On the road with photographer Alexandra Keeling – AKA “Bear Girl”

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Photographer Alexandra Keeling grew up in Michigan, by her own admission “very sheltered and not a huge risk-taker”. Her parents were both physicians who worked hard to provide for their family. The conventional path seemed set. But, in 2017, a sudden psychedelic awakening sparked a desire in Keeling – now known by her trail name “Bear Girl” – to live a more adventurous life on the road in an RV with her partner Winston and their foster dogs, Rocko and Bo. Here, she tells us about steering clear of mountain lions in the Rockies, camping out beneath star-studded skies and letting go of limitations to live a life less ordinary.

Were you always outdoorsy?

No, even though I grew up in Michigan with my parents on a 40-acre farm. We had horse stables and rows of Christmas trees, which we cultivated. I grew up with a lot of space, literally in my backyard, but I would never wander further than the pond and always stayed close to home. 

Then in high school, I met my best friend; she ended up encouraging me to get out more. She would take me to the dunes in Michigan and gave me my first taste of that adventurous life.

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My best friend gave me my first taste of an adventurous life

So, where did the adventure bug come from?

From an unexpected place. In 2017, I went to a music festival and ended up taking psychedelic drugs. It completely blew my mind. It triggered an intense awakening and a complete shift in the way I viewed the world. I decided, as soon as I got back home, I’d quit my job and live my life to the fullest.

How did your psychedelic awakening affect you?

The majority of people live their lives going through the motions and rarely stop for moments of introspection – questioning why they do things and whether they are truly happy. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the openness that my psychedelic experience triggered. It made me realise I didn’t want to be on the premade path. I have a much better sense of understanding for other people now. It makes travelling and interactions with others so much more interesting and fulfilling.

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Sleeping by a river, a world of wonder lay above my head

After this, you had your first solo camping adventure?

Yes, I was horribly underprepared. I was in my early 20s and had never been camping before. I decided to travel around solo for a month. I went to visit friends in Denver, Colorado, and chose to start my trip by driving to the Rocky Mountains National Park. I didn’t realise there were bears, mountain lions and other kinds of animals that could kill you. You have to use these special bear canisters to secure all your food, which I didn’t have and didn’t account for. It meant I had to lug the additional weight on my hikes. The whole thing freaked me out.

Please tell us things got better…

At one point, I woke up, put my head out the tent to check for mountain lions and all I saw was the most beautiful star-studded sky. I was sleeping next to a river with a world of wonder above my head. At that moment, I was so happy I hadn’t given up when I was afraid.

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A ranger told me the marks were from a young bear. That’s how I got my name

Speaking of wild creatures, how did you get the name ‘Bear Girl’?

On that trip. The next day, I made it back to my car to discover marks I didn’t recognise. A ranger told me they were probably from a young bear foraging for food. He then proceeded to show the markings and scratches to everyone in the parking lot. That’s how I got my trail name. Whenever I’d come across others, they’d ask if I was the “Bear Girl”. It was pretty cool.

These kind of experiences only happen when you strike out of your comfort zone. Was it natural to transition to living as a nomad in an RV?

I did my first month of solo adventuring in a little Kia Forte. While I was out there, I came across other travellers in all different styles of RVs, campers and mobile homes. I was enjoying this newfound freedom and wanted to continue exploring. I started looking into a different mode of transport. In the end, I found this 1989 Renault Itasca and it was perfect: big enough for me, my partner Winston and Rocko, who’s sadly now passed.

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Everyone else thought I was crazy. But my grandma was pumped

Where did you road test your new wheels?

We bought the van in October 2017, renovated it in November and it was ready by December. Our first journey was a five-hour drive to Illinois where my grandmother lived. We spent our first night on her driveway. My grandma was the only person I showed the RV to who was genuinely excited for me. Everyone else thought I was crazy and asked me not to go down this path. She was super pumped and started telling me about trips she went on with my granddad. They had travelled so much together and I didn’t know about any of it. Had it not been for my journey, I may have never found out about that part of her life. I ended up connecting with her towards the end of her life in a way I couldn’t have imagined.

That’s so wonderful to hear about different generations of black women going out into the world. How did you fund your travelling life?

Winston and I started a production and photography company. We did a lot of portrait work and, at that point, we had a few contracts that didn’t require us to be sedentary; that made it easier. I had previously been working a regular adult job so I had savings and I picked up jobs on the road.

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As a child, I loved photography. As I got older I gave up those dreams

Has photography always been a passion?

As a kid, I went to a Montessori school. They encourage free-thinking, creativity and independent learning. So, I was always creative at that age. But, as I got older, I lost those passions somehow. I thought I would never be able to make money as a photographer. I was very risk-averse at that time and gave up those dreams for a while.

How did you find your creative spark again?

My home state of Michigan had a grant for the film industries, so a lot of big Hollywood productions were filmed there. That’s how I ended up working as an extra on Transformers and another weird little Ryan Gosling movie. I also worked on a couple of independent films. From there, I remained connected to the creative industry and started getting assignments. It was enough to be able to do it full time.

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My parents worked hard for a particular lifestyle. For me to reject it was hard

How did your parents respond to you becoming a nomad?

Both my parents are physicians and they’ve spent their lives working towards affording a particular lifestyle. To get the big house, the nice cars and send their kids to good schools. To have me then turn around and reject that, opting to live like a “dirtbag” in the desert, was definitely hard on my mum. I think she expected me to be around in the same way she had remained close to my grandma until she died. 

Ultimately, my goal, like any child, is to make sure they’re looked after. It’s just the way for me to get there is different from how they’d imagined. When I had my work featured in National Geographic, I showed my mum and she was happy for me but her main question remained: when are you coming home?

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In Moab, I’ve started canyoning and can set up my own rappels

Where’s home right now?

Moab, Utah, has been my base for the past couple of years. I’ve been living in a proper house. It’s a tiny community with a population of about 5,000. We are at the entrance point of two national parks, one of which is Arches National Park. When Covid hit, the town and the parks were shut to outsiders. It meant I had all this time – and this gorgeous place devoid of crowds – to explore. So, that’s exactly what I did. 

Before, I had only been canyoning a few times.  Then I had the chance to go often. I’ve become much better at it. I can now set up my own anchors and rappels. I was fortunate to weather the storm in these surroundings. Since I’ve been in Moab, I’ve also adopted another dog, Bo. I haven’t stopped travelling though – I’m still on the road whenever I can.

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Don’t splash out on fancy RVs until you know you’re suited to the lifestyle

Finally, what advice do you have for others who are considering this lifestyle?

Flexibility is crucial. Make sure you have the mindset to handle setbacks; there will be plenty. And, always travel within your means. You see people splashing out on these fancy decked-out RVs without knowing if they’re suited to the lifestyle. Everyone is different, of course, but be honest about where you are financially before you start.

A version of this interview first ran in The Black Explorer, a biannual print and online magazine, published by Ella Paradis, that champions the black travel community and its creators. 

Find out more about Flash Pack adventures here. Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: courtesy of Alexandra Keeling

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