The new generation of dirtbags
by Sara Fleming
When Sam Feuerborn graduated from Fort Lewis College in 2012, he did not have a job lined up, a place to live or a five-year plan. Nor did he seek one. Instead, he broke up with his longtime girlfriend, moved into a Dodge van and drove through the West in pursuit of his passion: climbing. Thus began a lifestyle that, Feuerborn claims, has reaffirmed his life philosophy that “everything works out as it should.” Feuerborn spends most of his time out of cell service. He climbs four to six days each week, the limits of his body his only barrier. He can pick up and go wherever conditions are best: three weeks in Indian Creek, Utah, a month or so in Yosemite, a few days doing odd jobs like landscaping or teaching outdoor education to make just enough money for another chunk of time on the road.
Feuerborn describes the average day as “wake up, make coffee, do yoga, eat breakfast, pack lunch, go climbing until it gets dark, make dinner, have a couple more beers, go to sleep.”
It is a simple existence with few frills and few distractions. Three years later, Feurborn is still living out of a van and climbing well over 200 days per year, without plans to abandon his lifestyle any time soon.
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Feuerborn is part of a group of twenty-somethings who constitute the new generation of “dirtbags.” Though no one quite agrees on the definition, a dirtbag is generally considered someone who consciously chooses to work very little or not at all, lives with few material possessions and spends the majority of their time outdoors, usually climbing, although dirtbags can also be surfers, skiers, mountain bikers or enthusiasts of pretty much any outdoor pursuit. According to climbing lore, dirtbags will “dumpster dive” instead of buying food to save money, shower rarely or never and spend almost every conceivable moment outside. To some, they might seem like the scum of society—unimportant, leeching off the fruits of our labors, eschewing the values of our much-beloved capitalist society. But among climbers, outdoor enthusiasts and perhaps even the disillusioned American worker clocking in the nine-to-five, the dirtbag represents an almost unattainable dream: complete freedom from the Man, the antithesis of materialistic society, a free-spirited revolutionary life lived on one’s own terms.
There have always been people living on the fringe of society, but the dirtbag movement as we know it began with a group of fanatic climbers in the 1950s: visionaries Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, who dedicated their lives to climbing in a time when it was not as socially acceptable. They established a quasi-permanent presence in Yosemite’s “Camp Four” and pioneered the sport of big wall climbing, testing the limits of the human body and forgoing material comforts to such extremes that they sometimes resorted to eating damaged cans of cat food. In many ways, their lifestyle was a direct reaction and opposition to the safe and comfortable 1950s American dream of owning a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. Instead, these pioneers of rock climbing found purpose in life in something that was completely useless, ridiculous and unjustifiable. The attitude of that era of rock climbing is summed up in Harding’s famous response to the question, upon completion of the first ascent of El Capitan, of why he climbed mountains: “Because we’re insane! There can’t be any other reason.”
The irony was, as the anti-establishment culture of climbing began to catch on, the sport was propelled into the mainstream. Even some of the original dirtbags themselves entered into the corporate world—Chouinard founded Patagonia, the most successful outdoor apparel company of all time, Robbins his own company bearing his name. Suddenly, climbers were getting sponsorships and making a decent living, appearing on national news shows and no longer relegated to a complete fringe existence. Although it is no longer necessary to live in a cave and scrounge for food in order to be a climber, many stick close to the sport’s dirtbag roots, following a certain “dirtbag ideology” that has spread throughout the outdoor world.
“Dirtbag culture,” writes James Plunkett in an essay for The Good Men Project, “is a conscientious objection to the so-called American dream of ‘Work your ass off, pay taxes and then die.’” By choosing to split from the norms of society, dirtbags imply that something within the system is inadequate, and maybe even fundamentally wrong. Their lifestyle demands a tolerance for uncertainty, rather than a promise of stability. Their mark of success is not their latest promotion or how much they earn, but the hardest grade they climbed or the couloir they recently skied.
Perhaps “success” in any form isn’t even a dirtbag’s goal at all. The rebellion of the dirtbag is directly poised against the idea that life is a series of boxes to check off. The dirtbag attempts to offer an alternative ideology, one that says that doing things that have no larger purpose is not just a waste of time. In fact, maybe it’s the highest and most valuable form of activity.
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Michael Schneiter is a 39-year-old social studies teacher at Glenwood Springs High School who characterizes himself as always having been on the fringe of dirtbag existence. Schneiter spent most of his summers after college living in his van between teaching jobs, at one point even with his wife, Joy, and first child, Selah. The logistical challenges of raising a child in a van, however, proved difficult to surmount, and the family has since settled down. He has compromised with side-jobs as a climbing guide and outdoor education teacher, all while raising his three kids climbing, running, skiing and camping. His experience testifies to the challenge of maintaining the dirtbag lifestyle, as well as its changing nature and problematic aspects.
