“Let’s just sleep in the car Friday night,” my girlfriend said a couple weekends ago, on our way to Ouray to do a little ice climbing.
“No way,” I said. “I found a hotel for $42 a night.”
I just got a new job. After years of scraping by on a newspaper salary, then a nonprofit salary (I may be one of the only people dumb enough to take a pay cut from an already low-paying journalism job), I have enough money to eat. And purchase a new pair of pants without thinking about it for two weeks beforehand. If I wanted to, I could take one of my new, big-kid paychecks and buy a rack of ice screws, brand new, tomorrow. I could even afford a hotel at a ski resort, and a couple of lift tickets, if I wanted to do something I’ve never done before.
Am I still a dirtbag?
My car has 196,000 miles on it. I have $400 ski bindings mounted on $100 skis (which I bought used from a friend) and bent ski poles (which were free; a friend was cleaning out his closet). I still don’t own a suit. I bought my bicycle for $100 from a Craigslist ad. I still look for opportunities for free gear whenever I can. I spend 30 nights a year in a sleeping bag, which is almost 6 years old, and a tent with a (patched) hole in the floor. The best times of my life are when I’m wearing a heavy pack, going up or down something on a rope, a pair of skis, or hiking boots, and sleeping on the ground afterward.
Still, my new salary means I can afford some comforts, like a new pair of Outdoor Research GORE-TEX pants to replace the ones with the hole in the crotch I have been wearing for two years because they were free. Or, you know, stay at a hotel in Jackson instead of the Gros Ventre Campground or the Teton Climbers Ranch after a few days of climbing in the Tetons, were I so moved.
So that puts me quite a bit above the people I consider the original dirtbags, Yosemite climbers of the ’60s and ’70s like Yvon Chouinard, who survived on things like cases of dented cans of cat food for months at a time while they pioneered new routes all over the valley. Even scraping by at my old job, I had an income far above that of today’s “dirtbags,” who have a lot more material possessions than the original dirtbags, but still survive on half-eaten pizza from plates left on tables in Curry Village — or, as Andrew Bisharat pointed out in a recent piece in Rock & Ice: “Dirtbags arenâ€™t supposed to have enough money for food, let alone new MacBooks, video cameras, Euro vans with pop tops and endless road trips!”
So where does that put me? And you, if you’re a “weekend warrior” who spends 40 hours a week doing something in an office? Is there a certain income level that puts you above “dirtbag” status? If you have a car built after 2001, are you disqualified?
I’m 32, have a giant pile of student loans to pay off, and I’m actually looking forward to making a dent in my debt this year. Am I going to quit climbing, sleeping in the dirt, bike camping on weeknights, bailing out of the office early to head to the crag a few times this summer? No. Have I sold out? Maybe a little bit. I’m not sitting here trying to figure out how to get myself in a position to make six figures; I’m clicking around Mountain Project looking at routes I want to climb this year.
But eventually, I’ll grow up, and if you have to take care of other people in your life, you can’t afford to work part of the year in a gear shop and spend the other half of the year climbing. Unless you have a trust fund, which I do not.
But you know what? If I make some progress paying off my student loans, I’ll be in a good position to take a couple months off and live out of my car, or a backpack. Which is kind of like being a real dirtbag, if only for a few weeks. And I’ll keep thinking I’m a dirtbag, as long as I keep doing all my own bicycle maintenance in the bathtub of my apartment, and choosing to spend money on new climbing gear instead of a flat-screen TV or designer jeans.