Thru-Hiking the Great Divide Trail & Some Queer Feelings
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
This summer, I'm attempting a thru-hike of the Great Divide Trail.
It's an 1130 km hike following the continental divide of the Canadian Rockies, from the US border at Waterton Lakes National Park to Kakwa lake, which is roughly the same latitude as Prince George.
The idea came to me years ago when I was living in Toronto. Missing the mountains of my beloved West Coast and feeling disconnected and stressed out in my Toronto life, I took to the internet and discovered thru-hiking. There were all these people taking off from their lives, strapping on tiny backpacks and walking thousands of kilometres in trail runners, getting foot-rot, and gorging themselves on burgers in trail towns. I was enamoured!
I knew I was less interested in the Big American thru-hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail in part because of the crowds. And so I found my way to the Great Divide Trail Association website, which describes the GDT as “one of the most spectacular and challenging long‐distance trails on the planet,” and “not officially signed and not always even an actual trail, sometimes merely a wilderness route.” So again I was Totally. Taken.
I grew up in an outdoorsy family, with a whitewater river guide dad and a mountaineer mom but, like many queers, spent my formative years immersed in an urban queer community searching for some kind of idealized belonging. I had to spend over a decade disowning the joy of outdoors recreation I’d learned from my family in order to come back around to it. And when I did, I came back with a vengeance. I quit my job in Toronto, bought a bunch of hiking gear, and took off into the mountains.
I knew I wasn’t experienced enough to hike the GDT yet, so that summer, I hiked a 14-day section of it to dip my toes in. I discovered that yes, this trail is mind-bogglingly beautiful and no, I had no idea what I was doing.
I understood that I needed to save pack weight, so brought a bivi sack of questionable waterproofness instead of a tent (I later discovered that the old bivi I was using was heavier than many tents). I carried a gigantic synthetic sleeping bag which was not warm enough. I lost a load of weight (not a good thing, people) because I packed all the wrong foods and was cold all the time, and I was wearing 8-year-old cheap raingear which might as well have been cotton for all it protected me from that freezing early-September weather.
But my signature combination of enthusiasm and mistake-making helped me learn, and enduring the extreme discomfort of that poorly-designed trip made me more confident. I became a better hiker, and so, armed with smarter gear choices, but facing the end of the northern hemisphere hiking season, I took off on my first real thru-hike in New Zealand.
I got a working-holiday visa and started a thru-hike of the South Island of New Zealand on the Te Araroa Trail. That was a mind-blowing trip, with enough adventures and misadventures to fill a whole other blog, so I won’t get into it here. But it changed my life in a big way.
Life was simple: wake, eat, walk, eat, find a place to sleep. Repeat. There was time for all the crazy thoughts in my mind to find their place. I found unimaginable gratitude in a warm shower, a jug of chocolate milk. I was immersed in beauty day after day. I slept under constellations I’d never seen, and woke to the call of strange, melodic birds. My body hurt like hell, then got stronger, and my shoes filled with holes. I learned what it was like to feel less like an anxious human and more like a wild animal, and it is a feeling I’ve been trying to get back to ever since.
Most people who go on thru-hikes talk about these same feelings: the simplicity and beauty of trail life, and the longing to return. Another staple of the thru-hiking narrative is the “trail family” – this magical community you meet and hike with along the way. And while I met wonderful people on the trail who I hiked with for some time, I never quite had that experience, because without really realizing it, I was keeping people at an arm's length.
You see, I’m trans, and my default when I’m in unfamiliar situations with strangers is to not bring it up. I don’t love the idea of being asked a bunch of really uncomfortable, personal questions or facing hostility when I’m stuck in the backcountry with a bunch of randos. I also just never see people who look like me out on the trail, so it’s hard not to feel like an anomaly. It can be a lonely and isolating experience, and so, because I mostly pass as a queer or butch woman, I usually let people continue to believe that.
It works well enough for shorter encounters, but when you start hanging out with people for a few days, the misgendering can really get to you. Also, talking about yourselves becomes inescapable and so, before I realized it, I was referring to myself as a woman to avoid rocking the boat. And, when the topic of trans people did come up (and for some reason, it did keep on coming up), I found myself relaying my own experiences in the third person. And that is how I spent an entire thru-hike in the closet. And it sucked.
I met some really amazing people along the way. People who might have been totally cool if I had just gone ahead and let them know from the get-go. But hiding and fear have a way of building upon each-other, and so the longer I was in, the more impossible it felt to come out. So there I stayed: Having the most incredible experience of my life, but living a weird disingenuous double-life. It was a discordant experience that left me wanting more from the outdoors community, and longing for a queer outdoors community where I could feel at home.
Anyway, that was three years ago, and I’ve been working, saving and scheming ever since to get back on the trail. I’ve also since gone on a low-dose of testosterone, which has been a wonderful, if baffling, alchemical adventure. So far it’s manifested mostly in an adorably croaky voice, hella acne, and a little downy set of sideburns. I’m excited to continue this transition on the trail. I like the idea of being further from mirrors, and closer to how my body actually feels. I want to see how my muscles and heart respond to the effort. I think that nature can hold all of our grey areas, our contradictions, our changing selves. But I wonder if the people I meet on the trail can as well, because this time I’m less able, and also less willing, to be in the closet.