For the last million or so weeks I've been tapping away on my computer working on our upcoming book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. Here's a first (still rough draft) excerpt from the introduction for you, addressed to the question of what a dirtbag is, and who the hell cares. With special thanks to Heather Anderson for being our spirit animal.
I'd love to hear what you think. Does anyone care about the humble dirtbag? People respond strongly to the term, and it's over-applied, but in my opinion there's not a better word to describe a character that, in my opinion, is a particular type of underappreciated countercultural icon.
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...but for a point of historical interest, “dirtbag” is a term that one particular branch of the outdoor community - rock climbers - may legitimately claim some ownership over (and probably will because that’s how they are - jk lol) because it was them to whom the phrase was initially applied. Specifically, the climbers who pioneered hundreds of routes in the Yosemite Valley in the ‘50s and ‘60s were famed for eschewing societal norms and surviving on scraps and cat food in order to pursue climbing as a lifestyle and vocation. Guys like Royal Robbins and Dean Potter and the community of people they were a part of established a framework for what it means to be serious about the outdoors that is still hugely influential. And people called them dirtbags, because they were.
In recent years, the term has spread broadly through the outdoor community to describe the types of people who are so into what they’re doing that they’re willing to eat cat food if it helps them afford to be out for longer. A quick Google search confirms that it’s been applied to thru hikers, trail runners, surfers, mountaineers, mountain bikers, skiers,international vagabonds, and more.
“Dirtbag” is usually a name given jokingly, to “take the piss” out of people as our friends in Australia say. Dirtbags are smelly, cheap, hairy, and dirty, and they need to clean their disgusting car. But the term is also consistently seen as a badge of honor, because dirtbags are going the hardest, and sacrificing the most for their passion. Some are young, some are old, some are skilled, and some suck, but a consistent theme is that all are the most dedicated members of the outdoors community.
So, along with allowing plenty of room for joke about body odor and beer, from a practical perspective, it’s intuitive that we’re talking about them in this book about making adventure a lifestyle. The archetypal dirtbag has been figuring out how to prioritize adventure for years, and has developed a series of practical strategies that the rest of us wannabes can learn a lot from.
So, if we’re trying to envision a way to live a life of adventure, there’s maybe no better role model than the humble dirtbag.
What’s the dirtbag life look like?
While they’re a somewhat mythological character, the dirtbag ideal is based strongly in the actual lived histories of influential members of our community. At the time I’m writing, the most trendy current prototype for the ideal features of a dirtbag lifestyle, in my opinion, is Fred Beckey - a Washington climber who passed away in 2017 after spending his entire life pioneering routes, and has more first ascents attributed to his name than any other person in history. He was the subject of a film titled “Dirtbag”, and after a life of relative obscurity, is gaining attention as a pioneer in the way he organized his life around outdoor adventure.
But screw that - I don’t want to talk about Beckey. Trailblazing as he may have been, if you want to know about him, you can watch the movie. No offense to the guy - it’s just that, if we want to present a prototype for what a dirtbag is, there are a million examples, and we might as well pick someone who doesn’t get that much attention, and who deserves more. We also might as well pick someone other than a predictable dude climber. Which is why I’d rather talk about Heather “Anish” Anderson. She wasn’t the first person to devote her life to dirtbaggery, but neither were Beckey or any of the Yosemite climbers who tend to get most of the credit for carving out a life devoted to exploration. And Heather’s among the most remarkable.
A fellow Midwesterner by birth, Heather was raised in rural MIchigan as a non-athlete before discovering hiking in college when she spent a summer working in the Grand Canyon. After graduation, she decided that, instead of starting a career, she’d hike the Appalachian Trail, which she did, and that’s where she took on the trail name Anish. Then, over the next couple of summers, she also hiked the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, completing thru-hiking’s Triple Crown - a notable achievement, but not yet unique.
She tried settling for a bit, with a job and a husband in Bellingham, Washington, and took up trail and ultrarunning. But a series of changes led to her leaving behind all of those things (except trail running), and diving full time into the wilderness. In 2013, as an unknown athlete, she took up, and was successful in, an audacious attempt to hike the PCT faster than anyone had before, male or female, completing the 2650 miles in under 61 days, unsupported in classic thru-hiker style, carrying all of her own gear and managing all of her own resupplies.
