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It’s a bluebird day, and I’m skiing through a towering stand of spruce trees that opens into a vast meadow. In the distance, I spot a black creature diving up and down through the deep snow beside the groomed trail. I recognize the animal immediately: Sir Walter Raleigh, a black Lab mix with floppy ears and boundless energy. When I reach his two humans, Nike and Jeff, the latter asks me, “Is this your first time skiing today?” It’s our own private joke. We’re both here all the time.
That wasn’t always the case. Nike and Jeff’s regular cross-country ski habit started after their veterinarian told them their previous dog was overweight and needed more physical activity. The couple realized they too could use some exercise, so they committed to cross-country skiing three days a week. The first time out, they could only go a few kilometers before running out of breath, but their fitness improved rapidly, and soon they were coming to the trails even more frequently. Turns out, the Grand Mesa isn’t just good for their health, Nike says: “Lots of life planning has happened as we ski our favorite trails.”
As a former competitive racer, I know firsthand how cross-country skiing can become a driving passion in one’s life. In fact, when I moved to the Western Slope in 2004 to escape the growing Front Range population, I settled on Cedaredge, in part, for its slower pace and proximity to the Grand Mesa’s ski trails.
The ski area here, which is run by a local nonprofit called Grand Mesa Nordic Council (GMNC), is a throwback to an earlier era. It doesn’t have a coffee bar, ski shop, lodge, or clubhouse (though it’s in the process of fundraising for a permanent warming hut). It doesn’t even have running water or electricity. What it does have are three groomed trail systems comprising more than 40 kilometers of mostly gentle, rolling terrain and views to four mountain ranges, plus backcountry trails. Volunteers set up tents and tables outside, from which Melissa hands out cookies and Karen serves hot chocolate made on a camp stove. Tom organizes races, and Diane times them. Danielle ladles soup, Don helps kids learn to ski, and Liane teaches good trail etiquette to skiers. By the end of my first season living here, I had become a volunteer, too.
Fast-forward to 2021, when the then 31-year-old organization had grown too big for the all-volunteer board of directors to manage on its own. The board started looking for its first executive director and asked me if I was interested in applying. The position sounded far less weighty than my gig as a journalist reporting on the pandemic, which had left me burned out and disillusioned. Still, I hesitated, worried that leaving full-time journalism would mean leaving my sense of purpose behind. Could I really abandon a career that had, for my entire adulthood, paid the bills, defined my work identity, and provided ample opportunities to do a little good?
Born into a military family, I spent some of my formative years living outside Spangdahlem Air Base in West Germany, where my father was a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. Back then, my dad’s job felt dangerous but vital. In 1989, he took me to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall so I could see for myself what he’d been fighting for. Joining the crowd tearing down that barrier helped instill in me a mission I longed to replicate in my own work: I wanted to make the world better, too.
Journalism offered me that chance. As a budding reporter in the mid-2000s, I traveled to Vietnam, where I reported on an underfunded effort to remediate dioxin, a chemical in Agent Orange that U.S. armed forces had dropped on forests during the Vietnam War. Some three decades later, dioxin was still harming people and the environment. After the New York Times published my story, donors stepped up to pay for the project.
Later, I published pieces about the faulty science behind a controversial American Cancer Society advertisement, which led to the discontinuation of the campaign, and about a certain statistical method causing imprecise results in sports science that started a conversation that prompted a top scientific journal to ban the practice. Even more gratifying: the letters people wrote, telling me how they had taken a story of mine with them to the doctor’s office to help them discuss an issue they’d been struggling with.
When a virus began spreading across the globe in early 2020, it seemed like another chance to make a difference. Suddenly, the entire world was turning to science journalists like me to understand what COVID-19 was and what its effects might be. Although terrified by the prospect of a global pandemic, I also felt as if I had spent my entire career training for the crisis. I wrote about how superspreader events drove infections, the potential of contact tracing to stem the new coronavirus’ reach, and the limits of rapid tests. My work felt urgent and effective.
But as the pandemic wore on, public discourse became more polarized and politicized while certain government officials actively undermined trust in the media and scientific institutions. Settling into year two of writing exclusively about the virus, my resolve diminished as hate mail from anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 deniers piled up in my inbox and resistance to the emerging science became more widespread.
