#5: An ode to dirtbags

(This is the fifth of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

Call me a dirtbag now, and I’d probably be insulted – but 15 years ago, it would have been a different story.

In alpine skiing and a few other mountain sports, the term “dirtbag” is an honorific awarded to the quirkiest and most devoted practitioners. Dirtbags measure their self worth by the number of days they spend on skis, and they’ll do just about anything to increase the count. Once, I almost joined their ranks.

I worked for a season at a giant ski resort in Maine, swapping my life as an English major for a job that involved freezing my ass off in one of the few places colder and more remote than the New Hampshire town where I grew up. I had a goal: to ski 100 days, a tidy number I imagined would secure my status among the sport’s elite. It was a faux adventure, just like I was a faux dirtbag. A real dirtbag would not have planned the whole thing a year in advance. Nor would she have enrolled in a college near the resort to earn enough credits to graduate on time. Or visited (twice) to make sure everything, including a bed in a cozy dorm and a job as a ski instructor, was in place.

By most accounts, skiers started using “dirt bag” as a compliment in the 1970s. I couldn’t find any formal etymological research, but it seems to have evolved over the years into a single, compound word. Merriam-Webster defines it simply as someone who is “dirty, unkempt, or contemptible.” The Urban Dictionary is a bit more nuanced, explaining that dirtbags are “committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle.” They’ve become such common alpine archetypes that many mountain towns host dirtbag balls – annual parties that are similar to proms but with flannel and goggle tans instead of taffeta and mascara.

My reasons for embracing the dirtbag lifestyle were varied. There were things I hoped to escape: friend drama, an illness, adolescent ghosts. I was studying journalism, and I dreamed of writing cover stories for Powder magazine. There was also a boy I thought might like me more if I could really ski.

The first few weeks of my new life were cold and beautiful. Every morning I drove 40 miles from my dorm to the resort. I loved that drive, perhaps more than anything else. I wrote poems about the scenery and made lists of the eclectic things I passed: churches, bait shops, regal old homes, a country store selling hard liquor, egg sandwiches and wedding attire. There were almost always logs trucks, teetering as they traced the corkscrew path of the half-frozen river running next to the road.

Skiing was – and is – a big part of my life, but that winter taught me that it would not be my career. When I was 15, I started working as a ski instructor at a mountain near my parents’ house. I loved it, but that homey hill was completely unlike the resort in Maine, a place I came to think of as Disneyland in a Freezer. It was massive, corporate and crowded. My clients were wealthy, stuffing $20 bills in my gloved hands at the end of nearly every lesson and sometimes paying me more to babysit their kids at night. Away from the mountain, it was different. The poverty rate was high in the surrounding county, and I noticed the signs more and more as the winter wore on. In the grocery store one night, I watched a young man with stooped shoulders and a shivering toddler count the change in his hand and reach for a tiny jug of milk. I stood in the frozen vegetable aisle and cried.

Until that winter, I hadn’t been very good at making friends, but the people I worked with at the resort were easy to like. I admired how they came together to face the day, even when the day brought sub-zero temperatures, no lunch breaks and busloads of teenagers from cities to the south. My colleagues weren’t really dirtbags either. They were budding coaches and businesspeople; many of them have built careers skiing, rising to the top levels of the sport. They were serious about their work, but also laid back. I am the exact opposite of laid back. I struggled with things like spur-of-the-moment trips to Canada, skiing out of bounds and skipping class to enjoy a lunchtime scorpion bowl special, but these people seemed to like me anyway. They convinced me to launch myself through a flaming arch during a torch light parade, introduced me to the local dive bars and taught me to (sort of) play pool. And they didn’t take it personally when I left a party early to sit in my room and read.

I made enough in tips that winter to fly to Utah where some friends let me crash in their apartment. The snow was melting in Boston when I lugged my ski boots through the terminal at Logan Airport. I would never admit it to my traveling companion, but I was restless for my adventure to end. By the time it did, I’d skied 86 days. I know because I recorded each one in a meticulously color-coded journal that I wrapped in a sandwich bag and stored in my jacket pocket. The last entry is from mid April. I should have been in class at that little college in Maine. Instead, I was squinting under a cloudless sky at Alta, trudging deep into a rugged, frozen rock formation called the Devil’s Castle. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t scared of anything. Not the terrain around me, not my mortality, not the specter of all the things that might go wrong.

I still ski as often as I can, but I seldom venture beyond that homey mountain where I grew up. That’s probably why I hadn’t heard the term dirtbag in so long. Last year, on a family trip to one of Maine’s other alpine behemoths, I saw signs for the evening’s activity: a dirtbag ball. I sat at a table in a slope-side bar, picking over potato skins. Dozens of young people in flannel shirts and Carhartt pants wandered in, rosy cheeked and thirsty after a long day on the hill. They looked a little like my friends from that winter. They looked a little like me. My brother wanted to stay for the party. I thought for a moment about what might have been all those years ago. What if I hadn’t been so uptight? Spent more time on a chairlift and less with my books?

I paid the tab, went back to our room and went to sleep.

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