In 2010, Tyler Dunning lost his best friend, Nate Henn, in a terrorist attack. Nate was 26 and working for the non-profit Invisible Children when Somali militants bombed a World Cup match screening in Kampala, Uganda, killing him and 73 others.
Dunning, who had just moved to Estes Park, Colorado, spiraled into a vortex of depression. He shut himself off from friends and family, began binge-drinking and found himself contemplating suicide daily.
“I was raised secular and studied religion in school,” Dunning says while sitting on a bench along Telluride’s Colorado Avenue, where A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends, director Chad Clendinen’s film about him, is premiering at the Mountainfilm festival. (A book version by Dunning is on shelves now.) “But the narrative that Nate was now in a better place, and that his unjust death was in accordance with God’s grand plan, wasn’t giving me much solace.”
Dunning’s depression eventually spat him out onto a few solo hikes in his new back yard, Rocky Mountain National Park. After a failed attempt at summiting 14,259-foot Longs Peak, he felt a spark of purpose return to his life.
Hiking put Dunning in a state of calm that he hadn’t felt in months. “It got the alpha waves going in my brain, my guards came down and I was able to integrate with the surrounding world and feel connected to something,” he says.
Eventually, Dunning decided to make it his mission to visit all 59 U.S. national parks. It gave him a much-needed sense of purpose—and a new desire to connect with other people instead of being alone with his demons. He began recruiting friends, family, and complete strangers to join him on a different NPS mission every weekend, and chronicled the results in a book.
To tell his story, Dunning borrows from the style of traditional field guides, laying it out as a practical manual with section titles like Geology (hard loss) and Survival Techniques (self harm). The idea was to balance out the heavy, morose storyline with a resource that will actually offer reprieve for people dealing with death and depression.
The accompanying 14-minute film, in contrast, treads lightly where the grim details are concerned, balancing out the darker beats with nudity, sex jokes, and goofy moments for a scrapbook-style montage that’s as cathartic as it is authentic.
So far, Dunning has visited 53 national parks and counting—and he’s seen his perspective shift along the way. He says he’s moved from focusing on the big picture—jagged peaks, vast open plains—to looking at the details: animal sign, blooming wildflowers, soil makeup, and other ecological observations that give him a more natural view of growth and death.
“I was constantly getting reminded that we’re all bioorganic matter that’s going to die,” he says. “Death began to feel more like a blessing we all get to go through, rather than this big, evil enemy that we have to fight.”
Watch A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends below.