I tried to keep working, but my spirit finally broke when a beloved relative died of COVID-19 after resisting my family’s pleas to get vaccinated. I felt helpless. It was one thing for randos on the internet to call me a delusional liar, but if my reporting couldn’t convince my own family that the virus should be taken seriously, what good was I really doing?
So I applied for the GMNC’s executive director post. Surely, I thought, running a ski area would be the opposite of writing about the pandemic—lighthearted and, maybe more important for my mental health, nonessential. I could not have been more wrong.
My new job requires lots of off-mountain work. I meet with the U.S. Forest Service to arrange permits and trail projects. I attend fundraising events. I write grant applications. I even do a little politicking to drum up support from local governments. But one of the most critical tasks during the season is being out on the trails to make sure all is in order and running smoothly. Yes, I now ski for a living.
Along with inspecting the trail conditions and talking with trail users, I make a habit of skiing to the Skyway overlook to admire the Book Cliffs and the Roan Plateau, and Utah’s snow-capped La Sal Mountains, far to the west. At the County Line overlook, I stop to take in the jagged San Juans and West Elks and the vast spread of forest and canyons on the Uncompahgre Plateau. The friendly conversations I happen into at these viewpoints give me a nearly daily dose of delight, but I’m also content to connect with other skiers by silently sharing the feeling of awe that comes from soaking in these expanses.
I know, firsthand, the healing power of nature. Fifteen years ago, my sister-in-law, Pia, died of cancer. The experience of witnessing her unraveling crushed me; her decline was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Skiing the Grand Mesa—the cold air on my face, my muscles firing, my heart pumping fast—helped me be present in my body so I could remind myself I hadn’t died, too.
But during the past few years, while working remotely for a political news outlet based in New York City, I’d lost that connection to the Grand Mesa. My body was here, on the Western Slope, but my head was elsewhere—caught up in virtual Slack conversations or trapped inside a Google Doc—for most of the day. Now that my job is fully anchored in my local community and our public lands, I feel at home again—and more like myself.
I also feel responsible for ensuring that others have access to that same experience on the snow. In the past, I was the kind of skier who preferred solitude to socializing, but as a representative of GMNC, I have a duty to interact. The brief encounters on the trail have turned into one of my favorite parts of the job because, first and foremost, skiing is fun, so I tend to catch people when they’re reveling in the scenery and blissing out on endorphins. When people write notes to me now, it’s usually to praise our grooming operations or thank us for making them feel welcome.
Sometimes, however, these conversations reveal something deeper. During one of our Wednesday women’s clinics, where we teach beginners the basics and experienced skiers how to get stronger, someone told me that aches brought on by age make it difficult for her to run and hike anymore. Skiing provides a way for her to be active and feel comfortable in her body again. I’ve observed chance encounters provide social connections that counteract the loneliness that’s become an epidemic in America. One quiet morning under a gentle snowfall, I stopped to greet a middle-aged man who thanked me for my work. He then told me he’d recently lost his wife and skiing was helping him reconnect to the world without her. I understood exactly what he meant.
Interactions like this have helped me realize that I didn’t abandon purpose when I shifted my focus from science journalism to the ski community. The conversations allow me to see how this pastime enriches the lives of the people living in my community who’ve undertaken it. My work is absolutely essential because, at its core, the job is about making people happy and healthy—and that’s more important than I once gave it credit for.
This change of heart became clear to me one day this past winter, when I was skiing with a poet friend, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. We skied beneath a chattering of starlings, which, later that night, inspired her to write me a poem:
Deep in the snowy woods,
we startle at the sound
of starlings as they braid
above the branches.
How often do I miss
the song of the moment?
But today, beside you
I could not miss
the sweet shushing of skis,
the sacred huff of breath,
the lyric of our laughter
and the strong refrain of my heart
as it wheeled like a starling,
a wild and soaring thing
drawn to fly with others,
ready to sing for no reason
except the joy of singing.
I’m now in the business of cultivating joy, and like the joy of singing, the joy of skiing requires no reason. It is purpose enough.