I grew up all over the western half of the United States. I may have only lived in Washington, Oregon, California and Oklahoma but my life seems to have bloomed in the in-between. The color of my youth was a bit more saturated when my family was on the road. Maybe it was because there were fewer distractions to divert my attention from the world around me. Perhaps it was because my father dealt with a backseat plagued with two fighting brothers by shouting, “Both of you, shut up and look out your window.”
This was not a command tested more than once. It was learned to be a father's law. And that was the law of whatever land we went to.
With all this window staring, I got to know the horizon quite well. Sometimes it was steady, un-moving and only occasionally broken by a distant telephone pole, tree or farm house. Other times, it rose and fell like a heaving ocean as hills gave way to more hills. And once in awhile, my horizon seemed sky high as we passed though the ancient volcanic monoliths left behind to part the clouds themselves.
My brother and I loved watching movies. If we weren't on the road and the weather was poor outside, you might have thought we warmed our house with the VCR. We watched every movie we owned 20 times in a summer. One movie made a big impact on me as a growing young man. Kevin Costner's masterpiece Dances With Wolves was the first film to ever make me feel like I was born at least 100 years too late.
When I first started watching the movie, it was just a beautifully shot western. Who would expect any more of a deep analysis from a 5-year-old? As I continued to watch and ask my father questions – if he didn't simply point observations out on his own – I came to learn the importance of communication and acceptance. I started to grasp the value of knowing who you are, even if that meant not following or being with everyone else. At that age, “everyone else” was who most people thought they were meant to be with.
Of the many amazing lines in the movie, one began to nag at me as I grew older and went off to college. College, after getting over the initial phase freshman and sophomores go through where they think they can solve the world's problems because they enrolled in Poli Sci and Econ 101, opened my eyes to how small the world was getting. Worse still, that everyone was somehow cooperatively convinced it needed to be that way. The nagging deep down in my soul grew louder and louder – and in some cases more painful – the more I learned.
When John Dunbar visits Fort Hayes, he meets with Major Fambrough, making his request to be stationed at the frontier. Major Fambrough asks, “You wish to see the frontier?” Dunbar replies, “Yes sir, before it's gone.” This only led to me wondering, “Where is my frontier and is it gone? Am I too late?” When I think of this line – when I think of MY frontier – I imagine running my hands over tall golden grass that flows over hills for miles and miles. I imagine being wrapped in a blanket of wild.
And so, my overlanding life was conceived. I didn't even know what it was at the time. I just knew there was so much out there, so close to me and yet so ignored. My maiden voyage was to the Grand Canyon. My second was my lengthiest to Yellowstone and all through the Rockies. As fast as I covered ground with Chelsea and the boys, I learned a great deal. While on a stop over in Flagstaff, someone asked about my trailer and if I was going to Overland Expo. “Overland what?” I asked. “The Expo, here in Flagstaff. For all the ‘outdoors' people,” he tried to dumb it down for me.
As Chelsea and I wrote about our family experiences and our budding joy in the outdoors, we made plans to visit this Overland Expo. From what I saw online and from other accounts, it was a whole community unto its own. A community held together, not by borders, but by a common love of everywhere away. Everywhere without. Everywhere with everything left forgotten and ignored. A community of people who lived to find and stand before all that was just seen in photographs.
Off we went. bound for Northern Arizona (the desert state) with our newly setup military trailer and CVT Mt. McKinley tent. We made one stop in Laughlin, Nevada and finished the rest of our trip in the next leg. As we neared Flagstaff, my excitement grew exponentially. For the first time, I saw a small caravan of Unimogs and knew what they were all about. It was almost like watching the Blue Angels drive down the 40.
We pulled into Mormon lake and joined the hustle and bustle. It seemed to be organized chaos, with people going every which way but somehow knowing where they belonged. I watched, as some of the people I only knew from the internet or phone calls pulled in. In a way, it was like seeing your favorite grandma. You may have been only speaking on the phone for awhile but when you finally get to see her, you know she made cookies. The BEST cookies. There were Jeeps galore, Tacomas, Tundras and FJ Cruisers a plenty, a cornucopia of specialized travel vehicles ranging from suped up E350s to Unimogs and EarthRoamers. A few 4×4 Mercedes and Range Rovers clearly made it out from Los Angeles, and of course, there was a pack of full sized trucks like mine. Most of the full size trucks were close to stock and used for 5th wheels or larger trailers. I was a bit of an odd dog, as my truck (all 23′ of it) was set up more like a Tacoma.
