Wild, Fat, Queer and Black: How I Became Free In The Mountains And Never Left

a young Black kid with braids and dressed in a plaid dress with a collar looks into the camera with wide open eyes and mouth partway open

Photo credit: Mary and John Martin, 1995

I.
I grew up Black, fat, and girl less than ten miles from Washington, D.C. — a chocolate city infiltrated with whiteness, dirty politics, and money. My mama, the smartest person I ever met ran a homeless shelter and loved to read. Reading had been her ticket out of the projects. She loved words, so I do too. When I was young, my mama and I used to sit — me cuddled between her arms, her brown hands holding Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace and I’d ask her to read it again. In the book, a dark-skinned Black girl named Grace struggles after a classmate tells her she can’t play Peter Pan in the class play because she is Black. Grace’s grandmama shows her otherwise and Grace spends the book playing Peter. Grace taught me that little Black girls could fly and I did. The further I got from little and girl, the less I flew. When my mama died, I stopped flying altogether. Until this summer when I flew to Vermont and never left.

I spent the first three months of isolation shuffling between my bedroom and living room in our 600 square foot apartment tucked in a city adjacent to Boston. We moved there for reasons most millennials move places — community, coffee shops, and train stops. None of those reasons matter when you can’t go to brunch, when you can’t inhale without fearing it’ll be your last. During the days of March, April, and May, I was hyper-productive during the day and spent my nights oscillating between suicide ideations and hail mary prayers to a god I do not believe in.“Hey God. We haven’t talked in a while. Sorry about that. I’ve been busy. How are you? Busy, too? Yeah. Cool, cool. This may seem selfish, but I think I have suffered enough in this body. And death seems a bit excessive right now for me, ya know? Perhaps I could catch a break and just live through this one without more suffering.”

One of the many benefits of being a Black fat queer living with generalized anxiety disorder is that I am really good at imagining and dreaming of what could happen. I am a dreamer in all of the worst and best ways possible. Like “what if I die walking down the stairs?” and also “what if I don’t die? What if this pandemic is the tipping point and Black people get liberated?” Ain’t no better time to dream than in darkness, so when the pandemic hit, I dreamt of all of the bad things that could happen, but I also dreamt of possibilities — new programs for queer youth, rekindling old friendships, new ways of being and doing life that allowed us to take care of ourselves better.

When I dreamt of going to the mountains to write in July, I dreamt like most little white kids dream of ponies, unicorns, and world peace. It, a pipe dream, was mostly just an affirmation of being alive, of wondering “what if” aloud on the internet. The universe called me on my bluff and less than a week later, my friend Dulce-Marie and I had $12K in the bank from our friends, a swanky condo booked in the mountains of Vermont, and our bags packed for 28 nights in a town that I am still not sure was prepared to welcome two Black faces to their community.

II.
The week before we left, Amy Cooper called the police on perhaps the most handsome Black birdwatcher I have ever seen. To be honest, I have not seen any other bird watchers, but I spent two days looking at Christian Cooper and birds so it is true. My partner went to pick up our rental car for the month. She returned with a fully-loaded white Yukon. We named her Karen (pronounced CAR-REN), because she was white, ridiculous, and took up too much space. I have spent my life working on shrinking my Blackness, fatness, queerness in order to fit into the spaces I’ve been given. “You gon’ get over that shit, this summer,” Karen said like she knew me.

shot of the interior of a car from the backseat toward the windshield. two people are visible in the front seats and the person in the driver's seat is turning the steering wheel

Photo credit: shea martin, 2020

Our condo we booked in the mountains was bigger than any place I’ve ever lived. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, two floors, and a fireplace we used just because we could. We filmed a Cribs episode we’ll never send to MTV because it felt like the Blackest, queerest way to say thank you to the universe for giving us more than we needed, but what we have always deserved.

That night, we searched for a writing table on Craigslist. I wanted something big — big enough to hold my dreams. I wanted her to be like I like my lovers — sturdy enough to hold me, new to me, but reliable and old enough to know better. We met a crotchety Trump supporter from Facebook at her consignment shop in a town an hour away. It took three of us to carry the table in pieces to the Yukon. Dulce-Marie named the table Doña because she said that way, we’d remember she was holy at all times— that we would recognize our writing, our creating as queer black queer folk as a reminder of our holiness in a world that says it ain’t so too much of the time.

