The Dirtbag Diaries

Published in Adventure Magazine NZ, DEC 2014/Jan 2015

dirtbag diaries

It’s a bit like Groundhog Day, except that everyday you re-live is one where you get to scale the most perfect rock faces in the world’s most unimaginably beautiful spots.

Sure, you live in the dirt, have to curl up in a sleeping bag on cold nights to keep warm, and look to the river as a poor excuse for a shower. You look and live like a penniless drifter.

But this is freedom in its purest form, doing what you love, every single day. Spontaneous recklessness can pounce at any moment. Work is a four-letter word. And you are but one of a community of like-minded dirtbags, who have all turned their back on ‘real life’ in pursuit of a less tangible wealth.

There is a global gang of us – eternal rock-climbers who spend months at a time at world-class crags, moving en masse to the next when conditions deteriorate.

My life for the past 26 months – and for five of the last seven years – has been a variation of the same day: Exploring the orange contours of the high bluffs of Mt Arapiles, and then retreating to the camp fire to share the day’s bliss.

Or playing on the tufa-blessed overhangs and caves in the Greek island of Kalymnos. Or being swalllowed up by the dramatic granite spires that rise menacingly from infinite ice fields in the Canadian Bugaboos.

Or Laos, Canada, Morocco … the world over.

The life of a dirtbag is not a holiday, but a lifestyle. While most people strive to acquire more money, more security, more things, we are committed to the opposite: to work as little as possible to free up climb-time.

We seek adventure and experiences, at the expense of riches. And we live as though we are broke to keep going for as long as we can.

We sleep in tents or the backs of cars, ask departing school groups for leftover milk powder, buy new clothes only when our current ones are ripped beyond repair. The equivalent of buying a mansion is upgrading to a more spacious tent.

It’s not all about the climbing. There’s limitless culture and history and local street dishes to explore, everywhere.

And here’s the rub: it isn’t hard to quit your job and do what you love, regardless of whether it involves travel, rock faces, surf breaks, ski slopes, bike trails. Especially in places like Yangshuo, China, where the monthly rent is about $80, and a plate of street food deprives your pocket of $1 or $2. Or wild camping in almond groves in the Anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco, among gentle quartzite giants.

This is not to say that this life is for you, or is better than the one you’re living. But if you’ve ever wanted to chuck it all in and explore for a year, two years, indefinitely, it’s not as insurmountable as it seems.

And you can really stretch it out if your means of transport is your thumb, your shelter is a tarpaulin, and you look at every supermarket dumpster as a potential treasure trove.

dirtbag diaries 2

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An oily spot on the brown paper bag left abandoned on the bus suggests that inside is a pastry of substantial gloriousness.

Grabbing the bag means flaunting my shamelessness in front of all the bus passengers. I don’t care. The almost-whole muffin I discover in the bag is pure deliciousness.

Eating other people’s leftovers is one of the most obvious ways to stretch finances. It’s not just about being cheap. Waste is offensive. British families throw out about seven million tonnes of food and drink every year, including 24 million slices of bread, 1.5 million tomatoes and 1.4 million bananas every day. A 2011 United Nations-sponsored report called Global Food Losses and Waste found that the amount of wasted food in industrialised countries was almost as much as the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa.

The appropriate standard of hygiene – how gross is too gross? – is often a subject of debate. Take this scenario: You walk into a cafe bathroom, close the door, and see a large smoothie sitting on a bench by the toilet. Someone has obviously left it there accidentally. The lid has a small opening – a possible entry point for fecal vapour.

Do you smell it? Take a little sample? Wolf it down in one go? Leave it be for the owner to reclaim?

I let it be. For 30 minutes, then I checked to see if it was still there. It was, so I took a sniff (nothing offensive), swapped the straw, and downed it. Berry goodness flooded my insides.

Many times this past summer, in Canada, I helped myself to half-eaten sushi trays or lunch plates, long abandoned.

In Australia a supermarket bin in Horsham, a small town near the world-class climbing areas of Arapiles and the Grampians, regularly supplied us with eggs, bacon, whole chickens, expired milk, sausages, bags of potatoes.

