CARTOGRAPHIES’ | A Good Compass Doesn’t Always Point Straight

by Miles Griffis


The post “coming out” wilderness may be the last great wilderness. We discover its vastness as soon as the concealing mirage evanescence. The same tired illusion that promises us that once we divulge our orientation that everything “gets better.” Where in truth, peregrination and cartography of that nettlesome wilderness prove the most difficult endeavor of the queer expedition.

No maps sketch this wilderness’ handsome topography of resilient escarpments and coy cays. No, there are isthmuses we cannot concede and there are archipelagos, atolls, and capes that are spanked by a squirrely sea. Scientific catalogues do not document the flora or fauna but folklore mentions everything from boa constrictors to inch worms wagging in the bushy canopies.

Even our most elaborate technologies cannot document this wild frontier. If you search Google Earth for aerial grabs of the hinterland they are fuzzed and pixelated. In such poor resolution, grand canyons are mistaken for salty sounds, mountain tops for river bottoms.

Yet somehow, chronicles linger from the ambitious expeditions of these landscapes; when we successfully fought our oppressors and marked the enclave with our polychromatic flag.While we’ve been prolific throughout much of our secret existence, the sad fact of our modern history remains: many of our great explorers and could-have-been role models died thin and young a few decades ago.

As a boy growing up beneath the bluffs of the Colorado Rockies, I was understandably drawn to maps. I adored the drama implied by their steep topographics and imagined the performance of the buttes sashaying across the plateau. I scribbled cross-country routes over mountain saddles, guesstimated caves for retreat, and found comfort in the common sense of trail systems. I was taught to read these maps by books and by bright- eyed camp counselors who later introduced their closest compatriot—the compass.

“How many degrees differ between true geodetic and magnetic North?” It’s a good question few ponder but whose answer is reckoned by magnetic declination. It won’t matter to most, but at a certain point a young girl or boy or genderqueer child realizes that the map they were handed by ancestors, television, and institutions does not describe their surroundings.

It’s like being handed a map of a country club in Greenwich Connecticut, when you are threading the saguaros of the Sonoran desert in search of groundwater. But it is in this confusion, the few degrees between geodetic and magnetic that grant the explorer a permit to the aforementioned, flamboyant boondocks.

The standard “coming out” narrative has been written into the ground. Catalyzed by the “It Gets Better Project” and various YouTube vloggers’ informal imitations, braver narratives emerged from a millennial contingent and the movement spread to the mainstream as a deluge of coming out tales by athletes and actors plastered the front cover of magazines. Visibility—magnificent. Acceptance—ascending.

While these stories are commendable leaps from the confines of the closet, they often assert the allusion that once out, all anxieties drop and everything “gets better,” when the reality is that many times, things get much, much worse, before getting better.

Most of these narratives exclude the underlying details that brew a perfect storm: the high pressures of internal homophobia, twisters of delayed sexual experimentation, and hailstones the size of our greater insecurities. It also excludes the multifarious layers of shame, post- closet depression, and non-stop Peter Pan Syndrome that can claim Never Never Land well into senility.

For the hardest part of “coming out,” at least for me, was not the act itself, but sketching my own map of my new frontier amongst the man-eating monsters, ghosts, and wildflowers staring vainly at themselves in the the cataracts of the creek.

Perhaps you descend into the deep wilderness by way of rural mellows. Instead of dipping your toes, cliff jump into a mega-city. Swim for a little and tread when tired. There is a reason it is the most common sojourn.

Many desire the gorge of New York or the gales beside Chicago’s great lake. But for those who want the inferno of Los Angeles, be hawk-eyed. You see, I was a cocky little augur, listening to the tales of hummingbirds. I believed that my extensive backcountry knowledge—years of leading wilderness trips in the boonies of Australia, the American West, and lakes of Canada—prepared me for any wilderness, so I tailed the little ruby-throated fuckers to the famous Southern Californian chaparral.

Regardless of backcountry experience, there are miserable encounters you cannot plan for. In a city as big as this, there will always be catfish mucking around in the mud. There will always be partners kidnapping strays they’ve come across in the park.There will be boyfriends whose boyfriends have boyfriends. Also, know that no matter what beaches you boogie-board, there is not a perfect man- loving doppleganger of your sophomoric mate swept away from you years ago by the rip of heterosexuality.

But among the murk and mire, wait patiently at the toes of the range— a small handful of significance will strum a song that lifts you over the pass.

As you ascend, only by familiarity can you begin to sketch your map with your unique boundaries. Again, only by experience and exploration can you turn a topological map into a topographic. With great elevation you will name the borders dividing each princeless province.

Perhaps you block off the indulgences you see far below in the valley, where the boys take pride in their uninhibitedness, claiming themselves better and happier for it. Perhaps you block off the cordiality of the kikis of the watering holes. Perhaps you protest by overdressing and promise to fall for the man transfixed by the hawk instead of the buck at the rave. But to completely understand the lay of the land, only great heights lend help. Only from high altitude can we trace where we’ve been.

I reckon as a stripling growing up below the bluffs of boyhood that I found maps and the outdoors alluring because only through orienteering can you learn how to find your way when you aren’t sure of your orientation.

Written by Miles Griffis