Preface: I’ve spent most of the last four weeks dealing with an apocalypse that we never believed was coming. The first days, it was trauma and acute care, “LGBT Battle Medics, check your circles!” just making sure people were safe. Talking each other off the ledge we suddenly found ourselves on. Meeting with like-minded folks to plan on how to deal with those who might be suddenly homeless or on-the-run. As the weeks have gone on, fatigue is setting in.
As a straight, cisgender woman I work with said, “It just won’t go away, it’s always there, sucking my emotional energy away.” People are blowing up at meetings, losing stuff, getting in car accidents, drinking way too much, and the inauguration is still six weeks away. Me? I have a nursing job that entails making rapid decisions at high speed with minimum data. It’s something I’m really, really good at, and lately, I’ve just plain sucked. I’m back to meditating every day, doing tai chi at lunch, and it’s helping. When a new snowboard arrived on my doorstep, something I’d ordered back in February, I thought, “What the fuck?! This life is over.” But, there was a set of bindings on the shelf, and I went about mounting them anyway, while thinking about how this particular board came to be, and writing always helps.
“Oi! I found another one!”
I looked up, startled. I had just gotten off the summit lift at Stratton Mountain, and was buckling into my second demo board of the day. A woman on an Alpine snowboard in a bright blue helmet came up alongside me in the water and slush where I had stopped, took a hard look at me, and called back to her companions like a biologist on a collecting trip that’s just found another rare mushroom. She turned back to me. “I’m Steph. Coming on the women’s ride?”
Busted. “Um. . .I’m Gail. Uh, sure.”
“Great! Come on, we’ve got just enough time to get back to the base lodge. I think we’ve got about eight women.” Steph took off at good speed, a study in incredible grace and skill in truly disgusting conditions, and I followed as best I could on an unforgiving, unfamiliar board through ice running over with water.
Doesn’t it just figure, I thought to myself. I had originally planned on three days at the East Coast Expression Session, the every-other-year gathering of hardbooters- Alpine snowboarders- at Stratton Mountain, but had only been able to get one day off work. I badly wanted to demo a bunch of boards for my return to snowboarding, and was planning on doing a Harry Potter, riding the lift alone, making no noise, and pretending I didn’t exist. So, of course, I almost immediately ran into Steph and her husband, the organizers of the event. Steph had announced the women’s ride on the forum, and I said I’d be there, but I’d been having second-third-ninety-ninth thoughts and was planning on just fading into the slush and not showing up for the ride. It’d be easy because I didn’t know anyone outside of the online forums. No chance now.
Sigh. It had been a tough winter, so far. Divorced in the fall from my transmale spouse, I had spent most of the winter being miserable and hating the cold. How was this possible? Thirty years in the ski industry, I had lived for winter more than half of my life. The two seasons my spouse and I spent motorcycle racing had ended that, and nearly everything else. It just wasn’t possible to focus on anything other than racing. I had sold all of my Alpine gear, which hadn’t brought much, admittedly. It’s a small community, and evidently shrinking. For my very tentative return to snowboarding, I had bought some ragged, beat-up gear on eBay to see whether I could remember how to ride, spent a hilarious afternoon at Sunapee finding out that I did, and wrote about it on the forum under my usual nickname: HammerWoman. I decided rather late to go to Stratton for this event, and so, wound up with only one day.
“My trans activism was getting to the point where the boundaries between my activism and my personal life were slipping.”
It wasn’t the time constraints that had me skipping the women’s ride. Like I said, the winter had been tough. My trans activism was getting to the point where the boundaries between my activism and my personal life were slipping. Had slipped, actually, and I had realized it possibly too late.
