Bidding a Fond and Reluctant Farewell to the Itinerant Dirtbag Life

Just one year ago, I wrote a facetious article entitled Dirtbag Lifehacks. I suppose it was only half facetious— I had actually done all eight of my suggestions, but I wouldn’t necessarily call my grandmother to tell her about them. For example, when I’m on long expeditions, I often sleep in exactly the same clothing that I wear during the day. Yes, I’ve heard about the health concerns of wearing a sports bra 24/7, and when every pothole is frozen in frosty late November in the canyons, I’m not about to take my shirt off at night. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I typically leave my sleeping bag zipped as I suggest others “hack” in the article. I get so frustrated with caught zippers early in the morning or late at night. My husband says he doesn’t catch his zippers because he “zips so much less erratically,” whatever that means.

But my dirtbagging has extended well beyond a few “life hacks.” When I was 23, I was living on a small monthly stipend (a choice that I recognize comes from a lot of privilege). I embraced creativity and frugality. I frequented the local Grocery Outlet (or gross-out as we used to call it) where I’d often find cheap cereal that was about to expire. However there was never any cheap milk. So instead, I used water (or as I liked to call it “intern almond milk”). My sister, a designer in New York City, saw me putting water into my cereal last Christmas and opened her eyes wider than I thought humanly possible with a slow but powerful, “ARE. YOU. SERIOUS?”

Do I still go camping? Yes. I still love it so much. But for the first time in my life, I love sleeping on our mattress more than my Therm-a-Rest.

I needed curtains in a recent rental so I thumbtacked my favorite in-camp Indian Creek dress and my partner’s International Climbers’ Festival t-shirt above the window. That gave us about 80 percent privacy (hopefully the right 80 percent). Sorry, neighbors. One summer I was working for an outdoor education organization in northern California. When I told that same designer sister about it, she was excited to set me up with her friend’s parents before my contract. They generously took me in, even if slightly horrified. When I showed up, I had a small duffle and a trash bag full of my camping stuff. I was planning to rent a backpack for the actual trip, so I figured there was no point lugging around more luggage. They kindly showed me to my room, making sure to point out the shower (I took the hint). When I woke up the next morning there was a roller bag outside of my bedroom door. Unsure of how to properly thank them, I cleaned the kitchen with all of my elbow grease. I still roll that puppy around like there’s no tomorrow.

My partner’s truck was our home for a long time. We got away without renting a place for the first four years of our relationship with a slick combination of sleeping in the truck, my sister’s basement, and the “hotel” that our school runs (nightly rate: $7.00). We had more belongings— bikes, skis, too many puffy jackets— than fit in the truck, so the easy mobile living was made possible by having a storage unit. ‘Storage unit’ might be a generous term for the metal cage in a basement that cost $6.00/month to rent, but man did it feel luxurious to have everything in one space (even if I had foot a bill in order to do so).

Photo: Everett Mcintire

It’s funny how the low-level dirtbagging became a piece of my identity, a source of pride. Not “funny ha ha” but funny weird. It’s not something I’m proud of or like to admit, but I think there was ego involved. An elitism tied to simplicity, perceived elegance, frugality. Like the stubbornness of hanging onto a flip phone well past what made sense for my life. Yes, I think we shouldn’t buy stuff we don’t need. And no, a dirtbag isn’t better than anyone else because they only own three shirts or make curtains out of t-shirts. How much coal went into that synthetic sleeping bag again?

Over time, my choices have shifted. I started to make decisions that my more conventional parents understood— I took a job in an office, I started to pay rent, I separated “town clothes” and “field clothes” (though there’s still a 100 percent overlap in all sporty undergarments and keeping that town puffy off while I’m camping is very difficult). The flip phone became a smartphone, and in the process, I became a more reliable employee who gets lost less often. I started to put mascara on every day and shower (more) often.

The final nail in the dirtbag coffin came with the most exciting, expensive, and stressful purchase of my life: a house. My husband and I weren’t looking for a home, but it appeared in front of us and was too good to pass up. A friend restored a hundred-year-old log cabin in line with our values. Solar power, beautiful windows, and the best neighbors we could ask for.

So, I am officially announcing my dirtbag retirement. Do I still go camping? Yes. I still love it so much. But for the first time in my life, I love sleeping on our mattress more than my Therm-a-Rest. I get as excited about house projects as I do climbing, and I find myself convincing my husband that these two shades of white are so, so different. The old me is still in there too; hopefully with less ego. We didn’t own any furniture for a while, so our first “dinner party” in our new home happened on seats made of piles of books and a “table” of stacked cutting boards. And I’ll be damned if I waste money on heating the house more than it needs to keep the pipes thawed. As I write this I’m wearing a puffy jacket inside. Don’t worry, it’s my very clean and stain-free “town” puffy.

Kathryn Montana Perkinson is a writer living in Lander, Wyoming. Find more at and @kathrynmontana.



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