Meet Bear Girl

How psychedelics opened Alexandra Keeling up to a whole new world of adventure, going with the flow, connecting with the divine in all of us and discovering the adventurous side of a family member she never suspected.
Now Reading:  
Meet Bear Girl

Were you always an outdoorsy person? 

I’ve never been a super outdoorsy person no. I grew up in Michigan, and funnily enough, when I was a child, my parents bought what used to be a farm with 40 acres of land attached to it. We had horse stables, rows and rows of Christmas trees because part of the land was used to cultivate Christmas trees. So I grew up with a lot of open space, and tons of land to explore literally in my backyard, but I would never wander further than the pond and always stayed pretty close to home. 

Then in high school, I met my best friend, and she ended up encouraging me to get out more. We would go up to the dunes in Michigan, she would take me skiing and gave me my first taste of that adventurous life. She ended up marrying pretty young, so I didn’t have a travel companion as such anymore, and without her, I didn’t really feel the urge to head out on my own. 

So where did the adventure bug come from? 

It came from quite an unexpected place, to be honest. Back in 2017, I went to a music festival with some of my white friends, and that’s where I ended up taking psychedelic drugs, and it completely blew my mind. This triggered an intense spiritual awakening and a complete shift in the way I viewed the world. Right then and there I decided that as soon as I got back home, I’d quit my job and start to live my life to the fullest. 

I’m actually so happy to hear you say that, because I’ve experienced the transformative effects of psychedelics too and the calm and openness it has brought to my life. I have met very few other Black people who have ever experience with them though. Tell me more about yours. 

Yeah, psychedelic drug use is not as prevalent in the young Black community as let’s say, in the white college-aged demographic. All my woke white friends for example, have used psychedelics and experienced that profound awakening, freeness and understanding of life as one connected entity. 

Not that I was suffering before this, in fact, I had a pretty good life, I was doing good things, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the openness and ability to be open to change that was triggered by my psychedelic experience. 

Majority of people live their lives, going through the motions and rarely stop to have moments of introspection, really look at their lives and question why they do the things they do and whether they are truly happy. 

I grew up very sheltered, both my parents are physicians, and I wasn’t a huge risk-taker. When I did gymnastics, I was always afraid of getting hurt because I know what a spine injury looks like and what being paralysed does to you. I didn’t want to do certain things, because I feared what the outcome would be if it didn’t go well. Taking acid, released me of my fears. It made me realise that I didn’t want to be on this premade path, my life at that moment felt so restrictive and a terrible idea to continue down that path. 

Psychedelics also allowed me to unlock parts of my brain that have guided me through all the ups and downs life has thrown my way since then. So many things have happened that I would not have been able to deal with before, but now I have an understanding of life and an ability to tap into parts of myself that allow me to face any and all situations that come my way. 

Another thing I realised was that in life, nothing good or bad actually happens to me personally. By that, I mean that the universe unfolds around us all and things just happen, how I decide to react to life as it unfolds is what defines what I end up feeling. 

Yeah, I very much resonate with that. The fact that not everything is about me and most things, in fact, aren’t. 

Exactly, take for instance getting stuck in a river, it’s an occurrence, and had someone else been in that place and time instead of me, the same thing probably would have happened to them. It’s not like the universe sought me out personally in this river to trap me and make my life difficult. Psychedelics made me more aware of the level of control I actually have over my life, my surroundings, my emotions. The way I navigate life completely changed when I became aware of the level of control that I actually have on the situations that occur in my life. 

This is not to say that spirituality is new to me, on the contrary. I grew up Lutheran, and I already had a religious spirituality guiding my life, but the psychedelics made me connect my religion to nature and the world around me. Now I can also see the shared philosophies and message between all faiths because I can now recognise it experientially. I can feel the connectedness, and I feel more connected to my religion now than I did growing up. We’re all on the journey back to that one spiritual realm within us, it’s just that different religions take different paths to get there.

Whereas before I could have seen myself as separate, like you’re Christian Catholic, I’m Lutheran Christian, therefore, we don’t have the same ideologies, now I get that we’re all talking about the same thing but in different ways. I love how psychedelics have made me more tolerant of other religions, other people and their viewpoint. I can understand what other people are saying, even if they’re not necessarily getting the message across the right way because I connect with the source we all share. 

