Questions for a 21st Century Dirtbag
Meet Tom Grundy, a dirtbag. It might be more accurate to call him a recovering dirtbag since he now owns a place with 4 walls and a roof complete with kitchen, bathroom, and even a laundry. But he still doesn't have a "real" job and still gets most of his food from "shopping" at the 100% discount bin in the waaay back of the grocery store. You can take the dirtbag out of the dirt, but you can't take the dirt out of the dirtbag.
Tom will say there are many different types of dirtbag – what one decides to do with the status doesn't really matter. The important thing – the essence of being a dirtbag – is that you spend your effort to maximize the time doing what you love. For him that is climbing, although he admits that he will also indulge in other things like hiking, backpacking, peak bagging, mountaineering, mountain biking, paddling (mostly pack rafting), slacklining, and photography.
A bit of history: Tom quit his first real job in 1997 to go on a nearly year long road trip in a travel trailer, with his then girlfriend. But his biggest road trip, the one that gave him true dirtbag status, started when he lost an environmental consulting job due to "failure to take proper initiative in project management". It was a blow, but also a sign he should get back out on the road. This was in the spring of 1999 and after spending a few months alternating time between Smith Rock and a tiny apartment in Portland, he decided to go all in – shifting everything to a tiny storage shed and heading South in his little Toyota pickup.
I caught up with Tom when three months of international dirtbagging in Asia and Oceania, part of the latest chapter of a more than 15 year exodus from 'normalcy', brought him to Te Anau, my new hometown in a remote corner of southern New Zealand. He had a day between adventures (packrafting and caving I believe) and we met at the park and chatted while walking on slacklines and, of course, drying out a van full of gear.
Breathe: Why do you think we're writing this article about you? Don't be humble...
Tom: Well, I certainly would have wanted to know more about how I lived on the road before I did it myself, but I must admit sometimes it seems like there is a lot of interest about something that shouldn't be all that remarkable, and I feel like a bit of a phony for the notoriety. I certainly did something that most people in the west probably wouldn't even want to do let alone think it was possible. I have done it long enough that it doesn't seem all that remarkable to me, but to others, I suppose it can be completely novel and fascinating. Many people have at least considered cutting ties and hitting the road, so maybe it is interesting for them to hear about someone who actually did it.
Breathe: How long did you live solely out of your vehicle? What was that like?
Tom: From 1999 to the end of 2012. I wasn't always in my truck, but I also didn't have any other home. There was plenty of time spent indoors, especially at relatives, around the holidays. I also spent a lot of time in a mini-trailer in 2009. There were down days, waking up in sleety rain, and wonderful days with perfect weather and friends. And it sure isn't much fun being sick in the back of a truck! But there is also a scary freedom to this – I mean when you wake up in the morning you could go anywhere. This can be paralyzing if you let it, or incredibly empowering. If you don't like where you are or what you are doing, then change it. From time to time I'd forgot that, and would be somewhere with bad conditions, and then realize I just needed to leave.
Breathe: You're an educated person and could no doubt have entered the "real world"...what was it about a life on the road and of adventure that kept you from doing that?
Tom: I actually did start out in the "real world", but apart from buying a duplex, I kept living like a grad student, so I saved a fair bit and that allowed me to take off on a near perpetual road trip when I lost my job. Eventually all the saving even allowed me to get a place in Bishop when the opportunity presented itself. Originally I planned to be on the road for a year or 2, but every time I contemplated ending the trip I realized I was having a whole lot more fun on the road than I did in the "real" world and I really, really dislike looking for work.
Breathe: I know personally that you've picked up some odd jobs over the years, tell us about a few of them...
Tom: Roof tear-offs, wearing lederhosen and ascending a rope in a Vegas extravaganza, belaying for dollars, running the Devils Tower Lodge, teaching slacklining and acroyoga, being a guinea pig for an altitude study, carrying a pack for someone, and various construction jobs. Most of these lasted less than a few days or at most a few weeks (except the altitude study - but most of that time I was free to do what I wanted). Not enough to crimp my style, but enough to put a few dollars into the pile or pay for a new toy or trip.
Breathe: What are the best/worst things about your lifestyle?
