(Release Date: 5.7.24)

Title: Mahting Putelis, on his Latvian roots in Michigan, his ‘dirtbag’ 20s, realities of adventure photography, emergence of AI & the three things people want

Overview: In this episode of We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Mahting Putelis.

Mahting grew up in a Latvian community in Kalamazoo, MI. It was extraordinarily formative, and is a source of great pride for Mahting. Adam talks with him about that upbringing and community, and its influences on him.

They also talk about Mahting’s history with photography, the realities of trying to thrive as an adventure photographer, and the emergence of artificial intelligence and its effect on Mahting’s photographic work. Among other things, like being a “dirtbag” climber and adventure guide living in a van throughout his 20s.


The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

Along with being distributed on podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org

Mahting Putelis
Website: mahting.com
Facebook: facebook.com/MahtingPutelis 
Instagram: instagram.com/mahting_putelis 

We Are Chaffee
Website: wearechaffee.org
Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffeepod 
Facebook: facebook.com/wearechaffee
Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom


Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:00:15): Welcome to We Are Chaffee’s: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community, and well-being rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I’m Adam Williams. 

Today I’m talking with Mahting Putelis. Mahting is a professional photographer and an entrepreneur. He’s a ski instructor, and a versatile mountain and endurance athlete. 

His upbringing in a Latvian family and community is really interesting to me. I come from a mixed European lineage that lacks clearly defined history and culture and sense of identity, so I’d love to learn from someone whose family roots run deep, and they came up with certain lessons and stories and a cultural identity that was being shared with them.

(00:55): That’s the case for Mahting. We talk about his Latvian roots that helped to shape him as a kid growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We also talk about the value of community, not only in his Latvian upbringing, but in the years since. And we talk about community as one of the three essential elements that enhance all our lives. 

We also get into photography, including how Mahting won his first camera, how he came to learn he has the eye, as they say, and about the realities of trying to make it as an adventure photographer. We even dip into the realm of AI, and get Mahting’s thoughts on how artificial intelligence is factoring into photography these days.

(01:34): The Looking Upstream podcast is supported by Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it’s available on all podcast players and at WeAreChaffee.org. The show also airs at 1:00 PM Tuesdays at KHEN 106.9 FM Community Radio in Salida. 

Show notes, including links and a full transcript of this and all Looking Upstream conversations are available at WeAreChaffee.org, and you can support the podcast by following WeAreChaffeePod on Instagram, and through supportive reviews on Spotify and Apple. Those are helpful for spreading the good that we’re trying to do here. 

Now off we go with Mahting Putelis.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams: Mahting, there are many, many interesting things about you and your story, just from what I know about, I’m really excited to dig into a lot of this a little more. But where I want to start is with something that is especially unique to you in terms of podcast guests we have had here, and that is when you were a child growing up, that Latvian call and response music was a thing for you, it was something of interest. I would love to know more about this.

Mahting Putelis | By Adam Williams

Mahting Putelis (02:49): Well, thanks for saying as much, I don’t think we often get told that we’re that interesting, but I appreciate it. Call and response singing, yeah, so we grew up in the Latvian Pagan Church, and so it’s actually called Dievturība, which is translated to God Holders, and it’s just a very old Latvian religion. And my mom’s dad, I think that’s where it came from in our family, and he actually ran the church here in the United States for a really long time. 

And so, we would go up to this place in Wisconsin, where they just owned a piece of property and had, I don’t know, a lodge type thing or whatever, and yeah, we just grew up in that space. And a lot of that old school Latvian to me, really, it’s that farmer, agrarian society in Latvia, and so it was just a lot of farm work, and like a lot of cultures, there’s a lot of call and response singing that happens in the fields of work. And so, that translated into the religious side, if you will, of things.

(04:13): So, yeah, I just grew up listening to these, and we would participate in, people would call out something and then all the people would sing back. But in our group, I guess, there was a group of women that were just very good musicians, and with beautiful voices, and so I just really learned to appreciate the harmony of women singing. And it’s still, people ask me what my favorite music is, it’s a lot of bluegrass, but it’s a lot of the [inaudible 00:04:52], and just all these women that sing in harmony like the Gillian Welshes and yeah, all that stuff, so. Yeah.

Adam Williams (05:02): I’d like to know more about your Latvian roots, I think more broadly too, because I don’t know that I have met someone with those roots, and with such a connection. You grew up in the Midwest, just like I did, I didn’t have exposure to a lot of different, say, religious or cultural backgrounds in a small town in Northern Missouri. So, I’m kind of curious if there’s more of that connection for you, and what you’ve learned, and who you see that as who you are now, all these years later, if there still is that deep-rooted connection.

Mahting Putelis (05:40): Definitely. So, Latvians are an interesting bunch. So, yes, so for me, Latvian is my first language, so that’s what I… I didn’t really get a firm grasp on English until I went to kindergarten. So, I learned a lot of English from my brother and sister as they came home from school. But we spoke Latvian in the house exclusively. 

So, Latvia is a very small country, so it is weird that you can be fourth generation Latvian now, like my friends who have kids, those kids speak Latvian as their first language here in the United States, which is peculiar compared to any other group of immigrants that have come into the United States from Europe, Eastern Europe. Latvia is positioned in the world as a linchpin for being the most northern non-freezing ports to what is, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, to the Atlantic. So, it is a linchpin in all of Europe as a trade route.

(06:53): And so, from as far back as history goes, somebody’s tried to rule Latvia in order to control the trade route. And so, for that whole time, Latvians have been fighting back to hold our culture, to not be overtaken. So, everybody, the Germans, the Mongols, everyone has tried to come through there. 

