Sometimes it takes a crisis to help you realize what you want. Sometimes you need a wakeup call—a kickstart for your spirit that puts you on a path to a better life. That’s exactly what happened to Mandy of Mandy Lea Photo.
She lived the typical nine-to-five working at a photography store in Austin, Texas. She was doing more or less fine when she experienced a divorce and a subsequent depression.
Mandy found herself stuck in a cycle that many people are in. One where they know they’re unhappy but don’t really understand why, or how to change their situation.
“I was just going from the grocery store, the gym, and work; the grocery store, the gym, and work, and that was it,” she told me over the phone.
Mandy grew up in Colorado. She’d spent time there camping in RVs and experiencing the outdoors. While she was having a hard time in Texas, she decided to take a vacation to the Grand Tetons to get away.
She camped there and got to see the sunrise one morning and take pictures. That sunrise changed her life.
“I was like, ‘holy crap this has all been out here the whole time, and I totally forgot the rest of the world is out here every day while I’m just home’,” she said. “It shook me out of the little globe I’d been living in.”
She knew something had to change.
Mandy couldn’t get her mind back into work and her routine. She thought about her trip to the Grand Tetons and the times she’d spent camping earlier in life in Colorado. Three days after her trip, she went out and bought a small [email protected] teardrop camper made by nüCamp.
“I like to say the mountains made me do it,” she told me.
Her Teardrop Camper and the Transition to Full-Time
Mandy told me she didn’t know she was going to quit her job and take her teardrop camper on the road full-time at first.
“I started camping every weekend,” she said. “And that made me happy.”
While she’d found temporary happiness, she was still frustrated because Texas is a huge state and the places she wanted to visit were too far away for a weekend trip.
After a year of being an avid weekend warrior and visiting many places close to her home of Austin, she knew full-timing was what she wanted to do.
“I decided that the only time I was happy was when I was camping,” she said. “I thought I can spend my life not happy, or I can do what makes me happy and find a way to make that work.”
Mandy decided that her happiness was her priority. After some preparations, she headed out full-time in her camper.
“It sounds weird, but most people don’t [put their happiness first],” she said. “Most of them are so concerned with the people around them, their job, money, and I think a lot of campers get that [there’s more].”
Mandy told me that she’s met a lot of people on the road who applaud her decision to put her happiness first and become a full-timer when she did. She said she meets older people all the time who wish they hadn’t waited so long to hit the road.
She’s learned a lot from the RV community and said there are many people who helped her along the way.
The Evolution of Mandy Lea Photo
From the beginning, Mandy wanted to be successful on the road. It wasn’t about neglecting her career or living as long as she could on the road and then coming back to a regular nine-to-five job to save up a bunch more money to go back out.
“I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” she said. “I wanted to make a legitimate living on the road.”
Early on, before full-timing, she got an unexpected boost when her first [email protected] teardrop camper was stolen. She posted it to Facebook and the story went viral. This gave her online following a serious boost.
Eventually, the camper was found, but in poor condition. Mandy moved into a new [email protected] camper and continued on her journey. She said that she doesn’t want to be known as the girl who got her camper stolen, but it’s an unavoidable part of her story.
Many of those people who were first exposed to Mandy through the theft still follow her today.
“I think it really speaks to my photography and the content that I put out,” she said.
Mandy was able to make her photography business and her blog work. She said she works more hours now than she did when she was in Texas. However, she loves what she does and gets to work for herself and do what she wants to do.
She does have more of a schedule now than when she started due to business obligations—photography workshops, speaking opportunities, RV shows—but she still has freedom with her business and the life that she wanted when she first set off.
Mandy met her boyfriend, Kendrick—who was also living tiny in his Toyota Tacoma—during her travels and they both live together in a teardrop camper. It’s a [email protected] camper that’s a little bigger than the one she was in before. When they first started living together they were in Mandy’s [email protected], but after a short time, they upgraded.
From there, the adventures continued, and she said they spend most of their time boondocking.
“We hardly ever stay in campgrounds. We almost always stay on BLM land,” she said.
She told me they spent a lot of time out in the wild—camping, hiking, backpacking, etc.
Lately, with more jobs and commitments, they’ve been spending more time camping in people’s driveways, hitting up a Walmart parking lot, or other less-wild boondocking spots.
Mandy said she still loves the freedom that comes with the lifestyle. She loves being her own boss and being able to live where and how she wants.
She also loves the smallness of the teardrop camper and the fact that because it’s so small you have to go out into the world.
“We don’t spend a lot of time in the camper,” she said.
The couple spends a lot of time outside in nature, experiencing what the world has to offer. She said it’s a good reminder that we’re here on Earth, and we need to take care of it.
“When you live in a city you kind of just forget it’s out there because it’s not in your face,” she said. “When you’re in a camper it’s in your face.”
She said she likes the fact that their footprint is really small, and they don’t have more stuff or use more resources than they really need.
“When you only have ten things, you choose those things very carefully,” she said. “So, you think about what things are most important to you in life, and you prioritize.”
As our conversation wound down, it was clear that Mandy’s journey is about the pursuit of pure happiness—something most people deprive themselves of. She had the courage and conviction to try something drastically different, and her life is better because of it.
Mandy’s story is about the power of small things—like her camper, big things—like the Grand Tetons, and everything in-between. It’s a story that shows us all why it’s important to take a good, hard look at our lives and ask if we’re really where we want to be.