Shannon and Brenton Cooper purchased this 1987 Toyota 4Runner in 2010, when they were both 26, to set off on an epic adventure from Texas to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina.
Two people share 84 square feet of living space while driving 711 days through 16 countries and 28 border crossings over 31,000 miles—one hell of a road trip. They pack only a half-dozen pairs of pants, four pairs of shoes, a few shirts—and one hell of a lot of guts. and they share a romantic taste for the kind of adventure known these days as “overlanding.”
Meet these two crazy kids: Brenton and Shannon Cooper, both 33 now and living in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He’s tall, dark, and handsome, a firefighter. She’s a diminutive doll, 4-foot-9, a nurse. Back in 2010, they bought a brick-red 1987 Toyota 4Runner for $2,500 in Austin, where Shannon, a Houston native, was attending the University of Texas. They met through a mutual friend.
Next thing you know, after planning for nearly two years and saving $75,000, they jam their entire lives into a vehicle with an odometer reading 238,478 miles. Wedged into the slightly modified truck are what counts as a kitchen and pantry, library, safe, bed. The Coopers head south, driving to the southernmost tip of this side of the world, to Patagonia, to Tierra del Fuego, the “Land of Fire.”
Today, they’re minor celebrities at Overland Expo, something of a trade show for the do-it-yourself voyager set. Launched in 2009 in Arizona, Overland Expo WEST expanded to Overland Expo EAST in 2014. In September, the eastern edition will appropriate a mile of riverside fields on Biltmore Estate property, where more than 3,000 explorers and overlanding wannabes will gather to swap tales and tips. The Coopers will be among 100 instructors from all over the world.
The Coopers’ beloved Toyota 4Runner will be on view at Overland Expo East at the Biltmore Estate this September. The couple will also be on hand, giving talks related to their experience.
“Once you decide to do the trip that we did, you go into the dark depths of the Internet trying to find as much information as you can,” Brenton says, sitting in the comfort of his in-laws’ deck with a spectacular view of the Great Smoky Mountains (never mind that the Coopers enjoyed spectacular views of the Andes). “Somehow among all that research and planning, we stumbled upon Overland Expo.”
They attended their first Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona, Brenton says, in part to assuage Shannon’s parents that other people were just as . . . not so crazy . . . as they were. “Initially, I was very frightened for them,” says Barbara Lynch-Blosse, Shannon’s mom. She specifies Mexico. “But I was very happy for them, very excited for them. I wish I had done something like that in my younger days.”
So what is this “overlanding” thing, which, apparently, is now a thing? The first WEST show drew about 900 people and dozens of vendors, while last May’s multi-day edition saw 12,000 attendees, with some 400 classes and demonstrations.
Overlanding describes self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal,” says Overland Journal, the Prescott, Arizona–based publication for “environmentally responsible, worldwide vehicle-supported expedition and adventure travel.” “While expedition is defined as a journey with a purpose, overlanding sees the journey as the purpose,” the Journal states. That means utilizing motorcars and motorcycles—throw in bicycles—and perhaps a camper for Baby Boomers wanting more comfort as their life-roads get a bit bumpier. Oh, and overlanding is not off-roading, glamping, plugging into a campground, or pitching a tent in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Overland Journal lists these criteria: 1. Remote locations, 2. Cultures other than your own, 3. Under-explored or under-documented regions, 4. Self-reliance in unfamiliar territories for multiple days, weeks, or months. That is, putting the mettle to the pedal—“ninja camping,” as Shannon calls it.
Listening to the Coopers during a meandering two-hour conversation, you get the sense that these two were made not just for each other but for a trip just like theirs.
Brenton: “You know, we didn’t have a lot of hairy situations.”
Shannon: “Which is great, everyone was expecting us to.”
Brenton: “To some extent, that’s boring, but not really. The most uncomfortable we ever felt was typically some of the sketchy border crossings. When you’re sleeping in your car, in some places it’s hard to find accommodations, but we had set up our vehicle to where we could just park, and you couldn’t really tell we were in there. So sometimes we may have parked in places we shouldn’t have.”
They wed in Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, where 33 friends and family showed up. Then they etched Recién Casados— “Just Married”—on the Toyota’s dusty rear window.
They hiked. They slept in hammocks outside their truck. They saw guys armed with Uzis hanging off soda-delivery trucks. They talked for hours with locals. They learned the places to go, the places to avoid, and about someone’s friendly uncle they should meet.
“One of the things we like to mention in Overland Expo,” Brenton says, “not only is it our opportunity to learn from other cultures, but it’s their opportunity to learn from us. As Americans, we do have a certain reputation, and it’s our opportunity to change their perspective of us and show them that we can be just as nice—”
“That we’re not all-entitled Americans,” Shannon adds.
