In the dog days of an urban summer, who doesn’t dream of ditching the cellphone, letting Facebook updates languish and cashing in one’s vacation days for an extended road trip? Some people call that a long-shot dream. Landscape photographer Jicky calls it reality.
The Hamburg, Germany native, who made New York City her adopted home in 1988, put aside her search for a full-time job almost two years ago and hit the road. Traveling more than 30,000 miles and living out of her camper, Jicky has visited tiny rural hamlets, a few sprawling metropolises and the seemingly infinite miles of American terrain in between. She’s hiked through canyons in Utah and volunteered with regular folks to clean up after a tornado demolished much of Joplin, Missouri. Her photographs reflect the vastness and beauty of our nation—and the hidden corners many East Coasters never see.
Before her epic trip, Jicky honed her craft covering tournaments for German and American tennis magazines, but she discovered her passion lay in travel and landscape photography. She volunteers with several LGBT organizations and non-profit groups as an event photographer when in New York.
The artist spoke with GO from—where else?—a tiny campground in the Wisconsin wilderness. For Jicky, it’s not about how many places she can visit during the trip: It’s about the journey itself.
What inspired you to give up city life for life on the road?
I went on a seven-week road trip four years ago, just a truck and a tent. I drove 12,000 miles in those seven weeks, but it felt like too much driving and too few chances to experience places. When I came back, I told friends that I wanted to do it again but with more time.
I have been working on a part-time basis [at a woodworking company in the Bronx] for several years now. I had a choice: find a full-time position and stay in NYC, or travel the country. It turns out that the cost of living would have been the same! It was a no-brainer. I sublet my apartment to a friend, bought a truck and a camper and off I went.
What’s the goal of your travels across North America?
The urge to see this country came to me naturally without a real agenda. It was about making a dream come true, and I guess that’s the purpose: proving to myself that I could make that dream a reality. I love to drive and I am curious to see new and different places.
This trip has been an education on so many levels. For example, I learned it’s not unusual for people who live in rural areas to drive 30 miles each way to the nearest grocery store. As a city dweller, I took my corner deli and coffee shop for granted!
You’re living out of your camper now—how does that compare to a typical New York studio apartment?
I have a truck camper—that’s a pick-up truck with a camper sitting on the truck bed, easy to put on and take off. It is a fully self-contained unit with a kitchen, full bathroom, a dinette and sleeping area with a queen size bed. I even have a fridge which is bigger than the fridge in my apartment, with a freezer! I have plenty of storage. It’s all the comforts of home, in a space that doesn’t measure more than 60 square feet.
Most of the time, I stay in campgrounds or in state parks. Sometimes I just park on the street…I “street camped” in San Francisco and in L.A., where I visited friends. My favorite spots are in the “middle of nowhere” out west in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. It took me some time to have the guts to just pull over some place and call it a day, but I can go 3 or 4 days without having to be hooked up to electricity or to replenishing my water supply. As long as the sun shines, my solar panel will charge my batteries.
I don’t usually stay longer than two nights in any given place. I spent most of the winter in one area in southern Nevada, but that wasn’t really planned. I’ve slept in 156 different places in the last 16 months, but always in the same bed.
How do you plan your route? Do you simply get behind the wheel and hit the gas, going wherever the road leads?
I didn’t map out this trip before I left NYC; I’d made notes of places I wanted to visit and those that people recommended. I like strange or obscure places. I’m not into big tourist attractions, though there are exceptions.
Let’s say I want to go to Bryce Canyon [in southwestern Utah]. I’ll look at a map and see how to get there using back roads rather than highways. When I am less familiar with a state, I might just travel based on where I find a campground. Of the 30,000-plus miles I’ve traveled, fewer than 1,000 have been on interstates. But so much freedom can be nerve-racking at times.
What aspects of the American landscape do you hope to translate through your photographs?
I believe that you can find beauty in any kind of landscape, whether it’s the amazing rock formations in Bryce Canyon or simply the corn or wheat fields of the Midwest. I would also like to raise awareness about the threatened disappearance of small towns across the country. I hope my photos will inspire people to get off the interstate highway and discover the country. A friend of mine just incorporated one of the places I visited into her trip after she saw my photos—that’s what I hope to accomplish.
What has been your favorite experience so far?
That’s a really tough question since the US is so vast and diverse! I love the Pacific coast; I really like the small town of Etna (pop. 800) in northern California, which is surrounded by beautiful mountains and streams. Southern Utah, south of I-70, is out of this world. I want to go back there, spend more time exploring and hiking. San Raffael Reef, also in Utah, was my favorite place to wake up: I camped atop a mountain overlooking stunning rock formations. The only other campers around were a half-mile away. Total bliss.
I’ve been very fortunate to have met some very kind people during this trip. That’s something I will cherish forever: I have made friends for life. Total strangers, random acts of kindness—it does really happen. I loved the simple gesture of people giving me their home-grown vegetables when they heard that I was having a hard time finding any in grocery stores (which is a real problem in this country.)
One experience that will stay with me long after I return to NYC is the time I spent in Joplin, Missouri cleaning up after the tornado wiped out 30 percent of the town. I’ve never witnessed so much destruction—even 9/11 was different; it didn’t destroy huge residential neighborhoods. More amazing, however, were the volunteers who came from near and far, and slept in their cars or in tents just to be there to help. Volunteerism is very much an integral part of who I am, and I felt the need to lend a hand for those 10 days.
You’ve focused on rural, out-of-the-way locales. Have you witnessed or experienced homophobia in those environments?
I have not experienced overt homophobia, and one reason might be that I don’t stay in any one place long enough to delve into personal life details. I don’t think that when people meet you, their first thought is “she’s a lesbian.” They either like to talk with you or they don’t, and it doesn’t have anything to do with your sexual orientation. I think living in a big city makes us much more “gay-centric” in that our lives revolve around being gay or lesbian.
At the same time, I could not imagine growing up gay outside of a large city. I try to look for any kind of LGBT presence when I am in any town, most of the time without any luck. Where do gay kids get their support in those places?
I did get one unpleasant e-mail, from someone who had been very nice to me back in Joplin, after I blogged about the marriage decision in New York. She is very religious and she did not agree with the state’s new law, and wrote: “I fear God will not let homosexuality go unpunished…I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes on judgement [sic] day!”
What is your next project going to be?
I’m hoping to publish a photo book of this trip, but that will take a little time since I still have to edit the 16,000 photos I took! In the meantime, I hope to sell enough of my photos online (http://landscapesofamerica.photoshelter.com) so that I don’t have to sell my truck.
The motto of this trip is “One Woman. 48 States.” I still have 17 states to go, and I really look forward to doing that.
Read more about Jicky’s life on the road on her blog, www.landscapesacrosstheusa.com.