Dirtbagging in Yosemite Valley
John Muir might have been the first dirtbag in Yosemite. He stuck around the Valley, and the Sierra Nevada, for several decades and even tried his hand at climbing some of its peaks. The jobs he kept were inconsistent, and he didn’t feel too passionately about them. The only thing that really got him going was being outdoors, and he spent most of his life pursuing it.
The Ahwahnee hotel has high tea in the afternoon, and inside there’s a cigar store and several restaurants, one of which serves $50 dollar entrees. It’s a swanky place, which is itself not entirely remarkable, as there are many nice hotels in the world. What is strange, though, is that this hotel resides in the Yosemite Valley portion of Yosemite National Park, one of the great wilderness areas in the continental United States, a place where it’s not uncommon to see a black bear going for a stroll.
The Ahwahnee exerts a strong pull on a certain type of tourist – the tourist who wants a pristine wilderness environment during the day, but really nice Sherry and a feather bed at night. The rock walls around Yosemite Valley attract a different breed of tourist – the dirtbag, who normally disdains the trappings of civilization embodied by the Ahwahnee, the conspicuous consumption, the wasteful extravagance of having a maid change your bedsheets everyday (I mean, how dirty can you get them in one night?) Similarly, the Ahwahnee guests disdain the dirtbag for his smelliness, sanctimoniousness and general lack of contribution to society.
These two populations cohabitate in this cathedral of nature, as Muir called it.
There are free buses that run everywhere around the valley. Park rangers encourage everyone who stays in the Valley to take them: it reduces carbon emissions and keeps the busy Valley roads from getting congested. On these buses you’ll see the different species of Yosemite tourists: the rich Ahwahnee toursts, the middle class campers and the dirtbag climbers. The dirtbags are easy to spot. They are often smelly and wearing either tattered clothing, or else functional outdoor clothing, like puffy jackets. Riding a bus, you feel instant camaraderie with the other climbers on board; you might give one a knowing nod as you walk by, as if to say, We’re in this together.
Once while riding the bus, I talked with some climbers. In a conspiratorial whisper, they told me about free cookies at the Ahwahnee, which were served everyday at 4:00pm.
The word “free” as a dog whistle for dirtbags. It doesn’t matter what – free is free.
I went to the Ahwahnee to get the free cookies, and apparently other climbers had heard the same rumors. There they were with dirt-caked skin and unkempt beards, walking among the hotel guests, who I’m sure bathed with fruity smelling bath salts every night. The climbing bums saw me, and, recognizing me a one of their own, asked if I knew where the cookies were served. I didn’t know, and I was about to ask them the same question. We wandered around the hotel together. We asked some hotel staff members where the cookies would be served. They gave us a look that dirtbags often receive from the rest of society – a look of visceral revulsion and incredulity at our cheapness. Cookies and tea are served to guests of the hotel on the mezzanine, they said. Classist bastards, we thought.
And sure enough, on the mezzanine they were handing out cookies that looked like they were baked in a Fancy French bakery. A sign nearby said, Hotel Guests Only. Please provide your room number…
One night, my friend and I walked to our camp after a day’s climbing. We passed a garbage can, on top of which a beer bottle sat. Most people would walk past and think nothing of it, but not the dirtbag. A Negra Modelo whose foil around the cap was untarnished – this beer was not yet opened! We pocketed it before anyone came back to claim it.
The ethics of dirtbagging is complex. Was it stealing to take an unopened beer on top of a garbage can? My friend and I are amateur moral philosophers, and in our discussion of the event, we determined that no, it wasn’t stealing, because whoever left a beer on a garbage can had forfeited their right to the beer. The top of a garbage can, by tacit social convention, is a place to get rid of something.
The dirtbag is often seen as a freeloader. The eyes of some Ahwahnee guests in Yosemite on me seemed to say, You guys haven’t ever worked hard in your entire life. It’s the same look some political conservatives in America must give the so-called welfare queens of our country. But I want to make something perfectly clear: dirtbags are principled in their freeloading.
Even if you pay for a campsite in the Valley, you still have to pay for a shower. It’s as if the park authorities wanted to keep the dirtbags dirty.
It is possible, however, to get a free shower in Yosemite Valley. When the weather’s warm, you can bathe in the rivers and lakes. When it’s cold, you have to steal a shower – that is, if you want to be clean in the first place, because many dirtbags don’t give a fuck. The showers at the Housekeeping camp are monitored by park staff, but at night this person takes a break at some point, leaving the guard post unmanned. At this time, you’ll see the dirtbags come streaming in for their free showers.
In the Valley, I ran into a high school class that was on a field trip. Their project was to take pictures of outdoor sports, like rock climbing. The teacher was an avid rock climber, who had often traveled around the country and climbed when he was younger. Now, he was middle aged and a respectable member of society. His students took pictures of us climbing, and he talked with us in wistful tones about his dirtbag days. He saw our tattered clothes, our greasy hair and our car filled with dried food, and it reminded him of his own cherished memories. You have your priorities in order, he said. We’re the suckers who have to work all day.
When my friends and I arrived in Yosemite Valley to rock climb, our goal was to spend as little money as possible. Our car was packed full with food that was either dry or in cans, and all the gear we would need for the next couple weeks. The only other part of the equation was our sleeping situation: every official camping spot cost money.
So we did what many dirtbags do: we stealth camped. Our car was parked in the parking lot of a trailhead, where we would eat dinner and breakfast and stash our gear. Every night, we’d pack a small bag with our sleeping materials and head out into the darkness of the forest to sleep for the night.
How did it feel to steal from the National Park Service? It didn’t really affect us. As one of my friends said, We’ll have most of a lifetime’s worth of being responsible and financially solvent adults, at which time we can pay for camping in National Parks. Right now, we’re poor dirtbags who don’t want to pay for camping.
After a few days of this, some of my friends got tired of all the sneaking around, so they decided to just sleep in our car, where it was convenient and warm. The first night, there was no consequences, but on the second a park ranger drove through the parking lot and shone his flashlight through our car’s windows.
You two, sleeping in the car, he said. Please get out of the vehicle.
They pretended to ignore him at first. In their sleepy logic, they thought if they didn’t acknowledge him, he would go away.
If you don’t want me to tow your car, I’d suggest you get out.
That was the end of our stealth camping adventure in Yosemite. The park ranger was nice about it, at least: just pay the $20, he said.
We were a little too tired at that point to rag on The Man for getting us down. We just made our camp and went to sleep.
In Camp 4 (where climbers have historically camped in the valley) there’s a free bin. You know, people leave shit that they don’t need anymore. It’s part of the dirtbag routine in the Valley, checking the free bin for anything good. Like: Man, did you check the free bin today. Shit was crazy.
In the bin, I once saw one glove – exactly one short of a pair. And in fact, this glove was only part glove: the glove’s fingers had disappeared. It was a handsome glove, however, with sturdy leather despite how old it look. I took it, because a dirtbag never knows when half a glove will come in handy.