By Jenny Neyman
“Is freedom a path, or just a view?”
For William Matchett, who starts his handmade books of poetry with that rumination, it’s both — or maybe neither. Freedom is the way in which he wants to live his life, yet it’s an evolving route to get there, with “there” being as indefinite a concept as “someday” or “somewhere.”
Is freedom looking out to sea from the southern tip of South America? Is it the view of Homer after a weeklong walk there along the Cook Inlet shoreline from Kenai? Is it staring down logging trucks in Oregon? Or is it the lifestyle he’s chosen, that allows him to be in those places and take in those views?
Free from what, is the first question. Money, or reliance on it? Prejudices and preconceptions? Conformity? Answering it is a necessity of dichotomy — there’s no black without white, good without evil, supersized without the dollar menu.
Such is the sort of circular thinking to which Matchett’s books invite readers. Down one contemplative rabbit hole and up another, along meandering routes of conjecture that aren’t new to philosophers, poets and passers through a what’s-it-all-mean phase of examination, but that “productive” people — as the term is usually taken to mean, with careers, to-do list responsibilities — don’t typically invest much time and thought on.
That’s probably about the best description of freedom for Matchett — the space removed from deciding cell phone carriers and calling the satellite TV repairman; the state of neither this nor that, neither here nor there, moving but with the stillness to consider where he’s been.
“My favorite place is someplace new,” he writes. “… The path of least resistance is avoidance of experience. The beaten path is for the broken spirited. The ability to see life as an adventure is the key to living life as it should be lived.”
Everyone has moments of thinking, “I should … ,” “Wouldn’t it be great to… ,” “I wish I … , ” Matchett said. For someone who spends a great deal of time on what may, by some, be considered idle musings, which lead to his poetry and other artistic endeavors, those impulses are anything but idle for Matchett. He takes out-of-the-blue inspiration as firm a directive to action — as an instructional booklet laying out steps for inserting flange B into vertical strut C.
After moving to Kenai last January, it occurred to Matchett that it would be interesting to walk the beach from Kenai to Homer. He consulted maps, asked around about the stream crossings and terrain he’d likely encounter, and tried to pack appropriately. Then, on an early evening in mid-July after he got off his part-time shift at Lowe’s, he headed down the bluff from his apartment in Old Town Kenai, and off he went.
“I wanted to go on a hike and I didn’t want to get lost,” he said. “It’s a clear walk all the way down there. Why not?”
It hadn’t occurred to him that this particular hike isn’t one that occurs to many other people in the area.
“People were looking at me like I’m crazy,” he said. “Occasionally I’d talk to them and tell them, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m walking to Homer.’ But they mostly looked at me like I was nuts. Some people would say something like, ‘You know the road’s just over there, you could hitchhike.’ ‘But that’s not the point. You don’t get it,’ I’d say. I’d try to convince them I was doing it for a reason. ‘What reason?’ they’d ask. ‘Because I can.’”
He brought camping gear, an inflatable raft, extra clothes, a wetsuit and food to last several days. He thought
about using the raft to cross one of the bends of the Kenai River as it winds wide and cold through the marshy flats at the river mouth, but thought better of it and hiked upstream to Warren Ames Memorial Bridge to cross there. After a side trip down Kalifornsky Beach Road to Soldotna to purchase a firearm for protection — he’s impulsive, not imprudent — Matchett tromped down the bluff to the sandy Cook Inlet shore and headed south.
He met a few people along the way. One woman, a summer visitor originally from England, merged her afternoon beach walk for a bit with Matchett’s. They chatted, he gave her one of his poetry books, she wished him well but didn’t disguise her skepticism of his trip.
“She didn’t think I was going to make it. ‘Well, maybe you’ll make it to Anchor Point,’ she said. I hadn’t thought about not making it. Then it became a challenge, because everybody thought I was crazy anyway,” he said.
He used his inflatable raft and wetsuit to cross the mouth of the Kasilof River, then stashed it on the south shore, figuring he could walk upstream at the other waterways to come and cross them at the highway bridges.
