Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Becky Schade at Charlies Bunion, along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains (photo credit: Becky Schade).
Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.
My guest this month is 30-year-old American Becky Schade. Becky started traveling around America alone in her truck and RV (for those not in the know, RV stands for recreational vehicle, or mobile home) on September 14th, 2012. As she says on her blog, Interstellar Orchard, becoming a full-time RVer was a way to fulfill her dream of perpetual travel, exploration, and adventure, and to make her life the best it can be, right now, no holds barred. “And if I can do it, so can you,” she says.
She goes on:
Even if your Big Dream is going to take some time to realize, there are things you can do, right now, to improve the quality of your life. And they don’t all require a fortune or every free waking hour of your week.
Before pulling up her roots, Becky used to work with monkeys. She is an outdoor enthusiast and also a fantasy/sci-fi fan as well as gamer geek.
I have been waiting a while to interview her and write her fascinating story. Now I have my opportunity.
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Welcome, Becky, and thank you for taking out some time from your adventures for this interview. I believe you were born and raised in Wisconsin but then, at the age of 25, became what is known in the States as a “domestic expat,” moving with a friend to coastal South Carolina. When did you really decide to break out and travel all around America as an RVer?
I loved how different South Carolina was from my home state of Wisconsin, but inside I knew I wanted to keep traveling and exploring. The truth is, I didn’t want to pay for a removal truck every time I moved, so started researching RVing as an alternative. In other words, I would be my own removal truck—taking my house everywhere with me. I eventually hit the road as a full-time RVer at the ripe old age of 28.
Your new-found freedom is clearly a wonderful experience, but do you ever feel homesick?
Home is where I park my RV travel trailer, which I pull with my trusty 2001 Dodge Dakota. Some people might call me a minimalist or even a gypsy because all that I own fits in my RV and truck. I don’t own or rent property anywhere, but I am always home. I get asked many questions about my lifestyle, like, do I feel crowded and cramped inside my little home? It may be difficult to visualize, but my “living space” includes the yard where I park my RV and the wonderful locations I visit. So I enjoy the free and constantly changing views from my bedroom windows that many house-bound folks might pay a fortune for. In reality I have more space than most people do.
The average person moves home, say, five times in their lives, whereas I imagine you could move five times in a month. I’m sure you’re often asked if you feel safe traveling alone, as a young single woman.
I am often asked that question, but you know something? The world is not as scary as the media would have us believe. Common sense is a person’s best safety tool and in my year-and-a-half on the road, I have never once felt threatened. If a place feels off when I arrive, I simply drive to the next place.
You obviously can’t work while traveling except when you stop in a place for a while. Do you ever worry about money?
No, one doesn’t need to be wealthy to live like I do. I saved up the money for the initial outlay from my last “real” job. With my accommodation and truck already paid for, I can explore the country comfortably on an income of $16,000 or less a year, which I make from working seasonal jobs in interesting places. I have at least six weeks a year where I don’t work at all and can focus on my hobbies as well as visit friends and family. I have health insurance, an emergency fund in case of accident or illness, and an IRA. Life on the road doesn’t have to be a gamble. There are smart ways to go about it that minimize the risks. It’s not an extended vacation but a way of life. I’ll continue traveling until I feel the urge to do something different.
I can relate somewhat to the things you are saying as I enjoy my own company, probably more than others enjoy it! And fortunately I have never experienced a feeling of loneliness. How about you, how do you find being alone on the road?
I don’t feel lonely. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things. I love quiet time by myself out in nature, and when I start feeling the need for human interaction, it’s usually not hard to find. Sitting outside your RV in a campground reading a book is viewed by many passersby as an open invitation to stop and say hello. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on my travels, with whom I’ve had some of the best conversations. I also keep in touch and visit with friends I had before hitting the road full time, and am a member of several online communities for RVers.
“Home is where I park it.” (classic RVer saying)
Something usually triggers or inspires a person to travel. Was that true in your case?
Since I was a teenager I’ve had this feeling that the typical American Dream of college, steady job, marriage, a big house, and a family wasn’t going to be my cup of tea—but it’s definitely what my parents expected. I was the dutiful daughter and followed that plan up to finishing college and getting a steady job, but I felt trapped and miserable. I wanted adventure. I wanted more than two weeks of vacation a year to explore. I wanted to learn by experience instead of just seeing things on TV or reading about them in a book. Those were the things that inspired me to pursue a different path and look into full-time RV-ing. At first I thought you had to belong to the realm of rich retirees, the kinds of people who invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in a gigantic, 40′ motorhome. Then I dug deeper and found that some younger folks were discovering a better work/life balance through life on the open road.
You are clearly a very determined young woman. Since you drove off on that September day in 2012, what places have you visited?
Last summer I worked retail at Badlands National Park, in southwestern South Dakota, and explored the Black Hills region—along with Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore—in my days off work. This past winter I was a volunteer at a conservation centre with the University of Florida and visited sinkholes and crystal clear springs. This coming fall I’ll be working at a warehouse out near Reno, Nevada, and plan to be photographing mountains and Lake Tahoe around that.
I’ll be looking forward to the pictures. So where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in your latest hometown?
Right now I’m just outside of Atlanta in Fairburn, Georgia, performing at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. Getting paid to sing at a renaissance festival has been on my bucket list for many years, but I could never work it around a real job. Traveling the way I do now has given me the opportunity, finally. I love what I’m doing, but the location is a different story. I prefer the country and have never lived in a city, so navigating the busy streets of Atlanta has been an experience. Never be afraid to try new things, though—otherwise, how do you learn what you really like and don’t like?
Absolutely, Becky. New experiences always open the mind, and the more I try new things, the more I realize how much I still have to learn. And now let’s see some of your photographs, which capture a few of your favorite memories. Can you tell me the story behind them and what makes them special for you?
