One of the things Brad and I both love most about off-roading and overlanding is the community, an incredible group of people with whom we share a passion for off-grid adventure and outdoor exploration. And it’s because of our enthusiasm for this community that we were inspired to partner with Merus Adventure Park in Texas to host the inaugural TrailRecon Summit, which was held Oct. 26-30.
This being the first ever TrailRecon event, we had no idea what to expect going into it and it surpassed our expectations. During the five days spent wheeling, camping, and even exploring caves in the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo we had so many amazing experiences and met so many wonderful people.
But before I tell you more about the event, I’d like to talk about the “why.” The reason Brad and I decided to do this in the first place.
The Off-Road and Overland Community
When Brad posted the first video of him and our boys off-roading on our little family YouTube account way back in 2015, we had no idea where this crazy adventure would take us. There was no TrailRecon and no plans of starting a “channel.” He was just posting videos of our adventures and somehow, it snowballed. We had no inkling that seven years later, TrailRecon would be a popular YouTube channel with more than 500,000 subscribers.
During those seven years, the original 2015 Jeep Wrangler JK has shared the garage with a few more Jeeps and other 4x4 vehicles. And we’ve made numerous modifications to all those rigs. Instead of only doing off-roading day trips to trails in Southern California we now do multi-day and weeks-long overland trips across the county. But the one constant through all the changes has been the community we found along the way—the off-roaders and overlanders who have motivated, helped, and inspired us.
From the very first time we took our Jeep off pavement with one of Brad’s shipmates (that’s Navy for “coworker”) who was happy to show us the ropes, to the incredible group of friends we have today who are always up for adventure, this community has welcomed us with open arms.
One of the goals of TrailRecon is to share our adventures and experiences in the hope of encouraging folks to get outside and have adventures of their own, to become part of this community.
But we wanted to do something more than make videos to motivate people to experience off-roading and overlanding for themselves, we wanted to do something to actively bring people together and build community. The Summit was our way of doing that.
Overlanding at Merus Adventure Park
With a lot of help from our friends at Merus (Dirk, the park’s owner, Kristin, his wife and co-owner of the park, Molly, Amy, Neill, and Casey to name a few), we designed an event with community at its heart. We deliberately created an environment in which people could connect with each other, learn from each other, and build relationships that would enrich their lives.
Merus, which is located on 6,500 acres in the Palo Duro canyon, was the perfect place for the Summit. Dirk and his team have developed an incredible park where there are off-road trails for all skill levels as well as a test track where drivers can build their skills and confidence. There are also places to hike, mountain bike, and view all kinds of wildlife, including mule deer, aoudad, and bald eagles. There is truly something for everyone here. And the Merus team is committed to preserving this pristine canyon, which is something Brad and I fully support.
The first two days of the Summit was the VIP portion of the event, which was kept small for a more intimate atmosphere. We met up with the group near the entrance to Merus before dropping into the Palo Duro canyon and heading to our camp for the night, a beautiful site surrounded by high rock walls and sheltered by cottonwoods.
As everyone was getting settled, Brad and I wandered around to see the different camp setups and say hello. That’s when we came across a group of folks helping a couple put together their large canvas tent, which was nicknamed the “Taj Mahal.”
This moment really stood out because it embodied what we love about the overlanding community. In our experience, members of this community have a generosity of spirit and inherent willingness to help others, which creates a sense of belonging. And here was a diverse group of folks, all from different places and backgrounds, coming together to lend a hand to their fellow campers.
After a delicious dinner of salad, paella, and sticky toffee pudding from a local husband and wife catering team, The Cock & Hog, everyone gathered around the campfire and we all hung out despite the chilly weather to enjoy some camaraderie under the stars. Conversations ranged from ways to stay warm in cold weather, best apps for stargazing, traveling to Ireland, the pros and cons of off-road trailers, traveling with pets, and so much more. It was wonderful to see how easily everyone was coming together and sharing ideas and information.
(Top two photos courtesy of Mike and Miranda Quinlan.)
The following morning after breakfast (the croissants were so good!), we packed up camp and headed out to explore the canyon with Dirk leading the way. He was a phenomenal trail guide, sharing his personal insights about the canyon and park. We spent the day off-roading and a few braves souls even did a little spelunking, bringing back souvenirs of the beautiful red mud that coated the canyon (and their clothes) that day.
We made several stops along the way so folks could stretch their legs and enjoy the stunning views of the canyon. During those breaks, there was more community building as everyone took advantage of the opportunity to chat and talk about the adventure so far.
I loved watching new friendships being formed and existing ones getting stronger. But even better? Brad and I both loved the opportunity to meet the folks who came on this adventure with us and hear their stories—learn where they came from and what got them into off-roading and overlanding.
(Bottom left photo courtesy of Mike and Miranda Quinlan.)
