Down & Out: How to be a Dirtbag in the Sea-to-Sky

Dirtbag (noun): English portmanteau of “dirt” from the Old Norse “drit” meaning “excrement;” and “bag” from the Ancient Greek “bastagma” meaning “load” – lit. therefore: “load of excrement.”

  1. A bag or sack with dirt in it.
  2. An unkempt or slovenly person; an undesirable.

We spent the first year and a half of our lives in the Sea to Sky Corridor, sleeping in the back of a rusty, red work van with the words “Ville de Montréal” tacked on the side. We had driven the van from Québec across the continental US (where gas was cheaper) and into Squamish for a life outside—climbing, hiking and skiing.

words :: Christopher Elliott      illustration :: Dave Barnes

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Another fine day at the Squamish Laundromat. Eleanor Edgar photo.

On day three in town, after repairs to our ailing vehicle (necessary because “Big Red” also doubled as our home), my girlfriend Eleanor tallied up the finances and discovered we had eighty-three dollars between us. We were poor, but happy, and Eleanor had lined up a cash job at a dog kennel so we figured—with a splash of cautious optimism—that the receipt of a paycheque was feasible within two weeks. This left us, if we divided eighty-three by fourteen, with a per diem of five loons and ninety-two cents. A share-sized pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar’s cost $5.85, which left seven cents a day for whatever our hearts desired.

We parked out front of Walmart to access the free Wi-Fi, and since we also frequently stayed there for the night, we listed that lot as our address when we switched over to British Columbia driver’s licenses. With a life divided almost exclusively between Walmart, work, and the walls of the Stawamus Chief, we were, in the colourful parlance of the outdoors, a couple of dirtbags.

Of course, “dirtbag” is less a species and more a genus—an umbrella term which describes a variety of different types of people who prioritize experience over possessions and adventure over stability. For example, during the spring, the dirtbag scene in the parking lot at the Stawamus Chief can be subdivided into three different social strata.

 

It’s not the size that matters, it’s what you do with it. Erica Sorensen photo.

The granola dirtbag is the oxygen-transporting hemoglobin of the Sea to Sky service economy, without which there would be no French fries and nobody to hate on.

At the top of the dirtbag pyramid (and the closest this world gets to an aristocracy), are the Sprinter van dirtbags. Often, “Sprintocrats” hail from outside the Sea to Sky Corridor, piloting vehicles with license plates from far-off California or Colorado. In the sense then that the Sprinter dirtbags are usually holidaymakers or professional athletes (and often both), they tend to “eat cake,” so to speak, while lower tier dirtbags must use wit and cunning in their search for daily bread.

The middle class dirtbag is in fact the only working class among dirtbags. Typically, they are “local” in the sense that Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton are the towns of residence listed on their driver’s licenses. However, in the eyes of many well-settled, land-owning locals, the inherent kinesis of the dirtbag sleeping quarters means that the middle class dirtbag can only ever be considered a “drifter” or “freeloader,” terms that come with a history of both social and political baggage.

 

The author takes his morning coffee and wonders what the day will bring. Eleanor Edgar photo.

It’s a misnomer of course, as mid-tier dirtbags generally occupy all of the lowest-paying positions in the modern industrial economy. Operating lifts, selling tickets, pouring drinks, manning checkouts and ferrying cartons of hamburger meat up and down scenic gondolas, the granola dirtbag is the oxygen-transporting hemoglobin of the Sea to Sky service economy, without which there would be no French fries and nobody to hate on.

To make matters worse, a middle class dirtbag is also derided as a “granola” by the lower dirtbag stratums for his or her ability to financially access the more bourgeois of the cereal options. Much like middle classes\ the world over, these working class dirtbags get all the loathing that comes with privilege without actually being privileged.

The final class, and purest form of dirtbag, is the species a naturalist may refer to as “homo dirtbag dirtbagius” but whom others may refer to as “the lowest of the low.” These are dirtbags in their purest form, lifers who typically reside beneath tarps and tents, and if a car is even owned at all, it is rarely greater in size than a Honda Civic (and when it is, it’s a van.) Usually male, and possessing a natural ability to endure suffering, these dirtbags come from many different backgrounds—young, old, Ontarian, Australian and often Quebecois.

 

Worth every penny. Peaceful midweek solitude atop the Stawamus Chief. Eleanor Edgar photo.

This lowest form of dirtbag, it must be said, does not work. But then, as author George Orwell once quipped, “what, indeed, is work?” The Sprintocrats work via high-speed Wi-Fi connection, the granolas work by serving beers to hedge-fund managers with goggle tans, and the true dirtbags work to survive, bin-diving for the curd gristle on a discarded plate of poutine or hoovering up the remnants of a half-eaten sandwich in a day-lodge cafeteria—to keep the bears away, of course.

Thriftiness defines the dirtbag, but so does mobility. He knows that twenty dollars of gas will get him from Squamish to Whistler and back in his beat-up gas-guzzler. But he also knows there is a very real possibility that his van may never restart, which is problematic when the time comes for a tactical exit in the wintry, pre-dawn of his illegal bivouac in Parking Lot 4. Fringe-dwelling aside, the true dirtbag is a good enough fellow—cheery, thrifty and appreciative, grateful even, of his mountain life.

He also knows there is a very real possibility that his van may never restart, which is problematic when the time comes for a tactical exit in the wintry, pre-dawn of his illegal bivouac in Parking Lot 4.

Indeed, most dirtbags live as such by choice. These bin-diving, powshredding, rock-scampering free spirits are usually cognitively-functioning and physically competent enough to commence work at any time. This means that social mobility across the three dirtbag strata is also fairly easy—the lowest dirtbag can become a granola simply by getting a job, and the granola can become a member of the Sprinter-owning class, provided that he or she is happy to shoulder a lifetime of debt for an overpriced vehicle.

For Eleanor and I, living in Big Red as working class dirtbags was an experience we shall remember, and cherish, for the rest of our lives. I’ve heard that the Walmart parking lot has been gentrified now, because they no longer let dirtbags park overnight. But that’s okay, we enjoyed the best of times there and, with the change of seasons, we hit the road and adopted new identities. Taking on the GORE-TEX-clad pelage of the dirtbag in winter form, we became “ski bums.”

 

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