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To Be Seen

One writer and thru-hiker finds themselves on an unexpected path.


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Shivering uncontrollably, chafed ass burning, stomach muscles convulsing, fearing I might freeze to death, I pondered the decisions that had led me here, hunkered down at the Crystal Mountain campsite on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail.

It was September 5th, 2013. I had started my day in North Adams, hiked 18.6 miles and gained 4700 feet of elevation, including climbing Mt Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts at 3,491 feet. I’d never climbed a mountain over 900’ tall, and I had never hiked further than 8 miles in a day. My thighs were aching and my feet were blistered and swollen, toes throbbing from inappropriate, too-tight road running shoes. I was bedded down in a hammock I’d never used before in a 40-degree sleeping bag, wearing every article of clothing I had with me. I was in a hammock, the wind gently blowing around me, tearing away any warmth I produced. I felt completely out of my element, sleeping alone in the woods for the first time. Every sound in the forest, every stick that cracked, sent a jolt through my body; surely it was a bear coming to eat me or a stranger here to assault me. I closed my eyes tight and breathed deeply and slowly, trying to push down my nagging anxieties about the miles I had left to cover and how cold I was.

I had never backpacked a day in my life. In college, I had unformed daydreams of maybe one day thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but I knew it would be a long time before I’d have 4-6 months to dedicate to the pursuit. It seemed like something someone else might do, someone who was more self-possessed and confident than me. Why exactly was I out here? As I tried to fall asleep, I wandered through memories of my childhood, to who I had always known I was, even if I didn’t have the words to describe myself.

(Photo: Aubri Drake)

I’m the second of four kids. I grew up on a backlot of a rural road in Connecticut and spent my summers chasing frogs up and down the creek in the woods. The family dog would follow on my heels as I tramped deeper into the wilderness (but never so far that I couldn’t see the house through the trees—my mother’s one rule about my summertime wanderings).

I longed to explore further and deeper into the woods, to find the edges and boundaries. I always knew where I was—I never got lost; if I broke the rules and wandered away, I would always be able to find my way back. But I was limited, told by my parents not to stray from the spaces they knew. This attitude applied to other areas of my life; they made it clear to me that to keep their love, I needed to stay on the narrow path they’d laid in their minds.

I was happy in my body and my gender in those days, covered in dirt and leaves, joyfully playing in the creek. I fully inhabited myself; my body was a reliable vessel to take me from place to place, always in a hurry, always on the move. I had friends, all boys; we caught snakes, raced cars, had squirt gun fights, and scraped our knees when we fell while playing tag. Even though their parents thought I was a girl, they welcomed me with complete abandon: I was one of them and they knew it.

But when my first puberty came at age 10, it hit me like a truck.

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As my body rapidly changed shape and size suddenly it was no longer my own, no longer reliable. It became something foreign, something to be hidden under baggy clothes.

The boys who used to be my friends withdrew, leaving me alone. Some of them blatantly refused to play with a girl; others stopped meeting my eyes, and would get up and walk away when I tried to join in like I’d previously done. I was heartbroken.

I overheard one of their mothers as she loudly explained to my mother why she wouldn’t schedule another play date: while it was that fine I had played with boys before, I needed to grow out of it. I heard the message loud and clear – there was something wrong with me, and no one wanted to be near me because of it.

 

DESPITE LIVING FULLY AS A NONBINARY PERSON IN MY PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE, I DIDN’T FEEL SAFE WALKING THE AT OPENLY AS MY NONBINARY SELF.

 

It took more than a decade after my first puberty to find a word to describe the internal difference I felt. When I was 15, people screamed “DYKE!” out of a car window at me for the first time. When I was 16, I was chased out of the women’s bathroom by a mother screaming, threatening me with violence. When I was 17, a girl give me her number and asked me out. In high school and college, everyone told me I HAD to be a lesbian in denial – that was why I felt most comfortable in boys’ clothes and short hair. But I’ve never been attracted to women, so that held no answers for me and only gave me more people to disappoint.

I’d overheard adults whispering to each other, faces full of disgust, of ‘men who became women,’ so I assumed there must also be women who became men. But I’d never felt like a boy, even though I knew I wasn’t a girl. I was left with no answers, lost and alone.

