I think it’s important to note, before I get into the rest of the story, that you only ever meet people where they’re at, and when you meet people—you rarely meet them when they’re in the trenches. Another important note is that the story I’m about to share is just that: it’s my story, it’s not a guide to quitting your day job and living the road life dream. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did to most people, especially the way that I did it. But if I had the choice between reliving my first few months on the road or never taking the plunge, I’d do it all over again—one thousand times over.
There’s the short story (I moved into my Subaru and started taking photos) and then there’s the long story. And if you’re here, I’m assuming you’re here for the long story.
Let’s get into it.
I first got into retail when I was in high school. I was a “model” at Abercrombie Kids and also worked at an after school program five days a week. I loved picking up extra hours—I saw paychecks as freedom. I could drive anywhere if I had the gas money. I lived in Florida, south Florida specifically, so any road trips I had in my younger years were just glorified day trips to see… more Florida. Which, don’t get me wrong—Florida is incredible but if you’ve ever moved from Florida and seen the American West for the first time, I think you know the sense of wonder that comes with having mountains frame the skyline and roads that lead to more than just the ocean.
I moved to Salt Lake City in 2017—I was working as an assistant manager for Forever 21 and my friend Devin had transferred to a location in Utah. I had never been to Utah, had never seen a mountain, but when Devin said there was an opening for me there I packed up my apartment, put in for a transfer at work, loaded up a U-Haul and drove 40 hours to experience something different.
memories from when i was 17 // the day i moved to utah <3
The “something different” was having so many landscapes that took my breath away at just a quick “save a little bit of gas money” drive away. I still remember my first road trip where I saw the desert with my college friend, Taryn and the time my friend Cait flew to Salt Lake and we road tripped to the Tetons and Yellowstone. The outdoors and experiences became my ONLY personality.
Despite working so many hours in a week (at this point I was a store manager for Forever 21) I still always managed to find time to be outside. I was underprepared and inexperienced in the outdoors but I quickly learned that I could pack a pillow and a few blankets in the back of my SUV, wake up to a sunrise somewhere amazing, go back to my apartment for a quick shower and to drop off the dog, and make it in time for my closing shift.
so many weekend adventures from when i lived in utah !! <3
I found a sense of pride in the chaos—my coworkers never knew what to expect when they’d ask me how my day off was. I was comfortable, happy, and found a healthy balance between working and the outdoors, that’s until…
I accepted a transfer to a store in Denver. People talk all the time about how amazing Denver is. It’s so outdoorsy, it’s the best mountain city. If you love mountains, you’ll loooove Denver. Except, my two years in Denver were the two most miserable years of my 20s.
I was working more—between 60-80 hours a week regularly. Some weeks I couldn’t even have a single day off. I moved to Denver on January 14, 2019 and had to report to work on January 15th. I remember asking my boss for a day off to unpack and he told me “no, you have to be at this store—you need to be there.” The workload in Denver took such a toll on me. I’d get home, exhausted and barely able to toast a piece of bread to eat. I could only muster up time to lay down on my couch with my dog and fall asleep three minutes into a Netflix episode. All the meanwhile, the boxes of my belongings sat piled around me—unopened.
The grueling hours and self-neglect lasted 6 months for me. The toll on my physical and mental health was simply too much. I decided to apply for a job that paid 30% less and put in my two weeks notice. The day after I quit is the day that I finally unpacked my apartment.
When I accepted the new job, I gave a start date two weeks out from my last day. I used up the last of my paycheck and PTO payout and drove to Glacier National Park. And that’s where everything changed for me.
iphone snaps from the national park that changed my life, july 2019
I remember driving “Going to the Sun'' road and thinking “how could I possibly ever work inside of four walls ever again?” My breath was taken away–more so than ever before. I knew I had made the right decision to switch to a job with a guaranteed two days off per week, but something inside me knew that wasn’t enough that I craved more, that I needed to be outside… that the sun was rising and setting every day in beautiful places and that’s the only place I ever wanted to be.
