I flipped through my photos and journals quickly, and one trend became incredibly distinct - the amount of content I created (photos & writing) drastically dropped off after October of ‘13.
People have asked me about this a lot lately, and the answer I’ve come up with is that it got really cold and really dark during the last 5 months.
I was able to control some of the coldness and darkness in the van, but not most. I realized that “living in a van” really means “living outside.” I found myself wanting sleep at sundown (around 4:30-5PM), even when I had slept 12 hours the night before. If I was in a town, I would go to a bar and drink 3 beers as slowly as I could (warmth + light). If I was in the wild, I would build a fire and listen to an audiobook from my phone (warmth + light). I would do these things just to make it to a reasonable bedtime of 8PM.
The cold dark nights and cold dark mornings made me lazy; they made me think less about working and more about living.
I had been a steady 190 pounds since high school; I was 210 pounds during winter. Even with incredible activity, I couldn’t lose this weight. My body wanted rest and it was storing up… I had entered the realm of human hibernation.
Because of this period, I have many stories and unpublished photos now to spend time with now. In honor of the land where my winter hibernation began, a place whose populations still hibernate, here are some photos from the Great Land of Alaska, one of the only lands where the rivers and the glaciers and the mountains collide directly with the sea.
"The easiest way to describe this kind of cold-weather camping is a constant shuffle; sometimes I feel like I should start selling my professional Shuffler services. Since I need so many more things (clothes, bags, boots, sleeping bags) to live in the winter… the cab of the van is constantly piled with stuff. Everything from the roof boxes is inside now. I’m having to take many deep breaths as I deal with this transition; I have a strong inclination to get cramped in the 75-square-feet… claustrophobic with all the gear that must be out. As of night 2, I’m already feeling pretty comfortable with the mayhem. Laughable… my challenge in the summer was keeping food cool, now it’s keeping it from freezing. Every night, I tuck my water and crucial food under a thick wool blanket… content to let everything else freeze. However, I’ve discovered at night temperatures below 10-degrees, my tucking method fails - my water, my veggies, my toothpaste… everything will be rock solid in the morning."
"… the San Juan Basin hit like a punch in the gut, the kind where you lose all your air. Probably the real beginning of the Southwest. The only thing to hold onto in the woodlands ‘scape are a few pinyons, junipers, and a whole sea of sagebrush. The feeling of aloneness immediately sets in; it takes a sturdy mind to find companionship in a landscape of little. It’s as if the mind is wired to feel sad and vulnerable when the color green goes away and leaves nothing but a scattering of green bottles. But because of this wide-open space, fewer things are competing with the color spectrum and the sun and the moon and any noise Nature chooses to emit. The faintest flapping of the raven’s wings, followed by the swooping sound once it favors gravity… these are things seldom heard outside the woodlands and the desert."
"The days of roaming with little plan & companionship will be coming to an end this year. I know what that feels like now, and while it has led to crucial self-discovery and insights, I don’t want to go on alone indefinitely. In no way does this mean I still won’t spend long bouts alone, for I need this to maintain sanity, it just means these times will come with purpose, not as the assumed baseline for how my journey works. However, without this year of roaming and scouting, my interests may have remained hidden to me. This year has been the most crazy, mind-resetting, educational year of my life. And if I had to go through stints of loneliness to get here, I feel that is a fine tuition for the fuel that will drive a lifetime of curiosity, learning and work."
"I, of course, revered the Native women… there is no doubt I am a romantic on the Native ways, or the indigenous science (which we now call environmental science). The Tiwa women invited me back to the Pueblo for a conversation about the Land and their history. The first thing that struck me about the Pueblo was the enduring beauty of their homes, adobe homes, now over 1,000 years old… and also the cleanliness of their stream, the only clean source in the area (you can drink straight from it). It is profound looking at the vast acreage of the Pueblo in contrast to the surrounding land. The Pueblo has literally done nothing with the Land… they have just let it be."
"One year ago today, I bought the van. It was 27-years-old and unnamed, and I was fearful of the decision I had just made. Today, many things have changed. His name is Donnie, and he’s one of my best friends. He takes care of me, and I take care of him. We both get cranky when the adventures don’t come steadily, so it’s onward down the unknown Road we take each other. It feels like it’s taken a year to even begin to understand how to live on the Road… a year to communicate with Donnie… what he’s capable of, what he’s not, when to charge forward, when to stay put. I like that whatever he needs, I need too. We took it slow in January, only spending $298.07 on gas! That number is always an indication of how deep we’ve gone into a place, how connected we are… and January has been one of the most connected, healthy months of the journey. Thank you Donnie for all you’ve taught me… Happy 1-year Anniversary, brother."
