In the Mouth of the Mountains
It is 9:00 p.m. in Kit Carson Park. Although the path leading to the cemetery is barred off ("open from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.", the sign reads), the other path is open. My shoes kiss the gravel as I cautiously venture into the park. I'm here to take a break from writing, which is what brought me to the West in the first place. I'm aware of the risks I'm taking by walking alone in a strange place, but I can't help it: I need time on my own tonight, and I refuse to let my nerves dictate my every choice. To my right I can see a group of boys enjoying the warm New Mexico dusk. They're playing basketball, each young face fully invested in the game. They're hollering at each other, jumping up, insisting to be seen.
The park is a tribute to American frontiersman Kit Carson. Born in 1809, Kit Carson was a white man from Missouri who both killed and lived with Native Americans; married and buried Native wives before marrying his third wife, Josefa Jaramillo. Unlike his first two wives, Singing Grass and Making-Out-Road, Josefa was Hispanic. Josefa is said to have been the love of his life, and according Ralph Moody's 2005 book Kit Carson and the Wild Frontier, when she died in 1868, "Kit's interest in living passed with Josefa." During his business of getting married and fathering ten children, Carson became an "Indian agent" as a consultant for the United States expansion of New Mexico. Reading the many reports detailing Carson's appearance—his delicate face, his blue eyes, his short stature—gives me a guilty sense of comfort. He is described as having "penetrating gray-blue" eyes and coming up to just past five feet (five feet and four inches in some accounts; five feet and seven in others). While I'm not a mountain man by any means, I'm drawn to him because I, too, am small. I am underestimated. I am pretty. This is not to say, of course, that Carson's brutal acts against Native Americans in his earlier years were acceptable—just that his stature was surprisingly small for a man considered wild. I am finding similarity between us in terms of physique, not brutality.
I'm not so pretty today. Delighting in my alone time, I'm dressed in jeans and a hoodie. I've already fueled up on coffee. The nearly-empty Starbucks cup in my hand feels like it weighs twice its actual size. I feel oafish carrying it around with me. I keep walking. The dirt in Taos is red, so unlike my homeland of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which produces dirt that's almost gray, but makes up for it with striking green moss. It makes sense that New Mexico declares itself as "the land of enchantment". The color of the dirt in contrast to the turquoise in boutique shops and glittering off the rocks seems like magic. In Taos, even when I'm downtown, I see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains whenever I look up. They announce themselves like the trumpets of Revelation.
I began the process of hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) in 2016 and had top surgery one year later. This transition, which has allowed me to "pass" routinely as a cisgendered male, has made me less assertive. I've memorized my pant size, I wear a baseball cap, I've given up jewelry. I have a beard. "Passing" is a funny reward: On the one hand, I'm read correctly as male. On the other hand, speaking loudly or taking up space now contributes to the daily sexism that women face. But if I'm being honest with myself, I also worry about my safety. Noise draws attention. Whenever I pass a group of men, I think, I won't be harassed if I'm quiet. This time they won't notice my fragility.
My friend Nick, a cis guy, taught me how to walk. I was sleeping on his couch for a few days because I was depressed and needed a place to stay. We were in college at a state school in Kalamazoo, a place where we could both be vulnerable. Nick's apartment was dirty and just one block south of Fraternity Village Drive, or "Frat Ville", the name given to a block of houses that hosted summer Greek Life parties. But his apartment was safe and so was he. He ran an underground creative writing workshop with a select number of friends, including me, where we would share bad poetry and drink cheap beer once a week. Nick was tattooed and muscular and smoked cigarettes. He swore a lot. All of this made him "cool" in our eyes, despite him being one of the youngest in the group, and I found in him the male mentorship I was looking for. This was three years ago when I was beginning to "come out" as a man to my friends—small, artistic, and bisexual, but a man. I used to sway back and forth with my hips and carry my weight on one side when I was standing still: code for girl.
"Here," Nick said, "like this."
And Nick marched up and down the matted gray rug, worn out from wet sneakers and late-night stains of Smirnoff Red. Nick's hips were stiff and he held his arms at a slight swagger.
"You have to use your shoulders."
He looked at me expectantly. I obliged. After that night I practiced walking, standing, running; I tried to conceal any signal of my ovaries and breasts. It isn't enough to have short hair or to wear men's clothing when you haven't begun HRT yet.
