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Cousins tether career plans, hit trail for Crohn’s research

Nick Roach, left, and Jack Chambers prepare their horses for a ride near Colbert on Saturday. The two are riding from Gardiner, Mont., to Bellingham to raise money for Crohn’s disease research. (Kathy Plonka)
Nick Roach, left, and Jack Chambers prepare their horses for a ride near Colbert on Saturday. The two are riding from Gardiner, Mont., to Bellingham to raise money for Crohn’s disease research. (Kathy Plonka)

Nick Roach and Jack Chambers don’t want to grow up.

The cousins remember a simpler time when escaping the real world was as easy as stepping into their backyards and imagining a world of cowboys in the Wild West.

“Since we were little kids, we’ve always palled around,” Roach said, standing in an open field in Colbert surrounded by five horses and a mule. “You always go on adventures and stuff.”

The adventures continued in college, as Roach and Chambers began working for a ranch in Montana, making their cowboy dreams a reality. But as the prospect of graduation and desk jobs came closer, Roach and Chambers realized they didn’t want it to end.

“As college winds down, careers start to loom,” Roach said. “It just hits you hard.”

But they’re putting off that future, at least for a while. They’re riding off into their own sunset now, traveling 1,300 miles on horseback from Gardiner, Mont., to Bellingham to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. So far, the two have raised more than $25,000, according to their website.

They’ll travel through Central Washington next, then down to Portland and up to Bellingham, where Chambers’ family lives. It will take 60 more days to complete the journey, which started July 9.

The idea was born of the desire to “do something cool,” Roach said. Kayaking from Gardiner to the Gulf of Mexico seemed too hard. Traveling to Nashville to become country singers wasn’t realistic enough. But riding through four states with six horses and no support vehicle seemed like a good idea, and Cowboys Vs. Crohn’s launched after eight months of planning and fundraising.

“This may be the most American thing we’ve ever done,” Roach said.

Chambers has Crohn’s disease, a chronic gastrointestinal disease that affects about 700,000 Americans. He’s learned to live with it, but when he was first diagnosed the summer before eighth grade, he struggled to cope.

“For that whole entirety of my eighth-grade year, I was sick, almost bedridden,” he said. “I was pretty lucky to go to two-thirds of my days in class. The other third I was at home lying in bed in agony.”

Chambers dropped 35 pounds, putting him at 80 pounds for most of eighth grade.

“You can’t let it win,” Chambers said. “For a while, I let it win.”

“I can’t believe you’re such a pansy,” Roach replied, laughing.

Chambers and Roach can laugh about it now, but Roach said for a while he thought his cousin was dying. Several other members of their family suffer from Crohn’s, and one of their cousins died after she was diagnosed with Crohn’s and colon cancer.

Roach said the generosity they’ve seen on the trip has been incredible. Most nights they’ve camped, but some nights they stay with strangers, giving their horses a place to rest. One night, the two stayed with a veterinarian who gave them fresh hay, clean water and a six-pack of beer.

“We don’t know anything about him other than that his name is Dr. Bob,” Roach said. “He might be the nicest guy we’ve ever met.”

People are excited to see them riding through towns, Roach said. Children will run up to them shouting “Howdy” and asking to pet their horses.

They’ve heard countless stories and thank-yous from people who suffer from Crohn’s or know someone who has.

“America just longs for this,” he said. “There’s a romanticized idea around cowboys.”

The adventure hasn’t always been easy. Chambers has to self-inject medication every two weeks, requiring friends and family to bring him his refrigerated medicine on the trail. Chambers’ body responds best to fresh, unprocessed food, but it’s hard to find and carry on the trail. Even off the trail, the duo strays occasionally.

“This morning we had doughnuts, so I can’t say we stick to it,” Chambers said.

But in spite of the challenges, Roach said, they have to continue. Every morning, the two saddle up at 5 a.m. and hit the trail again, because it’s all connected to helping Crohn’s patients live normal and even extraordinary lives.

“If you look at Crohn’s disease, it’s about overcoming challenges,” Roach said. “It’s so easy to be like, ‘This sucks, I quit.’  Someone who has a disease, they can’t just quit.”

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