Silent impressions of the Overland Expo

Kyle's overlanding setup

Kyle's overlanding setup

By Kyle Rosenberg

Last summer the following post appeared on a popular overlanding forum:

“If you were engaged in an activity or gathering, such as, say, the Overland Expo, or an expedition in which a group effort were necessary to get from point A to point B, who do you feel would be a more challenging travel companion: 1) An international traveler who neither speaks, reads, or writes English, or 2) A deaf person who is fluent in English but cannot speak, hear, or understand English and relies on American Sign Language as his primary means of communication?”

The responses I got to this informal survey appeared to be split three ways, which was what I expected. Some said interacting with the international traveler would be easier, some said the deaf individual, others said it made no difference. It was fascinating to see the rationale many shared for why they chose what they did, and the experiences they had had with one or the other group, both, or neither. I did not disclose to anyone on the forum that I am a bilingual deaf person, so, with the exception of one or two people who replied who had met me previously, this allowed me to collect completely objective perspectives.

With the idea of an experiment forming in my mind, I reached out to Jonathan and Roseann Hanson of Overland Expo to share my thoughts. Since I can lip-read very well, I wanted to try the full Overland Experience package of classes. As we emailed back and forth, however, we decided that I should try even greater immersion. So not only did they sign me up for the Overland Experience package at the upcoming Overland Expo EAST, I also signed up to be on the volunteer crew so I could experience everything there from both perspectives, the attendee and the volunteer. What follows are just a few experiences out of the many I had during the first week of October.

I arrived in Asheville on the Monday before the Expo to start working with the other volunteers and individuals who make up the Overland Expo organization. We spent the next few days transforming Taylor Ranch into what I saw as an overlanding utopia, and in the process I got to know many of the people there, ‘listening’ to their stories and experiences whilst they got to know me and my unique views on the world as a fully-functioning disabled person. Needless to say, it was this group of people I was most comfortable interacting with for the remainder of the week, as they had become comfortable with me and developed their own methods for interaction, whether it was gesturing, speaking slowly and clearly, or picking up on nonverbal cues to adjust seamlessly the prosody of our communication.

Whether it was intentional or a happy coincidence, I was assigned to direct traffic on Thursday, when the majority of the attendees arrived. My location at the midway point on the hill ensured that nearly everyone who camped at and beyond the hill interacted with me throughout the day. While the job was simple and usually did not require more than directions, which I could do happily just pointing my finger, several times I was asked about certain group rendezvous areas, and about showers and toilets. I understood people just fine, as I’m an expert at lip-reading and I often use the power of deduction to figure out what is being said. However, strangers struggle to understand me as it takes time to get accustomed to my unique deaf “accent” when I struggle to pronounce words correctly. A 30-second interaction makes it virtually impossible to accomplish this. Some people reacted much better than others. Some understood me just fine, while others got frustrated and just rolled on to the next person up the hill. I observed a distinct difference in reactions among different ages: Older individuals seemed much more willing to try to understand and interact with me, while younger folks were much more impatient and less considerate. Hmm, something to ponder here!

Come Friday, the Expo had officially started, and part of my experiment was to sign up for as many classes as I could (I believe 11) in several formats, to see which was the most accessible for me, to observe what worked and what did not. I signed up for classes, narratives, slideshows, demonstrations, and roundtable discussions. My observations—obviously slanted by my own cirsumstances—are listed below.

Some narratives were great; others not so. Those who were passionate and animated about their experiences were easy to understand, as the picture they painted of their trips came to life and the vividness of their words made me feel as if I were there. Those speakers also made eye contact with the audience, and this allowed the speaker to adjust his pace and focus of elaboration. But a few just sat, spoke in a monotonous manner, and actually looked downward the entire time and did not use any visual aids. Perhaps those individuals were not used to public speaking, which is understandable but did not benefit me much in the information-gathering process. For someone as dependent on visual cues as I am, this will make or break the whole experience.

All the slideshows I went to I enjoyed immensely, as I was able to reconcile the objectives of the speaker to each picture that appeared as they were set up in a linear fashion, a pathway from the beginning to the end, if you will. It was quite easy to follow, as it is a natural tendency for presenters to point to certain areas or objects in the picture and then expand upon it. That is what I used to determine the content/context of the talking points.

Demonstrations were another favorite, since not only did I get the chance to see how certain things were accomplished in a step by step manner, it was hands-on which speaks to my background in Experiential Education—the philosophy of learning by doing. It also worked in my favor as demonstrations have a built-in pace that allows for clarification and audience participation.

I did not enjoy panels and roundtable discussions as much as the others, because it was extremely difficult to follow along. Often people in the audience would ask questions, and by the time I figured out where it was coming from, the question had already been asked and the answer was in progress. As is often the case with having a few experts on a particular subject, they sometimes talk over each other. As they expand on the person speaking before them, if that is missed, it becomes a snowball effect and the delay in information only gets larger and larger.

What I learned from this experience is that it is much easier to communicate with people one-on-one rather than in a group setting, as I can put in all of my resources to make sure they’re understood instead of jumping around and “resetting” every time someone new participates. It’s exhausting after a while trying to follow everyone as it takes quite a bit of processing in such a short time. 

Interestingly enough, the biggest obstacle I had during the weekend was something as simple and natural as nightfall. With little or no light, I can’t read lips. If I can’t read lips, it goes without saying that I’m not going to be able to understand anyone. Even with a roaring campfire, it sure does get extremely dark in the Blue Ridge Mountains!

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make it out to Arizona for Overland Expo West 2015, but I have yet to decide if I want to reprise the experience I had in Asheville—which was fantastic—or see about bringing a friend who is fluent in sign language and would be willing to interpret the classes and the presentations so I can engage fully, instead of merely being an observer. The overland travel bug has truly bitten me and I intend to embrace it as much as I possibly can.

I want to thank everyone I came across during the week I spent in Asheville. From the time I showed up at the Wedge Brewery for the pre-expo social to the Monday morning cleanup of Taylor Ranch, it was a phenomenal experience that I’ll never forget. The people I met, interacted with, worked with, and shared with are way too numerous to be listed here, but you know exactly who you are.

Kyle Rosenberg currently resides in New Jersey but his heart is in the desert southwest. His vehicle of choice is a 4Runner that is always full of gas and a 1950 Bantam trailer with a roof top tent ready at a moment’s notice to be hitched to travel and explore what the country has to offer. A recent graduate of the Masters Program in Experiential Education at Minnesota State, Mankato, he is currently exploring progressive and innovative bilingual ways of combining the overlanding experience with educational programming for everyone to enjoy whether they are disabled or able-bodied. This will hopefully be achieved through team-building activities, experiential learning approaches and educational outreach. Any and all ideas, proposals, job opportunities, and networking, along with a couch or backyard to visit, are welcomed and greatly appreciated. He can be reached at