In the 30-plus years since my tire-screeching departure after grabbing my diploma from the sweaty hands of my high school principal, Northeastern Ohio has changed only in that it is now even more conservative. At 18, I drove away from oversized hair and stagnantly closed minds, determined to try my luck anywhere but the Midwest. I have no place here in Ohio and never did.
I’m spending the week helping my 80-year-old mother, from whom I am mostly estranged, care for herself after knee replacement surgery. It is 560 miles between my current mountain home to the burdened land where my ancestors have squatted for generations. I’ve covered those miles by driving North in my rickety camper built the year I graduated from high school that I euphemistically call “vintage.
Every day I'm there, I leave my mom's farm and drive to town to gather supplies. Each trip results in long stares and raised eyebrows from the Trump-loving locals. I rarely feel unsafe as a visibly queer and trans person, but here I do. The vitriol on the white Christian faces has driven more than one queer into the embrace of sin, AKA San Francisco.
It’s a long week.
As I ready myself to leave, I realize I don’t have to be home for another two days. The time spreads out in front of me, golden and sweet. I need this time to process the week with my mom. I text a friend, “I can’t tell if I am completely okay or totally disassociated.” My friend texts back, “Maybe it’s both.”
A solo-road trip sounds excellent, winding slowly back down south. I whisper my intention at the gas pump, “May today bring me exactly the magick I need.”
In the Southwest corner of present-day Ohio exists the Great Serpent Mound. It is the largest effigy mound in North America at 1,348 feet in length, 25 feet in width, and three feet high, complete with seven curvatures and a triple spiral tail. This holy mother was constructed approximately 2300 years ago by Native cultures whose names are reconstructions: the Fort Ancient Culture and later the Adena Culture.
Doing my homework, I learned that the snake surrounds an egg and was built on an ancient meteor impact site called an astrobleme. This meteor impact occurred during the Permian Period, about 248 to 286 million years ago. In the center of the structure, sedimentary strata have been uplifted several hundred feet, resembling the central uplifts of lunar craters.
I’m curious enough about the snake effigy to linger in Ohio. I drive for hours, leaving the highway for the two-lane country roads replete with pick-up trucks and Dollar General. Arriving at the mound, the park is closed for the night. I’m too nervous about sneaking in. I decide to wild camp in my rig and arrive at the mound first thing in the morning. I scout a good location, up a dirt road, in the middle of an empty field near the serpent’s head.
Traveling in Scotland, I was enchanted by their “right to roam” law which strikes a balance between the right to access land and water and owning private property. Basically, you can visit and camp on the land, swim in lakes and rivers, hike, and explore historic sites, even if they are on private property. This is a good law. Because, after all, how can one really “own” property? Can you pick it up and take it with you? No. The land is here for all of us to live on. We are made of it. Perhaps my anarchist sensibility runs too deep, but the concept of private property as applied to land is a weird construct.
I’m tucked in for the night, and the late dusk softens the world. I am aware that there are “right” ways to be in relationship with new and old places. How one approaches a new place matters. When first arriving in a place, it’s polite to make a land offering to the local spirits and guardians, thanking them for having you. I decide to do this in the morning. This was a mistake.
I crack a beer and am lounging in my camper when a car horn blares and won’t stop. Decidedly jarring, I pull on pants and stagger into the unrelenting high beams of a car pointed directly at me. A voice begins to yell at me, even before I can see it. I know this is most likely not going to go well, but I think it is probably best to deal with it head-on.
I approach, and in a big truck is an irate older woman, screaming her head off at me. Her words are barely decipherable. She is so enraged. I see an older man sitting in the passenger seat, and he looks confused. I can hear “MY PROPERTY!” and “GET THE FUCK OUT!” “MY PROPERTY!”
I gather from those words she would politely like to ask me to gather my things and go. I feel a bit scared but also taken aback. This woman is so triggered, and I am clearly not a threat. I say authentically, “I am so sorry. I will go.” It wasn’t my intention to disrupt her evening, merely to find a place to rest. How true my apology feels surprises me. Nothing in me wants to fight with her; I am just sorry.
The truck waits as she guns the engine while I prepare to leave and do. She follows me a mile down the road, flashing her lights and honking. I drive slowly, trying to decide what to do next. I realize that my reading glasses are lost in the back of the camper and that I have no cell reception anyway. I’m going to have to navigate by feel.
I’ve already scoped the location near the mound, and know there is nowhere good to camp, so I head down a dirt road, then another, and another. At each turn, I feel into it. Which is the right way to go?
As a child, my mother had several impactful talks with me about my “conscience.” These usually occurred after I had done something terrible: put the cat in the fridge to see what would happen or poured water all over the floor to make it slippery. From what I could gather as a child, my conscience was something inside me that helped me “feel” what was the good thing to do and what would piss my mother off.
