Article contributed by Josie who is a nature enthusiast, artist, and trans woman. While navigating the first year of her transition, she used her experiences on trail to encourage others to find their peace in nature amidst the anxieties of a pandemic. When not exploring the wild, she can be found using her platforms to expand awareness and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in outdoor spaces.
There lies a place beyond many horizons, hills, and hiking tales. A place where the silence sings forth an unforeseen joy. A place where solitude sends forth a blissful beauty. A place where the toil births clarity for all that lies behind and below. So far down the trail and into the wild, I’ll depart the dust of miles past to the will of the winds.
These were the words I penned just over a year ago when I was trying to find their - no - my meaning. They sat unspoken and uncompleted as words without a voice or an ear to hear. I knew an adventure had to be taken. A trek of the mind and will to discover the opening chapters of a burgeoning reality.
That reality, as I’ve discovered has been building up like the slow rise of majestic mountains from tumultuous tectonic shifts. That reality is that I’ve finally embraced myself as a trans woman, and I’m continually discovering what that means through all the wisdom and tranquility that nature has to offer.
With that bombshell out of the way, before we trek too far down the current trans trails, let’s rewind a bit and discuss what brought me to any trails to begin with. I had always questioned my gender identity, but coming from a very conservative family, I buried those ideas like a squirrel burying acorns. My struggling female identity mostly laid hidden in shadow amidst countless cycles of tossing out my amassed “girl clothes” while reasserting my fictional masculinity with cycling feats, marathons, and triathlon races.
However, somewhere back in 2017, I finally reached my limit with a high-pressure career and trying to be the “man” that my girlfriend and everyone else expected me to be. Emotionally parched, I thirsted a break from reality, and the calling mountains of Northern California offered me a soul-quenching drink.
So much excitement and so much naïveté enriched my lofty goals and planning for that trip. Somehow, without any mountain experience, I reasoned that this girl from the sprawling midwestern cornfields of Ohio could use her years of marathons and triathlons to conquer a week of wilderness hikes through Shasta-Trinity, culminating in a three-day solo summit of magnificent Mt. Shasta itself.
Somehow, I reasoned too that I could maybe, just maybe, allow myself to be “Josie” for a stint, since, after all, I would be in the wilderness with little else than the trees or a possible bear to judge me. Off I went, as green as a forest with a weighty pack stretching the seams with granola bars, survival gear, and a “healthy” serving of raw, suppressed emotions.
After landing in San Fran, taking the BART train to Oakland, picking up my rental car, and somehow not going postal from a new level of highway traffic insanity I wasn’t used to back home, I realized that even the journey to my spot in the wild was an adventure in itself. I mean, I checked off all the boxes on the colloquial “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, so how could it not be?
But as much as I’m always up for adventure and exploration of all kinds, this last bit of urban excursion served as yet one more final example of why people were meant to be in nature, and it made me yearn for my campsite all that much more.
As I drove north and inched closer and closer to Shasta, I couldn’t decide whether I was more excited to solo trek the wilderness or to stop in Redding to restock some female clothing in a place where nobody knew who this buried Ohio trans girl was. As Shasta eventually appeared on the horizon my anticipation grew, and I wasn’t sure if it was really excitement or fear on the latter. Upon arriving in Redding, I realized it was both.
Just for context, let me tell you. I’ve commenced some crazy feats in my life, but nothing ranks up there on the terrifying scale like appearing as the gross dude you don’t want to be and shopping for clothes in the ladies department. Irrational or not, you feel every eye peering in judgment to your core, and, especially with a towering male build, you feel like every woman is concerned about your presence. That weighs heavier than a mountain newbie’s overstuffed pack when all you want is to be in the “female club” with them.
Despite the nerves and cringeworthy concerns, I forced myself to climb that mountain and bought as much cuteness as I thought could reasonably fit in my camping bags. With a bit of shopping behind me, I figured the forthcoming backcountry excursions would be a breeze.
For any of you avid backpackers and mountaineers out there, I’m sure you’re laughing at that level of naïveté. Don’t worry, because I’m laughing with you. For the better part of a week, I quickly realized two things. Firstly, I had no idea what I was doing. Secondly, I had no idea what I was doing. In both cases, it was a debate of self-discovery about what I could achieve in the mountains and what I could comfortably achieve trying and failing to present as female.
By the time the week was through and my legs had recovered from a few hikes around the National Forest and nearby Mt. Eddy, my lofty goal of a 3-day excursion to the top of Mt. Shasta came crashing down like an avalanche. However, with one more day left on my permit, I was determined to make the most of it. I spent a solid 8 hours hiking around and up Mt. Shasta in complete female attire without seeing another soul.
