Wrapping up 2016 and looking ahead to 2017

Thank you.  Thank you all for taking an interest in what I’m going with ECOA and the No Highways Tour series.  Thank you for the words of encouragement and the feedback.  Thank you to everyone who stopped at said at at events like MAOF and Expo.  Thank you for all the comments on Facebook, Instagram, and here on the blog.  You are the reason I am doing this.

Still a work in progress, but so far this is the map of where ECOA has been and where it’s going.
End game is to have this as an interactive web resource for people to find information about overland destinations on the east coast.

2016 was a great year for ECOA.  Building off the success of the partial 2015 season and the 2015 NHT book trip I didn’t think 2016 was going to be as good as it was.  I figured I still had another year or two of laying low while I’ll built up the ECOA brand.  Not only were my expectations exceeded, but I was also a bit surprised by a few things.  To wrap up 2016 I’d like to share a few stories with you all.

Meeting an idol

We all have out idols.  People we look up to. They inspire us, the encourage us, and they push us to be the best versions of ourselves.  Many times these idols are people we never get to meet.  In particular, the overland seen has blown up lately.  There are many people out there sharing travelogues, posting photos on social media, and of course making videos for sites like YouTube.  Over the last few years I’ve watched countless videos from which I’ve drawn a lot of personal and professional inspiration.  There are even a few I idolize.  One in particular is Andrew St. Pierre White.  Those of you who are familiar with is work probably idolize him as well.  For those that aren’t, he is one of the seminal adventures within the overland community.  His YouTube channel 4xOverland is chock full of some of the best overland adventure videos out there.

Not the panel with Andwer St. Pierre White
Actually totally forgot to take a picture of that one…
Whoops.

At Overland Expo West in Flagstaff, Arizona I was slated to sit on a discussion panel about whether one should build or buy their overland adventure vehicle.  As I took my seat I recognized a few of the other panelists.  There was still an open seat.  A minute before we were to start in walks Andrew St. Pierre White.  Cue a feeling of starstruck.  He then takes the open seat next to me at the panelist’s table.  I had a moment of panic.  My feeling of awe soon gave way to dread as I instantly second guessed my role on the panel.  How could I, a relative nobody at the time, be sitting on a panel with one of the people that I idolize and from whom I draw inspiration from?  We exchanged informal pleasantries and I managed to squeak out a hello and tried not to shake his hand awkwardly long.

Much to my surprise the panel went smoothly.  The four of us on the panel plus the moderator took turns answering questions and sharing advice.  I felt like I was actually contributing positively to the conversation and any feelings of imposter’s syndrome had all but evaporated.  Then someone had a question about power generation and recharging batteries.  The obvious hinge point for the conversation at that point was solar.  However, in an attempt to provide a counter-point and suggest a cheaper alternative, I mentioned a small generator.  That’s when things came to a screeching halt.

Long story short apparently one of the things at the top of Andrew St. Pierre White’s list of pet peeves is generators.  With a wave of his arms and a booming commanding voice he stopped the conversation, turned toward me, and berated me for having the audacity to mention generators.  Instantly I felt as small and insignificant as an ant.  My emotions plummeted and I was awash with a renewed sense of imposter’s syndrome.  Needless to say, I was a little quieter for the remainder of the roundtable.

Okay, I might have exaggerated a little.  The events happened pretty much as I described, but it was all in good fun.  We, the other panelists and the attendees, had a good laugh at my expense.  In my own defense, and being an east coaster, solar isn’t always a viable option.  We have these things called trees and they are pretty much everywhere.  Plus you can use a quiet generator responsibly without annoying too many people.  Anyway, it was in that moment that I had that my first feelings of “making it.”  Not only had I gotten to meet one of my idols, not only had I gotten to sit next to him on a roundtable panel like an equal, but I had gotten my balls busted by one of the industry’s leading experts.  I don’t think I stopped smiling for the rest of the day.

