ECOA BLOG POST #100!!! — A look back at the origins of ECOA

In the fall of 2014 I was faced with a pretty tough decision regarding what to do with my life.  I had recently lost my job and had my plans to finish a doctorate degree in education derailed.  I had a lot of swirling emotions to deal with that ran the gamut from anger to despair.

Humble beginnings – Fall 2014

As the weeks turned to months and there seemed to be little hope of a “real job” in education panning out, I hatched a plan to blend my various passions together into one cohesive lifestyle that would, hopefully, sustain itself indefinitely.  It was something I had done once already when I combined my love of photography with my love of off-roading to create 4Low Digital Labs.  The question was, could I take it a step further?  Obviously I did, but read on to find out how and why…

A long time ago in a valley far far away…

I was 12 years old and had just finished a week at Boy Scout camp.  In that time I had earned a few merit badges as well as my BSA Lifeguard certification.  While walking up the main camp road the Aquatics director complimented me on my lifeguard certification and casually asked why I wasn’t a C.I.T. (counselor in training) this summer.  I explained that I was only 12 and that to be a C.I.T. you had to be 13 and my 13th birthday wasn’t till August which was after camp was over.  This prompted a discussion between him, the camp director, and my parents and I was back in 24 hours to spend the rest of the summer as a C.I.T..  That was my first foray into outdoor education.  Something that has stuck with me every since.

Being in scouts was probably one of the most influential experiences of my childhood
And yes, I did make that side and paint myself.

In total I spent five summers working at that Boy Scout camp.  I worked in almost every program area as well as on maintenance and even did my tour of duty on K.P. (Kitchen Patrol).  I taught everything from swimming and canoeing in Aquatics to orienteering and camping in Scoutcraft.  I loved almost every second of it.  Because of this I spent my first three summers in college working at another summer camp.  Since I had aged out of scouts I found a job at a high-adventure church camp I had attended one summer.  My work experience there took what I had been doing with the scouts to a whole new level.  At that camp I got my first taste of experiential education in the form of ropes courses, team building, rock climbing, and a lot more advanced activities that weren’t part of the normal B.S.A. summer camp program.

One thing leads to another…

When I went off to college I started off with a full ride Army R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer’s Training Corps) scholarship to a rather prestigious engineering college in New England.  If you would have asked me at 17 where I’d be in 20 years, running my own overland adventure company wouldn’t have been it.  I would have said, rather flatly, that I’d be an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers.  It would seem fate had other plans.  During my freshman year I blew out both of my knees and ended up having to forfeit my scholarship and drop out of college for a semester to get physical therapy.  I also took the time to reassess my life’s plan because with the Army off the table I had to come up with a new one.  At the time engineering seemed the most viable career since I was already one year into my studies and I had some natural aptitude in the maths and sciences that made engineering the most logical path — or so my high school guidance counselor lead me to believe.

Freshman year 1998

Eventually I settled on a small private college with an accredited engineering program located just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  While it lacked the prestige of my former school, it seemed like a solid program and in the end I figured the degree was more important than the where.  While there I ended up getting involved with new student orientation and, building off my own experiences as a transfer students, I eventually took over the transfer student orientation program.

This is where one thing led to another.  My experiences working in outdoor education and having a taste of experiential education led me to taking a formal class on it titled the “Theories and Practices of Experiential Education.”  The class was taught by a friend of my summer camp’s director.  It was mainly to fill an elective slot but that class led me to eventually changing my major.

It sounded good at the time…

During the theories of experiential education class I had a bit of a life changing experience.  This catalyzed into the realization that engineering wasn’t exactly for me.  That and the fact that I barely scraped by in Calc 3 with a D and I was not looking forward to any more calculus.  I also found out around this time I was dyslexic, mostly with numbers, which was why I was struggling with advanced math where equations built upon each other.  I could more easily visualize geometry and trigonometry so I was okay there.  Calc was just too abstract so it never sat well with me, but I digress.

My first Jeep
1987 Cherokee Pioneer
Got this Jeep as a winter beater and a camping rig

Switching majors was more predicated on switching careers than anything.  Once I shifted engineering off the table it was replaced by a career in education.  I had no desire to get a teaching certification and teach in a traditional K-12 school.  I enjoyed working with older students like the transfer students I was working with.  I also enjoyed the outdoor education I was doing during the summer.  Once I realized there were legitimate learning theories behind it and that it was a viable professional option I started work backwards.  To work in higher education you need a doctorate.  To get a doctorate you need a master’s.  To get a master’s you need a degree that will fit well with those advanced degrees.  Given I was taking a systems theory approach to education the most logical degree to get was one in philosophy.

Word of advice for you or anyone you know.  A philosophy degree is completely and utterly worthless.  Granted it wasn’t really an option back when I was in college, but seriously… just google that shit.  Go to the book store and buy the books yourself.  Pretty much any four year college degree is useless these days (long story for another day) but of them all a philosophy one is just worthless.  That said, it did lead me to getting into a master’s program and eventually a doctoral program.  Hindsight will always be 20/20, but it sounded good at the time.  I digress.

