I grew up in the foothills of North Carolina. My childhood was surrounded by winding creeks, endless tobacco fields, and those mystical mountains always on the horizon. I could see it all from the car window on my way to school and from the back deck of my parents’ yard. I could see that the world was big and beautiful; it was wide and deep, full of mystery and wonder. But I could see it—from the car, from the deck, from books and movies and photos—only as others went on ahead of me. You see, I was born with a disease called Spinal Muscular Dystrophy, which renders me disabled and bound to a wheelchair. And while my parents were amazing in giving me unique experiences and being creative with accessibility, there were just some things we hadn’t gotten around to yet, namely those open, endless fields.
I shared this thought once with my friend Tom on an early summer road trip.
“If I was able-bodied,” I told my friend, “I’d pull my car off the highway and just take off on foot into those fields.”
“What then?” he asked.
“Then,” I said, “I’d get out to the middle, and I’d stand there. That’s it. Just stand, by myself, out in the open of opens—no interference, no distraction, just the field below and sky above. I think then, maybe—just maybe—I could finally feel free. I could breathe deep, calm my heart, clear my head.”
We decided to get a group of guys together and backpack around Europe. The trick, though, was that I was the backpack. Kevan Chandler
This was my dream, and I had imagined it a thousand times. The run through a field, the walk through a wood, standing out amid the color green. I had stretched my mind past breaking to set myself there, day after day, night after night, dream after dream. This was the closest I would come, I figured, to that experience this side of eternity. But Tom had something else in mind.
Two years ago, he and I had a crazy idea. We decided to get a group of guys together and backpack around Europe. The trick, though, was that I was the backpack. Tom and three other friends carried me in a specially designed backpack for a three-week adventure none of us would ever forget. We danced in the streets of Paris, we explored an ancient monastery off the coast of Ireland, and we even hiked the English countryside.
Our host in England was a man named Mike. He boasted a long neck and even longer nose, looking a lot like Wallace from “Wallace and Grommet,” and he had the accent to match it. He was a property manager for his little town, so everyone knew him and treated him a bit like a godfather for the area. As we passed through town with him in the afternoons, he’d shake hands with everyone we met and greet them by name. And when we were out without him, the townsfolk called us “Mike’s friends” with smiles and pleasantries. Mike also volunteered with the National Trust, helping tend to the land around his childhood home, so one morning, he decided we should go for a hike to see the area. A six mile hike that promised woods, hills, valleys, fences, cows, and a pub at the end. So, we set off.
We crept through woods draped in gray haze, and I could’ve sworn I saw Robin Hood slip between the trees. We hopped over old fences from one pasture to another. And the guys steadied one another as we scaled muddy inclines, cows watching us from their lounging spots in the grass to our left. Mike, Tom, and two others took turns carrying me in the backpack as we saw the great world of English legend and lore.
“Nearly there,” Mike announced as we broke through another forest edge. He pointed to a knoll up ahead. “Just over that hill we’ll head back into town.”
I was on Tom’s back for this last leg of the journey. And as we crested the hill, bright and green, Tom paused and looked around. The woods stood at our backs and to our right, fields to our left, and before us, maybe a mile down the hill, stood quietly the town and pub. Above us, the sky was a striking blue with tattered white clouds passing by like driftwood.
“This will do just fine,” Tom said.
I took a deep breath and agreed. It was a beautiful sight. But that was only half of what he meant.
“Guys,” he beckoned, and the others came to help dismount me from his shoulders. They set me, in the backpack, on the ground, feet in the tall grass, my arms resting on my knees, facing the town ahead and the hill country beyond. Then, they left.
“Where are you guys going,” I asked as they moseyed off behind me.
“We’ll be over by those trees,” Tom called back.
“When will you be back?” I asked.
“In a bit,” he said simply. “We’re in a field, man. This is your chance.”
I was suddenly alone. By myself. In the open of opens. As my friends’ voices trailed off behind me, I settled at last into the truth of where I was sitting, of what I was doing. And it may not have been my exact vision—running into a field and, of course, standing. But I was in a field and I was alone.
I took in a deep breath, scanning the horizon, the sky, and even the grass around me. I let my sight sink into the trees, and I watched the clouds like they were passersby on a city street. The town below lay tranquil while beyond it the hills brimmed with centuries of life. And though they were still far off, as such places have been all my life, they were tangible now because I was among them, part of their existence. I was sitting atop one of their number and so I sat atop them all. And on this hillside, my heart calmed, my head cleared, and I felt free.
We hope to demonstrate that life is full of possibility and hope, that disability doesn’t mean inability. Kevan Chandler
Since returning from Europe, I have been working with Tom and dozens of volunteers to make this experience of freedom a reality for other folks with disabilities. A lot of this starts with redefining accessibility as a cooperative effort, people helping people. An amazing example of this is in the work of a nonprofit called Show Hope. They work tirelessly in care centers to serve orphans who live with severe disabilities, specifically in China.
The team and I have the privilege of visiting these care centers this year, in August and September, to spend time with the children and be an encouragement to them, as well as the staff and their surrounding communities. In meeting with these kids and their caregivers, we hope to demonstrate that life is full of possibility and hope, that disability doesn’t mean inability. We all have limitations, but through creativity, courage, and community, we can move beyond those limitations and embrace our full potential.
We are excited to take on this new kind of adventure, giving back to others, but we need your financial help to make this happen. Join us by following along on social media and spreading the word. We want you to be part of the experience, part of the story. You are invited to help “carry Kevan” and in doing so, carry so many more.