Let’s talk about dirtbags

The term dirtbag is wrought with negative connotations.  It is, quite obviously, associated with filth and grime, and is most often used to insult someone’s character.  An equivalent word might be scoundrel, or others laminated with bag—douchebag, scumbag, sleazebag—all of which paint someone as thoughtless, careless, and offensive.  

But in the world of extreme sports, the term dirtbag is used specifically to reference someone who has devoted her current lifestyle to furthering a particular craft.  The dirtbag refutes, de-values, or simply foregoes societal comforts and norms in favor of that which she’s hell-bent on honing.  She may live out of a car to skirt rent cost; remain jobless to free up ample time; skip showers and toilet thrones whenever they’re inconveniences; implement alternative systems of sustenance, such as reach over and snag a half-eaten burger from a nearby table at a diner, grazing the busboy’s knuckles; submerge herself in a dumpster, because she knows what any pirate knows: the treasure is always buried; allow hair to grow in unseemly places; wear the same outfit weeks straight; and wear long johns to the grocery store.

At the base

In Derrick Jensen’s book How Shall I Live My Life—a provocative read for any fringe lifestyle enthusiast, and a great recommendation from a friend (thank you, miss Samina)—a compilation of interviews dissect major issues within contemporary civilization.  One question posed, both simple and acute, stood out to me while writing this article, which was originally going to discuss dirtbagging in terms of practicality, and has since completely transformed.

What is it that causes some people to feel their own numbness, and then do something about it?

 Media Lens editor David Edwards, who has cogently dissembled society’s conception of freedom and happiness throughout his chat with Jensen, responds with this:

Maybe courage.  Being willing to face the possibility that what you’ve built your life on for many years has been a waste of time.  Maybe faith in the idea that truth—however frightening it might seem—will always bring benefits. 

The question itself gave me pause.  I admired his word-choice.  Numbness seemed at first so biting, so harsh.  But in fact, what I’d normally describe as restlessness—this desire to move and travel and locate fresh stimulation more frequently than anyone else I knew—he had pegged with a more honest word.  He had confronted the issue at its very base.  It wasn’t restlessness at all; it was apathy. 

What I’ve often chocked up to boredom is actually a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the society in which I exist:  What drives people, and what is supposed to drive me; what makes people happy, and has only left me with a superficial, ephemeral buzz; what I’m supposed to need, and feel I’d rather do without; what I’m supposed to do without, and crave all the more as I struggle to forget it. 

Almost two years ago now, I’d been feeling the numbness.   I’d been in Portland, actively perpetuating its zeitgeist, for a year.  And I love Portland:  Its buzz, its culture, its openness.  Still, no matter how much I enjoyed my jobs, or roommates, or the city parks in the temperate summer, or the beers that overfloweth, or naked bike rides and sustainability, I began to feel an overwhelming desire to get the hell out. 

I wanted to get lost, to find somewhere new, and in so doing, wake up again.

But it was hard to forget how the last time I’d ventured off into the abyss—to Southeast Asia, for over five months of street-food and temple-gawking and attempts at learning the tonal complexities of Thai and the history of Khmer Rouge, and foraging my independence again after a long breakup—I couldn’t escape the numbness. It followed me along the backpacker’s trek, through highlands and Bangkok, islands and rain forests and scuba-diving and meditation retreats; in cafes filled with men; through rice fields filled with women; the impact of western civilization and its toll inescapable, and me there, amidst it, participating in both blind and apparent ways. 

My civilization’s shadows bled into everything I did, and every interaction I had, throughout six countries.  My skin and tongue and clothes gave me away, and I returned home feeling as if I’d gone and viewed life through a peep hole, poisoned a place somehow, without truly feeling what I could have reached out and touched. 

My experience was limited to what others believed I wanted to experience, and limited by my own history, education, gender, and language.  (Like everything.)

Even more overarching was the painful realization that traveling anywhere for long periods of time, regardless of outside influences and actual experiences, eventually took on the aspect of wandering. As much as I craved to continue, craved to leave and come back and leave again, I couldn’t shake the listless aimlessness that would pursue me, down European and Asian and American streets alike, and eventually catch up.

 To travel simply for the sake of traveling was beginning to lose its luster, its serenity—it no longer was a raison d’etre, a purpose in and of itself.

And then I found climbing.

Months later, I made the commitment to take it on the road, without much preparation or forethought.  A good friend (red-headed lover who’s mentored and influenced me in more ways than he’ll ever accept credit for) had talked about his desire to leave and live in a car and climb, and I was intrigued.  What he described as dirtbagging sounded like a lifestyle I’ve always wanted to live, with a component all previous travels had been missing:  Intention.

So I bought a used Element, quit my job, and went off.

Old friends and family watched without surprise, but my more recent climbing friends, unaware of my tendency towards spontaneous decisions and solo traveling, seemed to envy what could have been considered recklessness (but was actually far from it).

 Finally, I had found the loophole.  Dirtbagging became the next step in an otherwise cyclical life—a personal necessity—more than some glorified movement toward transcendence, or bravery, or independence.  Much like escaping regular life to flit through a foreign land, alone, without an itinerary or timeline, had once been. 

