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 ready to be touched over in the next holler if you could just find it.
The mountains became my most intimate relationship growing up. A semicircle view of rolling ridges and trees that greeted me every day from our house on a ridge outside of the small town where we lived. They were like an old friend, a constant companion whose soft, forested arms always seemed to be reaching to hold me close.
On that ridge outside of town, 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 blanketing the Southern landscape. 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—knew deeply—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. 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? I didn’t have 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 more likely I was scared of losing them and their love if I shared my big secret.
The word that would have explained to everyone around me what was going on inside of me was 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 didn’t know the word, 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 made him angry in some unknown way? Was this 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, dig into their woodsy-smelling cedar chest, pull out one of the beautiful satin prom dresses my Granny made for my mom or her sister. As I pulled a dress over my head and watched it fall across my body, my God, it felt right.
Those moments were fleeting; more permanent during those early years was the crippling anxiety that would wash over me. My primary, elementary, and high school years were filled with panic and nervousness with fleeting moments of calm. I was wracked with anxiety attacks, throwing up from being so nervous for seemingly no reason, feigning sickness on and off when I could not bring myself to go to school, and miraculously feeling better when I knew I could stay home. There were times when I could feel myself floating upward and out of my body, which led to a whole new level of panic. I remember deeply hoping I could find my way back as I floated above my physical body, and I was puzzled why no one saw me floating up there.
Luckily my fragile soul found a place that gave me relief from the hell I was living in: the five acres of ridges, pastures and woods that surrounded our house, plus the thirteen acres my Granny and Granddaddy owned. When my life would become too much to bear, I would run out my front door into 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 that grows everywhere back there. So many sensations in those places took me away from the hard place my soul and heart were dwelling. The smooth bark on those white pines that my Dad planted when he bought this land, years before—running my hand over that bark, I could almost feel the tree’s energy meeting mine. The pleasing crunch under my feet of colored leaves in fall, which cascaded from the white oaks and maples that populated those ridges.
Those woods were a place I could hide from the world and from my troubles. The 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. I think on some deep level my soul knew 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 started feeling that I needed to get further away from my troubles. Higher, much higher, my soul seemed to call out. It was kind of biblical, in a way. My Southern Baptist Sunday School upbringing had taught me the verse from Psalms, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” I didn’t know what “whence” meant, but I did know, deep in my heart, that there was help up there.
Once started driving, I would head up to that higher ground in my 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 breath again.
The Parkway led me north on two lanes that seemed to skirt the heavens, winding among those mountain tops and 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 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 fall.
Those mountains gave me something even deeper than the woods that surrounded our house on the ridge. Up there I was lighter, much lighter, lighter even than the mountain-scented air. It felt like I could have floated away at any moment. I was still struggling down in the valley, but those woes disappeared as I wandered along the peaks and came oh so close to touching their unknowable ancient energy. It was strong medicine. As I stood on their tops and shoulders, looking way off in the distance, I hoped to see far enough away to find some peace.
Eventually I had to go back down. The feelings of release always came to a sad end no matter how much my heart and soul tried to talk me into staying up there. And every time I went back down, I felt the lightness of being slowly drain out of my spirit, replaced by the heaviness I struggled to escape from each day.
That was my lot in life for decades—so much time carrying that burden with seemingly no way to release it. But one day I did find the release. A bit over twenty years ago, I found myself at the front door of the Duke University Medical Center Endocrinology Clinic in Durham, NC. Getting there took many hours of therapy, of trying to find love for myself, and deeply working on what it meant to be transgender. I walked through that door to a doctor’s appointment which “officially” started a transition, And I walked back out with prescriptions for estrogen and a testosterone blocker that would open a much bigger door.
About six months after starting those medications, I walked into my bathroom one morning to wash my face and brush my teeth. I looked in the mirror, and there was a female face looking back at me. My female face. 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 I still feel to this day. It was the very first time in my forty-one years of existing that I saw my true self. I had never doubted she was in there.
Published in Oregon Humanities "Beyond the Margins" on November 25, 2020