An Open Letter to the BDR Board of Directors

Dear Backcountry Discovery Route Board of Directors,

I am a longtime fan of the Backcountry Discovery Route (BDR) Series. Over the years I have logged countless miles along many of the routes. Some of my favorite travel memories in recent history are from traveling portions of the Utah (UTBDR) and Arizona (AZBDR) routes. I was also super stoked to hear you were coming to the east coast first with the Mid-Atlantic (MABDR) route and then the Northeast (NEBDR) route. I’m also eagerly waiting the Southeast (SEBDR) once it becomes a thing. Obviously as my name implies I’m an east coaster; born and raised.

With a mission to Educate, Encourage, and Inspire I have facilitated countless workshops, written many articles, penned a few books, and even done a few videos about my various adventures. I’ve always been open and transparent with people I talk to that a cornerstone to many of my tips have come from the BDR series. I have mentioned every time that, although the digital GPX files of the routes are free, people should buy the maps and stickers to help financially support the creation and maintenance of BDR routes. I’ve even gone so far as to set up my day-job at Blue Ridge Overland Gear as a dealer for BDR maps. (FYI, we can’t seem to keep the maps in stock.)

Over the years I have been involved with many online communities pertaining to adventure travel. Most notably, the MABDR group on facebook. Not only did I grow up on the east coast, making my lifetime of experience super valuable for travelers in the area, but my childhood home sits a mere stone’s throw from the MABDR route as it snakes through central PA. I grew up in the Cumberland Vally between Michaux and Tuscarora State Forests. Long before I ever went “pro” I was recreating in those forest. Since going pro I have written magazine and blog articles on the area. It’s also information I readily shared with the MABDR Facebook community. However, as of last weekend, I was made aware I was not welcome in the group any longer and have since been removed from it.

I drive a Jeep. That’s why. Nothing more, nothing less. Because I drive a vehicle with four wheels instead of two I am no longer welcome in the group. I get it, the BDR series was developed by and for the motorcycle community. There has never been any bones about that. It’s something I was aware of from day one, and it’s something I’ve always made people aware of when I talk about the routes. Up until recently the language on the website reflected that. While I don’t have the exact copy, it was always something along the effect of, and I paraphrase, “while developed for the motorcycle community, the BDR routes are open to 4×4 travel however caution should be exercised since what’s easy on a bike isn’t easy in a 4×4 and visa versa.” Coupled with interactions with BDR representatives at events, whether a show or movie premier, the feeling I always got was open and friendly.

So let me get this straight, you want to ride public roads and historic Jeep trails, but we – the Jeepers that maintain those trails – are not welcome to be a part of your group? Not cool.
More importantly, you want your route to go through MY backyard on roads through state forests that MY taxes pay for and I’m not welcome in the group? Not cool.

That has since changed. Having been removed from the MABDR group and checking the new language in BDR FAQs there is a strong anti-4×4 vibe. Obviously getting kicked out the group is a more egregious insult than the subtle change in text in the FAQs. I understand the desire of the BDR Board to stay true to the spirit and intent of the BDR series being “by and for” the motorcycle community, however I believe exclusion of 4×4 enthusiasts is a step in the wrong direction and undermines a much larger issue at stake not just for both end of the off-road adventure travel enthusiast spectrum, but the greater outdoor enthusiast community at large.

I have been a strong advocate for “Share the Trail” as long as I’ve been able to be on trails. I believe that sharing the trail is an altruistic goal every outdoor enthusiast should wholeheartedly embrace, not just those of us from the motorsports niche. Equal opportunity and equal access to the outdoors is a fundamental right in my opinion. I think there should be options for people to get out and responsibly enjoy the outdoors in whatever manner they see fit — baring they share equal respect for enthusiasts of a different type.

Over the years it’s an undeniable fact that the bad apples get the most attention. I’m not here to point fingers and list grievances between different groups and sub-groups of enthusiasts. However, I’d be remise to not acknowledge the struggle that has existed for people to responsibly and respectfully share access to the outdoors. Fights, battles, and dare I even say wars have been waged over the years when it comes to access to the outdoors. At times it’s gotten a little ugly. With that in mind I’ve always sided with cooperation over exclusivity.

I have been, I am, and I will continue to be a strong advocate for organizations like Share the Trail, Tread Lightly, and Leave No Trace. Speaking specifically about Share the Trail, I believe there needs to be more lines of open communication between enthusiast groups rather than less. I believe inclusion is always a better alternative than exclusion. That is why I believe excluding 4×4 enthusiasts from online communities like the various BDR facebook groups is a step in the wrong direction.

“Share the Trail” is a two-way street – err two-way trail.
We share the trail with you, you share the trail with us.
We also share the trail with loggers, hikers, mountain bikers, and horse riders.
If you exclude us from conversations about your routes how can we work together to maintain equal access to public lands.
“Closure isn’t management” isn’t just a land policy, it applies to groups too.

Backcountry Discovery Routes, and you its Board of Directors, has a very unique opportunity to be at the forefront of the outdoor adventure travel community. It’s a growing industry that is seeing record high numbers of enthusiasts of all types. I’m guessing that might be part of the reason your organization has opted to batten down the hatches. The “overland thing” is the latest and greatest thing since the NASA space race of the 1960s. Everyone wants to be the next Indiana Jones and escape their mundane 9-5 job in favor of a weekend long epic off-road adventure. The appeal of the BDR series is easy to see when your organization has done an excellent job cultivating a web of routes across this country.