So, the Latvian language is also interesting because it has all these… I’ll hear words spoken from across the world, across the globe, and be like, oh, I know that word, and it’s because at some point in time, some group of people came through Latvia and we picked up that thing. Or in the ancient symbology, you’ll see a lot of stuff, like from India, and far off places that are not next to Latvia. And so, fast-forward throughout the years, whether it’s Russian occupation, or German occupation, Nazis, you name it, we’ve been fighting back to hold onto our culture.

(08:00): And so, my grandparents, when they showed up, they were essentially fled both Russian and Nazi occupation in Latvia, my mom was born in, they call them DP camps, so displaced persons camps, which essentially is a refugee camp in Germany. My… Sorry, roundabout story. 

My grandmother walked herself as a 15-year-old away from Latvia, roundabout way, ended up in Germany, met my grandfather, had a couple of kids, years and years later, and then made their way over to the United States, they were sponsored by the Lutheran church to show up in Michigan and work a farm, like indentured servants.

(08:43): And through all of that, my grandfather’s whole plan was to one day go back to Latvia and live in a free Latvia. He kind of got to do that. But that was the story of most Latvians who came over between ’45 and ’55 in the years 1945. And so, we grew up in a Latvian culture in Michigan, going to Latvian school, where we just learned language skills and history and all that stuff, to summer camp, to then to boarding high school, every summer for five years, learning about what it is to be Latvian and the history and language and literature and all that stuff, with the idea that someday we would go back, and that we would be Latvians in Latvia.

Adam Williams (09:33): Was that the whole community, you’re saying?

Mahting Putelis (09:33): Yeah–

Adam Williams (09:34): Not just your family?

Mahting Putelis (09:35): Yeah, not just our family. In general, that was the idea. And so, given you had people like my grandmother who was from the capitol, and she was a city gal, and when she showed up finally in Michigan, they didn’t last very long on that farm because she was from the city, and she was not having it without houses and whatnot. 

So, I think they worked half their intended stay, and then the farmers were like, yeah, okay, you can just get out of here because this is not working. So, they went out to Chicago, and then she found her place and became this really influential business woman, both in Chicago and then here in Denver. But she was a city gal. She was a Chanel N°5, big black rimmed glasses, full on city gal.

(10:24): And obviously they parted, my grandfather and grandmother parted ways. But yeah, my whole upbringing was this duality of being an American kid and growing up in high school and whatnot, and then all of a sudden, every summer I was in a boarding school in a, what we call, I’ll call it the world’s richest trailer park in Michigan, because Latvians are just per capita pretty… 

They’re smart people, who’ve become doctors and lawyers, and so they have this camp, essentially, at the end of a lake in Michigan, in Three Rivers, Michigan, Podunk Three Rivers, Michigan. Where there’s a trailer park, kids camp, everything is there. And so, we grew up being this whole Latvian thing there, and it was in my generation where we really had to come to terms with, cool, you can go back to Latvia, it’s free, you can go back there and start being Latvian there. And it’s like, okay, well, do we want to? And I’d say probably… I don’t know, maybe a fifth of my friends, they live in Latvia now, they are doctors and lawyers and teachers and all the things there.

Adam Williams (11:33): The ones that you grew up with?

Mahting Putelis (11:34): Yeah. They did, they went back, and they live in Latvia now.

Adam Williams (11:40): Have you had these conversations from a philosophical standpoint with those friends, if you’re still in touch, to be like, “okay, why are you choosing to go with what our parents and our grandparents and these generations’, this vision they had, as opposed to staying where our whole lives have been?”

Mahting Putelis (11:54): Yeah, this is probably, this conversation happened probably 20 years ago, when they made these choices. But we had it back then, people made short movies about it, like they did everything at the time because it was such a big conversation in our general group of Latvians in America. And for me, the outdoors were so important, and the mountains were so important, that I’ve been back to Latvia, we’re actually going back to Latvia to do a backpacking trip this summer, or end of this summer, to explore and share it with my wife and some friends. 

But yeah, the highest mountain in Latvia is, let’s just say it’s not that tall. So, it’s just like… Yeah. That whole portion of it just wasn’t for me. So, I definitely contemplated going back, but for me now, it’s this deep personal, I wouldn’t call it philosophical, I wouldn’t call it religious, maybe spiritual aspect of myself is rooted in Latvianism, but maybe more so in nature, and what I learned from my grandparents, and… Yeah.

Adam Williams (13:11): Do you feel any conflict about that at this point, about the decision that you’ve made, but you also could change if you wanted, and what that connection to that history is in Latvia versus, okay, I’m a Latvian with this history that you’ve just spelled out, and I’m staying here in the US?

Mahting Putelis (13:28): My conflict arises certainly in the ongoing notion that Latvia is always on the brink of not being free. Putin would love to do exactly what he is doing in Ukraine, in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. He would love to take the Baltics back and make it part of, [inaudible 00:13:48] the Soviet Union. In that instance, I would go back in a heartbeat, I would go to war for Latvia. Which I don’t say lightly.

Adam Williams (13:59): Understood.

Mahting Putelis (14:00): Yeah.

Adam Williams (14:01): I was wondering if there was history either in Latvia or for Latvians of military service, with such risks in mind, did you have to make any commitment to Latvia at any point, or feel a loyalty to that, and then go over there and do any sort of, I guess, make a contribution, whether that’s militarily or in some other form, with that in mind?

Mahting Putelis (14:28): No. No.

Adam Williams (14:29): Is there a military service component that is mandatory?

Mahting Putelis (14:33): No. No. Yeah. I think that it’s been talked about, I think maybe at certain times there was, but it’s not now.

