(this piece is printed in Volume 11, “Choss, Solos, and Reflection” Get your copy, or subscribe HERE)
Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you in better living conditions.
I’ve always been a sucker for men with incredible strength-to-weight ratios. My husband, a wiry 5´11˝, coming in at 139 pounds on a good day, has the most gorgeous, well-defined arms I’ve ever laid eyes on. They’re not huge, but they’re capable of amazing feats. One of my favorite things in the world is watching him climb or build stuff, those biceps fully engaged, forearms pumped. It’s like he becomes this force of nature, one with whatever he’s doing, master of his universe. It’s beauty in motion.
When we first started hanging out seven years ago, I was into “soft” adventures, like hiking and world travel. He, on the other hand, was way more hardcore in outdoor endeavors, an avid climber, mountain biker, skier. I ached for his arms to learn these things too and was grateful he wanted me to join.
On our initial outings, scrambling through slot canyons or across chossy ridgelines, I often found myself in the uber-attractive beached-whale position, struggling mightily to not look like a total amateur. But I pressed on, laughing at myself as I maneuvered the learning curves, because I knew the reward was always worth the awkward effort. Thankfully, even though you can barely see them, my muscles grew to fit my ambition, and my maladroit moments are now fewer and farther between.
Those early days weren’t all conquering summits and recapping perfect sun-soaked days. Rather (more than I care to admit) I would get super frustrated with my weaknesses, embarrassed that I couldn’t do this or that, fearful he wouldn’t like me when I failed. In these psycho-hosebeast moods, I would bring up girls stronger, faster, better than me. I called the collective her “Gnar Chick.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be with Gnar Chick?” I’d prod my strong-armed man.
At first, he’d lovingly explain that it was me he wanted, not a more adept skier, climber, biker. But I couldn’t let it go. Finally, his typical cool, calm demeanor snapped, and a deserved tirade unleashed about how I had to stop pushing him toward this fictitious character and just embrace wherever I was on my athletic journey. So I dropped Gnar Chick talk, and our adventures got way more fun.
Thank goodness I got (mostly) over this comparison syndrome before Instagram. Now I can just be inspired by Gnar Chick, grateful for coming into my own version of the collective her. These days, I even have a few Gnar Chick crushes, like Taylor Freesolo Rees and this other badass I’m about to introduce you to.
Last year, I was flipping through Instagram when I saw that Alex Honnold, one of my strength-to-weight crushes (I have a lot of crushes), had a girlfriend. I’d read that Alex was a little shy and socially awkward. He’s darn likeable for these reasons, so I was really excited that he had found someone to share the good times with. Social media’s weird like that, like, how you can be genuinely happy for a complete stranger.
I thought, damn, Alex’s girlfriend must be a Gnar Chick, but when I checked her photos, I quickly saw that she was, in fact, NOT the typical Gnar Chick. In lieu of BASE jumping and sponsorships was the sweetest creature ever. Though there were climbing photos and majestic mountain scenes scattered throughout her feed, Sanni McCandless was really this all American girl next door adorned with a soul-melting smile and dimples. She looked so fun and carefree.
There was a link to her blog, Thirty Fives Degrees West. Turns out she’s a great writer too. Her heart-on-sleeve prose and self-deprecating sense of humor reveal a girl who wrestles with improving both her skill and attitude in the great outdoors—just like me—while trying to live her biggest, boldest life. Her blog introduction captures her essence well:
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in Spanish class, mindlessly tapping my pencil in front of me, when it suddenly slipped from my fingers and flew up and over the front of my tiny wooden desk. Without a second thought, I hurled myself forward, swinging onto the front legs of my chair as I attempted to catch it in mid-air. I missed by a long shot, flailing my arms and teetering precariously for a brief second before crashing face-first into the ground. Still in the seated position, I hung over the front of my desk with my face on the floor and my ass in the air, looking at my pencil, questioning my life choices up to this point. It was at this moment that I realized life is not clean or pretty or perfect, but actually a string of sometimes wonderful and sometimes mortifying events that give you a weird, but overall engaging sense of character. It is, in fact, hilarious.”
