A Collection of Short Stories
Let me teach you a little trick. In the northern hemisphere, if the right side of the moon is more lit up, it’s getting bigger, or waxing. If the left side is more lit, it’s waning. Reverse that trick in the southern hemi. This particular moon happens to be a waxing gibbous. The moon and I, we’ve shared many days & nights together. Just us. It will always be a dear dear friend of solitude.
Five years ago today. Van taking a ride on a flat bed tow truck to a shop called The Abbey in rural Alaska. A gruff man answers the shop phone, “There’s a line of 12 vans ahead of you, if it’s anything major, it’ll be weeks.” Weeks? Living at a mechanic’s shop in the bush for weeks? For this van is my home, I ain’t going anywhere. Mike Strang, the mechanic and shop owner, didn’t know that piece of information yet. Or that he would bump me – begrudgingly – to the front of the line when he found out. Why am I smiling in this photo? I certainly wasn’t happy. I’ve come to know that smile over the years of owning my VW. It’s the look of calm acceptance that only a 30-year-old van could beat into me. It’s the smile of not being in control for once… of not having to be in control. For maintaining control is exhausting. It really is. And most of us toil away our whole lives pretending we have it all under control (me too). So that smile… that’s the smile of surrendering to a stranger named Mike Strang who hates me before he’s even met me. 📷 @k_e_e_n_a_n
Noticing fall in Hawai’i requires an attentive mind. There are no aspens or oaks or cottonwoods changing colors. Snowfall isn’t yet gracing the upper reaches of our tallest volcanoes. But I feel it. Fall is sleeping with two light blankets instead of one. It’s turning off the fans and needing a T-shirt in the morning. It’s a fresh evening breeze that quickly sweeps away the daytime heat. It’s being able to (finally) wear jeans. And if I miss all that, I simply need to glance at our puppy dog… for he has abandoning his summer sprawl for a curled up fall ball.
Old Hawai’i. May we never lose her.
Road trips are my moving meditation. Driving from Alaska to Washington, the days passed by in a blissed-out trance, fueled by mint oreos and Lord Huron. Then I hit north-central British Columbia and its lights. No, not the northern lights... giant fires burning atop metal stands. Gas flares. The byproduct of energy extraction (in this case, natural gas) that couldn’t be bottled or piped at the source. It gets burned. Wasted. I spent two entire days driving through this zone. The tanker truck to car ratio was at least 10:1, and the filth is still indescribable. I wasn’t bathing much those days, but I needed a physical and spiritual bath. This field of horses was it – the first natural scene I encountered after two days in energy land. So while this picture has nice fall colors and light, it’s a lot more to me than that.
Many days I’ll be sitting at my computer telling myself, “It’s time to write, Matt, it says so in your calendar. If you don’t do it now, it’ll beat you.” Writing taunts me, maybe more than anything else. And so I’ll just sit there. Constipated. Thinking about every would-be sentence, every weird thought, every vibrant memory. Things usually start to flow, but sometimes, I have to change my scenery. I’ll drive to the beach, or a local garden, or the woods. This tiny change in my physical routine allows for a shift in my mental routine. Just fucking write, man. This picture reminds me of how small mental shifts can be all we need to breakthrough perceived hardships or anxieties. This glassy alpine lake wasn’t really doing it for me… then I flipped it vertically. And that’s perfect for my mind today.
One word comes to mind here. Commitment. When this wave was rising up, a serious, split-second decision needed to be made: go or no go. To go is to accept the consequence or joy that follows, all the same. I believe commitment is one of the greatest gifts of surfing. To see a wave coming, commit, and allow the mind to go blank. At the end of each wave, I crawl out of a mental black hole… unable to describe anything… the involuntary smile telling me all I need to know. I haven’t found any other activity where one can experience this feeling more consistently… now if I can just carry that mentality into my non-surfing life a little more often :)
As a newbee and haole (white person) in Hawai’i I’ve learned a few important things – be humble and respectful, know your place, and don’t expose secrets, for there are few left. The history here is tragic and complicated, and because of it, I approach my life here as a guest. On the bad days, that feels shitty and inferior, as discrimination definitely occurs. But on most days, as a privileged white male, I feel fortunate to experience a tiny bit of minority treatment. Some people say I shouldn’t feel this way, as I have just as much of a right to be here as anyone. I hear that, but it just doesn’t resonate in my soul. A big part of me wishes these islands were never discovered. But since they were, I feel an obligation to support what is left of the Hawaiian lands and culture. Since I make my livelihood out sharing experiences with you, I’m constantly asking myself, should I share this? . The island of Moloka’i fits squarely in the middle of that conflict zone for me. I don’t want you to go there (and they don’t either) but I want you to know it exists. On the surface, Moloka’i is hard to hold… you have to really dig in to see its beauty. Moloka’i represents the essence of what drew me to Hawai’i – a rugged, slowed-down, live off the land approach to life. Last year, they blocked a luxury yacht from landing. I’ve been lucky to make some friends over there. Last time I visited, I didn’t bring any food on the boat over. I told my friend I’d run to the store once we landed on the other side of the Pailolo Channel. He laughed at me as our 19-foot boat rolled nimbly over 12-foot open ocean rollers. “The store is right here,” he said, opening both arms to the undeveloped land ahead and infinite ocean around. He was laughing at me, but he wasn’t joking – we ate like kings and queens from the ulu (breadfruit), venison, and fish found nearby. I will probably never live on Moloka’i, but I feel a deep, great relief every time I round Maliko Gulch (Maui’s north shore) and see the eastern tip of Moloka’i poking out. I can’t help but smile… knowing this way of life is being perpetuated. In Hawai’i, the unofficial name for Moloka’i is Mo’ Bettah. Yep.
