Finding the Hero's Journey in the Utah Desert
Lessons in Storytelling from Matt's Off Road Recovery
As much as the literary world is divided along genre lines, a great story really has very little to do with the subject matter. That is why a tow-truck driver in the deserts of Utah has become a YouTube star who has just surpassed a million subscribers.
I stumbled on Matt’s Off Road Recovery while doing research for the travel diary I am writing based on our two transcontinental road trips in 2018 and 2019. I clicked on a video that showed up in YouTube because it looked like it had some great Utah scenery in the background. It did, but by the end I was hooked by the storytelling.
Doubtless many of the channel’s fans are fans of off-roading. In some of the later videos it appears as if some of them have deliberately visited Matt’s territory around Hurricane, Utah in hopes that if they get stuck he will come along and pull them out. But I doubt that accounts for all of the channel’s one million subscribers. It certainly doesn’t account for me. My motorsport interests, which are mild, run more to Formula 1 (Lewis was robbed!). I owned a Miata for a few years, which is about as far as you can get from a rock-crawling jeep and still be on four wheels.
Still, I have watched the entire Matt’s Off Road Recovery catalogue, and I am subscribe to new videos and watch them when they are posted. Why? First, because I am charmed by the stories. Second, because as a novelist, I am interested in the art of storytelling, an art of which the eponymous Matt seems to be a natural master. The former co-owner of a roofing company who sold his share to buy a towing company, I doubt that Matt Wetzel has ever taken a creative writing class or read a book on storytelling. He doesn’t need to. He’s a natural.
But for those who have read a book on storytelling, I am going to do a hero’s journey analysis of Matt’s Off Road Recovery. For those who are not familiar with it, the hero’s journey is a theory of storytelling rooted in the work of Joseph Campbell but most notably advocated to the writing community by Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey. Very briefly, the hero’s journey looks like this:
At the start of every Matt’s Off Road Recovery video (at least the later ones, after the channel had found its stride) Matt is in his truck driving to the rescue of someone and he begins with the words, “So we got a call…” This has become a signature catch phrase of the channel, so much so that they give all of their customers a t-shirt with the words, “So I made a call…” on them.
In hero’s journey terms, we begin in the known world (the familiar truck) and Matt introduces the call to adventure (the call to rescue the customer’s vehicle).
The videos almost always begin on paved highways and Matt explains the difficult off-road conditions and uncertain directions they are going to have to deal with (the threshold guardians). The moment of transition from the “known world” of the paved highway to the “unknown world” off-road is invariably shown, a threshold often symbolized by driving through the narrow tunnel which forms the entrance to the Sand Hollow State Park where so many of the rescues take place.
As he drives to the scene of the accident, Matt pans the camera around and introduces the crew in the vehicle. (The helpers.) Whoever is in the front passenger seat is tasked with giving the weather report, which, this being the Southern Utah desert, is often extreme (challenges and temptation). The weather report is usually delivered either by Ed, an octogenarian gold prospector who plays the role of the wizard or mentor (though Matt is the real mentor here). When Ed is off prospecting for gold, the report is usually given by Lizzy, the teenage daughter of a family friend who competes in rodeo and swing dancing competitions when she is not shingling roofs and helping pull Jeeps and dune buggies out of holes in the desert. Lizzy is definitely the princess who can rescue her own self from the dragon.
But let me go back a moment, because I missed the element of supernatural aid. This comes in the form of the specially designed and hand-built rescue vehicles, a Jeep called “The Yellow Banana” retrofitted with enormous tires and all kinds of modifications that I don’t pretend to understand, and a monstrous thing called the MORRVAIR, which is the body of a Chevrolet Corvair station wagon mounted on the frame of some other vehicle I can’t remember with countless customizations and modifications (the build of both vehicles is the subject of many of the videos). These are the magical steeds with which our heroes can traverse the unknown world, grapple with the monster, and then return with the elixir. As Sleipnir is to Odin and Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr are to Thor, so the Yellow Banana and the MORRVAIR are to Matt. (They sell diecasts of both!)
Sometimes the videos begin in one of these vehicles, but often they are being towed behind a conventional pickup truck (mythologically named “Blue Steel”). The unloading of the mythic vehicles is often filmed at the crossing the threshold moment of the hero’s journey.
Other helpers are sometimes summoned for more difficult recoveries, including a couple of truly outlandish off-road tow trucks and their larger than life operators. Matt’s son, Rudy is also a major supporting player with his own magic steed, a modified Jeep Rubicon recently dubbed “The Rudicon.”
