Trails for everyone, forever
by Bam Mendiola
I was wearing two flamboyant coats of grape shifter nail polish when I arrived at the trailhead. A silver Subaru crept closer until the headlights pierced a layer of fog that draped over me like a blanket. I examined the driver’s eyes for clues that he, too, was looking for a stranger. My palms grew cool and clammy; moody clouds hung heavy overhead. The sky and I — our bodies made of nature — became mirrors of the same hazy landscape. The man in the Subaru kept driving.
I walked to an adjacent lot where I discovered a group of hikers that appeared to be waiting. The three men were gathered quietly in a circle like the well-traveled backpacks sitting at their feet. “Hi, I’m Bam!” I called out with feigned moxie; they smiled back. I hope they like me, I thought as I swallowed the prospect of spending the next four days with strangers I had just met on the Olympic Peninsula.
After an hour of negotiating gear, routes and masculinities, I sank my feet into heavy mountaineering boots. With a single heavy step, I began my sojourn toward the summit of Sunh-ado (known by settlers as Olympus). Immediately, the Hoh Rainforest began to paint the trail in arresting shades of neon moss. I followed the river for 17 bewitching miles until the Hoh River became the fifth member of our pack.
Rivers are bodies of life that carve crooked paths in the earth that reflect my own queerness. Water speaks when it clamors in a language that my colonized tongue wrestles to remember. Suddenly, my lips are wet with remembrance that my body is nature.
My brown legs carry me for miles under the western hemlock despite the weight of a pack and 500 hundred years of settler colonialism. In my body, I hold the gift of indigenous survivance. On my back, I carry the weight of intergenerational trauma. In my eyes, I carry the color of my mother and her brown mother before her. In my skin I carry the sun; in my dreams I’m carried by the moon.
My journey is not of one but two mountains. On the trail, I traverse snowfields decorated with seracs and crevasses. On the street, I travel through systems littered with racism and toxic masculinity. The first of these mountains is literal. The other is a metaphor — no less dangerous and no less real.
The sign at Glacier Meadows reads “Elevation 4300” when I arrive at base camp. I retreat to my tent and begin to scribble desperately until I give form to the stories I’ve been harboring inside me. Letters start to spill from the edges as I start to unravel, when suddenly the camp stove lets out a loud whistle. Moments later, boiling water brings life to a bag of dehydrated Thai curry and I’m eating dinner.
It’s 11 p.m. when I hit the trail again — alpine start — to reach the summit before the sun begins to warm the snow. As soon as I tie myself into the rope, excitement and anxiety fill my belly with sound. Dehydrated food makes me gassy.
“Nature doesn’t care what you look like,” people will type behind glowing screens when I tell them I’m exhausted not exotic. “The mountains aren’t racist, sexist or homophobic,” they’ll quip behind digital profiles in the comment section of the internet.
“It’s not the mountains I’m afraid of,” I’ll whisper. It’s you.
I’m afraid of the tears I’ll hold back when your words gaslight and erase me. The truth is that my queer brown body is a landscape policed by binary and violence. Nature is a body mined and extracted for the benefit of those who claim to conquer her. When I sink my feet into the brown skin of the earth, the illusion of “nature-doesn’t-care-what-you-looklike” feels as distant from the truth as the horizon is far.
You’re right; nature doesn’t care what I look like, but systems of oppression do, and they extend as far as nature is wide. I may choose to wear iridescent shades of nail polish as armor, but my identities are not something I can leave behind at the trailhead; I only know this because I’ve tried.
As a child I once stared at a bowl of milk and wished its whiteness would wash over me as I held my breath and dunked my face; I had internalized racism. “I’m focusing on school right now,” I would tell my grandpa Carmelito when he asked me if I had a girlfriend; I had internalized homophobia. “Mami, drop me off down the street,” I would beg my mother so my classmates wouldn’t see her decrepit and embarrassing Ford Tempo; I had internalized classism. I was grateful as a child that my parents hadn’t named me “Guillermo” since my white-passing name offered me some semblance of protection from more racism. By the time I graduated McClure Elementary School, I was an expert in oppression. Twenty years later, when I stood at the Hoh River trailhead, I knew better than to think there was space touched by men that was void of violence. As long as inequalities exist, my body is political.
Resilience, however, is in my pedigree.
As I crossed the Blue Glacier on summit day, a sheet of ice cracked under my feet and I found myself waist-deep in a pool of freezing water. I gathered my grit and kept climbing — determined to stand on the highest peak of the Olympic Mountains. It was 2:45 a.m., and I was sopping wet. I remember the way the moonlight danced on the melted surface of this shrinking glacier. That was the day Sunh-a-do baptized me.
Thirty years earlier, my father embarked on the most dangerous thru-hike, across the U.S.-Mexico border. That was the day he was baptized by the Rio Grande. The day he jumped into a deadly river stained with the blood of immigrants, he became a swimmer. The days he walked the length of the Sonoran Desert to trade his nightmare for a dream, he became a backpacker. The night the Bering Sea almost swallowed his ship full of men, he almost became the Pacific Ocean.
Three decades before I stood on the summit block of Sunh-a-do, my mother stood under the same sun until her face grew as bright as a Red Delicious apple. I stretched my arm toward the sky during the last rock pitch of the climb the way mother reached for fruit from trees above her — both of our livelihoods resting on the strength and tenacity of our callused fingers. To be an apple picker is to be a decorated athlete in the Olympics of stamina. To be a mother is to hold the magic of all of nature’s creation in your body.
My ancestors survived colonization, climbed borders and planted seeds where their children would someday stand to cross the field of opportunity. How can one possibly be more “outdoorsy” than those who spend their entire lives outside working? As long as Juana and Andres are my mother and father, nature is my inheritance and the outdoors is my legacy.
When I began my journey toward Sunha-do, I questioned the space I took up in the world. For 4 days, I looked for a face that was brown like mine; the only brownness I found was on the bark of trees and the fur of marmots. For 3 moons, I searched for a body that was queer like me; the only iconoclasts I found were the stars irreverent of the blackness that surrounds them. When I discover that my body is nature, the trees, marmots and the stars sing:
At 9:41 a.m. I stood on the summit of Sunh-a-do on a magnificent monument of stone, earth and ice. I looked down at my dirty hands one last time and my unchipped nail polish sparkled back — a dazzling reminder of my spirit and strength. It is my turn now to be a good ancestor — to climb two mountains for the next generation to witness the world from the top of my shoulders.
I am, after all, my ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Bam Mendiola is a writer, speaker and diversity consultant. You can find them at www.bamorg.com or on Instagram (@mynameisbam).