Moving on…

After spending a decade in the outdoor education field I got delusions of grandure about moving on to higher ed.  With my master’s degree under my belt I was pretty pretty good.  That was until, as previously mentioned, the most unexpected thing happened.  I lost my job.  It was honestly no fault of my own.  It, like most education jobs, was grant funded.  I was under a pretense based on what my committee and my boss was saying that the grant would be renewed and my job would be secure.  I was also being told of an endowment in the works which would grow my job into something more and when I finished my doctorate there would even be some teaching opportunities for me.  Awesome.  Sadly my boss never submitted the grant renewal form and didn’t tell me.  So I went from thinking I had a job to not having a job rather suddenly.  I also found this out two weeks before the fall semester was going to start (middle of August in 2014) which is the absolute worst time to try and find an education job.  The majority of hiring for education jobs is done in the spring. I’m not one to just lie down and take a beating.  I started sending out resumes and applying to jobs anyway.  Weeks turned to months and my frustration was getting the best of me.

First No Highways Tour in 2015
Camping in Acadia National Park in Maine

The winter months are probably the worst months to be unemployed.  It’s cold, you’re stuck inside, and the holidays certainly don’t help.  As my frustration gave way to despair an opportunity re-presented itself.  I was offered the moderator position of the overlanding section of Reddit.com.  The more I thought about the more I identified with this whole “overland” thing.  It wasn’t as hard-core as the expedition crowd.  It was more about exploration and the journey than the rock crawling crowd.  It also appeared to be a perfect blending of outdoor activities like hiking and camping with the whole four-wheel-drive thing.  At that moment I made a decision, I wasn’t going to go back to work for something else.  I was going to go back to working for myself.

With 4Low Digital Labs collecting dust due to my academic pursuits I knew it was going to take some work to get it off the ground.  I also knew that 4LDL was known more for the rock-crawling and off-road racing side of things.  That said, I didn’t want to abandon the name altogether.  I opted to keep the name but treat it more like a production company.  What would it produce then?

Double, double toil & trouble; Fire burn, & caldron bubble…

To create 4Low Digital Labs I combined my passion for photography with my passion for off-roading.  It was also a pretty good excuse to keep me out of the driver-seat during competitions.  With a new scheme in mind I decided to see if I could combine all my passions.  With some deep soul searching I decided on the following list of passions:
  • Outdoor Recreation (camping, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, climbing etc)
  • Outdoor Education (teaching, leadership development, environmental education, experiential education, etc)
  • Photography (not just off-road photography, but landscapes and portraits too)
  • Writing (not just academic but narratives, guide stuff, technical stuff, etc)
  • Travel (road-trips, scenic route, new places, new foods, new drinks, etc)
  • Jeeps (off-roading, trail guiding, jeep culture, technical terrain, rugged lifestyle, etc)
I took those things and placed them into a metaphorical blender and what poured out perfectly overlapped with the overland lifestyle.  As such I put a plan into motion.

The first No Highways Tour in June of 2015
Maine to Florida over 28 days
 5,000 miles through 13 different states

The first step was to start a blog.  I approached a friend of mine with the idea but sadly that didn’t work out.  After a few months and some miscommunication we had a falling out.  That set me back a little bit.  The next step was to do a trip.  I had been planning a trip to Key West, Florida for many years.  It was originally supposed to be a celebratory trip marking the completion of my doctorate degree.  It had, over time, grown from starting in PA to starting in Maine.  It also grew from being just a for-fun trip to potentially being documented through 4Low Digital Labs.  Having lost my job and my ability to finish my doctorate I wasn’t sure I’d ever go on the trip.  That’s when someone suggested crowd-funding the trip through pre-selling the book.  With that in motion the final question was what to do after the trip.

East Coast Overland Adventures
Founded: July 2015

While on what would become the first No Highways Tour trip I conceived the idea for East Coast Overland Adventures. In some ways I went off half-cocked not fully sure what the whole thing would look like.  I knew the Maine to Florida trip would make a great book.  Beyond that I wasn’t sure.  However, once ECOA came to mind I knew that it would fill the void after the trip.  With the success of the first NHT book I soon realized the potential for making it a series.

Start small but aim high…

Luckily I had some street cred in the off-road world.  Aside from crowd-funding I knew there was potential for sponsorships (although I hate that word).  I approached a few contacts of mine but in the end I only landed one sponsor, AtoZ Fabrication.  Through many years of past history they were willing to jump on board with my plans knowing the potential it had for the long term.  Some of the other companies I approached were cautious but optimistic.  That’s why I now say, “You will never get sponsored for what you might do.  You will only get sponsored for what you’ve already done and demonstrate what you are continuing to do.”  I also knew companies wouldn’t be interested in sponsoring someones “vacations.”  There had to be more to it than just the trips.

