Tackling an Oregon Trail in Overland Expo’s Built GMC Sierra AT4X Show Truck
Over the boulders and through the impossibly vicious brush, to escape society we go.
A ton of goods. That was the price of entry back in 1896 to cross the Yukon border and join in the frenzy of the Klondike Gold Rush. The Canadian authorities required every stampeder to travel with a year’s worth of food, supplies, and their own gold-mining equipment. But being prepared wasn’t a guarantee for anything beyond the Yukon border. Thousands died in the following year. Many others simply turned around and went home, broke and broken.
Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, I don’t even qualify as 200 pounds of goods. The only sustenance I carry in my bag is an unopened bottle of root beer. Were I to follow in the footsteps of those stampeders, I’d be certain to perish within hours. OK, minutes. Standing at the entrance to Overland Expo’s inaugural Pacific Northwest event in central Oregon in July, I’m about to drive into the wild in something they would have killed for: a 2022 GMC Sierra AT4X kitted out with a bounty of custom parts by the Expo itself. Then again, snow isn’t a fuel, and you can’t eat sheetmetal. That ton of goods would still be necessary.
The gold rush connection is more than literary. The overlanding industry has been engulfed by a similar boom in the last decade, growing from a niche within a niche to multibillion-dollar lifestyle enterprise encompassing everything from travel mugs to lift kits to seven-figure apocalypse rigs. Overland Expo came up along with it, starting with a small trade show that’s now a series of four multiday events around the country. It’s also the default stage for aftermarket companies to show off increasingly high-end wares.
As the pursuit has gone beyond hardcore enthusiasts, so too has the demand for nicer stuff, and that’s how I find myself surrounded by a crazy assortment of high-end gear that wouldn’t look out of place in a Williams Sonoma, all with a price tag to match. It’s a funny parallel: Back then, on the way to the Yukon border, mining hopefuls accumulated their gear from a variety of outfitters. All over the Pacific Northwest, merchants jumped into the game, peddling everything from pack animals to sacks of potato flakes to the thousands of hopeful prospectors. Many of them never made it through the 600 miles of challenging terrain. Ultimately it was the outfitters—not miners—who reaped the largest bounty. And they made millions.
All that to say, there’s an awful lot of money floating around in overlanding, hundreds of companies who would gladly separate you from yours, all running off a very basic desire: to get the hell away from society and see what’s out there for us. To me, the skyrocketing interest in overlanding over the past decade is precisely because we don’t have to prepare for anything anymore. Not really. Our ton of goods is ordered by smartphone, packaged by a warehouse, delivered to our doorstep daily. It’s a giant technological step at the expense of personal growth. Hitting the trail like prospectors 130 years ago, that separates us, reconnects us, resets us. Even if few want to really rough it like it’s 1896 anymore.
More Than a Frankentruck
Aftermarket show trucks aren’t usually the most functional things in the world (see: SEMA), but that couldn’t be further from the truth for Overland Expo’s Sierra AT4X, dubbed the Ultimate Overlanding Vehicle. Hyperbolic name aside, it’s built up with equipment cherry-picked by the Expo team from more than 20 exhibitors; a full list can be found here. The total gear is in excess of $60,000, nearly doubling the GMC’s $76,790 sticker price. But what could very well feel like a parts-bin collage actually comes together as a complete and cohesive build thanks to a huge effort by Mule Expedition Outfitters, the build partner tasked with making everything work together.
Approach it from the rear, and it’s unrecognizable. Mule yanked the stock bed and stacked a MITS Alloy tray and canopy combo on the rear frame. More than just a metal foundation, the 6.4-foot tray features a puzzle’s worth of secret compartments, storage cubbies, and a pull-out table.
Featuring flip-up DeLorean-style doors, the canopy conceals the batteries for the roof-mounted solar panel, a camp kitchen, and a fridge nicer than you’d find in most starter apartments. Chunky 33-inch Firestone Destination M/T2 tires wrap around a set of 17-inch Icon wheels. A Rhino Rack sprawls across most of the truck’s roof to hold even more stuff, including a roll-out shade canopy on the passenger side. Lights are everywhere, spanning the front of the rack, mounted on the A-pillars, running along the edge of the roof. With every bulb turned up to max, it’s likely you could see this thing from space.
All of these upgrades add weight, a lot of it. Unofficially, I’d say it’s a ton of goods. To help shoulder this load and maintain the crucial 10.9 inches of ground clearance, the rear suspension sports a pair of Firestone adjustable air springs.
