“Get ready for dirtbag central,” the man warns me.
This first glimpse I have into the dirtbag lifestyle is with Jim Mitchell, who wears a black T-shirt that reads, “Have you seen my zombie?” The inside of the shirt is printed with a zombie face, so when Mitchell flips the bottom of the shirt over his head, he takes on the green, slobbering visage of a monster seeking brains.
“Dirtbag,” it should make clear, is a term of affection among rock climbers. It’s a word used for the most diehard in the sport — those who eschew traditional careers, homes, even relationships, in the dogged pursuit of rock.
These nomad climbers inspire awe with their tenacity and ingenuity. Dirtbags can make $20 last a month, cobbling together an existence with leftover food and odd jobs. They can’t remember when they last showered, but they can eye a hunk of stone and list every divot and lump.
But dirtbags might be on the verge of extinction, making way for a new, more modern type of climber.
Mitchell walks over to his white 1994 Dodge Ram van, yanks open the doors and shows me the place he calls home. The back of the van is outfitted with a couple of wooden cabinets, a small cooking range, and a slightly slanted bed. For a bathroom, there’s a plastic bucket of kitty litter. It’s clean and probably feels less confining than the submarine where Mitchell, now retired from the Navy, once lived.
“It takes a lot of fortitude and dedication to be a dirtbag,” he says, squinting and pushing his black-rimmed glasses up his nose. “Not everyone can hack it. Sometimes it sucks, and it’s cold.”
On a recent night, the lean and scruffy 47-year-old made his way to Panda Express, where a friend had offered some leftovers. Mitchell slept in the parking lot of the Yucca Valley Wal-Mart Supercenter before heading back into Joshua Tree National Park the next day for more climbing.
“I’m not homeless. I live in my van,” he says. “A lot of people live in an RV, and that’s normal. We just call them ‘retired,’ not ‘dirtbags.’ What’s the difference?”
The Coffee Salon for Climbers
It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday in Joshua Tree National Park. The sky has changed from a flat slate to cobalt blue, and the sun is that particular shade of amber right before it turns bright as a lemon. The air is crisp. It’s time for coffee.
We are 9 miles from the park’s west entrance in Hidden Valley, where massive rock formations open into a breathtaking valley dotted with spiny cacti and spindly Joshua trees. Legend has it that cattle rustlers in the 1800s hid and rebranded their stolen herds among these golden rocks. These days, it’s a campground nestled in the heart of Joshua Tree’s most popular climbing area.
Every Saturday during the May-through-October rock-climbing season, the park hosts a pop-up coffee klatsch called Climbers Coffee. It’s nothing more than a long plastic table, a few folding chairs, and hot drink dispensers of coffee, tea, and cocoa, but it’s home base for folks who find community among the rocks.
Over the past several years that Bernadette Regan has been hosting the Climbers Coffee, she has seen a little bit of everything, from rugged 80-year-old climbers to babies who boulder-crawl. As the climbing ranger for the park, Regan focuses on climbing education and outreach, and a big part of the latter is getting to know the climbers.
“It’s a creative and passionate and driven crowd of people,” she says. “Coffee here is never boring.”
Regan props a few signs against the rocks near the coffee table. A poster for Leave No Trace, a nonprofit that promotes ethical behavior in the outdoors, quantifies the long periods it takes various items to decompose in the desert, like banana peels (five years), cigarette butts (18 years), and plastic bottles (probably never). Another poster says, “Coffee makes you poop,” and offers guidelines for how to dispose of human waste in the wilderness.
Today the main topic of conversation is sleep. As in, where did everybody sleep last night?
There’s Jim Mitchell, who slept in his van. One man from San Diego clocked out of work on Friday night, drove to the desert and slept in his car, showering at a 24 Hour Fitness along the way. A sound engineer from Apple, who slept comfortably in his Los Angeles bed, has just arrived for the weekend. Brian Cooper, a climber from Rancho Cucamonga, was lucky enough to score one of the coveted Hidden Valley campsites on Friday night.
The park draws approximately 1.4 million visitors annually, and one-quarter of them participate in some kind of rock climbing-related activity. That includes everything from strenuous, highly technical climbs to simple bouldering (climbing without ropes or harnesses).
Despite the inherent risks associated with it, climbing has become one of the most popular sports in the world, practiced by kids in gyms and experienced mountaineers alike.
Whether you are tall or short, young or old, male or female, climbing is a sport where nearly anyone can reach great heights.
“I believe anyone can rock climb,” says climber and guide Seth Zaharias, who runs Cliffhanger Guides with his wife, Sabra Purdy. “It’s a good medium to fall in love with Mother Nature while exploring your personal horizons. There are no limitations other than your mind.”
