A couple of years ago, Jonathan Dickinson (Col ’06) was driving on U.S. 29, heading toward Charlottesville. He had just flown back to the U.S. after an extended trip to India, and was returning home to see his father, Peter Dickinson (Com ’72), whose Huntington’s disease was worsening quickly. There on the highway, missing both the serenity of India and his ailing father, Jonathan made a decision that would change his life. He would take his father on a motorcycle trip through India; they’d go on a real father-son adventure before it was too late.
“So I brought my bike [to the nursing home], threw him on the back of it and we started riding,” Jonathan says, describing the preliminary trips though the Blue Ridge Mountains to test his idea. “I remember him on the back of the bike saying, ‘This is a good activity, son.’”
Peter, who was an accountant in Charlottesville for many years, had been living with Huntington’s disease for 15 years. Peter’s own father and his sister also suffered from the genetic disease.
With help and preparation from the medical professionals at UVA’s Huntington’s Disease Program, an HDSA Center of Excellence, and after several more practice runs, Jonathan and his father embarked on a four-month journey through India that has been documented in the film Father Spirit.
The film, now in postproduction and set to be completed later this year, illustrates how Jonathan became Peter’s caregiver on the trip, as Peter grappled with the degenerative neurological disease that affected both his physical and mental capabilities. Peter died in 2010.
“It was one of the formative events of my adulthood, working like that with my father,” Jonathan says. Father Spirit shows Jonathan and Peter traversing hundreds of miles of beautiful country, visiting shrines and temples, but also shows the more difficult moments, as when Jonathan carried Peter on his back or changed his diaper. Jonathan remembers that during one of the difficult moments, he asked his father, “Are harder hard times worth better good ones?” Without missing a beat, his father replied, “Yeah!”
“I feel hugely blessed that I got to do this with Pops,” Jonathan says. “A lot of people realize in hindsight that the ship has sailed and they didn’t get on it. I got in the boat before it left.”
Run While You Can
One year Marion Mauran (Col ’09) was working in Hollywood as a set production assistant on films like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. The next year, she traveled 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail producing and directing her documentary, Run While You Can. Mauran and her film crew followed track star Sam Fox as he ran from the border with Canada down to Mexico.
“Sam’s just fascinating,” she says. “He makes things that are hard look easy.”
Mauran and Fox decided to film his journey to raise awareness and money for Parkinson’s disease, which Fox’s mother, Lucy, was diagnosed with more than a decade ago. Fox ran, walked, hiked and trudged 2,220 miles of the trail in 63 days, covering roughly the equivalent of 44 miles a day or 100 marathons in two months. Mauran and her crew hiked in and out along the way, sleeping in cars or under the stars, waiting for the perfect shot.
“It was nothing like a normal film set,” says Mauran, who has worked with several filmmakers in New York and California. “We’d get a walkie signal at two in the morning when we were sleeping in the parking lot of a ski resort in the middle of Washington and have to get up and go hike in to meet him somewhere.”
The adventure’s difficult times were worth the final product, Mauran says. Run While You Can is full of sweeping shots of rugged California terrain and Fox pushing himself to his physical limits. Fox compares the challenges of his journey with his mother’s own physical constraints as an enigmatic and moving story of family emerges over the course of the film.
Mauran says one of her aims in Run While You Can was to do a character study of someone coping with a family member’s illness and to communicate Fox’s spirit. “I hope people who watch the film can appreciate just how extraordinary the thing was and the sense of adventure that fostered the whole project from beginning to end.”