I have a much better sense of understanding for other people, more than I did before and it’s been so lovely, and it makes travelling and interactions with others so much more interesting and fulfilling. 

Wow, yes that’s so true. So going off of this, you decided to head out on your first solo camping trip. That must have been an adventure, right? How did it go? What happened? 

Well, let’s put it this way, I was horribly underprepared.*laughs* 

So I was 21/22 or so at the time and had never been camping before in my life. But I decided to travel around, solo, for a month. I had friends who had moved to Denver, so I went to visit them and chose to start my trip by driving to the Rocky Mountains National Park for my first ever backpacking camping trip. I really did not come prepared. 

When you get to the park, you have to obtain a permit to hike and camp, and with that they make you watch this orientation video first. That was my first time finding out that there were bears, mountain lions and other kinds of animals that are out to kill you while you’re busy roaming. I also found out that to avoid bears stealing and eating your food, you had to have these special bear canisters they can’t get into, to secure all your food. So then and there I had to buy this canister from the rangers shop to protect my food. But of course, I didn’t account for it, so I had to now lug this additional weight with me on my hikes. The whole thing freaked me out, especially knowing I was heading out alone in an area with wild animals that would be out to get me. 

That first hike was really uncomfortable because keep in mind, I am now carrying extra weight I didn’t account for a.k.a. the bear canister. I also ended up hiking a mile uphill past my rest site and caught altitude sickness. In Michigan, the highest point was about 600ft, but I was now in Colorado, which is 5000ft above sea level. 

When I finally made it to my rest site, I realised that I had packed the wrong type of propane for my stove so I couldn’t make myself any food. Luckily I had some trail mix and ate that for dinner instead. 

That first night, I was so terrified I stayed up almost all night listening out for either people coming to attack me or bears and mountain lions coming to eat me. In my head I thought, my mum is right, I’m going to go home after this and never do this again, I was so scared out there on my own. 

I must have dozed off eventually because at one point, I woke up and put my head out of my tent to check for the presence of mountain lions, and all I saw the most beautiful star-studded sky I had ever seen in my entire life. I had never seen this many stars in the sky, it was the most beautiful sight of my life so far, in the Rockies, next to a river and a world of wonders above my head. At that moment, I was so happy that I hadn't given up when I was afraid. 

The next day, I made it back to my car, only to find out that there had been a bear in my neck of the woods all along. My car was covered in marks I didn’t recognise. On the way to my second hike, I came across a ranger and showed him the markings on my car. He informed me that this was probably done by a young, around 2-year-old bear, trying to get into my car and forage for food. He then proceeded to show the markings and scratches to everyone else in the parking lot, and that’s how I got my trail name on my very first camping trip - “Bear Girl”. 

The rest of the day, the story had made its rounds, and whenever I’d come across others, they’d ask if I was the "Bear Girl" and yeah, that was pretty cool. But overall, that first trip wasn’t easy at all, in fact, I was horribly terribly underprepared. I made some bad decisions, I got ill, I didn’t have food. In the end though, I did get everything I needed, and I made it. I was proud of myself, proved to myself that I faced all the dangers. Yes, it could have gone wrong, but it didn’t, and I had made it. 

Alexandra & Winston's first camper a 1989 Renault Itasca

What a first experience indeed. Those are the kind of experiences that you can only have when you allow yourself out of your comfort zone, and it’s inspiring to see you’ve gone and done it for yourself. So now, from this first adventure, you then transitioned over to living in an RV as a proper nomad. How did the transition happen? Was it a natural decision? 

So, I did my first month of solo adventuring in the little KIA FORTE I had at the time. It’s a nice car but terrible to camp with. While I was out there, I did come across many other travellers in all different styles of living on the road, RV’s, campers, mobile homes and everything in between. I was enjoying this newfound freedom and wanted to continue exploring in this way, so I started looking into a different mode of transportation. 

