It’s been awhile.
Most of you haven’t heard any significant correspondence from me over the past 11 weeks. Maybe you received a text message now and then. Perhaps you’ve been following the “Where In the World is Matt” social media train. Your motivation for continuing to read draws a fine line between curiosity, pity, jealousy, boredom and general procrastination. And there's a decent chance you'll only look at the pictures.
But I have a confession to make: this post is actually quite selfish. You see, I need to write this far more than you need to read it.
I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop in the small town of Talkeetna, Alaska, just outside Denali National Park. Winter is here in the mountains, I still live in my truck, and I’m dead broke—I couldn’t leave Alaska if I wanted to. But I’m in no real rush to get going.
Whether this serves as inspiration or fair warning will vary by reader. But there’s a question I’ve been asked countless times that I still don’t know how to answer:
How did I get here?
Go west, young man... except when the "American West" is actually east of you. Thanks, LA.
July 23 – My official start wasn’t the triumphant send off you’d like to believe. I didn’t actually leave my USC apartment until early evening due to hangover fueled procrastination. That coincided spectacularly with weekend traffic outside of Las Vegas and I didn’t roll into Zion National Park until well after midnight.
July 27 – Alone. That was always the plan, but after coincidentally crossing paths with a college friend in Zion and Bryce Canyon, my solo adventure didn’t begin until I left Southern Utah.
If you’ve never driven through Utah before, do yourself a favor and avoid the interstate. Drive the old highways through small towns and past vast canyons and desert towers. This practice led me straight to Utah’s least-visited national park, Capitol Reef. (Yes, Utah has a fifth national park. No, it’s nothing like the Great Barrier Reef.)
July 29 – Big cities give me anxiety. I had just gotten out of LA after four years and wasn’t looking forward to being in the greater Salt Lake City area. I took a chance and hiked to a camp spot near Alta in the Wasatch Range, hoping to avoid intense summer crowds. The result? Comfortable hammock weather, an UNREAL sunrise and some playful local animals—5 stars, Alta.
July 30 – Nature has a funny way of dishing out karma. After a flawless previous night, I was attacked by fire ants, rained out of my hammock and ran into a disgruntled mama bear in the dark... all within a matter of hours. You win some; you lose some.
August 2-6 – If you’re involved with the outdoor recreation industry in any facet, make your way to the Outdoor Retailer convention in Salt Lake City. You won’t be disappointed. All the top names in the business descend on SLC to ("showcase their new products" and) drink and socialize together. I was lucky enough to get a pass through a friend and used the four-day fiesta to network, schmooze and booze with a ton of brand ambassadors who share my stoke. Good news? Happy hour starts every day at 3:30pm in the conference hall. Bad news? Utah’s beer sucks. Oh well.
August 7-10 – Five days was enough time to convince me that Grand Teton is my favorite National Park in the Lower 48. Mountains, lakes, waterfalls—it has it all.
I managed to avoid the peak season crowds by pitching my tent just across the border of the park in Grand Targhee National Forest in a saddle very aptly named Hurricane Pass. Why would anyone camp in a place with a name like that? To feel alive, I suppose. (I felt very alive as gale-force winds whipped against my tent perched 10 feet from a precarious cliff. Very alive indeed.)
August 11 – Don’t go to Yellowstone in the summer. SO. MANY. PEOPLE. That said, I watched the Perseid Meteor Shower from Artist’s Point all by myself, so I’ll chalk it up as a draw.
August 12-16 – Few people, lots of land, small towns, big mountains—Montana has my seal of approval. Sure, Glacier National Park is busy, but if you leave at 4am, hike 25 miles, glissade down a snowfield and scramble a Class IV ridge you can be the only one in sight. *Cough* Just saying. Check out Little Matterhorn Peak if that sounds up your alley.
Pro-tip: When border patrol asks where you’re going/what you’re doing/where you’re staying, don’t make it sound like you’re unemployed, driving without a plan and living out of your truck… even if you are. Luckily, they (begrudgingly) let me into their country. Thanks, Mounties.
August 17-19 – If saving the best for last is supposed to apply to travel, call me a rebel. (Or call me smart, I was just trying to save gas.) The first stop on my Canadian itinerary brought me to a hidden gem of the East Kootenays: Jumbo Valley. Tucked hours from paved roads and modern infrastructure, if there was ever a place that should remain undeveloped, it’s Jumbo.
