Photos by Wes Walker and Words by Paige Southwood
The voice is what caught me first. It’s that kind of Southern drawl you hear heading south on I-95 from Virginia when you pull off for a quick bite and gas. It catches you off guard for a second until you suddenly feel softer and more apt to stay and chat for a while. It may sound cliché, but it’s the kind of voice that slows down time.
Ed Roberson has that voice. It breaks the monotony of newspeak and Upper East Side chat I’m prone to hear on so many of my daily podcasts. His voice clears the clutter in my brain and opens up space to think about big issues. Big issues like land conservation and water rights, ecological movements changing the face of agriculture in the West, and artists and adventurers leaving the hamster wheel behind to pursue lives of passion. Roberson’s Mountain & Prairie podcast just might be the salve we need right now.
But this smooth-talking Southerner-turned-Westerner owning the audio waves is no laid-back gentleman. Sure, he still apologizes when he “cusses” and is polite and prompt, but he’s got a drive and passion and curiosity that knows no bounds.
His wife, Kim, describes him as having “just a genuine, ‘this is what you do’ [attitude] — of course, you read insane numbers of books because you want to learn, and of course, you kick your own butt on the trail because it makes you a better person. All of that is just kind of a no-brainer to him.”
And perhaps it’s that unrelenting spirit that makes Mountain & Prairie podcast so successful. Seven years into this passion project and Roberson has over 160 recorded episodes, close to 900 reviews on Apple podcasts and a five-star rating on Spotify. High Country News calls it one of their favorite podcasts on stories and analysis of the West. Surprisingly, most of that notoriety was achieved while Roberson worked full-time as a ranch broker and later as Conservation Director at Palmer Land Conservancy in Colorado, not to mention while training for ultra marathons and raising two daughters with Kim.
Kim says he thrives the more he has going on. And the results seem to speak for themselves. On June 30th of this year, he made the jump to full-time podcast host, leaving Palmer behind, and he already has a packed schedule of travel and interviews ahead. Roberson has no plans of slowing down.
“In five years, if I have not written a book, there’s a real problem,” he says. He looks to leaders like Yvon Chouinard and Rich Roll for inspiration with the direction of Mountain & Prairie.
But life didn’t always look like this for Roberson. Born into a middle-class family in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina where his family has lived for generations, Roberson left home to pursue a career in real estate. One break lead to another which lead to another, eventually landing him a full-ride scholarship at graduate school to pursue an MBA. His main goal at the time was to become a real estate developer. And all signs pointed in that direction for him. He was smart, “abnormally focused,” and an intense worker. School came easy. He landed a prestigious real estate development internship in Washington D.C. after his first year of grad school. But just when everything seemed to be going his way, he discovered what ended up being a testicular tumor. By grace and luck and maybe good genes, the tumor was benign, but the scare was enough to send Roberson’s brain swirling with thoughts about the future and his contributions to it. However, it wasn’t as easy as that. It would take several more years down the real estate highway colliding with a national housing crisis and a fateful marriage to Kim before his trajectory really changed.
“Everything good in my life has come because of Kim,” he insists.
Kim’s job took the couple to Colorado where Roberson’s real estate career found an intersection with conservation and land and water rights. Initially, as a ranch broker and later as a land trust director, his interests in the West and all its moving parts began to coalesce. His burning curiosity for the world raged as he met people with stories as varied as they were inspirational. The idea that began as a tickle in his brain to start a podcast interviewing the people doing good work in the West became relentless. Eventually, he had to take the leap. And by this point, he says, “I had no one to impress but Kim.”
Roberson’s talking to me via a video call from “The Shed” at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He’s got string lights hung over his desk and is leaning towards the camera in as intimate a pose as you can get with a video call. Occasionally, he looks down at the ground to compose his thoughts, though that usually happens in a verbal mixture of self-deprecation and story-telling. At one point, we’re talking about that time he slipped on the ice in Jackson, Wyoming, and ended up meeting his wife at the airport in Dallas (because of the slip?) and the next he’s telling me about the three miles for 300 days running campaign he completed. I blame myself for the conversation’s itinerant flow and thank the gods I’m not the podcast host here. No one could follow this stream of consciousness. Before I know it, he’s climbed Denali twice, run a hundred miles, and summited thirty 14,000ft peaks in fifty days. This conversation is making me sore.
