It took me an hour to walk a mile… and that’s okay.

I have a lot to unpack right now. I spent a couple of days at a lovely retreat center with One River Foundation. Then I did something a little different and set out for a personal retreat: an embodied experience to follow up the spiritual and intellectual pursuits of the weekend. I went for a solo hike at South Cumberland State Park, in the Savage Gulf area.

This was an absurd undertaking.

Rather than taking the safe bet of camping at the entrance to the park and exploring inwards during the day, I set my sights on a cabin several miles in, planned the time between the Healing Circle at Sewanee and sunset as driving/hiking time to arrive at my destination.

I snapped pictures of several signs along the way, to remind myself I was making progress. “It is only 6.3 more miles now that I’m on this trail!” “It’s only 5.9 miles now!” “Down to 3.4!”

There are certain things about solo hiking that appeal to me: I can take whatever breaks I need whenever I need them. There’s no one to laugh at me when I stop to hug every tree. EVERY TREE. I can spend twenty minutes trying to line up a good picture of a single spiderweb, and no one is shuffling their feet trying to hurry me. I can – for no reason at all – start chanting a comforting mantra as I walk, and no one is around to hear me.

The downside to solo hiking is mostly having no one to help in an emergency and being more vulnerable to attack from strangers. I realize that for some people “being lonely” could be added to that list, but I’m very busy hugging trees and never quite succumb to loneliness in the woods. I’m sure long backpacking trips could be different, but that’s not something I’ve experienced yet.

The first strangers I encountered on the path expressed surprise when I mentioned I was headed all the way to Hobbs cabin and inquired as to how much water I was carrying, informing me that the trail was quite dry. I did a bit of math and assured them I was all right, that most of my pack was water. This was a slight exaggeration as “most” of my pack was probably my puffy blanket, but I did have a hydration bladder, several bottles, and a handful of canned drinks. I didn’t think I was going to dehydrate any time soon.

The first few miles were actually pretty great. My mind had a lot to do, still processing concepts like “non-dual” and my personal reactions to the mix of Christian imagery and Buddhist imagery in the same space. Once I was done thinking, there were some great views to be had. At one point, when I emerged into a gap between trees, I looked up into the sky and realized the clouds were hanging there suspended, moving not at all (or more likely, too slowly to be noticed by me.)

There were plenty of bluff views, as well, and most of those will probably eventually show up on my Instagram over at Hil Hoover. Along with more spiderweb pictures, of course!

Then I hit a point where my fitbit was telling me I should have already arrived at my destination – in terms of distance – and I had to confront the fact that without GPS, it just wasn’t the best distance tracker. I stumbled and fell, smacking my knee pretty hard against a rock. My ASICS trail runners were still not causing me any blisters – thankfully! – but I was incredibly worn out, and starting to believe that going on a long hike after a morning of seminars was a bit much for one day.

I kept looking around and wondering if I had somehow managed to miss a whole campground – with a cabin on it no less! – and whether I ought to go back a little ways to make sure. But it seemed utterly ridiculous to consider, and I kept thinking “this place will be right around the corner”.

I still had a 20 ounce bottle of water and the coffee drinks I had brought for morning to alleviate any desire to carry a stove, so I was still pretty confident about hydration. I hadn’t honestly brought enough food, but that wasn’t something I was terribly concerned with in the moment, having had a ridiculously large breakfast at St Mary’s at the start of the day. My crushing exhaustion even felt GOOD in a certain way… an embodied experience, as I said. One where I could feel every part of myself settled into this imperfect sack of malformed/diseased organs and scarred skin.

A sign pointing toward the campground appeared before the cabin itself did, and I laughed out loud to see it. I nearly ran the next half mile or so, flopped down on the little porch of the cabin, and rolled around giggling for long moments before even opening the door to go in. There wasn’t much to see, anyway. The wooden bunks were stacked on top of each other on two walls, covered in very thin pads. Some previous inhabitant had moved a pad to the wooden table along a third wall to sleep on, leaving a bunk bare. A mailbox I hoped held something useful or interesting contained only trash. A fireplace lay dark, would continue to lie dark for my short stay.

