I first had the Frank Sanders Experience in 2012, when I hung out at the Devils Tower Lodge for a few days to write a story about him and the tower for Climbing magazine.
Frank, then 61, drove an ancient car with a license plate reading “Joy,” chain-smoked Camel filters, slathered everyone he talked to with his buttery charm, and flirted with women from 18 years old to 80, whether or not their significant other was standing next to them. He’d been climbing there for 40 years, and running his guide service from his bed-and-breakfast in the shadow of the tower for almost 15. “Frank, a climbing guide and bed-and-breakfast proprietor, does not speak; he orates,” I wrote in the story. “He talks to you as if you are a room full of people.”
Devils Tower, America’s first national monument, is a geologic wonder with its own special mystique. I had climbed only a couple of routes at the tower before I realized that no place else I’d ever climbed made me feel like less of a climber. I struggled up the cracks and was just flat-out intimidated by its aura. But after spending time with Frank, standing on top of the tower as the sun set over the Wyoming plains, and watching dawn light up the sweeping base-to-summit dihedrals from the backyard of the lodge, I was hooked on the place. And on Frank.
When he wasn’t telling stories from the end of the dining room table, framed by the tower’s silhouette in the window behind him, Frank cruised around the lodge chatting up guests, hugging everyone, and theatrically playing “Desperado” and “Linus and Lucy” on either of the lodge’s two pianos every morning and evening. I guess all it takes to fall in love with a place is a tour guide who’s its biggest fan.
When the story came out in the magazine, there was only one photo of Frank in it. It was nice, but I thought there was a better way to share Frank with the world. I kept a voicemail from Frank on my phone and played it for friends, saying, “We have to make a movie about this guy.” Of course I knew nothing about making films, or evening running a video camera. But I knew Forest Woodward, a photographer who had a way of wrangling sunlight in almost any situation, and who happened to have some videography experience. He fortuitously didn’t mind the idea of spending a week in a remote corner of Wyoming, working on Devils Tower for a film we didn’t know would ever materialize.
We hung out with Frank for five days as he did his thing, guiding his longtime friend Dr. Ginger every day on different routes on the tower, returning to the lodge after sunset every night, long after all the guests had gone to bed, rising early the next morning to play the piano, drink giant mugs of coffee, and tell nonstop stories.
He climbed fluidly up the tower’s cracks and dihedrals, jamming and pulling his way up with the ease of a man strolling around his backyard, smiling, chatting and placing a piece of gear every once in a while. Every second on camera, he was in character—which, after spending several weeks in his company, I started to realize wasn’t an act. That’s just who he is: always entertaining, charming, flirtatious, encouraging, stoked, smiling, joking. Since most people, we felt, would never get the chance to visit him at the Devils Tower Lodge, the least we could do was try to capture this larger-than-life personality on film. I kept saying to Forest, “I have this vision of Frank on stage at the 5Point Film Festival in April,” hoping we could make it happen.
We left Devils Tower with a hard drive full of footage, but only mild interest from the only friend who was a real filmmaker, Fitz Cahall. Fitz was busy with all kinds of commissioned work and wasn’t extremely enthusiastic about combing through hundreds of gigabytes of disorganized footage for a potential project with no funding attached to it. The day I got back to my computer, I sent Fitz what I thought was the best clip we had of Frank doing Frank: his theatrical piano performance of “Linus and Lucy” (the theme from “Peanuts”). I crossed my fingers he’d have some idea what to do with it, and be willing to take it on.
The next morning, I got an email: “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.” And then a second one: “Where do I send the hard drive?”
There was still no money, but Fitz took it on anyway, shooting more footage to fill in holes in Frank’s story, and grinding out long hours in the editing cave, after work and on weekends, to put a film together. A few weeks before the 5Point Film Festival, he sent me an edit titled, “Frank and the Tower,” with my favorite clip of Frank playing the piano, two-thirds of the way through.
The film got into 5Point, and Frank drove the nine hours from Devils Tower to Carbondale, Colorado, to be a special guest. The film showed last on the final night of the festival, and afterward, Frank and I stood on stage with Wade Newsom, that night’s emcee. I don’t remember what Wade asked me or if I said anything intelligible, but I do remember standing behind Frank as he did what he always did: command the room with his charm. This time, 800 people stood up and did the “happy dance” Frank does on the summit of Devils Tower, led by the man himself.