Determined to live life to the fullest, this local couple completes a cross-country adventure inspired by those living with spinal cord injuries
When Christin and Chuck Rowland first caught sight of the Alaskan mountains in mid-September, it took their breath away. Layered in thermal coats and several pairs of socks to evade the cold (a stark contrast from the sweltering September heat in Florida), the Rowlands realized they’d actually done it. After more than 100 days of traversing the country in a van-turned-tiny-home-on-wheels, the couple achieved their ultimate goal: navigating their way from Florida to Alaska. More important than the destination, though, was the inspiration behind this wild adventure.
“We’ve always had this dream, but through our work and our life experiences, we realize that life is short, and you need to make your dreams happen,” says Christin.
Originally from South Africa, Christin moved to Florida in 2015 to take an internship as a trainer at NextStep Orlando, a paralysis recovery and fitness center that has operated its unique gymnasiums in Sanford, Longwood, and now Altamonte Springs. NextStep’s mission is to help those living with spinal cord injuries. It was through NextStep that Christin met her husband, when Chuck brought his best friend, Wes Bandemer, for therapy after Wes was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.
“NextStep changed both our lives,” says Christin. “It’s where we met and fell in love, and it’s where we both gained so much perspective. My clients inspire me more than they’ll ever know, and I’ve learned not to take for granted the abilities I have now. I’ve seen my clients find joy in small achievements like taking a few steps unassisted or being able to hold a fork again. Small things make a big difference. They chose not to give up and create a new version of their lives. Everywhere I go, I think of them.”
“Being around my buddy Wes and being a part of his therapy process woke me up,” says Chuck. “Even though he’s in a limiting situation as a quadriplegic, he has a positive mentality. He’s unstoppable and makes no excuses. I want to make him proud. He keeps me accountable and encourages me to live to my full potential.”
Because of the Rowlands’ love for outdoor adventure and their dream to travel the country, it came as no surprise to Christin’s beloved clients and the couple’s closest friends that they decided to embrace the van-life movement, an alternative lifestyle to live and travel more simply and freely.
Chuck and Christin set a date to take off for Alaska. The journey would be a long one though, and as Christin adds, nothing worth doing is ever easy.
The real adventure actually began in 2017 when the Rowlands bought and gutted a 2010 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van they dubbed Beverly the Benz. From installing insulation and wiring to adding solar panels and building out the interior storage, Christin and Chuck converted the van into a tiny home on wheels. The DIY operation took several months to complete and was an exercise in patience and perseverance that put their skills and their relationship to the test. By early 2018, the couple started saving money, whittled down their belongings, and moved into the van full-time, keeping it parked at Wes’s house in Altamonte Springs. Weekends were spent getting comfortable in their new home and taking overnight trips around Florida.
Finally in June of this year, the Rowlands said their goodbyes and headed for Alaska.
“We found a way to make our dream possible,” says Chuck. “We visualized building out the van, going on the trip, seeing ourselves in beautiful places, and finally arriving in Alaska, and we actually did it. We pushed ourselves to grow and do something that’s not the norm, but we knew there would be so much to gain from getting out and traveling.”
“Leaving my clients at NextStep, who are like my family, was a mixture of emotions for me,” says Christin, who still works remotely for the organization. “What really made me happy was that I had numerous clients text me saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this. I’m going to live through you and your adventures.’”
To document the trip and keep family members and friends in the loop, Christin and Chuck shared photos and videos of all the places they’ve been and all the in-between experiences they’ve had, like taking outdoor showers and making small additions to their van. It’s all on their Instagram and YouTube accounts called Couple of Plants. They went from sweaty days in New Mexico to chilly nights in Colorado in a short span of time and experienced technical difficulties like failing car brakes, unexpected expenses, and a few nights sleeping in empty parking lots.
“Just because we had this dream and we made this goal, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” says Christin. “Living in a small space with one another is a real test. We’ve cried and laughed and been frustrated, but ultimately it’s brought us closer together. Yes, you get to experience beautiful places together, but you also work through stressful situations and have to learn to communicate well.”
Christin says most of her favorite places on the trip were lesser-known spots that are not in a guidebook, like the small Alaskan town of Tok – surrounded by the Alaska Range – where they found a free campsite with a breathtakingly wild and rugged view.
“The natural beauty throughout the United States is so special,” says Christin. “It’s wonderful to drive and see the landscape change from rolling hills to meadows to mountains and experience the local communities. We hiked and biked and have done so much. It can be overwhelming in a good way because there’s so much more to see and do.”
At press time, the Rowlands have been through 14 states and 13 national parks so far (the most recent park being Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska), and they are calling Oregon home for a little while.
“We’re going to see where life takes us,” says Christin. “We’re grateful to be able to do this and for the growth and magic gained along the way.”
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