Some 10,000 overlanders, representing hundreds of thousands of miles traveled around the globe, will converge on Fort Tuthill County Park this weekend. Call it a three-day Flagstaff pit-stop, a rare moment of rootedness by a subculture that thrives on persistent motion.
For Jonathan and Roseann Hanson, the southern Arizona husband-and-wife team that started the Overland Expo, Flagstaff is an ideal location for their baby, billed as “the most popular overlanding show in the Western Hemisphere and most unique in the world.”
“Flagstaff is perfect,” Roseann Hanson says. “It’s on the Pan-American Highway. It’s on the crossroads of two interstate freeways. Flagstaff is a fantastic mix of students, Native Americans, hippies, ranching. It’s the perfect American culture clash.”
After five years at Mormon Lake Lodge, this is the first year that Overland Expo West has been held at Fort Tuthill. Outside of the four-day Coconino County Fair, two-day Hullabaloo, and the one-day Fourth of July Parade, the Expo is surely the largest annual event that takes place in Flagstaff. Given that the 2016 event resulted in a 40-percent increase in attendance, Hanson has high hopes for the more conveniently located new venue.
“We always wanted to go to the county fairgrounds,” she says. “Over the years, with new management and a huge commitment, they have turned it into a wonderful place. We’re extremely excited to be there. Flagstaff has always embraced us.”
Overland Expo is “half education, half trade show,” Hanson says, and this is the 12th event the couple has directed. It has grown from its first show in Prescott in 2009 and two shows near Tucson after that to include an Overland Expo East in Asheville, N.C., each fall since 2014.
To call overlanders interested in travel is to suggest that bees like honey. No one can call you a liar, but you are missing the point. Completely.
Look no further than the Cool Ride! Adventure Rig finalists. The eight nominees, from which a winner will be named on Saturday, sound like a bride’s wedding-day list: Something old (a 1972 Pinzgauer 710M retired from the Swiss Army, or a 1983 Toyota HJ47 traveling from Quebec to Alaska to Argentina); something new (a 2016 Mercedes Benz 4x4 Sprinter); something borrowed (Yeti’s Custom Fabricated Lunar Lander Trailer, and a motorcycle named Tankenstein—“After the frame was broken in half by the previous owner, the idea of creating a Frankenstein bike was born,” says Matt Wilkes, owner of this Kawasaki KLR650); and something blue (Sanders Shurm’s 1991 BMW R100GS, a “rock solid” bike that has logged untold miles across the American West).
No question, overlanders are serious about their transport and their camping gadgets. The Expo is meant to showcase sponsors’ latest and greatest as well as participants’ innovations and passions, from roof-top tents and high-end awnings to 12-volt fridges, kitchen kits and compressors.
Hanson talks about tricked-out Land Rovers and Jeep Wranglers, but this is not glamping, car camping or a suburban RV show. Equipment includes bull bars, winches and other recovery gear that is essential in the remote areas where some overlanders spend much of their time.
She also talks proudly of a documentary that benefitted from the Change Your World Fund that the Expo supports. The film is about a woman who went from not knowing how to ride a motorcycle to welding her own bike and dog sidecar to travel around North America. She now speaks to schoolchildren about her transformation.
That mindset of not being limited by borders—international ones or mental ones—gets to the heart of overlanding, and the Overland Expo. And that is where the trade-show half gives way to the education half of the weekend. The journey is the thing, not the destination. That means gaining confidence and knowledge through 462 session-hours of programming, including many for women only. It means 190 classes, programs, films and demos, and it means kids under age 17 getting in free with their families.
“I’m really proud that we focus on a lot of training for women who want to go on their own,” Hanson says. “It’s sometimes difficult for spouses to teach spouses. No other four-wheel-drive show welcomes women more than we do. We are extremely family-oriented and agnostic about male/female. It’s about travelers. It’s about nomads.”
The Expo aspires to great detail in its classes. Among the events at the Camel Trophy Expedition Skills Area is a facsimile of an African overland experience, complete with washed-out roads and a border crossing in which guards role-play various scenarios.
There is also a driving course where Expo participants can test-drive new Land Rovers with an opportunity to win a trip to compete at an international competition in Peru.
Beyond the weekend, overlanders embrace a connected web of adventure. They follow along with their blogging and book-writing friends on their travels, and, Hanson says, use travel as a means to a purpose.
“Travel is the only way people can meet other cultures,” she says, explaining why the Change Your World Fund was created to help fund books and films that share people’s experiences in making a difference in the world.
The Hansons embody that approach to life. They have explored the world together as journalists, book authors, conservationists and biologists since 1984. Included in their travels is an overland journey from Arizona to Inuvik in the northernmost part of Canada, culminating in sea kayaking in the Arctic Ocean. The Hansons provided vehicle support on a science expedition in Egypt’s Libyan Desert, and helped a Maasai community in Kenya revive a lost cultural emblem. They drove nearly 6,200 miles from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Arequipa, Peru, in February 2015.
“Getting to know the world is something we’ve always done, even as kids before we knew each other,” Hanson says.
Overlanding is distinct from rock-crawling and rallies, which were the prevalent form of four-wheel-drive activities in the United States when the Hansons first got the travel bug.
“[Rock-crawling] is about conquering the environment rather than getting to know the people and exploring new countries,” Hanson says.
For overlanders, every moment is packed with meaning. The focus is not on where you started, nor the destination where you are headed. Ultimately, travel is about connectivity, innovation, and exploration.
The ninth annual Overland Expo West takes place Fri–Sun, May 12–14 at the Fort Tuthill County Park, Exit 337 off I-17 south of Flagstaff. The weekend features 255 exhibitors, authors, videographers and travelers/vehicles; 190 classes, programs, films and demos; 462 session-hours of programming; 160 presenters and instructors; and 10,000-plus total people on site from around the world. Hours are 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Sunday. Weekend passes are $55/person or $100/family. One-day passes are $25/person and $45/family on Friday and Saturday, and $10/person and $15/family on Sunday. On-site camping is available. To learn more, visit www.overlandexpo.com.