The amazing, true-life adventures of Matthew Power
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Earlier this week, I received news that Matthew Power had passed away while on assignment for Men’s Journal in Uganda, reportedly of heatstroke. This was a shock to me and many others in the journalism community, as Matt was among the most beloved members of our tribe.
I first met Matt Power in 2003 or 2004. I was in college at Middlebury, his alma mater, and we had mutual friends. He grew up in the area, and his mother and stepfather ran the local car-repair shop. He’d occasionally show up at the farmhouse where I lived and tell stories. He’d embedded with old-growth-rainforest activists in the Pacific Northwest and written about it. He’d lived in India and written about it. He’d train-hopped across Canada and written about it. He was going to Afghanistan for Harper’s, or maybe he had just returned. He wore a leather motorcycle jacket and a constant, crooked grin. Matt was a writer, and Matt had the life. Also, that name. Power. Surely it was a pseudonym, an effort to ape the greats? It wasn’t.
Eventually, I ended up in New York City, trying to make a career in magazines. I was an assistant editor at Men’s Journal. Matt wrote for us frequently: cover profiles, travel stories, environmental stories. I arranged his travel—once, we had to try to rent a certain slick and hard-to-obtain kind of motorcycle for a ride-along with Ewan McGregor, but I think they ended up paragliding instead—and he soon took an interest in my work. I was surprised. I shouldn’t have been. It’s a constant refrain in the flood of tributes to Matt: the man would do anything for you. He was endlessly, relentlessly generous. It was his fuel. He shared tips. He shared contacts. He shared furniture. He read widely and wrote unsolicited fan letters to young journalists. He shared his motorcycle; he liked to offer motorcycle rides. “I can’t believe you’ve never been on the bike,” he’d say to me.
When we started working together at Men’s Journal, Matt’s career was taking off. He’d been nominated for some big reporting awards and had a few pieces anthologized, including “Magic Mountain,” a Harper’s story about the lives of scavengers at a Philippine garbage dump. At the time, Sean Penn was making a film out of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. One of our editors proposed a story on the cult of Chris McCandless, the hero of that book, and it was assigned to Matt. He responded the way he always did: he was on a plane to Alaska before the contract had been signed. The piece he turned in was appreciative and reflective, but it took on a second life because Matt dared to question Krakauer’s theory on the cause of McCandless’s death. (Matt spoke with the chemist who tested the wild potato seeds that Krakauer found near McCandless’s bus; the chemist told Matt that the plant was nontoxic and that “I’d eat it myself.”)
Krakauer responded with an angry letter that Men’s Journal chose not to publish after Krakauer’s publicist intervened. Matt reported the best information he had at the time; Krakauer has since gone to great lengths to prove his original hypothesis, but who got the wild potato seed question right is of less interest to me than Matt’s response. Other writers—especially young writers who admired Krakauer to the extent that Matt did—might have withered like a prune. Matt’s response was to turn up that crooked grin, read aloud the harshest thing Krakauer had to say about him, and give a riotous laugh.
A few months later, he published what many consider his finest piece, “Mississippi Drift,” a rambling, discursive Harper’s story about floating the great waterway in a homemade raft with an ill-equipped crew of would-be revolutionaries. The beginning of that story has made the rounds on Facebook in recent days:
For several years, beginning when I was six or seven, I played a hobo for Halloween. It was easy enough to put together. Oversize boots, a moth-eaten tweed jacket, and my dad’s busted felt hunting hat, which smelled of deer lure; finish it up with a beard scuffed on with a charcoal briquette, a handkerchief bindle tied to a hockey stick, an old empty bottle. I imagined a hobo’s life would be a fine thing. I would sleep in haystacks and do exactly what I wanted all the time.