When I started ECOA I was very clear that the mission would be to Education, Encourage, and Inspire.  As I mentioned, outdoor education was something I loved doing and something I missed.  I wanted it to be a part of what I was going to do in the overland scene because it was part of who I was.  I do, after all, have a masters in education.  I also knew because of my background in the off-road world I could help educate and inspire new four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.  I also wanted to take a DIY budget-minded approach to encourage people to do more with less and not get so caught up in the gear and focus more on their experiences and the journey.

My old DIY storage box for the back of the LJ
“Every dollar I spend on my rig or my kit is one less dollar I can spend on fuel.”

With a plan in mind I knew it would be roughly five years before I was on any sort of stable footing.  I knew it would take time to transfer my street cred from 4LDL to ECOA.  Luckily the NHT series would provide a conduit for that.  The emphasis on photography would be the common link.  I also knew it would take time to make a name for myself.  My first trip to Overland Expo East in 2015 was as a nobody.  I was okay with that.  I knew it would take time.  I knew I’d have to start small and let the momentum build over time.

Slow but steady and, if you trip, fall forward…

One of my favorite shows right now is American Ninja Warrior.  I’ve been a fan of it going all the way back to the G4 days when they aired reruns of the Japanese show it’s based on.  Having designed and built ropes-courses back in the 90’s and early 2000’s I resonated with the show right from the get go. Sadly my knees would keep me from ever competing on the show (or at least walking away from a run on the course).  That didn’t stop my zeal for watching the show.  One of the observations I’ve made over the last ten or so years of watching the show is that slow-and-steady wins the race more often than naught and if you’re going to fall, fall forward.  Some of the most epic saves in the show’s history were because someone tripped and fell but managed to fall forward to safety.

What do you do when your tent leaks?
You improvise.
Then, when you get home, you build a trailer.

I’d give that same advice to someone in real life just as I would a wanna-be ninja.  “If you’re going to fall, fall forward.”  I could very easily have given up on everything once I lost my job.  A lot of people let depression and frustration get the best of them in such a situation.  Instead, I opted to fall forward and just go back to work for myself.  I also know I’ve made a lot of mistake with 4LDL, ECOA, and the NHT series.  I’m terrible at self-promotion.  I don’t push sales hard enough.  I muck things up from time to time.  I also seem to have terrible luck.  Nothing I have has come easily to me. Ever.  I struggled my way through school.  I struggled my way through a career in education.  I’ve struggled the past three years to get ECOA up off the ground.  If you asked me do it all over again I would.  Which is why every time I stumble I’m going to fall forward and keep going.

All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost…

I know. I just went there.  Those are probably two of the most overused quotes in the world but they mean a lot to me.  First of all I’m a huge Tolkien fan.  Nerd alert.  Second, the depth of the meaning fits with me.  First, I’m not materialistic.  There are a lot of valuable things and, more importantly, people that aren’t gold but mean the world to me.  Obviously being an overland adventurer being lost is not something I have a problem with, and as an old restless soul I’ll always be one to wander.

A workshop full of eager faces ready to get their learn on.
This is why I do it.

More importantly there are a lot of people I owe my existence to.  I wouldn’t be where I’m at without a supportive family and equally supportive friends.  That’s not to say my various endeavors haven’t cost me friendships.  If you want to know who your real friends are, go into business for yourself doing something that most people fantasize about.  Jealousy and resentment will kill weak and shallow relationships. I also owe a lot of thanks to both the ECOA Patron Support Team and the various Corporate Partners that work with ECOA and the NHT.  Their support and investment really shows the potential of what I am trying to do.

Looking back in 2015 I had one corporate partner.  In 2016 I had six.  Now, in total, I’ve worked with almost 20 companies in the last three years.  The number of patrons that have supported ECOA and the NHT over the years is a lot larger.  Granted crowd-funding is still in its infancy and is looked upon with skepticism and a bit of resentment.  It’s also on unstable footing since patronage in the modern era is existing with old forms of supporting the arts.  There is also a pre-existing bias within our society against creative professionals.  All that aside, I love what I do.  I’m grateful for those that support what I do. I’m going to keep doing it.

Three years in the rearview, a lifetime of exploration ahead…

So far I’ve put almost 50,000 miles on the LJ in three years.  That includes three No Highways Tours, trips to a total of 28 different states, a dozen overland and Jeep events, and now – 100 blog articles.  In that time I’ve met a lot of great fellow adventurers.  Although I’ve shared a lot of great information, I’ve also learned a lot.  I expect nothing else from here on out.

Been a few places
Done a few things
Met a few people
Looking forward to adding more to this map in the future

Thank you for reading this blog article and for checking in on the blog over the last three years.  As always, feel free to message me through the comments, Facebook, Instagram, or email.  I’m here to help whether that is planning your next trip, a question about gear, or helping you modify your overland adventure rig.

I also implore you to consider joining the Patron Support Team if you haven’t already.  It doesn’t matter if it’s $1 a month of a onetime Platinum Patron Package Purchase.  Every dollar sent to ECOA goes to making this blog a reality, helping promote our mission to Educate, Encourage, and Inspire when at events, help make the No Highways Tour trips happen, and helping the overland adventure community grow and develop.

Here’s to the next adventure…