The Last Dirtbag

Sometime around last christmas, I was at a party on the East Coast.  I had just finished up a day of gym climbing, or toproping at one of the D.C. area’s less than awe inspiring crags, and walked into the party feeling tired, looking disheveled, and with chalk stains half way up my forearms.  Upon entering, a friend of mine who is not a climber, but knows me well enough to know what a dirtbag is, said “Hey, dirtbag!  Come over here!”

My lack of enthusiasm was evident (and due mostly to being tired, and uncomfortable in a room full of strangers), but I wasn’t insulted.  True, the delivery left a little to be desired – but this buddy isn’t a climber – how could he know when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the “d word”.  Another friend of ours got all up on his case, and started berating him for being such an asshole.  To this room full of Annapolitan flatlanders, one thing was certain: dirtbag was not a compliment.  To my friend, he knew that deep down inside, I take pride in the designation.  In the ensuing debate about when and how it is appropriate to call someone a dirtbag, I felt like I was a young black man trying to explain to a bunch of whiteys when and how it is appropriate to use the n-word.

The truth of the matter is, that night, I didn’t want to be a dirtbag.  But I rolled into the party looking like one.  This is the plight of the dirtbag, and why dirtbagging is not the glamorous “living the dream” lifestyle that the general affluent American (which means anyone who makes significantly more than 4 figures a year to this dirtbag) may imagine it to be.  It’s hard to be a dirtbag.  I’m not complaining, trust me.  But the reality is, dirtbagging puts you in a tough position if you ever want to, say, stop being a dirtbag – for example… or look like you’re not a dirtbag at a christmas party… or convince your parents and other non-dirtbags who care about you that you aren’t going to be a dirtbag forever, and one day you’ll be able to go to the dentist without having to make a trip to potrero chico out of it.

The dirtbags of climbing sacrifice a lot for their lifestyle.  The devotion we pour into our own personal conquest of the useless leaves us relatively impoverished, without much for future prospects, and with little other than gobies to show for our efforts.  The beauty of the American dirtbag lies in the intrinsically tragic nature of his or her existence.  The whole point of being a dirtbag is to find peace (if you’re wise) and happiness (if you’re lucky) in the unlikeliest of places: in rocks, and the space between rocks.  Like a monk, the dirtbag sacrifices material and physical comforts, friends family and other relationships, and even personal health and hygiene to this higher cause.  And yet, one cannot help but ask -for what?  Without naming names, I don’t want to be that old man living in the van in the desert, or hiding away from pigs in the valley, that everyone knows and “is friends with”, but secretly pities behind the closed doors of their minds.  If these wizened old climbing bums are the high lamas of all our faith – what is left the dirtbag but the tragic reality of the ultimate futility of ell our efforts?

If there is one thing left to dirtbags, it must be the innate pride we can take in our foredefeated adherence to such lofty goals.  It may be true that that night in Annapolis, I’d have put on the charade in an instant to play anything else in the world.  But in the larger context of my life, as long as I’m barely pulling in enough money a year to afford taco trucks, frozen pizzas on deep discount, gas, and air for my leaky tires… as long as I’m doing all that, I’ll take the name and take it proudly.  I am a dirtbag, through and through; and if I can’t be proud of my job, my bank account, my abilities, or my good looks – at least I can be proud of that.

Ironically enough, I was recently dismayed and appalled to see a short video about “The Last Dirtbag” grace the climbing media newsreels.  It was a great turning of the tables for me, and forced me to laugh at myself.  Before I didn’t want to be a dirtbag – now, I was offended not to be included among the ranks.  What a predicament!  After mulling it over for a while, I came to the following conclusion:  it may be bad for a non-dirtbag to call a dirtbag a dirtbag; but it’s much worse for a non-dirtbag to tell a dirtbag he’s not one.  In this case, I was offended to be excluded from what I often feel is the only group I really belong to.

Dirtbagging is a proud tradition, and an age-old one.  John Muir may have been the first American dirtbag, and he stayed true to the proud group till he died.  Some people may think the age of the dirtbag is over – but I swear I’m seeing more dirtbags these days than ever.  In the end, I believe that there won’t ever be a last dirtbag. There will only be people who grow so far away from their dirtbag roots that they don’t know how to recognize them anymore.  Which is sad for that person, but not for the state of climbing today.  

If you are a dirtbag and you know it clap your hands.  If you’re a dirtbag and you know it clap your hands.  If you’re a dirtbag and you know it and you really want to show it if you’re a dirtbag and you know it clap your hands.



  • “I felt like I was a young black man trying to explain to a bunch of whiteys when and how it is appropriate to use the n-word”

    That is truly one hell of a statement.. Do you really mean that (how could you know lol)? Or are you just using extreme language and comparisons to get noticed?


    • Good Q. I’m white – so no – I don’t know what it’s like at all. What I was fishing for was something analogous to the feeling I was experiencing. In this case, the feeling was that for my friends and fellow dirtbags to use the ‘d-word’ is completely unoffensive, and even somewhat of a compliment; while for an outsider to use it, it actually becomes a pejorative term.

      While it’s a bit of a leap of an analogy, is it not perhaps only so because ‘the n-word’ is such a loaded term (reinforced by the centuries of oppression that accompany its usage)? In other words – if we make some things so untouchable that they cannot be analogous to our own situations, how are we ever supposed to truly empathize, commiserate, and understand those very things from our own points of view?


  • Pingback: Thundercling The Dirtbraggers: A Response to Something or Other

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