Photojournalist
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The Road Journal

Riders On the Storm

Do you believe everything happens for a reason?

(I know, most of you are still at work right now--I apologize for starting so existentially.)

But it's a unique question in that I found my personal investment in knowing the answer fluctuates so dramatically--and I've noticed the same trend among many others who've asked the same thing. 

You see, you almost never hear anyone say that when they're experiencing a lot of success. But when the shit hits the fan, everyone is a philosopher.

We like to take success personally. It's natural. It feels good to earn something positive (or at least, tell ourselves we deserve it).

On the other hand, we often like to throw misfortune and blame on others. And who's more readily available to accept that blame than some greater power that controls our fate?

You don't need to be religious to ponder that question. Whether you call it fate, God, karma, some celestial power or just plain luck, I think we've all questioned if the struggles we're going through are just part of a bigger plan. It's one of the easiest ways to put aside our doubts.


Doubt has always been a big part of this journey for me. It comes in all forms: from blunt skepticism to the more artfully concealed, "Well, at least you're having fun while you're young," cliché.

Former professors and employers, friends, family, complete strangers I've only just met--yup, I've heard it form everyone.

And of course, public enemy number one: yours truly.

“What are you doing, Matthew?”

“You can’t even take care of yourself.”

“You can’t keep living pay-check to pay-check.”

"Will photography ever cut it?"

Now, part of me thrives off of that. The outside doubt. The moments of self-doubt. If I knew everything would pan out, this life would lose a lot of excitement. The rollercoaster of this journey gets me stoked for the highs because I know the lows.

But more recently, this traverse has had an awful lot of rappelling without a whole lot of climbing.

It's like God/fate/karma/luck is saying it’s time to hang up the camera. And that message has been broadcast like a billboard in big bold letters as of late.

In late August, the evening after the total solar eclipse, my truck was broken into. I lost all my photography gear and every shot of the eclipse. For the immediate days after, I felt like my window of opportunity in this career had been, well... figuratively and literally smashed.

The highs and lows of August 21, 2017, were truly polar opposites. (Portland, OR. Photo by David Butler.)

But as the days went by, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started asking myself, "What purpose did this unfortunate event serve?"

Turns out, it reaffirmed a few views I already had about material possession and value. Things can almost always be replaced. Memories cannot. We all need less things. We should all create more memories. So, armed with a new camera, reaffirmed resolve and a new several thousand dollars of debt, I soon found myself quite stoked to dive back into the grind.

Now, before taking back off into Middle-of-Nowhere, North America, I paid a visit to my hometown in Vermont to shoot the fall foliage and spend some time with family. I was enjoying one such slow, stormy morning with my mom when the phone rang. It was my grandfather.

The fog hung like smoke. The foliage glowed like flames. (Vermont, Oct. 2017)

I needed to clear my head. I walked my dog past the caution signs to the edge of the dirt road that had washed out six years ago: never replaced, never rebuilt--just a memory of the last natural disaster that hit close to home.

A rainy mist hung over the hills punctuated by deep red and orange foliage like an eery smoke over a raging fire. Leaves fell from the sky like ash, billowing in the wind; the trickling sound of rain crackling on fallen leaves like embers.

In the rain, I could see it. I could hear it. I could smell it.

Three thousand miles away, my truck crumpled beside my grandfather's home in the heat of the Atlas Peak Fire in Napa.

Sad, if not poetic, irony.

Unrecognizable. (Napa, Oct. 2017)

In all honesty, it could have been tragically comedic. You see, of all the questions asked of me when I returned to Vermont, the most frequent had been, "What did you do with your truck...err, home?" 

And every time I answered in the same way. "It's in Napa, at my grandfather's place. After the break-in, I didn't take any chances—it's in the safest place I know."

What famous last words...

That safest place I know, has been reduced to a place I once knew. My grandfather's place on the hill—with that view that was so often the subject of my earliest photography—burnt to rubble, with the charred remains of a Toyota Tacoma melting into the ash-whitened pavement.

The safest place I knew... (Napa, Oct. 2017)

Now, it's natural for us to all think our problems are the greatest. But I'm telling you flat-out that mine are not. I have my health. So does my grandfather. I have an incredible network of supportive family and friends. I'm just one of thousands of people in Northern California who lost their homes; hundred-year-old wineries and small businesses have been gutted; entire neighborhoods were razed overnight; the death toll continues to rise every day. The situation in Napa and Sonoma County is a disaster. My personal situation is not.

A couple months ago when I lost all my photography equipment it was a difficult setback to my career--now my home, my means of transportation and thousands of dollars in outdoor gear are gone, consumed by fire. I have a backpack with some clothes, my computer, a new camera, and some climbing gear. That's it. You could call it a foray into ultra minimalism.

I've been battling with how I feel about this every day since I learned.

Maybe I don’t need a car. Maybe I’ll live out of a backpack and hitchhike everywhere. Yeah that’s it; it’ll be like some big social experiment. People make documentaries of this shit… Wait, no, what about carrying heavy gear. Well hold on, I don’t have any gear to worry about; everything burned. But wait, that means I don’t have a tent or even a sleeping bag. Oh fuck.

I've watched enough PBS and Planet Earth to know that fire is good for the environment. It's nature's most natural cleaning agent, and in its wake it leaves a better foundation to build upon.

So perhaps this is simply a new beginning. I used to think I was a minimalist--my truck had all that I needed and nothing else. Now I know I'm a minimalist because all my property fits in a 45L pack. 

Might as well find the silver linings. (Also my truck can no longer be broken into--that relieves some anxiety, I suppose?)

Yup, I still have my terrible sense of sarcasm.

I've got a long road ahead. The insurance process will be lengthy. And I'm sure it'll be a royal pain. It'll cover the vehicle... sort of. I'm sure the figure will be low. And I'll be on my own to replace thousands of dollars of gear burned inside. 

But you know, I actually feel alright about this. After the break-in, I feel prepared to deal with the hardships. I feel confident I can figure out my next steps.

You see, that's the way these things work. Each struggle we overcome make us stronger. This isn't the first obstacle nor will it be the last. But it is another building block.

So maybe there's a reason the break-in happened. Maybe there's not. Maybe there's a reason my truck was in Napa during the blaze. Maybe it was just an unfortunate coincidence.

Maybe we're just riders on the storm.

It doesn't matter. Today we'll start putting the pieces back together.