– Journals of an Everyday Dirtbag –
I’m a high school English teacher and a dirtbag. I have a master’s degree but I like to wear the same pair of pants for two weeks straight – no washing. I teach Shakespeare and Sophocles, then eat food out of the garbage. A few of my favorite words: Paradox, imagery, free, juxtaposition, simile, scrounging, lost-and-found, quixotic, and metaphor.
This may be unclear.
So the word and definitions to start:
dirt * bag (durt’ bag’)
noun (a dirtbag)
1) A person who will give up any and all comforts in exchange for climbing.
2) An absolute, debilitated rock addict (See entry #14).
3) A pathetic and shameless scrounge.
4) One who wears free clothing, eats free food, drinks free or low-quality coffee/alcohol to save money for climbing time, climbing gear, and/or climbing trips.
verb (to dirtbag)
1. Acting as a dirtbag.
2. Exhibiting a hopeless rock addiction.
3. Scrounging to the extreme.
4. Wearing free clothing, eating free food, or drinking free or low-quality coffee/alcohol.
adjective (dirtbag modifies a noun, e.g.: “That is one dirtbag climber”)
4. Cheap to the extreme
– A Dirtbag Memoir –
True Story: The Experiential Anatomy of One Everyday Rock Junky
I was a dirtbag before I was a serious climber. Expelled from my third high school and arrested, I was sent to Life Challenge Rehabilitation and Parole Center in East Texas. The DA chose a location 2500 miles from my home in Oregon so that I wouldn’t run. But I ran anyway. My cabinmates were convicted of assault, murder, and rape. I just couldn’t stay.
After hitch-hiking to Dallas, I lived in a Greyhound bus station. I slept under the counter, ate free Saltines, watched T.V., wrote letters, and read books. It was like two straight weeks of rain on a climbing road trip. Only urban Dallas has no rock to speak of.
I don’t care what size it is. I’ll find a sit-start-to-awkward-slap-mantle on a three-foot parking lot boulder.
When I was five, I made a rule for myself that for a tree to count, I had to put the ends of my fingers higher than the highest leaf or pine needle. It was an arbitrary rule. And sometimes it meant that I only climbed fifteen feet in an apple tree, but on thin branches, weighting both feet evenly to avoid breaking a branch and falling out. At other times, such as during long childhood soloing sprees in my neighborhood old-growth park, I had to climb 150 feet of Cedar, getting up into the wind, feeling the rhythmic sway as I wedged into the highest divides of the treetops. I locked-off with my left hand, stood up high on the balls of my bare feet, and extended past the final needles.
My mind hadn’t yet learned the word “redpoint”.
One month after I purchased my first rope, I met a guy at a track meet. He asked if I wanted to climb Monkey’s Face with him the next morning. He said, “I’ve never done it. Wanna climb it with me?”
I had two whole pitches of lead experience in my life. I shrugged nonchalantly. “Sure.”
We didn’t even have all the necessary gear. My new friend had to go buy etriers from REI that night. And at the base of the climb in the morning, we realized that we didn’t have any trad gear for the twenty-five foot transition to the Southwest’s single, rusted bolt, 200 feet off the ground. Even if we had possessed a rack, I wouldn’t have known how to place a #3 Camalot followed by a large hex. So, of course, we chose to simul-solo like two drunken morons, with my partner climbing over me to get into the notch (I had a hand-jam and two good feet, so he stepped across, grabbed my shoulders, and mantled me).
Then we took two hours to get up the one AO pitch.
When we looked down out of the Mouth Cave, we saw the enormous logjam we had produced with our incompetent climbing. Climbers were stacked all over the Southwest Face, heads cocked, staring up, glaring.
I cringe when I think about that. I was one of those people.
After couch-surfing at friends’ houses for the last month of my sophomore year of high school, I returned to my parents house only to be sent to Outback, a wilderness experience for troubled teens, in Colorado. We rafted, backpacked, fished, soloed, orienteered, and ascended a thirteener. We also rock-climbed at Shelf Road. The leaders didn’t tell us any of the route names, but I know that the bulge on my first 5.9 seemed like 5.13. I was so pumped at the top I felt like throwing up.
Eugene, Oregon is not blessed with boulders or sport climbing. There is a single, 47-foot (we measured), trad and top-roping cliff called The Columns. But other than that, Eugene is void. So after wiring every single Columns route, climbing some routes one-handed, sussing eliminates, downclimbing, climbing cracks as lie-backs, doing El Cap days (64 laps at The Columns equals one Nose route), climbing all thumbs-up and all thumbs-down, and finally playing lead games (such as every route must go nut-cam-nut-cam-nut-cam), we went searching.
