Monday, October 19, 2009

A Vehicle for New Adventures

My wife, Caitlin, and I have had some great adventures together, but we’re ready for a change of scene, ready to feel like newbies again. We were introduced to each other by climbing friends and our first date was at a rock gym in Boston. We had instant chemistry, but I’d say we really fell in love riding my BMW 1200GSA motorcycle on weekend trips up north. I underestimated Caitlin when I met her (it seemed impossible she could be beautiful, smart AND loving, trusting and adventurous), but when she fell asleep on the back of my moto in forty degree temps and driving rain going unmentionable speeds coming home from the White’s one evening in the Fall of 2006, I knew I’d found my soul mate. We’ve since enjoyed a lot of rock and ice climbing, mountain biking, canoeing and just general travelling together. But we’ve also, of late, begun to see a transformation in our tastes. Maybe we’re getting settled a bit. Maybe soft. Or possibly just really busy and in need of something new and exciting to shake us up a bit.

Caitlin finishing up pitch 15 of a classic climb at El Potrero Chico in Mexico.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

I’ve always loved trucks. I didn’t watch much TV when I was a little kid (and still don’t) but I had an extensive collection of Legos and Tonka trucks. I pretty much split my time between making trucks with Legos and pushing Tonka trucks around in a dirt pile behind my house. The couple square feet I needed for a play area seemed like a universe. Lately I miss the feeling that the world is really big and contains unlimited mystery and possibility. Back in college in Vermont, my roommate and I and our close friends would take our trucks through Nor’easters and up into the Green Mountains to teach ourselves how to ice climb or do things like rappel into 100 foot deep caves with only a few lengths of 4mm cord to Prusik our way out. It seemed like a big deal back then. Sometimes I miss fear. Sometimes I miss putting myself in situations I seriously doubt if I’ll be able to escape. That fear made us sharp. It gave us a reason to learn new skills, to exercise and strengthen our bodies, to carefully observe our surroundings and to problem solve. Starting and running NEMO has had its share of adrenaline moments, and the general sense we have here that we are a first ascent team, deep in the unknown, pioneering and risking everything, has kept us sharp and engaged. But on the personal level, I’ve been coming up a little shy of my quota for adrenaline lately.

Cam’s 08 Tacoma overlander in the making.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

In 2008, I bought a Toyota Tacoma crew cab, long bed TRD Sport. I traded a WRX wagon. My love of fast cars and cool trucks is in direct conflict with a concern for fuel economy and I’ve tried to compromise. The Subaru was a pretty good compromise until Caitlin and I bought a house and a 100lb Malamute. Fur and dirt in the WRX were stressing me out a little and we had staged a few too many FAIL scenarios involving my little WRX wagon and a flatbed truck worth of lumber (think of those pics on the internet of TATA trucks in the developing world loaded to twice their height). Who cares about a little fur and dirt in a truck? And I figured the Tacoma would have pretty good fuel economy and a footprint between a car and full-sized truck. Plus, I started reading through the internet and magazines about the legendary prowess of Tacomas as expedition vehicles. It didn’t take me long to discover Expeditions West on the web and to start reading about Scott Brady and his trip to the Arctic Circle with a 2004 Taco.

Scott beside his tricked out Tacoma on his Arctic Ocean expedition in 2007.
Photo: Expedition’s West

Apparently, Scott had enough success early in his career in the software industry to permanently walk away from a job for a job’s sake and seek out a solid balance of entrepreneurship, adventure and fun. I like his story. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, he runs his own businesses, he travels a lot and he’s got more equipment than the US Army. Instead of a gear closet, he’s got a multi-bay garage. Shortly after I perused Expeditions West, I found the website for Overland Journal. Could it be? A magazine in the classy, lots-of-white-space, great photos and only ads that interest me style of Alpinist or The Surfer’s Journal?? I love the kind of magazine you never want to through away. I have every issue of Alpinist neatly filed on a shelf in my “man room” back at our house. I subscribed to Overland Journal right away.

It turns out that Overland Journal was discovering NEMO at the same time NEMO was discovering Overland Journal. They were slated to do a tent review for an upcoming issue and we were on the docket for a phone call when my subscription request came through. Jonathan Hanson, Executive Editor at the magazine, and I relayed a few emails remarking at the coincidence of how we came to be in touch and complimenting each other’s products. I hooked Kate, our marketing guru, and Jonathan up by email and we had a Morpho AR out to them within a day or so. Check out the Summer 2008 issue of Overland Journal to see how the review turned out and to lust over Scott’s KTM 950 Adventure motorcycle.

Scott’s KTM and NEMO’s Morpho AR making out in the desert.
Photo: Overland Journal

I met Scott for the first time at our big summer industry tradeshow, Outdoor Retailer, in 2008. He had just returned a short time earlier from riding the Trans-America trail with his KTM and our Morpho AR tent. He spent a bunch of days living out of the tent and despite sand, dirt, heat, abrasion in the side cases from endless bumpy terrain and adventure’s ever-present Mr. Murphy, Morpho AR performed flawlessly. The trip convinced Scott of the efficacy of AirSupported Technology and it convinced me I needed to make friends with this guy. I mean who actually finds the time and resources and gumption to ride across the country on a moto, over 90% of the ride off-highway?

