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As a 33-year-old transgender woman, Lyla “Sugar” Harrod wasn’t sure it would be safe for her to hike the Appalachian Trail when she set out in the spring of 2021. She knew she would encounter the same hurdles as every hiker, like staying injury-free and getting into town to resupply. But she was especially worried about facing judgment as a trans woman on the trail.
“The world and how it interacts with me changed the day I came out as trans,” says Harrod.
But she decided to go for it. In late March, Harrod set off from Springer Mountain in Georgia and hiked 2,193 miles north to Maine’s Mount Katahdin, completing the AT in four and a half months. Here’s what her experience was like and what she learned en route.
Representing Your Identity on the Trail Is a Battle
Thru-hikers often adopt trail names to express their alter egos or embarrassing qualities while on trail. Exploring identity as a transgender hiker is just as important as it is for other hikers. It also comes with challenges of its own. After coming out in 2018, when she was 30, Harrod started hormone-replacement therapy and began adjusting her appearance. But thru-hiking created complications for her gender expression. “I feel like I’ve worked so hard to be able to present myself authentically,” she says. “Yet on trail I have to put things in boxes sometimes.”
Encountering transphobia and being misgendered were the two biggest concerns Harrod had prior to starting the trail. “And both of those things happened,” she says. “They will happen on every single trail I go on.”
Harrod was in Fontana Dam, North Carolina, when she first noticed another hiker leering at her and her hiking partner, Oliver “Bowie” Henderson (they/them). Feeling unsettled by the attention, she kept her distance, focusing instead on her trail chores. After a while, the hiker approached Harrod and asked if she and Henderson were “boyfriend and girlfriend.”
A quick conversation followed and the hiker left her alone, but it’s a social situation Harrod says she often faces. “People look at us funny and try to figure out what’s going on,” she says.
Resupplies Are Much Harder
When it came to maintaining safety while thru-hiking, one environment in particular raised the hair on Harrod’s arms. “I think that hitchhiking is the scariest part,” she says.
Along the AT, hikers typically hitchhike into and out of towns about once a week to resupply for their next stretch of trail. Sometimes it’s possible to arrange a shuttle to a nearby grocery store. More often than not, walking or hitchhiking are the only viable options, and because towns can be dozens of miles away from the nearest trail access, walking can prove impractical.
Harrod and Henderson were hitching out of North Adams, Massachusetts, when they saw a truck parked on the side of the road that reeked of marijuana. They decided to put their thumbs down, walk past the truck, and wait until they rounded the corner to hail a ride. But it wasn’t long before the truck whipped around and rolled up next to the duo.
“They said, ‘Hey, you girls need a ride?’ And then they saw my face, and that I was transgender, and said, “Whoa, you’re kind of scaring me a bit,’” Harrod recalls. She immediately turned down the ride.
There were a number of different hitches she accepted with vehicles displaying the Confederate flag and Trump stickers. In such scenarios, usually Henderson would do the talking, because it allowed Harrod to bypass questions about her gender and her voice. And once inside those vehicles, Harrod carefully chose the misgendering battles that she picked. “If I’m already in the back seat of someone’s car and they misgender me,” she says, “it’s not the time to get into a conversation that might enrage him if he finds out I’m trans.”
It Can Be Challenging to Join the Bubble
At a time when 46 percent of transgender people in the U.S. have reported being verbally harassed, 47 percent physically attacked, and 47 percent sexually assaulted during their lifetime, Harrod’s fears aren’t unwarranted. Violence against transgender people is widespread and active. Yet 1.4 million adults identify as transgender, and 12 percent of millennials identify as transgender or gender nonconforming—a significant portion of the U.S. population.
Harrod knew that the Appalachian Trail wasn’t immune to violence when she began her hike, and she took extra steps to keep herself safe on trail. She and Henderson carefully deliberated over which social gatherings felt comfortable, to avoid conversations about her gender or sexual preferences. “We didn’t go out to bars. Wherever the big hiker gatherings were, we didn’t go,” she says. “It’s not that we didn’t want to hang out. But when people have drinks, they tend to say things they wouldn’t otherwise say.”
There’s Still a Strong Community to Be Found
One strategy that helped Harrod navigate awkward social situations was surrounding herself with like-minded hikers. As a gender-queer hiker, Henderson faced many of the same challenges as Harrod on the trail. Any time uncertainty arose among fellow hikers over Harrod’s pronouns, Henderson made a point of leading the conversation with the correct verbiage.
“When in person, humans are humans,” Harrod says. “And most humans are good.”
After returning home from the AT, Harrod continued thru-hiking, heading to the 230-mile Bay Circuit Trail in Massachusetts, where she set a fastest known time of six days, seven hours, and seven minutes when she finished on September 3. Then she completed the 800-mile Arizona Trail in the fall. She’s since returned to Massachusetts for the winter and is preparing for the Continental Divide Trail.
Harrod hopes to see more nonbinary and transgender hikers on long-distance trails in the future. She recommends connecting with other like-minded individuals before hitting the trail. “Make sure you know that you’re not the only one out there. Send me a message—I love talking to other trans hikers,” she says. “Seek out other people who have gone through similar experiences.”