Initially, Brenton says, “The news was focusing a lot on the drug wars and violence and Mexico. So, of course, when you say you’re going to go on this trip, everybody focuses on Mexico and narco-traffickers and violence. There’s narco-blogs that show gruesome and terrible things.”
But they’re smart. They chalked their blood types on each side of the 4Runner’s front doors; she’s O+, he’s A+. And they wrote ¡SONRÍE!—SMILE!—on the passenger side in the event of irritable policía.
Shannon: “When you get stopped at the checkpoints, take off your glasses, turn off your music, have your window already rolled down, and say hello.
Brenton: “Don’t be an idiot, you’re having fun.”
In other words, connect with the locals—just as you connect with everyone else nowadays, thanks to this innovation today’s adventurers enjoy: the Internet. They talk about that when they explain their ironically named blog, Ruined Adventures, so-called because: a) they enjoy cultural ruins, archaeological sites; b) “No adventure’s really ruined,” Shannon says. “It’s always just part of the adventure”; and c) “With technology and GPS,” she goes on, “a true adventure’s kind of ruined now.”
Not theirs. No insurmountable breakdowns. No trip-ending illnesses, wrecks, or arguments. Only one serious case of homesickness. About a year in, while traversing Peru, Shannon missed her family, a tight-knit bunch comprising three other sisters, Brittany, Heather, and Danielle, and her parents, Michael and Barbara, who’ve been together since high school. They also missed their dogs, Bella and Riley, terrier mutts, and Shady, a Lab mix, “the best dog you’ll ever meet,” Brenton says.
ALONG THE WAY
- • Towed a Kiwi couple’s broken-down Dodge Durango 106 miles through Argentina—“I still have their tow strap,” Brenton says.
- • Caught site of a rare, brilliantly plumed, Quetzal bird
- • Picked up a wooden Ecuadorian spear from an Amazon River canoe trip; a Mexican machete; a lapel pin from a federal cop in Buenos Aires; autographs of new friends Sharpie’d under their hood; and bottle-cap magnets from south-of-the-border craft beers
- • Immersed themselves in multiple cultures and learned Spanish
- • Got married
For their hiatus, the Coopers parked their 4Runner at a spot well-known in the overlanding community, outside a pencil museum in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. They wound up back in Washington state, where Brenton’s from, and spent the next six months driving to western North Carolina and picking up some work and extra cash. They also stopped by Overland Expo WEST to share some real-time advice. (Sometime amid all that, Shady suffered a nervous breakdown; they left the dog with a friend in Washington, and never saw him again.)
After returning to South America, they zigzagged from the Andes to the coast, back and forth between Chile and Argentina, and celebrated Shannon’s 30th birthday at Tierra del Fuego. All told, they spent most of their time north of the Panama Canal: six months in Mexico and three and a half months in Guatemala. Finally, at the tip of the Americas, they loaded their home into a shipping container bound for Miami.
Now, they’re settled. Shannon is five months pregnant with their second child; tow-headed Emmeline is 2.5 years old. Bella wags her tail to visitors. Riley, just ignore him, he won’t bite if you do. Their next big trip is to Overland Expo EAST, where their 4Runner will be a Featured Vehicle for folks to see and touch and where they’ll teach the Interactive Border/Checkpoint Simulation. (When they talk about the class they’ve been helping teach for the last three years, Shannon forms her hand into a pistol and points it at her husband. Stuff happens—but evidently not to the Coopers.)
“They are kind of the perfect poster people, poster children, for what we are trying to highlight, and that is the do-it-yourself adventure,” says Roseann Hanson, 52, founder and director of Overland Expo. “And they are just regular people with this dream to drive from here to the tip of South America and experience a really big swath of the world.” Hanson and her husband, Jonathan, 62, are no slouches themselves. She has traveled from Ethiopia’s Omo Valley to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, and he has worked with cultures as diverse as the Seri of Mexico, the Himba of Namibia and Angola in southwest Africa, and the Inuit, an Arctic people. Their biggest adventure together, she says, was overlanding to Canada’s northernmost point before kayaking along the Arctic Ocean coast. “That’s really what Overland Expo is about, whether it’s 100 miles from home or 10,000, which is what we encourage people to do.”
Shannon and Brenton (above) modified their 4Runner with a kitchen, pantry, library, safe, and bed. Additionally, they marked the doors with their blood types and ¡SONRÍE!, or SMILE!, to help relations with police at border crossings, and kept bottle caps as mementoes.
Just as they were inspired at their first—and subsequent—Overland Expo experiences, so the Coopers want to pay that encouragement forward. “The most important part of Overland Expo is that you have people there who are in the middle of doing something like this, or they’re on an around-the-world trip, or that’s been their lives for the past 30 years,” Brenton says. “If you are even considering doing something like that, to meet people who actually know what they’re talking about and have been to those places, the confidence that they give you and the inspiration is priceless.”