From Monday, November 12, to Friday, the sixteenth, I camped in the woods of the Manistee National Forest, a twenty-two minute drive northeast of my hometown of Montague, Michigan.
I camped with two of my brothers, two nephews, one cousin, and a family friend.
It’s our family deer camp.
It’s a place to which, the past three years, I thought I would never return, because I was a transgender woman.
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When I was a kid, I tried to get into hunting. I found it to be too much walking and sitting, with too little action. Oh, and it was always so stinking cold.
In 1981, my dad, three brothers, and a few others, decided to camp, rather than daily make the drive to and from home. This caught my attention. I decided to give it a try. In 1982, I became a member of what was quickly named “Dead End Camp,” because, well, camp was set up at the dead end of a two-track road. (That road has since been blocked off by the state. We’ve now moved two times, but still are in the same section of woods.)
(A note for those who do not know what a two-track road is, which, by moving to Iowa in the 1990s, I learned that not all people use this term, though these roads exist everywhere. They are little used, unimproved roads which, by the two tracks of tires that create and sustain them, have a hump of grass in the center, making them, you got it, two-track roads.)
I loved the camping and being with the guys. At one point, our number swelled to over a dozen for the first couple of days of hunting, a mixture of relatives and friends. We developed traditions, such as Festivities Night, which is the eve of Opening Day, when everyone brings some sort of finger food—deviled eggs, rumaki, ham-and-cream-cheese-wrapped pickles, sausage, cheese, and the like—which we set out as the hoity-toity-ly named hors d’oeuvres table. For Festivities Night, we make an oversized campfire. I always had the honors of building it, often making it so large you couldn’t stand within fifteen feet of it, and which we joked that it could be seen from outer space. The festivities were topped off by the reading of the camp poem, which was created by my younger brother, Dave, who wrote it until he ran out of ideas, and then by me for over a decade.
Everyone had his own duties. Older brother Tom was the natural Camp Coordinator. Youngest brother, Mark, was Camp Grounds, because he loved to rake and tidy the camp. I was Camp Pyro, because of my too-large fires. After Dad no longer was able to camp, I took over the cooking of breakfast. Everyone did his part, such as washing dishes. Nothing was left to chance.
In my first years of hunting, I did not see a buck so as to be able to shoot my gun. Though I didn’t want to give up camping with the gang, the long, cold hours sitting in the woods became an unbearable chore. The morning of Opening Day 1986, my fifth year of hunting, I decided that I would hunt out the day, tell the guys I was done, go home, and never return.
After lunch, I sat in a different spot. I wasn’t sitting ten minutes when Tom’s brother-in-law, who had just shot at a buck, hollered, “Shoot him, Greg!” Before I could think, “Shoot what?” the buck came into view. He was forty yards away, running all out—carrying the mail, as we say—from my right to left.
I began shooting.
I had a shotgun. It held three shells. For having never shot at a deer, I unloaded in quick succession, as if I had done it many times. Thankfully, after the third shot, he dropped.
Amazing myself, I remained calm as I adroitly opened my gun and inserted a fresh shell. I carefully walked up to the buck, which was struggling to stand. Dad’s advice, spoken years earlier, rang inside me: “If you have to finish off a deer, plunk it behind the ear.” And so I did. I walked up to that buck, and with no hesitation I plunked him behind the ear.
He stopped moving and my jaws started moving. I screamed at the top of my lungs: “I got one! I got one! I got one!”
Finally succeeding at bagging a buck, it forever changed my attitude about hunting. Even when I would go a couple of years in a row where I saw no deer during my three to six days of hunting—which were determined by what day of the week November fifteenth’s Opening Day landed and how much vacation time I had—I sustained a love for hunting, for sitting in the woods, and, ahem, reading novels while doing so. (Hey, the hours grow long out there.)
When I moved away in 1992 to go to seminary, and then was a pastor in Iowa, and finally on the other side of Michigan from Montague, going home to camp often was the only time each year that I saw family. Deer camp grew precious. Each year, when we passed Halloween, I counted down the days the way kids do anticipating Christmas.
And then, in 2014, I revealed my gender dysphoria, and that I might need to try transitioning in order to see if it would relieve my suicidal thoughts and fear of losing my mind. I retired from the ministry that summer. I attended camp in 2014.
In 2015, I transitioned to living full time as a woman. I didn’t even have to ask if I would be welcome at camp. Things already had been said. Besides, while I knew a few of the guys would be okay—they would accept what they knew about me, and it would be tempered because, at camp, I would be dressed as they always knew me, in the usual casual clothes and hunting garb—I knew specific ones who would not be able to abide my presence.
Missing camp in 2015 caused me to suffer a terrible meltdown, which lasted for days. 2016 was hard, but not as intense. Last year, I barely was affected. 2018 brought the dramatic change in me, which had me announce in July that I now felt completely male and had resumed living as Greg.
When two brothers, who still are at this camp—last year, one brother fulfilled a long-held dream, buying land and a cabin north of home—urged me to come to camp this year, I was slow to be interested. I knew I wouldn’t hunt, for two reasons. First, a non-resident license is nearly $200. Second, with Opening Day on Thursday, I wouldn’t be able to hunt more than a day or two.
Mostly, I had gotten out of my heart the desire to be at camp, and I didn’t know if I wanted to get back into it.
But, I knew that I needed to seize the opportunity to get reintegrated with family. It was important that I show my brothers how important to me it was that they invited me. And, I knew full well that once I got there I would be happy about it. Plus, when at camp I can drive into town and see other family and friends.
As I made my way to Michigan on Monday morning, I found myself to be in the groove. I was excited and really looking forward to camp and being with the guys.
Because I was three days ahead of Opening Day, I would be at camp by myself the first two days. Mark had his trailer set up, which is where I have slept for years. I got my old bed back.
From Tuesday evening through Wednesday afternoon, the others streamed in. Each one greeted me as usual. All of them said they were pleased to see me, that they were glad I was there. No one acted oddly as to all that had transpired with me, and it would not be fodder for conversation. Only in private, with two of the guys, did I have any openings to discuss my situation.
As much as I long for my loved ones to show their concern by asking me about all that I’ve experienced and suffered, I understand that it’s just too much for them—truly, too weird—and so I have to take their being happy to be back with them as confirmation that they love and accept me.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. As much as we long for acceptance and understanding from others, it’s on us to give to others the same level of bearing with them.
As for me, they saw the same guy they always knew. If they had any fears that I would be different, or not as goofy, they should have quickly melted away.
I plan to return next year. I’m still not sure whether I will hunt, the price of a non-resident license standing as a cost which I might not be able to swallow. But, I’ll be there. Hanging with the guys. Acting like an idiot. Savoring the treats on Festivity Night’s hors d’oeuvre table.
And frying the eggs for the guys every morning.