My extended family are bottom-of-the-barrel, counterfeit, cowardly, sacks of shit. I won’t name them. Despite their lack of spines, and decency, they deserve their privacy just as much as you or I. But rest assured, I’d rather fold myself into a ball and shit directly into my own mouth than spend a single second in their presence.
If you’ve spent significant time around Hispanics, you know how much most of them value family. You also know that there’s a different brand of purebred Latinos, who thumb their noses at the world. They believe everyone, and anyone, is beneath them. That’s who I share blood with.
I started to realize who these folks were when they gifted the most important person in my life a box of potpourri for Christmas, and left the $5 tag on it. I was pretty young, but still, the message was received loud and clear, as were the ones that followed.
When my father was diagnosed with his first brain tumor, they were nowhere to be found. When we had to give up our home, they weren’t there. As my brother packed our lives into boxes, and I was stuck in a miserable stupor, staring into space and wondering when things would go right, or if someone would help us— they never showed up.
Not a kind word, not a hand to hold, not a shoulder to cry on. Not even a text. Nothing.
As a result, I have always desired a tribe to call my own. A group I knew I could count on, who would show up no matter the issue, as family is supposed to.
When I first took a job as a raft guide, I looked at it as my introduction to the outdoor industry and the beginning of a career as a full-time adventurer, crisscrossing the globe, writing for NatGeo and Outside magazine. I only planned on one raft season.
Guiding became an addiction, though. Not to the work, or to the river, but to the people.
Upon arrival at my first guide camp, I could hardly put a tent together, and definitely couldn’t hold a paddle properly. I expected to be looked at sideways, as a Jersey kid who grew up outside the city and didn’t really belong on a river in the American West.
When I pulled in, I was greeted by J-Ski the Ginger, a third-year guide and the de facto leader.
He was in my face immediately, asking where I was from, how the drive had been, what I’d done that winter, and if I’d like to get out on the water. Normally, that sort of aggressive welcome would make me uncomfortable, like the cringe brought on by an overeager WalMart greeter.
But, it was genuine. When I hesitated, he hounded me to come paddle. J-Ski ran through a list of necessary gear—synthetic base layers, neoprene, booties, splash top, and PFD. I had almost none of it. He went around camp, gathering up spare pieces, and got me geared up. Before my car’s engine had time to cool, I was floating through Yankee Jim Canyon, trying to keep a boat upright.
I’ve slogged through most of my life carrying buckets full of insecurities. To be embraced so quickly felt unnatural. Prior to that season, I regarded most people with disdain. I was disgusted with the lowlifes I had to call relatives, and angry at everyone else.
Over the course of that summer, I came to learn that the crew I’d become a part of had been calling themselves The Red Eyes for years. I’ll devote a few thousand words to explaining the origin of the name another time.
Cliché as it is, The Red Eyes made me see good in the world. We did everything together—cooking, hiking, boating, and getting aggressively drunk more often than we should have. We had each other’s backs, on the river and off. If someone was in trouble, we figured it out together. And no one was ever left behind.
In this special crew of dirtbag river guides, there was a relentless commitment to one another.
My friends who work desk jobs back East have asked me many times why I call my friends out West “dirtbags”, and what it means to be one.
The standard definition describes them as people who give up typical comforts to move into a vehicle or tent, and pursue their favorite outdoor sports full-time. They’ll live off canned food and rehydrated beans at times, rarely shower, and are the fittest hobos you’ll ever meet.
That is all true. But to me, more than anything, a dirtbag is heart, and the embodiment of decency.
I thought I had just gotten lucky and found an unusually good group of people in The Red Eyes. But in the ensuing years, I discovered the same goodness in other guides around the West. It’s at the core of the dirtbag ethos.
We have a unique bond, the source of which is hard to trace. Some suggest it’s a product of the fact that, when things go wrong on the river, we are each other’s only lifeline. I don’t know if that’s it. I think it’s more complicated. Maybe some spiritual hippie shit. But for whatever reason, this line of work attracts the best brand of person. And they’ve always been there when I needed them.
They’ve gifted me hand-me-down gear when I couldn’t afford something I needed to stay safe in cold water.