Bucket List

Like many off-road enthusiasts, the epic trails of Moab, Utah have been on my bucket list for as long as I’ve had a Jeep.  Even as an outdoor enthusiast Moab has an appeal due to it’s epic scenery, various National Parks, and numerous opportunities for outdoor adventure.  More specifically, the two overlap for me during the annual Easter Jeep Safari.  Once a year Moab becomes a Mecca for Jeep owners as enthusiasts from all across the country flock to eastern Utah for a week long wheeling event.

Any guesses as why Moab would be worth visiting?
Chrystal blue skies.
No humidity.
Epic scenery.
I WANT TO GO BACK!!!

This year I hoped to finally make it to Moab for EJS.  The Jeep was locked and loaded, the trailer was packed.  I set my sights westward and I hammered the throttle booking it across I-70.  What would normally have been a marathon pavement pounding blitz across multiple states turned into a race against time.  Moving up and over the Rockie Mountains from the southwestern corner of Utah was an epic late season storm.  I had just crossed into Colorado and was informed that this storm was packing a punch and most of the high mountain passes were being closed.  I had a very small window to make it over the Rockies or else I’d run the risk of being trapped.

With Moab almost in sight I pushed on.  I fought high winds, an anemic fuel pump, and an overheating transmission all of which were slowing me to a crawl at some points.  It was as if the mountains were conspiring with the winds to prevent me from passing.  I’ll admit to having a few scenes from Lord of the Rings pass through my mind.  I was sure one of the Rockies was named Caradhras.

When I finally crested the first accent of I-70 west of Denver, Colorado I thought I was good to go.  I was limping along like a wounded dog at this point.  I figured if I could press on to Moab I’d be in the perfect location to get the Jeep fixed.  I knew plenty of people in town for EJS so help wouldn’t be hard to find.  Sadly thought Caradhras, or rather the Colorado Department of Transportation had other plans.  While parked on the side of the road waiting for the transmission to cool, and taking a moment to check the weather, a CODoT worker stopped and warned me that if I didn’t turn back now I’d run the risk of getting trapped in the mountains.

With my tail between my legs I turned around and headed back to Denver.  A quick call to a friend secured me a couch to sleep on for the night.  The next morning I woke up to 30″ of snow.  All the roads in the greater Denver area was closed and the majority of the mountain passes were packed in.  I was going nowhere.  It seemed Easter Jeep Safari would remain just out of grasp.

Stuck in 30″ of snow in Denver with Easter Jeep Safari tantalizingly out of reach

All was not lost though.  After taking a few weeks to regroup and make repairs I set my sights west again.  After taking the long way through Colorado and northeastern Utah I pulled into Moab.  On my second day the LJ was perched atop of one of the iconic Jeep Trails.  I had finally made it.  It wasn’t EJS, but I was in Moab.  One item off the Bucket List.

What’s in a name?

When I started 4Low Digital Labs back in 2008 I wanted to build a brand that was synonymous with local off-road competitions and 4×4 events.  It wasn’t about me personally.  I didn’t need to make a name for “Dean.”  As such, fame and glory were not really part of the equation.  I just wanted to provide quality photography to a corner of the world I really enjoyed.  That and being behind the camera prevented me from being behind the wheel which, even when compared to an already expensive hobby like photography, was well outside the realm of my bank account.

4Low Digital Labs
Off-road event photography specialists
Founded in 2008

In 2014 when I was faced with a tough call to define myself, who I was, and what I was about I opted to create a new brand.  Like before the new brand wasn’t about seeking fame or glory.  I still had no desire to make “Dean” into a household name.  After lots of thought and consideration I opted to brand the book I was planning on writing the No Highways Tour.  The goal was to keep the focus on the locations and not on me.  While on the trip, and faced with another tough decision about what to do between trips, I devised the name East Coast Overland Adventures.  Like with 4LDL and the NHT the focus wouldn’t be on me personally.  I set forth the mission statement of ECOA to be to “Educate, Encourage, and Inspire.”  Something I have held fast to the past two years and something I will hold fast to in the years to come.

