On a warm April Sunday, Rex Himes, a longtime volunteer with the queer outdoors group OutVentures, led a group of hikers up the trail to Dirty Harry’s Balcony in the Cascade foothills off Interstate 90.
In addition to the standard hikers’ garb of hiking boots, poles, shorts and a synthetic shirt, Himes wore a pink bandanna around his forehead. “You know, bandannas used to mean something else in the gay community,” he said with a chuckle, referencing the 1970s tradition of signaling sexual preferences with brightly colored handkerchiefs.
But that weekend, a pink bandanna was just a pink bandanna — and a handy way to keep the sweat off.
I’d been invited to join this group of nine hikers on the popular 4.4-mile round-trip trail that offers expansive views of McClellan Butte, Mount Kent and the valley of the South Fork Snoqualmie River, which parallels I-90 as it winds its noisy way up toward Snoqualmie Pass.
The trip was one of scores of group hikes that Himes has led in two decades as a member of OutVentures, an outdoors and social group for the Puget Sound LGBTQ+ community. Founded in 1994 by Ed Fergusson as a spinoff of the gay men’s club Ski Buddies, the group was originally known as Summer Buddies until it became OutVentures in the late ’90s.
Today, the nonprofit group organizes a variety of outdoor activities — primarily day hikes, but also group camping trips, backpacking excursions, kayak and cycling outings, and even an occasional sailing trip. In addition, the OutVentures community, which includes LGBTQ+ people of all genders, is especially proud of its monthly potluck tradition.
Tom Rowan, a longtime member who coordinates the potlucks, says this social element is what makes OutVentures so crucial to its members.
“When I first moved here in 1999, I didn’t know a soul,” Rowan said as we wound our way up the trail through stands of young Douglas fir trees. “And this group was how I built my community.”
For a young attorney who’d just moved to Seattle from suburban Washington, D.C., and had hiked occasionally in Shenandoah National Park, finding a group of gay men who also liked to do challenging day hikes and overnight backpacking trips in the Cascades changed Rowan’s life. “It really opened up a new world for me,” he said.
Parker Travis, another longtime member, agrees that the community draws him to OutVentures. He’s a fan of the trips Himes leads because of his tradition of “après-hike” gatherings at the trailhead once the trek is complete. “He always makes sure there are beverages and snacks,” Travis said of Himes. “It’s really nice to hang out and talk after.”
Himes was once known for understating the difficulty of his trips, but apparently he’s getting better about this, too. “It’s like in a Chinese restaurant and they say the dish is three stars,” Travis told me. “For some it might be too much, but for others it’s fine.”
Cynthia Marquette, another OutVentures member who recently retired from working as a programmer for King County, says Himes “used to have a reputation, but now he’s mellowed out” with the grueling hikes. Marquette said she likes going on OutVentures hikes for the camaraderie and because it reduces the stress of preparing for or choosing a location for a hike. “It’s great that someone else does the planning, brings the first-aid kit and 10 essentials,” she said. “Rex’s are always especially well planned.”
As we neared one of the first viewpoints on that recent spring Sunday, Himes was waxing eloquently about some of the favorite hikes he’s led. Though the group essentially went into hibernation during the pandemic, before that Himes was leading six to seven outings a year. He’s a fan of Hidden Lake Lookout in the North Cascades, which he says, “is on this high ridge, and the views are just heavenly.”
Several years ago, he led a memorable trip to Rainbow Ridge, a little-known, unofficial trail near Mount Baker. Himes said he chose it not only because of its pride-friendly name but also because of opportunities for solitude. “We only saw a handful of other people,” he said. “And it was so spectacular.”
OutVentures hike coordinator James Craig, who recently moved to Seattle from Baltimore, joined OutVentures to learn more about the region’s hikes, meet new people, and introduce friends he’s met in the Capitol Hill gay scene to the outdoors. He’s already brought five or six new, younger members into the club.
Craig, who has a quiet demeanor and a dark, bearlike beard, is especially interested in helping introduce people to overnight backpacking.
“There are so many barriers for people getting involved in these things that can change their lives,” he said in March at OutVentures’ kickoff spring potluck at the Mount Baker Community Club. “Someone might say, ‘I don’t know how to use a camp stove.’ Or, ‘I’m terrified of bears.’ Or, ‘I want to go hiking with my partner, but I’m nervous about it because of x, y and z.’ This is a group that’s going to enable those kinds of experiences for our community.”
This hiking season, Craig is helping organize a variety of trips, including a beginner’s backpacking trip to Punch Bowl Falls in the Columbia Gorge, which he said is “like Narnia, it’s so magical.” He’ll also lead a group car camping trip to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon over Labor Day weekend. All OutVentures trips are led by members, and the group has waived its already reasonable membership fees because of the pandemic.
One recent member of OutVentures is Matthew Freeman, who works as a recruiter for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and moved to Seattle from San Diego about three years ago. “I play sports, but I’m not really a hiker,” Freeman said during the March potluck. “And I’m not really a camper. So this is something that gets me out of my comfort zone and [helps me] meet folks that don’t just play sports.”
With the sun shining and traffic on I-90 growling in the distance, we arrived at Dirty Harry’s Balcony (which is named for a logger who worked this area in the 1930s and ’40s, not the fellow in the Clint Eastwood movie). The group paused for snacks, water and pictures amid a small crowd at the summit. Rowan told Himes he thought the trail felt longer than 2 miles one-way.
Checking his phone, Himes confirmed the distance: “It’s 2.2 miles. But we were taking our time.” Judging by the sweat we worked up, some of us might have disputed that assessment, but it’s hard to contradict Himes’ enthusiasm.
We made our way back down to the trailhead, where snacks and cold drinks awaited us. “I’ve noticed that, for some reason, men in our group tend to prefer wine,” Himes said with a laugh. “The lesbians seem to like beer, especially those awful IPAs.”
During the descent, Rowan and I talked about our coming-out stories. I’d recently come out as bisexual in my 50s, and told him how I appreciated being warmly welcomed into LGBTQ+ social groups, like OutVentures or the Facebook meetup group Gay People in Seattle.
Rowan echoed that community is an essential feature of OutVentures. He shared how, a few years ago, one member took a fall and was homebound for several weeks while he healed. Members of the group took turns bringing him meals and checking in.
“It’s really powerful how we come together for each other,” Rowan said.
“When I first started joining these groups, what I wanted was to meet a boyfriend,” he said. “And now, 21 years later, they’ve become my family.”
You can find out more about OutVentures, including a calendar of upcoming events, at OutVentures.org.