And we return to Jensen’s response—a response that could just as easily answer this question:

What is it that causes the dirtbag to realize her numbness, and do something about it?

Maybe courage.  Being willing to face the possibility that what you’ve built your life on for many years has been a waste of time.  Maybe faith in the idea that truth—however frightening it might seem—will always bring benefits.

I believe there is an irrevocable value to living in accordance with one’s own ideals.  It seems society has forgotten this:  The importance of doing something not because you must, to survive, but because your spirit needs it, to thrive.

Dirtbagging, at least to me, goes beyond simple dedication to climbing.  It’s my pointed refutation of what society stands for and perpetuates, day in and day out.  It’s my quiet and gentle activism.

And I think I make such a good dirtbag because I’m comfortable with life in the periphery.

And it all started when I excommunicated myself from a reality I once considered everything.

Where heaven ends and dirt begins

I was raised in a very religious home.  My understanding of the world was continually fortified by the precepts of Protestantism.  I ingested run-of-the-mill Christianity each and every Sunday at a suburban community church.  My Uncle was pastor, and my mom led worship and Sunday school.  Pragmatic sermons and a close-knit congregation made believing in God throughout my adolescence as easy as peanut-butter and jelly—and, unfortunately, just as sticky. 

Those brought up non-religiously, or in a family of “lukewarm” Christians—the most egregious of all, I was taught—have a difficult time understanding why it took me so long to accept my lack of theism.  It’s difficult to explain.  I genuinely believed, as much as a child believes his parents can do anything, or that the sky is blue.  The idea made sense, and was comforting. And when every adolescent experience is fitted in to God’s invisible plan, God’s love and mercy are referenced about as often as the weather in an awkward conversation, skipping Church is far more shunned than skipping school, premarital sex is right up there with hard drug use, and all life’s most complicated questions have well-rehearsed and documented answers, it’s a bit more convoluted than waking up one day and calling yourself an atheist. 

When I became old enough and curious enough to start asking questions, I clung to religion’s promise of a plan, of deeper meaning, of purposeful existence.  Scriptures stood at attention in the corners of my mind, or bled through my pastor’s or parents’ mouths, to sway me gently back into the arms of belief and reinforce my connection to my family and community, whenever doubt tickled.  These scriptures I’d heard and studied and recited often, and could recall at any moment of weakness. 

In high school, my love of knowledge and learning only fed my faith—it challenged me to defend mine and my family’s core beliefs with substantial arguments, to utilize the bible as I did any other piece of literature—as a means of making sense of it all; as a means of examining life; as a tool with which to enrich those otherwise trivial aspects of suburban young-adulthood, to enforce my value as a human, and defend my family’s ever-apparent religion; to essentially defend who they were.

Whenever I examined my beliefs with the eye of a skeptic, the teachings of James 1:6 would haunt me:  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. Again and again, I was convinced something was wrong with me—that my doubts were prominent examples of how I was not a dependable and strong person. I convinced myself only weakness bred doubt, only susceptibility. 

But as I became more and more exposed, via school and acquaintances and debates and books, to other ideas, philosophies, and explanations of existence, my grip on faith loosened. No one wanted to believe more than I did; I wanted that promise, that hope, that comfort, and the continuation of a community I held dear and close, as much as anyone else.  But I couldn’t continue to force my own blindness, to ignore arguments that resounded in my own brain and life—now far louder than the scriptures that once assuaged them—or deny space and respect to the doubt that became relentless, even as guilt followed close after, like darkness upon a desert sunset. 

I could not reconcile my love of knowledge, my inherent skepticism, my developing understanding of human nature, and ultimately, all that I believed myself to be, with the teachings of Christianity or any religion.  Not anymore. 

I told my parents when I was nineteen—almost twenty—that I no longer believed in god.  It took a while to build up the courage; to make the break.  To stop capitalizing the name.  You don’t just wake up one day and realize you’re agnostic. There’s first the extended examination, the long fight—internal warfare.  You will make sure before you tell your parents, who just might treat you differently, and at the very least, will perceive you differently; before you tell your close friends, who may turn it back on them, play as if they were betrayed (why wouldn’t you tell me?  How long have you been lying?); or tell the world, a newly frightening place, where judgments and assumptions will assail as soon as the words cascade into space.

I had to accept a searing point first:  My most basic beliefs—about origin, meaning, purpose, morality, the nature of humanity—would be forever severed from those I knew, and knew me, most intimately.  Second-hand beliefs, codes with which we live by, would follow suit, would separate us further.  I had to reconfigure my life outside the overarching reality I no longer recognized:  That God was my creator, Jesus was my savior, and through faith alone I am saved.  It would take years of re-examination, re-learning.