My friend Lee and I decided upon urban bouldering. We began making a guidebook, emailing it back and forth. We cataloged first ascents. We spent hours coming up with pun and innuendo-filled route names. We bragged about pristine bridges we had spotted from the freeway.
Then the Eugene police officers came in like supporting actors in a late-night Cinemax movie:
“This abandoned building is private property.”
“The 4th Street alley is off limits.”
“I don’t care if you have permission.”
“You don’t care?”
“The Union Pacific Railroad changing yard is an automatic arrest.”
They were not “serving and protecting”. They were “bothering and hampering”. But after what seemed like twenty encounters, Lee and I had to stop our urban spree to keep our jobs as public school teachers. So we scrapped the urban bouldering guide as well. But I still climb on the university’s library after dark. It has brick routes, arêtes, highballs, iron trellis arches, and window-sill mantles.
Some things are too good to give up.
I love a smooth fall from the fifth-bolt of a cave route. Smooth like olive oil on a Formica countertop.
I was five-years-old and asleep. My seven-year-old sister Hillary, who never slept much, stood over me. She woke me by shaking my shoulder. “Come on, Pete.”
“Come on. Crawl through the window with me.”
I followed her out onto the lower roof.
“Where are we going?”
Hillary didn’t look back. “You’ll see.”
We stopped at the edge of the roof. It was twelve feet down but Hillary pointed up. Her finger was aimed at the second-story roofline. “We need to climb up there, Pete. Just pull up next to the gutter.” She set her hands on the upper roof, rocked over her high foot, and swung a heal-hook with the other. She mantled. “Like that,” she said.
I had no choice. Hillary was my older sister.
It was a simple bet: Redpoint a Smith Rock 5.12 by June 1st or run from Smith to Bend in the sweltering heat of mid-June. I hadn’t been climbing too long back then. I had never sent a Smith 5.10d, let alone a Smith 5.12. But the magazines and books were right: Work on endurance first, climb more outside, and don’t be afraid to fall. I followed that simple plan. And I took twenty big lead falls over the next three weekends.
Two of us sent 5.12 on the last day, on June 1st. And the one friend who lost the bet, who failed to climb 5.12 by the deadline, had a convenient calf injury and was unable to complete the 23-mile desert marathon. Anticlimactic story. But 5.13 and 5.14 now seemed possible to me.
On climbing trips we eat the old standbys: Ramen, peanut butter, Snickers, cheese, bread, apples, eggs, carrots, and celery, and then variations on the same themes: “Elk Hunt Specials” (Cheese and peanut-butter sandwiches), “After-Schools” (peanut-butter and cheese on celery or carrots), and “Egg-Drop Cheese Ramen” (self-explanatory). We can eat the same food for two or twenty days in a row. It doesn’t matter. We’re climbing. Climbing is primary. Food is not even secondary. Food places far behind coffee, beer, sleep, and good books. We climb first. We eat last.
My parents believed in traveling. Anywhere. We drove all over Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona. We drove to camping. We drove to relatives’ houses four states away. We U-Hauled thousands of miles each time my dad changed schools. And one summer, my dad worked twenty hours a day for two straight weeks to stockpile overtime and pay for plane tickets to Europe.
Traveling equaled learning. Traveling was a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Traveling was worth hunger, discomfort, or suffering. We were allowed one small backpack. No more. We slept in bathtubs, luggage racks, and closets.
When I backpacked Europe with Hillary and two other teenagers after my freshman year in high school, we drank home-distilled fire-water with an Elderly Polish woman, got jumped and beat up on Quatorse Juliet, and ate salad greens covered with hundreds of aphids. But we stayed for free in Paris, Montpellier, The Camargue, Rome, and Geneva. And we found abandoned castle walls to climb all over.
My first five minutes in Camp 4, I walked right up to Midnight Lightning. No warm-up or anything. I was that cocky. I slipped on my shoes and chalked up. Then I fell off the route 43 times in a row. I’ve still never sent it.
When I was six, my parents bought a horse named “Patches”. The paint was green-broke and shifty, ready to dump any would-be riders. My dad got on and promptly found himself eating dirt. Then he tried again, holding tight as Patches reared back to buck him a second time. My dad smiled and said, “Hoffmeisters don’t quit.” Then he got off. He held the reigns out to me, “Get on, Pete.”
So I got on. I weighed almost 40 pounds. Most of it was bone. And Patches dumped me easily.
My dad said, “Get back on.”
I did. Patches bucked me again. I got back on a third time, and for a third time, Patches bucked me. I looked up at my dad.