“I was straining with the weight of probably 85 pounds on my back. It was kind of absurd I had so much food, so many clothes, a raft and a wetsuit, all this stuff because I didn’t know what I was going to need,” he said.
He camped on the beach with a family visiting the Kasilof River for the personal-use fishery. Farther south,
toward Ninilchik, he started encountering commercial set-net operations. Matchett got the feeling the fishermen regarded him like they would some sea oddity hauled in with their nets. Walk? To Homer? When the highway’s not far away?
The farther south he got, the less skepticism he encountered. By Anchor Point he wasn’t raising near as many eyebrows, although, of all the trip, the section of bluffs between Anchor Point and Homer were the most challenging, with high tides that could leave a hiker stranded or even swamped.
More than a week after leaving his apartment he trudged into Homer, bought dinner and found a ride back to Kenai. Not long after that it occurred to him there was more Cook Inlet beach to explore. In September, he set off from Hope to walk the beach to Kenai.
Unlike the Kenai-to-Homer trek, there proved to be good reasons why the Hope hike isn’t often attempted. Past the end of Gull Rock Trail the shoreline turns into boulders, bluffs and rock cliffs. Figuring that the route isn’t as important as the experience of being on a journey, Matchett headed up the Resurrection Pass Trail instead. He happened to time it perfectly, coinciding with one of the summer’s rare bursts of sunny weather and the foliage’s peak of color change.
“I dubbed that trip the best failure ever. It was the best weather, the fall colors were amazing. I took about 5,000 photos,” he said.
He arrived at the end of both treks with his digital camera full of images, journal full of notes and mind full of
inspiration for additions to his poetry books. His long blond hair and beard, camping gear and hodgepodge of hand-altered clothes finished the hikes a little more ragged than they started — “I left feeling like Superman and ended looking like a bum,” he said — but it’s easy for Matchett to take a wider view of such things.
Since wandering away from home in Nebraska at age 19, a series of homemade hats and duffel bags, nursed-along motorcycles and previous incarnations of camping gear have taught him about the inverse relationship of journeys — any worth lost from wear and tear is more than balanced by the richness of experience gained.
is to be glad you are who you have become.
People envy what I don’t have.
— William Matchett
The community of Boone, in Boone Country, Neb.: Population — Matchett’s family, and a couple other people.
Matchett and his two older brothers grew up 7.5 miles outside the town of 25 people. His grandmother, a country schoolteacher, lived just outside town in the other direction. In town, an uncle ran a garage, and another uncle ran a welding shop. Across the street, his mom ran an upholstery shop in a quintessentially small-town
building — it had been there as long as anybody could remember, and retained some element of each purpose it had served. The building had a wall safe from when it was a bank, a big front counter from its feed store days and a pot of coffee for anybody in habit of visiting the one-time general store.
The idea of reinvention was reinforced by watching his mom work — old items given a new appearance, but still retaining a function of their past.
“From, like, birth to when I could I walk I would see her take apart a chair at its seams, turn a 3-D object into two-dimensional objects,” Matchett said. “Lay it over the new fabric, trace it all out, and once they were traced that old piece was thrown into a giant pile that would accumulate, and then she would cut all the new pieces, re-sew it all together and re-skin it so the furniture would look completely different.”
His mom didn’t teach him to sew through direct lessons, but he absorbed the skill through proximity and interest. He’s used it to make patchwork hats and duffel bags, dreamcatchers and other fiber crafts, and the cloth covers of the poetry books he hand sews.
From his dad he absorbed an interest in writing and coming to your own conclusions.
“I think I think differently than a lot of people, because I grew up without the indoctrination you get from TV and (mass media),” he said. “My father would yell propaganda at the TV all the time, Republicans and Democrats, and was very isolationist. We had a room with 12-foot ceilings filled with bookcases about history, war, evolution, civilization. He’d read them, but more than that he would always tell us things. He’d be reading a book and talk about it over dinner, like some arbitrary Roman law and how it still affects us today.”