"I knew it was cold, but I was surprised… -11 inside the van, -20 outside… ice crystals on nearly everything… the wood surfaces, the wool blanket, not just the usual crystals on the metal things. I walked outside… the snow even seemed to be frozen - not in the obvious way - but in the way that makes squeaking sounds as you walk over it, like even the snow is cold and wants to be left alone. I said hello to my fellow cold-weather camper in our warming hut… the community bathroom that opened at 7AM. He was already into his first Tecate to get warm."
"Friday. Down by the Colorado River. It was a comparatively warm day… with a fire going, I could sit around the van in near comfort, very few thoughts drifting towards warmth, for the first time since mid-August. I can’t even believe those words to be true, but somehow they are (no day over 50F since then). I chose a high route (latitude-wise), and since August every other thought has been about warmth… not always overtly, but always simmering along in the background. Today, I was going to get back to one of my past times, staying put. Do a little writing, write some letters of thanks, get a few beers in town… an idyllic vanlife day."
"This place was the remnants of water’s playground, and I had it all to myself. The hike to Delicate Arch was treacherous because of ice, and once I rounded the corner to be with it, the wind let me know I wouldn’t be staying long, hitting me with 50 mph waves… enough to unsteady the legs and the mind on such unsteady terrain. The arch that must be the proudest arch in the world - based on the number of times it’s posed for a photograph - seemed to want its space today… so after working with the sun to offer me a few good shots, I waved goodbye and was on my way."
"Loren said, ‘Keep living the dream.’ I smiled; I never know how to respond to that… I feel like I’m living no dream, I’m simply living. And so here I sit writing this, slider door open, diffused sun hitting these pages… an occasional raven letting me know he’s here too. Otherwise completely silent. At some point, I’ll cook, make a fire… and then watch the moon pass over. Damn, did I miss these warmer days."
"… gonna get the chance to sharpen my mind tonight at Virgin Camp, one of those BLM sites that has the sad remnants of others’ lives… trash and cans and glass this way and that. No one’s been here in awhile (I can tell by the rain pockmarks in the fire ash… who knows the last time rain graced this country?). When people haven’t been to a place in awhile, it can make it feel a bit spooky, or you can just get on enjoying the nearly full moon, the burp of the stream, the slight whisper of the dead cottonwood leaves, and the smell of burning hardwood. Ahhhh…. tomorrow we go explore the Subway."
"I walked away from the Subway… smiling. I thought again about the deep deep connection I had felt over the last 7 days with the Land, and I thought about every time on this journey I have felt this way. They all have one thing in common… No Service. What we should really call that state is No Distractions. In Nature, and everywhere else too, I suppose, No Service allows you to be there, to notice things, deeper things, like the dances of the butterflies and the hiding spots of the rainbow trout. It also allows you to be fully self-reliant, at first a strange and scary experience to cut oneself off from help, but if one stays with it long enough, the fear eventually morphs into strength and confidence and a tapping into the creativity of the instincts. A sharpening of the Self. In using your phone and technology less… your life will only become more connected, more real."
"As I pranced over the rocks, a thought that had been forced into dormancy re-entered my mind. I rounded the corner that took me out of the shade and aligned me with the sun… ‘holy shit, it is warm enough to swim!’ That thought hadn’t been exercised since August. The next pool I found, I stripped down - proudly white - and stood for a moment, dedicating this swim to Donny, the man who taught me ‘anytime you have a thought of swimming, you must swim.' 'Donny, this one's for you'… and I wiggled in. Ice cold, so ice cold I couldn't leave, I didn't want to… an old forgotten feeling pinged my skin and made my lungs go Waaaggghhhh again. That guttural noise that you emit, without control, when dunking your head in 40-degree water. I lingered on the sandstone after, naked, naturally drying, feeling that this remains our preferred state.”
