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Is the Era of the Dirtbag Over?

dirtbag noun dirt·bag | ˈdərt-ˌbag
●    a person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle (Urban Dictionary)

“Sound the alarm! We are on the brink of a great tragedy,” writes Cedar Wright, a climbing publicist known to the general public for his “Sufferfest” trips with Alex Honnold. Wright bemoans the end of the dirtbag era, blaming the Internet, consumerism and indoor climbing gyms. He speaks with nostalgia of the time when he and his friends hung out in Yosemite, living a simple life of climbing and sleeping in cars.

The dirtbag culture - forgoing homely comforts and the security of a regular income - formed the solid base upon which outdoor sports such as climbing and surfing arose. To pursue the most challenging rock faces and waves, practitioners of said sports would choose a merry and sometimes controversial existence on the brink of society.  

But the dirtbag is not merely an outdoor sports related phenomenon. In fact, it is a concept deeply rooted in American counterculture, and Jack Kerouac’s dharma bums - youngsters searching for a higher truth - were none else but dirtbags. During the great depression, those driven by poverty to live off Merced River fish were also dirtbags. And it can be argued that even John Muir, the great naturalist and father of Yosemite National Park, was a dirtbag.

As outdoor sports become more and more mainstream, some fear that the dirtbagging tradition is fading away. We move to indoor gyms and Olympic stadiums, and outdoor athletes become celebrities covered by Shape magazine. More and more people are introduced to adventure sports via package holidays or National Geographic films. Incidentally, these are films which are often made by former dirtbags such as Jimmy Chin or Renan Ozturk.

Now a celebrated photojournalist, Ozturk started his career living in the deserts of Utah (no home, no car), painting, and climbing sheer sandstone towers. Today, he swaps canvas for a camera but his artistic vision for documenting people and the outdoors remains unchanged.

His story is not dissimilar to that of Yvon Chouinard, once a rad dirtbag climber, today a rad owner of one of the biggest outdoor gear companies in the world: Patagonia. Although Chouinard is definitely successful in the mainstream sense of the world, he continues to value his radical views as explained in a bestselling book, “Let my people go surfing."

Much has changed for Cedar Wright too. No longer dirtbagging, he is now not only a publicist but also a filmmaker and adventurer backed by The North Face. The era of the dirtbag is by no means over; it is just that the dirtbags of a certain era have moved on.

With more and more popularity and a vibrant industry growing around outdoor pursuits, some aspects of the adventure lifestyle are certainly becoming more mainstream. Increasing numbers of people walk in through the door of indoor climbing gyms, never to touch real rock in their life. But at the same time, in all corners of the world, people put on their backpacks and head off to live their outdoor dreams.

The dirtbag rarely has phone signal or credit. Putting adventure first full-time, he or she is climbing, hiking or surfing right now. And although you won’t see them on the Internet, there is something reassuring about the fact that they are still out there.

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