Lessons From A Life On The Road

Lessons From A Life On The Road
Photos Steph Letourneau

Photos Steph Letourneau

Here’s a fact about myself: I love to debate. In class, if one of my students argues red, I will argue blue. Next session, another student argues blue, I argue red. This comes down to my pedagogy in teaching, but that isn’t the point here; the point is that I find myself in debates all the time. Now I should make it clear that I don’t do this for the sake of trying to be right, nor because I want to change people’s minds. Really, debating is like projecting for me. It’s exercise for my brain. I am the kind of person that learns best in a dialogue. When I am debating with someone, I learn a lot both about their positions and about my own feelings. 

It probably goes without saying that, lately, politics have made their way into a lot of these debates. This doesn’t bother me; I tend to think of humans as inherently political because we are inherently social, and, as a teacher, I think it is part of my job to be informed on the things that can and do affect the lives of my students. 

I spent the majority of last year living in a van. Specifically, my girlfriend and I both owned vans, and we spent most of the time in hers (the bed was bigger). A month ago, we sold her van for a trailer in which we now reside up in the Tablelands in Bishop. Now, believe it or not, this fact about my life gets very different reactions from climbing and non-climbing populations. Climbers tend to think it’s awesome; we, as climbers, know the special place dirtbagging has in our cultural mythos. Non-climbers think it absolutely nuts. 

So when I discuss politics with friends, family, and others, of whom many are not climbers, this fact of my life colors their judgement of my opinions. And this is as it should be. If politics is the extension of social life, to a degree, then it makes sense that our political concerns would align with our personal ones. When I talk about politics with a friend who doesn’t climb, what they see is someone who doesn’t have a mortgage, a car payment, kids, and who spends most of his free time either running around various outdoor settings to scramble around rocks or training for those times. Basically, it is a question of ethos: Because I am perceived as less invested in this system we call American Society, my opinion is of less value.

Now, I sympathize with their view. I really don’t have much invested, at least monetarily (I’d argue that choosing to become a teacher is pretty invested), in the “system,” and this generally makes the impacts of legislative decisions less heavy on me. By the same token, I really do spend most of my free time running around the outdoors. Hell, I spend the majority of my time there, considering how permeable the barriers between you and Nature are when you live in a van/trailer. And climbing is a pretty frivolous activity. Ultimately, does it really matter I send or not? 

That is all to say that people are right to take my lifestyle into account when they consider my political views. It’s only natural. What I have issue with, however, is the idea that my outsider position somehow weakens the credibility of my viewpoints. I feel that, maybe, my outsider view gives me a more objective standpoint.

We all know, either intellectually or through experience, of the Sunk Costs Fallacy. Here is an example: You have watched 17 seasons of The Walking Dead, but you have noticed that the last few seasons have been a little less quality than the earlier seasons. The new season is out, and it is terrible. And yet, you watch the entire thing, spending x number of hours watching a show you really don’t like anymore. Your reasoning is that you have already put so much time into the show that you feel as if you have to finish. This predilection towards continuing with something no longer beneficial to you because of the time you have already invested is a version of the Sunk Costs Fallacy. The point is that having investment in a system can itself become a reason for continuing that system, regardless of the value and/or effectiveness of it. 

Intrinsically, we know, as a social group, that a true view of the merits of a social system can only come from the outside. Just look at the writers and social critics that we have, historically, looked up to. Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, King Jr., Abbey, Parks, Anthony: All of these were people who, either by choice or by race or by gender, existed on the fringes of society. It was this very outsider-ness that gave them their honest view of the world around them. And who were the people that fought the changes these pioneers sought? Those invested in the system. Those with something to lose.

if we want to know how we can do better as a system, it seems that we would do best to listen to our least invested

It appears to me that this mechanism is the primary way in which unjust systems continue: By creating a social structure in which large portions of a population are made so systemically dependent for their needs and culturally derived wants that they become resistant to change. So if we want to know how we can do better as a system, it seems that we would do best to listen to our least invested, to those who have been pushed out and away by the social, civil, economic and political systems in place.

This all reminds me of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Since that book was written, published the same year the United States became a nation, we have tended to look at social systems through the eyes of the most successful: What is good for the individual is good for the whole. This means that, when evaluating the efficacy and fairness of our way of life, we tend to look to those who have had the most success, these are the people most invested in the system, a system that has already allowed them to amass wealth, and thereby are the ones most resistant to change. The flaw here is obvious. I suspect it would do better to listen to those on the other side of the “success” spectrum.

This brings me back to climbers in general. Climbing is a special sport in that it, by design, forces its participants into the fringes of society a little bit. This is partially because of our shared heritage, in which archetype of the dirtbag plays such a large role and still influences climbing culture today, but is also an inherent quality of climbing itself. As climbers, we spend our time, energy and money actively seeking experiences that remove us from society. We spend nights under the stars away from stores and traffic and the modern hustle. We learn to make sacrifices for climbing, training and dieting so that we can become stronger. Our heroes and legends, men and women that so loved climbing that they removed themselves from society so that they could pursue the craft full time, are the opposite of the ones society would have us look up to, men and women of influence and power. The seeming frivolity of our lives is exactly what gives us our strength. 

Climbing is a special sport in that it, by design, forces its participants into the fringes of society a little bit

I often leave political conversations with the feeling that words are inadequate, that, if I could just get the other side of the debate (be it my dad or a friend or a random guy at a bar) to spend some time outdoors with me, a better understanding could be had. It is my belief that a day out in the mountains or desert and a night under the stars carries in it more truth than a lifetime in the rat race. 

As climbers, we are people who spend a significant amount of time interacting with the natural world, and we should embrace our varying degrees of outsider status. As the sport hits the mainstream, with large companies entering the market and with climbing receiving unprecedented media coverage, we have a chance to voice what we have learned from our time out in the rocks, A chance to embrace what we love about the world we inhabit when we go climbing and to show that world to others, to enable others to reflect on what their world looks like when they spend some time away from it. It is through this kind of social self-reflection that we can truly gauge our successes and failures as a society and, perhaps, enable us to make the changes that will offer coming generations a better life. 

Based in Bishop, CA where he pursues black belts in: climbing, teaching, reading, writing, traveling, and whatever else captures his attention.