Metropolitan residents fortunate enough to live near natural wonders tend to cherish them, whether that’s the Catskills for New Yorkers or the Hill Country for Austinites. An argument could be made that the Ozarks are as impressive as those oft-hyped areas, but St. Louisans have had a complicated relationship with the wilderness at our southwest doorstep since before the Civil War. Factor in LGBTQ concerns and, for some, the cultural divide can seem insurmountable.
I-44 slices through this terrain, connecting St. Louis at the Ozarks’ northeastern edge and my hometown of Tulsa at their southwestern foothills. For many years, I only thought of the region in the context of that six-hour drive, but when prominent drag queen Jade Sinclair organized a group float trip last summer and many friends signed up, I decided to go along. That inspiring foray led to several more outings, and the desire to talk to others about their experiences. I have found that, despite the cultural divide, our community continues to venture out and forge inroads, some for rejuvenating solitude, some for adventure and others to carve out playgrounds of our own.
Camper and kayaker Rodd Dierker, who has traversed 33 rivers with his little dog, Capt’n Mop, says the rivers of the Ozarks saved his life. “My love of the Ozark waterways evolved into an obsession to paddle as many as possible in 2019, primarily because my cocaine addiction had gone into overdrive, and the rivers became my salvation.”
Being on the water allowed Dierker to escape the drugs surrounding him in the city. “I never once did cocaine and almost never thought about it until I got back to the city and thought about the shit nonstop. In 2019, my mission to paddle 20 rivers kept me away from drugs one to two weeks every month, all year long. Since then, I’ve discovered that to someone who is crippled by severe antisocialism, the rivers are a place to go and always feel welcomed and always feel surrounded by friends.”
As a child, Dierker’s parents owned property along the east fork of the Black River, above Johnson Shut-Ins. That’s where he says he fell in love with the Ozarks, specifically the rivers, caves, springs and seeps. The waterways are in his blood, and the rugged 57-year-old blends in easily.
Wanting to learn about the experiences of more conspicuous folks, I asked members of the Queer Exchange STL Facebook group about their relationships to the area. Some of the tales were as troubling as you might expect, including that of a trans man who had to flee his campsite in the middle of the night, leaving his new tent behind. Others had a deep affinity for the region, even if they felt the need to be careful.
“I’ve been going to the Black River since I was five, and I camp all the time outside of that,” Thomas Van Horn says. “I socially transitioned to nonbinary just over two years ago. Has made things interesting ….”
We spoke about queer visibility, and I mentioned seeing a burly guy in the middle of the busy Huzzah River wearing a lace negligee. There was some mild heckling, but the guy performed and seemed to relish the attention.
“Every so often, I’ll see some clearly queer people going down the river. Usually everyone just minds their business,” Van Horn replies, saying they personally feel the need to be more low-key when visiting. “I love the area, think it’s beautiful, and overall have a great time and want to go back every year. That said, I’m sure I will always stealth when I’m there.”
It was also in the Queer Exchange group I learned Dragula star Maxi Glamour would host a nudist gay retreat in June. The event was to be held at SIRenity Farms, which is the newest of several Ozark gay campgrounds. The list includes Cactus Canyon, Magnetic Valley and Dawg Woods.
A few years ago, when you saw an RV, you might have pictured Hank Hill driving it. That all changed with the recent explosion of queer camping and “glamping,” or glamour camping. With SIRenity situated only an hour from the Gateway Arch, many St. Louisans spend nearly every weekend there in the warmer months. Since opening in 2020, the campground has amassed 7,000 members in its Facebook group and has welcomed over 2,000 unique guests through its gates. It has as many as 200 campers and guests on summer weekends.
“I think we are a little more retreat-resort than a lot of the rustic offerings in the gay camping world with our close proximity to St. Louis and I-44,” says Dennis Duncan, who owns and operates the site with his husband Michael Dekeyser. “We are very accessible, and there is cell service here, so you don’t lose connectivity.”
Gay Camping Friends is a Facebook group with over 115,000 followers. In 2021, its members ranked 57 campgrounds in North America, and SIRenity came in at number four. “Amazing for how new we are,” Duncan says. “It’s been a wild and amazing journey. This is the beginning of our third season; 2020 was weekends only. Last year was our first full season. We’ve had visitors from over 40 states already.” SIRenity is clothing optional and caters to those who identify as male. It has 45 full-hookup RV sites, 40 electric-tent sites and 17 lodging options. Day passes are also popular, with guys spending afternoons poolside on the expansive deck.
“We’ve been blown away by the community that has formed,” Duncan says. “It’s like there is no stranger or newbie. Once you’re here, you are soon to be family. Cool nights lend themselves to campfires and hot-tub fun. Music in the air, sometimes people bring a guitar and draw a crowd. We’ve even had a guest play bagpipes. People walk around from fire to fire until they stumble onto an irresistible conversation and pull up a chair. Always a cocktail or two and food! Our potlucks give the church ladies a run for their money. Oh, and dogs. We gay folks love our fur babies!”
At our back door, there’s a nearly 47,000-square-mile region to explore, the most extensive highland region between the Appalachians and Rockies. An area with mountains, forests, caves, rivers, lakes and picturesque towns. If you’ve been sleeping on it, a perfect introduction would be to join a group float trip just as I did. Jade Sinclair and her co-owners at Prism, the Grove’s newest hot spot, are planning one on Monday, July 25.
There are conversations that only happen in the wilderness, on a raft or around a campfire. We can’t be free of danger in the city, nor can we in the country, but if you do your research, you can navigate this wondrous place and find your tranquil spot. Perhaps a secluded corner of the forest where the bears are quite friendly.