Adam Williams (14:42): Even with what has happened to Ukraine and so on?

Mahting Putelis (14:42): Yeah.

Adam Williams (14:42): Okay.

Mahting Putelis (14:46): Yeah. I will say that there have been, just a tangent of that, is that there have a bunch of Latvian-Americans who are Americans, they’re in that same grouping as me, but that went into the military, and rose in the ranks of American military, and then have now made the … I don’t know that they’ve made the switch, but they made it such that when Latvia became part of NATO. 

They made sure that the American military was positioning itself in places of power in Latvia in order to build Latvian military strength with the help of America. So, in the same sense that Latvian Americans became lawyers and doctors and whatever, we’ve put ourselves in places of power in order to help Latvia become stronger. Yeah.

Adam Williams (15:40): Okay. When you were growing up and it was such a community like you described, was there any sort of perspective, like we are us, everybody else in America is them, was there any sort of discussion of what was, say, who was acceptable to date, or to have friendships with, or to relate to in any sort of way that was outside of that community?

Mahting Putelis (16:06): Yeah. I have a lot of Latvian friends who married other Latvians, there’s a lot of that. Or if they married Americans… I don’t know that it’s like, nobody was like, oh, you shouldn’t do that, but I know a lot of those spouses that maybe weren’t Latvian, they speak or understand Latvian now, which is crazy, because Latvian’s like, it’s not a language worth knowing in the world. 

There’s two and a half million Latvians in Latvia, and then maybe another half a million Latvians in the rest of the world, you’re not gaining anything by learning this very complicated language. So, Latvian comes off the Indo-European trunk, and it’s unlike any other language. Lithuanian is a little bit close, but there’s no other language. It’s not like German, or it’s not like Italian, it’s just its own little thing. So, there’s zero reason to really learn Latvian. But if you’re going to be part of the Latvian community, you’re going to learn a thing or two.

Adam Williams (17:05): And it sounds like it benefits too. And that there’s such a closeness and strength of community, which is what this sounds like all of that is born out of, as opposed to say a type of orthodoxy that is saying, no, no, no, we are us, everybody else, it’s vice. Don’t go out there. It sounds more like it was about strength of community and your history.

Mahting Putelis (17:29): Mm-hmm.

Adam Williams (17:30): It sounds beautiful.

Mahting Putelis (17:31): Yeah, no, I mean, I’m glad to be laughing

Adam Williams (17:35): For sure. Let’s talk about the mountains, and you mentioned those with Latvia and going back, and of course, here we live with a number of Fourteeners around us, and in a state with so many. You are an athlete in a number of veins, and being out in the mountains as a skier, or cycling, and the different things that you do, rock climbing, kayak… I’m fascinated by this because I think you’re who I want to be when I grow up in that regard. 

I grew up in the Midwest without mountains and without influence to do things like what you did when you went to Prescott, Arizona, and went to study adventure education. I had no idea such things existed when I was coming out of high school, I just stayed close to home. So, tell me how you grew up with outdoors in your life, and then would come to go to get that sort of education, and pursue this outdoor and mountain life that you have.

Mahting Putelis (18:35): Yeah. Boy Scouts, as a kid, Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts, and then a dad who hunted, and so we were just in the woods a lot. Certainly a couple of different big Boy Scout trips, Latvian Boy Scouts, so not like the Boy Scouts of America, but we had, scouting goes way back in Latvia as well, and our Scout leader in Kalamazoo, Michigan, just happened to be the leader of Latvian scouting, in Latvia and America. So, we just had this big connection to scouting, and we got to do some really cool jamboree trips, where we would go to New York, or… We did one in New York, one to Canada, where we get to hang out with 400 other Boy Scouts.

Adam Williams (19:24): New York state or city?

Mahting Putelis (19:26): New York state, like the Catskills.

Adam Williams (19:27): I just wanted to be clear, because we’re talking about outdoors, but then heading into the biggest city in–

Mahting Putelis (19:31): No, the Catskills. Yeah, so scouting definitely was a big part of it. And then, yeah, my aunt lived out here in Colorado, so we did a couple of family ski trips, we all piled into the car and drove 20 hours from Michigan to Colorado and went skiing. That definitely opened up my eyes to just big, big mountains. 

I remember seeing the back bowls of Winter Park for the first time, and skiing down in powder, and it was just like my mind was slightly terrified and blown at the same time. And then, yeah, I didn’t really know about adventure education either. I learned about rock climbing, we got a rock climbing gym in Kalamazoo probably somewhere in high school, or maybe eighth grade or something like that. So, I learned about rock climbing, and I was totally enthralled.

(20:29): And then, lucky enough, I had a teacher, a English teacher in high school, who… I was a terrible student when it came to education. But it just so happened that when, I remember acing this exam on transcendental writers, I didn’t actually have to study for it, because she asked the questions and I could just write from the heart about what I thought about their writing and how it related to nature. 

And it all just made sense because given my background. So, she saw glimmers of hope in me, and at one point in time she handed me a, back then they still had books about colleges, and she handed me a book that was all about Prescott College. And that was in my sophomore year of high school.

(21:19): And I flipped through it and I was like, wow, this looks amazing, and then the back cover had the price, and the average GPA of students, and I looked at those two things and I was like, that’s not going to happen. But yeah, fast-forward three years or whatever, life changed a lot, and somebody asked me what in the world I really wanted to do with my life, and I thought about it for a second, and I was like, oh yeah, Prescott College, that’s what I want to go do. And a year later I was there.

Adam Williams (21:51): When somebody asked you a question like that when you were young, did you have influence, or maybe it came from within you, to believe, oh, yeah, whatever I can think of, whatever, I can dream, I can do that.