Here in Kit Carson Park, I'm performing the same motions. Slow down, I tell myself, relax your shoulders. Act like you own this park. As I continue down the path, the sound of the basketball game fades. I wonder which group of boys will win. I imagine Kit Carson dismounting from his horse after battle. He was known to describe fights and scrimmages as "pretty", and while he was fierce with a bullet, he was quiet once off of the battlefield with what author Hampton Sides identifies as an "understated and dry" sense of humor when he did speak, which was reportedly "forcible, slow, and pointed, with the fewest words possible". The deliberateness of Carson's personality intrigues me, and I wonder how much we have in common when I weigh pros and cons of using the public bathroom that I'm walking by now. If I stop drinking coffee, I won't have to pee, and why take that risk?
It's getting darker now at 9:15 p.m., but the park is still full of people. Two baseball diamonds greet me beyond the public restroom. A Little League Baseball game is taking place in one of them. The parents are relaxed and supportive. They call out advice to their tiny soldiers. "Keep your eye on the ball, buddy. You can do this." I'm instantly reminded of my own experience playing softball. My dad, a lifelong Cubs apologist, enlisted my fraternal twin sister and me in the girls' softball league. Nick would later fill the fatherhood role that my own dad almost accomplished with signing me up for softball. Neither my sister nor I were any good; she lacked talent, I lacked confidence. I kept at it longer than she did but had to stop due to a stress fracture in my right foot when I was fourteen.
My foot never healed. It's been ten years now and still it is swollen, puffy, occasionally discolored. It feels better in the dry New Mexico air—less humidity, more open space. I've given up on going to podiatrists after receiving vastly different diagnoses each time: stress fracture, lymphedema, psychosomatic. My family and I took to calling it my "fish foot" in its early days of injury when a doctor promised us a cure by prescribing me omega-3 fatty acids, or fish oil. Whatever the fish foot is, it's wrecked now. My sister, on the other hand, has not experienced many physical health difficulties. Like Kit Carson, we were born prematurely. Combined, the two of us were under eleven pounds at birth via C-section. And, as with Kit Carson in his later years, we're sensitive, prone to tears, both of us writers. We've remained close through my gender transition, but not by talking about it. I'm private and she respects that.
I look down at my feet now. Can I walk further without aggravating my bad foot? My Converse shoes are dirty with Taos soil; when I was a child, my shoes were stained red and green with spiky Michigan grass and mulberry blood. While there are some hilly areas in Kalamazoo, it, like the majority of the Midwest, is underwhelmingly flat. My sister and I used to play outside with the neighbors every day. We would race over to the fence separating our houses and shake the branches of "The Poor Tree" to get their attention: our strange childish ritual. We called it "The Poor Tree" because the branches were weak and pliable. Or maybe we knew subconsciously that when someone is poor, they are sometimes considered weak. I'd like to think the former.
There is significant socioeconomic depression in New Mexico. I know this not only from my research, but also from firsthand observation. When I visited the public library on my second day in Taos, over half of the library patrons seemingly had nowhere else to go—several of them were just talking, not reading or using the computer, holding worn-out backpacks on their laps. They were reminding each other to keep an eye on the time so as not to miss the bus when it pulled up through the rain and sleet outside. It was cold that day, and, as in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the library offered a free haven of warmth.
I pass the parking lot in the park now and am startled to see a man sleeping in his car. The car is dark green, blending in like camouflage with the creeping night. I wonder if he can hear the chittering birds and rodents outside. I'm painfully aware that upon seeing the man, I jump back a little. I wince at my behavior. I constantly worry that when I back away from men on the street, they or others will think it's because they're homeless. The fact is that transgender individuals face hate crimes at a disproportionate rate to that of cisgendered people (with transgender women of color being the most frequent victims). If I'm alone and encounter a man I don't know, I'm not going to stay and chat.
When you're trans, you have to assume that every stranger you meet is violent.
When you're trans, you have to assume you might die today. You have to live, anyway.
I turn around and head back to the path; it's late and I'm hungry. As I retrace my steps, a man rides in my direction on a bicycle with his dog in tow. I imagine him as Kit Carson returning home from a battle to Josefa and their children. The man looks happy. "Come on, boy, over here," he says to his dog. The man is wearing jeans and a hoodie, an outfit almost identical to mine. "Come," he says. And for a striking moment in the quiet dusk, I wish that he wanted me to come with him, too, that his bicycle had a second seat. I wonder what it would feel like to belong in this red dirt, safe in high altitude, cupped in the mouth of the mountains.
I am grateful to the National LGBTQ Task Force for their information on hate crimes gathered through their 2011 survey of transgender individuals. I am in debt, also, to authors Ralph Moody, Hampton Sides, and Marc Simmons, for their research on Kit Carson, as demonstrated in Kit Carson and the Wild Frontier, Blood and Thunder, and Kit Carson & His Three Wives, respectively.