How RVing and Photography Made Me Cry at 12,000 Feet
Updated: Mar 6
The first time I took my RV out alone, I didn’t know if I should cry or crack open a beer. I’d like to say that there’s no crying in solo RVing, but if you are part of the growing community of solo RVing women, you know there is crying in RVing. Thankfully, the first time I towed solo, I didn’t cry; I celebrated and cracked open a cold one! Since crying isn’t my thing, I’m glad my first experience solo RVing didn’t include tears. Aside from the time when my T@B fishtailed and jumped behind me on the interstate, I’ve never shed real gut-wrenching tears on an RV trip — until last week. Oh, and that cry? Ugly.
Before I embarrass myself and share the circumstances that led to my apocalyptic meltdown, I have to paint you a picture — or give a snapshot — since photography is part of the reason for my blubbering at 12,000 feet above sea level.
Photo Credit Mandy Lea
My need for capturing adventure
I’ve had my Nikon DSLR for over four years, and I had no clue how to use it outside of the automatic setting. It kind of negates the purpose of having a camera made for taking photos in manual, right? I had almost resigned myself to believe my camera would work better sitting in my closet at home than taking up precious space in my Airstream Basecamp X, but then I met Mandy.
Mandy is a full-time digital nomad. She’s been living in a NüCamp T@G or T@B for over four years. She travels the country offering photography workshops in scenic destinations like Colorado, Grand Teton National Park, Big Bend, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What attracted me to the Mandy Lea Photo workshops was the learning platform. If I took a class with Mandy, the course would teach me the skills I needed to use my camera alongside other photographers and adventure-seekers of varying skill levels. I’d meet new people, learn from everyone around me, and for the workshop that I signed up for, I’d get to stay in my RV.
How solo RVing and photography led me to a Mandy Lea Photo workshop
For years, I’ve talked to other solo RVing women online. I’m an advocate for solo-female RVing, so it’s not unusual for me to talk to other female RVers. When I first decided to buy my T@B 320 S and encourage other women to travel alone in an RV, I didn’t know other women were doing the same thing. Four years ago, the solo-female RV movement emerged, and I was just one of many women who decided to try a mostly male-dominated activity. The first time I met Mandy and Kendrick was when I volunteered for a few hours at the Littleton Tiny House Festival. Mandy and Kendrick had Rocky (their T@B 320) with them, and they were there on behalf of NüCamp.
I saw a camper like mine, and I immediately flocked to them, because back then, I only saw T@Bs in the wild once in a while. I didn’t get to talk to them long since their booth generated a lot of interest. At that point, I had no idea that Mandy ran a successful photography business or a popular YouTube channel.
The thing about RVing, is that it’s not unusual to meet up with people you might know, virtually, especially if you are a member of similar RV communities. I’ve met some fun people through my involvement with T@Bs, Airstream Basecamps, and the Family Motorcoach Association (FMCA). It’s my online connections that led me to meet Amanda, another friend of mine who likes to take solo trips in her T@G. Amanda and Mandy talked often, so when Amanda decided to tack on an extra night at our girl’s campout and join Mandy and Kendrick boondocking, I jumped in too. What better way to try out boondocking for the first time with my new Airstream Basecamp than to try it with people who boondock full time?
Colorado waterfalls and wildflowers photography
Our class. Masked and ready to take photos. Photo Credit: Mandy Lea
COVID hit Mandy and Kendrick’s business hard. The Waterfalls and Wildflowers Photography workshop, held the last week of July, was their first workshop this year. They ran the workshop with caution and planned the photo excursions and other events to accommodate social distancing. Since I’m an RVer, I stayed at a southwestern Colorado state park with the other RVers attending the workshop. The workshop included social-distanced campfire gatherings, an outdoor photography review, one-on-one time with Mandy learning the basics of Lightroom, and 4.5 photography-intense days in the field. Most days, the workshop started at 5:00 in the morning and ended past sunset. Mandy and Kendrick led us to lesser-known areas of Colorado where we’d capture waterfalls, alpine lakes, and fields of some of Colorado’s most iconic wildflowers. Our excursions to these locations took us up and over steep and rocky mountainous roads where switchbacks and narrow lanes dominated the terrain. Getting to these locations was half of the fun — so long as I didn’t have to drive.
Unseasonable weather and a total meltdown
If the circumstances of this year weren’t strange enough already, the weather added another layer of complications to our workshop. Our class went to locations in and around the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests. This area of Colorado typically has afternoon pop-up monsoon storms, conditions we had prepared for before arriving. What we didn’t prepare for were multiple days of heavy rain. The rain was so bad one day, we had to abort our plans to avoid the deluge, but more importantly, avoid areas of the state known for mudslides. Mandy and Kendrick handled everything with expert leadership and made decisions on the fly. These decisions kept us safe.