Traveling through History
Instead of simply tossing me the keys to the GMC and wishing me luck, Overland Expo communications director Nick Jaynes organized a group trip through a special area of southern Oregon. I follow behind Jaynes, who’s driving his own personal vehicle, a 2008 Toyota FJ festooned with well-used off-road mods. A set of scuffed Maxtrax juts out of his spare tire cover like a comb tucked into a back pocket. Jaynes' friends Robert and Taylor join up in their 1987 Mitsubishi Montero, Jason’s snorkeled 4Runner is filled with camping gear and gourmet cooking supplies, and Josh rounds out the brigade in his 1986 Land Rover Defender 110. Next stop: the McGrew Trail, one of Jaynes' favorite tracks.
According to Jaynes' research, legend has it that two shipwrecked sailors discovered an indigenous people’s trail in 1852. As they followed it inland, they realized it could be used to transport goods to and from the sea. At the height of its popularity, this treacherous yet direct thoroughfare shuttled everything from gold to grand pianos.
It also happens to share a last name with one of the more colorful Klondike gold rush prospectors. William Nelson McGrew was one tough son of a bitch. He was still a teenager in the late 1800s when he made the 2,000-mile journey from his home in California to the Yukon border. Toting his ton of goods, he made it alive over the steep mountain passes that claimed the lives of countless others.
Just past the entrance to the trailhead, I can see why off-roaders love this trail—and why transporters definitely hated it. Chunky dirt gives way almost instantly to jumbles of giant rocks. The elevation pitches upwards almost as abruptly on its way to an eventual peak of 3,800 feet. It’s as if the gate were there to say: Are you sure you want to do this?
It's likely McGrew passed through this area on his way to the Yukon. Whether the trail is named after him remains a mystery. Nick seemed to know its entire history save for that one detail. If he did follow this trail, I can see why he succeeded up north. I’m going to use his name as a verb. I’m going to McGrew this shit. To the gate, we all answered in the affirmative by engaging four-wheel drive—and then creeping forward.
When you’re traversing this type of terrain, the first thing to do is recalibrate the typical 1:1 relationship most of us have with time and distance. On any given road, 26 miles is about a half hour. Put your foot in it and maybe make it in 20. But the length of the McGrew Trail offers no such speediness. It winds like a river, following the path of least resistance, dodging trees, and squeezing past boulders, occasionally doubling back on itself because that’s the only way forward, twisting, rising, falling, and rising again, according to the vagaries of the surrounding terrain. Much as McGrew is at the whim of the contours of the landscape, we are at the mercy of McGrew’s meanderings.
And so, we recalibrate. Patience and pace.
You don’t climb rocks in the GMC as much as you alight upon them. Aired down to 20 psi, the fluffy Firestones embrace each boulder like a long-lost cousin. Ample torque is always on call from the burbly 6.2-liter V8. Need more twist? Low range is just a button press away. Two more buttons instantly lock the front and rear diffs, at which point the GMC steams ahead as if pulled by a winch. After I successfully navigate a particularly gnarly passage, Jaynes radios back. “Nice work,” he says. I want to reply back that it wasn’t me, it was the truck.
Taking the Path Less Terrifying
A fork in the trail provides a choice in difficulty: hard or insanely hard. Massive gnarled tree roots bifurcate two unevenly spaced boulders of the insanely hard choice, the only path to the top. Another boulder juts out at the exit, threatening to undo all forward progress. Knowing that the GMC still has a show tour to finish, I opt for the path slightly more traveled. The drive is mostly a repeat of the previous passage: fluffy embrace, ample burble, go low, lock ’em up. This time, however, the rocks are both smaller and larger. My forward progress is accompanied by relentless vertical upheaval. The Multimatic spool-valve dampers valiantly soak up what they can, but I still crash around as if in a paint mixer. I wonder what the contents of the fridge look like right now. How did someone transport a grand piano across this section 150 years ago?
However it happened, it wasn’t up the insanely hard track. Josh guns the Land Rover and aims it for the narrow contact patches on each side, knowing he only has one shot to make it. One wheel drops, and the Defender crabs to the side. For a second, it looks like the rest of it will follow. The carburetor sputters. Josh feathers the clutch to clear the engine, simultaneously pitching him closer to the edge. Undaunted, Josh yanks hard to the left, gooses the throttle, and keeps the momentum going. The tires somehow find purchase, and he careens over the lip of the boulder, bouncing hard but sticking the landing. “You sure you don’t want to try that?” he asks.