August 20-21 – What’s the Yosemite of alpine climbing? Mont-Blanc? Okay, fine. But I’ll bet you Applebee Dome in the Bugaboos feels an awful lot more like Camp 4 than Chamonix. Spending a night listening to the climbers and admiring the towering granite spires filled me with more climbing aspirations than all the climbing films I've watched over the past year. I’ll come back for you, Bugaboos. I’ll be back.
August 22-23 – This was a marathon. Okay, I lied. It was actually one and a half marathons, combined with a Tough Mudder held in freezing conditions. Many visitors to Assiniboine Provincial Park recall the beauty of the undisturbed wilderness—they also arrive via helicopter. I remember Assiniboine for its brutally rugged, unforgiving backcountry—beautiful, but in its own special (WTF am I doing here) kind of way. Suum cuique pulchrum est.
August 24-31 – A Canadian Rockies inspired haiku: Pretty but pricey. My take on Banff-Lake Louise. Too many people.
In all seriousness, it’s a beautiful piece of Alberta. The mountains are stunning, the lakes immaculate—but there are too many damn people. It’s easy enough to avoid if you’re willing to go off the beaten path, but don’t expect a quiet morning / evening at the lake.
Next door, Yoho National Park is the cooler younger sibling of Banff-Lake Louise. Not nearly as crowded and (in my humble opinion) more beautiful than its neighbors to the east, I had an amazing time exploring less-frequented Lake O’Hara and the alpine couloirs of Abbot Pass.
September 1-2 – I love driving. It’s the ultimate therapy (unless there’s traffic, then I hate driving). On the way up to Canada I avoided major freeways, and once in Canada, I took a multitude of forest service roads, just for the sake of driving. (Perhaps too many—one such road earned me a sidewall puncture in my two-month old tires.) So you could say I was stoked to drive the famed Icefields Parkway, “the world’s most beautiful road.”
It didn’t disappoint; and what’s more, it taught me to truly appreciate the character that stormy days bring to the mountains.
September 3 – Watched USC vs. Alabama in a bar in Jasper, Alberta… I don’t want to talk about it. The poutine was good, though.
September 4-5 – I’ve tried my best to redefine “fast and light.” I go sans extra water and food like smart people and strap my tripod to the side of my pack and figure hunger or thirst will keep my pace up to par. In Mt. Robson Provincial Park my theory resulted in a timelapse and some awesome video and only cost me a long, hungry hike out—I’ll take that pay-off 10/10 times.
September 7-18 – Just because you’re traveling alone doesn’t mean you can’t see friends! Ten days in the Hazelton Mountains with college friends was enough to remind me how nice it is to have friends when you travel. Lucky for me, I wouldn’t be alone again till Alaska. (Thanks for joining the wild ride, David.)
September 19-23 – Honestly, this was one of the most ridiculous weeks of my life. I can’t really explain how one thing led to another, but by week’s end, we had spent several days in a mushroom camp, harvested 20 pounds of wild pine mushrooms and sold our bounty for over one hundred dollars. Seems crazy? Wait till you see the film we’re putting together.
September 24-25 – I thought I had been to some small, “out there” towns, but that was before I drove through Hyder, Alaska. Suffice to say, this town has an unofficial census meeting on December 1st each year where all 80+/- people meet and a show of hands decides that year’s population. Not in town? Tough luck.
September 28 – The finer parts of my life: camping in Wal-Mart parking lots and scouring the capital of the Yukon for the only two Toyota Tacoma idler pulleys in town. In other news, Will and Kate happened to be in town at the same time… though the royals probably weren’t looking for idler pulleys…
September 29 – October 2 – I had dreamt of the Yukon for a long time before this. Simply the name evoked thoughts of wild, barren spaces devoid of humans. But I had no idea what I’d find until we left Whitehorse in the direction of Haines Junction, gateway to Kluane National Park and Reserve.
The mountains greet you from afar, with white peaks that stand out even in the darkest of nights. An aurora guided our drive in and we awoke to the pearly white gates of the Yukon bathed in morning alpenglow. But the slopes visible from Haines Junction are only foothills to the towering peaks that lie deep in the Icefield Ranges of the St. Elias Mountains.
