An Overlanding Virgin Goes to MAOF

It’s not that I’m opposed to the idea of lifting a 4x4 and tricking it out with camping gear. Nor amI opposed to the outdoors, having been camping since cub scouts. It’s just that I’ve never hadthe finances or (more honestly) the personal inclination to turn my vehicle into something readyto go on an excursion across the lion-infested plains of the Serengeti.

I’m not an Overlander…

My ride is a fifteen year old Kia that goes as far off-road as my front lawn and its rock-crawling is limited to gravel driveways.  The closest it has been to an honest to God overland expedition has been to a family campsite on Falls Lake.

It’s not that I’m opposed to the idea of lifting a 4×4 and tricking it out with camping gear.  Nor am I opposed to the outdoors, having been camping since cub scouts.  It’s just that I’ve never had the finances or (more honestly) the personal inclination to turn my vehicle into something ready to go on an excursion across the lion-infested plains of the Serengeti.

However, my best friend Ryan asked me to go to the Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival this year to help with the BackroadVentures booth.  Because if you need to sell gear to overlanders, bring along the guy who knows nothing about it!  Well, I’ve been riding shotgun with Ryan on camping trips and trail rides since college so I jumped at the chance to check out this overlanding thing he had gotten into.  Armed with personal biases influenced by reading the occasional off-roading magazine (you know the one; has a 4×4 on the cover with BOLD FONTS! talking about MODS! and BUILDS!), I went along fully expecting to find myself in the land of booshie car-campers.

A bit Booshie

Then we arrived and I discovered that… uh, well, yeah, it actually is kind of booshie.  For one, there’s the huge amounts of money, time, and effort that overlanders put into their shiny rigs and fancy gear.  Every rig is lifted, given giant nobby tires, and armored with skid plates, rails, new bumpers, etc.  But all that isn’t unusual.  What makes them “overland” is that they are further crowned with roof-top tents or drop-in campers; adorned with winches, shovels that look like sporks, solar panels, and gas cans; equipped with tumorous, brightly-colored, plastic skateboards used to “maximize traction” and help unstick the stuck; and sprout a forest of ham and CB antennas.  

Overlanders also have a jones to collect velcro-backed patches that are proudly placed on the fabric-covered ceilings of their rigs like some sort of automotive Sistine Chapel.  And handles!  So many damn handles!  Bolt-on footholds.  Lift gate ladders.  There were pop-up and truck-mounted showers, camera-equipped drone flights, and a love of quite expensive chairs whose brand-name rhymes with “Beelinox.”  

The booshieness also comes from what people do with said gear, specifically cooking.  Look, my idea of advanced camp cooking is impaling a hotdog on a stick, letting it burn over an open fire, then shoving the nozzle of a can of squeezable cheese into the hole and loading that sucker up with even more cholesterol.  The first night there, Ryan cooked steaks while his overlanding friends (who we camped next to) dined on steamed clams and lobster.  People prepared charcuter… charcyutier… chucartear… cheese plates, drank chilled wine pulled from onboard refrigerators, and enjoyed ice cream freshly made using some bag contraption.  And inexplicably, lots of people were talking about cooking with Skittles.  I guess they just need to taste the rainbow or something.

It’s called a “skottle?”  The #@%& is a skottle?!

What it’s all About

But here’s the important thing: I quickly learned that this booshiness was just the surface.  I arrived privately expecting a weekend jaunt with woodland snobs, but almost immediately found out that I was wrong.  These were the friendliest and most generous people I’ve ever met camping.  Everyone invites everyone else over to have a seat (“Just pick a Beelinox, all are welcome”), grab a beer, share a joke, and laugh.  The guy grilling the lobster?  If you’re talking to him or even just walking by while he’s cooking, he’s not only going to invite you to try some but will try to feed you like my Italian grandmother would.  You see a rig or tent you like?  You’re invited to climb inside and take a look while getting a guided tour.  

“How does that lift/axle/locker work for ya?”  

“Man, that light-bar is awesome.”  

“That lifted mini-van is tight!”  

The trash-talk between the Jeep acolytes and the Toyota Bros was all good-natured.  Well, at least I think it was good-natured.  Strengths and weaknesses were compared, debated, joked about, and all agreed on one thing: no one respected the off-road capabilities of the new Range Rovers.

At the skills challenge, everyone got applause and encouragement, especially the guy who crawled his way up the rock course in a Lexus with a bike rack!  It’s a mutual appreciation society where everyone shows interest in, and admiration for everyone else’s rig and gear.  Yes, even the Range Rovers.

Further, these people are interested in doing good.  I met, caravaned, and camped with an active duty soldier who uses his free time and rig to help fellow vets in need of adventure therapy by taking them off-roading and camping (Patriot Therapy).  Others donated time, money, and equipment to his and other causes.  Everyone showed a deep concern for sharing their passion for the wild while making sure to take care of it.  And those who would use overlanding solely to take advantage of others and make a buck were derided.

I learned that the snob at MAOF wasn’t any of the overlanders.  It was me.  These people don’t really care who you are, what you drive, or what your equipment and resources allow you to do.  OK, the guy doing donuts in the Porsche with the all-terrain tires was getting looks (but turns out he owns the location).  But I learned that the point is to get out of the house, enjoy the journey, and share it with others.  Even if the adventure is to load your kids in the Kia, tear down a fire-road (well, mosey down a fire-road; it is only two-wheel drive), and set up a tent off the beaten path.  Overlanding is the trip, the adventure, not the tricked out rig.

I’m Mike, and I’m proud to be–in my own meager, humble way– an overlander.

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