Photo taken in California, United States (Photo: Getty Images)

Breaking The Binary

I discovered the term “nonbinary” online in 2011. I had never considered that there might be genders beyond boy or girl; knowing there were other people out there who were nonbinary opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I knew as soon as I saw the description of nonbinary that I’d found my gender. I’d never felt any affinity with my assigned gender, but also hadn’t felt any connection to the binary opposite. Even just seeing the term opened my eyes to a deep history of other people who felt like I did, who saw gender as a universe of constellations, with nothing but possibilities. I had thought I was the only one who felt that way, and had been led to believe I was innately broken.

I felt a deep happiness rise inside my chest as my core sense of self resonated and gave a resounding “YES!” I threw myself into reading everything I could find about nonbinary genders, and my world was turned upside down.

While I knew without a doubt that I was nonbinary, the world predominately assumes there are only two genders – man or woman; I had to decide which one I wanted people to assume I was. I had to decide which one made me most happy, while also factoring in my safety. Which bathroom would I use? What gender marker did I want on my driver’s license? When wait staff greeted me at a restaurant, would I rather be ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’? Did I want to get invited to the bachelor party or the baby shower?

It took me six months of agonizing soul-searching to decide that fully inhabiting my body again would involve medical transition and a second puberty—taking testosterone to grow facial hair, deepen my voice, and flatten my curves; and having top surgery, to give me back the flat chest I missed. I knew this decision would end my relationship of six years and dissolve the remaining thread of connection I had with my parents. I also knew transition wasn’t optional for me; it was something I needed to continue being alive.

So, I started hormones and changed my legal name, the pronouns I used with friends and at work, and my gender markers on my driver’s license and passport.

At first, I told people that my pronouns were they/them or he/him, in an effort to be “easier” for other people. But despite many people using he/him pronouns for me for years, they have never felt right. My pronouns are they/them, but those pronouns aren’t commonly assumed, so I have to tell each new person I meet in order for people to use them. This can make it very difficult to be seen fully as myself.

At the end of that year of growing self-awareness, I found myself on the Appalachian Trail on Labor Day weekend in 2013. My partner was gone for a week at a destination wedding, and I stayed home so I could save money to pay for my transition-related medical bills. With a weekend to myself and no other obligations, I decided I would solo hike the 92 miles across Massachusetts on the Appalachian Trail in four days.

I didn’t understand what I was endeavoring, nor how much it would hurt, which was perhaps a good thing: I wouldn’t have tried if I knew how easy it would be to fail. But I ran into the woods anyhow, hoping to find pieces of my young self still wandering among the trees. And somehow, I succeeded, logging 19-28 miles a day and lugging a goldenrod yellow JanSport backpack I’d bought off the internet for $25. I cried every day, but on the last day, standing on Race Mountain, I was just able to see Mt Greylock 76 trail miles away. I could see how far I’d come.

I tried to go back to my usual life after that, but I couldn’t shake the growing desire I had to hike the entire AT. I thought of my childhood self chasing frogs across the creek and wondered: why wait to do this? Why not now, when I was finally starting to get back in touch with myself?

I feverishly started planning how to section hike the entire AT. In the end, I finished the trail on the summit of Katahdin in Maine 4 years to the day from the first time I set foot on the trail.

Despite living fully as a nonbinary person in my personal and professional life, using they/them pronouns, and wearing a combination of men’s and women’s clothing, I didn’t feel safe walking the AT openly as my nonbinary self. I never told anyone I was transgender, nonbinary, queer, or gay, and I hiked in the off-season to avoid other people, but that only helped so much. People often read me as gay or suspected something wasn’t “quite right” about me. I heard violent anti-gay comments in Virginia and had a terrifying experience in Pennsylvania when a hostel owner harassed me in the evening and then waited for me in an idling pick-up truck at the first road crossing the next morning.

I even had to watch the way I talked to stay safe. If I allowed myself to become more relaxed while talking, the pitch of my voice varied – I became less monotone; I used my hands; I smiled more; my voice wasn’t as deep. Male thru-hikers would tense up and start watching me closely; I had some of them sharply ask me, “You gay, or what?” It was made clear that if the answer was “yes,” then we would have a problem. When I allowed myself to speak in a more relaxed way with female thru-hikers, they would relax, assume I was gay and not a threat, and immediately treat me like their “gay best friend.” In neither case was I seen as myself, so I quickly learned to never relax around other people.