We drove out to our camping area in the middle of the field. I was actually happy it was a ‘find your own place' way of doing things because I was able to find a spot I was comfortable with and begin setting up. What I loved about just being in the field was everyone looked at you with a sort of ‘welcome to the family' nod. Some even silently evaluated our “setup” (arangment and choice of offroad gear) and I confidently puffed my chest and took it in. I took up the practice and silently marveled at all the ideas and creativity around me along with the surprisingly similarity. In San Diego, I'm one of maybe half a dozen families with a Cascadia Vehicle Tent. Here, I was one of hundreds.
Then, as though Hilary Duff was singing from the top of the orange Unimog, “Let the Rain Fall Down” became the theme song of the event. It was followed immediately that night by a reenactment of “Frozen.” Chelsea and I quickly realized we were under prepared and had made the foolish mistake of thinking “Eh, it's Arizona,” when packing for the trip. Chelsea kept the boys at the campsite and I took a quick scouting walk into Overland Expo as the sun started to say its goodbyes. I met up with Bobby from CVT Tents, Pelfreybuilt (a native of San Diego) and eventually Sean Jennings (aka “Defconbrix”). I headed back to the tent and made the boys their peanut butter and honey sandwich dinner and settled in for the night.
Except it was anything but settling. The dogs were confused, sleeping in the annex room as the rain was joined in force by winds I can only estimate were gusting at about 50mph. The temperature dropped steadily and the tent struggled to hold its ambient warmth. With Minion (our 3rd son) being only four months old and just a few weeks out of the hospital for an emergency visit, Chelsea and I made a decision. As fun as camping in the field would be, it just was not the smart choice for our children. We made it through the night and made a rocket run into Flagstaff to get Chelsea and the boys booked into a hotel. We made one of the most expensive gear supply trips we've ever made to an REI just down the street. $933.98 of warm clothing later, I turned myself right around and headed back to the Expo.
Back into the swirling and jubilant sea. I walked straight to the vendor area and made my trips up and down the rows. It was so exciting, I forgot I had not eaten anything for hours. Not only were there gadgets and tools for every need from cooking to vehicle rescue, but it seemed to be an open space to share knowledge. At almost every booth I visited I could find something new to learn. Packing styles and options, solar power on the road, emergency phones, vehicle strength and stability, first aid, cooking styles and options and even traveling with pets. It was all here.
The mud in the fields continued to grow and it was a lot of fun watching the two wheel drive vehicles work their way out. Some needed help. A lot of help. It proved to be a convenient testing ground for some of my new knowledge and equipment.
I put my BF Goodrich tires to use and crawled and slid my way gleefully through the field. I moseyed around the tents and trailers and offered my help here and there along with many other visitors.
A restored six wheel military truck also took up a new role as “tow truck for the stranded.”
Remembering I was also interested in new and improved ideas and equipment for my truck, I went back to the vendor area of the Expo. I stopped by the Factor 55 booth and spoke with the rep who quickly enlightened me to their product and my smart investment in one. I met up with Dorian Hartfield with Buckstop Bumpers and talked about their great products and how much I was enjoying their “Boss” bumper.
I even found myself trying to be a bit useful when visiting at the CVT Tent booth as some visitors asked questions about the tents. I pulled out my smart phone pics and started out, “You can do this, and this, and look, you can even do this!”
As I went through the pictures and shared stories with other attendees and vendors of the Expo, I remembered what it was all about for me. John J Dunbar's word, “Before it's gone,” rang back into my head. I realized that this was about more than just me. It was about making memories for my boys as colorful as possible. It was about building a life full of wondrous and tangible experiences lived on the other side of the rail lining the guided path.
Leaving Overland Expo, I dropped Chelsea and Minion off at the Flagstaff Airport and picked up my father. Some Boy and Sidekick (first and second sons) stayed with my dad and I for the remainder of the trip home. The Overland Expo seemed to supercharge my trip as I new felt more confident in what I was doing. My father must have felt like he had boarded a locomotive to Adventure Land at full speed. He liked the experience of overlanding so much that, two weeks after getting home, he took my mom on a trip to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and the Grand Staircase Escalante.
If you think you're possibly missing something and have an itch for adventure, I strongly recommend you look into the Overland Expo. You don't have to be an expert. Heck…the less you know, the better! Overland Expo is about finding a community of people that love what they do and don't push it on others, but enjoy helping those who are curious and want to learn. The energy is amazing and – I must warn you – can be contagious. What's great about overlanding, is you can literally take it at your own pace. If all you want to do is pop a tent or sleep out of your car, then that's all you need and there's a place for you.
I'm looking forward to Overland Expo 2016.