When I’ve been down and out, they’ve given me a couch to crash on, or a place to park my van indefinitely, just so I had some space and time to figure out the next job or destination.
I’m the grandson of a master carpenter, but could hardly swing a hammer properly when I first moved West. The Red Eyes helped me build out my first van. Tom D took a day to help me remodel it a year later. The Brody Man helped me renovate a house when I finally found a town I wanted to stay in for an extended period of time.
The Minnesota Dream woke up in the middle of the night more times than I can count, just to pick me up after too many Pendleton shots and Carteritas, so I could get home safely and make it to morning boat loading.
Splashley gave me the keys to her house when she was on an extended vacation, so I had a space to decompress and write. I’d been working three jobs all summer, trying to make up for a particularly bad spell in which I’d lost all my money. She gave me a chance to just breathe and be.
When my father was diagnosed with his second brain tumor, and suffered a heart attack a week later, I needed to get back to Jersey ASAP. I was driving a ‘92 Ford Explorer with over 300,000 miles on it. It couldn’t make the drive. When Nice Guy Bri heard, he offered to drive the 12 hours from southwest Montana to Central Colorado, pay for his own flight back, and allow me to take his truck and camper East for as long as I needed.
His truck broke down in transit, and I dropped a grand on a rental. When Vick and JD found out, they sent me $200 for gas. Thanks to them, I got the nearly 2,000-mile drive done, and was with my family in less than a day and a half.
When I couldn’t deal with the fact that my father was sick again, and I didn’t have the power to make my parents’ pain go away, Sweet Danni D sat with me on the phone. She cried a little along with me, and told me that I may not be able to fix what I wanted to, but I had to keep going, because at the very least, I had a story that needed telling.
Each time I broke down, and was furious with myself for not being able to erase my family’s hurt, the dirtbags were there— Charby, The Crazy Lady, FiFi, Mo, Homie Rafiki, Big Kyle, FarmCat, Coobs the Philly Trash Bag, Vick, and most importantly, Pipe Bomb and Miss Information. They sent me shit, they always checked in, and they never failed to listen.
They’ve done all these things for me, and never asked for anything in return.
My extended biological family has disappointed me at every turn. On the one side are the Latinos. On the other is a long line of psychopaths— people who pulled knives on one another at the dinner table, and put cigarettes out in each other’s meals to make a point.
I have floated through the majority of my life bitter and bullheaded, blaming everyone else for everything that’s ever gone wrong. But the Red Eyes, and the dirtbag subculture they introduced me to, made me realize that there is good in others.
Not all of the people I met out West have been saints. Like any group, there are some dirtbags who also happen to be douchebags. More often than not though, that relentless commitment to one another reigns supreme. And the impression they’ve made on how I perceive things can never be erased.
They taught me the importance of chasing possibility whenever it presents itself—whether in the form of a road trip, a different river, or a great gig in a new mountain town— because the best dirtbags move forward, not back.
It’s all too common that people are common. That’s why, when a remarkable person shows up in my life, I put everything I have into trying to hold on to them as tightly as I can. They taught me that too.
The Dirtbag Ethos demands an undying loyalty to the people who matter. You show up when they need you, and go to war whenever it’s necessary.
It’s why I told The Crazy Lady to just drive the uninsured truck I’d left in Colorado when her rig broke down.
It’s why, when a loud mouth went after Caveman Craig, I put his face into the deck of Montana’s best dive bar.
And it’s why when J-Ski hit a low point in his own life, I hounded him to get on a new river, and get back to being the guy who first showed me whitewater.
I’d book a cross-country flight, on a moment’s notice, just to back them up in a bar fight. Any one of them.
No matter where I am in the world, they always have a couch to crash on, and a cold beer waiting, because I know they’d have the same waiting for me. If they need something, and it’s within my means, they get it. That’s what you’re supposed to do for family.
I’ve got some dough saved up now and some big plans. My guiding days are likely over.
I’ll miss it.
But, I believe in the Dirtbag Ethos more than anything else in this world.
And I’ll be a Red Eye til’ I die.
For Pipebomb and Miss Information— my dirtbag Mom and Dad.
Thanks for giving me my tribe.
“Chew and spit,
Chew and spit,
If you ain’t Red Eyes…
You ain’t SHIT”