Mahting Putelis (22:02): Yeah. The person who asked me that was a personal development coach, and I was literally in the midst of doing a very big personal development course. So, I had had a, let’s call it very large transition in being a terrible student to somebody who actually gave a shit about what I wanted to be in life. So, yeah, at that point in time, I was very empowered, and so it was in a place of power that I was like, oh yeah, let’s go do that thing.

Adam Williams (22:36): That confidence feels extraordinary to me, maybe especially for somebody who is that young. Or maybe it’s me talking through the filter of my own youth, and not really feeling like anybody who said, oh, you can be whatever you want to be, it’s like they didn’t necessarily mean it, or I didn’t know what to do with that information, and be able to feel that for myself. 

Convention, I guess, is what I felt strapped in by, and I just love that you took that opportunity, it seems to me a pretty pivotal point in your life, as then you have moved forward professionally in various ways to an outdoor life, and in recreationally, personally.

Mahting Putelis (23:16): Yeah. Yeah. No, it was pivotal, it wouldn’t have happened any other time before that, let’s say that. See, I’m glad I did the coursework, and I’m glad she showed me the book, and I’m glad I remembered it, so I could end up there.

Adam Williams (23:35): I heard you say on a podcast with Travis Macy, who also is in the area, another incredible athlete that I admire, and someone who’s been on this podcast.

Mahting Putelis (23:43): I cannot put myself in category associated with Travis Macy. That guy’s a beast.

Adam Williams (23:49): You mentioned that you lived out of a van for several years, now I’m leaping here to assume that was when you were a rock climbing guide, and things like that. Is that the case?

Mahting Putelis (23:59): Yeah, totally.

Adam Williams (24:00): So, what was going on with that seven-ish year, I think, if you said on the other podcast, several years anyway, that period of your life, where were you living? What was that sense of, I don’t know, freedom, joy, fun, stress? What is that experience for you?

Mahting Putelis (24:17): A lot of super fun work. Yeah, so I came out of Prescott College in Arizona, and worked for a bunch of different programs, so a lot of private schools based in California, some guide services based in [inaudible 00:24:29], and just essentially went from contract to contract. I had a grand Voyager, Plymouth Grand Voyager, sliding two doors on both sides, and just drove that van around. 

And during the nice spring, summer, fall, I was living out of the van, and winters I would find a more permanent place to be. But even coursework in the winter. So, I was bopping between essentially Bellingham, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, and California on different courses, and then in between I would just rock climb. So, I climbed probably… If I wasn’t working, I was climbing. So, a lot of years where I was climbing 300 days a year.

Adam Williams (25:15): That’s a lot.

Mahting Putelis (25:15): Yeah, yeah. When you’re a rock climber, that’s kind of what you want to do.

Adam Williams (25:19): Yeah, well, again, that’s a foreign idea to me. I had to get ahold of magazines probably not even until my twenties, to realize that people were living those sorts of lives. It was just such a foreign idea to me.

Mahting Putelis (25:31): Yeah. That dirt bag style of life, which, I say that fondly not as to… A lot of people will see that as a… I use that as a term of endearment. But yeah, it was fun. It also was super broke, right? You didn’t make a lot of money teaching adventure education. Luckily the prices have gone up a little bit, but I still think it’s a pretty hard life to… It’s a good life to lead when you’re 20, but yeah.

Adam Williams (26:01): That’s the trade-off of that kind of life a lot of times I think, and I think it’s really good for us to keep that in mind. It’s like, well, how sexy and amazing that person goes out and they just live so freely, but the payoff there is that it is the freedom versus comfort, versus food, versus whatever you need in your life, that as we get older, we tend to handle that equation differently.

Mahting Putelis (26:26): Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah, no, I’m glad to not be there anymore. If I want to live out of the back of my truck… I still do sometimes. That’s the fun part is knowing that I can easily go on a two-week elk hunting trip, and just live out of a backpack in a truck, with no problem. You talk to city dwellers and they’re like, you didn’t take a shower for two weeks? And you’re like, yeah, no, whatever, it’s all good. And they’re like, they can’t fathom. And it’s like, I have no problem strapping on my boots every morning and going to walk the mountains looking for elk these days, or something like that, right?

Adam Williams (26:59): Right.

Mahting Putelis (27:00): Which is a good a life skill I think to have, of this… There’s a lot of people who are like… Everyone’s so soft. And it’s like, there is a lot of city dwelling creature comforts that people can’t get away from, and it’s nice to know that you can go do hard things in the mountains still, without some of that stuff.

Adam Williams (27:23): And maybe even get to where you don’t have connection, even if you wanted to turn on your smartphone.

Mahting Putelis (27:29): Yeah, totally. Yeah. To know you got to deal with whatever happens on your own. Yeah.

Adam Williams (27:36): It sounds like a really formative period in your life.

Mahting Putelis (27:38): Mm-hmm.

Adam Williams (27:39): It sounds also like it was probably throughout the majority of your twenties.

Mahting Putelis (27:44): For the most part, yeah. Yeah. I can’t remember exactly what year I settled down with my first wife, but yeah.

Adam Williams (27:53): Well, I was just going to ask if there was a time where you remember, maybe it was just a conversation with yourself, and you’re like, “I think it’s time I grow up,” whatever that means. “It’s time that I move into some different phase of life.”

Mahting Putelis (28:04): It wasn’t that, it was just like if we want to be together with a person, who has a child, and you got to take care of stuff, and actually live in a house, you have to make more money, so then you don’t get to live in a van, you got to go pay mortgage and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah.

Adam Williams (28:18): Yeah.