Sanni exposes bits of her “engaging sense of character” through welcoming narratives following this intro, so I pieced together her story, filling in the blanks after a recent phone conversation we shared.
Born in Seattle and raised in North Carolina, Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless is known for being eternally nice and bright beyond her years. When she was twenty-two, her older sister taught her how to climb, encouraging her to just try her best. It was a gentle start for the noncompetitive, self-proclaimed “half athletic dabbler.”
After earning a psychology degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanni moved back to the Pacific Northwest. She was thriving in independence and a vibrant community—even her tomato plants were sprouting. Her climbing and friend group was mostly composed of strong, supportive, wildly entertaining women. One night in November 2015, she and one of these gals went to hear Alex Honnold on his book tour for Alone on the Wall.
Sanni perked up at his honest answers to audience questions. Single and weary of the complexities of online dating, she’d imposed a new life rule on herself to give her number to any men she thought were cute. Alex, she thought, was cute, so, when she and her girlfriend walked up to the table to have him sign their co-copy of his book, Sanni gave him her number, then bolted for the door.
As they were leaving, a guy in line ran after her and said that Alex was all geeked that a cute girl gave him her number. Flattered and giggling, Sanni and her girlfriend departed to Seattle’s lamplit streets. Three weeks later, when Alex returned to Seattle for the final night of his book tour, he texted Sanni for a dinner date. She picked him up from the climbing gym, and Cedar Wright climbed in the back seat.
“It seems fitting that Cedar was on our first date,” Sanni says, laughing.
So the trio had pizza before Alex’s talk, and then everyone met at Sanni’s house afterward for a bonfire. It occurred to Sanni later that inviting Alex to meet all of her amazing, beautiful, single girlfriends might have been a bad idea, but they didn’t seem to matter to the guy who couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. Six months later, Sanni had packed up her life in Seattle to join Alex for a climbing trip in Switzerland.
It was in the Alps that the former “half athletic dabbler” developed a curiosity of her own abilities. Sanni says Alex stirred her interest to try harder, set objectives, cultivate tenacity and a willingness to scrabble her way up holds. She discovered that small fingers were her greatest strength. But as her muscles strengthened, so did her fear.
“I was afraid to lead, afraid of getting my foot caught behind the rope, afraid to fall,” she says. “It became clear that getting better meant facing my fear of falling, learning to transform fearful energy into focused and controlled energy.”
Alex was instrumental in pushing Sanni to not let her fear get the best of her on the wall. Acknowledge the anxious thoughts, and then move through them intentionally, he’d say.
“Often my fear on the wall occurs when I project anxiety into the future, even if everything is fine in the moment,” writes Sanni. “Yes, I can grab this hold, but what if I can’t grab the next one? What if it gets too hard? In my personal life, my plans are currently as flexible and moldable as my creativity allows, and I find myself engaged and inspired by the emptiness. What if I took this approach in my climbing? Instead of being afraid that I won’t be able to handle the move in front of me, I’m instead excited by the opportunity to figure it out—maybe on the first try, or maybe 450 attempts later.”
As Sanni’s climbing prowess escalated, so did her relationship with Alex. They traveled near and far, scaling walls, working on projects together and separately. Inspiring and not-so-inspiring climbing days came and went, and Sanni’s techniques for navigating stress triggers in the outdoors seemed to translate seamlessly into dealing with life’s inevitable trials.
“When I first started dating Alex, people would ask me about death,” she writes on her blog. “They wanted to know how I felt about his profession and the risk involved in soloing. But I wasn’t wondering if he would die; I was wondering if we even liked each other. Instead of deep contemplations on risk and consequence, I felt an intense curiosity to learn more about relationships in his world. I was drawn to partnerships that mimicked our own situation, half professional climber, half athletic dabbler.”
Nicole and Ueli Steck were one of these couples who Sanni saw as an example “of a possible future yet to come.” So when Ueli died earlier this year during a climbing accident on Everest, Sanni was forced to face the reality that people she loves live their lives “dangerously close to the edge.”