Denver is expensive; a big theme in all of this is that I’d rather be broke and happy than have money and be miserable. I spent all my weekends outside, and started becoming obsessed with taking photos of my surroundings. In Denver, you’re a lot further from magical places than you are in Salt Lake (just my opinion, but if you’ve been to both cities, you’ll probably agree). When I was in high school, I loved taking photos. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up the answer was always a photographer. I’d stare at beautiful photos on Flickr every night before bed (this was back when Netflix only mailed DVDs so I had to creatively source my entertainment). In high school, I had even won a scholarship to go pursue art in college but I decided to stick to something more stable—Instagram had just been released as an app, the path to having a creative field was a lot more limiting in 2012 than it is now.
I started doing family shoots and engagement shoots on the side to supplement my adventure fund. I had made a Twitter account as Instagram felt too intimidating. I shared my photos there—that’s where I started making friends with similar passions who helped fuel my motivation to work harder, take better pictures, and do more of what I love. I’d share my print shop on Twitter and would get the occasional sale here and there.
2020 came, and we all know what happened there. If you were lucky, you were bored in the house and in the house bored. I was furloughed from my retail job, living alone, staying inside, and didn’t have a community of friends in Denver. I was lonely, but photography was there for me. I began spending a lot more of my time having conversations with other creatives. We’d do zoom game nights, have wine facetimes—I ended up making some of my best friends during that period of time.
I also bought a $13 film camera on eBay—and yes, it included shipping. With more free time, came a lot more loneliness. I went outside as often as I could and took it as an opportunity to build my skills. When I got recalled to work, I had a really hard time adjusting.
There were a lot of things that sucked about my job, my coworkers weren’t one of them. But my boss was. Being new to the company and navigating those “unprecedented times,” dealing with the angriest customers who were so upset about a statewide mask mandate that I had no control over was exhausting. Getting told I wasn’t doing enough and that I was lazy when I was truly just overwhelmed was driving me over the edge. I was working more hours and more days than I had originally thought I would be. The free time I had when I started, the two days off and only 8 hour work days were gone like the menus at restaurants that were now QR codes. Not to mention, the store hours changing meant I couldn’t see a sunset or a sunrise if I worked–the two things that could brighten my smile on even the hardest of days. But my passion was so intense it was genuinely all I could think about. I knew one day, I could work my way out.
As restrictions started lifting, I had a day off in the middle of the week and decided a 7 hour each way drive to Grand Teton National Park was an excellent idea. I left work, picked up my dog, and started the drive at 7pm—arriving with enough time for a 2 hour nap before sunrise. I even stayed until sunset, stopping along the way to rest before continuing my drive to make it to work on time at 11AM the next day. When something is a dream of yours, you’ll do anything in your power to make it happen. The sacrifices and the toll it takes on your body don’t feel that bad when you feel like things are moving in the right direction—they catch up, but… in the moment everything feels fine.
from a day trip in wyoming, sept 2020 <3
In October of 2020 I totaled my car in an accident. I had to buy a new car but I didn’t have “new car” money. The rates at which I had acquired my previous car were nowhere to be found. Suddenly there’s a chip shortage? And they can’t make cars? So there’s a car shortage? This was such a rock bottom for me. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t know how to pay rent. I remember calling my apartment complex and asking if it was okay if I paid that month’s rent in two installments because I needed to put a down payment on the car I was getting. Everything just felt so… intense, unfair… like I was a hamster spinning on a wheel with a carrot in front of me but the carrot was in a clear glass box and no matter how hard I ran or how hungry I got, I would never make my way to the carrot.
I remember feeling so incredibly defeated to realize that I had been living my life and “following all the rules” checking off all the boxes, doing everything I was told… and still somehow falling flat on my face. The career I had been working at for 9 years, the new car I was so excited to have, everything just went crumbling in an instant. Why was I living to work? Because no matter how much I was working, I never really got to… feel comfortable. All I felt was exhaustion. And at my lowest point, I felt like the universe had stripped me of everything. My entire identity for so much of my life had been wrapped up in my job that I didn’t even love. I hit a point where it felt like I had nothing left to lose so, why not leave it all and try something different?
