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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.