Zaharias and Purdy are some of Joshua Tree’s seasonal residents and have found there are more people clamoring to rock climb than ever before. “I think people are looking for a way to balance mental focus with adrenaline,” Zaharias says, “And rock climbing is the best way to do that.”
Darwin Westich, a 26-year-old climber from San Diego who goes by his first name, is impish and funny, moves about with sping-loaded limbs and a grin that covers half his face. Darwin was attracted to the sport because of its community, which he considers to be the modern equivalent of the Beat generation — a place for the restless, the adventurous, and the dissatisfied. “I want to live. I want to have fun. I want to be free,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to achieve every day.”
A couple of guys swap stories about parties where someone hauled a keg up Chimney Rock to a hole known as the Space Station, or the time someone put a couch on Intersection Rock. A woman named Alex from Orange County wanders up. Someone asks how long she’ll be around Joshua Tree.
“March. Maybe April,” she says, and shrugs. She gazes into her cup of coffee, as though reading her fortune in a mug of tea leaves. “Who knows?”
She’s renting a house in town for the next few months, which is how modern dirtbags get around. They find places to crash through websites that help travelers find a free room, bed, or floor space. Or, they house-sit for the winter, or find an extended rental on Airbnb.
“Technology is a big reason why things are changing,” Mitchell laments. “Getting around is a lot different than it used to be.”
Being a dirtbag was simple in the 1970s and early 80s, the older climbers say. There weren’t so many restrictions. Climbers could stay in a national park for five or six months at a time, sleeping in a car or at a campsite, living off very little. Now rangers enforce two-week camping limits, and fines can be steep.
“When I was in college, we always lived out of our cars,” says climber Todd Gordon. “It was real easy to get by on nothing.”
The 60-year-old Gordon, with more salt than pepper in his beard, is the kind of guy who has never known a stranger. Little wonder he’s known as the mayor of Joshua Tree.
“When you’re a climber you share everything,” Gordon says. “You share the ride, you share a rope. Our whole world existed around the campfire we burned together.”
The Guy With the Flophouse
Todd Gordon is the first to admit that he was never a dirtbag. Not a real one, anyway. He had a career as an elementary school teacher. He applied for jobs only in schools near great climbing destinations, spent every weekend on the rocks, but owned and used a shower and showed up for work each day. He also created a haven for thousands of dirtbags.
In 1985, Gordon moved to Joshua Tree and bought a house on a 5-acre plot of land, just 3 miles from the park’s west entrance. The Gordon Ranch, a free flophouse for every variety of climber, adventurer, and nomad, was open for business.
“It didn’t take climbers long to find my place,” Gordon says. “It’s like hobos that always know how to get aluminum cans.”
Almost instantly, the property became the thread that bound the J-Tree rock climbing community. Over the next two decades, just about every serious climber who traveled through Joshua Tree found his or her way to Gordon Ranch, either for a party, to crash for the night, or, more likely, to stay for an extended period. The Gordon Ranch boasted cable TV, laundry facilities, and no rules. Best of all, it was affordable. There was simply a donation jar, where Gordon asked people to contribute what they could.
For the most part, the climbers were honest. The donation money was swiped only a handful of times.
“If they needed the money that badly, they could go ahead and take it,” Gordon says. “My philosophy has always been that you’ll never go hungry at the Gordon Ranch.”
During climbing season, there were five to 10 regulars who lived at the ranch for months at a time. Weekends brought anywhere from 10 to 30 more climbers. Swarms arrived during the holidays and spring break.
When there wasn’t a couch, people slept on the floor. They pitched tents in the yard. They unrolled sleeping bags on the driveway, and sprawled out in the hallway. Often, Gordon would get up for work and pass complete strangers in the bathroom.
Many couples met at the Gordon Ranch. There were marriages, divorces. Several babies were conceived there.
“It wasn’t so much that I was a dirtbag, but I gave other climbers the opportunity to be one,” Gordon says. “Nobody even had to knock on the door. It was always open.”
The Guy Who Shatters Records
Anyone who expresses an interest in researching the climbing culture of Joshua Tree is told, “You need to talk to Tucker Tech.” Everybody has a Tucker Tech story or knows someone who does, and every story verges on the edge of a tall tale.
There’s the time Tech’s ear nearly ripped off during a fall, so he pushed it back against his head and let the dried blood glue it back. There are the months Tech went without a proper shower, and the routes he climbed in nothing but worn-through shoes and calloused feet. There are the epic discussions he has had about philosophy, religion, and Russian literature, all while consuming copious amounts of alcohol.
Surely the wiry, compact man who sits before me, barefoot and shirtless in a lawn chair, is not the storied Tech. He sips warm cans of Natural Light beer on a weekday morning. He drops the empty cans on the dirt one right after the other, but he doesn’t seem even tipsy. Surely, it is Tech.