MATT DID EXACTLY what he wanted a lot of the time. He grew up in Vermont, then moved to New York. He spent some time squatting in the South Bronx. At some point, he entered Columbia’s MFA program in fiction, a bad choice, given the voluminous life stories he had already accumulated. Realizing his error, he dropped out. He interned at Harper’s. He made money delivering marijuana to Manhattan penthouses, an experience he always meant to write about but never did. He became an activist, once donning a sunflower headdress and climbing a tree to protest Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plan to auction off community gardens. “The gardens must be saved!” he yelled. “Plant Lover Up a Tree Is Pruned By Police,” shouted the gleeful New York Times headline, which Matt liked to send around to people. He smoked a lot of cigarettes, threw epic parties, fact-checked a bit, then left offices for good.
Pakistan, Kenya, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Mexico, Sikkim, Bolivia, the Pacific island of New Britain, Tasmania, South Sudan, Canada, the American West (which he hitchhiked across), the Amazon (which he trekked along), the Mississippi River (which he floated in that bad raft), Iceland (which he motorcycled through), Kashmir (ditto), the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (which he climbed)—Matt had a full passport and a house crammed with masks, maps, and other artifacts he’d collected along the way. He was the most curious person I’d ever known.
On Tuesday, March 11, The New York Times published a good obituary of Matt. It noted that he was “frequently a character in his own writing.” This is true, but it doesn’t get at the heart of what interested him or made his writing valuable. Reporting sent him into the world and allowed him to, as he said, fulfill “childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life.” But it wasn’t his life that most interested him. Otherwise we’d have read about the pot-delivery gig by now. (And yes, he typed up his teenage tryst with the poet Allen Ginsberg, but who could pass up such material?) Matt’s preference was to seek out and cover experiences that allowed him to reflect on the lives of others: addicts in Vancouver, revolutionaries in America, alpinists who died on K2, those Filipino scavengers at the dump. When he went to report on volunteers cleaning up tsunami debris in Thailand, he, too, volunteered, consoling survivors.
Matt wrote in a rolling, graceful cadence that was often at odds with his charged subject matter. He was witty but abhorred snark. In my experience editing him—we started working together when I moved to Outside—he tried to back into stories in his first drafts. He preferred a slow build to hyperbole. “A little sweaty,” he’d call that stuff. He was remarkably good at setting and often led with it. “I’m toying with a slow lead,” he’d say. “Sort of like Frazier or McPhee.” This could be frustrating, because at Outside we often get right to it. But for someone who wrote so quickly—how many features did he publish a year? eight? nine? it was astounding—Matt was extremely dedicated to nuance and to getting it right. He was tough but committed to empathy and never wanted to screw over his story subjects.
Matt was influenced by the work of Krakauer and Tim Cahill and Sebastian Junger, and even attended Junger’s Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues training program, which the Perfect Storm author started following the death of his friend, the photographer Tim Hetherington, in 2011. But Matt’s literary hero was Ian Frazier. Frazier was referenced and quoted at bars. Frazier was God. Once, I had the good fortune to eat breakfast with Frazier. When I told Matt, he cut me off with a shrill scream: “FUCK YOU!”
Matt was deeply competitive and tracked the work of other writers. He wanted to publish in The New Yorker. He was not above industry gossip or promoting his own work. He sought validation, as we all do, and he wasn’t shy about it. “Did ya hear?” he’d say, announcing a new published story or assignment. “Did I tell you about the time I…” Some writers found this grating. They were jealous.
Still, he never hoarded. I think this was because he had so many goddamn ideas. A friend of mine was reporting on Bolivia’s lithium mines when he found out that Matt was pursuing the same story. They both got scooped by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker. What did Matt do? He laughed, had a few drinks with my friend, and moved on.
Matt traveled to hard places, but he didn’t court danger. At least not the Matt that I knew—those who worked with him when he reported, say, his Harper's story on the lost Buddhas of Bamiyan may have a different perception. I would like to read their thoughts. He was younger then. By the time we became truly close—around 2008—his commitment was elsewhere. He and the journalist Jess Benko married in 2009, and I spent many nights on their floor and couch. He was in awe of her. He’d found a partner who was as obsessed with plants as he was. Blackberries! Basil! Tomatoes! Anything green with a stem! Matt grew it and Jess cooked it. He was as in love as a person can be. He often shook his head when telling me about journalists who had died in far-off places doing dangerous things in service of a story.
