A year after leaving full-time vanlife to embrace a rooted existence, our writer realizes that trail (and particularly mountain) running brings her full circle to why she goes outside in the first place.
“Can we go just a little bit further today?”My eight-year-old self loved the last, long stretch of the daily dog walk—or run, as it often would become for Kika and me. Getting to join our father on the walks along the beach with our Samoyed, Mishi, was always the best, each time. We’d scamper over sand dunes, chase each other along the road, run to the horizon we could never seem to find.
“Of ccourse, mija,” Poppy answered, as the sandy and semi-mojado Mishi wagged his tail and tugged on the leash. These moments on the beach were a time away from his office (he was an early work-from-homer), and I’m sure a needed break in his day. Not to mention that watching his favorite of three dogs and two eldest daughters bound towards the ocean must have been a joy.
Running ahead, Kika and I found seashells, then collapsed in giggles at the impossible spirals in their design. We ran back to Poppy, then ahead again, tornadoes of child-like energy. Joy, in its purest form, scattered further with each grain of sand that stuck to our feet. Onwards! It was time to head home.
The Early Years
My high school years brought changes, some more pleasant than others. But the simplicity of running cross-country never left me. This unexpected pursuit, a product of my family’s expectation that I’d engage in a fall sport to balance out long piano practices, became a staple throughout those four adolescent years.
At my first school in west Los Angeles, a Catholic all-girls academy, our team often ran one of two loops: the loop around UCLA’s campus entranced us, whether bounding through the wafting sweet smells outside Diddy Riese’s cookie shop or trotting along fraternity row. But the runs through Bel Air—quiet underneath a canopy of greenery, mysterious alongside towering walls hiding mansions—always pushed me. The “Mother Hill” of those runs challenged my teenage legs. This certainly wasn’t Kansas, and I wasn’t trotting Toto.
The next season, our running routes completely changed, from rolling hills in Bel Air to endless farm fields outside of Fresno, I was on unknown terrain. I didn’t understand that running a distance day in what felt like 100-plus-degree heat (September temperatures average in the low 90s, a big change from my SoCal ways) could knock my feet out from under me. I didn’t realize how important hydration was until I completely bonked one day when I got lost in a maze of maize. And I certainly didn’t expect rejection from the Mexican girls who looked like me when I tried to be their friend.
Running showed me that the kindest humans were also willing to suffer a little—several girls welcomed me, the new girl, into their clique. We were a mixed bag, we girls.. We refused definition along the clearly delineated social boundaries of high school and race. (Several of us came from mixed families and didn’t “fit into” other affinity groups; we lacked a cultural understanding of our heritage, as our families ascribed to assimilationist practices, and didn’t teach us Spanish).
Running taught me more than the fact that I could have a diverse group of friends who loved being outside. It also allowed me to find a place where I could push through pain—both physical and mental. After all, being uprooted from my childhood home to join a new high school and broader world that reminded me, daily, that I was different really sucked.
My job at the Sierra Running Company, where I became an assistant manager, taught me the basics of running mechanics, and connected me with runners all across the age and experience spectrum. This whetted my appetite to tear through the trees. My running shoe collection grew. I got access to discounted trail shoes. I learned about Gu.
But it was the Santa Barbara college years that made me realize running would never not be part of my life. After my father’s death, I often ran from my grief, but towards what, I’m not sure. Maybe a different life, an alternative path through the eucalyptus, towards the butterfly sanctuary.
This disconnection from my roots isn’t something I’m alone in. Our family had learned to thrive through assimilation, an erasure of that which makes us culturally “different” from the dominant culture of White, Western society. The way I heard classmates talk about their gardeners and maids shamed me from embracing my roots and dark skin. Speaking Spanish was a curious pursuit. I was good at it (after all, I’d heard it as a young child), but my relationship with the language didn’t blossom until adulthood.
In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi tells us that assimilationist ideas are racist ideas. He continues, “Assimilationists can position any racial group as the superior standard that another racial group should be measuring themselves against, the benchmark they should be trying to reach. The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.”
It was only after I began traveling in South America, post-resignation from my corporate job in Oregon, that I started to name what my family had taught me. Running up chossy volcanoes in the Andes, struggling for air, I gasped at the truth. I’d been sold a lie. We’d lost everything when my father died and mother’s MS worsened. No more skiing, no more beach runs. The annual vacation had been sidelined for endless work, two jobs throughout both high school and college, and an overloaded class schedule. Working myself past exhaustion bought me nice things, but the American Dream was never within my reach; it just zapped my bank account.
Returning to the States after months of searching for myself, I moved to Crested Butte (South) with my favorite souvenir, a man I’d met while traveling. The tall peaks and endless trails opened up options I’d found I loved during my travels the previous year. Walking, hiking, running, scrambling—the search for self intersects beautifully with a pursuit of joy.
We continued the journey of dirtbaggery together for years. He may have been a homeowner, but the man had a hankering to climb, ski, and travel. I was game, growing along the way. Our adventures took us to far-flung places, oftentimes giving me more opportunities to flex my Spanish skills.
But it was spending time in Mexico where I finally understood how the ground beneath my feet gives me everything. The sand squished through my toes, just as it had during childhood, as I ran towards pounding surf. The narrow trails alongside a series of tropical waterfalls unfurled a path before me. I’d sat beneath a sacred Ceiba tree, barefoot, basking in the culture of my heritage, something I’d never experienced before. Padding through my grandmother’s house as a child, eating tamales, was one thing. But this? This was different.
This ground gives me resilience, a way to rebound and push through. Running toward summits in the San Juans taught me this much. The ground teaches me creativity. Linking peaks in the Sierra tells me I can find a way, if only I try. And the ground, more than anything, teaches me connection. Running routes in the Wasatch with my dear friend Vanessa gave me endless giggles as much as sunburn from turning my face to the sky.
We can find connection not just to each other but also to our culture, our communities, and this land when we take a moment to appreciate the ground beneath our feet. And isn’t this why all of us go outside?
— Dani Reyes-Acosta (she/her) is an athlete and storyteller redefining who plays outside and how we build community with others on this planet. She recently joined the Janji Field Team to tell more stories of connection. Find her @NotLostJustDiscovering.