For those unfamiliar with Mike's story, it is inspirational to say the least.
Suffering from rare disorder, Atwater man has found relief in photography
It was just after 11 p.m. on a cold night in the winter of 2005 at Yosemite National Park. The moon was full. Mike Matenkosky, a nature photographer from Atwater, had left his two little girls with his in-laws and driven on whim with his wife, Stacy, to his favorite place to shoot.
They parked the car. Matenkosky pulled out his digital Canon 300D and began clicking away.
His best shot from that night, of a stunning, moonlit El Capitan, is now mounted on his family's living room wall. It's one of his favorites.
And, like most of the pictures he's taken in the last few years, he shot it without ever getting out of the car.
That's because Matenkosky can barely walk. He suffers from a rare disorder in which his immune system attacks his joints -- at least that's the best guess of all his Stanford University doctors. The condition, which first appeared in 2004, affected his knees so badly that he opted in March to have them removed.
At 43, Matenkosky will never bend his legs again.
He describes the last four years as the hardest of his life. Instead of playing with his daughters, backpacking through Yosemite and hiking Mount Whitney, he's spent much of those years on the sofa, in a wheelchair or in the hospital. He has endured operations, infections and a stroke.
Besides his family, Matenkosky credits one thing with getting him through it all: photography. "If it wasn't for photography, I don't know what I'd do," he said. "I'd probably go crazy from the boredom alone."
Born in Pittsburgh, Matenkosky has always loved to take pictures. He got his first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, as a kid. "I'd take pictures of my camping trips," he recalled. "Or I'd set up my model cars and my model airplanes outside and try to take pictures that made them look real."
He joined the military in 1986. His first duty station was Atwater's Castle Air Force Base. In 1990 he received orders for a one-year assignment in King Salmon, Alaska. That's where he got his first 35 mm SLR camera -- a used Minolta with a few zoom lenses that he bought from a friend for $200.
He began photographing his surroundings in Alaska and fell in love with shooting landscapes. After five years, Matenkosky left the military in 1991, but stayed in Atwater.
He married Stacy that year -- "I knew she was the one for me right away," he says -- and got a job at Sears as a service adviser in the automotive department. He eventually went to work at Fisher Research Lab, a metal detector manufacturer in Los Banos. He stayed there until 2005, when his knee problems forced him to quit.
Matenkosky's doctors tell him there isn't a name yet for his disorder. Name or none, the pain started in his shoulders in 2004 and quickly spread to his knees. "It came on pretty suddenly," he said. "Everything got real stiff, like arthritis. I started having trouble climbing stairs. Then I had to get a cane, then a walker."
Matenkosky's doctors first thought he was suffering from Lyme Disease. It made sense. Lyme Disease is transmitted by ticks, and Matenkosky was an avid hiker. But treatments for the disease failed.
As his knees grew stiffer and stiffer, a rheumatoidologist recommended knee-replacement surgery. He endured an operation on one leg in February 2005.
It only made things worse. He developed several infections, prompting his doctors to finally remove his man-made knee in October 2006.
Two days after that operation, while still in the hospital, Matenkosky suffered a stroke. His speech and cognition have slowed as a result. "I used to be a lot sharper," he acknowledges.
His knees never improved. Out of options, Matenkosky decided in March of this year to undergo surgery to remove them altogether. His upper and lower leg bones would be fused into one. He would never be able to bend his legs again, but the pain would go away once he healed, and he might eventually walk.
Through it all, Matenkosky has continued to shoot, even more so than he did when he was well. "I have so much time on my hands, and there just aren't that many things I can do." He now uses a Canon 5D, a gift from his parents.
"Mike went from climbing Half Dome to using a walker to a wheel chair in about a year," said Matenkosky's father-in-law, Jim Rentfrow. "He loved fixing up old cars and backpacking -- and then all of a sudden he couldn't do any of it anymore. Photography really became his outlet and his way of coping. It bailed him out."
Matenkosky still goes to Yosemite, though far less often than he would like. "I still get there once in a while, but I spend most of my time pretty close to home."
So he finds beauty where he can. He goes to Lake Yosemite, Hornitos and the Merced and San Luis national wildlife refuges. He shoots often in the field behind his house.
Some days he'll pour himself a glass of ice water, set up in a plastic chair in his backyard with his tripod and camera, and wait for a bird to show up at one of the half-dozen feeders hanging from the edge of his roof.
"Sometimes I'll wait four or five hours," he said. "I don't have much else to do, and it's better than TV."
His photos -- most of them taken from the car or his wheelchair -- are reminiscent of Ansel Adams. In 2005, he began selling them through his Web site, thebackcountry.org. As with photography, Matenkosky is a self-taught Web designer. "I figured most of it out by trial and error," he said.
He occasionally sells a print: "I don't really advertise. It's pretty much word of mouth. I don't make much but I like doing it."
In August 2005 his first published photo appeared in Backpacker magazine. A few months ago someone called from Yosemite asking to use one of his shots in calendars and postcards to be sold at the park's gift shop.
"Sometimes I can hardly remember what our lives were like before all this," said Stacy, who works part-time at R-N Market in Atwater and homeschools their girls, 10-year-old Hannah and 7-year-old Sarah. "But I think it's made us stronger. We vent to each other, and it's hard sometimes. But we're all in it together."
Matenkosky calls his wife "a saint."
"She's really been incredible," he said. "There have been times when I wanted to do bad things to myself. Without her, I might have." Stacy's parents, who live nearby, have helped tremendously, he added.
Matenkosky has slowly been healing since March from the surgery that fused his legs straight. About two months ago, he walked for the first time in three years. He moves slowly and still requires the help of a walker. He recently walked a half-mile loop at the Merced Wildlife Refuge, his first "hike" since 2004. It took him an hour-and-a-half.
He was so happy he cried at the end of the trail.
"I'm taking it slow and being real careful," he said. "This the best I've felt in a long time. The pain is pretty much gone."
As he continues to heal, Matenkosky has no plans to stop taking pictures. He only hopes he can leave the car behind more and more often. "I know I can do it," he said. "It might take me a long time to get there.
"But I will."
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.