Six journalists, guests of Overland Expo for the first-ever Overland Trail Tour, sheepishly milled around the small fleet of overland-outfitted vehicles lined up in front of the main entrance of the Cliffrose hotel in Springdale, Utah. The early morning sun’s bright yellow light reflected off the sedimentary rock formations that loom over them, illuminating the rigs from across the highway. The yellow rays highlight both the vehicles’ sharp body lines as well as the plethora of gear bolted to them.
The fleet was a diverse but impressive one. A Mercedes Sprinter van outfitted by Field Van led the pack. It was followed by a modified Honda Ridgeline, Defender 110 from Swarovski Optics, Subaru Outback Wilderness, Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, and Overland Expo’s Ultimate 4Runner. Each vehicle had been specially outfitted — from modest to luxurious — in order to finish the journey.
Over the next three days, the journalists — supported by five overland vehicles and led by Overland Expo’s official trainers from 7P Overland — will drive more than 400 miles off-road. The Overland Trail Tour will take them from Springdale, Utah to Flagstaff, Arizona. Along the way, they will wind through Grafton, Utah, Gooseberry Mesa, Hildale/Colorado City, Arizona, along the Kanab Plateau, the east rim of the Grand Canyon, past Marble Canyon, and into Grand Staircase Escalante.
But before the journalists could sip coffee on the rim of the canyon and watch the sunrise, they’d need to pick their overland rigs.
Encouraged to select their vehicle for the morning, so the convoy could get underway, none of the journalists wanted to step on anyone’s toes. So, they just ambled around, waiting for someone to make the first move. After a few minutes of hemming and hawing, each of the six writers and photographers picked a rig and settled into the driver’s seat.
With all the test rigs piloted by eager captains, the convoy rolled out. After a mere 4.3 miles of two-lane highway, the convoy turned left off the tarmac and onto the dirt. The Overland Trail Tour had officially begun.
It wasn’t long before the rigs found their first challenge, a long and steep hill climb. More than just steep, the loose and sandy track was also pockmarked by deep potholes and littered with cantaloupe-sized rocks.
Jim West and Chris Walker from Overland Expo’s official training team, 7P Overland, summited the hill first in Jim’s Tdi-swapped 1998 Land Rover Discovery 1. The two khaki-clad men hopped out of the dusty D1 and guided the other rigs up the hill. Chris and Jim, seasoned off-roaders and overlanders, played dual roles of spotters and trainers. They gave both directions and off-road driving lessons from the track, coaching the driver through the open driver’s window.
When people think of off-road driving, they might picture the King of the Hammers at which people toss modified Jeeps up huge rocky hill climbs at virtually full throttle. Or they might imagine the Baja 1000. There, too, pinning the skinny pedal to the floor is the name of the game. Overland driving couldn’t be further from those competitions.
Chris and Jim preach mechanical sympathy, as we precisely climb the hill. The idea of mechanical sympathy is that your overland rig is your home while you’re on the trail. You want to drive slowly and smartly so that you and your rig can get through to the end of the trail. Rushing or getting throttle-happy exponentially increases the risk of damaging the vehicle and running the risk of catastrophic failure. And if your vehicle is stuck, so are you.
Unlike the 4×4 4Runner or Gladiator with locking differentials, the Subaru and Honda are driven by all-wheel drive systems with clever traction control programs. It was exceedingly important for the drivers of these cars to pick the right line. With the 7P reps pointing the way, all the vehicles came through unscathed. This afforded us the opportunity to put the convoy in park, hop out, and enjoy our first view.
After snapping gigabytes worth of photos, we climbed back into the vehicles and continued down the trail. It wasn’t long before we pulled over for lunch beneath the hot Utah sun now directly above our heads. Lunch didn’t require much effort, though, aside from setting up some folding chairs; the OTT chefs already had prepared a small feast for us. While we all munched on our gourmet sandwiches and chips, each of the brand representatives performed walk-arounds of their respective vehicles. It was a veritable who’s who of overland-capable vehicles.
