Mentioned in the show:
America the Beautiful Pass
Speakers on trails
The Eagles (band)
Epic Pass military discount
Great Sand Dunes national park
Hot springs colorado
Swim with manatees
Black Canyon Gunnison national park
Favorite Gear: Ray Ban Jackie O Sunglass
Most Essential Gear: Altra hiking boots
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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.
Amy Bushatz: When you move all around the US, you learn a few things that other people don’t get to know – at least not from firsthand experience. You learn that people are the same everywhere in many ways, but also they are incredibly diverse. You learn that things really are slower in the South and faster in the North. You learn that the way you experience the outdoors is different, too, based on the weather, the topography and the culture that springs up around it. For writer and Army spouse, Rebekah Sanderlin, those moves have inspired her to change not just how she sees spending time outside, but also how she wants to spend her time and how she does spend her time. Really, they’ve changed everything. Rebekah, welcome to the Humans Outside Podcast.
Rebekah Sanderlin: Thank you.
AB: So we like to start these shows by imagining ourselves in our guest’s favorite outdoor space, hanging out doing the coffee thing. So tell me, where are we talking to you today?
RS: Okay, so, right now we are on the top of Mount Musco overlooking Cheyenne Canyon, very near downtown Colorado Springs, but at the base of the Rocky Mountains. And to get to the amazing view that we are currently looking at, we had to hike quite a robust hike, scramble over some rocks, some very big boulders, I guess I should say. And probably came close to quitting two or three times, but we made it.
AB: Yeah, awesome. And we get to talk here. That’s great. You’ve long spent your time taking your kids around the nation and even the world to explore. But when you moved to Colorado with the Army a few years ago, something changed. What was it? And why?
RS: Well, so I grew up in the South. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee. I never lived outside of the South until I was 41. And if you would ask me during all of those 41 years, I would have adamantly told you that I’ve never wanted to be anywhere that was not warm. I was always a very warm weather person. And then in 2017, we got orders to move to Fort Carson, Colorado, and we were previously living in the Florida Panhandle. So we were looking at a huge change in climate and, you know, recreational activities and really mindset and everything. We moved in February, so to go from Florida to Colorado in February was quite drastic. But we were on board with it. We saw it as an adventure. But it was a big change.
AB: So, you got out there and you started to experience life a little bit differently. How did it change?
RS: Well, the very first thing we did was buy coats. We didn’t have coats and that actually was harder than it sounds because by February, all of the outdoor stores had shifted over to spring stuff. And we had a hard time even finding coats for sale, but we bought our gear. And then pretty quickly, we went skiing for the first time as a family. I had skied some growing up, but not much as an adult though, and then no one else in my family ever skied. And so we got in, I think, two ski trips that first season and that was you know, that was that was really fun but it was a big adjustment for my Florida kids. My youngest was five right after we got here and she had never seen snow and then my two older kids – my middle one didn’t remember seeing it and then my oldest barely remembered seeing snow before, so it was a big, big adjustment for them.
AB: In Colorado, you found yourself embracing being outside maybe a little differently than you did in Florida. Why is that?
RS: So the options for us outside are completely different here and that was a big adjustment for me. In Florida, I went paddleboarding, or kayaking or going to the beach, or swimming in the ocean a couple times a week. I used to strap the paddleboard on my car, drop the kids off at school and then go spend the day on the water. Colorado has no water, so there’s a few places to take out a paddleboard, but they’re not that great. I mean, after Florida, they’re pretty disappointing. So, I had to look for other things to do. And like I said, I love skiing. I knew that I enjoyed that, but you can’t do that every day. We live probably two miles from the national forest land. So I’m just a few minutes drive from just incredible hiking, and I hadn’t really hiked much since I’d been a teenager, and, you know, bought some hiking boots and started just exploring the trails. It doesn’t sound that intense. But, we live in bear and mountain lion country and there’s constant warnings about bears and mountain lions and wildlife. So I had to read up on, you know, what do I need to take to be safe and where do I go and the trails here aren’t clearly marked. So I had to learn how to look for cairns, and how to find my way out and, you know, make a plan and everything. It was a much more intense style of hiking than I’d ever done before.
