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  • Tim Mathis

12 Books that Define Dirtbag Culture (and a few more that should)

books about dirtbags
Books in the Dirt. Not on the list.

I just finished a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time - The Beach by Alex Garland. My responses are “Whoa,” “That was intense,” and also “That was really dirtbaggy.”

What do I mean by dirtbaggy? Well, it was a full on exposition and critique of the sort of escapism that defines dirtbag, outdoor adventure, and backpacker culture (which I’m going to lump together for better or worse).

The Beach is a very popular book. It was made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, and Alex Garland went on to write and/or direct a bunch of other Hollywood stuff. Even if The Beach is primarily a takedown of dirtbag culture, it’s also one of its most well-known representations.

The book’s got to be included in the pantheon of dirtbaggy books, I thought.

That also made me think, well, what else is in the pantheon of books that define dirtbag culture? Where did the guiding ideas come from? How did the ideas behind dirtbaggery form, and how have they been codified in print?

I thought about it for a bit.

Then I made a list. (You know me. I just want to help.)

First off, what do you mean, dirtbag?

To paraphrase Yvon Chouinard, what I’m talking about are people who, like juvenile delinquents or entrepreneurs, look at life’s options and say, “This sucks, I’m doing my own thing.” Then, they decide to focus their lives on adventure: climbing, traveling, skiing, trail running, hiking, whatever.

It’s a counterculture.

Second off, what do you mean, “define dirtbag culture?”

This is a little bit more complicated. Outdoor and adventure culture is diffuse and diverse enough that it’s hard to say what it is, so it’s hard to say what defines it.

So, let’s just admit up front that this list is entirely subjective. It’s mostly focused on the communities that I’m most familiar with - hiking, travel and trail running. It’s also exclusively books that I’ve read, personally. (Although I include a supplementary list of books at the end, a few of which I haven't read yet.)

Is that equitable or accurate? No. But to be fair, this website is called “Tim Mathis Writes,” not “The absolute and universal truth.” My thoughts are all I have to offer.

Inclusion doesn't necessarily imply endorsement here. I didn’t even like some of these books, and some are full of ideas I don’t agree with, but all have had an undeniable influence.

To try to demonstrate some level of objectivity, I won’t include my own book, The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life, even though it is the only book-length attempt to define dirtbag culture that I’m aware of, and it brings together a whole bunch of the core concepts you'll find in these other books.

It’s not on the list.

(See what I did there though?)

Here we go, in no particular order.

Books that have defined dirtbag culture.

Let’s just start here, because it’s the book that inspired the list. It’s a real page turner and a cautionary tale, definitely, about utopianism and the excesses of escapism and exoticism that run through dirtbag and backpacker culture. It’s backpacker romanticism illustrated and dissected and condemned in dramatic and bloody fashion. Yikes.

The movie’s mediocre. The book’s way better.

I’m going to be doing some lumping on this list, so get ready for it. Quinn is a quintessential dirtbag. The Sunset Route tells her story of growing up in the chaos of life with a severely mentally ill mother. She left home and built a life of train-hopping, drifting, thru-hiking and verbal artistry. She’s a real dirtbag, and from the outside it looks like she’s followed her own path to carve out a decent existence despite the obstacles. She’s quintessentially what this is all about.

Thru-hiking Will Break Your Heart is an indie masterpiece, and to my mind it is the best way to learn what thru-hiking is like without doing it yourself.

3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

I don’t really like Kerouac. I wasn’t blown away by the book. Not sure if I just didn’t pick it up at the right time, but the experience was kind of “meh” to me, with lots of weird problematic elements. But you can’t deny that it has shaped the modern “Pack up the car and head out West” American ethic. A lot of people love it and see it as a key expression of the dirtbag spirit. It’d be hard to leave off the list.

4. Across Asia on the Cheap by Tony Wheeler

The original Lonely Planet Guide, self-published and sold along the road sharing personal learnings from years of travel. It’s here essentially because it emerged from the original Hippie Trail culture that was the start of modern international backpacking. It’s pretty useless as a travel guide today but that’s not the point. In good dirtbag spirit, it’s free to download if you’re keen to bask in nostalgia.

