We’re diving deeper into the national parks with a spotlight on the people who connect with them internally whether that’s through a career, a lifestyle, a passion, or simply being a local.
Chelsea Mealo makes all of that possible when she’s on the road as a travel photographer, adventurer, and model. You may recognize her from Instagram or from our work with her in the past. From Washington, to Japan, Hawaii, and all the hidden gems we desire, she’s conquered numerous national parks with her pup Ranger who is always along for the ride and her partner Brayden. Her work consists of incredible places to stay, see, and ideas for an adventure you may not have considered. This summer, we’re making sure to follow along her travels from west to east as should you! Check out her Instagram @chelseamealo and her website www.chelseamealo.com for all the road trip and travel ideas you’ll need.
Q: Let’s go back in time for a moment and hear how this all started. When was the moment you knew that travel photography was your niche and when did Ranger come about?
A; It’s interesting how I landed in the travel photography niche after initially leading a traditional path and later beginning my photography journey down a completely different avenue. I went to Penn State for Energy, Business and Finance and got a job at the Nasdaq PHLX upon graduation. I picked up photography after school as a creative outlet and a way to make friends in a new city.
Originally, I would use groups on Facebook to find other young creatives to meet up with in the Greater Philadelphia Area and at that time my focus was on modeling and portraiture photography. As I refined my skills in this niche, I had job offers from individuals looking to have their portraits taken. I never expected that I would be able to make a living off of photography and was taken back when people wanted to offer me money for my work. But I ran with it and started offering portraits as my first photography service. As time went on, my photography slowly transitioned into lifestyle work for smaller brands as well as entertainment companies for concerts and music festivals around the East Coast. As work picked up, I made the leap of faith to quit my full time job and see what the freelance world had in store. I connected with some local media teams in Philly and ended up photographing for Live Nation at their music venues, for High Times Cannabis Cup, Vans Warped Tour and Camp Bisco among many other events. I loved this phase of my journey as I got to experience so many types of music, meet an eclectic range of humans and see artists up close.
I began to focus more on travel photography after meeting my partner Brayden Hall, a full-time landscape and adventure photographer. As we aligned our trips, we also found a way to utilize our different skills to create a stronger, more comprehensive way of storytelling through photography. We were able to learn from each other as we combined portrait, lifestyle, product, aerial, landscape and adventure photography.
After we got stuck on the island of Mauritius for six months during the Pandemic (A whole other side story), we came home to the States. I was set on getting a pup immediately. We found Ranger, a husky/golden retriever mix, and life has been forever changed. Now we are sure to orient our adventures around what we think Ranger will like best. Our little family recently grew by one more when we got our small truck camper set up to make adventures and our photography lifestyle more attainable.
Q: When planning a road trip, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you consider your route?
A: Oftentimes, the first factor that comes into play when deciding a route is the season. Regions can change drastically season to season and this may dictate what is accessible, the weather and how the region will present at that time of year. I always want to make sure I will be able to access locations and that they will have the desirable conditions I am aiming for depending on current goals. For example, many mountainous areas are amazing in the summer months, but in the winter a lot of my bucket list spots are inaccessible due to deep snow and road closures. There are also times my partner and I will specifically seek out weather conditions and seasonal manifestations (such as Autumn colors and wildflowers) which points us in the direction of destinations we would want to visit to achieve the vision. For example, every year we look at foliage reports for the Northeast during September and October to determine when and where to find color and figure out our road trip accordingly. Time and place go hand in hand when it comes to photography and is the cornerstone of every trip I am inspired to embark on.
Q: In the world of travel creators there’s many moving pieces every day like choosing a route, where to shoot along that route, planning stays, working with places you stay… There’s so much beauty in what we see as the viewers but the behind the scenes takes a lot of work and planning. What's some advice you can offer that could help with figuring out that creative and career balance while on the road?