AB: When you were in Florida, it sounds like you spent a lot of time outside, but it sort of sounds like you’ve developed a different relationship with that time outside and in Colorado. Is that true?
RS: Yeah. So I think when I was in Florida, it was more recreational. It was like, let’s just go have fun. And I get on my paddleboard, and I had waterproof bluetooth headphones to listen to music and just, you know, just really just enjoy myself. It was kind of just a workout and fun. For Colorado, one of the things that’s been really big for me is when I’m on trails when I’m hiking when I’m especially if I’m, you know, there’s not very many other people around. It’s really a spiritual connection. And I find myself connecting with a higher power, you know, speaking spiritual thoughts, kind of getting more in that zone than I ever did doing water sports or the stuff that we used to do.
AB: Do you think that’s a function of the place or function of your attitude about doing it?
RS: You know, I think it’s both. Colorado is so beautiful. It’s really very inspiring. And you know, the America the Beautiful that the poem that became the song was written not far from where I live by a writer who was standing on Pikes Peak looking out at the terrain. And, you know, over and over again from when we first got here and still, the word majestic just comes to mind, like when you’re seeing what’s around you, it’s just so gorgeous, that it puts me in a frame of mind of — who created this? There must be something bigger than just me and the people around me; that there’s evidence of divine intent. And so, you know, as I’m like, moving through trails, that’s sort of a pervading thought and I tend to hike alone. I prefer to not go with anyone else because I’d rather be with my thoughts than just be chatting. And so I think that solitude also makes the Divinity more apparent. But I think I also was in a place in my own life where I was craving that and craving that solitude and craving that spiritual connection.
AB: Because when you’re describing the details, I can 100% see that as someone who does spend some time hiking and running trails like that myself, but I’ve also lived on the beach before and, and there’s a connection there too. When you are sitting on the beach, watching these waves crash and you know that the moment they crest and the moment they fall, and the way they come in and out, especially if you are there maybe before or after big storm and you think you know, I I feel perfectly safe swimming, but I know because I’ve seen it, that they can move boulders, right? I come to the beach one day, and here’s these rocks and the next day they’re gone. Right? So this is such a powerful force, but it’s something that I can experience myself. I don’t know, I just feel such a spiritual connection to that as well. And I just wonder if it’s about both how you experienced the place and the place itself. But whether or not someone else gets that same experience out of it is about where they are as a person.
RS: Oh, absolutely. I can hike past somebody who’s having a completely different experience than I am. And the same is true at the beach. We also lived near the beach in North Carolina and I really loved to go in the wintertime. So obviously, you’re not going to be getting in the water, but there was no one else there and you got to just experience that beautiful natural environment without lots of loud noises or somebody you know boombox playing music are
And just to sidebar, oh my gosh I hate it when I’m on a trail or skiing and somebody’s got like a speaker with their music!
AB: Yes, I know! On the trail I can see there’s a push-pull there, especially in bear country where if you’re by yourself, music is a really good way to keep bears away. Unless it’s Nickelback, which I’m convinced the bears will attack you to make it stop.
RS: Probably. And could we criticize them for that?
AB: No, we cannot. But when I’m on a ski slope, I’m so 100% with you. Please, whoever you are, please stop the music. There’s no point for this. This is why they have headphones. Save us from your speaker thing.
RS: Yes, with one exception. Last week, I was skiing in Keystone, Colorado. And this guy was skiing down beside me, like a middle aged guy, and he is belting out at the top of his lungs, an Eagles song. I’m trying to remember which one it was now, but like every word. And so then I thought — well, maybe he’s got like headphones in and he’s just singing along. And so I look closer and no, no, he was just serenading the slopes and it was actually kind of nice.
AB: That’s amazing. So we’re saying special dispensation – if you are the one who’s singing. You know, we’ve accomplished so much on this podcast already. We’ve established rules for speaker use in the outdoors, which I feel benefits all of creation.