Mahting Putelis (28:19): Life shifts.

Adam Williams (28:21): You would end up moving to Colorado. As I understand it, cycling was part of that for you, professional, amateur, the pro / am what, cycling tour? What are we saying here? What are we describing? Talk about that competition piece.

Mahting Putelis (28:39): We raced against pros, we didn’t get paid, we didn’t have to pay a lot for it. So, I got into cycling, moved up the ranks really quickly, and then when we moved to Boulder, Louisville, I ended up joining a team, and ultimately ended up running the pro 1/2 category part of that team. So, we got a bunch of sponsorship from Lucky Pie Pizza, which is a great pizza place that’s all over the front range. 

We would put on a race, so we got free bikes, we got free kits, a lot of free race entries, stuff. We traveled to various places in the United States to race bikes. I was never in the pro category, I was still always a 2 category rider, but we had a bunch of guys that were 1s, and we were semi-competitive in those regional races, so it was fun.

Adam Williams (29:32): What did you learn about competing against people who were professionals?

Mahting Putelis (29:37): A lot of them are on drugs.

Adam Williams (29:39): Okay. Yeah. Yeah, we’ve actually-

Mahting Putelis (29:42): I say that jokingly, but I think in reality there was still a lot of that stuff going on, unfortunately.

Adam Williams (29:47): Sure. Yeah. I think also, not jokingly. And I will cite another guest we’ve had on this podcast, Joe Parkin, I don’t know if you know him, and we talked about that. Now, in his day, it was going to Europe in cycling.

Mahting Putelis (30:00): Oh yeah.

Adam Williams (30:00): And this was decades ago, at this point, but yeah, it’s a thing-

Mahting Putelis (30:06): Did he write a book?

Adam Williams (30:07): He did. He’s written a couple. A Dog in a Hat was his first memoir, and that is-

Mahting Putelis (30:12): You had him on the podcast.

Adam Williams (30:13): Yeah.

Mahting Putelis (30:13): He sat in this seat? I’m like, wow. So, that book was pivotal to me racing bikes.

Adam Williams (30:19): And I think for a lot of people probably.

Mahting Putelis (30:21): Yeah.

Adam Williams (30:21): Yeah, it’s a very notable memoir from that experience. But my point in bringing him up is that cycling and enhancements are, there’s a long history, and so I think from that perspective, you’re not joking. It’s true.

Mahting Putelis (30:39): Yeah. I don’t know that we saw necessarily a lot of it, there was some of that stuff going around when we were racing. But yeah, it’s a good… Being in community for me is always and continues to be really important. And so, having a team that we could rely on was always a lot of fun. And just the weekend rides, you would spend essentially Saturday and Sunday, and maybe some weekend evenings riding with all your buddies, so it was a good time.

Adam Williams (31:15): Community is a key word here, this is a community building podcast. The point is that we get to know each other in a richer way, and we maybe even break down some barriers to some things. And I know that it matters to you, and so as I like to ask the occasional guest, what does community mean to you? 

And you’ve already touched on some of that from the Latvian upbringing, which is wonderful, is there more that you would like to add in terms of what that means to you in your life, maybe now at this stage that you’re in your early forties?

Mahting Putelis (31:46): It’s important for me, in a trilogy of things, and so this is part of my last business, and I think it goes on now being something that just rings true for, I think every human on the planet, is as broad as I’ll go, is that not only community, but real food, having a connection to real food, and nature. And really, these are not my words, it’s from a guy that I met randomly in that previous work, that connected with me and wanted to know why hunting was so important, and why we based our brand off the things that we did. 

And I didn’t have a lot of data to support this, but he actually was a data scientist, and worked for a giant brand, that I won’t name, but they were doing deep dives on how to launch new product in the world. They’re a world renowned brand. And he somehow found me, and we had this real four hour long conversation twice. And what he told me essentially was that they had found the world over…

(33:02): It didn’t matter if you were in Moscow, Russia, or in Bangkok, or in Nebraska, in one way or another people would always come down to the three things they want more in life is community, real food, and nature. And in places where people don’t even have nature. 

So, I think it was Bangkok, where people literally live in a 100-story building, they’re surrounded by concrete, there is no green space around them, they had this idea that they wanted this ethereal idea of nature, they would talk about it in weird ways, but they wanted more of these real things in which then, ultimately, they were able to put it in the box of, okay, it’s actually nature that they want more of. 

Those three things are crucial to our existence, and so I’m a firm believer that if we need to cultivate all of those three things in life, we’ll have a better life if we do. Som community, yeah, it’s part of that three-legged stool, if you will.

Adam Williams (34:19): What do you find in your relationship to nature, personally? Whether that’s emotional, mental, there’s the physical piece we’re talking about some.

Mahting Putelis (34:29): Just sanity, quiet. Yeah, the beauty, the actual essence of beauty is just in nature. The algorithm is real in nature, it exists there in this certain way that you’re like, why is it so beautiful? And you’re like, oh, well, because it just is. Yeah, beauty, quiet, you don’t have the phone chiming at you, you get to be an observer, and know that you’re all part of it.

Adam Williams (35:15): Sometimes I wonder about the abundance that we have where we are in Colorado, because we’re so surrounded by it, and we can walk from, many of us, can walk from our front door and get to a trail in a matter of minutes, without necessarily even using a vehicle, compared to when, I think we’ve both lived in cities, and you might have to go to real effort to get out to that, and what that different feel is, in the body or spirit, mind, whatever, when you’re having to live in such, maybe an anxious way, in a city environment, you don’t even realize you’re yearning for nature maybe. And here, we’re just surrounded by it and it’s so readily available, and just what that factors into our lives.