The only real interesting part of the cabin for me was that someone had repurposed a trail log originally labeled PCT – “you aren’t here” it said next to the words – for a log for cabin dwellers. I paged through and read several entries before depositing a short poem.

I meant to stay two nights. I’d reserved for two nights. I can’t really say why I decided to leave after only one. There was nothing particularly “good”or “bad”about the night I spent in the cabin, and I remember thinking that I might use it again someday. It fulfilled its purpose of ensuring I had no need to carry a tent, though truly the night was so nice I could have spent it under the stars instead. An empty streambed stretched behind the cabin, but a tiny muddy puddle provided water that came out of my filter reasonably clear. The one campground inhabitant I encountered – a man with a dog who came by way of Stone Door and had thus hiked further than I – was a little startling but didn’t come back to bother me after our initial meeting by the spring.

Everything was okay. Just okay. I didn’t manage sleep until around dawn, and when I woke a couple hours later, I realized that I was more excited for the hike back than for spending a day journalling or reading or poking around near the cabin. So I did that. I gathered up what few things I had unpacked, double checked my water supplies, layered most of my clothes on (experiencing a morning chill), and started walking.

I took a different trail on the way back from the way in. There were fewer overlooks, but many spaces where the trail passed close between two trees that leaned toward each other. (These spaces are sacred, and I can not tell you why.) I made a game out of finding my way around spiderwebs without walking through them, after the first few times I had picked bugs off my glasses. Sometimes this was harder than it sounds, when the webs spanned the whole trail.

I walked. I munched on peanut butter balls and sucked down fruit and veggie puree packets. I stopped to change out of the cargo-pocket joggers and into my rainbow long johns when I realized I wasn’t encountering much that I felt my legs needed protection from. I redressed the wound on my knee. I shared a laugh with a hiker who caught me pantsless – the one person I saw that morning! – and gave him one of the fruit packets.

I chanted and talked out loud to myself. It was a strange experience, not bumping into people all the time like I do on my city’s greenways. For me – the most approachable person in the world – it was kind of awesome not being “on” for a while. No moments in which someone needed my help, no slurs yelled after me, no concern about what I might need to explain to someone. Just being. Just walking. Becoming simply “the one who walks” and nothing more.

Hours and miles and trees. I didn’t encounter another human until I was almost entirely out of the woods – two women who seemed supplied only for a short walk who were probably doing the day loop. They informed me the parking lot was empty, and that was why I hadn’t seen anyone.There was a sign that said “ranger station 1 mile” at some point around that time. I had known I was close by bumping into signs for the day loop, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to be almost there.

But by this point, I’d been walking for the entire morniing and much of the afternoon. This, for a healthy fit person, isn’t that impressive. The man I met at Hobbs Cabin certainly didn’t find it impressive, considering he’d come much further. Aside from surprise that I was traveling alone, fellow hikers I had spoken to previously didn’t find anything interesting or impressive about the mileage. Thru-hikers on the big trails often make 20+ miles per day. What I was doing was nothing, really.

For anyone who hadn’t seen me unable to walk for months on end, or coughing up blood at the exertion of getting out of bed, there wasn’t anything interesting about a walk in the woods. For anyone who didn’t know – intimately – that just putting on clothes often brought me to tears because of the intense pain involved, it was nothing. For anyone not aware that I have to be careful about long workdays because they lead to fevers and a whole mess of associated symptoms, there was nothing to see here.

I was wrecked. I kept checking my fitbit, and looking at the trail again. I started counting the little metal plates that served as trail markers, and taking a break for water after I’d touched a certain number of them. I finished my water.

