Monday, March 5, 2012


I went to college at a small university just outside of Boston. About five miles from the heart of the city, to be exact. And though I could clearly see the downtown skyline every time I walked across campus, that place might as well have been on another planet. I think I can count on both hands the number of times I ventured into Boston during my five years there.

And while this had a lot to do with the fact that I was the type of kid more likely to be found in the library on party nights rather than out at some bar, it had even more to do with the fact that I find urban cities largely uninspiring. I dream of rock spires and splitter cracks, not skyscrapers and neon lights -- when I had free time in college I wanted to get outside and explore real forests, not the urban jungle.

And so it was that the place I came to know as a second hometown was not the metropolitan city five miles away from my dorm-room door, but rather the unlikely community of Lincoln, New Hampshire.

Compared to most other villages and hamlets in north-central New Hampshire, Lincoln is a bustling metropolis, but by any other standard its a pretty small place. A quintessential New England mountain town of 1700 residents with one main road, close proximity to two icy ski resorts, the requisite Dunkin' Donuts, and more outdoor gear/clothing shops than stoplights. Nestled at the foot of the White Mountains, it is a short drive from rugged alpine climbing on Cannon Cliff; the cryptic sport climbing of Rumney, NH; countless trailheads; the best granite in the state at Cathedral Ledge; and the ferocious alpine weather of Mt. Washington.

I spent many a weekend in and around Lincoln because the Mountain Club at my college owned a lodge -- awesomely known as "The Loj" -- in Woodstock, NH, about five miles away from Lincoln. The Loj and the White Mountains house some of the best memories of my collegiate career -- the first time I climbed outside, my first trad lead, my first multi-pitch, epic night climbing on Mt. Washington, sharing stories with good friends around a wood stove at night -- and the Loj was often my destination as I roared northward on I-93 on Thursday and Friday evenings, the lights of Boston fading in our rear-view mirror while the stars grew brighter overhead with every mile that passed.

And there were a lot of them to be passed; it was 125 miles each way from campus to The Loj. Sometimes my friends and I could talk or listen to music for the whole ride, but often we needed something more to occupy our time. I honestly can't remember if it was me or someone else who brought it along, but on one trip we listened to this podcast called The Dirtbag Diaries. And though I forget which episode we listened to first, I remember being enthralled from the moment that it stopped.

It sounds funny now, but in the space of about one car ride I went from not knowing about the Diaries to being totally obsessed with them. I went home and downloaded all the old episodes, listened to them during study breaks, while running, while daydreaming about my own adventures. And always I would bring them in the car on my weekly pilgrimages up to New Hampshire. Regardless of who I was with, I'd plug in my iPod full of Diaries episodes and listen to one, two, even three of them at a time. I told all my friends they had to listen to this podcast. That it would change their life.

I've put some serious thought into why I loved the Diaries so much. It honestly seems kind of strange now, a few years later. I mean, this dude Fitz had kind of a weird name, and kind of a strange voice, and the audio quality on these podcasts wasn't always the best. But there was something about these stories. They had heart. They had emotion. Most of all, they hit home in a part of me that I was just beginning to discover.

This was a time in my life when I was starting to realize that as much as I thought I belonged in a career in International Relations, resolving international crises and saving lives, I was at my happiest when I was outdoors as much as possible. I had just learned how to climb and was experiencing for some of the first times the magic of walking up to a huge cliff and working my way up it, of feeling my stomach lurch up into my throat while staring at hundreds of feet of air beneath my feet, of meeting all these other people who were just as psyched on climbing as I was. And not only were these people psyched on climbing, they were psyched on life. They were excited and happy and amped to wake up and get out the door in the morning. They all shared this passion for climbing, but this seemed to be a passion that differed in kind, and not just degree, from the passion that most people have for their hobbies. Compared to the relative unhappiness that consumed most people I knew, this was kind of a shock. I started to realize that this was a community that I wanted to spend more time with; that outdoors adventure was something that I wanted to devote all of my energy to. I wanted to surround myself with people who were truly excited to be alive.

So it was at this time in my life when I was discovering this entire world of adventure and newfound possibility that I started listening to the Diaries. And here were these amazing stories of people who embraced adventure and the outdoors, who were finding meaning and life in something that most people would only consider a hobby or pastime. And it was kind of an eye-opening experience every time I listened to one of these episodes, to realize that there were people all over this country who lived for their time outdoors and eschewed the normal life script, and who were OK with that. I had felt like I needed to do something more "serious" with my life -- go to grad school, save the world, that whole deal -- and the Diaries played a huge role in helping me realize that maybe it was OK to be psyched on adventure, and climbing, and being outdoors.

And though it would take me a couple more years and a few road trips to finally accept the fact that I was a dirtbag at heart, and to quit my job and spend most of 2011 living out of the back of a beatup minivan in the Rockies, Oregon, Yosemite, and Indian Creek, I knew early-on that one thing I wanted to do no matter what was someday make a story for the Dirtbag Diaries. To give back to this creation that was so important in my own life.

And so it is absolutely unbelievable and so awesome for me to be able to sit here and tell you all that I narrated the most recent episode of the Dirtbag Diaries, "Origins," in which I help celebrate the 5th Anniversary of the show by telling how it came to be. The story is truly one of inspiration, of how Fitz had every reason in the world to give up his dreams of becoming a professional writer, how the Dirtbag Diaries saved him, and how it has become so important to so many people in this community of ours.

But I don't want to say too much about it here. Go ahead and listen to the show. If you have dreams that seem like they'll never materialize, this might just change your perspective.

1 comment:

Sarah L said...

Austin, I'm truly blown away by the things you are experiencing and the people you are now able to work with. I know you must have heard this a thousand times already, but you are truly living my dream. The things that you touch upon in this post and the stories that Fitz told in this podcast hit so close to home.
It is so phenomenal to have known you a little bit while you were at Tufts. I look forward to hearing and reading more from you!