Years before, a couple of trans friends and I had declared the first Friday of every month to be First Fridays with Gail, or Freaks Night Out. This was a by-invitation gathering of trans friends and partners hosted by me at some local restaurant or other; some of those outings have passed into legend, and are mentioned in the acknowledgements of (so far) one book. Oh, and when a writer friend puts his phone on “record,” sets it down and says, “Tell me story. . .” well, you’re on your own. Then, in the fall, I had begun a support group for “all who transgress gender,” and inevitably, it became hard to tell the support group from the Friday Night Freaks and vice-versa, and assumptions started to get made about what was okay, and, well, I eventually had to put my foot down, and Freaks Night Out was no more.
“It had been so long since I’d just allowed myself a day off, to just be a, well, to just be a woman with no asterisk, warning label, or speculation about the origin of my breasts or the configuration of my genitalia.”
I had watched this happen to friends in the past. Of course, I was still doing panel discussions, presentations, etc., whenever anyone needed some gendertrash to gawk at, I was posting trans-related stuff on Facebook pretty frequently, and when the aforementioned friend’s book came out and I wound up coming out kind of unexpectedly at one of his readings to a cute dyke that had expressed an interest, I’d kind of had it. This big, bad transactivist needed a damn day off. Look, I’m just not as tough as Sophie Labelle. I’m not. I wish I was. It had been so long since I’d just allowed myself a day off, to just be a, well, to just be a woman with no asterisk, warning label, or speculation about the origin of my breasts or the configuration of my genitalia. All the same, going on the women’s ride without that label felt like cheating, somehow, yet here I was, climbing into Stratton’s eight-pack gondola with seven other women, making introductions. What a group! Heavy hitters, here, a former national-class racer, shop owners, all really experienced riders, and me with only a few runs in my return to the sport, swapping to a new unfamiliar board about every other run. And the rain fell in sheets, and the wind howled around our gondola car. When we were on the hill riding, we didn’t notice the weather, and in the gondola on the way up, we were too busy laughing. Talk turned to the online forum, and I got a huge surprise. “You’re HammerWoman? We love you! You’re hilarious!”
And what riding. Whoa, could these women ride. Big variations in body type and board preference led to big differences in style, but all rode with grace and finesse, and did they know snowboards. In between laughing and talking about the runs we were taking was lots of discussion about board design, materials, and designers. They were all dismissive of the boards I was demoing, for sure, especially Steph. “Why do you keep taking out those men’s boards?”
“Seriously. They’re far too stiff, especially in the nose, and completely unsuited to your riding style. You work with the terrain, and enter your turns softly, varying the edge pressure by twisting the board on its long axis, only giving it full pressure when you’re ready. Or you try to—I can see you fighting those 2X4s you’re riding. Those are designed to just power through everything, and dominate the hill. That’s the way men ride. You’re a woman, you ride like a woman, you need a woman’s board. You need to talk to Bruce.”
“I ride like a woman. How. . . interesting? Strange? Validating? Absurd?”
I ride like a woman. How. . . interesting? Strange? Validating? Absurd? My former spouse had said the same thing, wonderingly, after watching me from the back deck of the Pat’s Peak base lodge, years before, coming down from the mid-station lift. “You have a very womanly way on a snowboard.” I had asked what was meant by that. “I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s obvious that you’re a woman on that board, from as far away as I can see you, and people standing around were asking each other, ‘What’s she riding?’ because they’ve obviously never seen a hardbooter before. They knew you were a woman a quarter-mile away.” Well, yeah I am, but, well, you know, bone structure and all that? And I’ve always ridden this way.
In the end, nobody could seem to find Bruce around the vendor area, so Steph and Andrea marched me into the lodge, and set out to find Bruce, which they finally did. “Bruce, Gail. Gail, Bruce. She needs to ride the Energy board.”