Tom: The best thing is the ability to DO things. That was what pained me the most about working full time. Being a weekend warrior and getting two weeks off a year is not enough. If a bunch of friends were going to Indian Creek for a few weeks I couldn't join them, but now there is a good chance I can. I often am not nearly as productive when I am somewhere for a long time - for instance there were people in J-tree for a long weekend who climbed more than I did in a week, I think, but I also saw lots of stuff they didn't and am able to experience a place over enough time to enjoy its changes - different seasons, surprise storms, etc. I have been blessed to be able to spend months at many iconic locations like Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne, Bishop, Joshua Tree, Smith Rock, Squamish, Maple Canyon, Indian Creek, Wild Iris, Tonsai, and the Red River Gorge. I also have been fairly lucky with avoiding injuries. Sure I've had a few but nothing that completely stopped me from having adventures. A bad injury was something that I always worried would send me back to work (if I could).
Worst thing – with every life choice there are things you gain and things you lose. I lose out on the stability and material goods that working full time would have brought. There are definitely times when I couldn't do things because it was too expensive. I also lose out on the social aspects of work. And, when on the road you don't have as stable of a community as you might if you lived somewhere for years (although for me I probably meet a lot more people when I am on the road). Between being fairly shy, living in my truck, and mostly engaged in an activity that is heavily weighted towards men, I have had long stretches without a girlfriend. But honestly, at least for me, that probably would be true with a job too.
Breathe: You spent years (decades) living largely off what society discards. Thoughts?
Tom: In one sense this is awesome. Whoever says there is no such thing as a free lunch has definitely not been dumpster diving (well, it might cost you your dignity). In general I eat a much better and more varied diet when I am getting it for free than I would buying it but a lot of that is due to my extreme stinginess when it comes to buying food. I ate lots of rice and beans and cabbage before I discovered the 100% discount bin out behind the supermarket. The fact that there is so much waste is pretty pathetic though - I have heard that in the US about 50% of the food is wasted. There are some moves to improve this, and I have seen some places start to donate to food banks and shelters. Although this cuts down on what I have access to, it is a good trend. The trash crusher is not a good trend though - what a waste. It isn't just food that is discarded, all sorts of clothes and other goods are routinely trashed in this country.
Breathe: Your adventures are innumerable. Give us your top 5.
Tom: Wow, so hard to say -
1. the Nahanni - Lotus Flower Tower trip is definitely one, both for its awesomeness and also the fact that it was truly an adventure with many unknowns.
2. I'll lump the Too Much Fun expeditions together for their awesomeness - I mean how can you go wrong taking boats up over the highest mountain in a state and then boating down a river from it's source?
3. Batchelor geologist Picket range traverse.
4. Hiking the John Muir Trail was most excellent.
5. Can I say my 2001 5-month trip to SE Asia?
6. The recent Yogaslackers TAO trip - Hong Kong, Thailand, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and Hawaii was pretty excellent, although there were plenty of frustrations and difficulties too.
7. Colorado YES tour (touring around the state by bike teaching slackline and acro and having human powered adventures).
8. The Mistassinni--28 day canoe trip I helped lead for Darrow Wilderness Camp. It was my first long wilderness trip.
9. Patagonia - I went down for an adventure race but spent about 2 months down in Chile and Argentina.
Breathe: Um, Tom...?
Tom: Oops, sorry. I guess that's way more than five. Most of these are longer trips in part because it is easier to choose something that lasted a longer time but I've also enjoyed 'innumerable' shorter adventures that were pretty great, whether it was a bike/hike trip up White Mountain from my door that ended up taking way longer than I thought to multipitch climbs, or even day hikes and backpacking trips... I haven't been doing enough of those lately.
Breathe: What is your record on the milk-crate challenge? How many times have you competed.
Tom: I only competed once. I fell putting my 22nd one on. We were stacking in an outdoors volleyball court, so I think getting the first crate planted squarely was key. I'd like to try it with a perfectly flat base - I am not sure there is any real reason you couldn't go a good bit higher. I won the challenge, which was pretty cool.
Breathe: What about romance? You mentioned earlier it wasn't particularly easy. Are you currently involved? What are some highlights/troubles, etc that dirtbagging presents in finding a 'partner in crime'?
Tom: I've got nothing going on in that department right now. I have had some romances through the years, but there have been longer, "dry" spells, in between. Although I think I have many stellar qualities, they aren't necessarily what someone else might be looking for, especially if they didn't look past the surface of my vehicular dirtbag life. Living on the road engaging in male - heavy activities while spending almost nothing, presents some difficulties in the romance department, but I think that I would probably not have the easiest time in this arena anyway. In the general course of living my life I just don't meet that many eligible ladies, and between being shy and rather picky, plus not being particularly interested in many of the normal ways of meeting and impressing the opposite sex (going to bars, flashy clothes, cars, conspicuous consumption etc.), doesn't help so much – at least that is the story I tell myself. I do know some other couples that met on the road and are still together though, so it is possible. One friend even managed to convince his now partner to move into his tiny ford festiva with him. They've been together for more than five years now. So maybe there's still hope.