Though absolutely arduous, every step forward and upward on the Clear Creek route felt like a new realization of beauty within and around me. It was as if each passing moment offered a new and grander vista, both through the Red Firs and Sugar Pines as well as into my soul. Eventually, somewhere around 9,000 ft., fatigue and altitude finally left me dazedly unsteady, and I knew I had reached my limit. With one last appreciative gaze into the distance I took in a final deep breath of the good thin air, and I began my descent.
Though still in love with every moment on the mountain, a melancholy cloud now hung thick in the air. I was descending from Shasta, but I would be descending from elation and back to reality on my flight home the next morning. I had finally found myself and my love of wild, solitary serenity, and now, it pained me to depart.
Life back home went about as well as expected. I dumped my cute clothes, grit my teeth, and mustered every ounce of effort to be the man everyone expected me to be. As best as I tried to keep things together in a tidy cisgender box, life was anything but cooperative. Stress on the job ground into me, gender dysphoria harassed my emotions, and the emotional distance between my girlfriend and I seemed about as far off as Mt. Shasta.
Feeling trapped and hopeless, I increasingly let alcohol numb the nightly depression, and my weight went north as my health went south. I could capably function, but I kept tumbling down like a bad day on Everest. By the time my relationship ended and I found a new job, my former physical fitness had floated off on the winds as a morning mountain mist.
Sometime after about 9 months in a better career and lacking the stresses of a relationship, I had yet to start treating myself well. I didn’t know why, but I kept “coping” with something and abusing the bottle. Then one evening as I sat watching the Pacific Crest Trail film “Only the Essential”, I realized something had to change.
About halfway into a bottle of tequila, I saw Mt. Shasta on the screen, and every memory of peace and tranquility from within and around me came back to consciousness. I yearned to be back in the wild and I yearned to be “Josie”, but there I was sitting half-passed out and letting time escape while I watched others live in the amazing moments only nature can offer.
At that moment just over a year ago, I realized I was a trans woman. With that clarity, I finally saw myself for who I was, and though a long trek lied ahead to reclaim my health before transitioning, I was determined it would eventually happen.
So off I went for the next 6 months, slowly adjusting to a mixed drink of mediocre wilderness and limited sobriety. As a highly introspective person, that mediocrity increasingly irritated me. I was at once both equally disgusted by not appearing as the woman I felt like inside as well as the fact that I had made no serious effort to change that predicament. That disgust morphed into deep depression, and finally, I decided I’d “go big or go home”, and aimed for a half-marathon hike despite being so out of shape and woefully underprepared.
The way I figured it, if worse came to worst, I’d die alone amongst the trees in the Ohio January cold and I would be happier anyways.
Somehow, through snow, ice, and single-digit windchills, I made it, alive and hobbling on the other side. With that feat in the books, I knew I had found myself and that my hiking legs could take me far both on the trails and toward my transition.
Given my surprising success so early in the year, I dreamed of an August return to Shasta to conquer some unfinished business. However, as we’re all aware by now, 2020 has marred the “best-laid plans of mice and men” in so many ways.
Despite, and, ultimately, because of the pandemic, my trail passion became more obsessive just to extract any ounce of tranquility I could find. That obsession quickly became a lifestyle, and as the months wore on and the days waxed longer, my trail mileage and health rapidly began to improve. The more I hiked, the more nature spoke to my soul as it did back on Shasta, and between countless footsteps and “gender swap” filter selfies on the trail, I started to see and feel the woman I was about to become (and always was).
By June I was finally feeling healthy enough and I set off from the trailhead called “hormone therapy” as part of my transition. To say it’s been an interesting journey these past two months is as understated as capturing the experience of the wilderness in words alone. It’s an odd state to experience on such an early adventure.
On one hand, I find myself celebrating every minor physical change. On the other hand, I lament every part of me that is still understandably gendered male by others on trail. I often find myself in a back-and-forth emotional state between feeling so feminine one mile, to feeling awkward in my newfound “girl power” the next, knowing I’ve enjoyed some form of male privilege my entire life.
I’m not sure how to grapple with that male privilege, especially since I never felt right as a male, but for better or worse, those experiences of living as a guy express real parts of my story. Obviously, at this point, I understand so very little of what it means to be a woman, on the trail or otherwise, but so much of my story waits to be written. I can’t wait to fill in the chapters of that trail journal.
Thoreau put it best in Walden when he penned, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I can’t tell you where this transition journey will take me, but I can tell you I’ll find my place in the woods. That said, as with all great endeavors, the destination means so little compared to the adventure itself. The reality of life is that we are all on our own long-distance hikes of sorts. Occasionally, we may find ourselves lost, and we may likely find ourselves fatigued, but we may also revel in the curious beauty that lies ahead and amongst us.
So here’s to the adventure, and here’s to positive changes. May we all find our place, our passions, and our love for life down the trail as we hike toward the horizon.