RS: Yes, I mean, I haven’t polled the animal life but I think they’re with us on it.
AB: You have tried a lot of new things since you got to Colorado. What are some of the new things that you tried and what are some of your favorite things?
RS: Oh, wow. So skiing wasn’t a new thing for me, it was new to my kids, but we love that. And you know, if there’s anyone military listening, there’s an epic pass you can get that is $100 a year for active duty and it’s like unlimited lift tickets to a ton of resorts. So totally worth it, we’ve maximized that. We also have snow shoes now and we’re kind of new to that but we’re learning. My microspikes stay by the front door all winter long because I end up having to wear spikes quite a bit just to walk the dog ,which is again coming from Florida, a huge shock to me.
And then there’s, you know, maybe about three hours south of us is great Sand Dunes National Park, which is incredible and not very well known. But when you get there, it’s just sand dunes. It looks like a camel is going to walk by at some point. These massive sand dunes are like many stories tall and you can sand board down them. And so we’ve really enjoyed that. We do that pretty often in the summer months. I’m trying to think about what else we’ve done that we never did before. We have hot springs, there’s tons of hot springs around here. And so that’s kind of weird. As a parent, you have to kind of research it a little bit before you take the kids because some of them are clothing optional, and I’m not quite ready to have those conversations.
AB: You’re listing off all of these things, many of which I’ve never thought of myself, even though I am by trade someone who spends a lot of time outside right. Sandboarding would be a great example. And I’m wondering, when you get to a new place, it’s super easy to just say — okay, here we are, and let’s unpack and let’s do life. And it takes this extra level of intentionality and extra level of looking for what you can do to get out there and discover that a couple hours south from you is sand dunes where you can sandboard – and that that’s even a thing – is there. A moment where you create intentionality for that – is this a decision point? Or is it just something that you do naturally?
RS: Both. When we were in Florida, we moved there our youngest was a newborn. So there really wasn’t a lot we could do because having a little baby really limits you. But when we found out that we were leaving, about a year before we moved, we made a Florida bucket list. And we made a list of everything we wanted to do in Florida before we moved. And we did almost all of it. You know, the one thing we didn’t get to do was scuba dive caves. But we did some caving, which was pretty cool. And we swam with manatees, which was also really cool. But when we came to Colorado, we had come right off finishing our Florida bucket list. And so one of the first things my husband and I did with our kids was, we sat them down, and we started, we had done some research on what was available in Colorado, and we told them some of the things that we thought the family might enjoy. And then we all just talked about what we wanted to do. And so we made a Colorado list, you know, right as we first got here. I took a three ring binder and put page protectors in it and then filled those with all the tourist brochures that we found about our new home. And then we just became tourists in our new home. And my husband has deployed twice since we’ve been here, so there’s been over a year that it’s just been me and the kids, you know, if you add up all the months, and so one of the ways that we can make that time pass by faster and more fun, is we’ll go through that binder. And every weekend we’ll just pick something we want to do. And then we go do it.
AB: That’s such incredibly good advice, though. Even if you’re not somewhere new, it’s just to be a tourist in your own town, and the adventures that you can have and the outdoor places you can experience that way. I’m sitting here thinking about where we live in Alaska, we’ve lived here several years. And I am very aware that there are corners of Alaska that I will never see because it’s so vast and so difficult to get to. The road system doesn’t go there. And you have to take a plane and all that. But there’s also corners of Alaska that are accessible and that I have not been to and I lack the plotting and intentionality to get to and I know that I have friends here who have lived here a long time who have the same thing. And I imagine many of our listeners who live in places outside of Alaska, and have lived there for a long time have the same thing, right? What you’re describing is an incredible level of intentionality, especially if you aren’t new to a place, right? But you got organized and you made it happen and now you’re experiencing things in a way that most people never will.
