On the Road with Mandy Lea
by Bill Hedrick
For some people, nothing can be more frightening than the prospect of being miserable for the rest of your life. After 17 years of pursuing a conventional photography career, Mandy Lea was at a crossroad. Recovering from a divorce and the depression that came along with it, Mandy realized that the American Dream just wasn’t working out like she had planned and it was time for a change… a very big change.
She was employed by Precision Camera of Austin, Texas, and the thought of walking away from a 9 to 5 job was not easy for a single woman in her mid-30’s. But a change was needed nonetheless. So, Mandy began listing those things that made her happy. She loved travel, the outdoors, and doing landscape photography. With a positive view of the future and a sense of adventure, she quit her job, bought a teardrop camper, and headed for the open road. Mandy yearned for a more simple lifestyle and was determined to re-define her own definition of personal success.
Her decision to purchase that teardrop camper was on a stroke of intuition. While driving past an RV dealership, the sight of the tiny camper called to her. “I couldn’t explain the reasoning. I just knew I had to have it… that exact one.”
It was a rocky start to say the least. Before she had her new camper packed to leave, thieves stole it right out of her driveway! It was a “punch in the gut” but only a temporary setback. “I had gone out to get something out of the trailer one morning and it was gone. Simply vanished,” she recalls. Five days later, the trailer was found by police looking for a fugitive inside an encampment. The investigation led them into a wooded area in east Travis County where they found a makeshift camp and Mandy’s trailer, which she had dubbed “Birdsong.” The only problem was that it was totally trashed. But, despite the traumatic event, Mandy was determined to see her dream come true. Luckily, she had insurance and she was able to replace it with one just like it, except the new one was orange instead of teal. The name of this new teardrop was “Phoenix.”
Phoenix would include some personal touches such as curtains, custom cabinets, additional shelving, a revamped kitchen, and some of Mandy’s favorite photographs. All of it was designed to make her feel like home… which it was. Now it was time to take the ultimate plunge. But change is accompanied by uncertainty and that can be a tough hurdle for anyone. Most of us are so involved in performing the duties in life that are expected of us. Kids must conform to rules at home and school, adults continue to work at jobs that may be less than fulfilling, and many of our hopes and dreams seem to take a back seat to reality. Often it is just easier to stick with the status quo than to venture into the unknown. Mandy Lea wanted more than that. “The number one reason I hear from women for not following their dreams is that they are afraid. But if we simply trust in ourselves, listen to our guts, and make smart decisions, we can accomplish anything. Stop waiting and stop making excuses. There is only one place that will lead… a sad and depressing place… regret.”
Mandy’s decision to go with a small… very small… teardrop camper instead of a larger RV was in keeping with her motto, “The simpler, the better.” She was inspired by others who were “living tiny” and the mobility and the freedom of a small RV was a major consideration in her decision. “I’ve met all kinds of folks living in everything from large motorhomes to just the car they drive. I like to see people on the road with a purpose, whatever that purpose is, so long as it is contributing to making the world a better place,” she explains.
Along the way, she learned many lessons, both practical and emotional. She learned the in’s and out’s of towing and living in a trailer and made many friends within the RV community. Her photography blossomed into an art that she never imagined and she witnessed the majesty of the American landscape and visited places that you only see on postcards and documentaries. She’s seen the grandeur of mountains and valleys and all their inhabitants… eagles, elk, coyotes, and bears. It was her dream come true.
One of her most memorable and exciting events took place on a hike in Big Bend to photograph a sunset. “After photographing the sunset, I had to hike back in the dark, but I was prepared for it and had a headlamp. I had seen signs warning of bear activity and, as I was hiking to my car with my headlamp on, I saw a cougar. It was only about 20 feet away. I pulled out my bear spray and, with it in my hand, booked it to my car. I made it back to the car but, when I threw my bag in, I forgot to put the safety clip on the bear spray and sprayed it all over the inside of my car and all over my camera gear. It’s oil based and it took me a month to get the bear spray out!”
Even so, Mandy Lea needed to find a way to actually “make a living on the road.” In the beginning, she admits, she made next to nothing. In time, she worked her new lifestyle into a healthy and thriving career. “Traveling is fun but I guarantee that the moment I began working for myself, I turned my 9 to 5 job into a 24/7 job. I work harder now than I ever worked for any company. But, you know what? That’s okay! All of the hours you put into your own business only serve to grow YOU, so why limit your own growth?”
