Last year I attended the Northwest Overland Rally in Washington state and enjoyed it immensely, so after that event I decided I should attend the original: the Overland Expo. Now known as Overland Expo West, to distinguish it from the new East version, to my knowledge it's the largest and oldest of the overlanding rallies. I paid my entrance fees and eagerly awaited the weekend of May 15-17, when I hoped I could learn more about offroad driving, winching, and other overlanding topics.
Between then and now I'd taken advantage of the opportunity to work in London for six months, which meant I'd need to fly back from London to attend. And, as seems common with air travel today, flight delays saw me arriving in Reno at 1:00 AM on Thursday (as opposed to the scheduled time of 6:30 PM Wednesday). I grabbed a few hours of sleep, loaded up the truck, and headed south on the 700 mile drive to Mormon Lake just north of Flagstaff, AZ.
Jetlag and lack of sleep caught up with me around Kingman, so I grabbed a hotel room there Thursday night to crash early and get up early to finish off the drive before the Expo kicked-off at 8:00 AM.
The next morning the alarm went off at 4:30 AM, the wheels on the truck were turning at 5:00 AM, and the GPS predicted I'd make Mormon Lake by 7:30 AM. As I approached the Arizona Divide the grey skies began dump snow. I'd already been concerned about the weather forecast, with rain and low temps hovering around freezing predicted, but I figured as long as the roads didn't ice up I'd be fine even camping in my three-season tent. Little did I know...
Since I arrived on Friday morning instead of Thursday I was relegated to a camping spot way out in the back 40 of the pasture that was the event site. The ground was already a bit soggy, but at least that made it easy to drive the tent stakes. What I also discovered was that the pasture had been recently used to corral horses, as there were copious piles of manure everywhere, making it impossible to pitch a tent in an unfertilized spot. (Score one for the guys with rooftop tents!) The area was quite fragrant, too, but it just reminded me of the time I'd spent around horses growing up.
The first class session was a two-hour block on basic winching techniques, taught by a fellow who'd been part of one of the Camel Trophy expeditions and who was now an instructor for the Land Rover driving experience. This class was fantastic, even though I learned I'd been doing it all wrong, and it really got me excited to learn so much just in the first few hours of the event.
We endured some light showers during the class, but as the class came to a close the skies opened up and a steady rain began to fall. Fortunately my next couple of classes (adventure photography lighting techniques, followed by auxiliary vehicle lighting) were indoors, but just walking between buildings I could tell the ground was rapidly becoming a muddy mess.
The soil seemed to have a high clay content, making it slick as snot, and even the Land Rovers were having extreme difficulty navigating the sodden driving course. Eventually after a few folks slid completely off course (and, reportedly, one poor fellow in a G-wagon ending tangled-up in a barbed-wire fence), they were forced to close the course. In the meantime, folks slogged around and made the best of it. The ground conditions weren't too bad in the class and vendor areas, but the camping area saw the worst of it. Some places the ground was compacted enough that the slippery top layer of mud made it like walking on ice, while the softer spots let your boots sink to the ankle in water and mud, sucking at your feet with each step. In between these conditions the mud simply stuck to the bottoms of your boots until you had about five pounds of mud clinging to the soles of each boot.
Overnight the rain turned to snow, and folks woke up Saturday morning to a thin layer of white covering the traces of the previous day's muddy mahem. As the temperatures rose the snowfall turned back into rain and the forecast predicted precipitation throughout the day. My offroad driving class was scheduled for that morning, but I knew there'd be no way my truck (nor anything short of a dedicated mud buggy) would be able to manage the sodden ground. And, honestly, that was my primary interest in attending, so with that event closed to me I wasn't that interested in toughing it out in the worsening muddy conditions.
So, I packed up my camping gear, everything coated (or at least well splattered) with sticky mud, and tried to make my way out of the pasture. First I winched a guy in a two-wheel drive van out of his camping spot, but then I became bogged down as well. I used my MaxTrax to get going again, but could only maintain my momentum for about 30 feet before getting stuck again. Fortunately a guy in a Jeep with good mud tires was towing people to drier land, so I hitched up to him and got out of the deep mud.
In the process, though, I became covered in mud and managed to transfer lots of it to my truck's interior. I changed into some less-muddy clothing in a gas station bathroom, but couldn't avoid getting muddy again just from all the mud on the steering wheel, seat, door handles, etc. What a mess! I got back to Reno late Saturday night and spent all day Sunday scrubbing the mud out of all my camping gear and clothing. Monday I did a little maintenance on the truck and tried to clean the interior up, but didn't get it really clean before I ran out of time and had to get ready to fly back to London early Tuesday morning.
So, I flew from London, drove 1,400 miles round-trip, spent $250 on fuel, $140 on a hotel, and paid the entry fee, got muddy as hell and spent a couple of days cleaning up, all for a day's worth of classes—but not the driving class I was most interested in. Not exactly the adventure I was hoping for! Let's hope that the weather is more cooperative next year.