One day the dumpster gifted us 11 beers; the 12th had somehow been damaged, making the box of a dozen unfit for sale. A discussion ensued about going into the store and surreptitiously damaging a single beer in different boxes of a dozen.

One night in Melbourne outside a bakery, we found three wheelie bins of infinite goodies in perfectly clean plastic bags. And this bakery, in a posh suburb, was overflowing with the most gourmet of goods: white chocolate and macadamia cookies, cranberry fruit loaves, all baked fresh that morning.

Sometimes the bins provided more than just food. A friend found the remains of a tent, and wrapped it in a tarp. It wasn’t weather-proof, but it was large and on a slight lean; when it rained, the water pooled on one side, leaving the other side luxuriously dry.

One guy at Arapiles, Eddie, was rumored to have lived for four months at the campground on $100. He hitch-hiked, found abundance in dumpsters, worked weekly at the local organic farm – which paid in vegetables – and cooked over camp fires.

It didn’t always go to plan. One evening in Squamish, Canada, we started digging in to an abandoned plate of nachos, but the diners had only been outside for a smoke. “You can’t be fucking serious!” said an incredulous woman when she caught us nacho-handed.

We left with our tails between our legs and paid for their meal. I forked out $10 for two corn chips. At least one of them had sour cream on it.

It was only long after we’d left that we realised we should’ve gone back in to eat the rest, given that we’d paid for them. They were probably just thrown out.

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The doors of dirtbaggery do not open without some form of savings, usually from some form of income.

There are dirtbags of every stripe, and all ages. Take Bong, a Scotsman in his 40s who works short contracts as a business consultant in between long climbing trips. There’s Drew, a recent graduate who programmes from wifi cafes while perpetually on the road. Or Andy, a twenty-something nurse who saves up for a period, then dirtbags indefinitely.

And there’s always a guy who scratches a living any way he can. One climbing guidebook includes an immortalised letter from social services, informing an anonymous climber that his benefit is being cut because dirtbaggery is not a form of job-hunting.

Climbers are not the only ones who reject the script. Daniel Suelo turned his back on money at the turn of the millennium when he left his life savings – $30 – in a telephone booth. He lives in a cave in the deserts of Utah, USA, foraging for food.

Chris McCandeless, whose story was popularised in Into the Wild, wandered the rugged backcountry of Alaska in solitude (this is perhaps a poor example, as he starved to death; there are a lack of dumpsters in the Alaskan backcountry).

Or Man Vs Debt founder Adam Baker, who abides by a doctrine of ‘Sell your crap, pay your debt, do what you love’. His starting point is the question: What does freedom mean to you? Enslaved to debt and working 60 hour weeks, his life seemed to be lacking something.

My dirtbaggery, like many others, began with a decisive step: buying a van with a bed fitted in the back.

I then found the cajones to give up a job that I enjoyed in a city – Wellington – which I loved. But once on the road, any regret quickly evaporated.

I spent months in the South Island, climbing to my heart’s content, while meeting kindred spirits in the most breathtaking parts of the country – Castle Hill, Milford Sound, Wanaka.

The benefits of living simply and in the outdoors are well-documented. Consumerism and the rat race do not apply when you live in a van. Trivial matters drop away, replaced with self-reliance and independence. These are common themes of wilderness therapy or Outward Bound courses.

The following two years took me to South and Central America, exploring rock faces and mountains, ancient ruins and bizarre, other-worldly landscapes. As soon as I returned to New Zealand, I focused on rebuilding my savings for another jaunt. My next trip took me through Asia, North America, Greece, Turkey and Morocco.

Being back once again is a massive adjustment. It’s easy to feel a grand disconnect with ‘real life’, detaching from conversations between colleagues about TV shows you never knew existed. There is a natural disenchantment with having to work, regardless of how enjoyable or meaningful it is. It will never compare with doing whatever you want, with whoever you want, whenever you want.

It is a matter of weeks before my four-month contract comes to an end. Another adventure awaits.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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