There’s probably only a few humans that would do this. But only one in sneakers and a hoody. And that’s @alexhonnold, the eternally smiling, pensive, humble athlete of a generation. I’ve been privileged to shoot some projects with Alex, including this urban assault mission in San Francisco with @stridehealth back in ’14. Currently frothing about his upcoming film #FreeSolo, where Alex’s feat on El Cap will rightfully touch mainstream audiences. End of September y’all… put it in your calendars… and powder your hands in the theatre 😮
Have you ever seen this many contrails in a section of sky? Nature and man: silence below, jet engines churning through crystal blue morning above. How many hundreds of people up there... on their way to somewhere, someone, something important? A man in first class sweating about a meeting that could make his career. A girl disgusted with San Francisco hoping for a grittier life in Portland. A man about to touch the skin of a lover he knows only through pixels. I sat alone, at this lake, many miles from a paved road. And I wondered about these people.
I met the old man in the back at a first-come-first-serve Yosemite campsite. Not many of those left for the drifters and dirtbags whose vacations come on a whim, not a 12-month plan. At this camp – Camp 4 for those who know it – you run a high likelihood of sharing space with a stranger. Pat was my stranger. His shelter was a teepee and we bonded quickly over a love of good whiskey and storytelling. If a tenth of what he says is true, the man is a Legend, and not in the modern sense of the word. He’s lived hard out West, outdoors on a horse for most of it. It’s almost impossible to mention a valley or river or mountain that he doesn’t know by feel. He can’t sleep past 4:30AM, so that’s when the bacon and eggs start. One of the last true Cowboys. For some reason, he invited me and my buddy to his ranch. These things happen when you live on the road. We said we’d be there at weeks end. He didn’t believe us, but we showed up anyway, and he was thrilled. The more he teased us the more I knew it. There was plenty of teasing to go around while we built fence, shot guns, felled trees, chopped wood, and rode horses. As a newly displaced city boy still working the dirt into my Carhartts, I did most of those things poorly back then. The three in this picture heckled me hard before saddling my first horse. The girl had just put on a barrel racing show, and I didn’t want to be a let down. So I grabbed the reigns and went straight into a lope around the arena. They were surprised (so was I). “City Driver did pretty good,” said Justin, the man in the middle. That’s about the best compliment you’re going to get from country folks. I still visit Pat as often as I can. Years go by, stories change, much less whiskey is consumed. But the same thrill is within us when I come rolling down his long dirt driveway.
It’s tempting these days to be an algorithm photographer (or writer or human). The algorithm pays the bills. I know exactly which of my photographs will get 1,137 of you to like it vs. the ones that will get 378. I’ll admit, it feels better to get 1,137 likes. But what is lost in that pursuit? I think it’s a sense of personal vision. In the outdoor photography space, placing a figure (or van) in a gorgeous landscape IS the Instagram formula. Many influencers have converged on this style, and influencer-wannabes drool over and emulate them. Don’t get me wrong… that type of photograph is beautiful and an effective way to show a landscape’s scale (and/or an aspirational lifestyle). It will always be a tool in the arsenal. However, I’ve found myself focusing too much on this style of shot when I’m out in the field, and I don’t like it. I doubt I’m the only photographer who feels this. Open-mindedness – a blank state of mind – has always produced my best work, and it’s a constant battle to live in that creative space… to relate my vision in the most effective way, not necessarily the most popular. To surface work that I know only I can produce, not just what the algorithm likes.
