Wild Rides

Sometimes the interesting part of a surf experience has nothing to do with how well a wave was ridden, or if one was surfed at all

Matt Whitehead on the road, he who said the only thing more romanticized than romance is travel. Photo: Whitehead
Matt Whitehead on the road, he who said the only thing more romanticized than romance is travel. Photo: Whitehead

By Janna Irons

Matt Whitehead sat on the beach in Indonesia on the verge of heat stroke. He hated the crowds and the sweating, and decided, rather irrationally, that he was going to Alaska—the coldest, emptiest place he could think of. From there, he thought, he would ride a motorbike to Chile, and surf empty waves all along the way.

The entire plan might seem absurd except that Matt had already completed an even more preposterous surf adventure just months prior: a 5,000-mile trek by bicycle from the east coast of Canada to the west coast, then down to Mainland Mexico. It was filled with all that you’d expect from a journey that far-reaching, though Matt brushed off any sentimental notions of life on the road. “The only thing more romanticized than romance is travel,” he laughed. He recounted getting his bike stolen in San Francisco and spending months scouring flea markets until he finally tracked it down and could continue on. He’s had flat tires and close calls with fast cars and was even robbed at gunpoint in Mexico. “My friend and I were asleep in a tent near Ensenada one night when I heard someone rustling around outside,” he recalls. “I sprung up and chased them down a dry river bed. I saw the guy had my camera bags and he picked up a rock to try and hit me and I thought, ‘Good, that means he doesn’t have a gun.’ But then, out of nowhere, his friend came up behind me pointing his gun at me and yelling in Spanish. So that was the end of my camera.”

Matt’s been traveling since he was 18, and has somehow managed to fund his adventures with odd jobs for over a decade. “It’s normally manual labor-type jobs,” he says, “but I’ve done everything from working in a mental hospital to working in a bubble wrap factory. I’ll do just about anything. One time, I was in a coffee shop and overheard a guy talking about needing someone to chop some wood. I said ‘Well, I need to work,’ and he gave me the job. Normally people just offer it to me. It’s never good work, but it’s money, and I need money to keep traveling.”

After leaving sweaty, crowded Indonesia this past winter—a vacation from what many would consider a lifelong vacation—he was able to rationally consider the prospect of a bike ride through Alaska and realized that below-freezing temperatures would make it nearly impossible, unless he waited until summer. Instead, he decided to begin on Vancouver Island and spend the next year surfing down the coast of the U.S. and Central and South America. For this next trip, he’s opting to ride a motorbike, simply to increase the chances of scoring better surf. “When you’re riding a bicycle in the middle of nowhere, you can’t check the swell forecast and say, ‘Oh, there’s waves 300 miles away, I’ll be there tomorrow,’ because it takes three days to get there.”

Along the way, he’ll camp or stay with friends or strangers—another upside to traveling alone. Whether he’ll make it to Chile or not depends on factors both in his control and out. “I can’t ever say what I am planning on doing, because it changes all the time,” he says. “All I know is that I’m pretty wave-hungry at the moment. And at the end of the day, I know that I’m just doing this for fun, so if I stop enjoying myself, I’ll just go home.”