Breathe: What sort of an annual income, in 2016, do you think a crafty dirtbagger would need to sustain adventure indefinitely (assuming they already had a reliable vehicle) in North America? And while you're at it, give us your top 5 tips or tricks for living large, without paying for it...
Tom: That depends a lot on what you are trying to do and where you are doing it. If you already have your vehicle/home and toys, and were willing to stay somewhere you could essentially just park that was within biking distance to food and entertainment, you could live on ridiculously little. If you want to drive around a lot then you need to take into account the mileage and cost of gas. Add in some form of high deductible health care (unless your income is low enough to qualify for govt. provided care - that varies by state I think). When I started out I sort of budgeted $300 per month or $3,600 per year. That was before I rediscovered free food, but gas was also cheaper. I actually think I lived on less than that for some years. Nowadays I think you could probably do quite well on $5k and eke out on something down to $3k but that would be scraping things close and would mean doing without a lot. The first thing you would have to look at is your fixed costs (and if you need them or not, or if you can trim them): cell phone, car insurance, health insurance. The other thing is that you need to be able to weather something drastic happening - like if your engine breaks down or you need new tires. I always had a big reserve I could fall back on if I had to, but I was lucky and nothing catastrophic ever happened.
Ok, now my top 5 tricks...
1. Dumpster diving for food.
2. Never pay for camping (at least if you can help it - and you usually can). That might mean sleeping at a rest stop or residential street or more likely BLM or Forest service land. Try to at least look somewhat respectable - it makes interactions with authorities much easier. For me that meant shaving and cutting my hair from time to time and bathing sometimes. I got moved along a few times when sleeping in my truck, but it never became a confrontation, usually they were apologetic about it.
3. Any time you are about to spend money, think about if you need to and if it is worth it. Sometimes I missed out on good things because of my stinginess, but usually it was something I could do without.
4. Take advantage of the many free opportunities out there. Water spigots at gas stations. Ice inside for your water bottle, boiling hot water from the coffee machine...
5. Libraries are awesome. Some even let you get a temporary card.
Breathe: Wicked, thanks for that. I especially like #2. If I'd have had your wisdom during my own brief forays on the road, I'd have cut my hair and saved some headaches! So hopefully our readers, at least those contemplating following in your footsteps have learned a thing or too. Is there anything else you'd like to add before wrapping it up?
Tom: Although I feel that most people could have the lifestyle I did if they wanted to. I was also quite fortunate to get out of grad school with no debt thanks to my parents paying for undergrad and a mixture of scholarships and TA work through grad school. While it might sound like I was being a rugged individual while on the road (and at times it felt that way to me too) there was a network of friends and family who helped out in large and small ways, such as my dad who would deposit checks into a mutual account and pay credit card bills from it, or a friend who would let me have something mailed to them before I arrived.
I was certainly living the dirtbag life, but through a combination of luck, privilege, hard work, planning, and self-deprivation I had a good safety net. I had friends and family I could visit – this was especially nice in cities and in the winter. I had a duplex in Texas I
had bought and was renting out – this provided a small but crucial income to keep me from continually draining my bank account, and I had some savings and investments that also provided a bit of income and a valuable psychological safety net. While far from a trust funder, I had enough to support me in the "manner I was accustomed to," simply because I was accustomed to so much less. This of course is the crux of being a dirtbagger!
Speaking of friends, you probably will be doing a fair bit of couch surfing during your travels. Try to be the kind of guest that people are happy to have. Be willing to do things with them but don't require entertainment. Offer to cook dinner, do the dishes, and if you have some skill they don't, help them out.
Finally, make sure to take advantage of your freedom from the daily grind to explore other skills. For example I'd always been interested in photography and finally took it up seriously after more than 10 years. I was always doing such interesting things in such beautiful places that I have been fortunate to have had tons of practice. Since picking it up, I've taken a few good pictures and have started selling them on microstock sites. While I joke that this would never allow me to quit my day job it did pay for a number of camera upgrades from a point and shoot to a nice digital SLR and a laptop. One of the great things about this "work" was that I could do it when I was able to and felt like I wanted too... it fit my lifestyle, not the other way around.
Breathe: Great advice Tom and thanks for your time! We'll catch up with you in another 10 years!