Friday, May 24, 2024

Robbi Mecus: More than a forest ranger

Drawing of Robbi Mecus

Robbi once told me that writing was how she processed things. So here I am, fingers to keyboard, trying to make sense of the news I still can’t believe. 

I lost two friends in the trans community this past year. Jamie came into my life at the start of graduate school, and left this world too soon in November. He was an advocate for the trans community, and would always question the way things were done in our program. The last time I talked to him he was urging me to become a volunteer for a local trans advocacy organization. A few months later that same organization was putting on his memorial service. 

Graduation was this weekend. He should have walked across that stage. Instead a professor stood up and told us all how sad the school was to have lost Jamie, and how it should remind us all to fight for the LGBTQ+ community. 

And Robbi, Robbi helped inspire me to be the advocate I am today. To work with trans people, go back to graduate school, leave the Adirondacks for something more. 

“Being trans is hard.”

Her words came through the phone as I called to talk to her about some shit I was dealing with at my place of work at the time.

“It’s okay if you need to go somewhere that is easier.”

A climbing accident. Just like that, and you’re gone too. 

I keep going through her Facebook photos. Staring at the two maple leaf pride stickers on her climbing helmet that I gave her before I left the Adirondacks. 

It’s surreal. Reading her name in headlines, seeing her face in news articles that have the audacity to try to say who she was. I find myself inexplicably angry at anyone who writes about her without knowing her. Frustrated with pictures I see that were clearly pulled from someone’s social media, names of family published – likely without permission. I know journalists don’t need it if it’s publicly available, I know these people are just doing their jobs. But still, I can feel the distance they had from her when they wrote it. I can feel the distance they had from the trans community.

I can almost hear Robbi’s voice in my head, fiercely pointing out all the trans people who have died without having their names published, honored, or remembered. I can hear her pointing out her privilege, and referencing all the trans people who came before her making what she does possible. I remember her telling me she doesn’t like attention much, but that by putting her name out there and speaking publicly about her trans experience she hoped to give representation to a community who needs it.  

She was a ranger, yes. She was a ranger and a friend and a parent. An advocate and active community member. She also loved whiskey, heavy metal, and playing the guitar. She once told me she was one of the “least intimidating people ever” after I admitted I was nervous to hang out with her casually for the first time because when I met her she was literally propelling down from a helicopter to rescue someone with a broken leg on the tallest mountain in New York state. 

Least intimidating person ever. 

two ice climbers

Robbi Mecus, left, and Melissa Orzechowski, right, fell while ice climbing in Alaska. Mecus died from the accident. Photo by Stephen Pucci.

My favorite image of her is from a winter a few years back, when I hosted a Queer gathering in my apartment and she came with whiskey in hand, then sat on my floor strumming away on a ukulele. She loved to get dressed up, she emphasized the humanness that came with being a forest ranger. She wrote about her self-questioning and feelings of not being good enough that sometimes nagged at her on rescues. 

I’m not going to say she was a hero, because I think she would have strong words to say about that. I get the sense Robbi would want me to say she was human just like the rest of us, but I’ll be damned if she wasn’t one of the best humans I’ve ever met. 

I met her while working as a Summit Steward in 2019 – the time she dropped out of a helicopter – after that I didn’t connect with her again for another year. She came into my life again at a time when I needed it most. The Adirondacks are not the easiest place to be trans and I was dealing with most of it alone. It was winter (that in and of itself is hard enough) and on top of that I was having a proper gender crisis with no one to talk to about it.

One morning I heard her NCPR interview with Emily Russell and immediately burst into tears. 

There was Robbi – this badass figure of the Adirondacks – talking about coming out as trans at 44 in this conservative part of the state while working in the backcountry. I think I swore multiple times under my breath in disbelief – there actually was someone else out there who could understand not just being trans, but being trans in that specific community while working in the outdoors. 

I sent her a message on Facebook and Robbi being Robbi, she almost immediately invited me out cross country skiing. For context, I barely knew how to ski at the time, and she insisted I borrow a pair of her skis when I said I didn’t have the proper metal edges for the Marcy Dam Trail. The next thing I knew I was talking about gender for the first time with a uniformed forest ranger in the middle of the woods while struggling not to fall over. 

I have considered her a mentor and a friend ever since. She was the only openly trans forest ranger in New York State, and the only older trans person I knew who was working in the backcountry in the Adirondacks.

Was. Words sound so permanent. Like the moment on top of a mountain that you capture just before sunrise, when the horizon turns a little pink and the light takes on a gold glow. The moment that lasts just for a few minutes, before it’s gone. The sun rises on another day, the world moves on. 