To a kid who had only traveled out of state to buy fireworks, and once for a school trip to Colorado, it seemed that those ideas couldn’t be explored in small-town Nebraska, while working at his uncle’s welding shop and attending community college. Matchett was learning, just not always the sorts of things in which he was interested.
“My uncle’s ability of cobbling things together was equally matched by his jokes, almost all of them very dirty. He was quite the character. By the time I was 12 I knew more dirty jokes than I do now,” he said.
When he was 19, a strike at the manufacturing plant where he worked and a breakup with his girlfriend gave him what seemed to be the perfect opportunity to head West, and trade the ocean of Midwest fields for a view of the Pacific Ocean.
“I’ve seen a lot of movies of other places and just wanted to know more,” he said. “Being a country bumpkin you’re at a disadvantage. There’s this whole city way of life, the city way of thinking, the fast-talking people and the big money. They’re the ones that make the rules, they’re the ones that change things. I was really interested in, I guess what turned out to be politics, but just that way of life — why things are the way they are.”
He didn’t see the point of waiting until age and finances accumulated to the point where he could travel comfortably. After graduating high school in 1996, he figured he’d rather learn from the world when he was young enough to put the lessons to good use.
“I wanted to be able to appreciate traveling when you’re young, be able to see the world and have it change you. Not be old and decrepit and bitter and not able to change or learn from anything, not able to have it benefit the entirety of your life, the way you raise your children, what you go into. It was this whole concept of being rich — emotionally, spiritually, within your knowledge of yourself,” he said.
His trek for emotional richness set forth without much material riches to assist the trip — just his hand-sewn duffel bag and a 650 Suzuki motorcycle that seemed prone to bouts of sedentary contemplation, itself.
“Four cylinders, four carburetors, shaft-driven five speed, disc breaks front and back. I mean it was a great, sporty little bike,” Matchett said. “It was a great bike, except for the electrical system.”
Two days after arriving at the ocean at Grays Harbor, Wash., he got word the strike was over and he was called back to work. He went, but took his newly indulged love of exploration with him. Right after finishing community college he headed off on his bike again, with $110 and a plan to head southwest, eventually aiming for a friend’s home in Stockton, Calif. He broke down on the salt flats of Utah, and spent some time camping, teaching kids how to sew and selling homemade dreamcatchers in a tiny town, with the nearest landmark being the middle of nowhere.
“The town of Ely. You could set a quarter over that name and not cover up any other towns on the national map,” he said.
Matchett eventually made it to California, then to Oregon to pick up some construction work, before hitching a ride with his still-limping bike back to Nebraska. The next several years, the majority of his 20s, was spent back and forth, here and there — attending semesters at the University of Nebraska, where he graduated in 2007 after attending a semester in South America, working on a ranch in North Dakota, back through Utah, again visiting Oregon and California. He started attending Rainbow Gatherings — outdoor communal meetings espousing the ideals of peace, love, harmony, freedom and community. And his seeds of activism began to grow.
He came to the attention of authorities while at university, following an anti-war poem he had published after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attack.
“I was standing in front of the state Capitol in Lincoln ranting. The first day there was like 270 people when the government announced they were going to blow up Afghanistan. And then the next week there was 50, and then 30, and then 20, and 12, and 11, and 10, and then it started getting cold and it was just me,” Matchett said. “I wrote a big, long rant, submitted it to a newsletter, accompanied by poem. It got published Friday and that Monday I walking home from school and got picked up by police.”
None of the charges against him stuck, but the episode did give him a lasting rankling at being encouraged to conform.
“People would say, ‘You need to look decent for court,’” he said. “And I didn’t even shave. It was strange to have a beard and long hair and have people say, ‘You look evil like that,’ but you should go to church and worship a guy with a beard and long hair? Santa or Jesus, yet somehow it’s bad when I do it?”
Normalcy is a Fallacy
Created by tyranny
to ensure its longevity,
eroding our individuality
to control society.
