It's 9 am on a cloudy Tuesday.
A pickup truck arrives in a remote parking lot in California's Joshua Tree National Park, hauling a pristine vintage Airstream trailer. On the driver's door is written "LP Ranch, Angus Cattle, Mertzon, TX." Inside is a little two-room traveling boutique hotel. A dreamcatcher hangs over a high-quality bedspread. There's a stainless-steel fridge. Bumper stickers say things like "Virginia Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue," and "Solidarity/Unity – International Brotherhood of Boilermakers." A surfboard is marked "Malibu."
Matthew McConaughey sits in the driver's seat, wearing a plaid lumberjack-style shirt, chewing a cinnamon-scented toothpick. He owns that faraway Texas ranch and occasionally uses it as a "hideout," he says, but he lets a cousin run it. McConaughey has more glamorous setups, either in Malibu with his Brazilian supermodel girlfriend and their baby son or in this Airstream, wherever his whims might take him.
He whips off his sunglasses and flashes a wry, slightly unhinged smile. "Let's do this!" he says.
Like some Outward Bound Willy Wonka, he leads the way down a nature trail next to Cap Rock, an enormous pale boulder that sits amid the eerie Lorax vegetation like a bauble of the gods. The walk, safe for toddlers, seems beneath McConaughey. His aggro, shirtless exercise style, where everything is a triathlon-training session or a scramble up the steepest slope, has left many seemingly fit buddies gasping in the dirt. But not today, McConaughey says. He's in conservation mode. Eight days ago, he hit the road for a 10-day fast, ending up in the middle of low-lying desert outside Joshua Tree, in a remote spot that he calls "nothing but a bunch of little pueblos."
With his family back in Malibu, McConaughey is riding solo this trip. "It's a good time to take a little inventory, work on some prudence," he says. "I've been planning it since last year. You get started on the year, you get busy, and then you say, Dammit, I was gonna do that back in January."
He's spent most of his time entering old notebook diaries of his travels into his laptop – his chance to reflect and process and stare off aimlessly into the distance. Only water, tea, and broth have gone into his system since he started. Ten days is not a big deal. The human body has enough energy to last 40, he says.
"I'm high and clean and tight, man," he says. "It's good to feel hungry. If you keep filling up your tank when it's three-quarters empty, you're gonna run on old fuel. So you gotta drive it down to empty and let it work. I came here to check in, press a little reset, and then head back on down the road."
McConaughey turns around, hocks a loogie into the brush, unzips his pants, and lets the piss fly. When that's done, he pops in a piece of gum. He chews it lovingly.
"Dessert," he says, his eyes opening wide. "Hah-hah! Not for long, baby! Just long enough."
In addition to his film work, McConaughey has several businesses – a clothing line, a record label, an indie-film production company – but the road is where he finds meaning and purpose. No one who works for him, and he employs a lot of old buddies, ever lacks for road-trip money. In fact, he has a rule around the office: If somebody's getting too stressed out, he can go up to McConaughey, look him in the eye, and say, "Man, I need a road trip."
McConaughey knows the feeling. The trips he's taken over the years have framed his life, have helped define him. "He's always on the road," says Mark Gustawes, his old frat brother from the University of Texas, who helps runs his production company, JKL (as in "just keep livin' "). "I don't think people actually believe that he does it, that it's more of an image thing. But it's the truth. He's a total vagabond."