The Backyard Stories, Dispatch Three: Dani Reyes – Acosta
In the third installment of The Backyard Stories, we travel to Telluride, Colorado, to talk with mountain athlete, Dani Reyes - Acosta about connecting food, outdoor adventure, and water.
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The Backyard Stories is a new podcast and written column, in partnership with Protect Our Winters (POW), following athletes and local food advocates who are deeply invested in their home ecosystems – their backyards. Read the introduction here.
When my alarm went off at 3 a.m. on a hot August morning, it took me a few seconds to remember that I was sleeping in the loft of a little outbuilding, with the pitch of the roof a few feet from my face. There was no ladder to get up to my bunk because the best route was to climb the beams on the wall, naturally. This was the office and gear storage shed of mountain athlete Dani Reyes-Acosta. The bivy above her desk was perfect for siestas and out-of-town guests, she told me.
My first conversation with Dani was about growing food. We met at a party two summers ago and immediately started talking about tomatoes. We counted on our fingers the different varieties we had grown, eventually running out of digits. As she flipped through photos on her phone of various canning projects, garden experiments, and the menagerie of poultry that’s lived on her homestead in southwest Colorado, her energy was dizzying.
Dani and her partner, Johnny, steward a small orchard, production garden, and flocks of ducks, geese, and chickens, on the edge of a small town about an hour northwest of Telluride, Colorado.
We became friends in what feels like a folk song. Through long phone calls while chopping vegetables, shelling beans, driving from our respective rural homes to “the city,” and packing for adventures, the two of us connected over our common interest in bridging the outdoor and agriculture industries.
Our conversations also drifted into mountain running, skiing, surfing, climbing, and snowboarding. At the heart of it, Dani mostly likes to glide on snow. This has been her path into trail running: using her feet in the summer to do reconnaissance for backcountry skiing objectives in the winter.
Organizing Her Life Around Snow
The early morning wakeup was to give us time to get above the tree line before the sun came up on one of Dani’s favorite ridgelines. As I poured hot water over coffee, Dani loaded her running pack with snacks and water at the kitchen table while quietly singing in Spanish. She was taking me on a route that she planned to ski once there was snow in the alpine.
“Accessibility into these spaces is really low, unless you’re extremely knowledgeable about snow and the terrain itself, or unless someone takes you. When the snow does come I feel a lot more confident going into these spaces alone,” Dani told me as we huddled over a map.
Covering ground afoot in the summer is the information she takes into the winter, for her mental map of the landscape. Dani uses trail running to better understand the contours of the mountain, gathering knowledge in avalanche-prone areas. As we ascended, we stopped along the way for Dani to identify mushrooms and insects, real living breadcrumbs to orient herself later.
In the final stand of trees before the mountains opened up into the sky, we stopped at a rushing mountain stream to refill our water. The sun was behind the peaks in the distance but, with our headlamps off, blue tones in the sky were turning to lavender and mauve. After rounding a switchback, Dani pointed a trekking pole toward a jagged spine. This was the line on a map she had shown me in the kitchen, the line that separates how water flows.
“There are two major watersheds in this part of the San Juan Mountains: the San Miguel and the San Juan,” Dani had told me that morning. “The San Miguel is a watershed affected by snowpack on the north facing side of the range,” which is where we were standing on the side of the mountain. “It feeds into the San Miguel River, which dumps into the Colorado River further downstream.”
As we got up to the saddle where we could cross between both watersheds, I had an uncanny sense that I was traveling over a topo map used to allocate water to much of the American West, because I was.
Dani makes running look efficient, intuitive, and purposeful, like an antelope whose steps are chosen for her. But she never set out to be a trail runner. She is a winter athlete who is learning her landscape on foot and building endurance in the process. Scrubbed clean of athletic ranking and performance metrics, she can focus on her relationship with the mountains.
Dani wasn’t just showing me how she catalogs mountain terrain; she was also showing me how water moves in the mountains. When I asked her to choose a route that feels authentic to ecological issues impacting her backyard, immediately it was about water.
“If I look at what snow means to me, what water means to me, it goes beyond recreation. The first thing that I think about is a realization that did not come to me until I started working with Protect Our Winters.”