The world continues to move on. There are deadlines to meet and meetings to go to. Protests to follow and everyday tasks to attend to. How is it that the world has the audacity to keep going, to keep spinning, to keep turning like nothing happened. 

Once I was camping near Marcy Dam during the worst storm I’ve experienced in the backcountry. The thunder raged for hours, I pushed my hands against the side of my tent to keep the wind and rain from pushing it in. Finally falling asleep as the thunder became more distant. 

I awoke the next morning expecting a scene of mass destruction. Trees down, maybe scorched from lightning, flooding – surely some evidence of the night. Instead, I stood surrounded by a beautiful sunny day. Raindrops dripping from balsams, reflecting the light in a dazzling array of rainbow. Thrushes sang out and a red squirrel chattered indignantly at my appearance. The sky was the deepest of blue, all the pollen knocked down from the rain. Life goes on. 

Those first days going outside after seeing Robbi’s name in the news felt like that. My eyes squinted at the sun as I moved underwater. Everything muted as my brain tried to make sense of how robins were singing and flowers still blooming. Surely none of this was real, surely I would wake up soon. 

It’s the same feeling I got after we received an email from our Dean saying that we lost a member of our graduate community. I stared at Jamie’s name like it would disappear, like I could change what had happened. But just like that, life went on. 

I keep searching for a why. What if I had reached out to Jamie more – could I have helped? Would things have been different? Did it really have to end like this? Is there any universe where Jamie could have walked across that stage?

What happened on that mountain, why did it have to happen, what if the storm had made her fly home, what if it was all just about climate change and ice conditions being harder to predict? I should have tried harder to set up that time to call before she left. 

Sometimes my grief feels small. I’m hyper aware of the people dying in Gaza, of the genocide and war my fellow students are getting arrested trying to protest. I get the feeling both Robbi and Jamie would be out there protesting too. Both connected to a higher cause, both knowing that trans justice isn’t just about trans rights – that the same systems oppress us all. 

I watch my University put up a riot fence around campus, withhold degrees from students who were supposed to graduate, and continue to report that the students, professors, community members and city officials who were on campus Saturday, April 27 – the same day I found out about Robbi’s death – were arrested for the “potential” to get violent. 

Police lifted up a bicycle, turned it sideways and pushed it into a line of protestors that included green party candidate Jill Stein. A professor who was filming the arrests got pushed to the ground by police, who broke his arm. 

I read all this, numb. Too numb to believe anything was real, but it is. 

I’ve witnessed many of those around me move through grief over the past few years. Just this year my friend and former roommate’s mom passed away unexpectedly. 

I was supposed to call Robbi before she left for her trip, but somehow life just kept getting in the way.

I was in the emergency room due to an illness that the doctors thought I got from a study abroad class in Brazil over Spring Break. My liver enzymes went from 60 to 300 to 900 over the course of three days, my resting heart rate was over 113, my EKG was giving an abnormal reading, my blood pressure was high and I was tested for every tropical disease there is a test for before they concluded it was “just” a really bad case of mono. I was sent home with orders not to do any intense exercise for about a month because my spleen is enlarged. 

I was back at work for a week before I found out about Robbi. 

Life really just goes on. 

I’ve seen the anti-trans legislation get pushed in states across the country. The state I’m in now made it illegal for youth to get on HRT or puberty blockers last year. Everyone’s fears are heightened pending the upcoming 2024 presidential election and it seems like a week doesn’t go by where I don’t hear about a trans person somewhere in the country dying, getting beat up, or harassed just for trying to exist as their true self. 

Robbi’s experience in the Adirondacks does give me some hope. I worked at the Ray Brook DEC office Robbi worked out of for a brief period of time and before hearing her story I would have thought for sure the people there would cut off folks like us. Now I hear another ranger fight back tears in an interview about her. Hearing about the grief the entire Tri-Lakes area is going through – it’s clear Robbi was able to reach people. Maybe even change some minds about trans folks, maybe even help people realize you don’t need to understand trans people to respect them, honor them, and work alongside them.

Robbi was technically law enforcement, and one of the best rangers in the region. I know she would point this out, say something more about her privilege and say how it made it easier for her to be accepted. I know she would hope that one day her experience can be mirrored by other trans folks. That one day, being trans won’t be something you need to be scared about telling people. 

I texted Robbi out of the blue back in February. Sharing with her the impact she had on my life and how proud I was to tell her that I was now working with trans youth and working on a business plan for a LGBTQ+ outdoor organization. I keep re-reading her response. 

“Hi Cam! Those are such nice words. They are really appreciated. And just the same I had people who I looked to, who made me realize that living my authentic life was actually possible. It’s a circle. 

Maybe someday queer folks won’t need to be convinced that it’s possible for them to live authentically. It will be ingrained in the fabric of our culture. 

