The magazine world suffered a deep loss Monday with the death of writer Matthew Power. An adventure-loving contributor to Harper’s, VQR, Outside, GQ and The Atavist, among others, Power died, reportedly of heat stroke, while on assignment for Men’s Journal, in Uganda. He was following the British explorer Levinson Wood, who is attempting to hike the length of the Nile. MJ reports that Power, 39, “fell ill, lost consciousness and died a few hours later.”
Power reported in 60 countries and all 50 states. His work took him to jungles, deserts, mountains, rivers. “He covered conflict, climbed mountains, and followed in the exploratory footsteps of so many unfortunate travelers of yore in order to write his own account of what such trips felt like today, to a modern consciousness,” wrote his friend Tom Bissell. “This last piece was his specialty. They were why we read him, why people sent him places. He did those pieces better than anyone. Matt was living testimony to a core belief of mine, a belief shaped by my many conversations on the subject with Matt: If you travel, you must trust. Openness is not gullibility. A willingness to be vulnerable does not endanger you.”
Power’s fans and friends were legion, Storyboard among them. (He thrilled us, most recently, by agreeing to write a piece for our “Why’s this so good?” series.) The New York Daily News‘ Harry Siegel spent a year with Power as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, and as he put it: “Matt was every wonderful storyteller you meet at a bar or a party — except his stories were true, he put in the hard work to set them on the page, not just talk them dead, and his company didn’t disappoint when you sobered up.”
Friends and colleagues have spent much of the day sending comfort to Power’s wife, the journalist Jessica Benko, and filing Facebook and Twitter remembrances. (We Storified some here.) The Men’s Journal editors compiled a must-read list of Power’s pieces, as have Harper’s, VQR and Outside. “The kind of stories I’ve gotten to do have involved fulfilling my childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life,” he recently told Longform.org. Some of our favorites:
“Mississippi Drift,” for Harper’s, published six years ago this month:
For several years, beginning when I was six or seven, I played a hobo for Halloween. It was easy enough to put together. Oversized 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.
“The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan,” also Harper’s, March 2005:
Up toward a high pass, we scramble through unrepaired washouts from the spring rains. The difficulty of the road drives home the primary fact preventing Afghanistan from being truly unified or modernized. The geography is mind-bogglingly severe, the easiest way between two points scarcely ever a straight line. The road from Kabul to Herat requires a thousand-mile detour through Kandahar. For all its illustrious history as a crossroads of civilization and artery of the Silk Road, today’s Afghanistan has scarcely any sealed roads tying it together, which only serves to compound the regionalism, tribalism, and warlordism that dominate the country. The driver, clearly irked that his new van is being pounded to pieces on the road, curses loudly in Dari every time the chassis bottoms out on a rock, and stops frequently to inspect the damage. Finally, after eleven hours of driving, a red sandstone precipice rises hundreds of feet above the road, topped by the ruined ramparts and citadels of the ancient fortress of Shahr-i-Zohak, which has guarded the entrance of the Bamiyan Valley for 800 years.
“Lost in the Amazon,” Men’s Journal, June 2009, on one man’s quest to walk the length of the Amazon River:
If all goes according to plan, somewhere on the banks of the mile-wide river I will rendezvous with a 33-year-old former British Army captain named Ed Stafford. But Stafford has warned me that in the Amazon things rarely go according to plan. He should know: Since April 2008 he has been on an expedition to be the first person in history to travel the entire 4,000-mile length of the Amazon River on foot, through the heart of the largest jungle on Earth. He’s attempting to walk every step of the river’s route from source to sea, wherever it is possible to walk. There are also several hundred tributaries he will need to cross using an inflatable raft he carries with him, and he must traverse three countries and the territories of dozens of indigenous tribes. In his expedition blog, Stafford writes: “Walking from the source to the sea is one of the last great feats of exploration.”
We live in an age of diminishing firsts, so those wishing to find fame or notoriety through adventure are forced into increasingly baroque categories: summiting Everest on prosthetic legs, or climbing Kilimanjaro on rollerblades. The Amazon has been run several times by kayaking expeditions, and a Slovenian named Martin Strel has even swum most of its length, but nobody has ever crossed it on foot. When I first read about Stafford’s mission, I immediately wondered what made Stafford believe he could actually make it.
“Confessions of a Drone Operator,” GQ, published last November:
Looking back, it was really little more than happenstance that had led him to that box in the desert. He’d been raised poor by his single mom, a public-school teacher in Missoula, Montana, and he struggled to afford tuition at the University of Montana. In the summer of 2005, after tagging along with a buddy to the Army recruiting office, he wandered into the Air Force office next door. His friend got a bad feeling and bailed at the last minute, but Bryant had already signed his papers. In short order he was running around at Lackland Air Force Base during Warrior Week in the swelter of a Texas summer. He wasn’t much for military hierarchy, but he scored high on his aptitude tests and was shunted into intelligence, training to be an imagery analyst. He was told he would be like “the guys that give James Bond all the information that he needs to get the mission done.”
As Men’s Journal editors wrote in a post today, Power “was a true adventurer and a principled, ethical journalist who never failed to put the accuracy of the story and the fairness in his depiction of a person, place, or situation above what worked for him as a writer. Matt chose the hard way when it was the right way, yet somehow never failed to enjoy the journey.”