COVER STORY: Roaming Photographer
by: Bob Phillips
Living full time in a tiny teardrop camper would seem to most people too confining, uncomfortable and inconvenient, but Mandy Lea has made it work; work, as in career. As a professional photographer her adventurous, nomadic life provides her boundless opportunities to explore nature’s beauty, which she captures through her camera lens to share with others. It’s a life she wouldn’t trade for any other.
Her course in life changed following a divorce and the resulting fear and despondency. It was nature that brought her to a new beginning. Seeing a sunrise while vacationing in the Grand Tetons changed her perspective on life. She purchased a T@B teardrop three days after returning home, named it Birdsong, and started camping every weekend for a year. Realizing that she was happiest while camping in her teardrop, she quit her job and took her photography skills to the road.
“In my case, when I had hit my own rock bottom, depressed and in constant sorrow, I recognized one thing in life that made me happy -- my teardrop,” Mandy said. “One of the best pieces of advice I received was to ‘find what makes you happy and do more of that thing.’ So I literally asked myself, ‘Why not?’ When all I could come up with was a list of excuses rather than legitimate reasons, I decided I had to do it. I haven’t regretted a single day of it.”
Her new start hit an immediate roadblock. On the day she was ready to hit the road, Birdsong was stolen during the night. It was devastating. She sought help through the social media, posting a plea on Facebook for help in locating her teardrop. It went viral, and landed her on television news, and from it she developed a strong following on Facebook.
“There is no denying that the theft of my teardrop certainly helped grow my social media following before I ever left, but I believe with every bit of my heart that I would have made it to this same place on my own hard work,” Mandy said. “The theft of Birdsong was one of the hardest days of my life, but it is framed in a silver lining. The most valuable thing that came out of the situation for me personally was realizing how good complete strangers could be.
After this experience I felt a debt to all those who reached out to me and from this I drew my mission statement: ‘Show people things they wouldn’t normally see, to inspire them to do things they wouldn’t normally do.’ Dedicating myself to this was the best way I could think to repay them. I left my old life with a renewed passion I would not have had without that event.”
After about a year on the road alone, Mandy crossed paths with Kendrick Callaway, a Colorado nomad who was living out of his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. Just two weeks after making his acquaintance, Mandy asked him to join her on the road and for two years they’ve been traveling the country and building the photography business.
His story somewhat parallels Mandy’s: “Growing up in a small Missouri farm town gave me a deep appreciation for simplicity. Working four years as a chemical engineer gave me a deep resentment of the corporate life. So, I moved into my Toyota Tacoma and roamed around the Rockies; working odd jobs and playing in the mountains as much as possible.”
Now Kendrick does much of the driving while Mandy works on her laptop in the passenger seat.
“When I traveled alone, the times I was most lonely was when I was witnessing at a beautiful scene and had no one to turn to and just say ‘wow, look at that’; not being able to share something spectacular,” she said. “Now, I have that person, and I know he appreciates it as much as I do.”
Mandy has coined the term “Moochdocking,” used to describe when they park in a friend’s driveway or stay in their home. “These nights are still often spent in our camper, but I don’t classify them as Boondocking,” she said.
“One major misconception of my life is the amount of time we spend working. My calendar fills up quickly with workshops, expos, speaking events, and places I have to get to in a hurry. I have very little free time to ‘play’ or even have a day off. So I am very grateful that I have gotten to know many people across the country. When I pass through a town I would much rather spend my one night catching up with an old friend in their driveway than sitting in a Walmart parking lot. And usually they are thrilled to have me as well. I also visit (my parents) home quite often, so I count those nights as moochdocking too!”
Besides her photography, Mandy is a brand ambassador for several products that she uses; is regularly published, both online and in print; and often interviews on podcasts, television, and at live events. They teach photography workshops, speak at events, write articles, and sell images. Mandy also regularly updates her video blog (www.youtube.com/c/MandyLea) focusing on camping, road life, and photography.
In August, Mandy and Kendrick set out on a journey of a lifetime, towing their 2017 T@B Boondock camper, named Rocky, on a cross-continent trip from Alaska to the southern Mexico. In addition to gathering a plethora of still shots, they are doing videos along the way that are shared on their blog daily.
They took time away from the trip recently for a side trip to New York City, by air, to appear on the Nikon stage at a photography exposition.
“It’s interesting having my life split between the rv/camping world and the photography world,” she said. “There are some aspects where they overlap, but for the most part they are completely separate. However, they are both equal passions and equal forms of income.
“When I speak at the expos in New York and Las Vegas, I am hired by Nikon. Thus, my talks have to be somewhat centered around photography. However, because my photography and travel are so intertwined, I usually end up talking about both. It usually ends up being how I travel as a professional photographer.”
Mandy also has a new book out: Teardrop Traveler: A Visual Tour of America with Mandy Lea and Her Teardrop Trailer.” The book can now be ordered online.
“I didn’t want a giant, expensive hard-cover coffee table book, but rather something more like my lifestyle -- practical,” she said. “The book is small, affordable, and full of inspirational content, just like my tiny home. It is packed with 200 of my favorite images, telling the story of how I decided to live on the road and the journey that followed.”
Mandy said she will stay on the road as long as it makes her happy.
“I aim to do what makes me happy in life. Right now, living on the road makes me happy. It’s an unpredictable life; you never know what will come your way. So I suppose I’ll stop when it stops making me happy, whether it’s a month, a year, a decade.”