Because Colorado changes weather conditions faster than some people change underwear, the weather on the official last day of the workshop morphed from a day-long downpour to decent skies in a matter of hours. Mandy and Kendrick didn’t want the weather to ruin our experience, so they switched gears and decided to take us to a location with waterfalls nearby. The weather dictated a lot of quick decisions, and since it looked like rain all day, two of the attendees, who were sleeping in tents, went home to Durango. Since I rode with these experienced-mountain drivers the other days of the workshop, we’d need another driver. Me.
The roads we planned on taking were mild compared to the roads we traversed earlier in the workshop. I have a Jeep, but I’ve never driven it off-road. My husband always drives when we’re together. When I tow my Basecamp, I use his GMC Denali 2500 HD. It’s a beast of a truck, but it tows beautifully over Colorado’s crazy mountain passes. His truck is beautiful but large. I don’t love driving it other than when I’m towing. I struggle to see over the bump in the hood, and the extra-large mirrors cause huge blindspots when I turn.
All of the things I don’t love about his truck are precisely what makes it a tremendous towing machine on the highway. Looking back, I believe that regardless of what vehicle I had with me that day, I would have felt apprehensive. Ok, I admit it, I felt more than apprehensive; I felt petrified, but I decided to suck it up and drive anyway because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone in the group, least of all, disappoint myself.
My need for off-road training wheels
I started the drive with a positive mindset, and when we first left the pavement, the road wasn’t terrible. After crossing some washboard-covered, wet, and muddy roads, I approached the first one-lane section of the drive with a low rock overhang and a cliff to the left side of my truck. I saw the drop, and I panicked. I couldn’t accurately judge the road compared to the size of the truck. Silent tears ran down my face, but I had to keep going. The road had a few more of those areas, but it was the fishtailing and low-traction feeling that scared me more. The rocks and bouldering? I didn’t mind those spots as much because I felt more in control with more traction. Once we got to the area near the waterfalls and parking, I broke down — like full-on anxiety-driven meltdown. Since this type of behavior is so uncharacteristic, I felt even dumber. I don’t like feeling like I’ve let people down, and I let myself and the other members of the group down because the drive was just too much for me to handle.
It took me at least half an hour to compose myself after parking. I couldn’t focus or process what I needed to do with my camera’s settings. I emotionally imploded. Everyone went to take photos, but Mandy stayed with me. She tried to convince me I did a great job, but I felt like a total failure. I’m a woman who calms other women’s fears about solo RVing, but here I was, losing my mind. I also knew that I needed to pull it together to try and get some decent images. The weather along the basin moved quickly, and the fog created some eerie but interesting photo ops. I ended up taking one of my favorite photos from the workshop in this location. Go figure.
What goes up must go down
Photo by Meagan Butler
Just as we’d expected, the weather shifted, and more rain hovered over us. We needed to get back down the mountain. I’m stubborn, so I wanted to drive. If anything, I needed to prove to myself that I’m not a total imbecile. Mandy rode with me this time, and she helped me navigate the road. She hung out the window, peered past the giant mirrors, and directed me over some of the tougher terrains. She helped me calmly and gave me the instructions I needed to get down the pass. Even though I was scared, she assured me and let me know that she helped me the same way she helps Kendrick when they drive off road. That day, Mandy’s compassion and empathy helped calm my anxiety and boosted my confidence. I’ll never forget her kindness that day. She exceeded her role as my instructor and became someone I can trust and count on. You don’t meet people like that every day.
RVing and photography is like peanut butter and jelly
One of the things I love most about solo RVing is the other RVing women I meet along the road. If I could meet up with other RVers who share my crazy passion for RVing more often, I would. The campground is my happy place, and now I have a creative outlet that I can pair with my favorite pastime. I’m excited to grow as a photographer, and I am eager to bring art back into my life through the shooting and editing process. I’m stoked to plan RV trips that coincide with places where I can continue to refine my budding photography skills. I’m especially grateful to the RV community. Without solo RVing and photography, I’d have never crossed paths with Mandy and Kendrick or found a way to learn how to use my camera in such an inclusive and supportive environment.
Do you want to improve your photography?
I whole-heartedly recommend Mandy Lea and Kendrick Callaway of Mandy Lea Photo. No matter your age, gender, or skill level, you won’t find a better team to help you grow as a photographer. I’m already taking another workshop soon, and they’ve assured me that I won’t have to drive any crazy mountain roads — they don’t need that kind of stress in their lives!
If you ever take a workshop with Mandy Lea Photo or run across Mandy and Kendrick in your quest to find a teardrop trailer, and they share the story about the girl in the workshop who melted down at 12,000 feet, you now have a face to go along with their story. Lucky me!
Photo by Meagan Butler
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any other agency, organization, individual, or company. All images, original or edited, belong to Mandy Lea Photo or me and should not be reproduced or copied without written consent. I’m not a paid affiliate for NüCamp or Mandy Lea Photo. I wrote this post because I believe in the services Mandy Lea Photo offers the photographers who take her workshops. Mandy and Kendrick are rad.