We arrived at AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut after a long, steep climb. Warm tea and rest waited inside, but we pushed onward, to watch the sun set over the White Mountains’ 360-degree views.
I marveled at the light turning the alpine leaves aglow. The day’s hike had been grueling, with rock scrambles difficult for kid-sized legs, but I was thrilled. A whole world was up here, one I’d never known. What else was I missing out on? As the sun dipped behind a peak and thru-hikers made camp below us, I vowed to hike the Appalachian Trail myself one day.
That hut trip was one of only a handful from my childhood. Living in suburban Boston, my family weren’t diehard outdoor people. I was comfortable in nature from summer camp, but I figured I would acquire trail skills later, perhaps in college.
Then, when I was 15, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were murdered in Shenandoah National Park, a quarter mile from the AT. I stared at a clipping tacked to a school billboard, fear pricking the back of my neck.
Although I wasn’t out yet, I was a lesbian, like the murdered women. The crime shook me. In my AT daydreams, I’d brushed aside the obvious physical dangers of a thru-hike in favor of romanticism and youthful invincibility, but now I worried the trail wasn’t safe for me. How could it be, when these two women were found naked, their throats slit, the day Williams was to start a new job?
That hate crime led me to hang up my hiking boots. I occasionally trekked into the mountains as an adult, but the wonder was gone. In nature, as in the city, I constantly scanned for threats. Over the years, as the particulars of the brutal event receded in my memory, my body held on to all that conditioning.
Then a breakthrough pushed me to trade city living for the country. A five-week honeymoon in Southeast Asia helped my wife and I realize we wanted greater organic physical activity in our lives—in other words, not at the gym. When we moved from Boston to the Hudson Valley, day hikes together became chances for us to slow down, to reconnect with nature and one another. I grew less mindful of the risks and stopped to notice the rewards: wild blueberries, velvety black trumpet flowers, soaring falcons.
A new friend referred us to a queer hiking group that meets monthly, attracting anywhere from four to 20 hikers and four-legged friends for treks in the Catskills and Hudson Highlands. While some members are hardcore backpackers, it’s not about bagging peaks. We don’t have any gay bars—traditional safe spaces for LGBTQs—where we live, so this group gives us a way to swap stories and forge friendships. And it has helped me shift perspectives, too, turning that old fear to equanimity.
Our group—women, non-binary, and trans—stands out from hikers we pass. It’s powerful to reclaim a little of the space I had avoided. To show others we’re here. To cut the path for more young women to follow their dreams, on- and off-trail.
That power, and the wonder I’ve found in the woods, has nurtured the seeds of my old dream. I’ve added that thru-hike back on my list.