“Now, I suddenly feel the need to establish a new stance on death, not just because of Alex, but because I’m clearly growing up,” she writes. “It’s funny how even writing this, I feel like it’s inappropriate and morbid. I’m somehow breaking an unwritten code that death should be discussed quietly and privately. But I hate the unspoken. For my whole life I’ve said what I feel when I feel it. I don’t hold grudges or hang on to past offenses, instead I (sometimes awkwardly) bring up issues moments after they occur. I want death to be no different. No longer taboo, no longer off-limits.
“Because no matter how much we like to avoid thinking about it, death is as much a part of living as life itself,” she continues. “In modern society, dying is something to be feared. Something to run away from at all costs. And while I would fight for my life to the very end, I also want to know that if I die, the people around me will look back on our time together fondly, not tinged with tragedy and devastation, but thankful for the time we had together. I would never want my death to take the joy of living from someone else.
“It’s natural and healthy to grieve, but maybe it’s also ok when the time is up. Not because we won’t miss the shit out of people we love, but because death is coming for us all. Out of respect, we should live life fully while we’re here, thankful that our loved ones did the same.”
With resolve to honor this awareness, Sanni kept pushing through plateaus, becoming more comfortable climbing 5.12s. Meanwhile, Alex focused on training for the holy grail of his climbing career: free soloing El Capitan, that three-thousand-foot granite face looming over Yosemite Valley.
In early June, the weather window appeared, so Alex picked a day. The couple agreed it’d be easiest if Sanni left Yosemite for the main event. She played it tough until after she kissed him good-bye and headed out of The Valley.
“When I drove away, I just let my brain go there,” she recalls. “It’s like when you’re home alone and you think of all of the worst case scenarios, like, I’m going to pull open the shower curtain, and there’s going to be a man there. You’re clearly not doing yourself any good to indulge the fear.”
The morning he chalked up and put rubber sole to rock, Sanni’s girlfriends distracted her with pancakes in a kitchen far away in Las Vegas. They put a broom in her hand and made her sweep—anything to keep the nerves at bay. As peace settled and laughter brought her out of reverie, Sanni realized that the day didn’t have to be the worst ever; it could end up being the best. Her hope proved true when she got the call that he’d successfully topped out in less than four hours. Proud, ecstatic relief flooded her soul.
In the beginning days of their relationship, Sanni often wondered why Alex didn’t want to date a more able climber, someone “way cooler and more poised and hilarious”—someone like Gnar Chick. He would just roll his eyes and smile, like good dudes do, reminding her that she was who he wanted to be with and that, above all, stoke for life makes up for any lack of gnar.
“You could be a 5.10 climber for the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s your attitude at the crag, your attitude every day, that counts.”
“The parallels between creating a fulfilling life and pushing myself in the outdoors continue to appear,” writes Sanni. “I’m always better off when I move toward the things I don’t understand because they give me the opportunity to learn more. I’m always stronger when I push myself to confront fear because I learn to trust and rely on my own body and mind. I’m a more open and receptive human when I don’t resist what the universe has put in front of me, but instead move gracefully toward it.”
The last year has roused Sanni to move gracefully toward launching a coaching platform so she can help others take control of their own stoke, their own happiness, and live courageous, intentional lives. Why?
“Because feeling powerless will never serve you,” writes Sanni. “And the longer you wallow, the harder it becomes to take action. When you live intentionally, you become a force of nature. You begin to create instead of react. Your energy shifts. Suddenly, there’s not only momentum in your life, but it’s moving in the direction you wanted to go. That doesn’t just serve you; it serves everyone around you. When you create a fulfilling life for yourself, you raise the bar on what success should look like—you demonstrate that it’s not just about functioning; it’s about thriving.”
As a transition coach for folks in the outdoor industry, Sanni encourages people of varied backgrounds, goals, and abilities to stop making fear-based decisions. She’s not a personal trainer, counselor, mentor, or therapist, she says. Her goal isn’t to advocate for everyone to avoid commitment and embrace van life but, instead, to find a lifestyle that works best for them, one that is fulfilling and passion driven.
