It’s toasty warm inside my car when I pull over on the side of the icy road and kill the engine. My dog is whimpering with excitement as she looks out at the fields of snow. She wants to run like the wild beast that she is and lose herself in the majesty of winter.
The howling wind is causing my car to rock and I know just how bitterly cold it is outside. The meteorologist I talked to this morning said there’s a potent backdoor cold front sliding into the valley. For a brief moment, I think about how I could just keep driving. After all, home, where I have plenty of workout videos and the ability to make a steaming cup of ginger tea, is a mere 20 miles away.
It’s 10 a.m. I was awake well before first light to get to the radio station where I host a morning news show. This morning, I reported on Trump’s travel ban and the contentious leasing of public lands for energy production. Throw in stories about oral hygiene, ice hockey, human-caused avalanches and that chat with the meteorologist. It’s enough to make my soul spin.
To top it all off, I’m working against an afternoon deadline about gun control.
I tell myself, “The world looks so fierce today. I deserve the comfort of my cozy house, maybe some restorative yoga before I get back to feeding the news beast.” But this isn’t my first rodeo and I know that if I put on all my layers, which includes two wool shirts, a down jacket, flannel lined ski pants, a hat, gloves and scarf, and actually get outside of this car, I’m going to feel a lot better in about 10 minutes.
Every single day for the past seven years, I’ve exercised outside. Sometimes all I do is sprint up and down a hill for 10 minutes and call it good. Other days, I lose myself in the forest for 14 hours. But I haven’t always been like this.
As a kid, I had some pretty serious body issues. My classmates teased me for having chubby legs and always being the last one picked for sports because I wasn’t likely to deliver a win. At home, things were worse. My sister and I have different bone structures. She’s petite, but I started wearing lady-sized pants and dresses by the time I was in middle school. I didn’t get my allowance unless I charted every single calorie I consumed, replaced meals with SlimFast shakes and performed Richard Simmons’ “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” workouts at least five times a week, which made me feel like a total freak. Needless to say, I loathed my body and anything called exercise.
By the time I graduated from Taos High School, I had grown into my bones and felt downright beautiful. When I went away to college, guys let me know they thought I was hot, which at first made me stop consuming food because I liked the attention, but my roommate had two eating disorders coupled with a cocaine addiction, both of which gave me pause.
I found my own balance, took to weightlifting and hitting the stair climber in my school’s basement gym a few nights a week. Life happened, years went by and I was eventually married, living in Oakland, California, and working for National Public Radio. Then a childhood friend who had just returned from his third tour in Iraq with the U.S. Marines contacted me.
He said he had a story and needed to talk — that he had done some “big bad things” in the name of serving our country and had just been put through something called “de-warrior training.” He said his superiors told him he would lose his security clearance if he tried to see a counselor for his post-traumatic stress disorder — that he should try to get help elsewhere while he pursued a medical discharge for a shattered ankle.
My boss and I spent a long time talking over our responsibility as journalists and the consequences that such a story could carry before greenlighting the project.
Challenge of stress
I flew to the base where the Marine was stationed and recorded his story of how he was raised to respect all life and that after 9/11 and the announcement of weapons of mass destruction, he felt a duty to serve our country. He was visibly shaky when we talked about the friends he’d lost in combat.
I think every good reporter has a capacity for empathy that can be debilitating. How do we separate our emotions from our job, which requires us to dig for the truth and examine every side of a story, often challenging our own assumptions?
Two days after I left the Marine base, I received a message from his mom, telling me that her son was in the hospital after attempting suicide.
Devastated, I hit pause on work and set out on a backpacking trip into the California desert, four days climbing brutal hills, no trees or bodies of water as far as the eye could see. I went straight up and down, carrying 40 pounds of survival gear on my back, thinking about how lucky I was. I was lucky because I had legs that worked, lucky because no matter how difficult this journey was, I wasn’t at risk of stepping on land mines that would blow me to bits.
When I got back, we ran the story on the U.S. Marines for an audience of 6.8 million people.
A few months later, I moved back to New Mexico, where I randomly ran into the Marine one day at a grocery store. He had finally received an honorable medical discharge and thanked me for hearing him in a time when it felt like no one else was listening. He seemed a lot better, healthier mentally and physically. I told him that I was thinking of running a 5K, but wasn’t sure about it. It was winter, cold and besides, I wasn’t a runner. He looked at me and said, “Rita, it’s a freaking 5K! That’s 3.3 miles. Anyone can run 3.3 miles.”
And that’s where the daily practice of boots on the ground started for me. I ran the 5K and was really stoked that I didn’t come in last, but that didn’t matter anymore.
Because when I’m outside, pushing my body to show me its strength, I can hear my own heartbeat and the rushing of my blood. I’ve learned that if I don’t place myself in the majesty of nature every single day, I am sunk, no good. I have to figure out how to catch my breath and then get into a rhythm with it. It brings me back to the present moment, during which I get to escape from the stress of being human while simultaneously embracing my humanness.
Edward Abbey wrote that wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.
Today, I climb out of the car. The wind stings my face, but I strap on the snowshoes and start walking, certain I will find the eye of this storm.
I know that the season will change; snow will turn to mud and before long, new life will sprout. There will be abundance that will lead to harvest that will again lead to lean times, just like the steep mountain path eventually leads to high mountains and incredible ridgelines.
When I make it back to my car a few hours later, I feel cleared out, alive and ready for what’s to come.
Daniels is a journalist who grew up in Taos. She returned this past year to produce KNCE’s weekday morning show “Wake Up,Taos!” on 93.5 FM.