Coming Out in the Outdoors

In the fall of 2015, I snapped. I was working 20 hours per week at a restaurant to supplement the low pay from my fulltime nonprofit job. I’d just finished my busiest shift of the year thanks to a nearby street fair. Finally, with the clock approaching midnight, I clocked out and checked my phone for the first time in hours…and saw that I’d been dumped via text.  I was supposed to run a half marathon the next day – my usual coping mechanism and a form of disordered self-punishment – but I said “screw it.” I rented a car and drove from Boston to the White Mountains of New Hampshire by myself to hike the Franconia Ridge trail instead.

Growing up, and especially after moving to New England for university, I’d always longed to hike the beautiful vistas surrounding me. But for equally as long, I’d surrendered to the voices in my head telling me all the reasons I couldn’t– I wasn’t strong enough, fit enough, smart enough, tough enough. Not coincidentally, many of these voices telling me I couldn’t be a hiker were the same ones that had fueled my eating disorder for the previous ten years. So to say it was a “big deal” that I drove to New Hampshire to a hike a trail I’d desired for years is an understatement.

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Pulling off I-93 in the Notch, a route I would later drive so many times it became second nature, I stared at the mountains to my right. Looming above the highway, their red and yellow foliage-speckled peaks contrasted the bright blue autumn sky. For a brief moment, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. But as I began climbing, the voices faded away, replaced by nothing but the crunch of leaves underfoot and the steady beat of my heart. Before I realized it, I broke treeline on the first summit. The trail stretched before me, tracing the entire ridgeline, and I was awestruck. It was the start of a love affair that would profoundly change my life.

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Hiking over the next two years shifted the focus from how my body looked to what it could accomplish. As opposed to running, which was dictated by quantifiable speed and numbers (yes, including weight), hiking was not something in which I could compete. For the first time, I was able to move my body in a way that wasn’t laser-focused on achieving a superficial goal. I simply wanted to reach the summit and I needed nourishment to do that.

Exploring what my body could achieve encouraged me to challenge myself in another equally important way: to embrace something I had been, to that point, unable to accept. The year before I started hiking, I began the complicated process of coming out. By the time I hiked Franconia Ridge in fall 2015, I knew I was “not-straight” and had begun discussing my sexuality with a few close friends, but I still found it challenging to explain and accept exactly what and who I was.

Lesbian authors have discussed the relationship between queerness and eating disorders. When your body (or its desires) deviates outside the norms of sexuality and gender, some people develop eating disorders in response. And while understanding the origin of an eating disorder is rarely as clear-cut as cause and effect, discomfort with my sexuality was definitely a factor in mine. I struggled with the idea that I was supposed to be straight and thought that maybe if my body “looked straight” – in other words thin, conventionally attractive, catering to the male gaze – then maybe I could have a successful hetero relationship and quell my queer desires.

Hiking alone provided me time to reflect and forced me to re-evaluate the negative beliefs I held about myself and my sexuality—beliefs informed by a decade living with an eating disorder. Confronting my fears on the trail and transforming them into strengths afforded me confidence that soon extended to other areas of my life. Perhaps, I realized, the other narratives I believed about myself were also untrue. The first time I said the phrase, “I’m gay” aloud was on a solo hike. I’d spent most of the day’s hike thinking about a girl I had a crush on and analyzing previous relationships. Sitting on a rock on an empty ledge, I watched the fog roll across the valley as I ate my granola bar. “I’m gay.” Again, I was awestruck.

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In June of this year, I completed my 37th peak of the NH48, the 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire, shortly before moving home to California. Climbing the mountain’s steep rock ledges, still slick from the previous night’s rain, I felt none of the doubt or anxiety I’d felt on my first hike. The trail was difficult, but I knew my body was adept and I was prepared to confront the challenges, including turning back if needed. As I reached the first outlook, a rainbow spread across the notch. It was Pride weekend, and though I was sad to miss the celebrations, this was exactly where I belonged.

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It’s hard to separate my coming out from my recovery from my hiking. Hiking helped me recover from my eating disorder; it also helped me recognize and embrace my identity as a lesbian. I realized that if my body didn’t have to look a certain way, then maybe I didn’t have to be attracted to certain people either (men. I’m talking about men). As I became more comfortable with my sexuality, I also found myself suffering less from disordered thoughts and behaviors. Hiking helped me embrace who I am, from how I look to who I love. Today, I know I belong on those mountain summits just as much as I belong in the gay bar. Preferably with a cute girl next to me for both – in matching flannel, of course.