When Ford asked us at Overland Expo to profile one of its Bronco ambassadors, I knew exactly who to talk to: veteran, overlander, and outdoorsman, Chad Brown. I met Chad last year through the overlanding community here in Portland.
I shortly thereafter learned about Chad’s organization, Soul River. I was immediately in awe of the man. Soul River connects troubled youth with veterans. Together, through fly fishing and Arctic expeditions, the youths build new experiences, skills, confidence, community and in nature. It’s a remarkable organization. I encourage you to donate to it, if you have the means.
I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Chad to interview him about his past, his life as a creative executive in New York, his struggles with PTSD, his path back to life through fly fishing, Soul River, and his experience with the all-new Ford Bronco.
This interview is long. But Chad is, as one of my colleagues here at Overland Expo put it, “One of the coolest people I’ve ever spoken to.” So, I swear, this juice is worth the squeeze.
Nick: Where did you grow up?
Chad: I grew up in Texas. Austin, Texas. I was born in a small town, Conroe, Texas, but raised in Austin, Texas.
Nick: And you were in the armed services, right?
Chad: I was in the Navy, I joined in ’91 and I got out in ’94. I served in Desert Storm, Operation Restore Hope, and then also Somalia as well.
Nick: Thank you for your service. I want to talk about your life before Soul River. You were living in New York, right? What was that life like? Because you weren’t an outdoorsy dude yet, right?
Chad: I wasn’t a stranger to the outdoors, but the outdoors was not a really big part of my life at that time. That was a time when I was really deep into the creative space, working with the Russell Simmons Phat Farm, which was a grand experience for me. I grew up real fast in that space, in that industry, and many other jobs came after that.
Nick: After New York, what brings you to Portland?
Chad: I got to a point in my life when I was in the city that things were funky happening with me mentally, and I didn’t quite understand what was going on. I was having these weird episodes when I was in New York. I decided to step away. What made me step away was actually watching this movie “Motorcycle Diaries.” It’s the coming-of-age story of Che Guevara. The movie essentially asks, “Have you ever been to a place where you feel like you’re living with the world?”
That impulse of what Che was going after and experiencing, as he traveled through South America on the back of a motorcycle, losing the track of time, experiencing poverty, hate-killings, et cetera, all throughout the South American continent. I was so inspired by that movie that I embarked on my own diary path. I checked out of New York and closed up everything and went to Japan.
I backpacked through Japan. I wanted to know what Che felt. I didn’t really have a set plan, a strategy or anything. I just basically dropped right into the country of Japan, starting in Tokyo. I started making my way all the way up to Hokkaido, North of Japan. I backpacked all the way through. I hitchhiked, I slept on the streets, I checked into a few small cubicle hotels, et cetera.
It was interesting because I went through this process where I lost track of time and I lost track of days. I was moving forward with the world and days actually disintegrated around me. It was more about me being really immersed into the culture and moving forward, and just experiencing everything that’s happening in front of me and around me from the language to the food to the history.
I made my way to the Riki Islands near Russia. I hitched a ride on a fisherman’s boat and made my way up there, eating sea urchins out of the water and stuff, and then coming back. It was just a really interesting experience.
When I came back to New York, after this really rich experience, I looked for jobs. I felt like it was time for me to leave the city. And just so happened, a job basically popped up in Portland. They were looking for a senior art director. Little did I know, I was about to unpack myself when I got to Portland. And Portland really allowed me to unpack myself. That’s because the lifestyle is different in New York. It’s a much slower lifestyle. It opened me up to this dark world of PTSD. And that was going to take me on a whole other path of my life.
Nick: I don’t want to get too personal, but what was that bridge between getting to Portland and fly fishing? What was the connection there with your PTSD?
Chad: I was homeless at that time. I had attempted suicide as well. I was in a psych ward at the VA hospital. A friend took me, picked me up, took me to the river, and put a rod in my hand. When I got out of the psych ward, we were fishing together. That’s really what made me feel complete and feel okay, that everything’s OK.
Nick: What does fly fishing give you and did it focus you? Did it allow you to be in yourself or without yourself or what?