That accomplishment got her a bit of notoriety, but for our purposes, maybe even more importantly it kicked off a life that can only be described as full-time dirtbag, because she began spending more and more time in the wilderness - peakbagging, hiking, and traveling around the US maximizing time spent in the backcountry. She successfully completed several more Fastest Known Time attempts, and for a period was the overall unsupported speed record holder on both the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails - something no one, male or female, has replicated (at time of writing she still holds the unsupported PCT record and the record among females on the AT).
In 2017, she became the second woman to ever complete all 3 major national scenic trails twice - a double triple crown - and has developed a series of side hustles to scrape out a living while spreading the wilderness gospel: starting an online personal training business for other outdoor athletes, speaking occasionally for fees, getting a bit of free gear from sponsors, and writing a book. She’s currently a functional vagabond, living only temporarily in any particular place and adventuring for most of the year.
While she’s remarkable for a variety of reasons, Anish is a worthy archetype because several central features of her life illustrate concisely what a dirtbag is. Like her, they are
While not everyone will embody these characteristics to the extent that Anish does, and means of exploration will vary widely, I would argue that these are the core features of the dirtbag ethos.
Why does a dirtbag matter?
When I started writing this, I intended it to be a 30 page pamphlet with practical advice for aspiring dirtbags. A lark, and a bit of fun. But the reason it’s turned into this blooming flower of a treatise is that somewhere along the way, I was persuaded that all of this matters. What we’re talking about here isn’t just about playing outside more - it’s about constructing a better world. And maybe I’m being ridiculous, but I’m going to go with it. I think dirtbags are the monks and nuns of a modern countercultural movement that’s trying to develop a better way of living. Let me explain:
It’s amorphous, but I think it’s legitimate to identify the “outdoor community” as a distinct subculture at this stage, with its own cultural touchstones - films and books, sacred places, events and rituals, and founding heroes. Think John Muir and the Yosemite Valley, Jon Krakauer, Touching the Void and Into the Wild. The Appalachian Trail, Wild, bouldering gyms, Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner. 127 Hours and the old days in Moab. Tahoe, Alex Honnold, Killian Jornet, and the legendary founding stories of the North Face and Patagonia brands. Patagonia itself - Torres del Paine and the Fitz Roy Massif. The Western States 100 and UTMB. Craft beer and camp food. We don’t have a homeland, but we do have a shared set of interests and values. Nobody’s building any temples or holding any rallies, but we’re a thing, whether we intended it or not.
According to the hive mind Wikipedia, academics theorize that subcultures arise for a variety of reasons, but most of those reasons are related to some form of deviance from social norms. To paraphrase and mis-apply a quote from Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and probably the world’s most influential dirtbag, a subculture is a whole group of people who say, collectively, that “this sucks, we’re going to do our own thing”. They’re a group of people who critique their dominant culture in a particular way and in some particular aspect, and develop a way of living that intentionally deviates from it.
Spoiler alert: this isn’t an academic study. It’s not even Wikipedia. So, you’re going to get my gut impulse rather than anything evidence-based. But it is my hypothesis that the outdoor community has sprung up as a thing, at least in part, because the modern world sucks in some particularly important ways. If anyone’s asking, I’d say that those ways include, but are not limited to, the following:
While the things that unite us tend to be outdoor and adventure activities - games, exploration, and drifting around, basically - the reasons we decide to immerse ourselves in those activities go beyond recreation, and represent a protest against those felt paradigms. We’re driven to be active outside in a cultural context that pushes increasingly towards isolative and sedentary screen based living. We’re driven to connect with the natural world in a visceral, emotional way in a world that treats nature as a resource to be exploited. We’re driven to explore and understand other cultures in a world that pushes towards insular sectarianism on a daily basis. We’re driven to prioritize life experiences in a world that pushes towards the accumulation of crap we don’t need and work that doesn’t really matter. And we’re driven to venerate jobless people living in their vans by choice because the world tells us our value is proportional to the size of property and resources we own and consume. Among other things, this community we’re cultivating is a grand screw you to all of that.
And so, the dirtbag matters, not just as an example of how to stretch your adventure dollar further, but as a committed practitioner of a countercultural way of living that the world needs. They distill the most important characteristics of that subculture, and they are the model citizens of Outside that demonstrate to the rest of us that this whole thing has meaning.
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Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.