Overland Expo 2014: What do you mean it’s not about the gear?

Overlanding is self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, it is accomplished with mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping, often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries.

This was my fourth year visiting Overland Expo.

It’s easy to get caught up in the show.  Every year Mormon Lake finds itself swarming with giant shiny vehicles, classic overland rigs, and custom monsters designed solely to roam the Earth in style.  It’s hard not to get excited about all the chrome, steel, grease and rubber promising adventure and travel like you’ve only imagined it could be.  From restored off-road classics to bright and showroom-shiny marvels of technology the Overland Expo definitely focuses on the vehicles.  But this is no car show.

Range Rover-1

If you’ve got the vehicle, well there’s always the specialized gear to go with it.  You can’t have an off-the-beaten-path adventure without the right field-recovery kit, or high-powered winch, or maybe you need a bad-ass light kit, roof rack or gnarly new bumper.  If your rig is settled, maybe it’s the camping gear you need?  Rooftop tents, pop-up adventure trailers, fully integrated camp kitchens with pressurized hot and cold water and a solar powered refrigerator.  As a gear-head I get it.  I want to see the newest improvements in technology and the bright-and-shiny “best of show” on display so I can picture myself aggressively throwing sweaty handfuls of money at the vendors praying that I’ll get to take it home and love it and pet it and name in George.

Vehicles of Overlanding-4

Maybe you’re not in the market for anything in particular.  Then it’s simply the spectacle of the Overland Expo that pulls you in.  Everywhere you turn there are massive land-crawling monsters of mechanization decked out with every impossible combination of equipment reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic-Mad-Max-sci-fi thriller.  If you should happen to witness one of these massive lumbering beasts in action, growling with every movement and belching diesel-drenched awesome from it’s battle-blackened exhaust pipe, I dare you not to stare in wide-eyed child-like wonder.

Vehicles of Overlanding-2

But there’s another side to the Overland Expo, the real side, the soft pink underbelly where you’ll discover the human element that tells the real story.  People travel from all over the world to converge on the little wind-swept patch of dusty grass outside Mormon Lake to be a part of a unique community that gathers here to celebrate global travel and human culture.  When you venture past the noise and gleaming metal you’ll discover a common theme in the stories of the sun-baked, trail-tested, road-wise representatives of this community.  They are people who laugh easy and place high value on friendships, good cigars and a well crafted story.

Overland Expo 2014-1

The gear becomes less and less important as you realize the human side of the equation wholly eclipses the mechanical.  People that have been away from home, friends and family for months, maybe years, at a time in the holy name of adventure.  In some cases it is a permanent lifestyle change wherein every material possession is sold, donated or abandoned to make life on the road a full-time pursuit.  Others save for years, or sell assets to take extended leave from the day-to-day drudgery of an old career and escape.  Others, usually the younger Overlanders, have found ways to work on the road in fields that don’t require a desk, a chair or a brick-and-mortar storefront allowing them to make enough money to keep moving from one adventure to the next.  The underlying subtext that permeates every story is the urge to experience the larger world first hand, face-to-face, to see it, smell it, taste it and make it a part of themselves.

Overland Expo 2014-6

Spending long months, or years, traveling the globe and living with, around and in your vehicle is a unique experience that may be difficult to relate to if you haven’t been there yourself.  It can be difficult among your “normal” friends back home to find a sympathetic ear for your story about blowing out your suspension in the middle of the African desert on a lonely, rutted dirt road.  It’s hard for the non-traveler to find context with your fear, anxiety and ultimate triumph in that situation.  Finding people to relate to, and who can relate to you, is an important piece of belonging.  For all it offers, the most important value of the Overland Expo is the ability for these people to gather as a community and share their passion with like-minded, similarly-experienced people.  The more unique a community is, the stronger it’s connection and the Overland Expo has the feel of a family reunion where everyone is the crazy uncle with the good stories.  It is, for the most part, a community that doesn’t care if you travel by motorcycle, car, truck, van, Earth Roamer or 1993 Mercedes-Benz UNIMOG U-2450 UNICAT.  The important thing is that you travel, experience the world, get off the beaten path as much as possible and see the world with your own eyes.  If you can make that leap and be brave enough to drive a road that makes you nervous, visit a city with a name you can’t pronounce and have food you don’t recognize with someone who’s language you don’t speak…then these are your people.  Come out next year, say hi, and ask them about their latest adventure.  You won’t regret it.

Overland Expo 2014-2

For another perspective (and a little more information about Overland Expo itself) check out the recent coverage by Val-in-Real-Live about OX14.

Hiking Havasupai – My Successful Return to Hiking

Havasupai Falls Hike Arziona

Forgetting the ibuprofen was a bad idea.  It was a rookie mistake and I was paying the price for it.  I sat down heavily on a concrete and rock wall next to several other sweaty, dust covered hikers taking advantage of one of the last shady spots left in the rocky canyon.  I pulled the hat from my throbbing head and wiped the sweat from my brow, eyeing a line of horses kicking up dust on their way up the steep switchbacks toward us.  I wanted to stay ahead of the horse pack but I was loosing steam.  As I caught my breath and waited for the aching in my knees to subside I made idle chit-chat with the guy next to me.  There was probably less than a half a mile left, but it was the hard half mile…and my body was constantly reminding me that I was neither young nor in shape anymore.

