A version of this piece was published in this week's Durango Telegraph. Enjoy.
Sometime in between when the snow started melting from the top of the local climbing crags, and when this most recent heat wave kicked in, marked one year now that I’ve lived in Durango.
I moved down here from Gunnison, Colorado, with pockets full of hope, and not much else. With mandated state budget cuts at the college where I was employed, my full time job was cut to half time. I’d also just broken up with the first woman I’d ever been in love with. Change was brewing. I needed a fresh start somewhere.
Somewhere ended up being Durango; this tropical mountain town which lies next to our beloved, red rock desert. My first initial reconnaissance mission from Gunny involved driving my spray painted, red, white and blue Freedom Mobile (yes, the one seen around town), through the twisting and turning mountain passes that led me into Durango.
I met with Will Sands, former editor of the Durango Telegraph, hung out at what is now my favorite coffeeshop, The Steaming Bean, and was impressed by the number of beautiful women I saw around. My first impression was a good one, and I dug the vibe I got from Durango. Trusting my instinctual and intuitive sense, rather than my economical sense (I didn’t have a real job lined up), I drove back to Gunny, and told my friends I was moving to Durango.
The first Durangutan (a term that came about as a result from a climb on the local climbing area, East Animas) friend I made was in Las Vegas, just before I moved here. It was October, and an ideal time to take a road trip, so rather than bee-lining it to Durango, I decided to climb around the west for a month first. Why is this? Well for starters, I am a dirtbag, or at least I have dirtbag tendencies. I am a 33 year old man, whose number one priority in life is lifestyle, the fashion in which I use my time, my greatest capital. (To those reading carefully, I left for five months last summer and fall, hence my one year mark occurring this spring, even though I moved here in December of 2010. I intend to stick around this summer, as I’ve been falling in love with Durango and the people.)
We were monkeying around on the overhanging sandstone cliffs of Red Rock Canyon, situated west of the sprawl that is Sin City. As the day progressed and our forearms became thickened, pumped and useless, we conversed with some fellow climbers basking on the same red rocks and sunshine, “Where do you guys live?” one asked.
My climbing partner replied that he lived in Telluride, and for the first time ever, I said Durango. The climber, unshaven, unshowered and stinky, but positive and friendly, said that was where he lived too. He was looking for a roommate. So was I. We shook hands, made plans to connect, and continued on with basking in the sun. We didn’t end up being roommates, but now over a year later, he is my most consistent climbing partner in Durango.
Las Vegas is the perfect setting to differentiate the dirtbag from the normal American. A typical American goes to Vegas to gamble, stay in hotels while swimming in pools that have no business being there in the desert, and if he is feeling really risky, may visit a prostitute. A dirtbag’s visit to Vegas involves trying to spend as little money as possible: gambling and taking risks on the rock climbing walls, camping out under the stars, maybe taking a dip in a pool, but certainly in no way paying for that experience, and if she or he is really hard up for cash, finding a dumpster to dive in and score free food.
An important clarification to all those that have little experience around dirtbags, is that no one is going around calling themselves that, just as no one really calls themselves a hippie. It’s more of an adjective, a way to describe a means to an end, and that end is always freedom, free time to experience life in the outdoors.
From my own personal research the lineage of the American dirtbag does, in fact, come from the hippies. And, the hippies descended directly from the beatniks. So if anyone is to blame, it is probably Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and maybe even Edward Abbey (though he was surely more of a desert rat). The Grateful Dead should of course shoulder some of the responsibility for this American subculture, as should the rock climbing pioneers of Yosemite, California. I don’t really know where Phish fits into all of this. Some dirtbags will profess to hate both The Dead and Phish, and that is another difference. Yet, the lineage cannot be denied.
There is an essential deviation from the hippie, and this is where the ultimate high comes in. For the hippies of the late 1960s, the ultimate highs came from sex, drugs and rock n roll. For the dirtbag the ultimate experiences and highs come from the outdoors, Mother Nature, the direct source. The highs from climbing, skiing, river running, BASE jumping, etc. produce sensations that cannot be found in any other capacity, and that is why we become dirtbags in the first place. We have those experiences and then realize nothing else can compare. When we eventually return to society, those feelings stay with us, and then we scheme how to have those experiences as much as possible.
Outdoor experiences, while often free, are not cheap. Gear is needed, gas is essential for travel, and food and drugs are needed for nourishment. While certain drugs are traditionally accepted in dirtbag culture, they are secondary to the ultimate high that nature provides.
A sort of “by any means necessary” style of survival is enacted as the dirtbag accepts and realizes she is living for the outdoor experiences. Dumpster diving is accepted to attain food. Extended camping stays and couch surfing are used to avoid paying rent. Hitchhiking is an acceptable and free form of transportation. Minimal (and maximum) sponsorship from gear companies is sought for those dirtbags savvy with marketing themselves.
There are many cruxes here: how to dumpster dive food without getting sick; how to couch surf without getting on your rent paying friends’ nerves; hitchhiking without getting murdered by a serial killer (okay that one is a stretch); and camping beyond the traditional 14 day limit without being kicked out by a ranger.
There are so many trials and tribulations to being a dirtbag, truly living as one does not last for long. One may fall in love and have children, or simply grow tired of suffering for the lifestyle. However, the love of a life with those ultimate highs and extended time in nature never fades from the consciousness. And that is where we’ll pick up next week for part two of this segment, with the graduated dirtbags; those of us who have altered our lifestyle to include the benefits of freedom and the outdoors, with the inevitable responsibilities of maturity, and the desire for the comforts that come with growing older.