A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

323 Yves Rees – The Apparatus of Hiking

Yves is ridiculously passionate about bushwalking, but behind the fancy gear and spectacular scenery, likes a complicated history.

Yves Rees is a historian at La Trobe University, co-host of the Archive Fever podcast and author of All About Yves: Notes from a Transition. They are also co-editor of Nothing to Hide: Voices of Trans and Gender Diverse Australia. Rees was awarded the 2020 Calibre Essay Prize.


Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Yves Rees is a historian at La Trobe University, co-host of the Archive Fever podcast and author of All About Yves: Notes from a Transition. They are also co-editor of Nothing to Hide: Voices of Trans and Gender Diverse Australia. Rees was awarded the 2020 Calibre Essay Prize.

Yves: Most of the time, I do a decent impression of an inner-city queer. I have the tattoos, the undercut, the body hair. I walk around in black skinny jeans, carrying a pretentious tote bag and a soy flat white. My Northcote apartment is filled with houseplants, moleskine notebooks and the collected works of Maggie Nelson. I own a bike instead of a car, and—though I technically have a licence—I’d rather pash Barnaby Joyce than actually drive anywhere.

But I’m here to make a confession. 

I’m here to tell you that all that good performative queerness hides a deeper, shameful truth. 

At heart, I’m a hiking nerd. That’s right: I’m a devotee of the very wholesome, very non-urban, very unhip and very straight world of multi-day bushwalking. Five days of blisters and no showers, eating trail mix and sleeping on the damp ground? Now that’s my idea of heaven. 

Later this year I’m even dedicating two weeks of annual leave to a sixteen-day hike on Victoria’s western coast. I could go to New York or Berlin, but instead I’m walking to Nelson.  

I love the walking itself, but I especially love the apparatus of hiking, the stuff. I’m what they call a gear head, the kind of tedious bore who fixates on gadgets and gets a kick off shaving ten or twenty grams from overall pack weight. 

My idea of heaven is to browse Bogong camping supplies on Little Bourke Street, comparing the relative size and weight of different camping mugs. In my free time, I daydream about hiking socks. And I’m on a lifelong quest to produce the optimal menu of dehydrated foods—maximum taste for minimal weight. 

After every walk, I write up notes about what worked and what didn’t, always in pursuit of the ultimate kit. Next time, or the time after that, I will have perfected my packing list. 

In many ways, I’m an unlikely devotee of Goretex. Not only am I a bookish queer allergic to sports, but there was no camping in my childhood. My parents didn’t own a tent and their idea of a good time was more Sydney hotel than sleeping bag. 

My entry into the hiking cult happened by accident when I joined Duke of Ed in year 10. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme was a youth development program that, amongst other things, taught the basics of hiking, like how to read a map and use a compass. It involved hordes of rowdy teens heading off into the bush with our—in retrospect—very noble maths teacher and her husband. 

Our first training walk, in March 2003, did not get off to a good start. It was designed to be a simple day walk in some local bushland, a low-stakes opportunity to test out our newfound compass skills. We divided into small groups, each with a year 11 trainer and supervising parent, and set off into the scrub. 

The first sign something was wrong was the helicopter. It buzzed overhead around lunchtime, as we stopped to eat our sandwiches. A rescue helicopter! How dramatic, how exciting! We knew, of course, that it must be for someone else. We were on a perfectly safe training session. Nothing bad would happen to us. Rescue helicopters were the kind of thing that happened to other people. 

Several hours later, my group stomped into the carpark, sweaty but triumphant. Mission accomplished! We had successfully deciphered the swirl of lines on the topographic map. Time for a shower and a hot meal. 

Then, we saw the faces. Grim, stunned faces. Cheeks streaked with tears. 

There’d been an accident, we were told. An older boy, one of the year 11 trainers, had fallen off a cliff. He’d walked ahead of the group and suddenly the ground had disappeared. He’d fallen twenty metres. He’d died. He was dead. 

My mother, my hiking-novice mother, who was just there to make up the numbers, was a parent in that group. She’d walked with him that morning, had watched him run ahead of the others, had been one of the last people to see him alive. 

David, that was his name.  

I’ll never forget the aching silence that filled the car as we drove home. 

After David died, things fell apart fast. He was an older kid that I’d never really known, but his death shook my whole community. It was an age before grief counsellors or trauma literacy, and we kids stumbled around, shook and numb, lacking the skills or language to process the experience. My beloved maths teacher, the Duke of Ed coordinator, went on stress leave and returned a shadow of her former self. David’s parents, who owned the local health food store, were reduced to walking ghosts. 

And my Mum, who’d been in David’s group? She was hollowed out by shock and sadness. For months after, she felt haunted, and her health crumbled. For her, David’s death was the final devastating blow after a run of bad luck. In the previous four years, she’d dealt with a humiliating redundancy, a marriage breakdown, a parent’s terminal illness, and my own anorexia. Now this accident. She retreated to bed, sick and sad, her body ravaged by painful inflammation. That year, Mum was diagnosed with a chronic illness that still shapes her life today, almost twenty years on. She’s much better than she was, but she can’t bushwalk anymore. 

David’s death meant a lot of things to different people. But in the story of my life, it was a moment when things fell apart. When the adults in the room went to pieces, and I realised grownups were not gods. When my mother—my best friend, my main carer, my whole universe—disappeared into a black hole of illness, and I had to grow up fast. It was a loss of innocence, a fall—both literal and figurative—from the blind trust of childhood into the painful realities of adult life. 

You see, I’m not just here to confess my hiking proclivities. I’m here to talk about death and what it does to those left behind. You might not have expected this dark turn, but neither were we. David’s death came out of nowhere on a sunny Sunday morning full of good cheer. There was no warning, no ominous signs. And that made it all the more shocking to live through. None of us returned from that hike the same person. 

But in the aftermath, we did return to the trail. David’s death didn’t turn us off hiking; in fact, the opposite happened. My Duke of Ed cohort was bound together by this tragedy, and we spent the next three years trudging through the bush on weekends and school holidays. In my twenties, I dragged my partner on hiking vacations in New Zealand and Tasmania. These days, I hike solo or with friends. I’ve spent thousands on hiking gear and I’ve always got my eye on the next purchase. 

In psychology, there’s a concept called repetition compulsion. Originally coined by Freud, repetition compulsion is used to describe how we humans continually repeat the past, especially painful or destructive events. There are lots of theories about why this happens, but one school of thought suggests we relive our traumas to undo or fix them. We cycle back to that painful moment, again and again and again, in hopes that this time we’ll rewrite the story and put everything right. 

Recently, I’ve been wondering if repetition compulsion can explain my compulsive passion for hiking—and especially for hiking gear. Maybe I keep returning to the trail, each time with better and better equipment, in an effort to revisit my original hike and change the outcome. This time, or the next, or the one after that, I’ll have perfected my planning, I’ll have absolutely foolproof gear, and nothing will go wrong. David won’t die, Mum won’t get sick, and I will get to keep believing the world is safe. I just need to try a little bit harder. I just need to buy a new raincoat, or find better snacks, or take a different hat. 

If I can just make the walk perfect, everything will be okay after all.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll probably keep trying. 

In the meantime, you can catch me on the trail. I’ll be the one dressed in head-to-toe Goretex, eating dehydrated hummus, and trying to get my portable solar panel to work.

Subscribe to Queerstories


Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.