The guy beside my made some comment, by this point I was barely listening, and I looked up to see the horses were right on top of us and moving fast around the bend in the switchbacks.  As the huge animals jockeyed for position they took up the entire trail squeezing out our lazy spot in the shade.  One horse cut the outside route with a gallop right toward me and I shot up and spun myself toward him and to the outside edge of the trail, just narrowly missing being trampled by the beast.

“Ha ha!  I thought you were tired!”, one of the other resting hikers was amused by my sudden agility.

It’s amazing what a little adrenaline can do for you.

Most anyone who reads here knows I’ve been struggling with injuries for the better part of a year.  Even though last year was one of the most amazing travel years I’ve ever had, the whole thing was a huge, painful struggle.  Last May I found out I had a double stress fracture in my right foot that sidelined me for the better part of 3 months.  As soon I recovered somewhat from that, I injured my left knee.  When I rushed to get back to training after the knee felt better I quickly re-injured my knee even worse and had to resign myself to doctor’s visits and physical therapy.  I had worked hard over the last several years to get into shape and be able to do the kinds of adventures and travel that I enjoy and this year of pain and frustration was a major setback.

Coming back from this many injuries back to back has been a frustratingly slow process.  I’ve had to accept a lot of limitations and come to terms with losing the fitness level I had earned.  It felt like I had thrown away years worth of work and effort.  But taking it slow was going to be necessary if I was ever going to get back anywhere near where I was.

Mooney Falls Havasupai Hike

 

 

Hanging out at Havasupai Falls

I think it was October or November when we decided we were going to hike Havasupai.  My wife and I have been talking about going for years.  I have hiked into Havasupai several times since moving to Arizona but she had never been and has been asking to go nearly as long as I’ve known her.  When her sister offered to let their oldest come out to visit us, my wife thought it would be a great opportunity to show off our state by taking him into Havasupai and showing him an amazing time.  Jason is 14, athletic and is active in the Boy Scouts so taking him on a sweet multi-day backpacking trip to one of the most beautiful places in the country was a great plan.  For Christmas we sent him an old National Geographic magazine with an article about Havasupai, writing in the magazine “April 2014, prepare yourself!”.

As April drew closer, I didn’t seem to be any closer to healed and certainly not healed enough to train for the hike.  If I was going to be able to go at all it was going to be right on the heels of finishing rehab, with no prep.  Goody for me.

Beaver Falls Havasupai Hike

Hiking Havasupai is an interesting experience.  I’ve done it several times and even though it’s close to 12 miles to the campground it’s mostly downhill on the way in.  The switchbacks are the first thing and they’re over quickly (and your’re going down so it’s not as bad).  Then it’s just a long canyon hike down a dry creek bed for the most part.  The hike out is something else entirely and first timers are often taken by surprise at how challenging it can be.  That long slow, easy downhill all the way in turns into an imperceptible uphill grind that saps your energy and then dumps you at the foot of a mile or so of switchbacks fully exposed to the desert sun.  It’s usually not something you do on a whim with no training or a good base fitness level.  I had neither.

Jason did great and his boundless 14 year old energy had him running circles around us for the most part.  I hope we were able to give him an experience he’ll never forget.  I felt like we could have done better had I been more physically prepared for the hike, but all in all we did well.  We put in over 30 miles of hiking that weekend, explored and swam around countless waterfalls, he slept in a hammock for the first time and got to see at least part of the Grand Canyon.  For me, I got to revisit one of my favorite places on the planet and show it off to my wife.  But more than that, I proved to myself that I have recovered from my injuries and can get serious about getting back to the kind of shape that will allow me to keep up with the serious hikers.

I was pretty beat up most of the time we were in the canyon, walking around sore and in pain.  But it was the soreness of muscles worked past their limits, feet sore and bruised from over-activity, NOT the pain of injury.  My knees held up well despite my lack of preparation and meager fitness.  Despite the soreness we pushed through to go see more stuff, jump off waterfalls and swim in the shallow pools.  I may have spent an hour with ice on both knees after hiking out of the canyon but I could still walk, I wasn’t crippled and that, for me, was a success.

Mooney Falls Hike ladder chain

I’ve left this year’s travel calendar almost blank, not knowing what I would be physically able to do.  But now I want to fill in the time with some of the adventures I’ve missed out on.  I had to pass up so many great invitations last year and take it easy on other trips where I wanted to do so much more.  This year will be about saying yes and pushing myself.  It’s time to start looking at all those summits, canyons, rivers and creeks I longed for all year.  Time to pull out the maps and start planning.  I think I hear Utah calling my name…