Inglorious Outdoor Bastards

outdoor ski bum

Calling labels into question.

I have a friend who is passionate about wine. If asked, he, without hesitation, could pair the perfect wine with a soggy, half-eaten berry pomegranate chia-flavored Clif Bar found floating in the hull of a freestyle kayak. His wine expertise prompts people to refer to him as an aficionado, a connoisseur, sophisticated.

Conversely, I’m passionate about skiing. If asked, I, without hesitation, could confidently negotiate any double-black diamond slope, regardless of condition. But my veneration of skiing does not translate into a gush of high-brow platitudes. I’m, instead, called a ski bum.

Not an expert. Not an aficionado—a bum. It makes it sound as if I spend my days at the base of Bridger, panhandling for money, causing people to mutter under their breaths, “Don’t give him money, he’ll only spend it on lip balm and hot cocoa.”

The late Jim Harrison once observed, “A man at play in America has John Calvin tapping him on the shoulder and telling him to please be serious.” This especially applies to anyone whose outdoor gear consists of poles, paddles, or packs. But instead of a tapping on the shoulder, admonishment flares in the form of inglorious nicknames.

I also backpack and raft. Consequently, I’m tagged as a dirtbag and a river rat. Instead of worthy passions, these sound like problems. Or code names for addictions, creating unjustified guilt, raising half-expectations of finding a family intervention letter taped to the refrigerator door: Your backpacking is ruining us. Last Wednesday, you claimed you had to stay late at work but returned home reeking of DEET. The next morning, when asked to help Bethany tie her shoes, you tied two taut-line hitches. And last night, at Blackbird, you took leave-no-trace too far when you insisted we bus and reset our table. Can’t you see how being a dirtbag is tearing us apart?

Outside of surfing (beach bum), and maybe hockey (rink rat), all other outdoor activities remain strangely immune. When I queried a psychologist friend about this, she suggested that labels sometimes manifest when an activity becomes so encompassing it morphs into a lifestyle choice.

If so, then why does my neighbor, who proudly claims falconry as a lifestyle, remain nickname-immune? This, after all, is a person who devotes his days to making pigeons nervous. Yet everyone respectfully refers to him as a falconer. Never once have I heard, “He’s nothing but a predatory bird bum.” Or, “He’s a raptor rat.”

Or how is it that fly fishers, the Al-Qaeda of the outdoor-recreation world, who treat fly fishing not as a sport but as an ideology based around wearing skin-tight face burkas, posing with gasping trout like kids before a mall Santa, and spending long hours at home as barbless-hook makeup artists, manage to escape unflattering labels?

These are questions only my wine friend can answer. For he is, after all, by society’s standards, sophisticated.