I’m standing over two gravestones in the middle of the wilderness, utterly confused. The stones mark the birth and death for a father and son, etched with a six-point buck and a motorcycle respectively. But we’re nowhere near a cemetery.
We’re on a bluff southwest of Ellensburg carpeted in strawlike grass that scratches my calves, about two hours beyond a paved road. Yet this appears to be the final resting place of two men—one dead in 2004, the other 2008. Are there ashes buried below? Actual bodies?
We’re overlanding, the only way you’d ever stumble upon this particular wilderness mystery. The sport is something between off-roading and car camping: multiday drives through the rugged dirt roads and just-wide-enough trails that coat public lands like spiderwebs. The sport can be done virtually anywhere, but we’re on a particularly dramatic itinerary called the Washington Discovery Backcountry Route, or WABDR. Picture the Pacific Coast Trail, but for cars.
How can driving a kitted-out Toyota Land Cruiser compare with the wilderness intimacy of backpacking? This brand of car camping doesn’t isolate you from nature; it opens a whole new territory. On just a third of the 575-mile WABDR, we traversed mountains and desert, rivers and meadows, and too many overlooks to count. After three days, I’m caked with more dirt and dust than I ever collected on a hiking trip and have spotted a bear, elk, hawks, and a dozen wild turkeys.
My guide, Seattle gear retailer Tom Hession-Herzog, has been overlanding for years, more recently with his signature contraption, a hardtop tent mounted on his vehicle. Last year he started the company Adventure Ready to import rooftop huts from France, Australia, and South Africa, bringing safari comfort to the rough-and-tumble form of travel. His ethos: Adventure doesn’t have to mean austerity.
It’s hard to imagine overlanding before GPS; with the WABDR plotted on our satellite map, we can make sense of the dizzying landscape of old logging roads and double track Jeep trails. A locked gate is an overlander’s worst enemy, ever more common as federal agencies restrict access to roads rather than maintain them. We stop to destroy a fallen log with Hession-Herzog’s favorite hatchet—Swedes forge the best, he claims. (When I note his affinity for international gear, he points to something American-made: the handgun in his car safe.)
Our ability to detour is crucial when the route gets hairy. Hession-Herzog deems one ridge too precarious for towing a trailer, saying “I’d do it if I didn’t have to worry about killing you.” My disappointment is tempered when we later spot the ruins of a crashed car—on purpose? an accident?—a hundred yards below a much gentler grade of road.
Overlanding is about asking, “I wonder what’s over there,” and then actually finding out. Spot an intriguing field, all rippling yellow grass and rusty farm equipment? If the gate’s unlocked, go check it out. As the summer forest fires turn the horizon an eerie red and burp mushroom clouds of smoke, we reroute on the fly.
Shortly before stumbling upon the graves, we see a strange-looking tent in an open field. Close up it’s a giant black telescope the size of a potbellied stove, mounted in a roofless mobile observatory. The astronomy buff manning the machine gives us a quick primer on galactic viewing before we head back to our route.
In some ways overlanding’s a niche sport; Hession-Herzog’s 1996 Land Cruiser is upgraded and customized with everything from increased coil-spring suspension to a row of USB outlets. We carry extra fuel, the heavy load netting us about 10 miles per gallon. Yet the most ingenious doodad on Hession-Herzog’s rig is a $45 canvas trash bag that hugs the spare tire.
When we make camp, there’s no exhausted crash that comes after a day of hiking; we have time and equipment to cook real meals, and sunsets to savor. In the rolling hills south of Ellensburg we spot shooting stars and a flaming piece of space debris, while from our cliffside camp near Wenatchee we’re terrorized by a winged albino creature that bats around our heads with such fury we dub it the Mothmouse.
Overlanding isn’t car camping, not exactly road-tripping or even off-roading, since we’re always on an established trail. It’s travel that indulges the primal curiosity about what’s beyond the next bend, mostly in areas where wonder-killing smart phones won’t work. It’s treasure hunting, where the spoils are oddballs and unexplained mysteries. And maybe even a secret, illegal grave.