Meet Ellen, a freelance photo journalist from New York who is traveling across the country making photo essays on spec for several publications around the world. She came to Des Moines from Denver, along what seems to be the never-ending trek through Nebraska. She has been traveling for four months and still has two more months to go.
Do you 100 percent live off spec essays, or do you have a few clients who you can pitch story ideas to ahead of time?
Before I travel to a location, I do try and do some research and see if there is anything I can lock in ahead of time. It’s nice to have an idea of what I can do before I get there. But sometimes you just have to go fishing and hope to catch something. I am super social when I meet people for the first time. So if I stop at a gas station, I always make sure to go inside and talk to people inside. I have captured some amazing photos of local people in these places. Some towns are so small that the gas stations are still a gathering place for people to socialize and have their morning coffee.
Now you are this 32-year-old tattooed girl hanging out at a gas station that is located on the outskirts of Kearney, Nebraska. You go inside to participate in the rural Nebraskan social hour with “Lock Her Up” bumper stickers on every truck, and the only tattoos these guys have are “I Love Mom” and random faded tribal bands. None of these raise red flags? (not a confederate joke)
That’s the problem. We always see red flags, which stops us from having a discussion. What the red flags really should be is that everyone still believes in being part of their high school group. So nobody is talking, and everyone is feeling like they have no voice. So I could just be like, well, these guys are probably exposed to things that I am not exposed to, so maybe I can learn something interesting from them. I am always on my guard, but generally speaking there is no reason to be afraid of other people.
I just came from Colorado, which a lot of people think that because of the recreation cannabis deal that everything is super hip and cool. That is absolutely not the case. Have you been to eastern Colorado? It’s not really a place where people were marching to pass medical cannabis laws. From their perspective, they felt their voice was not being heard when all these laws were passed. But everyone outside of Colorado doesn’t really believe these people even exist. The stereotype is that Colorado has become one giant hippie state.
I think that is the stereotype and rightfully so. But I would compare it more to rich hippies from San Francisco who drive old Volvos vs. the “living off the land hippies” who want nothing to do with jobs or paying bills.
Totally. I am surprised when I visit with people in those more conservative locations that either they don’t care what’s going on in the world, as the majority feel that it doesn’t concern them or they are really angry. I did have coffee at a gas station with a couple of old guys out near Moab, Utah. One did get pretty upset and walked away from the table. The rest didn’t really care. In fact he was more on the liberal side of things. I apologized to everyone at the table for ruining their morning routine, but they said that he would be back tomorrow like nothing happened.
Where do you go from here?
The plan is to head north up to Ontario, but that will be a short trip, as the weather will be changing soon. When I couch surf, there is always a chance I won’t find a place to crash, so I pack a bunch of camping supplies or I can sleep in my car. But as the weather gets cooler, I tend to not want to do that. There are so many factors to traveling like this: Will the car hold up? Do you have enough money? Do people know how to reach you in case of an emergency? Am I safe?
So the plan is to head toward Detroit, cross the border into Canada, and then maybe come back down to New York and make my way home. I haven’t seen my apartment in months, and the thought of being back in my home becomes more inviting every day. Adventures can be life-changing experiences, but they all have to end at some point. ♦
Kristian Day is a filmmaker, musician and writer based in Des Moines. He has couch-surfed across the west coast as well through the Midwest. He also offers his home up to unknown travelers passing through Des Moines… for free. Follow him on Twitter at @kristianmday.