Mahting Putelis (36:00): Yeah, you’d hope people would be a little bit more relaxed here, which I think they are. People would probably say it’s a little more laid back here than it is in Denver.

Adam Williams (36:07): People take a little longer to respond to emails.

Mahting Putelis (36:09): Yeah, rightfully so. Yeah, and even in Denver, right? There’s open space everywhere, compared to other big cities, I think, across the United States. So, I think we’re lucky in general in Colorado, that there’s just… Or that you can drive to the top, you can be in the middle of Denver, and if you drive to the top of the right hill, you can look a bunch of different directions and see snow-capped mountains. 

That does something for you to see that grandeur in the world. Whereas, if you’re in the middle of Nebraska, and the highest point is 10 feet higher than you, for the next 300 miles, sure, you might get a big blue sky, or a big open field, but is it the same? I would argue that it’s not. There’s something about that scale that we get to see all the time that’s important.

Adam Williams (37:11): In our house we really try to not take it for granted, to just know that this is special, and not to forget just because we live it on a daily basis.

Mahting Putelis (37:21): Oh yeah. I said it to my wife this… I say it all the time, when we’re like… Because we do split our time between Denver and Salida, the trail community and the trail building community, and just the amazing work, the amazing boon that having such a dialed-in trail organization gives to Salida, it is worth its weight in gold. 

If there wasn’t already enough trails on S-Mountain, you can choose from the ten-mile loop to the seven-mile loop to the three-mile loop, and it’s like, cool, now there’s a five and a half mile loop because of the trail that’s opening tomorrow, the Maybe Trail. And it’s like, that is amazing that we have that here, we’re all better off for it, to just have so much available to us. Yeah.

Adam Williams (38:14): Let’s talk about photography now.

Mahting Putelis (38:16): Sweet.

Adam Williams (38:17): I feel like it is almost cliche that photographers will ask other photographers, or maybe it’s just anybody asks a photographer, “How did you get started? What was your first camera?” And with you, I think I already know that your first camera came through scouting, you won it somehow, you were nine years old, a neon pink Fuji… First of all, how did you win it?

Mahting Putelis (38:42): They gave all of us, so there was, I think some 400, 500 kids, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts at this camp, they gave every single kid a disposable Kodak, wind up, point and shoot.

Adam Williams (38:57): Okay.

Mahting Putelis (38:59): So, yeah, what year was this? This was, I don’t know, ’92 or something like that. So, yeah, so we got to take pictures all week, and then they somehow, before the week was out, they had all the cameras processed, they looked through 500 [inaudible 00:39:20] kids, whatever, that’s a lot, they looked through all the pictures, and they picked one girl and one boy, that was the best overall picture, and those kids won the camera. 

And I had taken this picture, I tried to find it a couple of years ago, to see if someone could actually locate the actual picture for me, and I never did find it. But I still know the picture in my mind’s eye. It’s this kid coming out in his dress blues, out of a blue tent, and he’s just popping his head and upper body out of the tent, ready to go to the big morning flag raising ceremony. And for whatever reason that picture won.

Adam Williams (40:02): Was that the first time you had ever had your hands on any kind of camera, even this disposable one? The first you were getting to explore, and be like, okay, whatever I want to photograph?

Mahting Putelis (40:11): I think so.

Adam Williams (40:12): So, your first camera, prior to the Fuji, is this disposable, and then you win your first competition, so to speak.

Mahting Putelis (40:20): Yeah.

Adam Williams (40:21): And get your first, say, real camera.

Mahting Putelis (40:22): I was blown away, it was like winning the lottery, the fact that I won the camera. I had no idea it was coming. Yeah.

Adam Williams (40:28): Well, as kids, I remember one of the best things I ever won in my life was a duffel bag at a basketball camp. It’s such a cheap thing that doesn’t matter, and yet, as a little kid to have won that, it means something. And for you, you are now a professional photographer, and you’ve had many years of this, so there was sort of a seminal moment, maybe, with that. 

Did that plant a seed that stuck with you, or is it just the memory going back to it, where you’re like, oh, wow, now I see maybe something that I didn’t know at the time?

Mahting Putelis (41:03): Yeah, certainly, when I won the camera, and I think maybe I shot pictures for a little bit of time with that thing, there’s definitely, it’s not until I get to high school where I get another camera, another film camera, and I start shooting for the high school paper, and become the associate or assistant photo editor, or whatever, for the paper. Then I was taking pictures of my friends, and a lot of them had really cool cars, so I was doing that stuff. 

For whatever reason, I think at that point though, I always got the, oh, you have the eye. People would just say, oh, that picture, you have the eye for taking pictures. So, that stuck with me. Because obviously I had the eye as a nine-year-old to snap that picture, not knowing the rule of thirds, or anything, not knowing the actual reasons why it was a good picture, but I had the aesthetic for it to some degree.

Adam Williams (42:02): Some sort of understanding of what would make it visibly pleasing.

Mahting Putelis (42:11): Yeah. And then, high school came and went, and then… it’s definitely come and gone over the years, and it wasn’t until after, in the end of my college days, for my big senior thesis, I was shooting pictures outside of the work I was doing, with kids and rock climbing and all that kind of stuff. 

So, it slowly started to come back. And then, that was right at the transition into the digital world, so I remember taking on a bunch of credit card debt to buy my first digital camera, which is hilarious because that thing was such a piece of junk, but it cost $1000 back then, when I was… I’d make a $1000 in a contract, if I was lucky.

(42:52): So, yeah, so got into the digital world, and I think I took, probably, in the last 15 years, I’ve probably taken three stabs at being a professional photographer, and really only, I guess it’s worked over the last maybe 10, but this last stint here, now that I’ve switched into what I’m doing now, just in the last three months, has really been where I’m like, okay, I can really call myself a professional photographer that makes a living at what I do.