“Life coaching has the propensity to come across as really douchey,” she says, laughing. “I’m not here to tell you how it’s done. I’m here to help you through a process because only you know what’s best for you. The goal is to feel fulfillment and balance, not to turn your back on everything that’s important.”
From making time to pursue a goal—outdoors, artistic, or otherwise—to learning how to find balance in relationships rooted in the outdoors, life’s too short for fear to steer. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re Gnar Chick or Totally Rad Dude; you’re alive in this moment, breathing, reading Sanni’s words:
“The more I reflect on my experiences, the more apparent it is that I have a lot of anxiety about losing people in my life. And as a climber, I’m beginning to see just how closely to the line we all play. But, I want to open myself up to other ways of thinking about our mortality. I want to be honest with myself about the realities of life and death—they are both unavoidable, both natural, and both reasons to celebrate our brief time on this planet.”
For more info on Sanni’s life work or to schedule a complimentary session, check out sannimccandless.com. Her blog is thirtyfivedegreeswest.wordpress.com.
Somewhere on the road between Colorado and Montana, Garrison Keillor's blustery, oak-barrel voice came on the radio. It was the September 8, 2008, installment of his show, The Writer's Almanac. He shared a short poem called "Black Umbrellas" by Rick Agran. It goes like this:
On a rainy day in Seattle stumble into any coffee shop
and look wounded by the rain.
Say Last time I was in I left my black umbrella here.
A waitress in a blue beret will pull a black umbrella
from behind the counter and surrender it to you
like a sword at your knighting.
Unlike New Englanders, she'll never ask you
to describe it, never ask you what day you came in,
she's intimate with rain and its appointments.
Look positively reunited with this black umbrella
and proceed to Belltown and Pike Place.
Sip cappuccino at the Cowgirl Luncheonette on First Ave.
Visit Buster selling tin salmon silhouettes
undulant in the wind, nosing ever into the oncoming,
meandering watery worlds, like you and the black umbrella,
the one you will lose on purpose at the day's end
so you can go the way you came
into the world, wet looking.
The poem ended, and Garrison signed off the daily five-minute show he's hosted since 1993 with his classic signature, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."
Hands on the wheel, eyes looking through the Wyoming plains, I snapped back to driving. In a few lines, I'd been swept on a soaking adventure through rainy Seattle. I met a barista in a blue beret. I had a newfound appreciation for black umbrellas.
Garrison wasn't new to me, but this is the moment I first remember fully appreciating the gift he brings to the world. For Garrison, born Gary Edward Keillor in 1942, storytelling isn't optional; it's indispensable. Literature isn't his first love; it's a life source. He's wholeheartedly devoted to perfecting his craft as a writer, observational humorist and storyteller, reminding the American people that listening to one another relay the mundane details of a day is what keeps us grounded.
"There's a lot of power in listening to one person...sitting and talking to you...you're pulled in, in ways that technology and art and all cannot," he said in a 2014 interview with PBS.
When he was 13-years-old in his hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, a doctor told Gary he couldn't play football due to a heart issue. He "took it as a cue to do something else that was brave" and approached his local paper. He knew they didn't have a sports writer, so he asked if he could do it.
"Instead of sitting on the bench, I sat at the top of the stands in the press box with men from the local radio station who were broadcasting the game," he recalled in that same PBS interview.
He gave himself the penname "Garrison" and went on to attend the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in English in 1966. After a stint in New York, he returned to Minnesota for a job at Minnesota Public Radio in 1969.
Five years later, Garrison launched a radio variety show called A Prairie Home Companion. Forty-three years later on Saturday afternoons, four million listeners tune in to over 700 NPR stations across the country to hear live musical performances, storytelling rife with man-made sound effects, spiritual lessons, sensual vignettes, surprising truths and not-so-true stories in a format that’s somehow survived the steel heart of the digital age.
Garrison wrote and hosted every episode nearly uninterrupted until his retirement from the show in 2016. One of his most beloved additions to the show was the “news” from a fictional Midwestern town called Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lloyd wrote that it would be wrong to categorize Lake Wobegon simply as nostalgia:
"It's...an ordinarily eccentric small town big enough to contain all life's joys and sorrows and, despite its sheen of Protestant, passive-aggressive politeness, a multitude of sins."
