Once a year, there’s a drag show at a small whitewater rafting outfit in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Cantrell Ultimate Rafting, which everyone just calls Cantrell’s, is a family-owned business that gives guided tours to church groups and Boy Scouts and curious travelers looking to brave the rapids of the New River. The site boasts seven cabins (a few of which are converted sheds, like you might find for sale at a Home Depot), an open field that serves as a campsite, and four retired school buses, used to transport kids and parents and life jackets up to the river. Everything at Cantrell’s, it seems, has been repurposed from something else. The drag show, for example, takes place at the rafting headquarters, a squat wooden building that is also advertised as a “Family Friendly Grill and Pub.”
The Saturday night drag show is the climax of Homoclimbtastic, the largest single meetup of queer and trans climbers in the world. Now in its tenth year, “HC” draws visitors from across the U.S. for a three day climbing festival, largely from the hip urban areas— D.C., New York, and Austin—where indoor climbing gyms have boomed. Fayetteville, which its residents insist is “different” from the rest of this deep red mountain state, is decked out in rainbow flags from Wednesday onward: local restaurants compete to host this amalgamation of over 100 politically lefty, gender-diverse athletes. On Thursday and Friday, bands of climbers, organized roughly by their city of origin, spread out across the hundreds of world-famous crags at the New, bringing with them partners, lovers, children, pounds of gear, hammocks, peanut butter, and dogs of various shapes and sizes. Then, on Saturday, the convention converges on Summerville Lake, where the cliffs ring a popular boating and swimming hole. When you clip the anchors at the top of a route, you can turn your head and watch your newfound friends skinny-dipping or sunning on rafts while West Virginians roar across the lake in jet skis.
Afterwards, when everyone’s back from the crag and hosed down, they’re all crammed into the Family Friendly Grill and Pub, in tank tops and shorts and flip-flops, attending Fayetteville, West Virginia’s biggest queer event of the year. The pool tables have been pushed out of the way, replaced by a makeshift sound system. Unlike any drag show I’ve ever attended, this one opens with a dirge, a candlelight vigil to two fallen sisters. One recently died in an overdose. These are all Appalachian queens, who partner with the out-of-towners for the night and bring their friends with them to Cantrell’s. The urban queers are polite, silent. Even post-shower, they’re dressed more for a day at the crag than a dance party, and such attire is even less appropriate for what suddenly seems to be a funeral.
Soon, however, it’s over, the fallen queens remembered, and Katy Perry’s “Firework” bursts on. There are shouts for the pool lights to go down and the mics to be turned up; a tattooed butch individual, a local, runs over and adjusts the speakers. The HC organizers demonstrate proper drag etiquette for the uninitiated, waving dollar bills and making raunchy gestures at the queens. As the music blares, more and more local West Virginians—identifiable by the fact that they didn’t plan their outfits for the purpose of showcasing their deltoids and forearms—file in and hang out by the door, or together at the back, by the bar.
I’d been told that the Cantrell’s drag show is the big social event of the year for a certain subset of Fayettevillians. It certainly looks that way: packs of teenage girls forge their way through the crowd after the show ends, begging for a group selfie with the queens. Their male friends or boyfriends mostly look awkward, although two are wearing dresses (are they queer? Is it a dare?), their buzz cuts or mulletty manes in stark contrast to the high coifs of the queens. One of the girls is furious when her friends want to leave before the party is over: “You guys are no fun!” Meanwhile, at a high table in the back, a group of older men who I would have sworn, had we been in New York or LA, were straight, open their mouths and begin to speak in gay-voice. Later, two of these men, one white and one black, will head out together on a stroll across the campsite, walking just a few inches closer to each other than straight men usually allow.
Perhaps in a nod to the teens in the audience, one of the queens performs a startling good version of Disney’s Moana rafting-adventure theme song “How Far I’ll Go.” It’s the second time that day I’d heard that song; the first was earlier that day, at the crag. A fellow HC attendee had burst into song while hiking over the trail of uneven boulders between Long Wall and Satisfaction Wall. I was about to hit my last climb of the day, the classic Satisfaction Guaranteed (11-). I’d been inspired by watching a strong as hell woman, maybe my age or a little older, take it down. She was tall, her beta unlikely to benefit my 5’ 5’’ span, but watching her flow up the wall had me hyped. I hiked back– I’d left my gear with a group of women and non-binary folks at Long Wall– and almost collided with the singer, both of us bursting into giggles afterwards.
A soaring musical number now safely stuck in my head, I made it back to the wall, tied in my figure-eight knot, did my safety checks with Marian, my excellent belay partner. Satisfaction boasts a bouldery start and a technical midsection, following by a heel-hooked haul over a roof; I could tell that it was a limit climb for me. But as I strained toward the fourth bolt, I could hear a panoply of voices, deep and high, thin and bold, ambiguously gendered in their pitch and timbre, cheering me on. I pushed through to the top, my legs shaking from exertion and fear, and looked out over the motorboats and queers dotting the lake below. Disney fanfare looped in my head as I cleaned the route, hustling to have time to jump in the water before it was time to pack up. (We’d been threatened by the HC organizers, who call themselves “The Dictators,” that the drag show starts at nine sharp.)
The next morning, we were all sleepy, many of us hung over. We file into breakfast, a $9 outdoor buffet of meat and eggs and coffee and fruit and perfect biscuits made in the Cantrell’s kitchen, discussing Saturday’s events: did you see that adorable marriage proposal at the show last night? (Yes!) Do you remember my name? (Um… sorry.) I drink a bucket of water and pop some aspirin, then grab the attention of Nancy Cantrell, who’s been collecting everyone’s four ones and a five. She explains that they’ve been hosting Homoclimbtastic for years, against the initial advice of her neighbors. Indeed, in order to rent out her family’s land to HC, she has had to pass on hosting Boy Scouts who come to town for their annual Jamboree (where, the next day, President Trump will deliver a much-panned speech about relative hotness of New York socialites). But she and her husband, who had refused to host the scouts in solidarity with gay relatives, ended up with the upper hand when Homoclimbtastic boomed from a dozen cis gay dudes camping in a field to the most anticipated pink dollar event in the state. When I ask her what it’s like to host these queer and trans weirdos, many of whom tramp around her land in racy shorts or bare breasts or visible mastectomy scars, she insists that she loves it. I had a gay brother, she reveals to me, almost in a whisper. His name was Ricky, she tells me, and that when she looks around HC, at men and women and non-binary and genderqueer people running around, shouting with joy, hugging each other tightly, packing peanut butter sandwiches into backpacks, complimenting each other’s muscles, congratulating someone who sent their first 5.12 lead outdoors, flirting, snacking, drinking, giggling, she sees “Ricky, Ricky, Ricky, Ricky.”
Cass Adair is a writer, climber, and radio producer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.