I knew I wanted to leave Denver as soon as my lease was up. I couldn’t afford to break it, but I also knew I couldn’t afford to live in Denver if I wanted to give photography a shot. The way I saw it was if I could reduce my expenses, I wouldn’t have to work as much to make ends meet. I started looking for roommates in Salt Lake—I knew so many people in Salt Lake who would rent out a 4 or 5 bedroom house and have sub $500 rent. If my rent was that much lower, I could work part time at a coffee shop and spend the rest of my time building my portfolio. I put in my notice at work and started packing. It seemed like the perfect plan. Everything was working out–I’d get a moment of peace after all the chaos, I’d get to focus on photography and build and develop my skill set. I felt really good about this.
THINGS FELL APART
Until of course, things fell apart. The house I was planning on renting with a few girls ended up not working out and I was one week away from my move in date. I don’t know what letter of the alphabet I was at by this point, but it was time for plan B: say YOLO.
photo by amanda horton <3
CHASING A SILVER LINING
If there’s one thing about me, it’s that I am incredibly stubborn. I remember hearing “you’ll be back in retail in just two weeks, just wait” or “if you need to, you can always go back.” But my mind was made, there was no turning back. I was tired, I didn’t want to be a store manager anymore. I wanted to take photos and be happy. I’d rather be broke and chasing my own dream than comfortable and miserable.
I went online, signed a lease for a storage unit in Salt Lake City, and made the choice to be voluntarily without an address. I’d figure it out. Let’s just see what happens, right?
The one thing I felt could change my life was time–something I had never had much of. If I could give myself a few months to slow down and build my portfolio, I knew I could make it work. After all, I had never let myself fail before. Even at my lowest, when everything fell apart for me financially after the car crash–I ended up okay. I was still alive after all, right?
Remember when I said this was a story, my story? Don’t take my advice, I don't recommend it. Actually, I think most people would strongly advise against doing things the way I did. But if you’re curious, here’s how I made it work.
Having a whopping $300 in my bank account after moving into my storage unit left me in quite the bind. So I cashed out my 401K. If you’re thinking 9 years of contribution to a 401K amounts to much… it doesn’t. Your 401K needs to marinate for it to be worth much. I cashed out a grand total of $3,246. That was my emergency fund. If my dog needed a vet visit, if my car needed new tires, if I needed a quick trip to urgent care… hopefully it would last long enough for some of that.
early 2021 work
I knew that I needed to start bringing in money. I had been selling prints on Twitter for a few months now—sometimes I’d have weeks where I’d sell $400 worth. I had a pretty solid business background with all my years of retail so I sat down and made business goals for myself. If I was selling prints for $30, and my cost for them was around $5 I was getting a $25 profit for an 8x10. If I could sell 50 of those in a month, that would bring me around $1,250. Considering I was living in a car, that was more than enough. So I’d peddle my prints online and focus on creating art in a way that would look good on a wall. I gravitated towards minimalism, centrally composed photos, and a color palette that my images could mix and match with and not clash. By some complete miracle, this plan was working.
THE SET UP
So I had a 2009 Subaru Outback–the base package. There was a tape player and crank windows BUT the best thing it had was a remote start. This was an absolute life saver for me on cold nights. I’d hold down the button at night and get 20 minutes of heat blasting at me to help me fall back asleep when it was cold at night.
cozy in our little subaru camper <3
My set up cost around ~150$ if anyone wants to make a cheap little campervan out of their car. I’m going to link the essential items I had below, & yes they are affiliate links which means I get a very small kickback at no extra cost to you!
