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Alaska Life

Popular Instagram photographer picks Alaska homeless charity for van giveaway

  • Author: Pam Kragen, The San Diego Union-Tribune
  • Updated: August 23
  • Published August 23

SAN DIEGO — Four years and 160,000 miles after Oceanside native Travis Burke turned his grandma's 20-year-old camper van into his now-famous mobile adventure photography studio, the van is heading to Alaska.

Mikey Huff in 2016. (Sarah Bell / ADN archive)

As the result of his Ultimate Storyteller contest that drew more than 1,000 entries nationwide, Burke chose Mikey Huff of Anchorage as the next owner of the slate-colored van known as "Betty the Grey Wolf." Huff — who, like Burke, plans to live full-time in the van — runs the Wool Sock Project, which documents the stories of Anchorage's homeless population.

Burke and Betty's photographic travels around North America have been chronicled since 2014 on his Instagram page, which has 826,000 followers, as well as in print, TV and online profile articles. His photographs have been featured on the covers of dozens of national magazines, on Google and in numerous advertising, travel and car and truck promotions.

Back when Burke first hit the road in the revamped 20-year-old Dodge Ram B2500 van, he had just one client, $81.10 in the bank and the dream of becoming a successful photographer.

It was a rough road to success, living full-time in a van without a toilet, shower or Wi-Fi. He was often broke, hungry and cold, consistently worked 18-hour days, and he had to adjust to the endless solitude.

But Burke's talent and hard work eventually paid off. All this month, he's in Indonesia shooting photos for its tourism ministry. His photos have recently been featured on the covers of National Geographic Explorer and Backpacker magazines, and his clients have included American Airlines, Jeep, General Motors and Subaru.

With that hard-won success, Burke said he's now looking for a bit more stability in his life. He recently rented an apartment in Carlsbad, where he'll prepare for his "next great adventure." That includes plans for a much-larger, custom-built van that he can take on monthslong photographic journeys to South America, the Arctic Circle and the Sahara Desert.

Burke said he and a friend came up with the idea of giving away the original van, rather than keeping it in the family, because he wants to pay forward the gift he received from his grandmother Betty, the van's namesake, who always believed in his talent.

"My grandma gave me the opportunity to chase my dreams. If I can give someone that same opportunity, that would mean the world to me," he said, adding that his grandmother loved the idea.

For his Ultimate Storyteller Contest, which launched in May, Burke asked entrants to send in a video, photos or write a story about how Betty could help them follow their dreams. Burke said he and his team of judges were deeply inspired by the entries they received.

"A huge number of the entries were stories of redemption and sacrifice, everything from individuals who have served our country and are battling PTSD to people who have survived near-death experiences and lived to tell the tale," he said.

Burke said Huff, 24, and the Wool Sock Project stood out because Huff's program is so personal and so positive for his community. Burke also liked how Huff was so open and humble in telling his story.

"Mikey applied to the contest with a simple iPhone video, even though he has a talented eye for photography. It was this raw honesty and dedication to his project that made my team and I select him as the winner," Burke said.

Huff — who has experienced periods of homelessness in his own life and is now living in a van — started the Wool Sock Project last year as a personal mission to better understand and help the homeless on the streets of Anchorage.

Working in collaboration with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, he now photographs and interviews on video these men and women and shares their stories on social media. He gives each person he encounters a hygiene kit that includes a pair of wool socks, hand and feet warmers, granola bars and other personal items.

Once Huff receives Betty, he plans plans to give his own van to a pair of homeless people in Anchorage. Besides the van, Huff will receive $6,000 in gear from Burke's sponsors, including GoPro, AquaTech, Black Diamond, GoalZero and Clif Bar.

When he returns from Indonesia, Burke said, he will drive Betty to Alaska to meet Huff and offer him some mentoring on how to take his photography and his Wool Sock Project to the next level.

And after that? Burke said he has a lot of plans in the works but can't share too much about that yet.

"All I can say is my time on the road is far from over," he said.

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