I checked to see if my cell service was on. It had been coming and going – I’d texted back a coworker during a brief window an hour or two ago – and was now allowing me to look at google maps. It cheerfully informed me I had gone .2 miles in the past quarter hour.

So, what to do? One foot in front of the other. More markers, more counting. The shaky steel cable and plank bridges that I had photographed on my way in to get across. A stumble there gave me a bit of a scare, but everything was still attached, body and gear alike.

More chanting, softly in case anyone else should appear on the trail. No one did.Another quarter hour. Another… .3 miles? That didn’t make any sense. I didn’t walk that slow, right? I did often do quick spurts of walking and then pause for meditation, when doing my greenway walks, but I hadn’t been doing that here. My little breaks had been a minute or two long each, not twenty minutes.

One foot in front of the other. Laughing aloud because… ? Tap those trail markers.

Then the ranger station, and no fit of laughter this time. Just stopping in the bathroom to wash my face and then moving to the vehicle, getting in. Opening the windows. Arranging all my stuff for the drive home. Mapping it out.

No “I did it!” No celebratory post to FB or Insta. No selfies of my red face or messy hair.

It took me an hour to walk a mile, and that’s okay.

It took me two days in the woods to finish a thought process, and that’s okay.

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On queerness and “proof”

I scrapped the first attempt at this post because it was too frightening a thing to put out there in the world. I’m trying again because I feel this perspective is valuable, is worth something.

I am worth something.

This week, a young stranger decided to use me as “proof” to his mother that genderqueer adults exist. This led to a lovely interaction. We had coffee. We talked. There were tears and laughter. For over an hour, I listened to his mother’s concerns, fears, and skepticism. I listened to his fervent desire to be seen and understood. I bridged the gap between them.

This isn’t the first time I have been used as “proof”. It isn’t the tenth, or the twentieth, or… you get the point.

But I’ve also been used as “proof” in other, less wholesome, directions. My failure to perform androgyny has been used as evidence that genderqueer means “cis woman who wants to be special.” My history of trauma has been used as evidence that “homosexuality is caused by abuse.”

The list goes on and on. Mental and physical illness. Polyamory. Defiance of social norms. Political and religious affiliations. Any and all personal traits of mine have been used to make statements about any identity I claim part of, or even ones I am presumed to have.

One of the biggest perks of being visibly queer – adorning myself in rainbows and buttons – is having interactions with people either seeking education or wanting to feel less alone in the world. Answering questions. Sharing jokes. Being that first person someone dares to tell, or helping someone come to terms with their own questioning.

One of the biggest drawbacks is being used to discredit others or being compared to others all the time.

Yes, I have a history of trauma. Yes, a lot of queer people do. Sure, I date more women or nonbinary femmes because they are less likely to trigger me or try to force unwanted gender roles on me. No, that doesn’t mean I would be straight if it weren’t for that trauma.

More importantly, what is this focus on what people “would be if…?” Why are queer people’s lives scrutinized for “proof” about their identities? Whatever person may have existed if something had gone differently doesn’t exist, so why prioritize that theoretical individual over the living breathing one in front of you?

If I murdered some potential cisgender straight version of myself at some turn in the road, whose loss is that? If my dysphoria – discomfort with both physical characteristics of my body and social aspects of gender – moves through some of the same spaces as my PTSD, does it make them any less real challenges in my life now?

Do we as a society ask straight people to prove themselves? Do we ask cisgender people – those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth – to lay out their life histories to prove they are legit?

If it makes you feel powerful to call me girl, lady, ma’am, miss, or she… and you believe my resistance to those words is based in trauma rather than gender identity, does that make you any less an abuser? If it makes you feel powerful to scorn or shame someone who is too femme, too masculine, too flamboyant, too ANYTHING… does that make you any less a person whose power comes from violence and harm?

I will gladly be proof that nonbinary trans people exist. I will be proof that queer people can be old, can exist in the Bible Belt, can be religious, can be parents, can be any number of other things.