5. Thirst and Mud, Rocks, Blazes by Heather Anderson

Lovely memoirs about personal growth via very hard physical things - specifically, setting speed records on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, coming from a non-athletic background. Also two of the best literary illustrations of the emotional experiences that accompany the decision to devote your life to things that people think are silly - which is what dirtbag culture is all about, eh?

6. Into the Wild by John Krakauer

If The Beach is a classic cautionary tale about international backpacker culture, this one’s a classic about the American impulse to run away into the wilderness. Krakauer seems more enchanted by the romanticism than Garland was though, so it’s a more complex (and frankly less traumatic) read emotionally. Some people think that Alexander Supertramp was a hero. Some people think that he was a madman. Maybe both were true?

7. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

In ultra running circles this book is so popular as to have become a cliche. Why are you running a hundred miler? I read Born to Run. It’s hagiography. It’s got a “Noble Savage” vibe at times. It espouses pseudoscience about barefoot running. It still convinces people that running in Vibram Five Fingers is a good idea. But it also captures a golden era of ultrarunning and a shit-ton of people still secretly draw on the story emotionally when they’re out on trail. It’s hard to be a pure hater of such a good read, even if it’s produced some silliness. I challenge you to find a book that’s been more influential on outdoor culture in the last 25 years.

8. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Similar point. On the PCT, it’s almost a badge of honor to hate Wild. Why? Man, she didn’t even hike the whole trail! She didn’t know what she was doing! Why is she the most famous thru-hiker? That misses the point. Cheryl Strayed never claimed to be a thru-hiker anyway, so chill out. This book has shaped the “adventure as self-help” trend, and frankly I think that’s a positive thing. It’s driven thousands of people to get into hiking. It brought pilgrimage back en vogue in the United States (without calling it pilgrimage). Personally I think it’s a brilliant book, and so did Oprah, so shove off haters.

Listen, here’s the thing. You get the impression that Ed Abbey didn’t like people. He was an iconoclast and an asshole. He was openly racist, sexist, and xenophobic. He was probably a narcissist of some flavor.

Also, he wrote beautifully about the Southwest and passionately about protecting it in a way that’s been spiritually crucial for modern environmentalism. Both of those books are classics of dirtbag and environmentalist literature. So what do you do? You put him on the list, reluctantly but undeniably because it’s hard to say that you can understand outdoor culture, at least in the States, if you don’t understand Abbey. People are complicated. So’s the outdoor community.

10. Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold

Honnold is another complex guy, but in a very different (and to my mind much more sympathetic) way than Abbey. He’s got his issues, but he’s not a bad person. I’m not sure if he’s been formally diagnosed, but he has self-identified as being on the Autism Spectrum, and he seems to have all of the traits, at least from a distance. There’s been a lot written about him, but his own book is the best entry point into the mind of a guy who is maybe the inevitable culmination of dirtbag climbing culture. He’s a super weird guy doing very dangerous things for reasons that almost no one else understands, but it’s impossible not to watch. The book’s a fascinating look into the mind of one of the most incredible athletes ever. This is a book that makes you feel like there’s a thin line between “disorder” and superpower. There’s something essential in there about the entire subculture, right?

11. Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

Potts is a great writer (I also really loved his collection Marco Polo Didn’t Go There), but the philosophy is what’s important here. Travel is something to do when you’re in the prime of your life, and should be approached as an education, not a vacation. A classic exposition on how to make that happen.

12. The People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz and Lorena Havens

Theoretically this is an offbeat travel guide to Mexico. More accurately it’s a treatise on slow travel philosophy with Mexico as the object lesson. It’s about travel as the path to a good life and enrichment, really. It’s deeply countercultural, and deeply DIY. “Living, traveling, and taking things as they come” is one of the book’s taglines. The book is a long treatise on how life will be better if you approach it with those goals in mind.

Bonus: A few books so the climbers won't hate me.

Listen, I haven't read many books by climbers, so my views are skewed, but it is true that you all have some legitimate claim to having originated the term "dirtbag," so I don't want to piss you off by only including an Alex Honnold book.