A: There are dozens of roles I fill to make my photography visions come to life: trip planner, stylist, model, backpacker, researcher, troubleshooter, editor, business entrepreneur, marketer, manager and so many others. In addition, photographers constantly need to be learning new skills that will aid in their pursuit of their style of photography. I’ve learned to backpack, climb, study meteorology, free dive, interior decorate and so many other things simply so that I could achieve that imagery I want. To be a successful photographer, you need to be able to juggle a dynamic set of responsibilities and finding balance is the biggest challenge many of us face. One thing I have been working on is the idea of taking it slow and rolling with whatever comes my way. If I’m too set on specific locations or an itinerary, it can often cause stress and hinder my ability to simply look around at where I am and use current situations to my advantage. My partner and I are trying to focus on spending more time in smaller regions so that we have flexibility to explore and see what we can find as opposed to trying to pack in too much and not being open-minded to changing plans. We always like to have multiple days in one spot to distribute between professional photography, creative concepts, and to simply enjoy our visit. I find taking road trips slower and focusing more on small areas actually frees up time spent driving around, contributes to experiencing a place more fully, lifts stress, and results in feeling more confident about my work in the area.
Q: You have the opportunity to shoot for one national park for an entire year and live in the park, which are you choosing and why?
A: I’ve always found the atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest to be magical, but after moving to Seattle last year I appreciate it even more. I’ve learned that the PNW has so much more to offer than the gloomy and rainy mood I’ve had in mind. Throughout my road trips in Washington state this past year, I’ve had beautiful summer afternoons at alpine lakes, hikes through foggy rainforests, explorations to hot springs in deep snow, and explosive sunsets on the coast. There is a never ending list of hikes that I currently have on my bucket list for Washington and many of those are in the Cascades. I would love a year to photograph and explore North Cascade National Park and conquer as many summits and lake destinations as possible.
Q: What are your first 5-10 road trip essentials that come to mind while reading this question? Whether food, gear, photo equipment, playlists, company, etc.
A: Of course the most important factor to any of my trips is company: Brayden, Ranger and any of our family or good friends. Sharing experiences with those that matter to you most are what will make an adventure memorable. Next would have to be my obnoxious array of camera gear. Finally, there’s the little things that round out the trip: a speaker for vibing out, hiking and camping gear to explore the wilderness, a lighter, and caffeine.
Q: For someone who has not been on a U.S road trip, can you give us a short itinerary of where you would point them first?
A: One of my absolute favorite regions that I could revisit over and over again and never get bored of would be the Southwest. I find the diversity of landscapes that exists there is incredibly unique and think that everyone would appreciate seeing it with their own eyes. The striking colors, fascinating geography and inherent patterns all contribute to a memorable experience. Any road trip loop between Southeast California, Moab in Utah and Tucson in Arizona would have endless beauty. There’s Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert, and Alabama Hills in California. Valley of Fire is on the way out of California on the drive to Utah. Utah has an array of spots such as Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, Factory Butte, Canyonlands, etc. The Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats are always an incredible destination as well. Finally, Arizona has stunning scenes by Page, the Superstition Mountains, Four Peaks Wilderness, Lost Dutchman, Saguaro National Park, and the iconic Route 66.
Q: While working with folks in the outdoor space we’ve noticed that the community can feel like one extended family. In what ways has being on the road shifted your community personally and through social media?
A: Photography never began as a business pursuit. For me, it was a motive to explore places I may not have otherwise and simply a reason to push myself out of my comfort zone and introverted tendencies to meet up with creatives all over the world. Photography has exponentially expanded my lifestyle, my experiences and my circle of friends from different walks of life. As you get older and aren’t able to make friends as easily through sports, school, and the community you grew up with, I think it’s important to find something that grants you opportunities to build new connections. I am grateful that much of the photography community is inherently artistic, open-minded, and in search of adventure. This brings the type of individuals I like to surround myself with into my life. Adventure photography is a great tool to connect through, whether you’re utilizing it as a way to connect to nature, adventurists, artists, entrepreneurs, culture, or anything in between.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to leave it better than you found it while traveling across the country?
A; It has been disappointing to see how some others treat the outdoors when traveling, mistreating sites either ignorantly or deliberately. Whenever I’m able to, I will try to clean up the site as much as possible. Further, I think simply leading by example can create a ripple effect of respectful action. It’s important to speak up when sharing the outdoors with others that aren’t as aware of how to leave no trace. I think that when issues arise, having a respectful approach to help educate others of how to treat the earth is important to have a more positive result.