Whatever crew has been assembled for any particular recovery, they journey together through the wilderness facing various trials (sand dunes, deteriorating Jeep trails, deep snow, etc.) until they reach the abyss, the abyss being whatever landscape feature the customer’s vehicle is stuck in.
In several cases it is an actual abyss. There is one episode in which Matt physically climbs down into a crevice under a stranded vehicle which is in an active state of collapse.
Almost always he has to climb or reach under the stricken vehicle to find a place to secure his tow rope. In many cases, however, it is Lizzy who has to enter the abyss, by climbing into the driver’s seat of the stricken vehicle to steer it, and to apply just a little gas to help get it out of the hole it is in. Considering that the vehicles are sometimes perched precariously on the edge of precipices, there is some real danger in this, or at least the appearance of it.
The stages of transformation and atonement are hard to incorporate into any recurring narrative. A full hero’s journey is transformative, meaning that the hero cannot set out on the same journey again because they are themselves different. Any serial has to avoid so complete a transformation or they will not be able to make next week’s episode. And in real life, of course, Matt and his crew are not going to be transformed by every recovery. They end each episode with a self-satisfied, “We got ‘em out.”
However, this is no chest-thumping ego piece. There are recoveries where mistakes are made and lessons learned and Matt details them without any excuses. There is also Matt’s ongoing mentorship of Lizzy, whose skills and responsibilities grow over time. (Good episodic storytelling should also have a larger growth arc that pulls the reader forward but does not derail the original premise of the story.)
In the end Matt, the hero, and his companions, return to the known world, the world of asphalt, concrete, and gas stations, with the social boon which the hero is supposed to bring back to the known world for the benefit of the people. The customers often feature in the videos, representing the society on whose behalf the hero undertakes his journey and to whom he returns with his boon (their rescued vehicle).
Of course, there is more to successful storytelling than just making sure you have the elements of the hero’s journey. And Matt’s Off Road Recovery is not the first to exploit the inherent story potential of operating unusual vehicles in difficult circumstances. The History Channel and others have produced many shows on this theme, such as Ice Road Truckers and Highway Thru Hell (also about towing). But Matt’s Off Road Recovery, with a Jeep and a GoPro, is one-upping all of these studio productions.
Pacing is a large part of storytelling success. Matt’s Off Road Recovery seems to have a sixth sense about when to skip forward, when to speed through a driving session at high speed, and when to slow down for the moments that matter. And then there are the sensual elements, supplied here by the beautiful scenery (which is given just the right amount of attention, setting the story without slowing it down). Finally, character matters, and the genial cast provide a variety of appealing characters, including the ever cheerful but accident prone Trevor, who is sometimes seen running through the desert with a GoPro until he falls and injures himself. (There is no pretense that the film crew are not present. Their own trials and misadventures often feature in the videos — a touch of meta-storytelling that I only remember seeing elsewhere on Top Gear.)
There is never any rancor in the crew, though they often work long days and nights in difficult and dangerous situations. Mistakes are forgiven and those who make them are comforted, not mocked or chastised. Most of the History Channel shows seem to work to artificially introduce rancor into the situation as a means to drum up drama. But whether the geniality of Matt’s crew is real or a product of careful editing, it seems born of an inherent sense that the source of conflict in their stories lies elsewhere.
There is a theory (much disputed, like all such theories) that there are three basic kinds of conflict in storytelling: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. Matt’s Off Road Recovery seems to understand that their stories are of the man vs. nature variety and that rancor between members of the crew would only spoil that and detract from the overall genial tone of the channel. False drama always sticks out like a sore thumb. The canyons and deserts of Southern Utah are a sufficiently formidable foe that no artificial human squabbling can add to the drama.
But it is not the depth of the danger nor the loudness of the voices that makes a drama compelling, or we would not value Pride and Prejudice as we do. It is the right characters in the right situations with the right structure and pacing that does it. And when those things work, it does not matter if the drama is about some subject you care about or not. A good story is a good story. There is a lot to be learned about storytelling by watching Matt and Lizzy and Rudy and Trevor yank stranded pickup trucks out of ditches and off mountain tops. (There is a fair bit to be learned about branding as well, but that is a subject for another day and another writer.)
There are many theories of what makes successful storytelling, and many of them have some value, but in the end I think it is a tacit skill, one you are either born with or learn from reading or watching the masters. You can learn a lot about storytelling from watching Matt’s Off Road Recovery pull vehicles out of mud, snow, sand, and rock piles. You don’t get to a million subscribers without it.
Speaking of a million subscribers. I’m not quite there yet. Throw me a rope and subscribe. Thanks!