‘Overlanding’ enthusiasts rally at Big Brutus

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
A rally at Big Brutus last weekend brought overlanding enthusiasts from all over the country to southeast Kansas.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — People traveled from as far as South Dakota and New Jersey to gather last weekend at Big Brutus — the world’s largest electric shovel — for a rally of similarly impressive, if not quite as massive, machines. In this case they were a variety of trucks, SUVs, vans and other vehicles outfitted for “overlanding.” 

Chris Holloway, organizer of the Big Iron Overland Rally, describes overlanding as a combination between “car camping” and off-roading. 

“We have very capable vehicles that can take us farther off-grid and that can show us different parts of the country that we’ve never seen,” he said. 

“We’re fully capable to do water crossings. We can get to the top of a mountain, or to a creek bed that not many people can, or drive on a beach somewhere, you know, we can just go explore farther and really camp and enjoy it.” 

The Big Iron Overland Rally featured equipment vendors, classes, and live music, in addition to space for attendees to park and camp while they checked out Big Brutus and enjoyed the three-day event. 

“It’s great to see what people do, how they build their vehicles out and what they build, and then also to meet new people,” said Larry Fisher, who has been overlanding for about 7 or 8 years and traveled from Norman, Oklahoma for the rally. 

Last weekend’s event was the first such rally at Big Brutus, but Holloway, who also organizes the annual Midwest Overlanding and Offroad Expo (MOORE) in Springfield, Missouri, said he hopes to bring it back again next year. 

Joe Manns, Big Brutus manager, said Holloway convinced him that the grounds surrounding the retired electric shovel could be a good site for an event similar to the MOORE expo after inviting him to the Springfield event. Manns brought along a miniature model of Big Brutus. 

“When they saw the miniature Brutus, we probably had 250, 300 people stop and say ‘Where is that at? We want to go,’” Manns said. “For people like this, this is the kind of stuff they like to go looking for, so it’s right up their alley.” 

According to Holloway, the overlanding industry — while difficult to precisely define — has at least quadrupled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jeff Kubiak, owner of BADAC Adventure Co. and a vendor at the Big Iron rally, agrees that the industry is growing rapidly. 

“Camping is huge right now,” he said. “People realized that they need to get out and see nature and travel.” 

Kubiak would know. He just started his business last year, and has been doing well enough selling his custom off-road trailers — which start at $15,900 — that his overlanding equipment business is now his full-time job. 

“Last year about this time I was fortunate enough to have the ability to go camping, and built a trailer, and me and my family did like seven weeks traveling around the U.S.,” he said. 

“We did it in a trailer like these, and we got home and I said ‘You know what? I’m going to build some more of these.’” 

Chris Wilson of the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau said that while a camping-focused event like the Big Iron Overland Rally might not bring as much money into the local economy in terms of things like hotel stays as other events do, it brings tourism dollars into the community through people doing things like eating at restaurants and visiting museums.             

“For the entire region as a whole, southeast Kansas, it’s an opportunity to really show off — especially to those who absolutely love the outdoors — just how great it is here,” Wilson said. 

For Corey Albright, who came from the Dallas, Texas area to attend the rally, already being familiar with southeast Kansas was part of the draw of the event. 

“Like 20 years ago I lived in Pittsburg, so I said, you know, let’s go check out the old town and see what it looks like, and this is just as good a reason as any to come up here,” he said. 

Overlanding may be a somewhat obscure hobby that in many cases requires a fairly substantial monetary investment by those who are committed to doing it, but for Albright and other attendees at last weekend’s rally, it’s worth it for the chance to get away from it all. 

In Albright's case, that means getting a break from his day (and night) job as a rollercoaster mechanic at Six Flags. 

“There’s not very many of us out there,” Albright said, “I actually run a crew of guys — very stressful, and the hours are crazy. They’re days, nights, you know, weekends, holidays, so any chance I get to take a vacation and get away, I’m very grateful for it.” 

While overlanding enthusiasts might at times be willing to go to extremes to escape from civilization, though, many are apparently not opposed to meeting and comparing notes with like-minded individuals along the way on their journeys to the most remote locations they can find. 

“The nice thing about overlanding is it’s all about the trip to the destination,” said Holloway, “so we enjoy the scenic drive and the beauty of whatever state and part of the country that we’re in, and for a lot of people, whatever part of the world they’re in.”