But I will fervently deny any and all requests to prove myself by perfectly performing any idealized version of an identity. I will not silence parts of my story to lend credibility to other parts, will not perform androgyny to “earn” my neutral pronouns, will not perform monogamy to become respectable, will not base my goals for my own body or life on what someone else finds attractive or acceptable.

Walking and Society

I have been known to refer to myself as “the most approachable person in the world” because I have many small social encounters with strangers a day. Shopping? Dining? At the movies? Someone is going to talk to me, sit by me, compliment me, insult me, or tell me their life story.

This is especially true while walking in public, on the road or on a trail. I live in Tennessee, so there’s some level of Southern culture at work in the way people greet each other in public spaces. Some people are obviously quite comfortable saying hi to everyone they pass, while others can be seen visibly gearing up for it, meeting a social obligation despite shyness or anxiety. It’s interesting to note the differences in body language and tone between these two groups.

Honestly, I’m part of the latter group myself. Despite the fact I talk to people in public all the time, I often eye strangers walking toward me and gather myself before giving the requisite greeting. Sometimes I think I spoke aloud when in reality I didn’t quite manage it, realizing only after passing that I missed the mark. My solution to this is to try to find something to compliment in the other’s appearance, to have something of substance to say.

When it comes to people speaking to me, however, I sometimes become elated with how often compliments and enthusiastic reactions to my appearance make me feel vaguely like a celebrity. Yes, thank you for noticing I am very colorful! Yes, my short haircut is very comfortable and easy to manage! Isn’t this Ellen jacket the coolest thing ever, with its declaration of LOVE across the back?

But I live in Tennessee, and I’m visibly queer, usually alone, and usually perceived to be a woman, albeit a gender nonconforming one. This can be difficult. Sometimes the greetings are not rote and polite or excited and complimentary. Sometimes rather than a life story, I receive a death threat, a promise of harm, an insistence that I am not enough, not what I claim to be, nothing at all. Occasionally I receive physical or sexual violence as well as verbal.

Walking is one of the biggest ways I assert myself in the world. It is a freedom that I refuse to give up. I walk the greenways of my city, trails in various parks, sidewalks and roadways. I walk despite my health problems, despite my social awkwardness, despite my knowledge of what can happen, despite my own history of violence.

I am here. I am bedecked in rainbows and buttons. I wear my tomboyx, my shorts with unshaved legs, my shaved hair. I move. I smile and wave and say good morning, crack jokes about my own appearance, mock myself for walking too slow or getting lost.

I am not fast. I am not thin or fit. I am not a runner or even a jogger. I do not know the names of the flowers or trees. I am not a naturalist or a birder. I am not a professional photographer, not much of a blogger, terrible at selfies.

There is no purpose I can point to that is acceptable to society, is what I mean.

I just walk. It’s what I do.

There is no such thing as… anymore

There is no such thing as silence anymore

I think

On the third of July as I watch my son twitch at each preemptive explosion

There is no such thing as respect anymore

I am informed helpfully when some young person fails to capitulate properly

Or there is no such thing as safety anymore

In every moment when something has gone wrong, when a sudden sidestep becomes a knife to the throat

There is no such thing as kindness anymore surely

In a world where trusting people is seen as the worst foolishness of all, the biggest mistake.

Better yet, I say there was never silence

The deafening sound of a thunderclap or waterfall or the soft swish of grass as the rabbit hops away

There was never sudden and complete respect for everyone

So many of us were never ever safe, not once, in the world idealized by the safest (most dangerous) among us

Many of us forgot how to be kind, had it toughened out of us, burned away.

It’s okay.

Open your mouth or close it. Be an explosion or a waterfall. Show respect to others when it is also respectful of yourself. Find your safe spaces and your dangerous ones and your hopeful ones and your broken ones.

Kindness can be worked back in, smoothing the edges.

I refuse to live in a world that only subtracts.

