My father, before he died, took me canoeing, hiking, climbing, camping, fishing, sailing, white-water rafting, biking, skiing. All the sections of the outerwear catalog, basically. My friends’ fathers took us backpacking in the Smoky Mountains two years in a row. That first year I felt muscles in my back I didn’t even know were there, and while Kristina kneaded my knots in our tent at night I swear I saw a bear. One of those fathers or maybe both and also my own took us on canoeing trips, too, where my pale skin would burn lobster-red in the unforgivingly humid Michigan mid-afternoon, leaving marks around the Speedo I wore to look like I was on a swim team even though I could barely swim. I preferred the boat.
We went camping with our science teacher, Tim, learned to build solo shelters in the woods, cooked piles of chopped root vegetables in bundles of tin foil over a fire, squatted to pee in a place Amelia swore the boys couldn’t see us but, panicked that they still might, I peed all over my shoes. I was certain somebody would notice. (Nobody did.) Everything about bodies feels like too much when you’re 13.
In high school, we went camping in Northern Michigan with our math teacher, Mr. Early, wore matching bandanas and foraged for mushrooms and took more breaks than appropriate to fix our pigtails, and while walking sang Lost Boyz and Puff Daddy which I now realize was likely offensive to the wildlife. Our writing teacher took us boating on Green Lake but wouldn’t take us fly-fishing ’cause he said we’d talk too much and ruin it, which was true.
I know that the earth is technically our mother but to me its trees and grass and dirt always felt inexorably like my father’s, or someone else’s father, and every time I return to it, I feel myself returning to him. I think that is a good thing. But I also think this might be why it took me so long to realize that I’d masculinized the entirety of the great outdoors. That it was only men who’d ever taken me camping, skiing, on hikes. It was often with groups of girls but there was always a man in charge. When I got older, it was boyfriends. They owned it. They were just showing me around.
And that’s what I read, too. I read men. I’d followed Raymond Carver’s path to the waterfall, fell for Jim Harrison’s legends, went into the wild with John Krakauer, sat at Thoreau’s Walden Pond and under Thomas McGuane’s shade, heard Jack London’s call of the wild and you know, Hemingway, et cetera. Canon.
One day standing in a river with my fly rod
I’ll have the courage to admit my life.
– from “Looking Forward to Age,” by Jim Harrison
I loved them all, by the way. I loved the men who took me outside and the words men wrote about being there. But the first woman who took me outside before I became gay — because becoming gay is just a series of women taking you outside — was Pam Houston. We’d read an essay of hers in class that she’d actually written about going fishing with my teachers. That summer I picked up her short story collection Cowboys are My Weakness and wanted to put waders on and stand thigh-deep inside it screaming, so full of it I wouldn’t even care about the bugs, who have always loved to bite me.
“The river gave us both a lesson in respect,” he said, and it occurred to me then that he thought he had a chance to tame that wild river, but I knew I was at its mercy from the very beginning, and I thought all along that that was the point.
– Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness
Now I am a lesbian. It feels important to acknowledge, before we get any further into this, that I am not a camping lesbian. I love a hike, a boat, a swimming hole, a beach, a National Park, a river, a lake, a dry desert littered with tiny twisted plants, a big night sky to lie outside beneath. But I love a bed and a hot shower, too. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been camping recently, of course. As a lesbian, camping can just… happen to you.
According to the American Camping Association, 16% of humans in the U.S. between the ages of 25 and 44 went camping at least once in 2016. Our survey — which included over eight thousand queer women and/or trans people in the U.S. — came out a little different: 42% had been camping within the past year.
I can enter the morning with traces of an eternal dream: to live
on a planet of women. we sing in the fertile forest, caress on
lavender hills, bathe beneath cascades of clear waters. and just
like that, nude and wet, we mount each other’s bodies. our
desire is a whale that searches for calm in the depth of the sea.
– from “Dreaming of Lesbos,” by Tatiana De La Tierra
Queer women have the unique quality of being both inexorably associated with outdoor recreation and yet, it seems, often hard to find within its literature, or, I guess, accepted as part of its community.
Some snippets: we were the women who tried to build new lesbian-only communities on stretches of wild land, where these separatists imagined beating the heteronormative patriarchy by escaping it altogether. (Results were decidedly mixed.) Angela Davis has written of “ramshackle jook joints” deep in wooded, remote areas of the South, where African-Americans gathered in the years following emancipation to dance and drink and talk and listen to blues music, places where some lesbians found “great sexual freedom.”
There is, of course, Subaru, who determined in the 1990s that lesbians were a good market because “lesbian Subaru owners liked that the cars were good for outdoor trips.”