I had gone through a couple of options, even buying one camper that I had to sell back to the previous owner because it was missing too many things. In the end, I found this 1989 Renault Itasca, and it was perfect. My favourite thing about it is that it had a big back window that let a lot of light in. It was big enough for me, my partner Winston who I travelled with for a while and my dog Rocko. The RV was big enough for both of us and Rocko to have our space. Another cool thing I loved about it is that for its size, it had an aeroplane-style collapsible shower where everything folded into the walls when not in use. You would need a much bigger camper to have a shower included, but the Itasca had one in a much more compact setup. 

Winston and I bought the RV in October 2017, renovated it in November, and it was ready by December. Our first journey was to Illinois, where my grandmother lived, about 5 hours away from where we were in Michigan. We ended up spending our first night in her driveway. My grandma was the only person I showed the RV to who was genuinely excited for me. Everyone else in my family thought I was crazy and asked me not to go down this path. But my grandma was super pumped for me. She started telling me about trips she went on with my granddad that I didn’t know about. They had travelled so much together, and I didn’t know about any of it. Had it not been for me going on this journey, I may have never found out about that part of her life. 

When she passed away this past December, may she rest in peace, I got boxes filled with pictures of her in all these different places, which is super cool. There are already two places she’s gone to that are on my list to check out as well. I ended up connecting with my grandma towards the end of her life in a way I never could have imagined. 

Alexandra discovered photos of her late grandmother on her own adventures

Oh, that’s so wonderful, hearing about different generations of Black women bravely going out into the world and living their best lives. And so the adventure continued with you Winston and Rocko in the Itasca? 

Yes, though we didn’t make it very far in the Itasca. 

After we left my grandma’s place, we were all up for going with the flow. Just seeing where the wind blows us and that’s how we found ourselves in this strange little town in Illinois. Sadly our RV broke down, but luckily it did so very close to a repair shop. This really felt like one of those cases of the universe working in weird ways. 

The owner of the repair shop saw us on his way to town, offered to help, gave us a ride into town and drove back to tow the RV to his garage. He connected us with a bed and breakfast in town where we paid to stay for a couple of nights while we waited for our RV to be fixed. This turned into a week, and the owners of the BnB were so friendly and accommodating about it all. They didn’t charge us for the additional nights stay, as they could see we were stranded. Everyone in that weird little town was just so friendly, it was amazing.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the Itasca repaired, because the old Renault needed parts that could only be ordered from France. Getting the parts would have cost way more than what we paid to buy and restore the RV. We decided to cut our losses, rented a car, drove back to Michigan, where I picked my SUV to continue the adventure. In a couple of days, I had built a platform for a bed and some drawers to fit in the back, and back on the road we went. 

We lived out of that for about 3 months, before finding the custom-built teardrop camper that I have now, in Grand Junction, Colorado. It was definitely a bit snug with two adults and a dog, but we made it work for us. 
Alexandra and Rocko in their custom built teardrop camper

I love how this story is just one big adventure unfolding. How did you fund your life on the road? How did you keep yourself alive? 

So 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, so that made it easy to live on the road. 

Before my first psychedelic experience, I had been working a regular adult job for several years. So I had savings and a 401K which I ended up cashing out to help fund my life on the road. I also picked up little jobs here and there while on the road to supplement my funds. 

Has photography always been a passion of yours then? Or is it something you picked up along the road? 

As a kid, I went to a Montessori school in elementary. These are schools that encourage free-thinking, creativity and independent learning. So I was always creative at that age. I had two friends who I used to write entire movies for and directed them to perform them. That’s what I wanted to do initially, write movies. I also loved taking pictures, capturing moments, but as I got older, I lost those passions somehow. I became more and more conscious of the fact that I would have responsibilities as an adult, and I thought that I would never be able to make money as a photographer. There are tonnes of directors and cinematographers in Hollywood, but looking at them, I thought I’d never be able to be one of them and thus would never make any money if I tried to pursue that path. Again, I was very risk-averse at that time. So I gave up those dreams for some time. 

Then in college, I dabbled in photography again. I ended up taking some photography and cinematography courses which put me back in that creative environment. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about the same thing as I was, and they made me consider the fact that maybe just maybe there was a potential for me to do something with it too. 

