Home on the Range

By Greg Archer

Originally published on Advocate.com July 17 2009 12:00 AM ET

Think of Wade Rouse as the gay love child of Henry David Thoreau and David Sedaris. But strip the beast of his designer jeans, toss him into the forest with a lover, some critters, and a smorgasbord of curious neighbors -- one of whom is really hungry to show off his man burrito -- and you have the makings of a wicked black comedy. It's all chronicled in Rouse's third book, a savage, often touching memoir dubbed At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream . In it, the author of America's Boy and Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler confesses, among other things, how he and his partner Gary grew so weary of the threesome they were having with the American Dream in 2006 that they dumped the big city -- St. Louis in this case -- and ran screaming into the woods. Here the writer opens up about how living a simpler life gave him a deeper appreciation for Thoreau's epiphanies and also helped him sharpen his mind, his wit, and other creative weapons of mass deconstruction.

Advocate.com:OK. Why did you move to the woods -- really?Wade Rouse: I was insanely unhappy in my job, which I chronicled in my last book, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler . I had sold out for the job that had a lot of cash and power -- or least I thought it did -- only to find out I had sold out to myself. That coincided with turning 40 and finding these letters that my grandmother had written me. She was one of the early Walden devotees. She used to sit out on the porch in the old log cabin in the Ozarks and read to me from the Bible and Walden . She said the Bible was for her afterlife and Walden was for her "for here" life. So, all these things coalesced. The letters told me not to fall into a particular route [of the world] because once you do, you can't really get yourself off of it. So, [my partner] Gary and I had gone on vacation to Saugatuck, Mich., and we just fell in love with it. We literally leapt off the bridge without parachutes. We sold the house, moved 400 miles [from St. Louis] to the woods. I decided to try and be happy and follow my passion.

From the book, I get the sense that you have some Eva Gabor in Green Acres in you.Very much. I mean, I hate to be stereotypical, but I am very culturally obsessed. I love cable TV. I love Kenneth Cole. I put him on par with Ghandi as far as great contributions to the world. This stuff had really great meaning to me. To move and try to forgo that, even for a very short period of time, was incredibly difficult. We live a quarter of a mile from the country store, and if you watch the video we shot there, it's pretty terrifying. There's ammo, Scotch tape, and all the stuff you need to drag me behind a trailer. It really was culture shock. But it was something I really felt was important to do, because I needed to detox myself. But I also wanted to chronicle that it's not always so great to live off the land and whittle your own wood and boil your own water. It's not that easy and not always that fun. I wanted to detail my shortcomings.

You moved in 2006. So how are things now?I always say I have a really sweet angel on one shoulder and a little devil with a voice like Harvey Fierstein on the other. I mean, Thoreau wanted to forgo fashion for simpler pursuits and I failed miserably. [ Laughs ] I always thought it was about completely reinventing yourself -- you had to completely give up who you were to become a different person and it's really not about that reinvention. It's about becoming the person you always wanted to be -- flaws and all. In the summer, while we now have cable, we barely watch it because it's so beautiful outside. We're walking on the beach, we're sitting on the porch. We've learned to play games again and reconnect with one another -- all the things I used to do growing up in that log cabin in the Ozarks. But then again, it's OK to go to Chicago on a weekend shopping spree and basically [tear up] Michigan Avenue. It's OK to have that in you and yet appreciate what's around you.

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You have a chapter dubbed "Tanorexic." What are your thoughts on gay people's interest in tanning and working out?It's interesting. I was really heavy at one point in my life. When I came out -- I don't want to sound like Dr. Phil because you'll want to slap the crap out of me, but I did lose a lot of that baggage that came along with the weight. In doing that, I learned that there was a lot of pressure in gay culture to look a certain way -- to be tan and be fit and to wear the right clothes. One of the things I learned from moving is that there is a much larger gay crowd than I had first known. And this sounds terrible, but when we moved and met some gay couples in Michigan, I thought, Oh, gay people get older. It sounds terrible, but...