And it is true, there are a good number of climbing books that could've made this list. So, even though I've never read either of these, let's also add:

It's a history of rock climbing, told in relaxed, humorous style, written and popular at a time when the culture was developing. I'm not sure you can get it in electronic form, which is dirtbaggy.

Also, how about...

Basic Rockcraft by Royal Robbins.

Like People's Guide to Mexico and Across Asia on the Cheap, this is ostensibly a guide book, but it's just as importantly a key that facilitated the development of a culture by outlining core essentials of the trade. Not the most up to date resource on climbing technique, but one of the key physical products of the original Yosemite dirtbags.

Read those books, and in my opinion, you’ll have a decent understanding of the dirtbag spirit as it’s developed.

You could critique this and say that it’s a very America-centric, and Caucasian-centric list.

You could make the same critique about dirtbag culture in general. Both are legitimate critiques, so I want to throw in some suggestions for further reading. These are books in the same spirit that could and should help shape the culture, but haven't exactly yet.

Don’t call them honorable mentions, but these books should be on the list.

I know I know I know what you might be thinking about the next two, but here’s the thing:

So far pretty much every book on the list has been about a white person going into the wilderness (literally or proverbially), and coming back as a low grade harmless revolutionary. The lessons are primarily about self-discovery or personal freedom or finding a connection to the universe, but there are parallel stories written by POC during the exact same period of time, with very similar travel experiences and goals that led them to very different conclusions. If you want to understand how travel and adventure shapes people, you need broader representation. So...

Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara is a Latin American road-trip classic about how travel exposed Che to a series of experiences that led him to believe that things had to change. Travel wasn’t freeing, because he saw people like himself who were getting eaten alive. He moved from medic to militant to revolutionary. You can see his story as a hero’s journey or a tragedy depending on your view of things, but in either case it’s very much a dirtbag adventure story.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is not usually treated in this way, but it is also very much a travel book. Malcolm’s whole worldview is shaped again and again by experiences he has when he’s traveling - around African-American communities the US, then to Mecca, then to Africa and the Middle East. He progressed, in a way, in the opposite direction from Che - from militancy to a much more pacifist and inclusive view. Again, this is very much a dirtbag revolutionary story sharing the impact of travel experiences from the Kerouac era. Not an outdoorsy guy, you say? So what. You wouldn't be either in his situation. Compare his stories about dancing in his formative years to Chouinard's stuff about surfing. Dude understood the relationship between the physical and the spiritual.

Both books are classic pictures of the way that exposure to the world can shape ideology, in line with many of the rest we’ve talked about. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

For something lighter, The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho should also be on this list. This is the best modern book on pilgrimage and the Camino, in my opinion. Written in the ‘80s, before the Camino really blew up again, there’s an origin story here about the modern version of the trail, and Coelho’s magical realist story was a big part of the resurgence. In my opinion it’s a better book, with sounder philosophy than The Alchemist, which you can see as a sort of sequel. Dirtbag culture is very much about pilgrimage, and if you’re looking for a classic expression of dirtbag spirituality, you could do worse than to look here.

And for shoots and googs, here are a few more recent books that should help shape things going forward:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is not exactly about travel or adventure, but it is about reconceptualizing the human relationship to the outdoors using indigenous concepts. It’s a book that’s moving along the process of de-colonizing outdoor culture, broadly speaking. It’s a bestseller and it probably should be on the list because it’s been as influential as any of the other books above, but I haven’t read it. It’s in the queue.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. Well known as a story about African American history and experience in the US but equally a brilliant book about how travel can profoundly shape your worldview. It made me re-think the essential connection between travel and the sense of openness and adventure that I’ve always experienced as a white guy. Another book about travel as a crucial educator.

The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham. A memoir about an African-American experience of the outdoors. Like Braiding Sweetgrass, I haven’t gotten to it yet, but if you’re going to read about Abbey’s thoughts on the desert Southwest, you should also absolutely balance it out with this poetic memoir about Lanham’s relationship with nature in the rural South.

Okay - that’s what I got. Love this? Great. Don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list to get more things like it. Hate it? Give the world more options. Drop your recommendations in the comments!

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