That afternoon, we headed back to the top where we met up with the rest of the folks arriving for the Summit. Even though we knew we’d nearly sold out the Summit, it was still a bit unbelievable to see all the rigs and people—to know that this many people actually came to be part of this first event.
We all caravanned to a plateau overlooking the canyon below to set up base camp, our hub for the next several days. This was our gathering place, a place where we’d get to watch the sunrise over the canyon and where we’d come together in the evenings after a day of wheeling to share our stories.
Each day after a hearty breakfast, we broke into smaller groups based on the types of trails everyone want to do. One group chose to tackle the TrailRecon Extreme Challenge, a mix of black and blue trails. This was the smallest and most daring group, and they were not afraid of getting after it.
The next two groups chose to do the TrailRecon Challenge, a route with green and blue trails that provided some tricky terrain mixed in with incredible views of the canyon.
And the final group—the one I chose to join—enjoyed the trail version of a leisurely stroll, taking some rugged dirt roads and soaking in the scenery on several of the park's green trails. Thanks to Kristin, our trail guide, we learned more about the history of the canyon and a few personal stories about the building of Merus.
Top left: The group who completed the TrailRecon Extreme Challenge | Top right: The group who completed the TrailRecon Challenge
(Bottom right photo courtesy of Mike and Miranda Quinlan.)
And even though we had a few challenges on the trail—what’s an adventure without a few obstacles?—it was awesome to see how quickly everyone came to get together to solve problems, fix rigs, or lend a helpful winch!
Even the cold and the rain were no match for this intrepid group of overlanders. Positive attitudes, friendly faces, and smiles were overflowing all day long.
Special Moments and Supporting a Cause
Every evening, we’d gather at the “Rec Center,” to enjoy dinner and socialize. After the meal, there were opportunities to share stories with the group—of a special moment from the day or anything else folks felt the need to share. We heard so many inspirational stories of how being part of the off-roading and overlanding community has positively impacted people’s lives. How getting outside, driving down a dirt road, spending time off the grid with family has made a meaningful difference in people’s well-being and their relationships.
There was a moment one evening when I looked around and saw people talking and having a great time as they got to know each other better. Kids were running around, playing, and laughing. And there were plenty of dogs, wagging their tails or snoozing at their human’s side. This moment was what this event was all about. People from all walks of life, coming together and creating something special—a positive, inclusive, supportive community based on our shared experiences and interests.
(Above photos courtesy of Mike and Miranda Quinlan.)
That was a great moment, but the third evening—all the moments—was extra special for several reasons.
First, that night was potluck night. Everyone cooked up their favorite camp meal to share, providing an opportunity for us to expand our culinary horizons and collect new recipes. By design, the potluck encouraged people to bond over food. And there was so much food! The tables were overflowing!
I wanted to taste everything, but it just wasn’t possible. And while everything I did taste was absolutely delicious, I especially enjoyed the Korean BBQ shortribs (thank you, Muy!), the chicken wings (thank you, Richard!), which is my favorite food, and the Italian-style soup, which was perfect on a cold night, (thanks, Miranda!).
After the potluck our good friends at KC HiLiTES talked about lighting and did a Q&A with the group before several folks headed out on a night run with them. Everyone who participated got to show off their bling as they lit up the night. Watching them roll out of camp was a (bright) sight to behold.
(Above photo courtesy of Mike and Miranda Quinlan.)
But the best part of the night happened between the potluck and the night run. Right before people left the Rec Center to get ready for bed or the night run, we asked folks to consider donating to a charity of our choosing, Operation Homefront.
With Brad serving in the Navy for 26 years and my work as both a volunteer Ombudsman and a Family Readiness Officer to support Navy and Marine Corps families, we have seen firsthand the great work this organization does.
Brad and I remember being a young enlisted family, living in San Diego with three children under the age of five and struggling to make ends meet. And we weren’t the only family in that situation--there were, and are, many others. Operation Homefront exists to support families like ours. They provide many services and programs that are greatly needed to by our military families and our veterans.
Brad and I had decided earlier that we would match whatever was raised by the Summit community, as did Merus and an anonymous donor. We would have been thrilled if we’d raised a few hundred dollars. But that didn’t happen.
When it was all said and done, we were surprised and ecstatic to have raised just over $20,000 for Operation Homefront!
This beautiful community opened their hearts and shared generously to help support our active duty families and the veterans who have served this nation. It was definitely an emotional moment for Brad and me because this was personal for us.
By the end of the event, Brad and I felt like we were saying goodbye to family. The TrailRecon Summit had been everything we had hoped for and so much more.
I was a little sad that it was over, but I know we’ll see our friends again. If not next year at the Second Annual TrailRecon Summit, then on the trails.
Until then, safe travels!
Even though we didn't create a video about the Summit (Brad put the camera away to just enjoy the event and the people), here's a video from a recent trip to Merus Adventure Park and Brad checking out the TrailRecon Challenge Trail for the first time with his friend Dirk, the visionary behind the park!