Chad: I think fly fishing gave me purpose. It gave me clarity and safety. It gave me company, and it gave me inspiration. The layers of fly fishing come with so many layers like art, science, biology, etcetera. So I think overall fly fishing gave me purpose, a mission to push forward, and part of that mission was understanding the value of my life in existence of where I was at. The purpose was the biggest thing for me and that’s what gave me drive basically.
Nick: What is that gap between starting fly fishing and Soul River? What does the journey between those two points look like?
Chad: I think after what I have been through, in fighting my demons as a veteran, it also brought insecurities within myself. I said to myself: “I’m ready to get back to society. What can I do? I’m a vet. I would love to be able to work with youth.” I was also a youth myself that came from a broken home. I was also caught up in gangs. I know the importance of mentorship.
So, I said to myself: “Well, I’m going to put veterans in this space and youth in the space and I’m going to call it ‘Soul River.’ We’re going to engage with youth from the inner city who come from broken homes, foster care, having issues, et cetera. What better place for a veteran to step in?”
The veterans give leadership, a big brother, big sister guidance. Those youths give veterans a purpose. It builds a deeper, stronger community. At the end of the day, having someone young look up to you and how they admire you and how you bring yourself into their world is priceless. That’s a form of healing within itself that helps out veterans automatically by default of just being acknowledged of their existence in what they bring to the table.
Nick: How long has Soul River been going now? What areas and communities do you serve?
Chad: It’s been going for nine years. Soul River is now a national organization. We get kids and veterans from all over the United States. Eighty percent of our intake of veterans and youth are right here in Portland, Oregon.
The youngest is 13 and they age out at 18. We try to get them young because it gives us an opportunity to really work with the youth and mold them into outdoor ambassador leaders of conservation. We get all walks of life of veterans that come into the fold as well.
Nick: How do you guys get your gear? Through direct gear donations or through funding donations or both?
Chad: It’s a little bit of both. We get our gear from funding and sometimes it comes from just donations from being in relationship with outdoor brand companies.
Nick: If an individual wanted to give funds or donate gear, they can do that through your website or where would they do that?
Chad: Absolutely. Financial donations can go through our website. For gear donation, reaching out to us through email through our website is best.
Nick: Let’s talk about the Arctic expeditions. Where did those come from and what do you do with those?
Chad: Yeah, the Arctic expeditions that we do are the pinnacle of our program of Soul River. It gives us a really perfect ground for education and raising that awareness with our youth. We actually call our expeditions, “deployments.” It’s a military term, but we have adopted the term because what we call deployment is basically going into places that are in turmoil — environmental and wildlife threats and indigenous cultures in peril. A place has to be a turmoil type of threat.
That’s what will cause us to go in and form a deployment. We bring youth and veterans to that space. We partner with conservation groups who are doing the work to help raise the awareness of that environment and protect that environment. As a partnership, we collaborate and come up with a curriculum. The veterans take that curriculum and they engage our youth and engage our youth. The youth are tasked to do their research on certain things in the environment. At the end of a deployment, the youth have opportunities to do presentations for all the veterans of what they’ve learned.
Nick: I know Ford has talked about boating your Bronco up there. Has that happened yet?
Chad: That’s still being worked out. But I’d love to have it up there.
Nick: How long have you had the Bronco now?
Chad: I’ve had the Bronco right around seven months now.
Nick: Where have you taken it, if not the Arctic?
Chad: I have taken it a little bit all over place. All over Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Nick: That’s awesome. Do you like it so far?
Chad: Oh man, I love the Bronco. Yeah, it’s really cool. I feel like it meets its legend really well. It’s fun in the city, you can take it out, but it’s definitely built tough. I really enjoy driving the rig.
Nick: How many miles have you put on it? Do you know?
Chad: I think I put on around 15,000. I would love to be able to break away more and go down to Mexico. I wanted to plan and do a cross-country and drive straight from Portland to North Carolina and then all the in between do some just off grid type of shoots along the way and everything like that. But I need more time.
Nick: What else does being a Bronco ambassador mean to you?
Chad: I’m very blessed and thankful. I’ve worked hard to do the right thing in my work. That’s been recognized. Being a Bronco ambassador was nothing I applied for. But I am thankful to have my work recognized in this way.