I look at the intact bodywork of the GMC and shake my head. “I’m good.”
The Cruelty of Nature
Lunchtime coincides with our arrival at the peak of the trail. This broad vista point is barely obscured by the hundreds of blackened trees dotting the hillsides. In 2002, the Biscuit Fire raged through this area, consuming a half-million acres. The landscape is still barren 20 years after the inferno. Yet only an hour past the peak, abundant green life once again envelops us. The demarcation point isn’t gradual, either. One minute we’re exposed, and the next we’re in a lush copse of untouched forest.
Beauty turns beastly as the branches close in and start to smack the sides of the GMC with impunity. “Ugh, I feel like I’m in the world’s worst car wash,” I say over the radio. It’s impossible to ignore the glee in Jaynes' response: “Welcome to Pinstripe Alley!” I’m familiar with desert pinstriping. I also know what an alley is. To be honest, Jaynes' description is nothing short of a cataclysmic understatement. Long, spindly manzanita fingers reach out menacingly, drawing their knobby knuckles across every surface of the GMC. The sheetmetal howls in pain, a million baby pterodactyls shrieking all around me. Sickening thumps come from overhead as more branches assault the roof.
Attempting to exert some control over the situation, I fold in the sideview mirrors, effectively rendering the mirror-mounted trail cams useless. They now stare inward at the paint, lenses partially blinded by the reflected sunlight. The outline of the truck on the display is awash in a red blob. It looks like it’s bleeding. “Sorry,” I whisper. Without my mirrors, I can’t see what I’m certain is a trail of total destruction behind me. I envision the path littered with fragments of (once) expensive overlanding equipment.
The assault continues for what seems like another hour, although in reality it’s only a few minutes. The total lack of visibility makes Pinstripe Alley my least favorite part of the trail by far. As the branches continue to choke the view in front of me, it feels like I’m blitzing headlong into the unknown. I’m convinced I’m going to round the corner and encounter an impenetrable wall of foliage. My anxious thoughts continue even after I finally emerge from the canopy. Did I scratch the paint beyond repair? Did anything fall off? Somehow I doubt the prospectors were worried about stuff like this.
As it turns out, the answer is no. At the next rendezvous, I leap out of the GMC to assess the damage. There is none. Sappy streaks across the clear-coat are the only evidence that I’ve come into contact with anything. All of the overlanding components are still bolted on.
Robert soothingly pats the hood of his Montero. “Glad it didn’t hurt the Mitsubishi primer gray.”
I laugh, sort of. “I doubt you even got near a branch.” He wiggles his hand in a “comme ci, comme ça” gesture.
In that moment, the contrasts couldn’t be more obvious. In one corner: me, sweating bullets over potential scratches and mutilated gear. In the other: sheer delight masquerading as ennui. All day, I’d been watching the nimble, narrow Montero traipse through passages that would have mangled the big, brutish GMC.
The Necessity of Difficulty
McGrew finally reached the fields of gold only to discover they were barren. He stubbornly stuck it out in the mining town of Dawson, where instead of a fortune, he made enemies. Somewhere along the way, he earned the nickname Dangerous Dan. It was around this time that McGrew crossed paths with another miner, Robert Service. Details are scarce, but there was no love lost between the two men. After one heated confrontation, Service allegedly threatened, “McGrew, some day I’ll kill you.” But rather than follow through in real life, Service murdered McGrew in a poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” from the book, Songs of a Sourdough.
“Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow, and red, the North Lights swept in bars?
Then you've a hunch what the music meant … hunger and night and the stars.”
If this experience has proven anything, I could overland as far and as long as I wanted to—gas and ground clearance willing. But in many ways, the Ultimate Overlanding Vehicle is almost too perfect. It softens the edges of a historically hard endeavor. Our ton of goods is now merely an exquisitely curated, scaled-down version of the convenience we strove to leave behind.
Our time on the McGrew Trail is also a curated choice versus an economic necessity, and it ends that night at the aptly named Sourdough campground a few miles north of the California border. Stippled stars sparkle overhead, and I think of the miners and transporters who saw this same light more than a hundred years ago, who risked their own lives in search of a better one. We no longer need to climb mountains out of necessity, but to keep that same spirit alive within ourselves. Overlanding will always be more rewarding when you scratch some paint and feather a clutch. It’s a conscious choice to make in a world where we don’t have to prepare for anything. It's the obstacles we make for ourselves that prove to be the greatest challenge of all.
Derek Powell is an automotive journalist and producer on Top Gear America.
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