I chat with Kim a few days later and she tells me that one of his greatest gifts — deep self-awareness — is also one of his greatest vices.
“People don’t see how hard he can be on himself,” she tells me.
Roberson builds structure around everything he does because, without it, he’s lost.
“He’ll go months without exercising [if he doesn’t have] a goal,” Kim says.
She mentions his challenges with consistency in his goals and habits, sometimes resulting in physical and mental extremes. She laughs as she says he can do a week’s worth of errands or house cleaning in one day.
“He is extremely disciplined,” Kim says. ”So even though he may not be as smooth and consistent with that discipline as he’d like to be, there’s a toughness to someone who can endure.”
Roberson agrees, “I wouldn’t do these 100-mile marathons if there wasn’t something in my brain that was discontent[ed].”
Roberson confesses Kim’s steadiness provides the necessary guardrails, and patience, he needs for his abundant life. Roberson tells of a time when he was practicing a new breathing technique in the bathroom, hyperventilating, when Kim heard a loud thud. She rushed to the bathroom to see Roberson passed out and sprawled on the ground, slowly waking up. Her reaction is what makes the pair work: she just shook her head, smiled, and walked off.
The pair seem to complement each other in many ways.
“He’s the rudder of our family’s boat,” Kim insists.
Part of that is due to Roberson’s ability to simplify things around him, making him an effective decision-maker and goal-setter. He picks up a notebook and flips through the scribbled pages to show me a diagram he’s invented to guide his actions. It’s a triangle with the base labeled, Discipline, one side labeled Action and another labeled Focus.
“Those are the secrets of life for me, and if all those three things are in place, everything is great,” he says. “I think of myself like a truck driving down the road, and it pulls to the right, and if I take my hands off the wheels, I’m just going in the ditch.”
This wasn’t his first life-philosophy diagram iteration. There’s evidence of his thought process in the messy lines and phrases littering the page. But it says something about him: every action is calculated. He calls it a need to focus.
“Generally, when I focus, I can do well,” he tells me, referring to his time in school but also applicable outside of the classroom.
Yet he’s the last person to tout his accomplishments. He has a general aversion to people who self-promote, so he’s more than careful to not come off as congratulatory or even deserving of the success he’s achieved. Instead, he calls it a series of lucky breaks.
And that, alongside his polite Southern speech, is what draws me to his podcast and possibly what makes his interviews stand out in the crowded space of audio. There’s a sense that this guy is genuinely interested in his guests, that he actually cares about the environment, water and land rights, and that everything he pursues comes from a deep sense of concern and curiosity.
Something Kim said about him really stuck with me, “Day one — he was open to having his mind changed.”
I can vouch that that’s an uncommon trait in today’s world of parties and ideologies and taking sides. Roberson still insists that any success he’s had has been the direct result of the people he’s had on the podcast. He’s inspired by their stories and motivated by their journeys.
Kim tells of a time the two of them were hiking a mountain trail in Colorado when a runner passed them. Roberson stopped the runner and started chatting with him about what he was doing and where he was going. Pretty soon, Roberson was inspired to start running trails himself after that one interaction. What would have been a forgettable experience for most — seeing a runner on a trail — inspired and later changed Roberson’s life.
Similarly, Roberson tells me he “read the book, Born to Run, and I thought, that sounds cool, so I signed up for the Leadville 50 [ultramarathon].” He had never run much more than 10 miles in his life before then.
But he insists, “What makes me happy? It’s that weird stuff.”
A few days after our call, Roberson follows up with a text telling me how nice it was for him and his wife to meet me. He’s kind and genuine. I find myself wanting to plan a trip to Colorado Springs. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who has listened to his podcast or met him in person, but he makes me feel at ease and welcome.
Despite the goal-crushing masochistic nature of his self-talk and being, he treats others with the kind of respect and sincerity you want to savor. The Shed workspace he’s created looks like a place for long talks over tea or afternoons with a book or a good story. And maybe the cliché is a cliché for a reason: that Southern voice really does slow down time and make room for reflection.
“You can tell me I’m full of shit here 'cause I never want to buy into my own story, but I feel like I’m doing a lot of good with my podcast,” he says.
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