Between the OR shows in the summer of 08 and in the summer of 09, Scott took several big trips and got to know NEMO better and I read at least 6 issues of Overland Journal and got to know overlanding better. There’s a clear spirit, passion and set of priorities in the magazine that are very familiar to me from our own industry. I recognized the same embracing of travel, adrenaline and new experiences, plus a healthy preoccupation with great gear, great beer, great food and camaraderie. These guys are clearly about having fun and enjoying life, but it’s also clear they take responsibility for their impact on the planet. They are all about driving trucks and bikes off the highway in remote places, but good luck finding any talk of “offroading” in the magazine (they are careful to point out the difference between overlanding and offroading—and it’s not just semantics I’ve come to find out). I chuckle to imagine the typical overlander taking his or her vintage Land Rover mudding. These guys love to have fun, but they don’t take it the easy way and they know the greatest rewards come at the end of the longest roads (with plenty of route finding, border crossing and challenging terrain along the way). I really like the Journal and I feel like I know where they’re coming from.

When Scott showed up at OR this summer, I was stoked to see him. I had done some work to my truck (suspension, second battery, custom air mat for the bed, baja style rack, etc) and taken a few trips. When I met Scott the previous summer, I had mentioned a lifelong dream of someday finishing the Paris Dakar Rally (now really the Argentina Chile Rally) and I would take any chance I could get to be involved with a racing or overland trip where I could break into the scene a bit and start the long learning curve. Finishing Dakar is an elusive goal. If you’re not familiar, it’s perhaps THE great vehicle based adventure and the stories of quicksand, snipers, land mines, breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, etc, etc are humbling. Just being at Dakar would be an interesting life experience. I wanted a way in to that world and I was hoping Scott would crack open a door for me at OR. He did.

Cam in 2006 on the GSA in Baja. Note the NEMO bird overhead.
Photo: Dave Kelly

Scott told me about his Overland Training School (somehow this was a branch of Scott’s web-based overland empire I hadn’t discovered) and invited me to fill the last opening in a Comprehensive Certification course coming up in October. Sign me up! I exchanged secret handshakes and decoder rings with Scott and he jumped back on his moto to head off on another adventure (check out SPEED Channel’s coverage of Scott’s trip to the Darien Gap at the southern tip of Central America). I couldn’t wait for October. New friends, new places and ways to explore, new gear. New gear. I had a strong feeling this could be the elixir Caitlin and I had been seeking.

I arrived in Prescott, AZ with only half an idea of what I would really be doing in the week long course. I doubt if I’ve taken three successive breaths in the last seven years without thinking about NEMO. And lately, it’s been busier than ever. But lack of time to study beforehand is only part of the issue. I’ve long since decided that the best journeys are only loosely planned…maybe from A to C but never from A to Z. The course arrived at a time when I desperately need a break and an adventure. I showed up with an open mind, a ready attitude, two giant Osprey wheelie bags filled with demo NEMO gear, a prototype Cosmo Air/Pillowtop pad, a couple changes of clothes and half a clue about what I would be doing. I like that kind of adventure. Plenty of unknowns+good attitude+good people+the right gear=a high probability for a good life experience.

The first three days of our week long class were spent a little outside Prescott, AZ in the desert on BLM land. Arizona’s BLM controls 12.2M acres of surface land, a good deal of which are open areas with beautiful natural features and well established trails for vehicular exploration. I flew in Saturday night, October 3rd, took a bus to Prescott where Scott picked me up in his EarthRoamer and I spent the night at his place. The next morning, Scott drove us to his HQ where we jumped in a 2004 Tacoma (owned by Jeremy, an employee of Scott’s) and headed out to the desert with Scott taking the unusual role of copilot. After about an hour’s drive, we got off the highway and met up with the other students and their vehicles at a trailhead. It was just us, a zillion Saguaro cacti riddled with bullet holes and a few locals with dirt bikes and high powered rifles. Scott chose this area because it was already severely impacted and nothing we would do in our class would leave the area in any worse condition.

Day one of Overland Training. Overlanders distance themselves from some off-highway enthusiasts with their commitment to staying on the trail, always trying to maintain traction and caring deeply about conservation.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

The persistent gunfire in the background and the occasional dude ripping by on his dirt bike put in context Overland Training. Especially juxtaposed with Overland Training’s chief instructor, Graham Jackson. Graham grew up in Africa racing motos and helping his dad build race buggies. He had aspirations to race Formula cars and went to racing school in Europe, but later chose overlanding and a career as a chemist and writer. He’s a cultured and well traveled guy, and he brings a scientest’s way of thinking to his passion for vehicles and adventure.

