Matthew Power climbs through a tunnel beneath the catacombs in Paris.
Years ago, an acquaintance of mine named Brad Will was murdered in Mexico, and the best and funniest and most humane tribute to him was written by a journalist named Matt Power. Matt and Brad had hopped freight trains together, lived in squats together, been arrested together. Matt detailed their friendship in a eulogy he published in Virginia Quarterly Review. In a goofy attempt at free love, he said, they'd even kissed.
"Even to write that in the past tense seems strange," Matt wrote, "almost laughable, and nobody would laugh about it more than [Brad] would, with his conspiratorial raised-eyebrow chuckle, a laugh that let you in on a secret joke. To write it in the past tense negates the immortality that we often felt around each other."
On Monday, at the age of 39—barely five years since he bid farewell to his friend Brad—Matt Power died in Uganda. He was on assignment for Men's Journal, walking the Nile with a British explorer named Levison Wood. A brief notice is already up on the Men's Journal site, and it explains how Matt fell ill from heatstroke in the middle of the desert. There was no way to get him medical attention. He lost consciousness. He died several hours later. "Matt was only dropping in and walking with [Wood] for a week," the Men's Journal editors wrote, "but you got the sense that he'd trudge on as long as it took to get the story and to understand the man he was walking with."
Though I met Matt a few times around New York, I knew him not so much as a friend but as a reader of his work. His reporting sent him trekking to Amazonian jungles, digging through Philippine garbage dumps, and motorcycling across the Andes. One of his best passages, from a Harper's essay about rafting down the Mississippi River, describes a childhood fantasy of becoming a hobo.
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.
Since then, I've had occasional fantasies of dropping out, and have even made some brief furtive bids at secession: a stint as a squatter in a crumbling South Bronx building, a stolen ride through Canada on a freight train. A handful of times I got myself arrested, the charges ranging from trespassing to disorderly conduct to minor drug possession. But I wasn't a very good criminal, or nomad, and invariably I would return to the comforting banalities of ordinary life. I never disliked civilization intensely enough to endure the hardships of abandoning it, but periodically I would tire of routine, of feeling "cramped up and sivilized," as Huck Finn put it, and I would light out for another diversion in the Territory.
Among my dearest group of friends—restless kids turned writers and editors and fathers in our adulthood—Matt's juggling of adventure and responsibility, his skill at turning his diversions in the Territory into a career, made him a role model. Unlike many succesful people, he was generous with his time and advice, quick to answer an email or grab a drink with an intern or young writer who could offer him nothing more than conversation. He was a regular guy, in other words, traveling the world on assignment for Harper's, National Geographic, and GQ, succeeding without trading his integrity for a paycheck. He lived the life many of us still aspire to live.
His friends and family, no doubt, must be devastated by news of his death. My Facebook feed—which includes lots of folks who knew Matt far better than I did—has featured restrained eulogies all morning. A friend of mine sadly recalled an unpaid debt: "I still owe him a drink."
Yet, as with any death, the most heart-wrenching tributes will take place in private. I can't but imagine that, so soon after the unexpected tragedy, his family might feel the way Matt did when our mutual friend Brad died: "I still half-expect him," Matt wrote in that VQR piece, "to come rolling around the corner on his bike, dirty from traveling...recounting his latest adventures in Brazil or the South Bronx."