I could already feel the blood oozing down my hand just seconds after snapping the dead tree branch off its trunk.
“Perfect,” I thought, breaking up the branch into smaller kindling to start a small cooking fire to make some coffee. “That’s exactly what I need, to be bleeding. Why not.”
It was September, and I was in the wilds of Glacier National Park’s northwest corner at my favorite spot, a place called Bowman Lake. It had taken more than an hour to get there, a drive with views that would impress just about anyone, but I hadn’t seen a thing.
I’d driven in a bit of a panic, as though a pack of wolves sniffed at my heels. The truth wasn’t too far off: My wife at the time had decided to spend the weekend with a new person she was interested in, and our marriage was at a breaking point. I could feel it calving slowly like a glacier, but felt helpless to stop it.
My Jeep was still in summer mode, meaning it had all my camping gear in it, and I had grabbed my dog and my jacket and peeled out of the driveway, trying to get away from pain that lived in my chest. Instinct took me north, to the lake where I felt the smallest. Being at Bowman Lake meant I had control about what happened to me, because if I didn’t start a fire or make food or keep myself warm, I could die. That’s how nature works, and that simplicity called to me.
Sitting on the lakeshore, I could close my eyes and feel the immensity enveloping me. With jagged peaks ripping into the sky above, and forests that haven’t seen an axe in a century wrapped around me, I got a better sense of perspective on myself and a glimpse at the fleeting nature of human presence.
When society’s pressures are too great, it makes sense to find relief in the wild of the outdoors. The towering Ponderosa pines don’t give a shit about how you don’t measure up to societal standards. But I didn’t realize that what had always felt like such a solitary activity was actually part of a greater pattern of queerness existing and thriving here.
And then I found Astrid.
Like most of the good things in my life, discovering Astrid was an accident.
In the wake of a divorce, I’d been trying to figure out which parts of myself were real, and which parts were just manifestations of that relationship. It meant getting back to the very basics of myself, which start in the dirt and sunshine.
As a child of the mountains, I grew up outside. In evenings in the summer, when the heat of the day dissipated but you can still smell it radiating from the dry pine trees around you, my mom would go onto the porch and whistle for her five children to come home for dinner. Family trips, with such a big family, meant going camping and otherwise exploring the free nature around us.
These were some of the happiest times of my life. There was magic in leaving our everyday lives behind; even as a kid, I could tell my parents perked up when we were in our brown 1986 Suburban headed to Georgetown Lake, where there were no phones, no TVs, and none of the daily stresses my parents carried with them as adults. They relaxed on these trips, making the forest and lakes of Montana feel like some of the most comfortable and safest places I’ve slept.
Camping was also the time when I didn’t have to pretend to adhere to all the feminine trappings girls were supposed to like; I could be in shorts and a sweatshirt and run wild, exploring the woods and playing pretend with friends as we ventured further from our campsites.
I thrived outside, and loved all the activities that came with it. I hunted, I fished, I did all of the traditionally masculine things a son would do with his father, but I just happened to be my father’s third daughter. It wasn’t an issue with my dad or his outdoor buddies, but I could feel the difference as I got older, especially when it came time to pee or when I started worrying about what I would do on a weeklong fishing float trip if I had my period.
In the parlance of most white men, the outdoors were something to be conquered. It was a space for men to explore and be manly doing things like cutting down trees and fighting bears and building cabins to live in away from the rest of the world. None of that sounded too terrible to me — minus the bears, I don’t start fights I cannot win — but all of the sentiments carried the implication that this was a man’s realm.
I knew this wasn’t true, though. I knew how my heart felt when I was outside, how I knew I was part of nature and could feel the enormity of its power when I ran barefoot through the woods, that the trees never judged me and they’d seen so much. They didn’t care that I didn’t like to wear dresses or get my hair curled, or that I liked long shorts and hated when I had to wear shorter ones. The deer didn’t care that I loved other women, and they certainly didn’t seem to mind when, in my adulthood, I eventually brought those women to my favorite places among the pines.
