at Sundance, you get the feeling that your presence is a privilege–a chance to share in the aesthetic of this particular artist.
We walk from the agrestic lodge to the meeting rooms, adorned in reclaimed and re-purposed materials. The screening room has all of his films on original reel-to-reel, and they are scheduled for the guests. The room was the home of the first few years of the Sundance Film Festival, before the event became so large and clogged with internationalists and bi-coastal Learjetters that the works had to be moved to Park City. Now, the screening room is used by filmmakers in residence, who study film in a retreat setting, collaborating with Redford and resident artists to hopefully launch their careers.
Off to the junk piles in the back, where the artisans are hard at work turning the Tree Room’s refuse into art. Glassblowers take old liquor bottles–green Tanquary, blue Bombay Sapphire, nougat Amarillo and Bourbon, and orange Cointreau and spin out wonderful new glass works. I pick up a paperweight as a memento from my visit. I feel that taking pictures would be inappropriate, as if I were defiling a sacred space. (The photos in this post are the work of other shutterflies).
Parting company with McKay, I felt as if I just completed a day spa or a pilgrimage of a kind. I didn’t get a glimpse of Redford the man that day, nor did I get to meet him in spirit. The stress of my flight, the rocky ride up the mountain, and the business meeting melted away. All that was left was Redford’s gift, a communion with nature.