RS: Yeah, I think that that tourist mindset is really helpful. Even if you’re living, like I grew up in Nashville, and Nashville is a huge tourism area, but there were a lot of things that I never did while I was living there. Now when we go back to visit family, we will do those things with our kids, because we actually are tourists, you know, but there are things that my siblings still haven’t done. What’s the phrase, familiarity breeds contempt? Like when something’s around you all the time, you just – contempt is probably a strong word – but you just forget about it. You think — well, I can do that later. I think one of the benefits of military life is that you know that your time in this place is probably limited. You may not know how long you have in each place you live, but you know that you’re probably not going to get to stay there indefinitely. So when we got here, neither of us had ever lived in the West. And we thought — well, wouldn’t it be cool to use this time to explore the West and really make this like our Western US base of operations and see what we can see, because from the East Coast to do a road trip to the West – that’s a huge commitment. If you’re already in the West, you know, driving to the Grand Canyon’s not quite so miserable, you know. But what I really didn’t think about and I feel stupid saying this now, because I mean, I can look at a map, but the states in the East are a lot smaller than states in the West. And I was not prepared for driving all day and still being in the same state. That was a real eye opener for me.
AB: I grew up in California, and I remember people saying — oh, we’re going to go to LA for the day. Well, they hadn’t stopped to think through the fact that LA is an eight hour drive from where we were, right? So know, you’re not going to go there for the day. But I see the same thing here in Alaska. People say — oh, we’re going to go up to Fairbanks or up to Denali and spend the day. Well Denali, that’s a day drive, right? If you really want to see and experience it, you’re going to need a couple of days. And one of the people we’ve had on this show, her advice was, don’t try to do too much. Because people come here and think they’re going to see everything at one time and it’s just too big. It’s just too big.
RS: Well, and that’s my advice for anyone who’s trying to do stuff with kids too. I love to plan trips, and I love road trips, and I want to cram as much in as I possibly can. But if you try to do more than two or three things in a day, you’re going to wear your kids out and it’s going to be a miserable experience. You’re better off just picking a couple of highlights, hitting those enjoying it and leaving some time for the unexpected stuff.
AB: One of the things you’ve been talking about and that I think you’ve really done well is just embracing living in Colorado. Just like we’re talking about embracing the West, embracing the newness, some people listening to this may not be as outdoor-oriented as you are or have become, or they may want to try something new, but just lack that intentionality or have trouble getting to that point. You’ve given a couple of tips, but do you have anything else specific to help people push them forward to get to that spot?
RS: Well, you know, one thing that I had not given any thought to before moving out here were the national parks. Again, I sound like an idiot for not realizing this. But there’s a lot of national parks near where I live now. And so we began going to them and after I’d been to a couple of them, it dawned on me that the reason these places are national parks is because they are the best that America has to offer. So my advice to people who are looking for ways to branch out and do new things is to go to a national park, and then to talk to the park rangers. They’re tremendous resources you can go to.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park here in Colorado – it’s amazing. It’s like, almost as big as the Grand Canyon, but there’s nobody there. And in the wintertime, they have free snowshoes and I think they have free cross country skis that you can check out and go on the trails with. We did that last year, just me and the kids. We checked out the snow shoes and then all the trails that are hiking trails in the summertime are snowshoe and ski trails in the wintertime. The gear’s free, I found that online before we went so that wasn’t like something that I didn’t know going in and that information is available on the park’s website. So if there’s an activity somebody is looking at doing, I’d say, you know, if you can do it in the national park, it’ll be cheaper. And you can probably get some free advice from the rangers. But also there’s no shame in paying for a lesson. With my kids, you know, we all started skiing, but I didn’t try to teach them to ski myself. You know, we paid for lessons. It was money very well spent. And then after I’d paid for each of them to have a few lessons, then they were able to ski with me and we had a much better time. And when I first started, I took a few lessons, too. Especially people who are already used to doing outdoors stuff, there’s kind of some pride in thinking you can figure it out on your own. But, you know, it might be worth a little bit of money to save yourself a lot of days of struggle when you can learn it quicker if somebody teaches you.