He shrugged and shook his head. “Hoffmeisters don’t quit”.
I got back on fourteen times.
The night I graduated from high school I skipped the all-night class party and went free soloing in the dark at The Columns. I needed something real. The basalt was cold and all the cracks were black. The one streetlight from Lincoln barely hit the rockface. My friend Mike and I climbed up and down on the easy routes scared out of our minds. When I almost fell from twenty-five feet, I had to calm myself. I started breathing in and out, breathing slowly, focusing. Then I noticed that there were just four holds, two for my hands and two for my feet. Those four holds were my entire life. Then I found a new set of four holds, then another, then another.
We left The Columns and rode our bikes down to Knickerbocker Bridge. Jumping from the bridge into the invisible Willamette River below felt like the soloing fall I never took. The water was the ground.
The crimp for the right hand on The Gill Problem at the Jenny Lakes Boulders, Wyoming, that hold is disgusting.
The summer after eighth grade, Mike and I built a fort along a fenceline, one hundred yards from his cabin in the woods. We slept out in our fort every night. Sometimes it rained and our feet were in a foot of water. Another time a cougar came into the fort and sniffed each of our heads. But we kept sleeping out. And when I returned to Eugene, I slept out the next two months simply to make it to 100 nights in a row. I camped in my backyard the first three weeks of high school.
When I think of heaven, I think of pitches five through eight on Serenity and Sons of Yesterday.
In fifth grade, my brother Cooper and I threw a mattress off the upper roof, down onto the hedge below. If we took a running start, we could jump way out, hit the mattress below, and roll off onto the lawn. We jumped all afternoon. I didn’t know I was preparing for highball landings.
When I tore a tendon in my right foot while bouldering a couple years ago, my doctor put me in a walking cast. He said, “If I don’t lock you up, you won’t stay off of it.” I laughed and pretended like he was wrong. But being a junky, I was already thinking about a cast-project, something to work on while I wore my plaster. I biked down to The Columns and stared at the lines. “Limp Dick” came quickly to mind. It was a 35-foot, left-slanting, wide-hands 5.11a crack. Limpy required good footwork with the right foot, the only foot that could be jammed. I looked down at the heavy, blue cast shackling the important side of my body. Limpy was the perfect challenge.
For the first two weeks, I trained. I campused everything I could find (including store awnings, swing sets, and house decks), did push-ups, pull-ups, and squats, practiced jamming my cast in wide cracks at the crag, and climbed laps on all the routes 10a and below. But none of them demanded right-foot jams.
When I got on Limpy, I learned that the left-foot smears were worthless. I barn-doored right away. So I got back on and barn-doored again. Then I found that with my right knee pointing out, I could get a weird cross-pressure with the toes that came out of the end of my cast. I could almost slot them. I tried the route a third time and muscled twelve feet up before I fell at the bottom of the sustained crux. I was encouraged. When I went home, I pictured the chalked crux and couldn’t sleep.
I had to work for a few days, but I thought about Limpy the whole time.
During my next session, I fell near the bottom of the crux again on my fourth go. And my fifth. And my sixth.
I went back to the doctor and got a second cast. My old one was brownish and cracking. It smelled like rotting cockroaches.
The nurse said, “What have you been doing in this thing?” She looked truly curious.
But I knew she was only a spy for the doctor, so I said, “Not much.”
A week later, I got back to the crag and took my seventh go. This time I climbed high up in the crux, falling just before the first good rest jam. My eighth go was the same, but I figured out a perfect sequence. I knew I had it. I knew what I needed to do.
When I went back to the doctor’s office for a third time, he said I was ready to get my cast off.
I got that sick feeling in my stomach like when I blow a hard lead between the final bolt and the chains.
I said, “You know, um…” then I glanced at the doctor’s face and examined his clothes. They were expensive yet casual. He was a world-class orthopedic surgeon. He was middle-aged, wearing thick glasses, and looked like he played golf, but not well. He probably went to one high school, attended Stanford undergrad, and finished at Berkley Med. He probably had 2.5 children, a white picket fence, and a lap dog. His fingernails were gorgeous.
I tried again, “You know, uh, see the thing is…” then I trailed off. My doctor wasn’t a climber. He didn’t know how it felt to be shaky as he tied in before a hard redpoint attempt. He didn’t mash chalk into his gobies to staunch the bleeding for one more try. He couldn’t possibly get it. He couldn’t possibly understand that I needed one more week in my cast so that I could send a project named “Limp Dick”.
Peter Brown Hoffmeister lives in an Oregon grass valley where rocks are afraid to grow. So he usually gets his fix on his garage wall.