Logo for the first No Highways Tour

That said, it hasn’t stopped the “Hey, Dean!” moments from occurring.  It doesn’t take long once someone meets me to figure out a few things.  I’m kind of shy, I’m an introvert, and I can be a bit socially awkward.  In certain situations, like standing in front of a class, guiding a trial ride group, or whatnot I’m fine.  I’m in my element.  When I’m in control of the situation, or at least think I am, I’m okay.  It’s the casual moments that push me a little off my keel.  I don’t like being in the spotlight for my own sake.  When I teach it’s about the students.  When I’m guiding it’s about the experience.  I’m not comfortable when the situation becomes about me.  That’s why I usually gravitate toward a self-depricating sense of humor and opt for the storyteller role.

Now that you all now my secret please stare at the little red light for a second…

At Overland Expo East this year I had more “Hey, Dean!” moments that I expected.  While my moment with Andrew St. Pierre White at Expo West had been a fun moment it was a one-off.  For the majority of the event I was able to lay low, teach my classes, and walk around the event rather unencumbered.   At Expo East I couldn’t take more than ten steps without being stopped.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  I’m also not bragging.  It was just weird, if I’m to be honest.  It seemed like after every class someone wanted to talk, which is good because that’s what I’m there for, but even as I walked around the show field people stopped to ask questions.  It was a small, if not humble, taste of fame.  At one point I was even thrown on the spot at a post-happy-hour-happy-hour event to regal a group gathered around a campfire with stories.  After I got over the initial shock and was able to swallow my awkwardness, and a few gulps of a microbrew bootlegged across the country, I fired up some humorous stories of misadventure and flipped flopped between storyteller and teacher as I fielded questions about overlanding on the east coast and in my “poor man’s teardrop” camping trailer.

There were also a few other run-ins with some people that left impression.  People I looked up to treated me like equals.  People who I didn’t expect to know my name knew who I was.  A few even expressed their admiration for not only what I was doing but how I was doing it.  As I said, I’m not sharing any of this to brag.  I’m still a relative nobody in the great big world of adventure travel. My goal is to share with you an inside look behind the scenes of ECOA to give you a better idea of why I do what I do.  It’s not for fame or fortune.  It’s because I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with people.

So what does this mean for 2017?

In short, all of this means more of the same for 2017.  There’s an old saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Two other sayings I always gravitate toward are, “if you have to force it it’s not worth it,” and “the best things in life take time.”  There are a lot of things going on in the overland community right now.  YouTube has become a hotbed of overland themed video series.  The internet has also affording people a way to share their trips with fellow adventures.  Blogs, travelogues, photo streams, and the like have all been embraced by the overland community.  Attendance at overland themed shows is also on the rise.  Both Overland Expo’s this year saw record breaking attendance figures.  Many small regional shows are popping up across the country and in Canada.  Many of those reasons are why I’m doing what I’m doing.  As an educator I feel I’m uniquely qualified to help many of these newcomers to the community.  With that in mind i will continue building off of the classes and workshops I did in 2016 into 2017.

Plans for the first 2017 No Highways Tour: Following the Old Spanish Trail

Plans for the second 2017 No Highways Tour: Following the Bourbon Trail

On a more pragmatic level the plan for 2017 is two big NHT trips.  The first one will coincide with Overland Expo West and will follow the Old Spanish Trail.  I will also do one int he fall that will coincide with Overland Expo East.  That trip will be a Bourbon Trail trip of sorts and snake its way through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  I also plan on hitting up the Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival again along with the two Jeep shows here in PA over the summer.  There are also tentative plans to hit up Monongahela National Forest in the spring as a pre-NHT shakedown trip.  I also plan on resuming work on the “One Lap” series of articles.  All in all the plan is to stay busy and keep the content flowing.

Conclusion

I hope that you’ll stick around for the 2017 season.  I also hope that if our paths cross at an event or out on an adventure that you’ll take the time to introduce yourself and tell me about your adventures.  Many of you have messaged or emailed me questions this year and I want that to continue in 2017.  If you would like me to research and write about something particular, don’t hesitate the ask.  As much as I love writing articles sometimes it’s hard to come up with ideas.  I also want to make sure you the reader are getting your questions answered.

Stay safe and may 2017 bring you many great adventures!