Bruce walked over, big smile, arms wide. “I have to hug you, I’m Canadian.” Well, okay then. Not a reason I’d heard before. It was late in the day by that time, and the vendors were starting to pack up after standing around in freezing water all day, but Bruce swapped the bindings over from the last board I had demoed and brought out the Energy for me, or more properly, a 170cm Coiler Nirvana Free Carve Energy. His wife’s board. The board the women I’d been riding with all day were sure was going to be the answer, the board I’d been looking for. We walked over to the gondola base, and groaned in unison as we hauled ourselves up the metal stairs to the terminal one last time; we were all pretty well exhausted, and I had taken a spill the run before that had seriously tweaked my left knee. I was hoping this board would be at least half-decent; the day had been so good, and I wanted to end on a high note. I seriously didn’t want to look Steph and Andrea (and Bruce) in the eye and tell them the board they thought would be so perfect for me didn’t work me any more than the “men’s” boards. Outside the summit gondola terminal, I kicked myself a platform out of the wind where I could buckle in, and thought, well, here goes, and pushed off down the hill into the flat late-afternoon light.
No other word. I could roll over from one edge to the other, initiating turns with the slightest feather touch, and I could feel that touch, like my nerve endings went right out to the edges. . . then I could progressively feed power to the edge until it had everything I could give it, and come out of the turn at full power, only to roll over and just touch my edge on the. . . snow? Hardly. Ice, frozen slush, bulletproof, whatever. Unfamiliar board, horrible snow surface, way too tired, and I’m dancing. I poured on more and more speed, big turns, small turns, even cross-unders. “Energy board” is right, I thought, and it’s feeding me energy all the way down. All I could do at the bottom was grin at Steph, and at Bruce, who had come out to watch me on the lower part of the run. I handed the board back to Bruce, and have no idea what I said. I’m sure there was at least another hug.
“I had spent the day wrapped in love and belonging, and I’d had a panel of expert women riders declare that I ‘ride like a woman.'”
I changed out of the demo boots, and took them out to Angie and Jim of Bomber Outfitters, who wanted a quick review of all the boards I had ridden. I was honest, and when I declared the first board I had ridden that morning, the one I had done the most research on and went there mainly to pick out the size, as “completely horrible,” they nodded, and said they were trying to encourage the builder to discontinue it. I took my gear bag out to my car, and saw that I had a lot of time before the event banquet. I felt better than I had in longer than I could remember, and I wandered around the “village” of hotels and restaurants and retail shops at the base of Stratton, not wanting it to end. Snow? Pathetic. Weather? Miserable. But I’d found the board that was the answer, and most important, I had spent the day wrapped in love and belonging, and I’d had a panel of expert women riders declare that I “ride like a woman,” and they were even able to tell me what that meant. We all sat together at the banquet, laughed some more and talked and flirted and the next morning I emailed Bruce and ordered my new board. He had watched me ride his wife’s board, asked me what I liked about it (and didn’t), how much I weigh, all that, and the final design of the board would be tweaked a bit to match.
Nine months on, and the board conceived that day has finally been birthed. Bruce only builds one batch of boards a year, and there were multiple emails giving progress reports during the spring, summer, and fall while I healed from a Roller Derby injury and the political circus played on. Last Friday, UPS delivered a long, thin package, and my new board, with the retro-longboard hibiscus graphics (chosen by me, of course) arrived on my doorstep. I’m pretty content, usually, to have more questions about identity and gender than answers, but I’ve never had an answer about my identity quite so amazing as this beautiful board with my initials in the serial number and “HammerWoman” in sparkly silver letters on the nose. It’s just a thing, I know, but it’s also a reminder of one of the most perfect days of my life.
“I’m not expecting—or pretending—that life is going to go along as normal from here. It certainly isn’t go the way we were hoping; that possibility is already gone.”
On some levels, getting ready to play in the snow seems ridiculous right now. I’m not expecting—or pretending—that life is going to go along as normal from here. It certainly isn’t go the way we were hoping; that possibility is already gone. How long I have before they come for me, I have no idea, but I’m going to continue my work in our community until they do. And I’m gonna rock this board.
Gail Catherine Piche is a nurse, support-group facilitator, musician, and occasional writer. She can usually be found on a motorcycle, roller skates, snowboard, or crutches, and can be contacted via Facebook.