Hawai’i is not this beautiful right now, but hurricane waves this big could be hitting our south shores in the next few days. Gas lines have been long and shopping a bit of a headache, but so far I’ve witnessed a lot of aloha and zero panic. I would describe the island’s current sentiment as a resigned heartiness. When things get weird, culture is truly exposed, and I’ve been proud of what I’ve seen. The news doesn’t seem as sensational as in other parts of the United States… maybe because we ain’t going anywhere, so what’s the point in scaring us more? Beaches are closed, but we’re still chasing surf (for now). I took our dog for a run on a popular beach and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Probably a lot like what the islands felt like in the old days. Our bath tub is full of water and everything is tied down or put away. The Big Island’s been getting hammered with rain, but so far, Maui winds are just a touch over normal trades (maybe 30mph gusts). Tomorrow could get wild. @haleygracef and I bet that we wouldn’t see the sun for over a week. Really hoping we all get out of this one without structural damage. In the words of Haley’s dad, which add a touch essential levity, “Have a good hurricane.”
Forever grateful for the moments when nighttime becomes playtime. Thank you for your crystal clear evening Haleakalā.
Every so often, we come across something so unusual, so extreme that our brains try to reject it. We simply aren’t evolved enough to accept what our eyes are saying. Before I visited the Salton Sea, I had never truly contemplated what a post-apocalyptic world would look like… or feel like. The largest lake in California (that no one knows about) slapped my innocent eyes with its version of humanity’s demise. Perhaps, we’ll save ourselves, I don’t know. Either way, this place sits as a museum – a warning sign – of human ambition gone wrong. I visited the Sea back in 2012, fueled on the curiosity of a couple photographs I had seen. My latest piece, “The Light of the Darkness” is all about my experience there. Please give it a read (link in bio).
Back in 5th grade we took recess out on the track. It was a weird place for recess, but I guess kids that age aren’t into swings and seesaws anymore. No one wandered very far from school on that 400m oval. Back then the laziest person was the coolest. You remember those days right? Everything was either cool or uncool. I was desperately trying to be cool, though I came to understand that word would never quite fit me. I wasn’t really in with the jocks, because I was a swimmer, a decidedly lame sport on the cool scale. I wasn’t really in with the nerds, well, because I got good grades but didn’t care about school. And the burnouts? Yeah my mom would’ve killed me if I hung out with them. I only dreamed of one thing… becoming an Olympic swimmer (almost happened) and that made me sort of an outsider. The cool kids all hung in one group at recess. Most of them wore Vans. Not because they skated (these are the Midwest cornfields people), but because Vans portrayed something… something that said I don’t give a fuck. I asked my mom to buy me a pair of black Vans, and she did, because she always tried to make me happy. Every morning, while dressing for school, I’d open that box and put on those shoes. But I never went through with it. I never wore them to school. Something felt off… disingenuous. I think they’re still sitting in my closet somewhere.
Two guys paddling out for a pounding. 30 footers out there. Getting pounded already. Another :30 minutes to get to the break… might be 2 miles down shore by then. For what? A chance at solitude in a crowded world? Bravado? Because it’s there? One guy looks over at the other. Can’t duck-dive this shit. Way too big. And these boards… yeah, way too big… they’d float a cow. 9-foot guns, 3 inches thick. One guy looks over at the other and wonders… how’s he doing? Will the current pull him out before me? Or will I be the lucky one… the one who just misses the clean-up set that pushes him back to shore? Will I laugh when that happens? Will I be worried? Or maybe it’s just calm and quiet in their heads… the only place for them to feel that way. Just the soft gurgle of water in the wetsuit hood and muscles moving on neoprene. I dunno… just keep paddling. You might get there.
Move along, move along. Nothing to see here… just another sunset. . Do you get caught up in this too? “Oh that’s a spectacular sunset. I bet 5 of my friends are about to post the same picture. Wait for it… yep, there they are. Can’t post this now… that’d just be too unoriginal. And I wanna be ORIGINAL.” Haha. How ridiculous we are (maybe just me?). It’s never just another sunset, and sunsets are one of life’s joys that I never want social media to spoil for me.
Have you ever watched light shoot across a flat 10-mile-wide valley at sunrise? It comes at you like a nuclear blast wave from those 1960s films… you know, the ones where the cars and the houses just get leveled in a flash of light. Only this flash doesn’t blow you away, it just blows a smile on your face.
27 miles down a corrugated, pot-holed, rocky road. Do you know what that does to a brain? Or a van? It rattles them apart… slowly. You must be rattled, disheveled, cursing to see to this place. Is that why we go? . Lines, scars, wrinkles. Signs of time passed… simply being here. Signs of hardship… part of being here. Signs of happiness… a choice in being here. Each crack whispers at least 1,000 stories of steps, sunburns, cigarettes, super bowl parties. Of smiles and fights. Hopefully more smiles. Give me lines, scars, wrinkles. As reminders that I have lived.