AB: Boy, is that true, I will never regret the couple of ski lessons I took. I am a great skier by no means. I am categorically not a good skier. However, I can downhill ski enough to enjoy it. And that is only true because I took a couple of lessons. I would surely benefit from a couple of skate ski lessons, so that I could do more skate skiing. I skate ski so poorly that you can’t even call it skiing at this point, right? But I haven’t spent the money, or more than that the time, to make that happen yet. It’s certainly on my list, but you’re making me feel inspired and like I should get after it.
RS: One other thought for people: I guess it was two years ago, a friend and I decided we wanted to start climbing 14ers.
AB: What’s a 14er?
RS: A 14,000 foot mountain. And so Colorado has a lot of them. I’m not even sure how many, and then even more 13ers than 14ers, so very tall mountains. It’s more than just a hike because once you get above the treeline, there’s some more technical stuff you need to know and there’s some pretty strict safety precautions you need to follow. And so it’s not something that I would advise anybody to just go out and do without doing some research first.
She found out that REI had a free class on how to climb 14ers. And then they even had a specific one on women climbing 14ers, so she and I went to this women’s class. And for a few hours, we had access to some true experts and they advised us on everything on gear, how to file a plan so that if anything happens, people can find you, times to climb and that sort of thing. I would also advise people to look at stores like REI or other stores that might be in their area that could be having seminars where you can go and learn.
AB: For many folks, including yours truly, spending time outside and clears my brain, okay? It’s like a reset, right? I feel more creative and more ready to work when I get back and do what I’m doing and all this is supported by science saying that this is what happens so conveniently, I’m not crazy. It’s real. Okay. But you’ve told me before that you actually work and write while you hike, and you do it by voice, and I find that fascinating. So tell us about that.
RS: I know I’m not the only one, but I don’t know what you actually call this, but I call it hike writing. And I’m super low tech with it, there’s probably a much better system. But I’ll take an iPhone and I’ll take the memo function on my iPhone, plug in the earbuds that come with the phone into it and then I write using voice dictation. A lot of times I’m writing fiction because it’s just fun. But I’ll dictate what comes to mind, what I want happening in my stories. And then when I’m done with that particular document, and when I get back to where I have cell signal, I’ll email that to myself. And then I’ll take what I’ve emailed, paste it into a Word doc or whatever program I’m using, and then do some really heavy editing because the dictation gets a lot wrong. But it’s sort of a different skill that I didn’t have before, because I’ve found that to make it easier for me to work with editing-wise, I need to also dictate the punctuation. I feel like I’m in like, Mad Men or something, like dictating the letter to my secretary.
AB: You are your own secretary.
RS: Yes, I am my own secretary.
AB: And there are probably less martinis.
RS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean…
I think this is true for a lot of people, but I started doing that because being out on a trail clears my mind and I can work through things. My mind will just naturally start processing things that I’m trying to work through, you know, then trying to write, or issues that I’m having or whatever. And I found myself like — Oh, I want to write this down, because this is really good. And I want to have this when I get back to my desk. And so that’s how I first tried dictating into the memo app. I started doing this when we first moved out here, and I was really worried about mountain lions. And so the same issue we were saying, with music on the trails for the bears, I thought — well, maybe if I’m talking to myself, then a mountain lion won’t attack me. I won’t sneak up on anything. And so I also thought — well, okay, if I dictate these books to myself, maybe I won’t get eaten. So I just started talking to myself, and I’m sure I look super crazy to anybody who passes me, but whatever.
AB: Well, unless the mountain lion, operating under the same theory as the bear with Nickelback, does not like your work, this should be a failure free option.
RS: Wow, I had never thought that if I get eaten it might be because I’m not a good writer.
AB: So what’s next for you? You’ve got all these adventures, you’re climbing 14ers, you’re a mountain woman. What’s next?
RS: Well, so what’s next is really confusing for us because my husband’s retiring from the Army this year after 25 years of service. And in that time, we spent a long time in North Carolina. And then we spent quite a bit of time in Florida. And now we’ve spent several years in Colorado, and he’s from Virginia, and I’m from Tennessee, and we have no idea where we should live. We like have a list. It’s easier for us to say where we don’t want to live than where we do. And we’re going to have to make a decision on that pretty soon. And so what we’ve decided to do is buy ourselves some time and postpone that decision. And we’re planning to go this fall to South Africa and rent a place and live in Cape Town for several months, and then probably rent a place elsewhere in Africa. We’re looking at possibly Kenya, or Rwanda – live there for several months and just explore Africa for about a year.