When you truly believe the above, it’s only to be expected you will live your life to glorify and serve God, first and foremost.  And my family comprises true believers, whose lives continue to revolve around the church. My uncle is still a Pastor.  My mother is now a Worship Pastor at a new church (yes, that’s a full-time, paid position).  My dad is an electrician and small business owner by week, sound engineer and drummer for the worship team by Sabbath.   All of my cousins are God-fearing men with families, homes, full-time jobs.  My two older brothers are similarly conventional, and devoted Christians.   My sister, now twenty, attends a Christian private school.  She hopes to be a doctor.

Every member of my nuclear and extended family, excluding me and my mom’s elusive brother we’ve never really associated with, can be found seated at church every Sunday morning—not simply going through the motions, but with arms uplifted.  When there is a tragedy, the first thing they do is pray; when there is something to celebrate, the first thing they do is rejoice, and give thanks to their god.

I write all this hoping to indicate, through words and images, the vastness and intensity of my family’s faith.  Yet I find that I’m dangerously close to the precipice of misrepresentation—of painting a picture of fundamentalism and rigidity that was absolutely not a part of my upbringing.  I reminisce with fondness, and give my parents a good deal of credit for the upbringing they provided us four, among all those invisible struggles children don’t sense and parents go great lengths to mitigate.  I was then and remain incredibly lucky (my parents would say blessed, and in a way, they’re right—their religion deserves a lot of credit for who I am today).

My childhood was both structured and cushy—one of the best balances in terms of anchoring and support. I enjoyed the freedoms of my peers, and endless encouragement and love from my parents.  Mom expressed her love through affection and words of affirmation, and, like much of my generation, dad showed his by working long hours, anticipating our needs and providing without question, and his well-placed silences, stupid jokes, and the occasional awkward hug. 

We weren’t rich, but we were never wanting.   I was taught to dream big, and work hard for it; to respect others—not just pretend—as well as myself and my body; to engage in learning with wide-eyes and enthusiasm; to lead, not follow; and to always remain compassionate.  A lot of these lessons sound cliché, but I won’t deny they’ve shaped who I am today, and my appreciation is genuine. And I think if my parents had known the guilt and fear and eternal suffering I endured within the private sphere of my own faith, they would have hastened my decision to “go out there and search.”  To let go.

It’s been almost a decade since my renouncement, and my parents remain remarkable, loving, supportive parents, who’ve opened themselves up to learning from us four kids as we’ve grown. Regardless of my difference in belief, I’ve been no exception to their love, generosity and pride (in whom I’ve become, and what I’m doing.)  I never question my family’s acceptance of me, and we freely discuss anything—from religion to politics to sex, drugs, and hip hop music—at the dinner table and beyond.  We’re a bit much, as in, a bit obnoxious.  I like to claim the black sheep title as often as I can, in the most melodramatic way, with my sister’s groans following close behind; hell, we all want to be the black sheep, at least a little bit. 

Still, my decision to break away from the dogmas enveloping my family, though now worn, is still palpable and will always ensure a chasm, no matter how much time passes.  Our divide rears to the forefront when I’m sitting down for dinner and my dad says a prayer; or I’m in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies with my mom and sister, and we discuss what my future wedding day would look like, if I ever had one—its inevitable absence of bible verses; or how I’d raise my children; or grandpa’s death; or the purpose of suffering. 

Maybe this restlessness, this recognition of my own numbness and the courage to sprint away from it, all stems from my experience with religion, and eventual breaking away.  Maybe such violent severing is something I’ve come to crave, to seek out, because it re-positions me, forces me to start over again. 

I’ve become comfortable with confronting my ignorance, admitting my lack. With not having answers.  With questioning preconceived notions, searching for meaning outside the preoccupations and comforts of those around me.  With letting go of what I once considered to be not only safe and comforting, but Absolute Truth, in order to make way for something that resonates.

I’m convinced that if answers to the biggest, most complicated, most basic questions can be found, they’re hibernating in the nuance of human interaction; in a place outside of my comfort zone, beyond my realm of knowledge and experience, where I have to do some work to get at understanding. 

The take-away

I often question my decision to elude convention for that of a non-attached, fringe lifestyle.  You can’t just float through the world as an anomaly and evade second-guessing the worth or legitimacy of a purpose which at once seems so plain, natural—even honorable, in its modest way.  I often ask myself whether it’s worth it to be a dirtbag—whether or not it’s viable.

Such examination is simply a part of life.  I don’t plan on ever being fully satisfied, in each separate moment tucked inside a particular pocket of time.   Holistic satisfaction, if it even exists, surely breeds complacency. I don’t want that.

Because I crave the thrill of something new; the temptation of the unknown; the promise of deeper understanding fresh experience so readily provides.

But I've found it takes far more energy to resist and deny than it does to recognize your own numbness, and do something about it. 

I did something about it because it worked for me.  I'm not trying to suggest everyone who does differently is numb, or that my experience is a sure-thing for everyone, or the answer. I've given up on having answers or proclaiming truth a long time ago (I hope).

I wrote this to inspire those that might relate; to vomit up an experience many know only bits and pieces of; and to bridge a gap others I know and love may at times feel between our two worlds. 

If it makes you feel attacked, that's not my intention. 

If it makes you feel stoked to get out on the open road, then I'll be seeing you soon.