It’s not precisely my conscience that I’m using to decide my route, but it is a felt sense. I follow my nose through the pitch-black night amidst curving winding roads. It’s late by the time I pull into the ATV state recreation area, thinking this might be a good place to rest. It’s private, and I hope no one will bother me here.
I lay down to rest, but my body won’t relax. I’ve done many sketchy questionable things when I travel. Still, I realize that the information I’m receiving from my body jives with what my brain knows. I’m in rural Ohio, but I don’t know where. No one knows where I am. I’m trans. I’ve told my partner I’m safe for the night. I have no cell reception. I have no glasses. I’m hidden from view in an area well known by locals. Probably it would be okay, but I shouldn’t risk it. I’ve got to find another place to be.
Again, I hop out of the camper and reconnect the battery terminals so the thing will start. Yes, it’s that janky. I start driving again. I had a good activist friend in college who doled out this good anti-authoritarian advice: When you don't know which way to go, go left. Left it was as I pulled out of the ATV park onto the darkened road.
Another 30 minutes of fields, curves, and occasional darkened farmhouses. It’s so late, and my eyes are weary. I start to pray out loud, to my ancestors, to the spirits of this land, to whoever is benevolently listening. “I need some help, y’awl.” Miles go by. Many turns. More prayers, “LIke, a campground. That’s what I need. Can you please guide me towards a campground?”
Suddenly, a bright green blaze crosses the sky over yet another field. An emerald blur from the right side of the field, down low to the left. It’s burned low to the ground. If it were light out, I would have tried to find where the meteor landed. My attention is drawn in the direction it fell, and there it is. A sign, faded and worn, with an arrow and one word: camping. The brakes squeal as I make the left turn too quickly.
More miles and miles of road.Five. Ten. Fifteen. I pass a cemetery. Decide not to sleep there.
Again, I speak out loud, “Y’awl, I have faith, but I am starting to doubt this story will end well tonight. A campground? Please?”
And then there it is. On my right, I see the dim outline of an RV. A gravel driveway. I pull in. Almost all of the spots are available. Finally, I rest.
When I wake in the morning, the sun is golden. The late spring green of the sacred world glows, and the breeze is warm. I eat my yogurt and berries slowly, savoring the morning. As I pull out, I blow a kiss to the ancestors, the guides, and the land.
Later that morning, as I wind and wind towards the direction I think is home, my heart cracks open. Too tired last night to consider the miracle of the green flash, the morning brings contemplation. I was guided. That is clear.
But why was going to the Serpent Mound not the right thing?
I’m fighting with the lady from last night in my head. She appeared like a middle-aged conservative white lady. Probably Christian. Why are conservative midwestern Christians so hypocritical? Why is their god so desecrated? What about love and acceptance, kindness to strangers, offering succor and respite to weary travelers? Christian charity? Ooh, I hate hypocrisy. And why am I fighting with someone who is not even here? Why was she so full of hate for me? Because it did feel personal when she screamed, “Why did you ever think it would be okay for you to be here???”
What did she see? Did she see a middle-aged person, like herself, who was unafraid to travel alone? To take risks? To read as queer and trans and other, amid a culture that kills its own if they are in the littlest way different? What was the trauma that had her read me as a threat?
As I ponder, I soften. I don’t know anything about her and her life, what dreams she may have had, or who she may have lost. I have received a gift from her: be soft with strangers. Be gentle, be loving. I’m glad I said none of the ugly things I could have. I appreciate the healing that has made my heart soft enough to be in a good way.
I can feel the land here, thrumming with life. When the tears come, I start to understand something new about the pain of colonization. I’m driving and crying, which is a favorite combo. When the grief gets stronger, the words “I’m so sorry” are what pour, repeatedly, from within. The same thing I said and meant to the lady from last night. Except now I’m saying it to the land and the original inhabitants. I am so, so sorry for what my ancestors did to you. For what we continue to do. From the marrow of my bones, I feel the wrongness. My deep felt remorse was precisely the same as I had spoken the previous evening: I am so, so sorry.
At that exact moment, as I round a hairpin turn in the country glow of morning, I realize: I didn’t make an offering to that land where I squatted. While part of what I met in that lady was a traumatized, raging, and entitled white lady, another layer was the rage of the untended great mother serpent. The unacknowledged rape of the land. The native tourism I had been about to participate in because I hadn’t checked in with my conscience and thought it would be cool. Understood through that lens, the wrath I had experienced was deserved. In fact, it’s a gift.
Queerness offers you a unique sensitivity to the world. Often painful, yet there are moments when you can be so grateful for the exquisite sensation of sensing your conscience. I appreciate feeling the difference between what is right and what will piss your Mother off.