After college, I remained connected to the scene, even though I had a regular job as well. Michigan had a grant for the film industries, and a lot of big Hollywood productions were filmed there. That’s how I ended up working as an extra on a Transformers movie and another weird little Ryan Gosling movie. I also worked on a couple of independent films as a production assistant and continuity director. From there, I remained connected to the creative industry and started getting the odd little assignments here, made enough connections until I was able to do this full-time. 

How do your parents cope with the path you have chosen, the lifestyle you’ve opted for? How did they cope with the fact that you shunned the doctor, lawyer, accountant path to become this free-spirited nomad that creates her own life on the go? 

I think this has been hard on my mum most of all. Growing up, she and I were very close. In Black families in general, we tend to be pretty tight-knit units, so for her, it’s definitely hard that I’m not home anymore or close enough that she can see me whenever she wants. 

Both my parents are physicians, and they’ve spent a good portion of their lives building up to be able to afford a particular lifestyle. To get the big house, nice cars, send their kids to good schools... and then to have me turn around and reject that a little bit, opting to live like a “dirtbag” in the desert instead, that was definitely hard on my mum. 

I think what she expected was for me to be around, the same way she remained close to my grandma until she died. She would go and see her every week practically, so there was this same expectation from her to me that I’d always been within arms reach so to speak. 

My decision to say “Mum, I love you, but I need to build my life my own way” has definitely been a struggle.

One of acceptance on both parts, me understanding where her need for me to be close stems from and her understanding why I needed to do this and go down this path. Ultimately my goal, like any child, is to retire my parents and make sure they are looked after, but the way for me to get there is different than what they would have imagined. 

When I got my work featured in National Geographic, I showed her, and she was happy for me, but her main question remained, when are you coming back home? 

Well, I’m sure that despite it all, her love remains and she must be proud of you even if she doesn’t say it out loud? 

Oh yeah, I know she is. Whenever I make it home or speak to extended family members, they always tell me how my mum has been going around excitedly telling everyone all the things I’ve been up to. I just wish she would say those things to me more often. But it’s all good. I’m very excited to show her one day, the final results of all these amazing projects I’m working on, so she can see something I’ve built for and by myself. 

You’ve been quite sedentary now for the past year. Why the sudden change in circumstances? 

It’s because of another unfortunate event, that ultimately led to an excellent situation for me to be in, in the end. 

So back at the beginning of 2018, Winston and I had been travelling around in my converted SUV for some time, working remotely. At one point we had to be in San Francisco to meet with a new brand we were looking to start working with. Sadly, California is not a very transient friendly state, and everywhere we went, we found it very difficult to find a place to park our makeshift camper. Parking garages wouldn’t allow us to park anywhere that would be safe and guarded, so we ended up having to park on the streets of San Francisco. 

The worst happened and our car was broken into. They took all our equipment, camera’s, lenses, laptops, hard drives, all of it. Our livelihood was gone just like that. We continued travelling around California, trying to figure out what to do next, work out a plan, and slowly started to make our way towards Utah while citing for places to stay and regroup. 

That’s how we ended up here in Moab, my base for the past couple of years. This is where we were when we found the custom teardrop camper I now have, not far from here in Grand Junction, Colorado. We lived in the camper until the summer. I’ve only been living in a proper house for the past year or so. I haven’t stopped travelling though, I was still on the road on and off up to now. 

And then COVID hit! How has it been living through the pandemic where you are?  

Honestly, the effect of the virus has been the complete opposite here to what it’s been everywhere else. 

I think we moved to Moab at the right time last year. This is a tiny community, we have a population of about 5000. We are at the entrance point for two national parks, one of which is Arches National Park. Because of this, there is quite a bit of traffic through the town in normal times, but when COVID hit, the town got shut to outsiders, so were the parks.  

For us the inhabitants however, there was no order to shelter in place. We had very few cases, barely hit the double digits, so we were pretty closed off from it all. This meant that I had all this time, and this gorgeous place, devoid of crowds, and free for me to explore at will. And that’s exactly what I did. 