Dulce-Marie was right. In the first week of our writing retreat, I stood up for myself. I sent a beautiful white woman a numbered list of all the ways she had treated me like trash. It was more than she deserved, but it was more than I had done for myself in a while. I pulled a Karen. “I hope you read this email over and over again,” I told her, demanding that I take up space in her consciousness, my Blackness, queerness, haunting her existence even after I blocked her. Later that night, we sat at Doña and drew a prompt from our bowl. “Write about what you love about yourself.” Doña had no time for my excuses about why I could not be loved. She did not want to hear what society thought about my fatness. She demanded I love my Blackness as whole. She said “being queer is being beyond, baby.” I listened.

I am fat in the ways beyond deemed beautiful. I am Black without reservation, which is to say I am just a bit more radical than most folks would like. I am queer in ways I cannot fully articulate. I am Black woman in all of the wrong ways. Most days I am more boy than woman. Never man though.

Three days later when the white woman replied with a 10-minute long voice message, I deleted it without listening and scheduled an appointment for the pool. I swam to the deep end for the first time and washed her sins off of my body.

The second Tuesday I woke up in the mountains, I put on overalls and a baseball cap before we went grocery shopping in the next state over. I spent my life searching for the perfect outfits to cloak the grotesqueness of my body as if to say “I know, I’m sorry” in cotton and polyester. But on that day, sleeveless and capped — I just was. And the mountains called me beautiful.

photo of a fat, black person in a black tank top, overalls and a cap, looking chill

Photo credit: Jane Martin, 2020

Later that day, I navigated roots and rocks in the woods to meet a waterfall. I won’t exaggerate its majesty. She was small and underwhelming compared to the ones in National Geographic. I don’t think she cares though. I don’t think the waterfall compares herself to other waterfalls. She knows her being is enough. While my friends swam, I sat on boulders, admiring the fall’s audacity, dreaming of days when I would have some to call my own.

The thing about being in the mountains is that basically everything is a mountain. But then you are also mountains. I found out corporations own mountains. If you have ever met a mountain, you know that can’t nobody really own a mountain because they are too majestic, too strong, too beautiful to be tamed, owned, so I guess mountains are kinda like Black folk. White people always trying to own, control us — knowing good and well it can’t ever really work without them creating some systems to make it happen. I think that’s why I get along with mountains so much. I don’t quite understand them, and they don’t understand me. But game recognize game, strength recognize strength.

III.
Have you ever chased a sunset? I did.

On our second to last week, we drove up a mountain right before dusk. The smell of bug shit, figs, and grass hit me as soon as I opened the door. We had been here before — to the gate protecting lands that were stolen centuries before settlers, who looked like my wife, stole a home and left the family’s name above the door. The sign said no parking here. They got some nerve. This is not white folks’ here, so we parked without hesitation. In front of us, sounds I did not want to hear ricocheted off a gravel path sandwiched by trees. I hate nature because I am never prepared for her. No bug spray, no water, no food, and I am always hungry. I know that nature can feed me but I don’t put greens into my body because despite what they say — ain’t no cure for Blackness in this white America.

In the front, Dulce-Marie unbuckled her seat belt and stared me down.

“You ready?” she asked – her question, daring me to prove this mountain fucking wrong about me, about my hate for nature, about my lungs and leg capacity, my will to breathe at the top. Dulce’s people are Maroons from the Dominican Republic – strong and fearless motherfuckers who looked masters in the eye and left when they blinked. She comes from conquerors — people who climbed mountains to freedom and dared them people to make a liar out of the mountain. She, like her ancestors the day they climbed, knew that I would not follow.

Instead, I stayed behind and appreciated my breaths in the air-conditioned Yukon. I counted them – 1, 2, 3, 4. I am still counting.

IV.
I do not know when I decided I would stay. Perhaps it was when I decided I deserved to stay, which I guess came after I decided I deserved to breathe, which came after I decided I deserved to dream.

The next day, my wife learned she would teach remotely in the fall and we started apartment hunting. We started in the North, in a big city with a Target, community, and breweries. We ended up in the South — in an apartment nestled between a river, a lake, and a mountain. In a place with stars that look like airplanes in the night sky. In a town with less people than my high school. I haven’t seen a Black person in weeks, but when I look in the mirror I see the beauty in my own Blackness. In these mountains, I am in community with myself — taking care, uplifting, and loving unconditionally.