Working for yourself has advantages and disadvantages and Mandy learned early that you don’t simply put all of your eggs in one basket. “In this day and age, there are many corporate positions that allow you to work remotely with benefits and job security. If you have one of those job, congratulations to you! But let’s be honest. Most photographers are working on their own solo ventures. This puts us at a disadvantage in terms of job security, but it also gives us the independence to do the things about which we are most passionate.”
To make ends meet while on the road, Mandy Lea sells her photographs online. “We are photographers and artists. Find the best solution that works for you and start selling your wares!” But beautiful and breathtaking images are not all Mandy offers. She publishes calendars and books highlighting her imagery and her adventures. In addition, a large part of her income is from teaching photography and speaking both educationally and as a keynote at photography seminars and other events relating to “living tiny.” She has spoken to audiences both large and small throughout the country, standing room only at photography conferences at the Javits in New York City, as well as Las Vegas, Nashville, and more.
She also promotes products for various manufacturers. After establishing herself as a trustworthy source of information, companies have worked with her in both product trade and compensation for promoting their products. However, she cautions others to “stay true to yourself over the dollar signs. Promote the products you truly believe in, not the ones that just want to pay.” But her promotional efforts are not entirely photographic in nature. “Because of my lifestyle, I am also open to RV and camping world, and tiny home enthusiasts.”
There are also other considerations for living on the road. According to Mandy, living on the road is a great way to minimize bills but it does not eliminate them by any means. “Do not move on to the road thinking it will be a free way to live. I still pay nearly every bill I paid when I had a brick and mortar home. I’ve replaced the rent bill with a gas bill and everything else is pretty much the same,” she says. “That being said, living in a tiny home does put your possessions into perspective. You only own and keep what you need rather than what you think you need. Considering where to put what I buy keeps me from purchasing a lot of things.”
During that first year on the road, Mandy Lea focused all of her time on her landscape photography. But beginning a new life in one’s mid-30’s is not easy. Although she adapted well and had a world-class attitude and tons of enthusiasm, it was still lonely. However, that first year also taught her one of the best lessons of all… how to love yourself. It has been said that, before one can find true love, you must first learn to love yourself. That means recognizing one’s failures and triumphs. It means learning that nothing in life is certain and that we are very much in control of our own destinies. Once that happens, a whole new world opens up as it did for Mandy when she met a young man named Kendrick Callaway living in his Toyota Tacoma.
Kendrick is an ultra runner and climber who challenges Mandy to do things she wouldn’t be able to do on her own. Together they have climbed the Grand Teton, driven from the northern most point of Alaska to the southern most point of Mexico, and climbed 14 Fourteeners in 14 days. “We have combined our two already tiny lives into a tiny life together, living in a small teardrop trailer for nearly three years together,” she explains. “Together we represent the most simplistic lifestyle a couple can imagine.” The couple has recently expanded their photography workshops to include guided backpacking trips to places like the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mandy’s world had now come full circle. After learning to love herself, she found love herself.
Her enthusiasm for life is infectious and thousands of people follow her blogs. “My favorite all time video blog that I have ever posted is one I created after only 5 months on the road, titled ‘How to Be Successful on the Road.’ Right from the start, I learned one of the most valuable lessons I will ever probably learn in my whole life: If you want to be successful, redefine your idea of success. The American Dream to many is to go to college, have a long-term career, buy a house, get married, have kids, and make lots of money. So, if that is success, consider me a failure. I’ve taken myself from barely being able to make it through the day without an anxiety attack to being able to laugh at myself when I’m alone. If I’m able to die with a smile on my face, I will be more successful than any amount of money can ever bring to me.”
Mandy Lea sums up her life’s story like this: Normal girl goes to school and loves taking pictures. She graduates from college, moves to China and back, gets married, starts a career in a camera store, and quickly falls into the 9 to 5 suburban lifestyle. She becomes depressed, gets divorced, and her life turns to work. She sees the sunrise over the mountains and has a life-changing epiphany, then quits her job, gives away material possessions, moves into a tiny teardrop trailer and chases her dream of being a professional photographer.
“I have an insatiable desire to explore and document the beauty all around us through photography,” she says. “With my images, I hope to inspire everyone I meet. My camera allows me to create an artistic vision of these experiences.”
Her story is an inspiration to young and old who dream of the possibilities of life. But few have the courage to chase those dreams at the risk of the unknown. However, fear robs us of our freedom to make life choices that can often bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Learn more about Mandy Lea at MandyLeaPhoto.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.