AB: That’s incredible. What an amazing thing. And I’m sitting here thinking — what an amazing opportunity. But I know that it’s an opportunity of your making, right? It’s a decision. We make decisions every day, how we want to spend our time and the risks we want to take and the things we want to do. And I know that because we made the decision to move to Alaska. Yeah, that was a decision. There was some risk involved. There were some pros and cons. But we did it anyway.
RS: Yeah, yeah. And we’re in a good place because he is retiring from the military. So he’ll have retirement income. And Africa is a lot less expensive than the US, so that that retirement income will go further there than here. And then, as we were talking about, like — can we do this? How can we do this? We have some friends we’ve met over the years who have done long term overland travel, where they’ve done, you know, a more adventurous version of what we’re talking about doing, and they did it with no secured income. And so, you know, for us, it’s not really that big of a jump. I mean, the kids are pretty excited about being homeschooled, but they’re a little anxious about it too, when I’m a little anxious about having to homeschool. But you know, other than that, it’s, I don’t know, that doesn’t really feel that risky. Probably because we’re not looking at it being a long term plan either. We’re looking at it being a year and then hopefully after that, we’ll know where we want to put down roots and, you know, get on with life.
AB: So, now we’ve reached the point of our podcast where we do our leftovers round. So tell me what your favorite outdoor gear item is.
RS: Well, in Colorado, it’s probably a coat. Let’s see, honestly my favorite outdoor gear item, and I don’t even know if this counts, is sunglasses. I do not do anything without sunglasses. The sun in Colorado is so bright and the same was true in Florida. It has been probably close to a decade since I went a day without wearing sunglasses.
AB: Do you have a favorite type?
RS: Yes, I like the Ray-Ban Jackie O’s. And I’m kind of a frugal person, so it sort of kills me to buy expensive sunglasses, but I also know that I will literally wear them out before I lose them or break them. Like the plastic starts to corrode. Like that’s how much I wear them. So, you know, I am willing to invest in a good pair. But I also have found that now that I know what kind I like, I can go on eBay and get them a lot cheaper.
AB: There you go. Good work. What is your most essential outdoor gear item? It could be the same as the favorite, might be different.
RS: You know, I discovered the Altra hiking boots this year and I’m in love with them. I like them so much.
AB: This is my favorite question to show so I’m excited to ask it of you. Talk to us about your favorite outdoor moment ever. If you close your eyes and think about a time in the outdoors that gives you joy, where are you and what are you doing?
RS: Yes. So that’s an easy one. Favorite time was several years ago. I was paddleboarding on Rocky Bayou, which is right off the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle. And I’m out on the paddleboard and I see a dolphin, like swimming really near me. And I was like — Oh, that’s so cool. It’s a dolphin. Yay. And I thought that because Rocky Bayou, as a bayou is brackish water. So every time that I went out on the bayou, you’re kind of like, if you stay close to the land, you might get eaten by an alligator. And if you get out in the middle, you might get eaten by a shark. So seeing a dolphin is always exciting because they’re just awesome. But also it means that I’m probably not going to get eaten by anything. So this dolphin jumps near me and I get all excited about it. And then another one comes up right behind the first one, and then another, and next thing you know, I’m in a pod of dolphins – like they’re around me. And I started to get a little nervous because I was like — if they want to mess with me, they could totally knock me off this board. But, they didn’t want to mess with me. They just wanted to play with me. And they just swam around me for several minutes. I took a video of it, too, of them just playing with me.
AB: That’s incredible. Good, incredible moment.
RS: Yeah, it was great. It was really cool.
AB: Well, thank you so much for joining us on the Humans Outside Podcast today. We loved having you.
RS: Well, thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun.
She is a lovely person inside and outside. I would love to go visit them when they are in Africa. Also want to read what she wrote during hiking writing.