Rachel Helden: Traveling as Art
Written by Genie Davis
Rachel Helden is a traveler. Both through her evocative photographic art and in life. Her current project, Free Way: An Adventure Through Loss, is a book about her solo road trip across all 50 states in the U.S., detailing the beauty of the natural world and the depths of personal grief through her writing and photographs.
The images are vastly beautiful: from wild horses on the run to a pale sunset over White Sands, N.M., to reflections in puddles and the crumpled image of a map. They evoke serenity, loneliness, and the embrace and comfort of nature, and the hum of the highway.
Helden explains the inspiration for this project. “I went through a divorce after a ten-year marriage and the death of my father to cancer within weeks of each other. These two events dropped me to the lowest my life had ever been. I wanted to hide away, and used the resources I had to make my escape. My dad’s car, which he gave me, packed with the few belongings I took when I left my ex, were all I had left.” According to the artist “I got a National Parks Pass and decided to make the most of my investment, seeing as many of them as I could. Parks became my outdoor haven and playground, giving me grand spaces big enough to hold all I was feeling. They offered solitude, challenging terrain — and my meditation and yoga practice blossomed.”
Sharing her experience was her own reaction to feeling isolated and alone in her pain at the time. Today, she notes “If my journey touches another life, and speaks to what someone is going through, all the better. I found over and over again that I wasn’t alone and that helped me immensely.”
This current work is a continuation of long running themes in Helden’s art. “A
photography mentor of mine helped me discover that ‘home’ and the search for it has always been the central root connecting my work,” she relates.
That said, while Free Way is true to this theme, it is also a jumping-off point. She had previously not written anything to communicate, sharing her thoughts visually through her art and photographs instead.
This departure to include the written word came about in part because “I wanted to remember specifics, like interactions I had with my family, friends, and folks I met out on the road. They all had a story of loss to share with me, and I found much of my own healing through the telling and listening of their experiences.” She does not use names in her writing, and in fact never exchanged names with many of the people with whom she was interacting. Instead, she indicates only her location. She describes the book as “equally weighted in text and photographs,” and she hopes to publish sometime in the next year.
“The world and everyone in it became my teachers and guides of how to walk through grief. I found that words and the power of language were the only way to re-tell these occurrences.”
Helden’s adventure took her to all 50 states, and to many multiple times. She drove as far south as the Florida Keys, and north to Alaska, often using backroads including historic Route 66. “I went up and down the length of each coast, the southern tip of Texas, to the North Shore of Minnesota, and everywhere in between, collecting somewhere in the ballpark of 300,000 miles at this point. Nearly four years and three cars later, I think it’s time to rack up some frequent flyer miles,” she laughs.
Helden primarily slept in her car, camping in National Parks, forests, and travel plazas. “I’m not trying to glorify or even encourage this lifestyle,” she says. “I came to it by way of necessity. I could have stayed with family and friends or paid rent and had a regular 9-5 job somewhere, but when my life broke down, I knew I had to face it head on to survive it. If I pushed it away it would only haunt me later. I didn’t want to live my life that way.”
After her first car died, she worked for a summer as a waitress for the first time ever, to save up for a backpacking trip across Europe. She describes that trip as “a dream I’ve had forever, but never thought possible to do solo before surmounting my tour of America.”
She began that journey attending a friends’ wedding in Scotland, saw the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, Stonehenge in England, experienced her first hammam in Switzerland. Her list of adventures ranges from Spain to Portugal to the Eiffel Tower, the Netherlands, and an exploration of her ancestors’ heritage in Nordic countries.
“I followed the steps of my Grandpa during WWII through Germany and Poland, trained through the Czech Republic and Austria, and ended my journey in Italy. It was an absolute dream. I had the same feeling across the U.S.—those places from books and maps came to life,” she asserts. “They were real, and I was there to witness them.”
Helden worked a wide range of jobs to make her travels happen, even learning new skills from glass blowing to tent building, and offering portrait sessions.
“I also sold almost all of my belongings out of my car as I drove, dwindling down to a handful of clothing articles and little else at the end of it. When my dad died, life gained a sense of urgency. I was already more than halfway to the age he was when he passed away. I made a promise to him and myself that I would really live since he no longer could.”
While initially “scared to stop” her travels, Helden says “Life is all about second and third and never-ending chances. I’m remaking my life and travel has become a major part of it.”
In fact, travel fits into Helden’s work in “every way,” she explains, adding that “No matter how savvy or comfortable I become with travel, there is always the element of surprise. For the most part, I don’t plan my days ahead of time. I like to give room to let the flow of life happen. Travel has become one of the greatest joys of my life.”
She says it’s created reunions with people she loves, introduced her to new friends, foods, smells, experiences, and colors. “The rush I feel when I lay eyes on a new place for the first time is absolute magic.” Even uncomfortable experiences Helden views as transformative opportunities, and says she grows more fully into herself from them all.
Along with her photographic work, Helden has also worked in collage, with digital collage figuring prominently in her early career. Now she has returned to what she calls “straight shooting…to move slower, be more deliberate and selective with
what I chose to capture. Working in film is how I first fell in love with the craft. Since I was on a journey to rediscover myself, it was the best medium for me.”
She recently took a trip to Iceland, and hopes to incorporate a new way of layering materials by experimenting with painting on her photographic prints. “The possibilities of the tactile construction of a piece intrigues me,” she says.
In the meantime, lovers of travel, art, and the poetry of human connection eagerly await Helden’s planned publication of Free Way: An Adventure Through Loss.