Photojournalist
Panorama Rd Haines Jct.jpg

The Road Journal

The Nomad's Dilemma

If you asked me six months ago where I'd be today, I wouldn't have known what to tell you. If you asked me three months ago, I may have said Alaska; two months ago, the Kootenays; one month ago, I might have correctly said Washington. So it's fitting that I'm about to leave--I'd hate to be so predictable.

No, this isn't why I'm leaving Washington. (Mt. Rainier National Park, WA)

I pride myself on my general lack of plans, my effort to avoid preconceptions and expectations and my ability to show up somewhere I've never been and make the most of it. 

When I last wrote at depth, I echoed one of my favorite song lyrics (and titles) proclaiming, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Today, I can say without hesitation that I'm still just as "in search" as I've ever been. But it's only recently that I've come to understand my greatest motivation is also my most debilitating dilemma.

Beyond the peaks I've climbed, the pow I've skied, the incredible sights I've seen and the fascinating people I've met, nothing matches the rush I feel when I'm on the road headed somewhere new. I don't have a favorite place I've been. As Tom Brady said when asked about his favorite Super Bowl: "The next one." (Please be this year, please be this year...)

My photography often reflects my thinking: What's next? (Tofino, BC)

It's this incomparable feeling--anticipation, a twinge of uncertainty, unbound opportunity--that brings me back to the road time and time again.

I have a few theories as to why I'm so flighty. (I also think I should have taken a few psych classes in college...) Unfortunately, for every grain of merit these ideas have, I can also find a flaw in my thinking. Since that leaves me with a sum of zero, allow me to produce these theories for secondary judgment.

1. Accepting Solitude (There are lots of places I feel acutely alone--the road is not one of them):

I've spent most of this trip on my own. I haven't met (or made) many friends along the road. I'm not in a relationship nor do I see an immediate future where I would be. I've even managed (remarkably) to suppress the urge to get a dog.

When I'm in a town (and especially when I'm in a large city), I can't really help but notice the feeling of being alone. I suppose this is all relative--it may seem silly to feel more alone in a city of half a million than in the wilderness where I'm the only one for miles, but hear me out: I expect to be alone when I'm in the middle of nowhere--it was a conscious decision and, to be honest, it's usually what I want out there. (Crowds in the backcountry are the absolute worst...) On the other hand, I'm surrounded by strangers in a city. I'm acutely self aware of my solo situation in the library, the coffeeshop, and I'm almost definitely the only one sleeping in his car on that quiet residential street. (My apologies to the wealthy neighborhoods that despise this activity...)

Always on the outside looking in--it wasn't you Seattle, it was me. (Seattle, WA)

But there's something about solo driving that feels natural now. It's extraordinarily therapeutic. I turn up my music, lose myself in introspective thought and just go.

I've driven thousands of miles on my own. I think often; I over-analyze often; I eat an entire package of cookies often. But I don't feel alone often. In fact, the road doesn't feel lonely at all; it feels normal.

2. The Productivity Justification (I'm not trying to avoid work... quite the opposite):

I've come to despise the feeling of not doing anything. Well, there's a caveat: it's not a feeling I get when I'm outside--I could sit and listen to the birds and watch the sun rise and set all day--but when I've been indoors all day, it's a BIG problem. Perhaps it's exacerbated by the common perception that I'm already "not doing anything" because I don't have a "normal job." And the knowledge that friends are putting in 8/10/12+ hour workdays is enough in itself to make you feel bad about a day off.

I used to feel like I worked more hours in a day than most of my friends. (I can hear a couple of my business professional roommates snickering from their cubicles.) Hear me out--I was always on-call: the first several months on the road, I woke up between 4:30 and 5:00am each morning, shot sunrise, shot all day or used the flat midday light to hike/drive/travel to another location, shot sunset, traveled to a new location to shoot astrophotography, slept maybe 5 hours, repeat. The only time I wasn't traveling or shooting, I was editing in coffee shops, libraries and visitor centers. It was a grind--I had to be told by a dear friend to take an occasional afternoon off or I would burn out.

It was exhausting, but exhilarating; chaotic but choreographed; it was a perfect storm.

It was exhausting, but exhilarating; chaotic but choreographed; it was a perfect storm. (Kluane National Park & Reserve, Yukon Territory)

And then something happened: the weather got colder; the sun rose later; relationships broke down; I felt more disconnected from friends. The cold north extinguished my fire and smothered all the embers. More days were spent writing and editing in a small Anchorage coffee shop--not entirely unproductive tasks per se, but in my mind I was slacking.