I am still adjusting to breathing freely. I am a suburb person who pretends to be a city person. Our apartment in the Boston adjacent city was full of Ivy League’s finest, tech bros, and people who work at startups that sound like energy, but reek of exhaustion. Even at home in a building where we knew almost no one, my community demanded my efficiency, perfection. In the city, the GPS says it’ll take an hour to get to the meeting and when your Uber driver gets you there in 53 minutes, you tip him for making a liar out of Google.

The roads in Vermont do not tell lies. They, as earnest as the mountains and water that interrupt them, demand you honor their existence. I have been taking lessons from them. In the city, we measure miles in time spent, city blocks, tracks on playlists, train stops, and the latest podcast episode. In Vermont, we measure miles in distance, in space that demands we honor all of it so much so that half miles feel like hours. I am learning to appreciate hour miles.

photo of an empty road that curves into the distance. trees with colorful autumn leaves line the road and a handful of grey clouds hang low on the horizon.

Photo credit: shea martin, 2020

The green mountains made space for my Black queer fatness to fly without fear. In Vermont, I don’t have to know a tree’s name to know that it is beautiful. I don’t have to know my name either to know that I am beautiful. The thing about mountains, waterfalls, and lakes is that they give without demanding anything in return. They do not ask me for labor. They do not need my help unpacking who they are. They only ask that I do as little harm as possible. We, separate beings, just exist together in concert. I am not the largest being here. Nor am I the loudest, darkest, or most necessary. Here, in my Blackness, I needn’t perform for the skies and earth. In these mountains, my Blackness breathes. My fatness breathes. My queerness breathes. Most evenings, I hide out in the open on the top of mountains or on the side of lakes where signals can’t reach, where insects and animals outnumber people and responsibility. Most days I write without wearing pants. If that ain’t a dream come true, I don’t know what is.

It has been three months since I never left. I am still flying, still dreaming, still breathing. I still don’t like bugs. I am still afraid of snakes. I have recently discovered that bears like to visit the houses of humans, which I assume is payback for Goldilocks and white folks stealing the land. I spend my days thinking about how I might befriend a bear if it decides to visit. How I can tell them that I like bears — teddy grams, stuffed, bearded. How I am mad about the theft too. How I just want them to be happy. How I hope my breathing here does not prevent theirs. How I just want us to be happy and alive forever.

V.
If a queer, fat, Black person breathes in the woods and nobody hears it, do they make a sound? It’s a trick question. The queer, fat, Black person needs no one’s permission or affirmation but their own.

the author, a fat, Black person leans against the rail on the side of a mountain-side road beside a canyon. they're wearing a red hoodie with the hood up and sunglasses, and their shirt reads "I'm rooting for everyone Black & trans"

Photo credit: Jane Martin, 2020

shea martin (they/them/theirs) is a brilliant, queer, gender-expansive writer raised at the intersection of gospel and go-go (shout out to the DMV). With southern roots and Black queer magic, shea writes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry that smells like your grandmama’s kitchen and sounds like a deep blues moan. Find them dreaming on Twitter.

shea has written 3 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. “The thing about mountains, waterfalls, and lakes is that they give without demanding anything in return.”

    yes!!!

    the woods and are where i feel completely accepted, where i don’t have to “fit in”

    thank for for your beautiful writing – may the weather favor your explorations

  2. love love love this especially:

    “The thing about being in the mountains is that basically everything is a mountain. But then you are also mountains. I found out corporations own mountains. If you have ever met a mountain, you know that can’t nobody really own a mountain because they are too majestic, too strong, too beautiful to be tamed, owned, so I guess mountains are kinda like Black folk. White people always trying to own, control us — knowing good and well it can’t ever really work without them creating some systems to make it happen. I think that’s why I get along with mountains so much. I don’t quite understand them, and they don’t understand me. But game recognize game, strength recognize strength.”

    im so happy youre breathing (i wanna learn to breathe too), i hope each breath is deeper and fuller than the last <3

  3. I don’t get into the mountains as much I used to—as much as I want to—but I find my own little wildness every day in my garden.

    I’m never more my Queer Bad Self than when there’s DIRT under my nails!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!