Top Ten Documentaries for Adventurous, US History-Loving, Ranch Conservationists

I love high-quality documentaries.  If filmed and produced correctly, the best kind of documentary will give the viewer a deep understanding and appreciation for its subject, similar to what I experience after reading a great book.  But like a great book, the best documentaries can be hard to come by — if you scroll through the documentary section on Netflix, I’d say 95% aren’t worth watching.  In an effort to save you some time and point you in the right direction, below are ten documentaries that I believe are definitely worth checking out.  If you have an interest in ranches, conservation, history, or adventure (if you don’t, why are you reading this blog?), I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy all of the suggestions below:


Meru – One of the best films of any kind that I’ve seen in years.  It follows three high-altitude mountaineers on their multi-year quest to scale the Shark’s Fin on Mt. Meru, a Himalayan peak that is one of the world’s most challenging climbing objectives.  Because of my personal experience freezing my ass off on some of the Western Hemisphere’s tallest and coldest mountains, I’m generally very skeptical of “climbing” movies — they are often sensational, cheesy, or unrealistic.  Meru is a real as you can get without actually being there.  It captures the beauty of the high mountains, the suffering endured at high altitude, and the challenges of training for and completing such a high stakes expedition.  Very, very well done.


Hanna Ranch – In less than 90 minutes, this documentary manages to effective cover many of the most pressing challenges facing ranchers and ranching in the Rocky Mountain West — increasing development pressure, the importance of land conservation, disappearance of the West’s ranching heritage, multi-generational ranching family dynamics, ranchers’ connection and love for the land, and the list goes on and on.  I’ve recommend this film to my friends and family who are interested in learning more about my work and interests in the American West, so I’ll recommend it to you as well.  Beautifully shot, at times heartbreaking, but a very meaningful and important film.


180 South – It’s as if the directors of this movie read my mind and made a film that hits on every subject and activity that I’m interested in: mountains, climbing, mountaineering, the ocean, surfing, sailing, adventure travel, land conservation, and visionary, sustainable business practices.  180 South follows a crew of adventurers as they retrace Yvon Chouinard’s (the founder of Patagonia) 1968 trip through South America, climbing, surfing, and sailing their way to the Patagonia region of Chile.  In addition to great adventure scenes, the film explains some of the work that Doug and Kristine Tompkins are doing to create National Parks in Chile, thereby conserving very important land on one of the world’s most special regions.


Dust to Glory – I’m not sure why l love this movie so much, but it’s definitely in my top 10.  In fact, my lack of interest in vehicle racing speaks to just how great this movie is.  It’s directed by Dana Brown (the same guy who created another of my favorite surf movies, Step Into Liquid) and it follows several groups of competitors as they compete in the Baja 1000, a 1000-mile truck and motorcycle race down Mexico’s wild and desolate Baja Peninsula.  It was filmed in the days before GoPros, drones, and other easy-access production gear, which makes some of the footage all the more spectacular.  The trailer below doesn’t do it justice, but it is on Netflix, so check it out.


The Drifter – Most surf films are just endless clips of guys ripping around on shortboards, getting air and doing tricks that border on being plain silly.  As much as I appreciate an acrobatic surf trick, watching them over and over for an hour gets old.  (The same applies for ski movies – jumping off cliffs is cool in short doses, but excruciatingly boring for an hour.)  This surf film is the exception to the rule, as it has plenty of amazing surf footage, but overlaid on the story of pro surfer Rob Machado’s rambling adventure through Southeast Asia.  He cruises around on a dirtbike, takes buses, hangs with locals, and lives in a tent, all while checking out a spectacular part of the world where I’d love to personally explore and surf.  Even though some of the scenes seem staged and most likely make it an “impure” documentary, I appreciate the effort to make a surf film with an interesting narrative that goes a little deeper than that the standard flip-fest video.


Bicycle Dreams – This film documents the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile bike race where riders pedal from California to Maryland as fast as possible, with winners finishing in an amazing seven or eight days.  This race is the ultimate in ultra-endurace sports, where some of the top competitors are on their bikes for 20-22 hours per day.  Given my experience in endurance-type sports, I consider myself fairly desensitized to what most people would consider crazy… but I think these people are nuts.  I just cannot comprehend the mental fortitude that is required to put in such a non-stop physical effort for days and days on end.  To give you some context, here’s a great NY Times article about one of the race’s top competitors: That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger


Roadhouse – Dalton has a degree in philosophy from NYU and is an advanced Tai Chi practitioner, yet he has carved out a successful career as a “Cooler,” traveling town to town, cleaning up some of the most violent bars in the United States.  Roadhouse details a particularly challenging assignment in Jasper, Missouri, in which he butts heads with Brad Wesley, a successful businessman and real estate developer who also moonlights as a small-time mafia boss and general town bully.  After several high profile antics by Wesley and his minions — driving a monster truck through a car dealership showroom, blowing up a local hardware store, harassing livestock with a helicopter, driving on the wrong side of the road, instigating numerous knife fights at the local bar, and one peeping tom incident — Dalton leads the citizens of Jasper in a battle to take back their town.  If not so well documented on film, it would be hard to believe that such an outrageous, yet inspirational, series of events ever actually happened in 1980s middle-America.


The Roosevelts – I was off-the-charts excited when I heard that Ken Burns would be focusing his talents on my personal hero Theodore Roosevelt, and this 14-hour documentary did not disappoint.  The seven episode series covers the lives of TR, Eleanor, and Franklin, and it gives an excellent overview of their wide-ranging impacts on the history of the United States.  I started watching with an interest solely in TR, fully expecting to turn it off (and save myself 9 hours) when the focus switched to the other Roosevelts.  However, possibly because I already know way too much about TR, I found the FDR portions to be the most interesting segments of the entire 14 hours, particularly the episode about his struggles with polio.  Whether you know a little or a lot about the Roosevelts, I highly recommend this entire series.


In the High Country – Spending time in the big mountains is one of the main reasons that I choose to live out West, and this film captures the spirit of long, hard, fun days of moving quickly through the mountains.  The film follows champion ultrarunner Anton Krupicka as he runs, scrambles, and climbs through some of Colorado’s most scenic alpine terrain.  For anyone who has spent time exploring Colorado’s big mountains and backcountry, you will surely see some familiar sights.  Rather than focus on Krupicka’s competitive running career, this film focuses on his pure love of big mountain landscapes and how he has molded his life to maximize his time spent outdoors, pushing himself hard, doing exactly what he loves.  (I also really love The Runner in Winter, a short Youtube clip about Anton’s winter training in hills above Boulder.)

Long Way Round – The concept is simple: Actors Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman ride their motorcycles from London to New York…. going east.  The resulting 19,000 mile adventure was made into a relatively low-budget, 10-episode British television series, which turned out to be one of my favorite adventure documentaries of all time (and I’ve watched it multiple times).  Over the course of four months, Ewan and Charlie break down, get lost, are hassled by border agents, meet crazy/dangerous locals (including an apparent mafia leader who gets drunk and shoots off a machine gun), wreck their bikes, and have every other kind of adventure you’d expect on such a hardcore trip.  I’ve got endless respect for anyone who can pull off an adventure likes this, particularly an A-List movie star who spends a lot of time surrounded by soft, Hollywood types.  Several years later they produced Long Way Down, about another motorcycle trip from Scotland to South Africa.  Not as great as Round, but still worth watching.


Do you know of any good documentaries that I should check out?  If so, let me know by leaving a comment below!

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