“I am one of the ultimate dirtbags,” he says. “It’s not offensive to me because, like Popeye says, ‘I am what I am.’ I know I’m a dirtbag, and I’m comfortable with that.”
Tech has been climbing for decades, spending countless seasons in Yosemite, where he’s known as The Deli Lama for hanging around the deli, feasting on leftover scraps of food.
But Joshua Tree is where Tech really made a name for himself, scaling more original climbing routes in the park than anyone. How many routes, exactly? Well, Tech says he stopped counting somewhere around 6,000. For comparison, only a couple hundred routes in the park are climbed regularly.
Tech lives off the grid in Joshua Tree, in a borrowed trailer on someone else’s horse ranch. “I enjoy the absolute freedom of it. You don’t have a time card. You don’t have a boss. You just wake up in the morning and climb all day long,” he says. “But you have to make some compromises in terms of comfort.”
His compromises have been in the form of electricity, running water, and a romantic relationship — he has none of those. Tech spends most days tending to his cactus garden and moving some boulders around in labyrinthine pattern, (“This is what happens when you don’t have Netflix,” Gordon laughs, poking fun at his good friend), and then climbing.
“My biggest problem is that most of my climbing partners are dead, injured, or gone away,” Tech says, a shadow of sadness hiding behind his words. “One by one, the dirtbags have all gone away.”
The Call of the Rock
Jim Bridwell, by all accounts, should be dead.
Often considered one of the world’s greatest climbers, he was the first to ascend a mile-high, crumbly chunk of Moose’s Tooth in Alaska. Bridwell has fallen 150 feet from Cerro Torre, a tower of ice and granite in Patagonia. (“I’m OK!” he hollered to his climbing partner. “Just slipped a bit.”)
His climbs have been immortalized in documentaries including Valley Uprising. Most of his career was spent in Yosemite Valley where he is credited with over 100 first ascents. He made the first one-day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan and founded Yosemite National Park’s highly regard Search and Rescue Team (YOSAR).
Celebrated climbers have refused to rope in with Bridwell, saying he’s too aggressive, too stubborn, too fearless. In an already dangerous sport, he is thought to push a little too hard. He once famously said, “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.”
The 71-year-old climbing pioneer is mostly retired now, living in Palm Desert. He sits outside the Starbucks at Washington and Hovely, dragging on a filterless cigarette until the hot cherry is close enough to burn his lips. When a couple of teenagers try to grab a chair from his table, he shoots them a stern, withering look.
They walk away.
Bridwell doesn’t climb much anymore, he says, because he says the climbing has changed.
“Adventure and excitement are the two things missing from civilization,” Bridwell says. “Danger keeps you on your toes. You’ll never feel as alive as when death is over your shoulder.”
His face is deeply lined, like an apple that’s been left on the window sill too long. His teeth are nubs, many knocked out by rocks, with metal rods jutting from the stumps. A scraggly Fu Manchu ‘stache snakes around his mouth.
“Now people are lured by money. It’s about making a living instead of doing what they love,” Bridwell says. “They’re complacent.”
The scene in Joshua Tree is also changing thanks to the proliferation of climbing gyms. Just a couple decades ago, climbers had to go outside to refine their techniques. Now climbers can flex their muscles on indoor walls before ever grabbing a natural finger hold. Some of the gyms even have kids’ clubs, where children are in harnesses soon after they’re out of diapers, and teenagers climb competitively.
According to the Climbing Business Journal, there are almost 500 indoor climbing facilities in the United States. Many of them exist within a fierce and avid outdoor climbing community.
“All the superstars out there now get their start in gyms like this one,” says Steve Schechtman, owner of Desert Rocks climbing gym in Palm Springs. “Indoors you can climb 20 routes in an hour, whereas outdoors you can spend all day just getting to one route.”
Schechtman and his wife, Kristen, both avid climbers, opened the facility last July, and the response was immediate — people lingered outside the building three days before the gym officially opened.
Rock walls give climbers an edge, Schechtman says, but they also offer an alternative to the traditional gym workout. Plus it’s a kinder, gentler introduction to the sport — that is, no falling rocks or stinging insects — while sustaining the community and spirit of outdoor climbing.
On a recent weekend, a baby shower filled the Desert Rocks party room. The party was for Aubrey Adams, a very pregnant, bubbly, 28-year-old climber from Yucca Valley who says “Climbing gave me purpose. It helped me find who I am.”
Two weeks before her due date, Adams is in Joshua Tree, climbing with Todd Gordon, jamming her toes into a crag and smearing her belly along the monzogranite.
This baby will rock.