The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina were right outside my room on the day I was born. Some folks say they are close to being the oldest mountains in the world and I reckon those folks are right because they have always felt ancient beyond knowing to me. Like an all-encompassing knowledge that was just ready to be touched over in the next holler if you could just find it.

They became my most intimate relationship growing up. There was a semi-circle view of mountains, rolling ridges, and trees that greeted me every day from our house on a ridge outside of the small town where we lived. They became like an old friend. A constant companion whose soft forested arms always seemed to be reaching to hold me close.

But it was on that ridge outside of town that I came to realize that something was deeply wrong in my young life. There was an internal struggle that seemed to have me trapped like the ever-encroaching kudzu you find blanketing the landscape in the South. And with that struggle came the realization that even though there were all kinds of mountains surrounding me, I was actually holding the largest one inside.

I was trapped because I knew, deeply knew that contrary to the little boy with the big smile that everyone saw, I was actually a little girl inside. And Lord I hated that I knew. It was 1962 and what in the world do you do with that knowledge in that place before internet and with no more than three antenna fed channels on your television? And for some reason I didn’t have the words to tell my family what I was dealing with. Maybe it was because I didn’t know how to describe it myself in a clear way but probably more likely that I was scared of losing them and their love if I shared my big secret.

However, there were words that would have explained to everyone around me what was going on inside of me and those words were transgender or transsexual as was the term used back then. Today’s definition of transgender will work just fine to describe who I was and am, “a person whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.” Yep, that’s me. I sure didn’t know that word then but I sure knew what I felt and that the little girl hiding inside was strong. I was consumed with the thought and feeling that something was deeply wrong with me and it must have been my fault. Did something happen when I was born? Did God put me in this body because I had made him angry in some unknown way and this was my punishment?

I desperately tried to connect with that little girl. I would run across the road to my Granny and Granddaddy’s house when they weren’t there and would proceed to dig into that woodsy smelling cedar chest to pull out one of the beautiful satin prom dresses that my Granny had made for either my mom or her sister. As I would pull that dress over my head and watch it fall across my body, my god it felt right.

Those moments were fleeting but there was one thing that became more permanent during those early years and that was the crippling anxiety which would wash over me. My years through primary, elementary, and high school were filled with panic and nervousness along with some fleeting moments of calm. I was wracked with anxiety attacks, throwing up from being so nervous for no reason it seemed, feigning sickness on and off through school when I could not bring myself to go that day and miraculously feeling better when I knew I could stay home. There were also those unexpected times due to the anxiety when I could feel myself floating upward and out of my body which as you can imagine added a whole other level of panic. I remember always deeply hoping I could find my way back as I was floating above my physical body and I was puzzled why no one saw me floating up there.

But luckily my fragile soul found a place that gave me relief from the hell I was living in. It was the five acres of ridges, pastures and woods that surrounded our house plus the thirteen acres that my Granny and Granddaddy owned. And when my life would become too much to bear, I would run out of my front door to the welcoming embrace of the nature that surrounded me.

I played in the creek, made things out of sticks and big limbs, stayed away from the poison oak which grows everywhere back there. So many sensations in those places which took me away from the hard place my soul and heart were dwelling in. The smooth bark on those white pines that my Dad had planted when he bought this land years before. I would run my hand over that bark and I could almost feel the tree’s energy meeting mine. The pleasing crunch under my feel of all those colored leaves in the Fall which fell from the white oaks and maples that populated those ridges.

Those woods were also a place where I could hide. From the world for sure but especially from my troubles. Those trees didn’t care what gender I was. I always imagined they were happy I was hanging out with them and honoring them in some way that I didn’t quite understand at that time. I kept being drawn to those trees and I think on some deep level my soul knew that they would help me, hide me, and hold me under their branches until I felt better and could breathe once again. It was wonderful being in those woods surrounded by familiar friends who seemed more certain of their place in the world than I did.

Over time I didn’t give up the woods that surround our house but I started feeling that I needed to get further away from my troubles. Higher, much higher seemed to be what my soul was calling out to me. It was kind of biblical in a way because if anything my Southern Baptist Sunday School upbringing had taught me was the Bible and a verse from Psalms, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” I am pretty sure I didn’t know what whence meant but I did know deep in my heart that there was help up there.

So, when I got older and started driving, I headed up to that higher ground in the family’s Ford Country Squire station wagon with the lovely wood panels on the sides. The roads from my house led me up the Reems Creek Valley and onto the winding snake of Ox Creek Road which would eventually drop me on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Bull Gap where it seemed I could always catch my internal breath once again.

The Parkway led me north on two lanes that seemed to skirt the heavens as it wound among those mountain tops while dropping me off at places called Craggy Pinnacle, Craggy Dome, and Bullhead Mountain. I ended up climbing them and so many more. It was heavenly up there with the rhododendron, laurel, huckleberry bushes loaded with berries in the summer, the twisted beech and buckeye trees, and the mountain ash that my Granddaddy loved so much and whose branches were always full of red berries in the Fall.

And those mountains ended up giving me something even deeper than the woods that surrounded our house on the ridge. Up there I was lighter, much lighter. It felt like my soul and body could have floated away at any moment because they were so much lighter than any of the mountain scented air that surrounded me. I was still deeply struggling down in the valley but those woes disappeared as I wandered along those peaks and as I came oh so close to touching their deep and unknowable ancient energy. It was strong medicine and as I stood on their tops and shoulders looking way off in the distance, I always hoped that I could see far enough away to find some peace.

But eventually I had to go back down. Those feelings of release and lighter than air always came to a sad end no matter how much my heart and soul tried to talk me into staying up there. And every single time I went back down, I could feel that lightness of being slowly draining out of my spirit and being filled with the heaviness that I struggled to escape from every single day.

That was my lot in life for decades. So much time went by carrying that burden with seemingly no way to release it. But one day I did find the release. It was a bit over twenty years ago that I found myself at the front door of the Duke University Medical Center Endocrinology Clinic in Durham, NC. It had taken so many baby steps to get to that doorstep. So many hours of therapy, of trying to find love for myself, and deeply working on what it meant to be transgender. I was going to walk through that door to a doctor’s appointment which would “officially” start a transition. And I ended up walking back out of those doors with prescriptions for estrogen and a testosterone blocker which were going to open up a much bigger door.

It was about six months after starting those medications that I walked into my bathroom one morning to wash my face and brush my teeth. I stopped and looked up in the mirror and much to my surprise there was a female face looking back at me. My female face. Those six months of daily estrogen and testosterone blocker had softened and slowly changed my facial features to reveal a feminine vision staring back at me. The joy that overcame me is something that I still feel to this day. It was the very first time in my forty-one years of existing that I had actually seen my true self. And you know what, I never doubted that she was in there.

Stacey Rice