TRAVERSE CITY — A good story isn't defined by its beginning. Its true nature becomes clear by following the path that leads toward an unexpected destination.
"Everyone has a story to tell. It may sound cliché, but it's true," said Neal Steeno, co-creator of Weathered Beard, a project to reignite interest in personal storytelling.
Steeno and his friend and Ben Zork have discovered that approaching someone with a friendly question can lead to a fabulous story.
Their first approach usually includes, "Hey, that's an amazing beard."
"The beard is just a way to get people talking, we never know where the story is going to go from there," said Zork, who suggested recording some of the stories that developed during what started out as a photography project by Steeno.
Steeno's first hint that an unshaven face might hide an unforgettable tale came on the streets of Happy Camp, Calif., as he finished a stint working on California's Pacific Crest Trail.
In an area known for its homeless population, Steeno says one particular fellow caught his eye.
"I saw an old burly looking gentleman with an amazing, distinguished beard. I said 'I've got to say, you have an awesome beard there, my friend,'" Steeno said.
"That got him talking and he told me a phenomenal story about being a geologist who worked under Reagan, injuring his back after being trapped while digging for gold, and ending up on the streets when he couldn't pay his medical bills," Steeno said.
That brief encounter got Steeno thinking about how much he appreciated a good beard — and wondered about the stories that went along with them.
The Traverse City resident began collecting photos of bearded characters and hearing snippets of their subjects' life stories.
When, over coffee, he mentioned his newfound interest to Zork, the language arts teacher suggested using his experience to record the tales to accompany each face.
The result is the Weathered Beard website, including the "Long & Short" podcast series of stories, often poignant and always personal.
"Our most recent one is about a nine-fingered piano tuner who plucked the guitar and told an odd, interesting and inspiring story," Steeno said.
Other subjects have included Tim Keenan, a Vietnam vet who hiked the Appalachian Trail to deal with his post-traumatic stress; Matt Myers, of the M22 brand, who had recently been diagnosed with a rare brain tumor; and honky-tonk blues musician Whitey Morgan.
While each has taken a different path in life, all have an overabundance of facial hair.
"I find myself ogling bearded men on the street and wondering what their stories are. I have to be careful not to stare at bearded men," Zork joked.
Local poet Terry Wooten appreciates Steeno and Zork's efforts to reinvigorate the art of storytelling.
"While I work in poetry, with 555 poems committed to memory, we are all preserving stories that would otherwise have been lost."
Wooten, who regularly works with area students to develop writing skills, encourages the children to interview elders in their communities, using their words to write free-verse poems.
"This is the way we passed our history down to each other until the last 50 or 60 years, elders talked to youngsters and shared their stories," he said.
Young campers at the Peninsula Township's summer recreation program are practicing their storytelling skills with prompts from their surroundings, like the skunk who made an unwelcome visit.
"Everyone has a skunk story," said Marya Tyler, Peninsula Township recreation director. "My favorite was the girl who told of her mother stopping to rescue a family of skunks from the middle of the road and of course she got sprayed."
Whether a well weathered beard or a smelly encounter prompts a good story, Steeno and Zork appreciate that the conclusion is determined by the teller.
"Stories have a really powerful way to convey and transfer information, even though we all differ from one person to the next, we are all in it together," Zork said.
A Weathered Beard live storytelling event will be hosted by Steeno and Zork at 7 p.m., Monday, July 30, at InsideOut Gallery, 211 Garland St. The event is free, but donations are welcome.
For those interested in sharing their story, contact Ben or Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to the Long & Short podcast series at weatheredbeard.tumblr.com.