IT WAS STILL WINTER in Montana when we crunched together through icy snow, its powder packed down by couples and families, solo walkers and bands of teenagers. This was a popular trail, flat and beautiful and only a couple of miles outside of town. Usually we would meet crowds of other hikers, but on that day, perhaps because of the late hour or the flurries of gentle snow, we were alone.
In my flimsy sheepskin boots, I was underprepared for the hike and slushy weather. The boots’ soles were soft, and I could feel myself slip a little with each step. I already felt off balance: beside me, Allie walked with her hands in her pockets. The snow and the gray-layered sky held us in; they made for us a small, intimate space, and we moved through it as we walked through the sparse forest of Douglas fir and bare tamaracks. The trail dipped close to a stream. To our left, a wall of gray-green basalt rose up. I could see the veins of the rock angling down and, where the stream echoed off the wall, I thought, There is another, secret stream deep within the stone, rushing and crashing through its own dark crevice.
Allie pushed her sandy brown hair from her forehead. In the time I’d known her, she had worn her hair in a low ponytail, with a wisp tucked behind each ear, framing a face that was chipper and earnest, playful and concerned. I found that I loved to talk to her about the world, our families, our days. When someone else would have become angry or annoyed—Her tennis shoes were full of snow! My boots were soaked, and my socks dyed my feet purple!—she’d laugh.
I stopped walking when she veered off the trail and up a snowbank.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Come on!” she said, tromping up to a tree with puzzle-piece bark. I watched as she placed her hands on either side of the trunk and leaned in, as if into the body of a lover. She pressed her face to the cobbled bark, then arched her back and peered up into the tall branches.
“What are you doing?” I asked again.
“Smell it,” she said.
I followed her footprints up the bank, trying not to slip. She stood next to the trunk smiling, almost laughing. Her nose was red from the cold, her eyes blue against her pale face. I pressed my own face to the bark and smelled vanilla, rough and sweet. Even though the air stung, I inhaled again. Her face was close to mine. Suddenly, I thought of kissing her. I was surprised and embarrassed by this new thought, but there it was, and it stayed with me. I could feel the heat of her body near mine, her hair against my cheek. I kept my nose to the trunk and breathed.
I was always a tomboy. My first childhood kiss was with my best friend, Grace. We were under the assumption that it was physically impossible for two girls to kiss. We had never seen it done before. Maybe girl lips just didn’t fit together in the same way, we wondered. Or perhaps they repelled like wrong-sided magnets.
One day, when we were about eight years old, we decided to try it out. When we successfully pecked each other on the lips, we proudly demonstrated the kiss to our parents: “Look, Mom! Muah! It is possible!” I don’t remember what happened after that. Were our fathers alarmed? Did our mothers scold us? Did our brothers run away shrieking?
Someone must have said something because we never did it again.
I learned about homophobia with Grace as well. Her mother, a home nurse at the time, was working for a gay couple, one of whom had AIDS. Grace must have overheard her parents talking about these men, or maybe her mother whispered to her over dinner the horrifying possibility: two men, together, gay. The next day, Grace made up a new term with which to mock our brothers: gaylord. We sang it out to them; we shouted it spitefully. We taunted “Gaylord! Gaylord! Gaylord!” until my mother made us stop. We did not really know what “gay” meant or why it was supposed to be so bad. Our parents did not explicitly teach us to hate, but doubt and fear was in the air we breathed.
Later in my life, my mom confessed that she had always worried that I was gay. “It’s not bad or anything,” she said. “It is just such a hard life. I didn’t want that for you.”
But there was nothing hard about being with Allie. When we were together, she made me feel safe and confident. Before she and I met, Allie worked for three years as a backcountry ranger in the eastern Sierras. During the season, she camped by herself near a lake. She kept her food in a large barrel, half-buried in the ground to deter black bears. During the day she would walk the trails, answer hikers’ questions, and make sure they were obeying the wilderness rules: no cutting down trees, no camping within a hundred feet of a lake or meadow, and no shortcutting trails.
In those years, Allie developed an ease with the chores and patterns of living outside society: making potable water, keeping food away from animals, dealing with weather, navigating unknown terrain. As a novice yet enthusiastic backpacker, this was all quite attractive to me. What was most attractive, though, was her deep love for the wilderness. She lit up in the mountains; she filled with wonder in the forest; she came alive among the lichen-speckled boulders. Whenever we passed into a designated wilderness area, she would kiss the sign. Wilderness for her was more than just a land-management label; it was a place of deep spiritual encounter.
After I moved some furniture around in my mind (“Really, I can kiss women?!”) and Allie and I began dating, I noticed how defined my gender conditioning was. I saw it in subtle physical exchanges, such as waiting for Allie to take my hand in hers, or how I sought to make my body smaller, to fit myself into her embrace.