Subaru’s Outback Wilderness, aside from the rooftop tent, was stock. The Ridgeline, dubbed the ‘Honda Ridgeline HPD Trail Tour Project Vehicle,’ was specifically modified for the OTT. You can see the list of its components on the Honda media website. Swarovski Optiks picked a 2021 Defender 110 for this journey, which, too, was mostly stock aside from its Alu Cab rooftop tent. Overland Expo’s Ultimate 4Runner was in the middle of the field. The 2020 Jeep Gladiator on the trip was my own personal vehicle. At the pinnacle of the group was the Mercedes Sprinter outfitted by Field Van. Family-owned Field Van has been building overland-capable vans since the 1980s. The care and craftsmanship that comes from 30 years of expertise were apparent in this Sprinter, which had room to sleep six people — comfortably, I might add — across five different beds.
Stuffed with the finest trailside sandwiches I’ve ever had, we wrapped lunch, and the convoy continued down the track. Aside from a stretch of heavily washboarded road, which was dozens of miles long, the rest of the trail was fairly tame. This gave the members of the convoy a chance to talk — both to their driving partners (each media vehicle had a brand representative riding shotgun) and to the rest of the group on the radios Midland provided for the trip. It was fun to crack jokes and hold conversations, albethey brief, while miles apart from each other.
Camp, night one
On the outskirts of our first campsite, Jim and Chris paused the convoy again. Not only did they want to arrange vehicles in a sensible manner, they wanted to instill in us the importance of staying on the beaten path.
Some of the roads and trails we were traversing were hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old, with history dating back to early Native American communities’ travel routes. By now, these trails were ancient scars in the landscape. I’m not being hyperbolic, scars are exactly what these trails are.
The desert might look like a hard, desolate environment. It’s anything but. For example, there’s a soil called “cryptobiotic crust.” It’s a fragile, living soil that prevents erosion and desertification. It’s important that everyone, including overlanders, be cautious not to “bust the crust,” as they say, and not damage this special soil. Damaging the soil can negatively impact the environment for thousands of years. Not busting the cryptobiotic crust is just one example of the tread lightly mentality.
Overlanders may travel through the backcountry in sometimes large and heavy vehicles. That doesn’t mean, however, that overlanders don’t respect and cherish our world’s natural spaces — quite the contrary. We realized that it’s careful and considerate stewardship of the wilderness that will both preserve it for future overland travelers but also ensure continued public access to these places. Just because a piece of land is publicly owned doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to remain open to public access; it’s a privilege we need to work to maintain.
With this important lesson echoing in our minds, Chris and Jim carefully directed vehicles into camp, starting with the most important vehicles in the group: the chefs.
Following the entire convoy are two overland-kitted rigs, a fifth-gen 4Runner driven by Jason Schaub of Overland Cookery and a third-gen Tacoma piloted by Daniel Nally, from The Basin, and Jacqui Villarreal.
Once situated, the chefs got to work making dinner for the first night. The rest of us set up our tents. Although we’d been chatting periodically over the radio, this was the first time on the trip that all of us had to congregate and bond.
Some say the journey is the point of overlanding, not the destination. That’s certainly true. At least for me, though, a big portion of the enjoyment I derive from overlanding is the camaraderie, the community. As much as I geek out on trucks, gear, and nature, being able to chew the proverbial fat with friends is what I love most about overlanding. My spirit is buoyed by gathering around a campfire and chatting into the night.
In addition to enjoying an absolutely tremendous meal, we were treated to a rare glimpse into the heavens. Ben Lizdas from Swarovski Optics pulled out his spotting scope and aimed it at the dark night sky. Impressively, Ben was able to find Jupiter and its moons after just a few moments of adjustments. We took turns marveling at the image. Then Ben one-upped himself by sighting in Saturn and its rings. One journalist, Andy Didorosi, remarked that Saturn didn’t look real. Rather, he joked that it looked more like a sticker of Saturn — it was too perfect to be real.
It was this touchpoint that was the virtual icing on the cake for me. It capped off the evening perfectly. Not only did we get to enjoy the company of some exceedingly cool people, we also were offered a rare opportunity to spy on the celestial bodies above us. Without Ben and his world-class optics, matched with his uncanny knack for locating planets, I would have never had that experience. That realization re-emphasizes the ‘journey over destination’ concept for me; even if I were to return to that spot another time, without that crew, the experience would be completely different. And that’s something special.
Back on track
If you haven’t had the opportunity to wake up in the desert to smell of frying bacon, I highly recommend it. It is so choice.
Before the sun even had the chance to peek over the horizon, Jason, Daniel, and Jacqui were at the grille, scrambling up eggs and frying bacon for the crew’s breakfast.