Adam Williams (43:24): Is that when you transitioned into headshot or portrait photography?

Mahting Putelis (43:28): Yep.

Adam Williams (43:29): Was it adventure photography before that?

Mahting Putelis (43:31): Yeah.

Adam Williams (43:32): So, are we talking, I think running, skiing things out in the mountains?

Mahting Putelis (43:36): Yeah. Commercial advertising for adventure sports companies or sports brands, yeah.

Adam Williams (43:42): I would imagine for people from the outside of that, it’s almost like looking at National Geographic, and thinking, wow, you’re doing these amazing things, where you travel the world, you go into these special places… Again, we don’t want to take for granted we live in the mountains. 

This might be nearby to you now, but you have it here, and for everybody who’s not living in the mountains, that’s pretty special. What’s the reality of that kind of effort to make a living as an adventure or a commercial photographer with brands like that, that people probably don’t expect?

Mahting Putelis (44:13): There are a ton of kids, who, [inaudible 00:44:17] kids that will get cameras given to them by their parents, and then they’ll work for cheap. So cheap that there’s no way that they actually do that as their primary way of paying the mortgage, because they’re living out of a van that their parents bought for them as well. 

I think, in general, 15 years ago, the outdoor industry was a totally different beast. The outdoor retailer was a huge show in Salt Lake, that occupied the entire main floor of the biggest room at the Salt Palace. Now, the outdoor retailer show is essentially in a small little room, and they can’t even fill up that small little auxiliary room. So, the outdoor industry has changed drastically in the last 15 years.

(45:05): So have budgets, so have just the way people operate with all of that stuff. So, I’ve had good clients over the years, I had some fun doing that work, but it was never enough to actually earn a living. Which is why when, 10 years ago, when I had the split of should I be a photographer, or should I start this brand, and do this whole thing with my last brand, I chose the brand. Because I really thought that at the end that would make me a lot more money. So, photography was just on the sidelines for all of that.

Adam Williams (45:39): My wife and I got started in photojournalism, that’s actually where we met, was graduate school, as photographers, and then we’re working freelance for magazines and newspapers and things in that capacity For a while. It did not take me very long to get tired of having to have the budget conversations, the rights conversations, and to become really aware that there’s always somebody, especially it seems like with photography, but I think it’s in all creative fields, that they will work for nothing, whatever the reasons. 

And you mentioned some of those there. But they’re so happy to be published, or to be chosen, or what have you, and they’re not making a living, it’s a really challenging field, I think, to get into. And so, people can see your beautiful images on your website and think, wow, how amazing, that’s your life. You’re like, but it’s so hard.

Mahting Putelis (46:28): Right. Well, and it’s not all your life, you’ve got to be working as a bartender, as a waiter, or something else to actually pay the bills. Even back then, there was, all these magazines existed, right? There was Powder Magazine, there was Backpacker, and Runner’s World… There was all these things. So, if you’re really good across a bunch of genres. But one of those magazine covers pays $1500. Maybe there’s 20 magazines, do you think you’re going to get on the cover of every magazine every month? Not even close.

And inside the magazine, those pictures aren’t paying anything. So, yeah, just the reality of what people… Sure, if you’ve got Nike as a brand that’s paying you, absolutely. There’s people right now who make $10,000 a day working, doing that work, that’s great. But those brands are few and far between, and when you get to that level, those photographers are few and far between. There’s just, it’s not that many. So, yeah, it’s the reality being a commercial photographer is just not, it’s not all rainbows and summits.

Adam Williams (47:37): Did you, as a kid, or whenever you were younger and thinking about photography, did you look at things like National Geographic, or a climbing magazine, or whatever, and think, kind of what we’re talking about, somebody who doesn’t yet know what the experience really entails, did you think, man, that’s my dream? That’s what I would love to do some day, is travel the world doing this?

Mahting Putelis (47:57): Nope.

Adam Williams (47:58): No? You didn’t have any of those sorts of dreamy inspirations?

Mahting Putelis (48:03): No. We were a family that had a whole, we had two bookshelves full of National Geographics. I don’t know, we were subscribers, so we had every single one showed up. And I remember always leafing through them, and doing school research projects out of all of the National Geographic. 

But no, I never had the idea of, oh, I should do this for a living. The adventure stuff was always my passion and calling for all those years was to go be an educator, and to be out using the natural world as a place to teach self-sufficiency and all the great things that nature has to teach. Yeah.

Adam Williams (48:47): I did not anticipate getting into a technology talk because it’s not normally where I go with anybody, because it’s not in my realm. But it just occurred to me, we’re living in this, what now seems like an emerging, scary, mystery of AI, artificial intelligence. And as that pertains to music, and to the rights of artists who are out there, and of course to images, video, photography. Do you have any thoughts on that, and are you glad that you’re no longer trying to compete with yet further cheaper options in terms of adventure photography?

Mahting Putelis (49:25): Well, yeah. Yes, I have lots of thoughts on it. I use AI in my editing software a lot. It makes it easier for me to do retouching of images significantly easier. I’m glad I know how to use those tools. That all being said, I don’t think that, if you try to have a headshot, where you give it 10 pictures of yourself and it composites into your new headshot, which is something that they offer, it’s not good. 

You can waste your money on it, but I’ll know immediately if I see it on your LinkedIn profile that that’s what you did, and I will think less of you as a professional that you tried to get away with that, because it’s just not good.