Looking back on my relationships with men, I noticed that I was gentler with their feelings. I would defer to their preferences. “No, dear,” I would say, “what would you like to do tonight?” Often, instead of being clear about what I wanted or needed, I would take my cues from them.
In some ways, being in a homosexual relationship was like being in the wilderness. I have been a student of heterosexual relationships all my life, witnessing my parents and my grandparents. I saw models of those relationships on TV, in movies, in books. But I had no clear rules about how to interact with someone in a homosexual relationship, and within this blank space—this wild space—Allie and I created our own ways of interacting. We did not replicate male/female relationships in a butch/femme dynamic. Instead, we played around with gender. We led and followed. We found delight in the in-between.
One day, during the winter we met, I stood in line with Allie at our university’s ski-gear rental shop, giving my height and weight. When the student-worker went to pick out the right cross-country skis for me, Allie laughed.
“I’m bigger than you!” she remarked.
“No, you’re not!” I said, looking her up and down. We were both of the same slight build.
“Yes, look,” she said, and walked up behind me to compare our boots. We were not dating yet and her closeness felt electric, unsettling. “I’m a size bigger.”
I realized it might be true. She definitely had more muscle, which became apparent when we began our ski across the icy, late-season snow at Lolo Pass. She zoomed ahead, all confidence and grace.
When we stopped for lunch, Allie sliced cheese and then apples with her camping knife, assembling little sandwiches all along her thigh.
“My hands are cold,” I said, hoping she would hold them. Hoping that she would make a little cave with her own hands and blow life and feeling into my numb fingers. Instead, she offered me her gloves.
Allie and I fell in the wilderness, in that space away from culture that wild places provide. Here in the US, we are told that when we venture into the wilderness, we may discover our truest selves. And I have felt that happen during my time in the woods, valleys, and mountains of Montana. I have felt the wilderness seep into me, work its way into my consciousness. In those moments, I like to think there is a kind of harmony available to us humans, a window into a way to live deeply within our ecosystems. I like to think it is still possible to let mountains fill our eyes, for our bodies to be carved by the steps we take over glacier lines. I like to think that if I just pay enough attention—if I am humble enough, open enough—that that union is possible.
In a way, despite its physical dangers, wilderness also suggests a safe space, a free space, a space of endless possibility. In the wilderness, no one cares who I’m kissing.
I remember standing in a forest of tamarack in early spring, near Siyeh Glacier in western Montana. High in the branches, clutches of needles sprouted the color of parakeets. The grove was old, so old that the trees grew giant and mossy. They had lived in this valley for over 150 years. I leaned against a stump where Allie sat. No one was looking at my body or at Allie’s body. No one was wondering what we were doing holding hands, our fingers interlaced. There was no need for words like lesbian or queer or bisexual. There was no need for any label at all.
Siyeh Glacier is on land that’s thought of as wild: a place in which traces of human civilization are hard to find. The glacier itself once covered more than fifty acres, and it’s been frozen for millennia. But when we finally crested the pass and looped around to the north side of the mountain, we found only a field of dirty snow, dripping into a little stream. Climate change had melted the ice that had been here for thousands of years. It was a reminder that, while we felt free on that mountain, there can be no complete escape from where we come from. Not even in wilderness, not even with Allie.
Like our carbon pollution, we bring parts of our culture everywhere we go. Matthew Shepard, Gwen Araujo, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida—all the stories I hear about queer people are violent and sad. And while I know that there are many queer families living happily in communities around the country, I find that, more often, I carry the violence with me—as fear, as self-hate, as distrust. I carry it even to the tops of melted glaciers.
Maybe that is what the wilderness has taught me, continues to teach me: that while the violent and polluting parts of our culture are inescapable, they don’t define me. We are all part of a grander ecosystem, an interconnected natural world that is larger than our civilization and its discontents. We are both bigger and smaller than the identities that we create for ourselves, and when we want to get distance from them, we can go out into those areas we call wilderness and find ourselves, once again, as human animals. Maybe something similar happens when we glimpse the night sky over Honolulu, or when we hear the wind through forests of Japanese bamboo. Maybe something similar happens when we traverse Nicaraguan rivers, or stretch out under blue suburban skies.
I know Allie and I felt most like ourselves in late summer, when Montana’s hillsides were covered in red and yellow Indian paintbrush, white poofs of bear grass, and sprigs of purple lupine. We climbed the rocky, switchbacking trail to Sapphire Lake, a dot of clear water in the craggy pocket of a mountain. In the distance, a creek sounded. We held in our backpacks and in our bodies a culture that was ours. We breathed in the changing climate. But Allie still ran her fingers over the fuzzy petals of paintbrush, as if it could mark her hand with that dusty red.