Scott demonstrates the difference between a winchline extension and a tow rope. My experience with textiles and fibers gave me a good footing here, unlike in some areas where I was a total newbie.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

Between Graham and Scott and the shared wisdom of some of my more experienced classmates, such as Mario Donovan, the owner of Adventure Trailers, himself a very accomplished overlander and engineer, I definitely felt like a newbie and had tons to learn. We ran through exercises to familiarize ourselves with the dimensions of our vehicle, to demonstrate the effect of locking differentials and airing-down tires. We also had a thorough clinic on recovery gear and then spent some time putting that gear to use. We learned about spotting (different from the kind we do climbing) and practiced helping each other through a moderately technical portion of a dry river bed. All real hands-on stuff and a total blast. I learned about “working load” versus “load limit,” how to identify a top quality shackle and how to use a Pull-Pal. Collectively, there were several lifetimes worth of knowledge and experience present. A whole new world to explore.

At night, we camped out and I got to show off a Losi 2P, a Fillo and a new [top secret] Cosmo Combo sleeping pad. The Cosmo, especially, was a real hit. Overlanders often work out an alternative to ground camping, whether it’s rooftop tents or sleeping accommodations in their vehicles, either way, the mattresses just aren’t like home. You would think, with weight less of a concern that mondo and plush they would be, but the mattresses in these things are almost universally anorexic slabs of hard foam. Cosmo might be about as close to the feeling of your luxury bedroom mattress as you’re going to get in a 4lb, small packing, backcountry-worthy pad. I won’t say anymore about it here, but keep an eye out. It’s pretty sweet. It poses a real threat to your early morning ambitions.

Losi 2P keeping my borrowed Tacoma from taking off during the night. Note the rooftop tents in the background, Australian Outback style.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

To close out the field portion, we did a short overland trip back to Prescott. Scott and I had a good chance to chat on the drive and I picked up some additional tips on side slopes (Scott has an app for everything on his beloved iPhone, including an inclinometer), high speed driving and smoothness. We talked about past and future trips and ways our companies could cooperate. The value of networking, etc. We also shared some of our philosophy on life and business and talked about the notion of excellence, and how it’s a good thing to aspire to, even if only for our own gratification. And even at the expense of our hairlines (Scott gave in a while back and just shaved his). We both have an anachronistic appreciation for taking time to do things right, building things with our hands and having pride in our work. The kind of stuff we saw and admired in our dads and our granddads.

The rest of the week in Prescott was based at Scott’s company HQ in a nice, modest sized, neat and tidy commercial park on the edge of town. Cubicles are traded for a cozy, well decorated (Stephanie Brady’s other talent, aside from being Design Director for the magazine) office with British campaign furniture and posters of remote places and an operating room clean and organized garage with parts bins, boxes of OJ back issues and half-a-dozen folding tables arranged as a classroom. There are mountain bikes and motorcycles in and around the shop, and always a parking lot full of vehicles you could literally jump in and drive to the furthest reaches of land anywhere on the globe.

Graham demonstrates proper spotting technique while Scott pretends to need his help in the prototype Mopar/AEV Overland Jeep.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

Graham really got to show off his science background in the classroom portion of the course. Topics included, just to name a few, the ins and outs of navigation, the science of water filtration (see Overland Journal’s recent issue for Graham’s exceptionally thorough and well thought out test of water filters), how to choose the right gear and apparel, and tips and documents needed for successful border crossing. We grabbed meals together in little groups and it was a real pleasure to get to know my classmates. They included the former CEO of a healthcare provider, a Reno motorcycle cop and a Port Authority officer who was at Ground Zero on 9/11 and came to Overland Training seeking a new direction in life having just retired from more than twenty years in service, among other interesting folks. To a person, everyone was enjoyable to be around and brought a unique personal history and perspective.

A closer look at the rooftop tent, this one a fine example from Eezi-Awn. The trailer is one of Mario’s exceptionally well built Adventure Trailers.
Photo: Cam Brensinger

We ended the class on Saturday the 10th with a short certification exam. Despite a week of succumbing to persistent daydreams about trips to Central America, Alaska and Northern Canada and lots of time penciling out a future mod list for my Taco way above my pay grade, I managed to only miss a couple points. One that Graham cheated me out of and one something to do with calibrating your GPS for different datums. The question must have been poorly worded…:) Anyway, mission accomplished and with my passing grade, NEMO gained its official Overland Certification (I will get mine too, but first I need to get a ham radio license to complete the qualifications). Scott’s program is still young, I believe this was the third class, and if I complete the cert soon, I will likely be among the first 20 officially certified graduates. I’m stoked to be a plank holder, to be in there on the ground floor, around to see how it develops in the coming years.

So, I left Prescott with a new passion pretty well formed. My only concern was that Caity wasn’t there to go through the same first hand courtship, and might take some convincing. But she didn’t. No doubt in some part just to support her man, she tolerated an earful of breathless enthusiasm over the phone during the class and listened and smiled when I got home and began campaigning for trips and truck mods in 2010. I feel good about where it’s all going. It’s something Caity and I can do together, and with Tsuba (our Mal) and even kids (who knows). And it’s really just the vehicle, pun intended, for countless possibilities for exploration and adventure, some of which are old hat for us, like climbing, and some of which we’re yet to discover. Out of it, we’ve already been talking about learning Spanish and sharpening our photography skills. With it come new friends, new gear to study and obsess over, and a new way to of looking at roads already traveled.


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