Dani explains her understanding of precipitation as the source of water, “It’s that snowpack holds, or acts as a reservoir, for our water in the American West. So while we do have big reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, that’s not where our water actually comes from. Our water falls from the sky.”
Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at 28 percent capacity as of this summer, due to record low water flowing into the Colorado River, leading to increased water scarcity across the West, both for urban and rural agricultural areas. While it is important for water to be managed and utilized strategically throughout the entire Colorado River Basin, higher levels of snowpack and colder conditions for sustaining snowpack are imperative for the future of water access.
While we do have big reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, that’s not where our water actually comes from. Our water falls from the sky.
Back on the mountain, Dani pointed to the water rushing down a ravine.
“This is the water that goes directly into the rivers below that feeds our gardens, that goes into our local ponds. It ultimately goes into the Colorado River that feeds 30 million people, eight states, and nine national parks. This water right here is something that all of us rely on.”
Growing Food in a High Desert
I first visited Dani’s place last fall. I sat at the kitchen table eating enchiladas while Dani and Johnny told me about the big plans they had for the garden in an unplanted area next to the house. And when I came back this year, they had done it. Their plan worked. Intercropping of corn, beans, and squash. Beds of bright white potato flowers whose red tubers could be seen peeking out of the soil – almost ready to harvest. These potatoes had been grown out from my family’s farm. Neat rows of tomatoes, peppers, and radishes. I felt a quiet swell of pride for the beauty of this garden.
But growing food where mountains meet the desert isn’t easy. While there is less pest and disease pressure than wetter climates, building soil is a constant challenge. Dani and Johnny understand that biomass is inseparable from death and decay. Soil is decay, and decay requires water.
“When we’re looking at how specifically we’ve built the topsoil, I think the biggest thing has been watering and building up the biomass. So what that means is not just sticking some seeds in the ground expecting it to be productive.” Dani told me as she was hilling potatoes, or mounding dirt around the plants. “We’ve done quite a bit of letting the land do what it wants to do; we just try to support it.”
In choosing this home with Johnny, proximity to the mountains was a key factor, but also space to be self-sustaining was important. “We are growing quite a bit of our own food. We have the privilege of benefiting from some orchard fruits and trees that have been here for over 100 years,” Dani said as she pointed toward the apple trees overhead, gnarled branches unpruned and wild.
“It’s important for us, as we are in our 30s, to think about what it looks like to engage in this world, not just in an extractive manner of adventure for adventure’s sake. When we fill our lives with things beyond just pursuing adrenaline or objective-driven achievement, we create healthier lives and a more balanced wellbeing.”
Decolonizing Her Food
A thread that has woven through my time with Dani is her curiosity on getting to the root of food – food systems, food insecurity, food production, food culture. She is doing this most mainly through her exploration of her ancestral foodways.
“I could just live off of squash, beans and corn. I’m three-quarters Mexican and one-quarter Philippine and Chinese. As a person who’s grown up as a product of assimilation, the understanding of my heritage has been something I’ve had to reclaim. And I’m still very much in the process of reclaiming,” she told me on the last day I was with her in Colorado.
While not everyone has access to land for growing food, Dani encourages people to think more deeply about how and where their food is produced. “If you’re not going to buy local, then trade or share. When someone chooses to go the path of growing food or producing for their community, they’re performing a huge lift that oftentimes you’re not seeing.”
Dani has always loved cooking as a way to explore, to express herself. Moving quickly from chopping cilantro, flipping tortillas, and checking on an apple crisp in the oven, Dani wore an apron, not to be quaint but because it is what her mother taught her growing up.
For Dani, decolonizing food isn’t contained within the fences of her garden or the walls of her kitchen. It reaches into the bigger picture of sourcing beyond what she grows, and zooming out even further, to how we collectively see the natural resources, like water and soil, that we all rely on.
Bringing her food traditions into the context of what she and Johnny grow on their farm is incredibly meaningful to Dani.
“As a Latina, creating food and sharing a meal is love,” says Dani. “That is our love language. To be able to share something that’s come from my own hands, to be able to take a friend to the mountains where we can see the source of the water that gives us life, that allows us to grow those things, that allows me to prepare a beautiful meal, this is priceless.”