We are environmentalists. Farmers. “Animal people.” Passionate composters. There is ecofeminism, which believes that structural oppression makes women “uniquely qualified to understand and empathize with the earth’s plight.” We have been associated with outdoor traditions like witchery and “new age” movements.
I mean, Rachel Carson was probably a lesbian. Before she died she burned most of the letters she’d exchanged with her very close intimate friend of 12 years, Dorothy Freeman, who would eventually scatter her ashes along the coast of Southport Island, where the two had first met.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
– Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In February of 2018, Vanessa Friedman, a self-identified “queer fat femme,” published an essay on Autostraddle dot com about how she “stopped hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017 because of toxic masculinity and bro culture in the hiking community.” She’d made it through 454 miles of the 2,650 she intended to hike and although she acknowledges many side-reasons she quit — missing her friends in Portland, a severe knee injury — she centered how “the long distance hiking community is not a particularly welcoming and special safe space for anyone who is not white, male, able-bodied, straight, cis, and competitive.” She also wrote about how severely men on the trail hated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which happens to be one of a limited number of outdoor narratives by women that achieved commercial success. Vanessa’s piece went wildly viral, attracting the attention of many men who saw themselves in her writing and didn’t much care for it. I was admittedly surprised by all this — by what Vanessa, and other writers her work has led me to, like Carrot Quinn and the Unlikely Hikers, had experienced, by the virulent response it attracted. I’d never framed “the outdoors” in this lens, or considered the existence of an online long distance hiking community.
But the land doesn’t belong to them. Or to us. It belongs to itself first and if we’re talking about the U.S. then this is all land stolen from Indigenous people. Existing out there can’t be territorial, it demands reverence, surrender, gratitude.
I told my grandmother about it as we
were driving from mescalero to albuquerque she knew all about the
plants and the names for all the rockforms mesas or buttes or
ziggurats and I said how do
you know all these she said by long observation and
I used to study geology in college I wanted to major in it
but they wouldn’t allow women
to major in the hard sciences then so she
began to study religion
tho she already had medicine
– from “From Stonewall to Standing Rock,” by Julian Talamantez Brolaski, commissioned by the Academy of American Poets
Representation is old hat around here, but there are always new places to long for it. When Pam Houston wrote, “Sometimes I’m afraid the main reason I spend half of my life outdoors is simply because there aren’t any mirrors,” I felt a sad but important kinship with words I knew I’d never find in a cis man’s book. I understood the importance of seeing yourself in the words you read about a place, of creating new visions instead of trying to stuff yourself into old ones. People of color, fat people, disabled people, queer people, women — we need to see ourselves in these stories, too.
For this issue, LGBTQ women and non-binary people from a wide variety of backgrounds are exploring the idea of going outside and also outside as a way of being – what the natural world lets us get on the other side of, and what we find when we get there. We’ll read pieces about carrying canoes to learn how to carry our loved ones, falling in love with a new friend on the trail so fast and so deeply that you give them half of the food you’re running out of, and who gets to see themselves in the other people in the woods or on the mountaintop and who has to settle for the commiserating nod that marks being the only other one. We’re so excited about the reported pieces this issue has brought us, from the mental health impacts of the outdoors to the life of a community as seen through the lens of long distance biking. Thanks to this issue’s incredible writers and REI, we’re thrilled to bring you a range of voices and experiences on the theme of outsiders that’s an adventure all in itself.
I did not forget
what I was
beneath the cover of the flesh:
five million faggy mountains
slicing through fields full
of dreamed-up tongues and
unnamable bluish grasses
each blade the length
of a universe
stretching inward toward
a singular point
– from Birthday Suits, by J. Jennifer Espinoza
The last story in “Cowboys are My Weakness” is called “In My Next Life.” The book’s titular story wraps men — a certain kind of man — in a blanket so soft and sturdy I had no choice but to honor it. The whole book does that, really. She loves animals and rapids and wide desert but also men, a great deal.
But “In My Next Life” is not about men, it’s about a woman named Abby who she meets at a horse clinic in Utah, and they ride together and climb together and garden and they become friends and then Abby tells her she is sick and will die soon and the narrator takes care of her until she does. By the time the story ends, all in all maybe a year has passed. It opens: “This is a love story. Although Abby and I were never lovers. That’s an odd thing for me to have to say about another woman, because I’ve never had a woman lover, and yet with Abby it would have been possible.”
I read that story over and over and over again. That idea felt like an invasion and an invitation. But it wasn’t a door to another room. I walked through that door, and I had my heart and some words and a sensible backpack, and I was outside. 🌲