Exposing the eccentric side of ordinary is what Garrison does best. To honor this talent, he received the 2007 John Steinbeck Award given to artists who capture "the spirit of Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man."
"Nothing human is beneath a writer's attention," he shared in a 2001 article.
Beyond writing, Garrison also sings and does voice-overs, winning a Grammy in 1988. He was given a Medal for Spoken Language from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, in 1994, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
I was raised in Mississippi, where public radio is considered "too liberal." We didn't grow up gathered round listening to it, much less driving around with it on. Rather, we listened to Rush Limbaugh preach. Simply put, I was the kid sporting Bush/Quayle '92 pins, handing them out to other second graders at Jackson Academy because my mom told me to. It’s not a shock to learn that, as an adult, I classify myself as apolitical.
Since that day driving across the West with images of slick Seattle streets in mind, I've always had in the back of my mind that meeting Garrison Keillor would be the absolute berries. I've never tried to contact him before this week, when I found out he'd be in Durango for his "Just Passing Through" tour.
But I didn't want to just send him some questions he could answer in an email. I wanted to share coffee with him, maybe bake him some of my butterscotch cookies.
You can imagine how slightly crushed I was when I heard that "getting an actual face to face with him doesn't stand a fart's chance in church." Perhaps it's because-—despite being a gifted speaker and towering presence at six-foot-three-inches tall boldly sporting suits with red sneakers-—Garrison is actually quite shy.
Besides, I've heard it's wise to never meet your heroes anyway, so instead I bought nosebleed-section tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show on Tuesday, October 10, at Fort Lewis College's Whalen Gymnasium.
To compensate for not interviewing Garrison Keillor, I reached out to another hero of mine who actually didn't disappoint me when we first met. As a fellow Minnesotan, I figured Missy Votel, editor of the Durango Telegraph, would be well-suited to answer some of the questions I planned to ask Garrison. Her response when I reached out to her via email?
"OMG! Since I once went to a rager next door to Garrison's house on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, I feel uniquely qualified to answer these."
Question: I've read before that musicians, artists and writers do much better in dreary climates, like those of the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Colorado, according to some, has too much sunshine to be creative. How does weather affect storytelling and humor?
Missy: "Gray is my favorite color. And what's wrong with a little dark humor? Where would the world be without the Coen Brothers?"
Question: How do Minnesotans (like the Coen Brothers and Bob Dylan) stay optimistic?
Missy: "Most Minnesotans wouldn't hurt a fly (mosquito, yes) but when times get tough, they need to draw deep from those "Minnesota Nice" passive aggressive reservoirs that are handed down through the generations. It's a wonder what a little negative reinforcement can do. And when the going gets really tough, the tough go water skiing or play some broom ball and then hit up the nearest booyah. Booyah!"
Question: How can a small town like Durango nurture its storytellers?
Missy: "Lock yourself in a cabin in the north woods with a can of Folger’s, a bottle of Canadian Mist and some tuna casserole, and let the creative juices flow. Just make sure you know the difference between there, their and they're and it's and its. Grammar penance with Sister Judith always helps."
She added a couple of things the public might not know about her, like that she hates ham salad (don't tell her parents) and is taking up pickleball in advance of her forced relocation to Arizona, which "eventually happens to all good Minnesotans." And, no matter what the future brings, she's fully confident that her Minnesota accent will never change, youbetcha.
Of course I can't close out an article on Garrison Keillor without his thoughts on the greatest lesson he’s learned, according to that super-useful 2014 PBS interview:
"Hurry up. Hurry up and do it. Get it done. You've got work to do. Don't put this off. And don't take the long view, here. You know? Life is today and tomorrow and if you're lucky, next week."
I think he'd probably still stand behind this wise sentiment. Perhaps I'll get to ask him someday at a coffee shop in Seattle while the rain pours outside and we have a passive-aggressive fight over who gets the black umbrella.