Saturday, October 9, 2021

Back in the Adirondacks

mountain vista in the adirondacks

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. 

trail crew

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. 

queer trail crew

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.

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Cameron Dunn

Cameron (They / Them) is an avid hiker, writer, and alpine plant enthusiast. They graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2018 with a B.S. in wildlife & conservation biology and a minor in writing. Since then they have led backpacking trips in West Virginia, taught English in Spain, studied abroad in New Zealand, worked in Cornell’s maple research forest, and hiked 200 miles through the Arizona desert. Most recently they spent the summer leading a LGBTQ+ Teen Trail Crew in the Pacific Northwest, and have returned for their fourth season as a summit steward. They are crosscut and chainsaw certified, a wilderness first responder, Leave no Trace Trainer and licensed Adirondack Guide. They are dedicated to increasing the representation of Queer folks in the outdoor industry.


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14 Responses

  1. Nora says:

    Welcome back Cameron !

  2. Randy Fredlund says:

    Be well and carry on.

    The Adirondack woods do not assign any differences among humans. We are all treated the same in the wilderness.

  3. Joan Grabe says:

    Yes, Cameron , you are in an organization and that organization is called “ us”. You opt to live here, work here, volunteer here and you are one of us. We value you, we hope you are are fulfilled and prosperous and that there are so many comments that echo mine that you are really thankful that you returned to this welcoming place.

  4. Boreas says:

    Welcome back! Hope you stick around.

  5. Maggie Jihan says:

    Stop calling people “cis” whom you’ve never met. As I understand it, a primary and even sacrosanct rule of gender identity-ism is that only the individual is allowed to declare their own gender. If someone *tells you* they identify as cis? Fine, refer to them that way. But just as YOU don’t want to be mis-gendered, just as YOU don’t want people making offensive assumptions about your gender/identity, neither does anyone else. No one should be calling anyone “cis” without express permission. It’s offensive and it’s against your own internal rules.

    A lot of of us simply don’t have the thing you and your gender-identity cohorts call a gender identity. We have a sex, chromosomally based in our DNA, and we have personalities. You can call it ignorant, or vanilla, or whatever, it’s no skin off my teeth–but it’s really none of your business, just as your gender identity is none of mine beyond the rules of common decency among us. In our worldview, gender doesn’t even exist–and would you insist that an atheist identify the name of their god when you know that god doesn’t exist in their worldview? Do we claim that atheists are oppressing the religious, merely by rejecting the notion of god in their own lives? So why do the gender-identityists insist that we all declare or accept a gender identity–or otherwise, to be considered transphobic, bigoted, oppressive? But this is exactly what they are doing when they refer to unknown people as “cis”, they are inappropriately assigning a gender identity to people without their permission, violating people’s personal boundaries. And by this they are insisting we fit ourselves into their worldview whether we like it or not.

    I have no objections to the many different ways people identify themselves, or identify with a group. Be that religious, related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, profession or anything else, more power to you. Nobody gets to tell me how to live or define myself, why would I object to others taking that same freedom for themselves?

    Just stop calling people “cis” who have never told you that he or she identifies that way. You don’t get to insist that the whole world align itself according to your belief system and way of being in the world. I can respect your right to feel affinity with gender-identityism, but that doesn’t mean you get to sweep everyone else into that with you. I have spent my life standing for, and speaking for the Earth, the marginalized, vulnerable and oppressed; I firmly understand that the needs of every living being must be met by our communities. Inclusion and diversity is necessary for Life to go on, and it makes Life more interesting! I will stand for your right, for anyone’s right, to believe what you believe and live as you choose–so long as your beliefs or ways of living don’t harm anyone else. And as long as no one tries to insist that I be swept up in their beliefs and be defined by them.

    Adirondack Almanack, I sure hope that your aim for inclusion ALSO INCLUDES people who don’t align themselves with genderism, but just want to be left out of it. I’m fine with people choosing new names and pronouns–fine with the decisions of adults to medicalize their lives in pursuit of gender happiness. And I’m not fine in the least with being called “cis”.

    • Bill Keller says:

      Well said, thank you.

    • Boreas says:

      I agree. Labels are never a good thing when assigned by others. Without labels, prejudice loses its teeth.

      • It is my understanding that cis is not an offensive term, it’s simply a way to differentiate people who aren’t transgender.

        Definition of cisgender
        : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth

        • Maggie Jihan says:

          No Melissa, cis is not inoffensive. If you read what I wrote, and then read the definition you provided, you will see the issue. If you are confused, please reread what I wrote, and then reread the definition you provided, which clearly imposes gender identity upon everyone.

          I DO NOT HAVE A GENDER IDENTITY. There is more I could say about the ways that “cis” is highly offensive when applied to people by others (rather than strictly by self), but I’m going to leave it at that. I don’t have a gender identity. A lot of us don’t.

          Stop using cis for all except those who specifically tell you that they have the gender identity known to trans and allies as “cis”. Just stop.

          And thanks to Bill and Boreas for agreeing with me. In this era, people who don’t tow the trans line in every way are often bullied, receive death threats, are doxxed.

  6. Nancy Keet says:

    Welcome back! Our community is made richer by having you here

  7. Joan Grabe says:

    Well, I guess I didn’t get my wish about those many welcoming comments……….

  8. Andrea Hogan says:

    Welcome back Cameron!

  9. Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

    Welcome back Cameron!! Hope to see you soon and learn some excellent alpine plant facts on trail next summer :):)

  10. JB says:

    Cameron, thank you for a well-written and heartfelt testament to adventure and community near and far, so that the many of us may live vicariously through you.

    I am also a member of a minority, which, like non-binaries, makes up about 2% of the general population, and it is an core-personhood, for-life kind of thing as well. We don’t get to choose our own terminology yet–“schizo-compulsive disorder” is probably one of the most offensive. Even in a society with a newfound obsession “recognizing mental illness” (i.e., virtue signaling and appropriation), we are medicalized, medicated, and lobotomized more than ever, despite the nonexistence of an actual “cure”. I personally believe that we should be allowed to accept ourselves as we are, but that perspective is not one that you will find in The New York Times, or even on Reddit–it’s a perspective that could get one locked into the asylum, or accused of paranoia for thinking as much.

    But the whole point of all of this is not to garner sympathy or righteous indignation, it is to contextualize my opinion on the matter of inclusion, which I have learned in all of my years of dealing with exclusion: We don’t need inclusion as much as we think that we do. We have always only ever been able to find true acceptance within ourselves, and the true meaning in our lives comes not despite, but because of our unique aspects that exist outside of social norms, just as the many find equally magnanimus and genuine meaning within those very same social conventions. We are part of a tradition of anti-reproductive traits that have carried through humanity since as long as we have existed as a species, and arguably longer–thus, our existence must perform some essential function. However, we would not be able to exist if not for everyone else.

    To truly celebrate our singular differences is to also celebrate our oneness in greater humanity, even when it manifests as ugliness–only through adversity can we learn the greatest lessons. Positive inclusion must not become negatively exclusionary. What ever would there left if we actually managed to eliminate our adversaries? What will it look like to live in a world where “commonness” is more stigmatized than “uniqueness”? How will we live meaningful lives if we are to bulldoze all of the mountains and valleys into a singular homogenous expanse in the name of diversity? …How then will we ever be able to live freely and genuinely, and to truly enjoy that beatific sublime of the mountain air and sunshine? Of course, if we had a musica universalis and a mappa mundi of all of human experience, of which your writings would form a small part, all of this would be easier. But for now, all that we can do is that which the thousands of generations that have come before us have done, to live and learn, and to be better for it.

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