Maybe someday.”

I miss you Robbi. I hope that wherever you are you can still climb mountains, be your full self, and know that you have left a profound impact on this world. I will forever be fighting for that someday. 

If you’re out there, reading this. Maybe you knew Robbi, maybe you’re grieving like I am. Maybe you’ve just read about her and feel inspired by her – I mean honestly who wouldn’t. Regardless,  I encourage you to also keep fighting for that someday. Robbi wanted to make a difference, it’s the least we can do to keep going for her. 

After all, life goes on. 

Photo at top: Drawing of Robbi Mecus. Credit: Eli Johnson @elitrash_panda.

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Cameron (they/them) grew up in the Adirondacks and is an avid hiker, writer, and alpine plant enthusiast. They have worked for a variety of outdoor organizations both in the Adirondacks and across the country. Cam has a B.S. in Wildlife and Conservation Biology from the University of New Hampshire and recently returned to school to pursue a joint graduate degree in Social Work and Business. They are a licensed Adirondack Guide and spent four seasons working as a Summit Steward in the high peaks region. Cam remains deeply tied to the Adirondacks, and visits as often as possible.




16 Responses

  1. Susan Sweeney Smith says:

    I never knew Robbi. I’ve read everything I could find after her passing. This loving memorial is my favorite so far. My son grew up here in a small hamlet in the DACKS and coming out was hard. He made it. We all did. It would have been easier to have brave human activist role models out in our local world. I sent him this. Robbi will always matter as long as her name is said.

  2. Jean Dohman says:

    What a powerful story – so full of love and angst.!Thank you for speaking from your heart. May your grief deminish as you grow towards acceptance of your deep loss.
    Thank you for sharing. Godspeed Robbie

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    I agree 💯% with your words about a wonderful human being who is an inspiration to all of us who hope for the day when one’s gender orientation is both universally protected and universally accepted.
    Where I take issue is the mention of the tragedy of the loss of innocent life in Gaza without mentioning the tragedy of the loss of innocent life in Israel.
    Do you hold one people (let’s be honest, Jews) to a different standard? Is not all violence equally abhorrent?

  4. Ken Tryon says:

    Cam,

    Straight ally with lots of queer/trans friends and relations. Even as a cis het white guy, I sometimes get freaked out by the stuff I see in the Daks, and it has to be a hundred times worse for anyone trans. Thanks for your lovely remembrance of Robbi, and I hope you can hold on to the good stuff and allow the pain to fade. It’ll never go away completely (I’ve lost my parents and too many friends to say that), but it will become bittersweet. ❤️‍🩹

  5. Susan says:

    To be honest, this is not the type of material that I read the Adirondack Almanac for.

    • Boreas says:

      Yet others do. An awesome Forest Ranger with a colorful story. Everyone has their own unique story, whether it is the trail we would follow or not. Our paths may have crossed on the trail, but I never met her. Wish I had. RIP.

    • Bill Keller says:

      A memorial to a NY State Forest Ranger doesn’t belong in the Adirondack almanac? Why not? From what I have read about her she was an awesome ranger.

  6. Maralyn Master says:

    Keep up being brave. I admire you, and I definitely know how conservative Keene Valley and Keene are.

  7. Maria says:

    What a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary person. Your words make her real and yet also ethereal. And yes, it IS an Adirondack story that should be required reading in this insular hate-filled poorly-educated backwoods corner of the world. Maybe you opened some hearts and changed some minds today.

  8. Kathy says:

    Thank you Cameron for putting into beautiful words what I don’t have the talent to do. I knew Robbi a little, certainly wish I’d known her more. What a wonderful person and a tremendous loss for her local, regional and national community.

  9. a friend who cares says:

    what a beautiful article (and great drawing!) about Robbi Mecus, and the difficulty of life as a trans person.
    I empathize with those who face these difficult experiences, and have deep anger with those sadly intolerant folks.
    What a tragic loss for those of us who love the Adirondacks.

  10. ADKresident2 says:

    As fine an obituary as has ever been written. Thank you for writing it and letting us know something of her through it. May her memory be a blessing.

  11. Laura Paradise says:

    Thank you for so eloquently sharing your friendship with Robbi. I haven’t seen this before today. Robbi has been heavy on my mind this week. I have tears slowly flowing down the sides of my face. My husband, Jim Giglinto, was her coworker. Not sure if you know him, he was the ranger for the eastern high peaks for 20+ years, he retired in 2020.

    • Cameron says:

      Laura thank you so much for the comment. Of course I know Jim! He would lead sections of our Summit Steward training and was quite the familiar voice on the radio. Sending you both good thoughts, and I hope that we cross paths one day.

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