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This Lesbian Got Her Groove Back on a 500-Mile Hike

Carolyn Wood

When her 30-year relationship ended, Carolyn Wood, an Olympic swimmer at 14, laced up her boots and traversed the Camino de Santiago.

Described as part Battle of the Sexes and part Wild, Carolyn Wood's new memoir traces LGBTQ history through her lived experiences. Wood's story follows the trajectory of her life that really kick-started when she became an Olympic gold medal winner at 14 through her subsequent coming out in 1960s Portland, Ore. Tough Girl: Lessons in Courage and Heart From Olympic Gold to the Camino de Santiago further takes the reader on Wood's journey through falling in love with Rose, the woman who would become her partner for 30 years, motherhood, and the end of her relationship that would send her on a literal journey -- traversing the 500-mile Camino de Santiago at age 65. Five years later, she's written Tough Girl, which can be purchased on Amazon or at your local bookstore. Read an excerpt below:

I wish I could say that the gutsy girl I was looking for, the one I thought I'd find in my childhood recollections, had exhibited more courage. She was much like I am now, doubtful of her ability to bridge the dark chasm of loss, afraid to be left alone, ashamed of her failure to navigate deep waters.

At least I'm trying to be brave, I reassure myself. On the way to France, I stop first in Louisville to visit my son, now a professional actor, where he's preparing for Long Day's Journey into Night, an apt title for what lies ahead of me. I want his blessing before the long trek begins. During the day while he rehearses, worries keep me company. Does my right knee hurt? What about my left toe? Are my socks a bit too thin? Is the pack light enough? Experienced pilgrims have advised walkers to carry under eighteen pounds. This is bare-bones packing: wear one set of clothes, carry another plus a jacket, rain gear, sleeping bag, and liner. Add in hat, gloves, neck gaiter, and some essentials like ibuprofen and earplugs and the pack makes weight at sixteen pounds before adding water and lunch. Beneath the surface of preparations and plans lie deeper questions, doubts, and memories.

Ahead, Santiago de Compostela lies like that impossible dock did sixty years ago. Then, I'd made myself content with giving up without trying, lolling in the warm, shallow waters. I know better now; challenges require you to make a start followed by stroke after stroke after stroke or, in this case, step after step. More than a physical test is beginning--this time I am facing not only a journey meant to help me get unstuck, to get my feet off the bottom, but also to provide time to release old dreams, to find a stronger self and prove I can live alone. And hadn't I done it once since then--after the divorce, the custody trial, the first coming out in 1976?


During the time when I was battling to retain custody of my toddler son, I'd chosen not to lie about who I was even though I really didn't know anything about a lesbian's life. For the next year, I sought out women-centered places where I could find sanctuary and study the new world I was entering. At Mountain Moving Cafe, a radical collective of feminists and activists, I watched the wild-haired, tie-dye-tank-topped servers embrace friends, tease each other, lean in toward raucous tables of laughing women. I felt happy there, hopeful that I might find a place at one of those tables someday.

I picked up on the look: Hawaiian shirts and white painter pants, flannel shirts with army khakis, turtlenecks, faded polos, bowling shirts with names like Herb or Bob embroidered over the breast pockets. You could find them all at the Goodwill or thrift stores or one of the vintage shops near Hamburger Mary's. On nights when women singers performed--Holly Near, Izquierda, Berkeley Women's Music Collective--I'd study the crowd trying to spot the lesbians among the politicos. Portland State University's Women's Studies program brought in speakers and A Woman's Place bookstore supplied my reading-- anything by or about lesbians: Rita Mae Brown, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton, Nightwood, Portrait of a Marriage, Lesbian Nation.

That fall, all my energy and anger found expression in the brightly lit Karate for Women studio where we beginners battered punching bags and each other as we learned to hit and kick. Smashing my fists into the body bag, getting swept off my feet and onto the mat--all that hard contact made me feel alive. I'd leave class red and sweaty, my shins bruised blue from a sparring partner's misplaced kicks but my spirit lighter.

No one cared who you were or how you defined yourself at Mountain Moving or in the karate studio. Anyone could eat at the cafe--women, kids, even men--and straight women took karate classes for self-defense. But when you entered the Rising Moon, Portland's first lesbian-owned bar, you made a pronouncement.

Somewhere off Burnside close to Hung Far Low's I parked along a dark side street and sat for a while, hoping someone would walk by, someone I might recognize from the cafe or karate, someone who looked like she might be going to a lesbian bar, someone I could follow. It would be easier if I were meeting someone, I thought. If I had a reason to be coming here. A few cars passed by, but no one was on the sidewalk. I didn't know that most women arrived after ten.

Nothing distinguished the place from the outside--no sign, no windows, just a brown door that trapped cigarette smoke and pulsating music inside. I pulled open the door and climbed two steps into a dim room where a few empty tables crowded against the wall. No one was on the tiny dance floor, but beyond it in a shag-carpeted "pit," a couple was making out. I quickly looked away and walked to the bar, took a seat at the end near the exit, and ordered a beer. On the lower level two women slouched beside a pool table, a half-full pitcher between them, while a third cued her shot. I don't think I talked to anyone but the bartender that night, but I had reasons to be there. I was scouting and I was announcing: I'm gay. I'm available. I want in.

It felt like a dream at first, one with a hidden door in the back of a closet of an unused room or an unknown staircase behind a wall leading up to an attic filled with old toys, unusual lamps, tattered books. e Secret Garden or Buddy and the Secret Cave might have lain on the floor. Every discovery enthralled me. I'd found my way into what seemed then a secret world--exciting, illicit, yet strangely familiar.

Over the months the bar came to feel like the old team room, a place where we shared one thing in common and we all belonged. I arrived early, before the crowds, when you could still find a seat with a good view and talk without shouting. Women entered alone and made a quick scan of the room before deciding where to stand. Or they came in pairs and hurried to an empty table. Rowdy groups clamored up the stairs, shouting out to friends. You could meet a lawyer, a doctor, a car mechanic, a childcare worker. An unemployed artist, a college professor, your high school PE teacher. You could meet students, mothers, grandmothers! Underage baby dykes. Bull dykes. Lipstick lesbians. Softball players, harpsichordists, bikers, cooks. They were all there on a Saturday night, their voices pitched against the sound system. By midnight, thick cigarette smoke obscured the sweaty dancers, but when the right song came on, "Turn the Beat Around," say, tables and aisles emptied, and women poured onto the dance floor, trampling the straight world's condemnation.

Even after two years, I was still learning to navigate a complicated world of lovers and girlfriends and ex-lovers where radicals and feminists had been out for years. Rose was a part of that world, had been since the early seventies. She'd pumped gas, painted houses, played softball on the Lavender Menace, and had scads of girlfriends over the years. I noticed her in the bar, but she always seemed involved.

Excerpted from Tough Girl: Lessons in Courage and Heart From Olympic Gold to the Camino de Santiago, courtesy of Sasquatch Books.

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Carolyn Wood