by Allen Best

he first time Greg Mortenson went to Telluride’s Mountainfilm Festival, he slept in his car. That was 1981, and the festival – then mostly about climbing – was only three years old.

Mortenson returned again on Sunday, hisThree Cups of Teaa fixture on theNew York Timesbestseller list for 174 consecutive weeks and his name known and respected by generals and diplomats alike. 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 with no resolution in sight. “How do you work through that paradox?”New Yorker writer George Packer asked Mortenson before a packed convention hall adjacent to the ski slopes.

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 alpine climber now based in Bozeman, Mont.

Mortenson explained that having spent much of his youth in Africa, where his father helped establish a hospital, he had absorbed a view of multi-generational change. That, he said, also will be true in Afghanistan. And the key 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 Jim Crow laws. 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 peaceful protest of Gandhi, they were prepared for violence. All had previously signed their last wills and testaments. A firebomb was thrown into the bus, and as the freedom riders fled the smoke, many were clubbed by local Confederate flag-waving bigots.

Yet, they slogged on, hoping 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. President Kennedy was more concerned about the Cold War, and the case would eventually be won in court, anyway.

But Patton, 21 at the time and a student at Tennessee State, and the other freedom riders couldn’t wait. “Being young – 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds – we said the courts take too long,” said Patton, speaking at a breakfast meeting in Telluride on Monday.

After a tense standoff, the freedom riders ultimately forced the hand of Bobby Kennedy, who dispatched U.S. marshals, ensuring safety. They had achieved success, triggering involvement by others and, a few years later, Congressional passage of landmark civil rights legislation. Today, Patton – who is now 70 – can be seen as

a hero.

How will Tim DeChristopher be seen in 49 years? Organizers of Mountainfilm provocatively paired DeChristopher with Patton, asking what climate-change activists can learn from the civil rights movement?

As a 27-year-old college student, DeChristopher two years ago walked into a U.S. government auction for oil and gas leases. He thought he might yell out or throw a shoe. Instead, he proved far more disruptive, bidding for and then winning the right to leases adjacent to Utah’s Arches National Park. He had no intention of paying for the leases and no means of doing so. Prior to his studies, he had been involved in conducting tours of wilderness in western Utah. He will be tried later this year.

DeChristopher said he was driven to resist continued development of carbon fuels and make a statement about climate change. Like the freedom riders, he felt he could not wait for the plodding wheels of government. The freedom riders “created social tensions that forced our leaders to make a choice,” he said.

There are differences, of course. The freedom riders have federal law on their side. Laws to slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases are only now being worked out. The freedom riders drew strength from the black churches. Activists such as DeChristopher remain more dispersed. “It has to come from the pulpit,” said Patton.

Patton also said action must come from the heart, even if strategy gets plotted in the head. That was among many other dualities. One of the most striking was the contrast of hope and despair, many speakers and filmmakers saying both must be present to spark action.

As for Mortenson, he revealed that he wasn’t entirely comfortable withThree Cups of Tea. He was, he reported, driven by both his publisher and his collaborator to cut corners on the story to heighten the drama. In his second book,Stones into Schools, he was under no such pressure. The result, observed Packer, theNew Yorkerwriter, was a book that was “less happy but more interesting.”

“Three Cups was written nine years ago,” Mortenson said. “I’ve learned a lot since then.”

And that was another of the dualities at Mountainfilm: the power of simple stories, the more tortured truth that becomes apparent to people as they age.

Listening to Mortenson, you can’t help but feel hat someday he will be granted a Nobel Peace Prize. But maybe not. He would seem to present an inviting target when in Asia. He deflects such suggestions, insisting that he feels more threatened when in the United States.n