I haven’t had time to process everything that’s happened this summer. My name is different and my hair is shorter, my body less used to hiking and my mind still breaking down a life-shaping two months.
I had a bear- encounter next to a cliff, preformed CPR, mentored teens through panic attacks, eating disorders, dysphoria, and sexual assault trauma. I drove a van pulling a trailer through five lanes of Seattle traffic, and piloted my red truck a total of 7,600 miles through 20 states and 11 National Parks. All while coming to grips with my own identity and being openly trans for the first time in my life.
Now I’m here. Back on a summit, letting wind batter me around the rocky exposed peak. A rush of air pushes me sideways and I realize it’s the first time in months I’ve had extended time alone. The first time the world around me has paused long enough to think.
I’m back on trails I’ve climbed over 50 times, and my legs move on autopilot. How could a place have the audacity to be so much the same when I felt so different?
The familiar faces and friends I missed hugged me and called me by my new name. Yet I had no words to explain what the last few months had been like, what it felt like, and why I came back.
Rain smacks me in the face at 40 mph and I snap back to the moment, gazing in awe at the clouds hurtling past. They smother the summits in an instant only to open them back up again and reveal sloped rocks and tree-covered “hills” (as those Westerners call them). I know I made the right choice to come back, the only question I haven’t quite been able to answer is: why?
The previous day was a Saturday, full of sunshine and blue skies. I had braced myself for the rush of hikers, excited to be chatting with folks again and surprised at my own enthusiasm to get back to it after the challenges of last summer.
I spoke to people who had been hiking here for years, and others who were visiting the park for the first time. I got questions I’ve gotten thousands of times before, and even after entering my fourth season as a steward, was taken aback when an entire film crew for the Discovery Channel showed up shooting footage for a new series.
The sunshine Saturday saw 150 people, nothing too crazy for a beautiful fall day and nothing I couldn’t manage. Then true to High Peaks weather, wind tore through the peaks overnight, and Sunday morning saw 40-50 mph winds with gusts as high as 70. I was on the windiest peak in the Dacks, so stayed just above tree-line. High enough to wonder at the landscape shifting rapidly in and out of clouds, and low enough to not be in danger from a near-hurricane force wind.
I gazed down at Lake Placid, and the distant outline of Baker that marks the town of Saranac Lake – the place I called home for two years. When I loaded up my truck and left four months ago, I never wanted to come back. I was tired of a place that moved in slow motion, and wanted to have space to figure out who I was in a place where no one knew me.
It was exactly what I needed. I felt the relief immediately, like I’d been stuck under my covers breathing the same air for far too long. Then suddenly I was working with five other Queer people in a part of the country I’d never seen before. I got chainsaw and crosscut certified, and prepared to spend a summer in National Parks. I talked openly about name changes and hormone therapy, nonbinary identities and the stress of explaining it all to cishet people.
It took me a month to start missing the Adirondacks. They began to creep into more and more of my conversations, and I found myself longing for the endless waterways and tree-covered mountains. I missed the alpine zone, I missed talking to hikers, I missed Saranac Lake and all the people who make this region so special.
In all 11 of the National Parks I went to, most people were just there for a week or maybe just a few days. The idea of living nearby and recreating there every weekend was rarely an option: be it the entrance fee or the crowds, the distance from a nearby town or the need for permits to camp overnight. The privilege to live a short drive from endless hiking trails and free campsites in a 6.2 million acre park is a rarity.
It won’t be news to anyone reading this, but the Adirondacks are indeed a unique place. I’ve been thinking a hell of a lot about why.
People don’t come to the Adirondacks because we have the biggest mountains or the best trails, they come because they love the place. Just read the comment section on any article about a controversial decision, people care about what happens here.
The flip side is that for a Queer person or anyone from a marginalized group it can be isolating and even unsafe to live here. The ability to live in an Adirondack town and not be fearful that you won’t be able to fit in or find anyone else like you is a privilege. We can’t ignore our issues with racism and painful lack of diversity, it is a very real issue and the problem runs deep. It is everyone’s responsibility to acknowledge that and do better.
What I do find inspiring about Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Keene that set them apart from other rural places I’ve visited is that there are dedicated people fighting to do better. I had to leave four months ago, I needed to find a space with lots of other people like me.
And that’s okay. It’s okay to leave a place you don’t feel accepted in, it’s vital to have a community that you feel a part of and understood by. That doesn’t make you any less strong or love that place any less.
I’m back because I really do love this place, and I want to help make it better. Sometimes you need to have confidence in yourself and be visibly you in order to make space for other people to do the same. Incredible Queer people in the Adirondacks have done that for me, and I hope to help do that for others.
Queer people, especially trans people, are resilient because we have had to make space for ourselves in a world where who we are makes people uncomfortable. It’s hard getting misgendered all day on a summit, but I realize we need a societal shift to break the habit of assuming gender based on physical appearance.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help, start introducing yourself with your pronouns. I don’t feel safe doing that on a summit yet, for fear of retaliation or having to have uncomfortable conversations in my workplace, but especially if you’re a cis person, making pronouns normal is a step in the right direction.
Another thing you can do is to challenge your assumptions of gender. Ask for pronouns, ask yourself what makes you think someone is male or female, and don’t forget about us non-binary folks.
In 2021 we are in a space where gender identity is being talked about and accepted on a scale never seen before. I’m incredibly thankful to all the trans people who came before me who helped lay the foundation and make the level of acceptance today possible. But we still have a long way to go, and we need to keep working to make it better.
If this article made you uncomfortable, or if you still think gender is binary, trending, attention-seeking (or all of the above) I’m asking you from one person who cares about the Adirondacks to another: challenge those beliefs. If you hike in the High Peaks frequently chances are I’ve talked to you on a summit before, I’m just a person trying to protect alpine plants. Even if you don’t hike I guarantee you’ve read reports of rescues carried out by a very bad-ass trans forest ranger.
This is not a political issue, it’s a human one, and something anyone who loves the Adirondacks should care about. Why? Because people working hard to protect the place you love and who might be rescuing you off a trail are trans. Trans people are everywhere, and a little more thought before assuming gender can go a long way in helping us feel safe and respected.
Author’s note: The views here are my own and not that of any organization.