Nature and Community, Nature and the Self

I was a child who climbed trees. More than that, I was a child who took refuge in trees. Who slept, ate, and read in the uppermost branches of my favorite tree, often feeling as if everything would be okay if I never had to come down.

In another part of my life, in another part of the country, my hiding place would be water instead. Small beaches and piers along a canal, where I could lean out and peer into the water and be swept away.

For a while, I lost this part of myself. There are a million reasons why, but one of the biggest ones was the social expectation that someone who suffers illness isn’t going to engage in play if they can’t also always engage in work. If I were too ill to complete important tasks, being home in bed was the only acceptable answer, even if my mental and spiritual well-being were not served by that. If I were capable of taking walks – and I wasn’t always – it served as proof of my ultimate laziness, proof that any other task I wasn’t undertaking was also within my limitations.

The best thing I ever did for myself was learn to tell people who argue about my health with me to FUCK OFF.

Now, on days when I can, I return to the trees, the water. Murfreesboro’s Greenway system ha sheltered me through storms, through blazing heat. Held me through my own tears when Christmas Day turned into a walk instead of a celebration, when friends or partners stepped out of my life, when the world was too unsafe or too overwhelming. Other parks, less close to home, welcomed my curious eyes and excited footfalls, my clumsy clutching for a handhold against bark when I inevitably tripped, stumbled, fell.

These ramblings have almost entirely been solo excursions. I am not the person who gathers a group, the center of any club or family. I do not plan well. I step out onto the trail five minutes after deciding to do so, after failing at sleep or becoming overstimulated during a long day of work. I disappear into the trees, find a nice meditation rock, listen to mingled soundtracks of birds, the trickle of the river, an audiobook, a favorite band.

Yet.

On the Summer Solstice, I had a different experience. I set out long before dawn for Old Stone Fort Archaeological Park, intent on attending an EVENT rather than simply taking a hike. I stood at a small fire while a park ranger explained the historical significance of the site, the many celebrations held by Native people there, the building of the mounds that are not, in fact, related in any way to a fort.

I lifted my camera to take a photo of a field covered in fog, scooted out of the way so others could do the same. Families with babies, couples and singles, friends. This mass of humanity took to the trail, and it seemed as if we startled fog and fawn alike, the field clearing as we skirted the edges of it, pointing excitedly.

The little girl who often walked in front of me kept up the brilliant running commentary only a child can muster, one moment on the sights before us and the next gleefully remembering the chicken heart she encountered during a recent cooking session at home. People paused to make sure everyone was making it over rougher patches, our guide paused to answer questions, the whole ensemble was loud and raucous and kind and playful. The sunrise was, quite honestly, not as much to see as I had hoped. The way the sun lined up with the gate to the mounds was largely obscured by trees, and the many photos I took were largely of the trees themselves, the fog, a deer.

But as the ranger spoke about the many gatherings of community in that place, I was reminded that nature-as-refuge and nature-as-community-space can both be beautiful and valuable things.

Haunting?

You’ll have to excuse me; I don’t remember how to do this. < I say that a lot

I once took an entire class on the topic of hauntings as social justice. How stories that go officially untold (by design) rise up and spread out, unfurl in whispers, make themselves known outside what is considered the “natural” and “normal” world.

Is this a space for hauntings I encounter? For myself as ghost wandering the world, or at least the forests of Tennessee, the unhallowed ground of the internet? Is it a space for the stories I am not supposed to tell, that I so stubbornly do?

This isn’t much of an introduction. Honestly, I have no idea how to introduce myself, now or ever.

Hil.

Career? None in particular, though I currently work a part time job at a grocery store deli.

Gender? No thank you.

Interests? Poetry, hiking, nature photography, religion, spirituality, books, queerness, beings, mental illness, the many ways of existing in a body, anything you are not supposed to talk about.

Volume? Loud, always. Hearing problems + a history of being silenced will do that.