Overland Expo 2023 has Flagstaff, Arizona buzzing

The city where Pluto was discovered is trading off more than its status as 'gateway' to the Grand Canyon
These logging wheels are prominently positioned in downtown Flagstaff. They were one of two sets that used to sit on either side of Route 66, on the west end of Flagstaff, near the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company, as an entryway to the city. The project to restore them began 20 years ago. It ran into trouble because hardly any craftsmen now have the ability to work on wheels this size. So they were disassembled and the hardware sent to a company in Letcher, South Dakota. With their wood deemed beyond repair, the craftsmen of the Hansen Wheel and Wagon Company used the measurements to reconstruct this set, complete with the original iron parts. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

By chance, we happened to be in Flagstaff, Arizona on its biggest commercial showcase weekend of the year.

And the excitement was building in this city for Overland Expo West, which bills itself as the world’s premier event series for do-it-yourself adventure travel.

Word seems to have got out to those who need to know. In the room next door to us at the motel, for instance, was a Zimbabwean born-and-bred businessman from Brisbane, Australia. He said he planned to attend the Expo to meet existing clients as well as prospective ones. Last year’s Expo apparently had nearly 30,000 attendees. Road & Track, a Hearst Communications offering for the automotive enthusiast, hailed the 2022 show as something that offered a great deal to “dirt-loving folks”. They got “a place to meet and interact with representatives from some of the biggest names in the business,” it said. All within “a festival-like vibe”.

This year too, a taxi driver told us, there is keen anticipation in Flagstaff for the Overland Expo West. “It’s festivals and tourism – we’re so near the Grand Canyon – that give the city an income today,” she said.


How else would they survive, perchance to thrive? Flagstaff, roughly 200 km north of the state capital Phoenix, was once a centre of the lumber trade. With the ponderosa pine forests of northern Arizona all around and high demand for lumber as the railroads were being built in the late 19th century, Flagstaff got its first sawmill. In downtown Flagstaff today, sit a set of logging wheels – an integral part of the early lumber industry in northern Arizona – which once belonged to the old Arizona Lumber and Timber Company and were positioned on either side of the famous Route 66 on the west side of town. The 1880s were the boom years for Flagstaff and by 1886, it was the largest city on the railroad line between Albuquerque and the west Coast of the United States.

But those days are over and you’ve got to wonder how much business there can be in recalling historical markers such as the February 1930 discovery of the ninth planet Pluto from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff? And isn’t it cringe-making to be constantly seen as no more than “the gateway to the world-famous Grand Canyon”?

Not if you’ve got the Overland Expo West, it seems. There’s business to be done here, still.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac

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