This really irked me because I love the cold and the snow. I couldn't shrug it off as seasonal affective disorder (a very real and common diagnosis during Alaska's five hours *max* of winter daylight); nor could I claim creative writer's block was taking a toll on my productivity. (I was writing more than ever during this time, though in a deeper introspective way, rather than a narration of my latest adventures.) I didn't know what was going on. I wanted to enjoy where I was. But I just couldn't shake that sinking feeling.

So I drove. A lot. Like the 45 hours / 2200+ miles kind of a lot. I found myself pointed south from Alaska, down through the Yukon and back to the mountain towns of the Canadian Rockies. 

Towering mountains and long dirt roads feel more like home than a city ever will. (Haines Jct., Yukon Territory)

Then along came a saving grace (or so I hoped): Backcountry Skiing--just the right balance of challenge, risk, physicality and photographic potential. The rollercoaster of frustration and elation from every tour was a microcosm of my entire journey. It was during my first couple weeks skiing in the Kootenays that I actually began to feel comfortable staying put. The small mountain town of Revelstoke began to take on a charm I admired, in spite of the fact that I was "living" next to idling semis every night in the truck stop just beyond the village. 

How could I resist the charm of a village like Pow Town? (Revelstoke, BC)

But alas, my honeymoon with the Monashee backcountry wouldn't last. I could blame my financial woes for forcing me out of that powder paradise, but I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I was getting anxious to hit the road to a new destination.

The road took me across interior BC's famed Powder Highway--it was skiing Nirvana and I was capturing some incredible images--but all I wanted was "what's next."

The same thing happened on the coast. It was a fantastic change of pace--I never thought I'd tire of mountains, but seeing the ocean and above freezing temperatures was a welcome sight. Again, I captured some beautiful scenes (modesty, right?)... and again, my mind wandered to "what's next."

And now I'm in Washington... annnnd I'm about to leave the Evergreen State after just two weeks. 

Why? 

I tell myself it's for financial reasons and the opportunities further south. But I could likely find similar opportunities here if I just stayed put.

I'm leaving because it's what I know--when I feel stagnant, I get moving. Driving those long hours from Point A to Point B feels productive. It's action; it's a step in a direction. (The right one? I don't know--but it's a direction.) And that pretty trivial part of my journey gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment when I don't feel validated as a photographer, a filmmaker, a writer--whatever hat I put on for the day.

For me, it hasn't been about which direction I'm headed, but rather, that I move in any direction. (Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory)

I've always been told art needs no validation. "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," they say. I'd revise that cliche and say it's often in the eyes of the artist. But unfortunately, when it's a career--when that hobby of yours is now your ticket to food, gas, insurance; when it's your currency--you need validation from others. It's all well and worthwhile when I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride looking at images and stories I've created and documented these past six months. That's the kind of work that's good for your soul. But when it fails to reach an engaged clientele, it's not a sustainable business model.

So what now?

Well, I can't tell you where I'm going because I don't know that. And I can't tell you what I'll do because I don't know that either. I have a need to be on the road, not a need to know where I'll end up. I've kicked around a number of locations, reached out to a few production and creative branding companies and stared at Google Maps (#sponsored ...not really) entirely too long, but I still don't have anything set in stone.

It's been a loooooooonnnnnnngggggg road. What's next? The Panamerica?

It always comes back to the same question I've asked myself for about a year now: What am I looking for? What do I want from this?

We are starving for story, our greatest hunger, our greatest terror; and we love most what we must have but can never have; and so on we go, west and then west.
— The Plover

A part of me says it might be a place--somewhere I've never been, or perhaps somewhere old I will experience in a new way. It's easy to fantasize about a special place out there where I'll just know: "This is it. This is where I want to stay."

But as one of my very well-traveled friends told me, "We only see places through the lens of experiences and people. I can't tell you my favorite place--I can tell you my favorite experience and where that happened to take place."

That brings me to the quote above from a novel I've been reading. I live to tell stories through images and film. They're a product of the places I've been and the people I've met. They're a product of my experiences. That's what I'm always looking for and that's why I'm always on the move.

I'm not chasing the next place; I'm chasing the next story. And it's somewhere down that road.

Still bearded, still moving, still never ironing a shirt. (Vancouver Island, BC)

Matthew Tufts