The powers that be
need fear and greed
to brainwash the masses
into buying into the legitamacy
of the clashes between the classes,
and they will not wake up
unless enough of us
stand up and become
a social alarm clock.
— William Matchett
Activism became a direction for him, one he’d rather follow than the more easily accessible paths laid in front of him — eroding his body through heavy-labor jobs on ranches and in factories, or slipping into a cycle of substance-abuse addiction as many of his friends in Nebraska had.
Matchett got a taste of standing up and speaking out in college and followed it at first by sitting down, being a tree-sitter protesting deforestation in Oregon.
“In the mornings we’d stand in front of logging trucks. They would stop literally feet from you. They’d wait until the very last second then slam on the brakes. You’d get sprayed with gravel from their tires getting locked up. You’d have to stand your ground or else they’d blow right through,” Matchett said. “That was my first experience with real, full-scale political activism. Tree-sitting is like the hood ornament of environmental movement, everybody knows what it is. It was a way of trying to learn — how do you draw national attention to an issue? How do you do the fundamentals? What are the mechanisms? What drives it? How does it work?”
Through contacts at the forest defense camp, he moved on to a collective events space in San Francisco that was a hub for disseminating information, with documentary film screenings, book talks, panel discussions, slide shows and other gatherings.
“It was so interesting, it seemed like they were really doing it, like things were actually going on,” he said. “It was all about the dissemination of information, teaching people not only about the inequities going on in one part of the world, but how it’s caused by all these other things, from social, economic, cultural, political, military factors, agrarian struggle, water rights, oil rights, oppression of women, totalitarianism. All these things are interfitted together, and if you understand one piece you could realize the tactics at work, and the concepts and models and use them on other things.”
Eventually, though, as people cycled in and out, the event space’s focus began to change, and Matchett’s longing to wander started to kick in again. He eventually decided to head to Alaska, following an ex-girlfriend with whom he had recently reconnected. That relationship didn’t last, and left him at loose ends in Kenai, deciding what path his journal will take next.
In the meantime, Veronica’s Coffee House in Old Town Kenai has become a second home, where he pens new poems — in ink with a quill pen — on the pages of his current incarnation of a journal, which is 3 years old and has swollen to the point of needing to be bound with a sturdy belt. He also stitches covers for his poetry books, a compilation of writings and photos he’s been amassing and organizing since he was a teenager.
He likes to use found objects to create the bindings, as they link the books to a specific region and place in time. These days he uses linen from a suit he got from a local secondhand store, and string he found in a burned-out boat on his trek to Homer — “When I lick it, it still tastes like salt,” he said.
He’s made over 40 of the books in the past year, and either sells or gives them away. Diane Hooper, co-owner of Veronica’s, got interested in the books after noticing Matchett working on them in the restaurant.
“That was what I was so taken with at first. He’d come in and sit in the back, order himself a pot of tea, pull out his quill pen and have all these pictures, or sometimes he’d sew books and bind them when he was there. It was just really interesting,” Hooper said.
She was particularly drawn to the books’ homemade nature, that they’re from a quill pen, with original photos and artwork, unique bindings and poetry that is ever evolving. She bought one for herself, then more for friends.
“I just really enjoy the pictures that he has, and the wisdom that his poems have,” Hooper said.
“Right from the start I knew it was something I wanted,” she said. “It seems like every time I open a page it’s the perfect thing for what I’m needing or feeling at that moment — a little pick-me-up.”
That’s exactly what Matchett hopes from them, that the books become emissaries of thought in their own right.
“Writing and disseminating a book is immortality, in some ways, but it’s also like participating in the conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years through other authors. Having majored in English, I learned a lot about ethics of literature and how a school of thought will influence a new school of thought. It’s kind of composting, in some ways, where you start deriving bits of this and that out of other things, and how that enriches the human experience, how that educates people, and imparts knowledge in a meaningful way,” he said.
Don’ be a snowflake
in a glass of water.
if you take life too seriously,
you’ll never get out alive.
Life is the feeling you get before you die.
— William Matchett