“It’s kind of an excuse to live a leisure lifestyle,” Schneiter says. “We all seek identities. We want to be part of a tribe. What I found was that lifestyle was so attractive that it was almost put on a pedestal, that it doesn’t mean as much as it should. Companies even try to flaunt the dirtbag lifestyle because it’s cool. Some people think it doesn’t mean anything to be a dirtbag anymore. It’s more of a rebel identity: seeking to be outside the norm and live in a different way. In the end, I think we wised up to some of it and saw some of the drawbacks.”
With the advent of climbing gyms and the increase of outdoor adventure sports as a mainstream activity, being a dirtbag has certainly changed. Feuerborn, for example, updates his social media on a consistent basis in the hopes of attracting and retaining sponsors. Schneiter remembers dumpster diving not out of absolute necessity, but because it was somewhat of an initiation into the dirtbag culture. There’s a larger portion of dirtbags today living in specially designed vans. It’s not luxury by any means, but it’s a far cry from living in caves and eating cat food, like the original dirtbags. Some will even go so far as to say that dirtbags are a “dying breed,” a sentiment expressed by climber and writer Cedar Wright. In a short video, Wright profiles a climber named James Lucas, who has been living as a dirtbag since 2001—and noticing a steady decline in the number of fellow van-dwellers.
“Where have all the dirtbags gone? I think a lot of them got jobs, they got married, they had kids. I think a lot them just forgot about climbing,” Lucas remarks in the video. “There’s more to life than just rock climbing. Eventually I’ll grow up—I hope so. But more than that, I hope someone’s there to take my place, to continue the dirtbag dream.”
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Beyond the debate about the hardcore-ness of today’s dirtbags, there’s the question of whether dirtbagging is something to be idealized at all. After all, we have societal norms for a reason. We want people to have jobs because having a job means contributing to society. In a certain sense, being a dirtbag can be seen as taking advantage of the privileges one has received, without giving anything back. Furthermore, the movement seems off-limits to those who might have other responsibilities: It’s safe to say that the majority of dirtbags are white males, and even though they may not have money, they’re likely not drowning in college debt or trying to provide for a family. The harshest criticisms portray dirtbags as trust fund hippies, eschewing wealth while still taking advantage of it—and condemning society without doing anything to change it.
Joe Purtell is a sophomore Philosophy major at Colorado College, and is one of many students for whom the idea of dirtbagging after graduation holds a certain allure. Purtell, a climber, defines a dirtbag as someone who is fully engulfed in their passion, someone who only wants the bare minimum of money and material possessions that it takes to survive and sustain their chosen activity. Purtell sees himself potentially living as a dirtbag for at least a few years after CC, while eventually, if not simultaneously, pursuing a career in journalism. While some would scoff at the graduate of a prestigious liberal arts college not using their degree, Purtell sees it differently.
“There are very few jobs that actually contribute to the betterment of the planet, and so if you’re going to do a job that doesn’t do that, there’s really no difference between that and no job at all,” Purtell says. “Consider your own happiness: if you find something you’re happy doing you might as well do it for some amount of time. You’re not going to be beneficial to anyone if you’re unhappy in what you’re doing.”
Nonetheless, it seems that for all but a select few, the dirtbag existence doesn’t end up as a lifelong commitment. Perhaps this can be demonized as an extended reach of materialism and capitalism that permeates even into that van parked in Joshua Tree. Or perhaps even for those who claim that climbing is their life’s purpose, doing one thing all the time simply becomes too much.
“I think a lot of people just get to the point where they’re like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,’” says Schneiter. “For us, it was kind of like, we’ve climbed a lot, and now there’s more to life. As for the ‘lifers,’ I don’t know how they do it. There’s only a certain number of climbs you can do.”
Eventually, it becomes too hard to maintain a relationship, and dirtbags fall into the pull of a more stable job, a family and a more normal life of working more and climbing less. But perhaps, like a rebellion that fails to bring about the full change it promised, dirtbagging isn’t completely pointless. The fact that it has had such a pull on generation after generation demonstrates at least the allure, if not the value, of questioning society by removing oneself from it.
As Schneiter says, “I will never regret those dirtbag years. It was a formative experience, living that simply. It helped me think a lot about priorities. I saw the world in a different way, waking up in the dirt and being so free…Someday we’ll do it again. I would say it’s a good thing for anyone to do, at least for a while.”
It may fall short of its ideal, but within the life of the dirtbag lies a profound hope of freedom, individuality and the possibility of finding beauty and meaning in the simplest natural aspects of the world. For some, dirtbagging is an ideal hope of true freedom from the drudgery of a materialistic life. For others, it’s a memory of time well-spent immersed in one’s passion. For the rest of us, it can at least be a reminder that there are other ways of living: as we get caught up in studying for the next exam, or clocking in those next few hours or climbing the corporate ladder, the dirtbag rebel lives on, finishing up that last beer, closing the van door and dreaming of the next day of climbing soon to come.