I remember it as the day that I gave up hope. One day in the mid-summer of 1980, I stood at the bottom of the stairs in my family home. My parents sat upstairs in the den discussing me. I covertly listened in silent tears. Three days earlier, they discovered that I was gay. It seems I had left a love letter from my boyfriend on my desk and it had been read. My father warned my mother that my condition may require commitment to a mental institution. They agreed they needed to find a doctor to make a psychological assessment. My father, of course, would handle it. My mother wept. A wave of shame, humiliation and fear buckled my knees.
My father called me a criminal, or more directly in his words, "a crook". He gravely advised me that homosexuality was unlawful in the State of Montana, and, appropriately, I could be sent to prison. My life was ruined, I could never get a job or buy a home. I was disgraced for life. Further, I had wrecked the reputation and standing of the family and, most disgracefully, that of my father.
I prepared to run.
Within days, there was a psychological assessment arranged by my father. I remember neither the identity of the doctor nor if his specialty was psychology, psychiatry or quackery. There was a long stilted conversation as he tried to draw me out. or maybe, confess. It felt like a cross examination. Late in our interview, he told me homosexuality alone was no longer officially considered to be a disorder and, therefore, could not alone result in involuntary commitment to an asylum. However, the homosexual lifestyle could still be a serious mental problem, and by continuing in it, I was dooming myself to hard life and an early death. By the end of the interview, I felt he should have handed me a package of coffin nails.
Several weeks later, I was stranded in St. Louis, Missouri with no money in a dead VW Bus. I called my parents. My father, apparently dissuaded from involuntary commitment, offered me a deal. I accepted it to avoid another night on the street. By edict, he declared that this entire event never happened: it was over. I must transfer to the local university from the university that corrupted me. I was to never see or communicate with that person again. There were to be no discussions, no apologies, no reconciliation. We were to never speak of it. We never did.
In anguish, I walked away from my first love.
finished my university education locally, but took the first job opportunity
that came my way after graduation: a small school records software company in East Glacier, Montana, on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation. I saw it as an
opportunity to escape from my parents oversight by putting me in the ideal location to vanish forever.
I was told that my end would likely come by being beaten to death after saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. Nearly two decades before Matthew Shepard, it was clear that violent deaths of gay men were not uncommon in the Rocky Mountains.
I decided, instead, to choose my own death. One day, I would fail to return from a hike, killed by a bear or fallen from a cliff. I truly felt that I had no value as a person: but I could feed grizzlies, vultures and ants. I wanted to gaze across a vista from a ridge knowing that there was no other person within twenty miles of me. If I died doing that, no matter.
I didn't just walk straight into the forest when I arrived, I set up my life in a rented cabin. I supported myself with the job briefly, maybe six months. After quitting, I devoted myself full time to looking for that vista and isolation. I spent the dark seasons with topographical maps by the firelight. In the light seasons, I wore through hiking boots.
I failed at dying, the bears always ran away and I was surprisingly sure footed in the treacherous places. The forests, the ice fields, the waterfalls compelled me. I recall thinking to myself, "Tomorrow I'm going to see the view from the top of that next ridge." There was always a next ridge and I forgot to vanish.
My time on the outskirts of Glacier National Park reordered and reshaped my place in the world. It taught me some of the most important lessons of my life.
Foremost of those lessons was that, even with the stigma of being gay, my life was a cakewalk as a white person growing up in a small Montana city. The lives for the people of the reservation in the early eighties was hard beyond my experience or imagination. To my eyes, it appeared to be all poverty and drunken despair. My naïve compassion while teaching computer programming at the reservation school provided no discernible assistance to these oppressed people.
The second lesson was, if my life is worth nothing, then avoiding dangerous things makes no sense. That realization gave my life the primal joys of motorcycles, mountain bikes, wilderness backpacking and hopping freight trains. It set up a lifetime of adventure and a thousand stories.
where I learned to hop freight trains
Third, I learned to live alone. I learned to provide my own entertainment and motivation. I learned to rely on myself without assistance. I gained no friends in East Glacier, I didn't even try. I was a hermit in a little A-frame cabin in the woods, I kept to myself.
By 1985, my thinking focused on this conclusion: I had no real future to look forward to, so I was free to do whatever I wanted. I was lonely, I needed money. Convinced that there were people like me somewhere in the world, I set out to find them. The time had come to give up living in the forest and look for my people in the big city: I packed up and moved to Missoula.
It took time, but I forgave my parents. Experience shows me that we are all products of our formative eras. Unbeknown to them, the medical view of homosexuality had changed less than a decade earlier. While I discarded belief in God in high school, I kept the part that says "...as we forgive those that trespass against us..."
I never knew if they pardoned me or forgave me, they held their silence.
My self imposed exile in Glacier National Park was both terrible and wonderful. Those mountains helped rekindle the self confidence snuffed out on that horrible Summer day in 1980. To this day, however, I have carried the sadness of knowing that I have no value in the world, and therefore I have lacked a traditional sense of ambition. It has surely limited me, but I do not regret who I am today.