Before COVID, I had been canyoneering maybe 5 or 6 times, but now I had the chance to go more often, and I’ve become much better at it. I can now set up my own anchors, lead repels and so on. 

A lot of people here as well, would never have gotten paid vacation were it not for COVID. We had our town to ourselves and the time to explore it at will. We got a lot of sun, we remained active, went out and enjoyed our surroundings. I was in a better place than most people who were trapped in cities and getting sick because they couldn’t leave their homes or small apartments. 

I’ve been fortunate to be able to weather the storm in these surroundings.

What are some other challenges you’ve faced/encountered while living on the road? 

After living a nomadic lifestyle, one of the places I disliked most was California, because it’s not a transient friendly state at all. That’s where I got robbed and got kicked out of most Walmart parking lots. 

In the US, Walmart is one of the only places where you can go and park safely 24/7 with an RV. That’s different in California, where they have a substantial homeless population and treat all who are transient as homeless. So that really sucked, but on the other hand, I love Joshua Tree, and I consider it one of the most magical places in California; so I’m not discounting the state as a whole. 

Another issue is that dogs aren’t allowed in most national parks, or to be more precise, they’re only allowed on paved roads and not on any trails. This is understandable as they would interfere with the wildlife, but this was not handy as I was on the road with my foster dog Rocko. In the colder months, it was OK-ish to leave him in the car or the camper until we got back, but in the hotter months, especially in the desert, it’s not feasible. Winston and I would take turns hiking so that one of us could stay with Rocko and look after him. Since I’ve been in Moab, I’ve adopted a second dog, Bo. 

When I go on trips, I tend to leave them home with someone now, as it’s safer for them in the house, but I’d still like to be able to travel with them as much as possible. 

I’m working on some projects though to help and solve both these issues for other transients like me, so yeah watch this space. 

What are some things you can’t live without when on the road? 

My camera, obviously because I’m a photographer, and I like to capture all the moments and memories. On difficult days, it’s great to look back at the pictures, see how far we’ve come, what we’ve achieved and reminisce. So yeah my camera for sure. 

Next, I’d say water, bring water everywhere and have something that can either keep water cold in hot environments and hot in cold climates. Water is one thing you definitely don’t want to run out of anywhere. I invested in a properly insulated drinking bottle recently, and it has changed my life. 

And lastly my dogs. In general, I think you should bring some kind of totem with you, something of value that brings you joy, gives you hope and inspiration on the road. For me, that’s my dogs, so I try and take them with me whenever I can. 

Alexandra and Rocko

Finally, what top 3 tips, lessons, advice do you have for others who are considering this kind of lifestyle? 

I would say flexibility is crucial. As I said before, it’s essential to not look at situations unfolding as things happening to you personally. It’s easier said than done, I know, but this a mindset shift that can be cultivated over time. Make sure you have the mindset to handle setbacks because there will be plenty of those on the road for sure. If you decide to put your life in a motorised vehicle and head out, something is bound to go wrong, that’s just the way it is, it’s Murphy’s Law. So you need to be very aware of that, be OK with it and have the capabilities of seeing beyond the setbacks to keep going, and see the blessings in every downturn. 

Looking back at it, I think getting all my equipment stolen was one of the best things that happened to me. I could go around thinking it’s the worst thing in the world, but if it wasn’t for that happening, I would never have ended up in Moab, I wouldn’t have been here during the pandemic and had the most peaceful time where most people sadly went through a lot of hardships. 

Another thing I would say is travel within your means. There’s definitely been a resurgence of the camper / RV lifestyle, and you see people splashing money to get these fancy all decked out RVs without even knowing if they’re suited for that lifestyle. So instead of spending $20k on the latest sprinter model, why not spend $2000 on an older van that you refurbish and see how you get on. Everyone is different of course, and your needs are going to be different from mine, but be honest about where you are financially before you start. 

Finally, if you have animals, always check the weather and temperatures ahead of where you are going and plan accordingly. You may have to adapt your plans to suit them, but that’s just how it is if you care about them and their wellbeing. 

All images courtesy of Alexandra Keeling

The Black Explorer logo small black