It was at 0300, during the heat of finals in my Fall semester when I realized I needed to look for a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m a current student and Army ROTC cadet at Texas A&M, and academics for the sake of academics have never been my forté. Ultimately, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided that emailing Soflete, a company to which I had minimal connection, might satisfy my wanderlust and a desire for a life outside the classroom. My proposal was simple: I would spend a summer traveling the country, writing and photographing various outdoor activities as I pursued a life of minimal expenses. I had long dreamed of a nomadic lifestyle and saw an opportunity to pursue it. I’d spent hours looking at the logistics of living in a van full-time at my first post after I had been commissioned. So even though I believed nothing would come of a random email in the middle of the night, I fervently began to work.
My background in photography was fairly deep. I’d been given a solid introduction into fine art photography in high school. In my email to Soflete, I wanted to highlight my experience with landscape and nature photography. The bulk of these photos came from a combination of backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail, a road trip the summer before, as well as family vacations. In order to present my work in a professional manner, I created a website to show that despite my age and lack of career photography experience, I might actually know what I was doing. I re-edited and curated a selection of photographs from the hundreds, if not thousands, that I had saved on my computer to create a working portfolio. So, now I had a URL with personal photographs that portrayed me as a semi-real photographer. I hoped this would give me some artistic credit when my email was read.
A 10 week long cross-country trip is a massive undertaking for one person. I knew I’d need a partner in crime that could keep me alive throughout the misadventures I envisioned. In the past few years, I’d done several other road trips with one dude in particular. Together, last summer we’d travelled the American West from Texas to Pennsylvania by way of Tucson and Boulder, skydiving and climbing wherever we could. The winter before found us hiking in New York and going to punk shows in Toronto. We had actually drunkenly entertained the idea of doing this trip on our own, just backpacking and climbing through the country. Since we met 6 years ago, I imparted a few hobbies on a friend from high school, who also grew up along the Appalachian Trail in South Central Pennsylvania. I’d introduced him to firearms (he now owns many more than I do), backpacking, and climbing, among other activities. So when I realized I had to keep myself alive throughout 70 days on the road, there wasn’t a better option than Evan Heckrote.
After missing a call from a North Carolina number while on a flight home about a week after sending my email, I called back to find that the crew at Soflete wanted to run with the idea. Now I had a homework assignment: write and shoot a trip over Christmas break. While I was home in Central PA in December, I spent several days freezing and climbing, while learning how to tell a story. On my first visit to HQ in May, Doug and I sketched an outline for the summer. Evan and I were to meet with Soflete athletes to see how they embody the Die Living ethos. We would document these meet-ups with photos and videos then write about our experience. Our initial list of participants included these men, all fascinating experts in their fields with a story to tell:
Anthony Radetic, one of Soflete’s first sponsored athletes, a former Green Beret that now professionally races SeaDoos all around the globe.
Austin Parker, a real, bonafide mountain man that I am convinced only exists on ski slopes and mountain bike trails.
Ben Altenes, the current curator for the Die Living Instagram account, and a trail runner that is absolutely going to bury me with mileage at altitude when I get to Salt Lake City.
Roque Rodriguez, a big-time, not quite yet full-time predator hunter that has shot more coyotes than there are stars in the sky.
Sean Senske, an archery hunter and backcountry fisherman. Basically the result if Lewis and Clark had left a member of their party behind in Wyoming.
Zach Carbo, a former Ranger and current badass whose instagram story leads me to believe that he spends more time in the air skydiving and base jumping than he does on the ground.
Our days in between spending time with them were to be freeform: explore what the nation has to offer in the outdoors, climb, bike, backpack, hike, and generally keep our bodies intact so to make it to the next stop. With over 9,000 miles planned out, we were prepared to spend nights in Walmart parking lots, make ramen more times than we can count, and shoestring our way through the country trying to find couches and friends’ floors to sleep on.
We departed from Pennsylvania and stopped in to Headquarters one last time before our vacation/internship/undertaking/dream job began. In just a few hours, we recorded a quick video intro, and learned more about video editing than I knew existed. Then, with a car full of camera, climbing, backpacking, and biking equipment,we drove off into the unknown.