Celebrating a new life of recreation at Big Sioux Recreation Area. Photo credit: Becky Schade.
This picture was taken at Big Sioux Recreation Area
, just outside of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I’d been on the road for less than a week driving from South Carolina to South Dakota to make it my new residency state. I got my driver’s license and plates and then took a hike to the top of this hill to see Sioux Falls and the surrounding countryside. I sat on a bench and realized it was Thursday. In my old life I’d have been hard at work, but instead I was at this wonderful place. This is when it really hit me that I was living my dream, that life would never be the same. It was magical.
The early bird catches the view at Folly Beach Country Park near Charleston. Photo credit: Becky Schade.
The second photo is of Folly Beach Country Park
, just outside Charleston, South Carolina. Six years ago, my best friend and I were a year out of college and had earned some vacation time with our first “real” jobs. We used the two weeks to road-trip to South Carolina. I’d lived in Wisconsin all my life and was itching for a change of scenery; this was probably when I caught the travel bug. I took this photo at sunrise. We’d woken up at 4:00 a.m. to make sure we got to the beach before sunrise. I’m not an early riser, but getting to see the pink glow over the lighthouse was so worth the effort. We ended up liking our trip here so much that we moved to SC a year later, where I stayed until I hit the road.
Inspired by spires of granite near Sylvan Lake. Photo credit: Becky Schade.
The third picture was taken in June of last year, when I was working at a gift shop in Badlands National Park. On a day off, I headed over to Custer State Park, in the Black Hills. I had no itinerary and spent the morning in the south of the park watching bison. Then, after happening upon a couple of neat looking lakes, I decided to study the park brochures and find the best lake in the Black Hills. Beautiful Sylvan Lake caught my eye. The road that leads to the lake is the Needles Highway. The drive along that highway was amazing, more so because I had no idea it was there, and every vista was a surprise. This photo is of the Needle, a huge spire of granite that wind and water had hollowed out into a needle shape.
Nature—cheaper than therapy
It makes such a difference when you know the story attached to the pictures. Until you told me that story about the last one, all I could see was a silhouette of a girl leaning back with long flowing hair–not a needle! Where are your favorite places to take photographs?
I love natural places, I always feel most content and closest to the divine when I’m out in nature. And there’s such variety to be found, as the next three photos demonstrate. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
Holy smokes! Nature in all its glory in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, NC/TN. Photo credit: Becky Schade.
Nothing bad about that! Badlands National Park, SD. Photo credit: Becky Schade.
I know how you feel. Photographing a natural scene that is forever changing feels so fulfilling. I’d like to know if you ever feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
Yes, I do. I don’t take pictures of people without their permission if they are to be the subject. But if they happen to be in the background of a shot, it’s not usually an issue.
Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
That’s an interesting question. For me, photography is a hobby and not the main reason for travel. I have no desire to get trapped behind the lens trying to take the perfect picture and miss the beauty of a magic moment. Having said that, there certainly is a magic to that rare photograph that captures the essence of a time or place. Maybe it’s because I’m a novice or that I make a point of not staging photos, but when I snap my shutter I never know ahead of time if I’m taking that kind of picture. It’s something I find out later as I’m reviewing the photos in my computer.
I can empathize. In my case if I’m not present in the moment I can neither photograph nor write with passion.
“The best camera is the one you have with you.” —Chase Jarvis
Now for the technical stuff. What kind of camera and lenses do you use? And which software do you use for post-processing?
Haha, hoo boy—I’m about to get laughed right out of this column…or maybe, just maybe, help a few people understand that you don’t have to buy a thousand dollar SLR to be a photographer. My camera is my iPhone 4s—with no apps to change the functionality. That’s all I have. I don’t even own a point-and-shoot. Because I have no optical zoom whatsoever, it definitely limits the kinds of photos I can take, but for me the extremely high portability and low cost (relatively speaking) make up for that drawback. My phone fits in my pants pocket and has a waterproof and shock-resistant case, so I don’t fear taking it to rugged locales. Some might say that a smartphone is more expensive than many point-and-shoots you can buy, which is true, but when it functions as my phone and GPS as well as my primary camera, having all three in one package is definitely cheaper than owning them as individual gadgets. I use Adobe Photoshop 7.0, which I had actually gotten years ago for the purpose of drawing and coloring digital art from scratch. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to put it to the use it was designed for.
I hear no laughter, and if you can handle Photoshop you’re no dummy! If it makes you feel better, I am probably one of a small minority who have a DSLR camera but no mobile phone. Actually, I have a mobile phone that isn’t smart—it only makes phone calls; but I hardly ever turn it on. Now I hear some laughter!! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers or travelers?
First off, never let someone else’s definition of travel or photography determine your own by default. You don’t need all the newest gear to be a photographer, and you don’t need to book a plane halfway around the world to be a traveler. Take some time to think about what you really want from your experience, and let that be your guide. Second, if this is your dream, the life you want to live, don’t put it off for later. Later might never come. You want to be a photographer? Get out today and take some photos. Practice makes perfect. You want to start traveling? Start planning now and get to work on making it a reality. Set a date by which you’ll be out there.
Becky, I’ve really enjoyed our time together. Your story is an inspiration to us all. I only wish I was 40 years younger because I’m sure I would be tooling up an RV as fast as I could right now.
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Readers, what do you make of Becky’s RV life and her photography advice? She has certainly taken the road less traveled. If you have any questions for her about her photos and/or experiences, please leave them in the comments!
And if you want to know more about Becky, don’t forget to visit her blog, Interstellar Orchard. You can also like the blog’s Facebook page, connect with her on Twitter, or send her an email.
(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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