Over coffee and far too many — and delectable — breakfast sandwiches, Jim and Chris previewed the day’s trek for the crew. They also complimented us for our careful driving and ability to follow directions. From this tidbit, I got the sense that not all novice overlanders that 7P Overland train are quite as attuned to direction-taking as our group.
With that bit of housekeeping done and our stomachs full, we packed up camp and hit the trail once again. This time, our destination was Marble Canyon. Throughout the trip, the journalists cycled through all of the designated media vehicles, including my personal Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, in which I rode shotgun.
More than giving us a chance to bond one-on-one, this musical-chairs scheme highlighted how different drivers handled the motley crew of vehicles. Some drivers were heavier on the throttle. Others were more cautious. No matter who was driving, and in what manner, it was remarkable to see the diversity in personalities and machines making the same journey. From a stock Subaru to a highly outfitted Sprinter, the fleet ran the gamut of overlanding steeds. Personalities and capabilities came into sharp focus when we encountered the sole mud pit of the trip.
Although it’d rained two nights before we departed, it hadn’t rained for long. What’s more, it was the first rain the region had received in many months. So, until we encountered this particular mud patch, you would not have thought the area had seen precipitation in years.
Jim West dove in first, piloting his oil-burning Land Rover through the muck gently. Past the muck, he hopped out and waved the rigs through one by one. Other drivers didn’t employ the same restraint that Jim had. Instead, they opted for the ‘full send’ driving style, showering walls of mud across the vehicles and on our videographer, Josh, as they ripped through. It was a brief moment of silliness in an otherwise more serious drive. And it made for some great photos.
Pulling up to our final campsite at dusk on the literal rim of Marble Canyon a few hours later, all the vehicles, dusted and caked with mud, framed the spectacular view.
I’ve been through this region before and hiked the Grand Canyon, but the majesty and colors of the space never ceases to amaze me. It cuts right to the core of my soul each time, as if I were seeing it for the first time. It’s stunning, sure. But the landscape is further colored by my own emotions at the moment. A different group, a different reason for being there, no two visits to Marble Canyon are the same. Moved by the moment, a lump developed in my throat. Luckily, I was able to distract myself by setting up camp and avoid the embarrassment of getting misty-eyed in front of the crew.
Like we had done the night before, we all set up camp. Meanwhile, the chefs prepared a masterpiece of a meal: salmon and flank steak paired with kale salad. After dinner, we all hung around the camp in smaller, individual groups. We chatted into the night before eventually splitting off one by one to bed down for the night.
The last morning
I was awakened again by the smell of breakfast. This time I was especially thankful for the early wake-up call. That’s because the view of the canyon at sunrise shouldn’t be missed. Those of us who were up quick enough were delighted with a spectacle for the senses, as dark blue shades of the lingering night sky gave way to the white, yellows, and oranges of the morning sun that dance off the knurled canyon walls.
Of the 350-something miles we’d done off-road so far on the Overland Trail Tour, the last 70 or so would be on tarmac, as we beelined our way to Flagstaff for Overland Expo West 2021. Dusty and keen for a hot shower, the group remained relatively silent on the last leg of the trip; the radios remained virtually silent that morning.
This silence gave me further time to reflect on the experience. Watching the journalists, mostly novice overlanders, take on the trail with enthusiasm and care — not just for the sacred natural spaces we were traveling through but also for the vehicles, our mighty steeds, we used to complete the journey — was heartening.
I am used to traveling with a gang of old friends in hardened overland rigs. My trips include proven vehicles piloted by people who know their limits. This was the opposite. And things could have gone bad: the crew could have not gelled or, worse yet, one of the vehicles could have suffered a breakdown. Luckily, neither happened. We all came together with high spirits, bonded, and had a brilliant time. I don’t any one of didn’t learn something from this journey, the first-ever Overland Trail Tour.
I can’t speak for the rest of the people in the convoy. However, I for one left with a greater appreciation for what an overlander, and an overland rig, can be. I think many of us longtime overlanders develop a skewed view of what defines overland travel and who has the skill and grit to handle it. I was heartened to see overwise not-so-outdoorsy folks and virtually stock vehicles not only complete but thoroughly enjoy the Overland Trail Tour.
It’s a revelation that’s colored my outlook for the better. I am incredibly honored to have been a part of the trip and I am exceedingly grateful to everyone who helped put it on and make it the success that it was.