Aspen Times Weekly: Going ‘60 Meters to Anywhere’ with Brendan Leonard
176 pages, softcover, $16.95
Mountaineers Books, May 2016
What’s the difference between a “scumbag” and a “dirtbag?”
Quite a lot, if you live around the pockets of the American west where a common goal among us is to drop out and live in a van near trails and wilderness so that we can spend time in the woods, climbing or skiing or otherwise stomping the terra. Anybody who pulls that off is affectionately known as a dirtbag. It’s shorthand for the infrequently showering, frugally living adventurers among us. Out here it’s not a pejorative term but a descriptive noun popularized, in part, by Fitz Cahall’s long-running podcast “The Dirtbag Diaries.”
Whereas a scumbag, here as anywhere, is simply somebody who lies and steals — disappointing many, trusted by none.
Brendan Leonard’s journey from scumbag to dirtbag is the subject of his new memoir of addiction and redemption, “Sixty Meters to Anywhere.” The Denver-based climbing writer and founder of the excellent Semi-Rad.com came to Carbondale in late April for the 5Point Film Festival to talk about it, filling the Crystal Theatre for the first event in a summer-long book tour. Cahall introduced Leonard and rolled tape for a future “Diaries” podcast.
An Iowa native, Leonard started drinking at 15. As he put it, he had fun, then fun-plus-problems, then just problems. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was always drunk, frequently arrested, often dangerous behind the wheel and rarely any fun to be around.
“I was really just becoming a bad person,” he said.
At 23, with the help of another stint in jail and a court-mandated trip to alcohol rehabilitation, he had his last drink and found himself in journalism school at the University of Montana. His classmates arrived with stories about spending the months before graduate school backpacking or doing cool internships. His summer was decidedly less resume-worthy: “I went to jail for a week, I went to rehab and now I’m here and I want to be a writer,” he recalled telling his cohort.
But the move to Montana and his first taste of the Rocky Mountains since childhood family ski trips helped him begin to clean up the wreckage and start over. Leonard refers to this phenomenon as “The Big Bang Theory of Extreme Joy.”
“When you blow everything up and start over again, you have infinite possibility,” he said.
Two years later, he put his master’s degree in journalism to work as a decidedly inept salesman at an REI in Phoenix. That Christmas, his brother gave him a used climbing rope — the length of which gives Leonard’s book its title. It proved to be a ticket to freedom.
He moved to Breckenridge, then Denver, started sport-climbing and began finding himself along with the witty, self-deprecating voice as a writer that would become his calling card. He pitched magazines furiously, and collected stacks of rejection slips for a few years until, in 2006, the Mountain Gazette published his essay, “Alcoholism and Other Mountains I’ve Climbed.”
Leonard quit a newspaper job to guide under-served teens on backpacking trips in to the mountains and learned a lot from their days in the woods together.
“They were tough kids from tough neighborhoods, but they were terrified of taking a shit in the woods,” he recalled.
From there, he got a gig writing copy for IBM and — with most of his magazine pitches still failing — he started Semi-Rad. After he finally landed a story in Climbing, he had what he calls his “Second Big Bang,” when he split up with a girlfriend and, at 32, moved into a Chevy Astrovan and began living on the road.
The triumph of living sober and at trailheads and parking lots was lost on the folks back home in Iowa.
“It’s cool in Colorado…in Utah. In Des Moines, you tell people you’re going to live in your car and they’re like, ‘Are you OK?’”
Through climbing, he found a tribe of friends. He brought his parents out to hike 14-ers. He found something like a purpose and eventually he stopped getting so many rejection letters and started collecting bylines in Alpinist and on “The Dirtbag Diaries” and got a contributing editor gig at Climbing. He began traveling to peaks around the U.S. and the world in search of stories to tell and, in 2013, published his first book, “The New American Road Trip Mix Tape,” and realized he was living a life he didn’t know existed back when he was bouncing between blackouts and hangovers.
“If I told my high school guidance counselor I wanted to be an adventure writer he would have said, ‘What the f-k is that?’”
Today his prose and his life are infused with a gratitude that Leonard said comes from knowing it didn’t have to work out this way. In his Denver neighborhood, he often meets alcoholic homeless men who are probably around his age (37) but look much older. They remind him what could have been: “For a second I know that I could be this guy.”
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In 1895, the fad sweeping Aspen for women was to dye their hair red.