But when my marriage faltered, my world shifted. I didn’t know the landscape of my own life, what was solid ground and what was quicksand. I knew I had to find myself or be lost forever, and it was this search that led me to Astrid. I’d taken an interest in the history of women in the outdoors, and a casual Google search for queer women of history in Montana brought up one name: Astrid Hildegarde Arnoldson.
Astrid Arnoldson rolled into my hometown of Missoula, Montana in 1920 as a Swedish immigrant without a husband or children, 65 years before I was born.
She lived in a home her parents built, but she lived there alone, which wasn’t the norm for women in that era. The house was about a block from where I went a private Catholic high school in Missoula and felt as a queerling that I was the only person like me in the world.
What struck me about Astrid was how she chose to live: She would dress like a man, in pants. She was known for wearing jodhpurs, which is a type of pant taken in at the knee usually used for riding horses. So here we’ve got our 1920s single woman, living alone, wearing pants. This was enough to make me feel like I had a kindred spirit, but Astrid was also a mountaineer who loved the wildness of this place.
The best discovery, though, was that she had various lesbian lovers, whom she would take with her to the epic vistas and valleys of Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
Evidence in her scrapbooks and photographs, which are housed in the Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, show that Astrid not only flouted the norms of society in town with her clothing and choices in lovers, but she clearly felt the freedom the outdoors offered her as a queer woman: While in the woods, she would take on a male alter-ego whom she called Bob.
But it wasn’t all playing around in the mountains. Astrid studied at Stanford University, and the University of California-Berkeley where she earned her master’s degree in 1928. She attended and graduated from the University of Montana’s law school in 1933. In one of her graduation photos, she’s wearing a men’s suit and bow tie. By 1943, Astrid had joined the Missoulian newspaper as a full-time reporter. She died of natural causes in her Missoula home 1992, when I was 7 years old and living just a few hillsides away.
I had to sit with all of this information for a day or two before I could even process what I was seeing. Here was my personal doppelganger, wandering a century ago through the very places I love the most, and living a life that was extraordinarily similar to the one I assumed I was hewing from virgin stone. (I may not be a lawyer, but I’ve been a full-time reporter at a Montana newspaper for over a decade, and I’ve earned a Master’s degree from the University of Montana.)
Suddenly, a life that felt isolated in its rural queerness fell into a larger pattern, one that showed me I’m not the only one of my kind. The idea of an historic butch wooing ladies by bringing them to the woods for fun and romance, of her wearing men’s clothing and likely earning a few hard stares for her trouble, of her standing in an alpine meadow in calf-high leather boots appreciating the wonder of nature with her hands in her pockets — the sense of time rippling and folding was almost too much to handle.
Nature is equal opportunity. It does not care if you are rich or poor, if you are straight or gay, cis or trans — if you fall down a mountain, you fall down a mountain. I find solace in the indifference of nature. But we as humans are also part of nature, and despite the social constraints we like to put on one another, we are created exactly as we are meant to be. Nature’s indifference then almost feel like love for who we are, because we exist.
At my loneliest, I’d found a kindred spirit in Astrid. I also found strength in knowing she’d lived like this and still experienced a full life, one which I’m still researching today. (Part of that is understanding her in context, that she was a white settler on Indigenous peoples’ land, as Emily Skidmore of Texas Tech University explores in this 2017 paper.)
Learning about her helped me get a sense of perspective I normally only feel near a lake or on a mountain, one that told me I would end up OK, because I was getting back to the roots of who I was. And that person was someone like Astrid: Brave, smart, handsome, and proud of who she is.
Knowing Astrid had tapped into the same knowledge I’d found in nature and felt comfortable expressing exactly who she was made me feel more connected to this place, less like an anomaly.
That September trip to Bowman Lake ended with a bandage and a wind storm, and soon after, my partner ended our marriage for good. The landslide of my life started, and in the tumbling chaos, I kept returning to the lakes and forests and hillsides I loved, if only to cry privately at the woods or scream at the sky. Neither cared.
The next time I went to Bowman Lake, though, it was after I’d already found out about Astrid, and saw that special place with new eyes. It isn’t a just a gorgeous view or merely a confluence of rivers and glacial influence on the mountain ranges. It is a place I and others like me belonged. It is a sanctuary among the pines. It is home.🌲