Who knew?Who knew? It's sad to admit. I do think we tend to get too caught up in that. I make fun of it in this book. And I am one of those people... I put myself on the front lines regarding that. I am significantly shallower than I thought. But I stopped doing that...and it's amazing the amount of money we saved; amazing that outside of the huge city gyms I can find that same peace running along the lakeshore.

The book is loaded with life lessons. "Lesson Four" is about embracing your rural brethren.The life lessons unfolded at the beginning really, when I had this freak-out moment in a coffee shop. I started over a quad-shot latte, putting down these lessons that were not only routed in Walden , but in things that I wanted to achieve -- to have the simpler life, and overcoming some things from my rural childhood. I tend to remember, or had remembered, my childhood, maybe, a bit more harshly than I should have. Because then I moved to the city and was surrounded by all of these people, and sadly, I didn't know any of them. I didn't know our neighbors unless there was a smell coming out from under the door. We're surrounded by so many people in the city that we tend to ignore them. I don't think people slow down anymore and take a breath; ask themselves if they're happy. And that's what I tried to do. We moved and all of our neighbors have been incredibly nice. I think I came here with more prejudices than they had against me. They were much more advanced than I was. I wanted to break the pattern.

You quote Thoreau in the book and you have been compared to him, so I have to ask: If you were single, what would be the best thing about dating Thoreau...if he were into dating you?[ Laughs ] Oh, my God. Interesting question. We would probably have similar quests for balance in our lives. Here's a guy who came from a family with a successful business and he tried his hand at it, was not happy, and left to find himself. In many ways, I think he succeeded -- and he failed. He inspired so many people, but he ended up going back to the city very quickly. He headed back to the city more than what he notes in Walden . I think that's the similarity -- that you can be filled with all these flaws but still be able to find happiness and success. But..I think the two of us would fall apart because he was able to live off the seven acres of beans and I don't particularly like doing anything with my hands that involves manual labor. [ Laughs ] He liked to cook over an open fire. He liked raw animals -- so, yeah, that would have sucked pretty badly, I think. And his hair was not good, so that would have been a deal-breaker for me.

He could have used some product.A hell of a lot of product. And some thinning shears.

There you go. So, should more gays head to the woods?[ Laughs ] A lot of the gays do head to the woods. In a lot of ways.

Wait a sec -- aren't there a lot of bears in the woods?A lot of "bears." We even have a gay resort, but that's another story. But I don't know if gays have to head to rural America. So many gay people in America tend to be running from something in their lives. Too many of us, I think. It's a matter of asking ourselves if we're happy … and asking ourselves what we want. And going after that. And if that is moving to the city, that's great. If it's taking a break from the city and heading to a park every Sunday to find some peace, that's wonderful. I do truly feel you have to get lost, metaphorically, in the woods once in your life so that you can find yourself. We all tend to just kind of go along. I found out, with my mother's recent passing, this is a really short journey and we better well be damn happy with where we're headed.

The time is now.It can go within a blink of an eye, and I don't mean to sound cliché, but it really can. America was founded on taking a lot of risks and I don't know how many of us really do that anymore. I hope people do. I hope they take that risk.

Like your new neighbors…We have some great neighbors and some whacked-out-of-their-mind neighbors. I wrote about them. They have night-vision goggles. Honest to God. They came over and brought us soup the first time and said, "We've been keeping an eye on your house." And we said, "Oh really." And they said, "Yes. We have night-vision goggles!" It scared the bejesus out of me. We had Gary's mother make us curtains. We live next to a trailer too, and one of the former residents showed us his "man burrito." He was very interested in, well...he was bi-curious.

Oh, his "real" man burrito?His real man burrito -- without any dressing. So, that's what you're kind of surrounded by and then you have these kind of Aunt Bee neighbors, who are wonderful and sincere and want nothing more than to love us and take care of us and be friends.

So, what's the best advice you received from neighbors? Gosh. "Kill the critters." We tried to relocate them and save them and that didn't work out so well. The chipmunks, squirrels -- "just go ahead, they'll come over, shoot 'em. Hit 'em with a shovel, but get rid of 'em before they cause any damage."

Ouch.Also, if you're going to live in the woods, dress appropriately. I used to dress in chokers, tank tops, and $200 jeans when I went out, and really, all you need is a $5 pair of waders.