We encountered gusty winds and the season's first snowfall on our ascent of the exposed King’s Throne ridge, and it appeared whiteout conditions would shroud any view from the summit. Luckily, we couldn’t have been more wrong. No sooner had we reached the summit than the clouds parted and gave way to some of the softest, most stunning light I have ever witnessed. As my new friends can confirm, I spent the next hour running around like a maniac shooting everything I could, until the final rays of sunlight (and a slightly exasperated David) told me it was time to pack up and make it down the ridge before complete darkness fell. Oh, what a night. (<-- Coincidentally, a great song title.)
The Last Frontier
No, I'm not trying to imitate Christopher McCandless, but thanks for your concern.
October 3-4 – Ask almost anyone what the biggest national park in America is and they’ll likely tell you Yellowstone or Death Valley. Well regardless of my aforementioned distaste for Yellowstone crowds, that’s also just flat out wrong. It’s not even in the top five. Alaska is home to the five largest national parks, led without contest by Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve. If you want to feel “out there,” this is the place to go. There are two roads into the park—neither is paved, and they’re each only about 50 miles long. The rest of the park is only accessible by OHV, winter sled or bush-plane. It brings a whole new meaning to remote. We drove the Nebesna Road into the north end of the park, but only brushed the surface of what lies deep in the backcountry.
October 5 – Arrived in Anchorage, Alaska.
October 9 – Emptied my bank account, filled up with fuel and drove to Talkeetna, on the outskirts of Denali National Park.
So that’s how I got here? Well, sort of. It’s not quite that simple.
Yes, that was my itinerary. Yes, I photographed some absolutely remarkable places. I made new friends, saw old friends and traveled a part of the world I’ve always dreamed about. If that’s what you came here hoping to read, then there you have it.
But how did I get here? Where was the conscious decision to leave behind material comforts and frequent human interaction in search of something existentially greater?
To be honest, I still don’t know.
I understand solo travel isn’t for everyone. Nor are Alaskan winters. And I guarantee some of you will work a 9-5 your entire lives and be immensely happier than I’ll ever be wandering the edges of the globe. But personally, there’s something I gain living this life that is worth far more than any print I sell or film I’ll ever create (not that it equates to much right now).
Appreciation. I think that’s what it really boils down to. Appreciation of the grandiose and of the trivial, the material and the existential, the physical and the abstract.
Sometimes it’s a grand alpine vista, and sometimes it’s finding extra M&Ms in the trail mix bag. It’s a long conversation with a stranger or a moment of absolute stillness to reflect upon. I celebrate the first rays of sun warming my face in the morning and yet I respect the unforgiving beauty behind a stormy mountain. I appreciate the liberating sensation of being completely alone, but the solitude has also shown me that—despite my best efforts to thwart such feelings—what I want most is someone to share this adventure with.
Social media is cruel that way. It has an air of vindication for my lifestyle. Matt, your life choices are nothing short of inane, but people like your content, so keep doing you!
It’s easy to feel obliged to shoot for the masses—blindly capturing the tourist traps whilst feigning ignorance to all the sights and scenes that require any degree of risk. And it works… at least, from an exposure perspective. Countless photographers clamor to the same spots every day hoping to put their unique perspectives on timeless classics. Their consumers love it. (I mean, how can you hate a picture of Moraine Lake? It’s flawless.) I’ve been there. I've shot those pictures. But it never sat well with me.
Every image I shoot now, I create for somebody: The flora in a hidden glacial meadow? That’s for my grandmother who taught me to identify wildflowers on our hikes in the Green Mountains. The truck parked beneath the northern lights? Homage to my Dad who gave me the truck that has enabled me to live this life. The old barn beneath the Tetons? There's a special girl from college who knows that's for her. The rime coated peaks catching the first light? Well, that one’s for me.
It’s cliché to say, “I shoot adventure photography to inspire others.” But I can’t deny, it’s more selfish than that.
I shoot to inspire myself. To remind myself of the people I love and left behind who now inspire my photography.
And when my feet are numb with cold and my hands are too frozen to fumble with my camera, when all I want is a warm bed, a fireplace and a steaming cup of hot cocoa, but instead I settle for climbing into my tent and shivering through the night in my sleeping bag—that’s why I’m here. That’s when I feel most alive.