I observed online and in-person hiker conversations declaring that being a queer, nonbinary, or transgender hiker meant having ‘an agenda’ or trying to force people to be ‘more PC.’ For me to live openly as myself was seen as an invasion and an attack upon them. I wanted to hike the AT as myself, but I was not given the same opportunity as straight, non-transgender hikers. Classic thru-hiker traditions like hiking naked on summer solstice were not safe for me. Hikers often celebrate the idea of a trail family, but the rules of belonging on trail turned out to be just as narrow as my parents’ had been. Once again, my true self was seen as straying too far from the expected path.

 

IT TOOK ME DECADES TO REKINDLE MY CONNECTION WITH MY BODY, TO FULLY INHABIT MY SKIN AS I HAD AS A KID.

 

After hiking the AT, I explored other trails. I thru-hiked the Long Trail, the Tour du Mont Blanc, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. I told no one on these trails that I was queer, nonbinary, or transgender. I continued to be unseen.

As the years went by, I became more settled in my skin, more confident in myself. I became more comfortable with my ability to handle the possibility of verbal or physical confrontations. I began summiting peaks in the northeast all year around, completing summit lists like the Northeast 111 4,000 Footers and the New England 67 4,000 Footers in winter. I pushed the boundaries of my physical comfort further, gaining experience and confidence in my abilities. Sometimes I scared myself as I studied under the tutelage of Mother Nature, but I always found my way back home.

I read books and watched TV shows with trans and nonbinary characters. I explored Instagram and connected with other trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ hikers and backpackers. I finally saw reflections of myself out on the trail. I no longer felt like the only one.

When I headed out to hike the John Muir Trail in 2019, I decided to be more open hiking as who I was. I found myself incredibly lonely halfway through my 11-day southbound thru-hike from Yosemite Valley to Mt Whitney. I was hit hard with altitude. I was doing 25+ mile days, feeling like I was dragging my corpse over the mountain passes. I wasn’t sleeping well, my emotional state was a complete mess, and I didn’t have cell service. Of all the trails I’ve hiked, I was most miserable for the first five days of the JMT.

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On day five, I met Zakiah, a white woman in her late 20s from California. We were both feeling incredibly down, lonely, and homesick. As we hiked together, we talked about our lives back home. It quickly became apparent that we both had backgrounds in social work; I have my Masters in Social Work and she was in a Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program. We were both deeply interested in mental health care, family systems, sexuality, gender, and alternative relationship structures.

We hiked and chatted for a few hours, then set up camp next to each other, glad to have company and a friendly face for our evening meal. Hiding from the mosquito hordes in our individual tents, we talked until sundown about our relationships with our boyfriends and our families, and why we had decided to hike the JMT. We had deep conversations that were incredibly meaningful to me. I didn’t have to pretend; I felt completely comfortable being authentically myself.

On day eight, I met Emily and Cassidy, two white women in their late 20s and best friends who go on backpacking trips together almost every summer. We all worked in the medical field and enjoyed comparing notes about our jobs. We talked about relationships, pets, and medicine. We hiked together for a number of hours and I pushed myself an extra four miles (and an extra mountain pass) to camp with them. As we sat around cooking dinner, Cassidy casually asked, “Oh, by the way, what pronouns do you use?” Just like that.

My heart leapt at being asked such a familiar question out on the trail. It felt like my two halves were coming together; I felt seen in a way that I hadn’t before. I felt so happy and settled in who I was, so joyful to be asked so kindly to bring my full self into the space, to not have to hide or pretend. I looked up into her smiling eyes, smiled back, and said, “I use they/them pronouns.”

It took me decades to rekindle my connection with my body, to fully inhabit my skin as I had as a kid. It’s taken years to integrate that sense of myself into the person I am when I hike. But I’m finally home in the woods again, happily living in my body.

I didn’t have a supportive trail community when I was a beginner, so I had to learn my lessons the hard way. Now I act as a mentor to other trans, nonbinary, and LGBTQ people who long to get outside as hikers and backpackers. I get to be a trail angel, supporting others so they can succeed and find their own way. It is a joy to watch them grow into strong hikers who can fully be themselves.

While I didn’t feel seen by other people on the Appalachian Trail, I did find myself. I rediscovered and nurtured my six-year-old self that reveled in being covered in dirt and leaves and splashing in the creek. I was finally able to take my young self on the forest wandering I’d always dreamed of: we hiked to the edge of the forest, out of view of my parents’ house, and we kept on walking—hiking the Appalachian Trail all the way from Springer Mountain in Georgia up to Katahdin in Maine.