MOSCA — "There are so many different types of rangers," said Sarah Villa-Kainec, co-creator of Podcasts With Park Rangers, "The ones you talk to when you go to the park are probably most likely interpretive rangers, but there's a lot of different kinds that make these places run that you just don't see."
That variety is one reason why Sarah, 33, and her husband Lucas, 37, are touring the country to every unit in the National Park System interviewing administrative rangers, river rangers and more.
Visiting all 417 spots will take years since they have to move with the seasons, but Great Sand Dunes National Park had the honor of being one of the initial stops during their first loop. The couple interviewed Chief of Natural Resources Ranger Fred Bunch on April 25 and his episode went live on Monday, May 14.
"He's a very funny and neat guy who covered a lot of ground," said Lucas.
Lucas, a professional voice-over artist, interviews the rangers while Sarah, a computer programmer, handles the recording equipment. Lucas and Bunch discussed the history of the park, the unique ecosystem of the dunes, a recent record high number of visitors and more.
The former Colorado residents could simply relax and camp in the San Luis Valley for about a week since it was their fourth time visiting the dunes. However, being the adventurous type, they drove a Jeep on the Medano Pass Primitive Road for the first time. "We did get to see some new areas of the park that we haven't explored before," said Lucas. "It was nice because we had a sense of the park going in when talking to Fred and then we could focus on releasing our podcast at the same time."
Podcast With Park Rangers launched with four episodes from April 23 to April 30 to coincide with National Park Week before moving to a weekly schedule.
The trip to the dunes was also an opportunity for the two to return to Colorado, where they met in Denver in 2009, and visit Lucas' father in Crestone.
"I got a little choked up coming back to Colorado," Sarah said.
"There's something unmistakable about the Rockies here in Colorado," added Lucas. "There's a distinct change from Utah's red rock mesas to Colorado Rockies with the snow-topped peaks."
Growing up as an Army brat Sarah lived in five different places before the age of 9 but eventually settled down in Ohio. After a relationship ended she was looking for a change and her degree and love of mountains took her out west.
Lucas, too, was looking for a place to live beyond Baton Rouge, Louisiana and a previous long-distance relationship and career in shipping drew him to Denver. "We just kind of have that nomadic blood on both sides," he said.
The video game "Rock Band" brought Sarah and Lucas together but though she didn't grow up camping, the outdoor activity quickly became a favorite dating pastime initiated by Sarah. "If I'm in one place too long I feel like I need to move," she said. During their first visit to Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods together it was Sarah that convinced Lucas to travel off the paved trails.
When they started car camping Sarah planned a whirlwind tour of six national parks and national monuments in three states in 10 days. That was the seed to their current expedition.
They found that the Front Range was getting crowded, however, and the couple wanted to regularly visit their large, far-flung family living throughout the country. So they sold their home in 2017 and bought a vintage Blue Bird Wanderlodge to take themselves and their three cats on an adventure to see the solar eclipse in Gallatin, Tennessee.
"When you're tied down with only two vacation weeks a year," Sarah said, "it's really hard to go to the far off places."
After getting a computer science degree in Denver—and finally putting his theater major from Louisiana State University to good use—Lucas transitioned from professional driving to voice-over work for tech companies. Their chosen industries allow them to do contract work on the road to fuel the passion project.
"To really get the experience of a national park," said Lucas, "it takes a good week at least, or several weeks in the case of something like Yellowstone. People spend their whole lives covering Yellowstone."
The couple will make it to Yellowstone at some point, especially with it being one of Sarah's favorites, but they're also glad to be seeing the sites that aren't on everyone's bucket list. They adore places like Bent's Old Fort, Florissant Fossil Beds, Dinosaur National Monument, Minuteman Missile and others.
Visiting the diverse locals combines manmade, modern history with ancient, natural history and it gives themselves—and listeners—a unique variety on the trip. They want to highlight the value in the smaller destinations and find them to be better than a classroom.
"My dad took me to so many civil war and revolutionary war battlefields because he's a military buff," Sarah said. "At the time I didn't appreciate learning that kind of history, but looking back I'm glad to learn about what this country has been through; some of it's good and some of it's not so good."
After the solar eclipse the Wanderlodge made its way to Acadia National Park in Maine—one of Lucas' top destinations—then Lucas and Sarah rafted on national scenic rivers before wintering in Florida. They kicked the idea of the podcast around in their head since before they purchased the RV, but the project officially began with their first interview at Carlsbad Caverns National Park on March 10.
"They're living their passion and using their talents at the same time to continue on this lifestyle," Lucas said.
Aside from infrequent breakdowns, like once on the Blue Ridge Parkway and another in Texas, the trip has been smooth. Since their week-and-a-half stay at Carlsbad they've seen the inscriptions of El Morro National Monument along with El Malpais National Monument's lava flows and they discussed educational programs at Arches National Park.
Lucas and Sarah don't want the podcast to be a stand-in for an audio guide, however. In each episode they emphasize the importance of park preservation and ways the public can volunteer in addition to illustrating the many types of rangers. While exploring the caves they assisted in banding swallows for tracking purposes and cleaned up lint that accumulates on the rocks. "A lot of these parks can use volunteer effort," Lucas said.
Carlsbad is great in Sarah's opinion and sits among her personal top five along with Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Of just the Colorado units, the fascinating Medano Creek makes it tie between the dunes and Dinosaur National Monument. Lucas, on the other hand, has difficulty narrowing down all 417 sites.
"I could sit here all afternoon trying to come up with a top five," he said. "But the dunes are one of our perennial favorites. We've returned many times and enjoy it every time for something a little bit different. They're mountains among mountains."
People can support Lucas and Sarah at patreon.com/virtualkamper, follow their adventures at @virtualkamper on social media and listen at podcastswithparkrangers.com. Photo courtesy of Sarah and Lucas Villa-Kainec.