Twin sized sheets – thick ones bc sleeping on plastic is not fun in winter
Sleeping bag – this is the one I have now, I’ve upgraded
Black posterboard (that I cut out to fit my other windows for privacy)
And another option thing I had was I had a rooftop storage box–this made organizing so much easier. I kept all of my backpacking and camping gear up there along with some other shoes
BUILDING A PORTFOLIO
Living in a car couldn’t just be an extended road trip for me at first. If I wanted to make this work, I needed to actually spend time developing my skills and growing my professional network. I was 25 and I refused to let my delusional endeavor seem like a poorly planned quarter life crisis.
I focused on recognizable landmarks and destinations–national parks was a good list to start with. It was winter and it was cold, so I’d start off in the desert. I’d stay in the Grand Canyon until I had photos I felt good about and the gas money to get to the next destination; then I’d head to White Sands with a million little stops in between.
The thing about growth is that it can be either really slow or really fast and the only determining factor in that is you. I spent a lot of time working on my edits, analyzing each photo meticulously and figuring out what went well and what could be improved upon. There’s some saying that goes “do everything at your 80% because perfection is impossible” and I live by that. I would never have posted a photo ever online if I waited for things to be perfect. By practicing every day and calling it a day once I had given my 80%, my 80% kept getting better and better. I can look back at my work from 2021 now and I’d say it's 20% compared to where I’m at now. The best way to grow your skills fast is to work on them every single day.
Another note about growth: be a sponge. Absorb every ounce of knowledge anyone is willing to give you. Store it in your mental toolbox. Someone might give you a hammer and the next day you might need a screwdriver. The hammer won’t help you that day but it doesn’t make it useless. I use this for everything in life–be a constant student to all the teachers around you. I’m so incredibly lucky for all the amazing friends I made in the beginning of my journey who shared so much knowledge with me. Because of them, I want to be like them–I’m an open book when it comes to the things I’ve learned. Anyone who has met me knows I will drop everything if they call me with an editing question and work through the issue with them if they need it. I’m really grateful to my little photography community for showing me a culture that focused on giving without expectation, sharing without questions, and uplifting others. It was such a contrast to the work culture I had before–I had no idea that there would be less competition in a world where everyone was working for their own team instead of the same company but, I’m grateful for surprises like that.
NO PRESSURE NO DIAMONDS
As I built my portfolio, I started growing on social media. Growth was never my primary focus, my primary focus was always on creating. I think this is important if you’re reading this and expecting a guide when I’m just sharing my story. If there’s any advice I can give to an aspiring creator it’s to focus on your controllables before you start thinking about the things that are relatively out of your control. Growing fast seems like everyone’s dream, but growing too fast too soon can sometimes be like a job promotion that comes a little too prematurely–it seems nice on paper but it’s hard to keep the momentum going. You’ll always know when it’s time to grow for yourself and it’s better to do that when you’re ready for the next step.
I’ve had quite a few growth spurts online–both unexpected and slightly planned. But even for the ones that were unexpected, I was prepared. In 2021 a photo set of mine went viral on Twitter–I was still living in my car and I had a moderately large following at the time. I had started a relationship with a camera brand and had access to affiliate links to the products they sold. When I tweeted “photos i took on a $13 film camera” I did think it would do well, but I didn’t expect it to blow up everywhere. I dropped an affiliate link to a cheap, entry level film camera and learned firsthand about the selling power of social media. I also learned about how cruel people could be on the internet, but… that’s a story for a different day.
Transitioning to full time photography isn’t an overnight endeavor but I knew for me it had to be. But because it had to be, it meant I had to make a lot of sacrifices: a bed, access to showers, my own toilet, consistent internet, an outlet to use a hair dryer, quality nutrition, the majority of my belongings, spending literal any money on myself, privacy, a sense of security, safety… the list goes on. Eliminating all of those things only made me work harder–it was survival mode. No pressure, no diamonds they say.
The amount of things that went wrong while living in a Subaru is a really long list that honestly brings me back to a pretty terrible place mentally–it was not sunshine and rainbows but with every single cloud that came to dim my light, there was always a silver lining. And I chased it every single time.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Yes. Would I change anything? Probably not–everything worked out exactly the way it was supposed to.
the open road <3 my new home