Adventure tale: “My sister, the Dirtbag Snowbird”

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

McKenzie and Naomi meet up on a rock climbing trip in the Lower 48. Photos by Naomi Stock.

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Naomi Stock reflects on her sister’s unique travel style as a self-described “Dirtbag”.

My sister returned home to Anchorage this week from a winter of exploration, adventure, and best of all, rock climbing. Following the traditions of many Alaskan’s before her, she fled harsh winter for milder months down south, and just like countless rock climbers before her, she lived out of her car and camped out near some of the best climbing in America.

McKenzie Stock, on the rocks.

In climbing, there is a culture of purity. Some focus on the purity of the establishment of a climb: the person who drills the bolts should get to complete it first. Others are zealous toward the ascent of a climb: only an ascent completed bottom to top without falling counts. Many are enraptured by the purity of the lifestyle: countless people these days climb, but few are climbers.

McKenzie Stock is a climber!

My sister has spent significant amounts of time climbing ever since she was a child, and she has long been a talented climber. People always comment on the graceful strength of her movements. She and I grew up as competitive gym climbers and didn’t climb regularly on real rock outside, but as adults we both started to venture outside more, sometimes even together. Now, climbing outside is a huge part of both of our lives and identities. 

The dirtbag lifestyle is the purest form of being a climber. Working remotely, irregularly, or not at all, a dirtbag tends to live out of their car, van, or even camper so that they can be mobile and climb wherever and whenever they want. They save money whenever possible so as to stall employment for as long as is reasonable, and then some. Dirtbags live to climb: they will give up hot showers, a roof, stable employment, financial stability, eating out, new clothes, whatever is necessary to follow that dream. Climbing on the weekends before heading back to work or school doesn’t scratch the itch to climb like tearing up one’s skin on a daily basis does.

McKenzies preps her Astro Van for the Dirtbag Quest.

My sister McKenzie fell in love with this idea, and she finally had the chance this winter to live the dream. The car: a 2006 Subaru Outback. The destination: rocks. The company: whoever she found along the way. At least, that’s how it started. By now, she has upgraded to a Chevy Astro Van, spent most of the winter in the southwest, and made friends that feel like family.

It may not be the most sustainable way to live, or the most responsible, but it is a passionate way to live. It’s a rite of passage for most serious climbers to spend at least one winter dirtbagging, climbing as much as possible, making lifelong friends and once-in-a-lifetime memories. 

McKenzie should not be mistaken for irresponsible. She spent the winter homeless, but she is a homeowner. She is unemployed, but worked two jobs or more for the last ten years. This fall, she will be starting graduate school to become a traveling occupational therapist.

 While at school, however, she will still be living out of her van, likely climbing in the Red River Gorge or in other climbing areas in the southeast and eastern United States. I’m sure that in addition to all of her dirtbag friends that will drive their homes to her, many of her friends from home, including myself, will also visit. 

Living out of her car was not easy, but it sure was fun. Sure, she used family restrooms in grocery stores to clean up when there wasn’t a Planet Fitness nearby for a shower, and she cooked food out in the open, and couldn’t even sit up in her cramped bed where the backseats used to be. But, she was closer than family with the friends she found on the road. They supported each other’s goals and successes and failures. They shared meals and holidays, removed from society as a whole. She was able to climb as much as she wanted, in beautiful locations around the country, on a higher quality of rock than we’ve ever touched here in southcentral Alaska.

I can only imagine how she feels now, back home with everyone who has spent the winter jealously following her adventures. She gets to tell us all about how much fun she had, how much learning and growing she did, how good the climbing was, but in the back of her mind I think she must be mourning the end of the adventure. Sure, living in Alaska is an adventure in itself, and she is already climbing here, building out her new (old) van to live in, and reacquainting herself with the joys of being a homeowner, but her friends are still out there, accountable to no one but the partner on the other end of their climbing rope. I hope that, at least for the next few months, home can offer something else. Here she has sisterhood and family, new and old friends, and the awe-inspiring beauty of an Alaskan summer.

So, yeah, I’ll admit to some jealousy over these adventures she’s had, adventures which some may even see as irresponsible. I’m so glad she’s home to be my go-to climbing partner. I know she will leave again, and sooner than I can be ready, but I also know she has to, and I understand the feeling. It’s easier to watch her go when I know that I will be able to visit and climb in beautiful places with her. I also know that she is forging a path forward for me, and that someday (hopefully soon) it will be time for me to drop everything and to travel the world with a pack full of climbing gear and a pen and paper, and that it will be so much easier because of what she has learned, and because what she, in proper big-sister style, has taught me. 

Love you Kenz.

McKenzie Stock getting ready for her next adventure.

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