(50:16): Or if you try to build an ad out of AI. A lot of it’s really garbage still. The person has six fingers or whatever, or three eyebrows. And people are doing some things better, but it’s still far off from that, and so is it a tool that we need to learn how to use? For sure. If you’re writing your resume or anything like that, you should use ChatGPT to do it quicker. 

We are all going to progress and do things faster because of it, but I don’t think it’s going to automate us out of the equation. It’s like garbage in, garbage out, so you have to give it good information in to actually get good information out. And it shows every single time.

Adam Williams (51:07): I’ve played around with the generative AI pieces for images of various kinds, and the six fingers, and the weird things that it is doing at this point, but we also know there are better apps out there, and that it’s progressing. 

I think you touch on some interesting points with the fact that probably to the masses of the population, AI seems like this one idea, is it good? Is it bad? And there are these different components, and I think learning to use it as a tool is important, and there’s a lot of learning for a lot of us to do about where the negatives might be, so it’s not just all one or the other.

Mahting Putelis (51:50): Yeah, absolutely. And as far as my copyrighted images go, certainly, if I sell somebody a headshot, it’s in my contract that you’re not allowed to input that thing into an AI software.

Adam Williams (52:08): Wow.

Mahting Putelis (52:08): Because it’s my copyright, I created that thing.

Adam Williams (52:11): Yeah. That makes sense. But it never occurred to me until you just said it, that, okay, now this is another new phase in your line of work, or any creative line of work, that you have to make these stipulations in contracts.

Mahting Putelis (52:21): Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that’s the important part, is that we are not giving these companies all this information for free because that information is years worth of learning and doing and understanding that we create all the information that it gets for free. That’s not fair. So, yeah.

Adam Williams (52:43): Yeah. Let’s maybe wind down with this. I’m curious, with so much experience, even though you are only in your early forties, and there are decades still of adventures ahead for you, I’m curious what you feel like you have learned maybe about life to this point. Maybe that’s through some trials and tribulations where you learn something specific, or maybe it’s more general, and you’re thinking, you know what? This is what I’ve come to, is some point of spiritual maturity, that now is your focus or purpose in life. However, you might take that ranging question.

Mahting Putelis (53:21): Alcohol is not a performance enhancer.

Adam Williams (53:25): So many of us have figured that out, or in the midst of it.

Mahting Putelis (53:30): Yeah. Yeah. That’s been a huge part for me in the last year, is at 41, or up until 41, I feel like I’ve done some pretty fun and exciting things, and the next 40 years I’m going to do it all sober. 

Because I don’t think that all that stuff is a performance enhancer, and so I hope that my adventures and my dealings can be even more amazing, without that stuff, which this last year has proven to already be, I’m already on track for that, so I’m excited about it.

Adam Williams (54:06): Has that been enough to make it easy, or “easy,” or is it still pretty challenging, despite knowing, wow, I’m better off, but I feel the pull?

Mahting Putelis (54:16): No, I will say that I am an addict, and so I have the innate ability to simply be addicted to the next thing, or to not doing it. So, now that I’m sober, I’m like, I don’t even have a second thought of, oh, I want to smoke some weed, or I want to have a beer. I’m yeah, just onto the next.

Adam Williams (54:44): What is next? What is the thing now, or the next-

Mahting Putelis (54:47): Oh, not doing it is the next thing, right?

Adam Williams (54:47): Okay.

Mahting Putelis (54:54): Some people might say, well, that’s not a thing, but it’s like, yeah, I just don’t use substances, which is, I’m addicted to my stretch, going into 40 years of I’m going to be sober for 40 years, and that’s the goal. And it just ultimately gives me, I can tap into my emotional state, I can get angry and then understand that I’m just angry, and work through my emotions, things like that. Whether it’s road rage, or having a conversation with my wife or whatever, it’s just being way more clear eyed. Being sober just gives you the opportunity to see all of life more clearly, and dial it in a little bit more.

Adam Williams (55:42): Yeah.

Mahting Putelis (55:43): Again, it’s not a performance enhancer, so. I’m still, at 42, looking for every performance enhancer, whether it’s learning how to ride my dirt bike better, or learning how to run ultra marathons better, or ski better, I still want to get better at all of those things, and doing it sober, you definitely get better. 

Yeah. I don’t know. Otherwise, we can do hard things, that’s like a big mantra of ours. When we’re doing a lot of… Like ultra running, I just completed the Grand Traverse, or this year it was the Grand Reverse. So, we went from Crested Butte to Crested Butte, over 50K ski race.

Adam Williams (56:26): Do you have any ideas of doing the running version in summer?

Mahting Putelis (56:30): Not right now. I was supposed to do it years ago, and I couldn’t because I got injured. It’s just not… I’ve got another, the High Lonesome is really big on my list of races to do, so this year I’m going to help out with photography, and then hopefully next year I’ll have enough points and stuff in the lottery, so I’ll hopefully run that next year. But, yeah.

Adam Williams (56:51): You’ve got a lot going on. And this is, I’ll circle back to what I said at the beginning, so many fascinating things that I think that you’re into, and capable of. So, it’s really cool to get to talk with you, Mahting. Yeah, I just want to say thank you.

Mahting Putelis (57:06): Thanks. Yeah, it’s good to be here.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (57:23): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode’s show notes at wearchaffee.org. 

If you have comments, or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado, who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info@wearechaffee.org. 

We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about The Looking Upstream podcast, help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.

(57:59): Once again, I’m Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. John Prey is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado. 

To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Lisa Martin, community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative. The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health, and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it’s supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. 

You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at WeAreChaffee.org, and on Instagram @wearechaffeepod. Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, “share stories, make change.”

[Outro music, horns and guitar instrumental]