“I was crazy and I was wild and I have seen the tiger smile.”
Drive On by Johnny Cash
This zine has come a long way from our humble roots of a stapled together black and white publication with a skate, punk rock feel. The latest result is Volume 7: dirtbags, crag dogs, hyenas, free solos, our crown jewel. It’s no coincidence that as a publishing company (Benighted Publications) we spend the majority of our time and energy on our printed version. We love print.
by Luke Mehall, publisher of The Zine (note this piece is the introduction from Volume 7, now available in print and on Kindle.) Banner photo of Laura Chase by Braden Gunem
Our journey has been a serendipitous one. When we started it seemed like everyone was shying away from print. Start a website everyone said. Digital is the future. But we didn’t care about what everyone else was doing; we just wanted to start something unique that highlighted climbing and our culture, a venue for wild stories full of adventure and rich prose. So we did. We printed a hundred or so of our first couple issues, and handed them out, occasionally selling them for a buck or two.
Then, like everything, we had to evolve, the state of the zine depended on it. Several of our readers suggested we switch to an all color format, so we did. Our printing costs shot through the roof. We improvised and got sponsors on board. The climbing industry rallied to our support (evident by the many stellar sponsors who are on board with this issue). Five years after we started this zine on a whim, we’ve got something unique that people really appreciate and keep on their bookshelves, not merely here today, gone tomorrow.
I think starting something tangible, something you could feel, proved to work to our advantage. Everything comes back around. Trends come and go; timeless, genuine work lives longer. We want to sustain and bring back the romance of reading, like how a record player slows time and makes you pay attention to each note, each lyric, each song.
In a culture where everything’s moving so fast, so catered to the short attention span, we are taking an artisan, small craft, simple is beautiful approach. We also know we’re not the only business out there with this philosophy. It’s a movement.
For us, our role in this movement is doing our part to show that the dirtbag lifestyle is still possible, and, not only that, it’s still alive and thriving. Which is why I want to offer up some thoughts on last year’s “Dirtbagging is Dead” article, published in Climbing magazine by Cedar Wright.
Wright’s title was very clever, because it was engaging. He has his “rant” on the death of dirtbagging, but then offers up a challenge to the next generation: to continue the dirtbag lifestyle as the generations before us did. I don’t want to challenge anything Mr. Wright wrote about, because he was right on: climbing is growing and changing, and many young climbers don’t know a thing about dirtbagging. I did want to follow up with some thoughts of my own though.
Climbing is more than climbing; it has been and always will be. When you truly fall in love with climbing, it’s impossible to sustain the love without a community. And, to dirtbag, to live simply, out of a bag, in the dirt, your existence has to be sustained with a community.
Yes, it has gotten more and more difficult to “dirtbag it” in certain places, particularly Yosemite and Joshua Tree, but it is simply false that “dirtbagging is dead”. Quite the opposite, the dirtbag is alive, and it is more important than ever that climbers live as dirtbags.
Yet as I write that, it seems so silly to compose those words, like I’m an old man talking about my glory days and how the kids should live now. People are going to figure it out on their own, the importance of living a simple life, and the rewards of such an existence. Everything comes back around, and the dirtbag existence happens naturally to people. If The Climbing Zine ever becomes a eulogy to the glory days, burn it to start your campfire. In climbing, the golden age is always at hand if you know where to look.
That said, there are legitimate reasons for defense of the ongoing existence of the dirtbag. Living like a dirtbag is the centerpiece for the American climbing culture. Originally, the inspiration came from the Beatniks, their prose, written in the fifties and early sixties fueled the Yosemite climbing revolution, which still inspires us as a culture. Their rambling, free spirited way of living also inspired the Original Dirtbags. I think as climbers we admire Yvon Chouinard for his first ascents on El Capitan, famously fueled by meager rations for days, more than the fact that he founded two wildly successful companies. That says a lot about our culture, and what success means to us.
The climbing generation that I am a part of is the same era that Mr. Wright is a part of. We started in the 1990s, and have been witness to an exponential growth in the sport. Tighter camping restrictions have been implemented in many areas, and technology has taken away some of the romance of dirtbagging. Climbing gyms have created a culture of their own as well. I personally started climbing in a gym in the Midwest. Luckily, shortly thereafter I moved to Gunnison, Colorado, and met a bunch of dirtbag climbers, forever changing the course of my life.
It is our view at The Climbing Zine that this generation has to pass the torch to the next generation. As I approach my late thirties I know my hardcore dirtbag days are done. The climbers from my generation are getting married, and having kids. So, it is the younger generation, bound to be stronger and more impressive than us, who are coming up in the game.
And I have complete faith that this generation will continue to dirtbag, and find the magic that this lifestyle provides. You will seek out the places to climb where there is no cell phone signal, and you can camp for free for weeks on end. You will climb new routes where our generation did not think to look. You will see the open road as the Beatniks did, a blank canvas leading you to the mountains of your dreams where you’ll experience more fear, inspiration, and beauty than you’ll know what to do with. You will come back and inspire us with the stories you’ll tell.
So, this issue is dedicated to all the aspiring young dirtbags of the world. The dream is still possible, and it is up to the younger generation to sustain the culture.
The dirtbag is dead? Hell no. The dirtbag is alive! Long live the dirtbag!
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.