"The drive to California was uneventful… except noticing all the sad desert towns overrun with people and ambition, and hence great wealth and great poverty. Las Vegas, City of Sin… there couldn’t be a more contrasting place to the beautiful Nature I just left. Do this: drive through Vegas and open your eyes to its future. What about it can endure? The 50x markup on a bottle of booze. No. The watered grasses. No. The incredible amount of power used to keep all those slots buzzing. No. Someday only its buildings will be left, studied by the thing that replaces us on this earth (as I studied the Chaco remains). And my, will we leave many artifacts. I wonder if the thing that comes after us will be interested in looting all the Bud Light bottles along I-15, as we loot pottery today."
"After a run-in with some deep deep sand that tried to capture Donnie, we wiggled our way out and had an entire plain of desert all to ourselves, so peaceful you could hear the dog’s bark 4-miles-away. As I slipped into sleep, I thought a few thoughts: it was the first night not in a mummy bag in 7 months, the first time barefoot in 7 months… to swim in 7 months. The ending of the winter physically and in metaphor. The bittersweet thoughts of a winter’s end. The beginning of the spring. Old learnings cemented, new lessons being whittled. My first time in California in 9 months. Bullshitting with old friends tomorrow. Good good night old moon. I’ll see your last light at sunrise. Silence."
I laughed and thought to myself, “Well, I get to keep trying.” You see, I play this game… every time I pass a cyclist, I slow down and ask if they need anything… sugar, fruit, chocolate, beer, whiskey (if I have any). Seems only right, considering I’ve got my whole home with me, and they’ve got just a sad stack of necessities.
No one ever takes me up on the offer. “I’m good,” they always say, as their knees keep pumping out pedal rotations. “OK, you’re the one missing out on the good stuff,” I think.
I get it though, I would probably do the same… it takes a severe sense of stubbornness to undertake any long solo cycling tour, especially now, as winter flung itself on the Alaska Highway. The people out here aren’t the type who want help.
But I leaned over to the passenger-window crank, spun the knob, and downshifted to his pace – 2nd gear.
"You want anything?" I yelled (it could have been a more direct question, like, "Do you want an apple?"). “You have any sugar?” he screamed back.
I had just the thing… I knew there were 5 mint Oreos left in the pack. When I handed them to him in the 3PM orange light of the North, he said in a Dutch accent, “You are making my day right now.”
His name was Dirk and was a guy about my age from Amsterdam. He told me his trip was called 99% Ride; he was riding from the tip of Alaska to the tip of Argentina for charity. He was 1 month into a 17 month commitment.
"Tough son of a bitch," I thought to myself and asked about his dramatic lifestyle change. He told me he had been working in an office all week and going to the clubs on the weekend. "I realized there had to be more to life," he said… "It came together very fast, selling all my stuff and flying to Anchorage." This all made good sense to me.
Driving away, I felt a couple feelings: first of inadequacy, him pedaling, me doing it the easy way – holding down the pedal. But then I realized we were on different paths, and Donnie was perfect for mine.
On the shoulder of the southbound lane, pedaling like a man running from the law, passed a familiar figure. He was gone before I got two looks.
It couldn’t be, could it?… Dirk?!? My Dutch friend who likes mint Oreos? There was something in that single glimpse that was all I needed.
"How to catch him without killing him?" I thought, as I spun a U and punched hard in 3rd. The shoulder was narrow here, so we were going to need perfect timing.
His knees were pumping powerful pistons; I spotted the only exit, flew in just ahead of him and opened my door, screaming as he was passing… “Dirk! Dirk!!” I was in his lane now and he almost crashed into me, skidding to a slow stop with his heavy touring bike.
"Matt?! 63mph Matt?!" he screamed back. “It’s me!” I screamed, even though we didn’t need to be screaming anymore. “I thought the van that cut me off looked familiar.” “There was no other way, man.”
His sunglasses lay on the ground, a result of our sloppy bear hug. My bare feet sank into the hot tar.
We had both been on the road for a very long time now, and it seemed words meant nothing in this moment of chance. We tried a few questions, but we mostly smiled… bigger than almost any smile before.
After wishing for a 3rd crossing of our paths on some unknown day of some unknown year, we both got back underway, me heading North and him heading South… very far South.
Map. Pencil. Friends. Stories | Six months ago, a @gowestycampers newsletter led Marc to email me. He was living in Anchorage at the time, and I was in Anchorage at the time… so we met up for pitchers and discussed his plan to hit the road with his wife, Sarah, and their 5-yr-old daughter, Charlee (@tortugaplata). They left last October, and 2-days-ago we finally met up in Joshua Tree to camp side-by-side for a night.