A little more than a year ago, I went to Matt’s house to watch Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, the documentary about Hetherington that Junger produced in the wake of Hetherington’s death. Matt was watching it for a review for Outside. He mixed Manhattans, and Jess cooked a miraculous pasta. He had quit smoking. At one point in the documentary, Hetherington claims that he wasn’t addicted to the danger and adrenaline of covering conflict. Matt shook his head and pointed out that he was, at best, lying to himself.
Matt often talked about moving to the country or the mountains, but I doubted it would happen. He was of the city, constantly bringing writers and editors together for drinks, meals, and conversation. He liked to go look at the trees and flowers in Prospect Park. Like any self-respecting New Yorker, he was obsessed with real estate. Matt could tell you how much a certain space was worth, inflation rates, the whole nine. But he did not care much for money. “It comes and it goes,” he said.
Matt’s best writing, in my opinion, appeared in Harper’s and GQ. Those new to his work should start with “Mississippi Drift.” It’s beautiful, funny, sad, and smart. Frazier would be proud. I was one of many who suggested he write a book based on his GQ piece “Excuse Us While We Kiss the Sky,” a story about urban explorers doing clandestine things in the tunnels and on the great old buildings of Europe. In many ways, it was an obvious topic for him—urban, adventurous, toeing the line between mischievous and illegal. Although perhaps it didn’t have enough gravitas. And I’m not sure if book writing was for Matt. His mind moved too quickly. He had three stories in the works and seven on deck at all times.
For all he’d accomplished, he was just getting going. His most recent article for Outside was easily his best for us. Matt approached the story in his usual fashion: he heard the news and was gone. Within 24 hours he was walking down a beach alongside an armed police patrol, but the article he produced was no crime caper. “Blood in the Sand” is a hybrid: the story of one passionate man’s life and death, and an immersive, literary piece from a strange place. Perfect for Matt.
The other story Matt wrote for Outside that deserves your attention is a reported piece in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I had just moved back to New York when the storm hit. I spent a week reporting a few stories, then Matt and I met for drinks. He had something. Actually, it was more than something. Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, the international crisis-response group, was performing its first operation on U.S. soil. Matt was going to embed with them the next day. Did I want a story? I did. He went down to the Rockaways and wrote a beautiful dispatch about the difficult lives of everyday people having a hard time. He helped while he was there. He filed it overnight. Then he waited eagerly for the media to pick it up and bombarded me as attention mounted. He kept himself out of the lede of that story. The cadence was slow.
“Off to Uganda tomorrow woohoo!”
That’s what Matt wrote me ten days ago. He was excited about a backpack he had acquired from someone in PR. “Could fit a hippo in it,” he wrote. “Hippos are terrifying.” I was sure he’d bring back in that pack more artifacts for his home: teeth, masks, maps, petrified animals, signs, dirt, claws, teeth. That he died while hiking seems a cruel joke. Heatstroke? For a guy who went to K2 and Afghanistan, who motorcycled through Kashmir? But what finally took him doesn’t, at the moment, matter much to me. His absence feels like an impossibility, because in my mind he was indestructible.
In the past couple of days, I’ve found myself thinking back to a night at the Brooklyn Inn, one of Matt’s favorite bars. This was last year. I had fallen in love with someone who lived far away and sought out Matt’s advice. The crooked grin vanished, and his brow furrowed. “The thing about life,” he said, “is that one day you’ll be fucking dead. Lay it out.” I bought a one-way ticket to Colorado, and Matt drove me to the airport. For this, among so many other things, I will be eternally grateful. But I never did get to ride that motorcycle.
Abe Streep (@abestreep) is an Outside senior editor.