Before my 2016 No Highways Tour trip I had never been to Colorado, Utah, or Arizona. I used the BDRs for each of those states to plan my trip. I didn’t follow them exclusively, but since I was new to the area I opted to play it safe and take a lot of the route planning guess work out of my trip. Some of my fondest memories are snaking my way into the Book Cliffs east of Green River along that section of the UTBDR. In 2017 I ended up taking a “3 hour tour” through Tonto National Forest in Arizona that took me and my friends two days. Yeah, two days to get from Globe to Young. It was an epic misadventure full of stories that will be told around the campfire for many years to come. Needless to say, without the BDR series my experiences out west would have been very different. For that I am forever grateful for the hard work and dedication your organization has put into the creation and maintenance of those routes. That’s why it stings just a little bit harder to see your organization take a new harsher stance against 4×4 enthusiasts.

I’m not asking your organization to be anything other than it is.
I’m not asking your organization to do anything different with route planning and mapping than it already does.
I’m not asking your organization to cater to the 4×4 community.
All I’m asking is that you don’t exclude enthusiasts such as myself from your online communities.

I cannot physically ride a motorcycle. I blew both my knees out, a lifetime ago, when I was a training for the Army when I was in college. If it wasn’t for that I’m sure I’d be rocking along the BDRs on two-wheels and this letter would never need to be written. However, here we are. Me, a Jeep guy, and you, a bunch of motorcycle enthusiasts. It’s my hope we share more in common than our difference in wheel quantity.

I doubt you had ill intent with your recent decisions. I’m sure you had the best intentions in mind. I believe you wanted to solidify your emphasis on your own community of enthusiasts. I don’t think there is anything wrong with any of those goals, at least not intrinsically. The problem is, no matter how well intentioned and thought out your move is from an internal perspective, the external perspective of such a decision is probably not something you accounted for.

As mentioned earlier, the ultimate goal is to “Share the Trail” regardless of method of travel. The BDR series is comprised of a vast network of roads and trails, some of which are historic Jeep trails. Given that these roads are public, and in some cases on trails maintained by local 4×4 clubs, I think it’s in poor taste to exclude 4×4 enthusiasts from your groups. Either we can work together or you can shut the door in our face.

Personally I would like to work together. I would like to see more open communication between motorcycle and 4×4 enthusiasts. Hell, sometimes those are one in the same. I know more than a few people who own both dual-sport motorcycles along with Jeeps. I also know many people, such as myself, that live along the various BDR routes and have a lot of valuable knowledge to share and will openly share it with enthusiasts of any type. That was the whole reason I joined the MABDR facebook group. I wasn’t there to brag about my Jeep. I was there to share my intimate knowledge of the area with anyone traveling the route. I was also one of the first people to remind my fellow 4×4 enthusiasts to “stay right” and “slow down” around motorcyclists – and anyone for that matter. That was going to be the opening point I planned on making during a future video for my YouTube channel. However, I’m not longer welcome. My knowledge, experience, and willingness to be an olive brace between the two groups of enthusiast is now moot.

All is not lost though. As I said, I have no desire to have the BDR organization be anything other than true to its roots as an organization that is for and by the off-road motorcycle community. I don’t expect any special treatment because I have twice as many wheels. However I’d like, at the very least, for enthusiasts like me to be part of the discussion. I’d like to see more cooperation and collaboration about the routes between riders and drivers, and locals to the areas the routes pass through. When I reached out a few years ago about being a BDR Ambassador I was told, “thanks but no thanks” once it was made known I’m a Jeep guy. I get that. I’m not offended by that (okay, maybe a little). However that doesn’t mean I don’t have value or can’t contribute in ways that benefit 2-wheeled enthusiasts. I’m willing to volunteer my services as a camera car, photographers, cartographer, writer, and/or guide. I’m more than willing to share my local knowledge and experience because the number of wheels is irrelevant to the vast majority of what I, and my fellow 4×4 enthusiasts, can share.

Where we go from here is ultimately up to you. As the Board of Directors you’re the ones at the handlebars here. Either you can reinforce this decision and continue to steer away from 4×4 enthusiasts and locals like myself and let the gap grow, or you can reconsider your decision to exclude 4×4 enthusiasts and locals from the BDR facebook groups and consequently the larger community of BDR enthusiasts. I sincerely hope you’ll reconsider and adopt a more inclusive policy with your communities as well return to a more open and friendly tone in the FAQs when it comes to questions about traveling the BDR series via four wheels instead of two. We can work together and we can enjoy the network of BDRs across this country together.

Dean Shirley
East Coast Overland Adventures

PS – To my fellow 4×4 enthusiasts: Please remember to Share the Trail. We’re a force to be reckoned with out there. Always remember to STAY RIGHT. Also remember to SLOW DOWN around other outdoor enthusiasts regardless of the number of wheels or feet they have.

PPS – If you’re going to travel a BDR on two wheels or four show some support. Even though the GPX files are free, do your part and buy the maps and stickers. Help financially support this organization and the work they do to cultivate these routes.