All photos courtesy of Peter Hoffmeister.
A group of people who call themselves Dirtbags have been living illegally in Yosemite National Park since the end of World War II. The Dirtbags sleep in caves, rock-climb, hike, and swim all day, and eat leftover food from tourists to survive. Quite often, Dirtbags have run-ins with bears.
Peter Hoffmeister dropped out of eighth grade in 1990, and camped 102 nights in a row the summer he was fourteen. That was his first real dirtbagging experience. He re-enrolled in public school that fall, but struggled as a teenager, moving all over the United States, carrying a pistol and a shotgun, and dealing drugs. He was expelled from three high schools before living a short while in a bus station in Dallas Texas (see his memoir, The End of Boys).
After busing to Oregon and putting his life back together with the help of his friend's mom, he enrolled in college, studying English and Creative Writing, and finally made it to Yosemite Valley where he rock-climbed with the Dirtbags, scrounged free meals, and snuck into an expensive Yosemite hotel to bathe in bathroom sinks or score high-end coffee. The whole time, Peter heard stories about a crashed Lodestar drug plane and how the Dirtbags beat the FBI to the cache of high-grade weed at the bottom of a frozen lake in 1977.
Peter’s new novel, Graphic the Valley, out in July through Tyrus Books, is set in the Dirtbags’ secret side of Yosemite. Peter embeds us inside the mind of an adolescent boy who grew up in a hidden camp inside Yosemite Valley, supported by the money his father made in the Lodestar weed score.
Peter has a straight job now, but he still dresses in his friends’ discarded clothing. When we spoke on the phone, he was eating sandwich crusts from his kids’ lunches.
I called Peter up to talk about bear attacks, stealing chicken wings with an underwear model, and the Dirtbag’s legendary drug plane. An excerpt from Graphic the Valley follows the interview.
VICE: Hey, Pete. Your book is great. Can you tell me a little bit about Dirtbag history?
Peter Hoffmeister: There’s an old tradition of people living illegally in the Yosemite Valley. During the Great Depression, people started moving into the Valley and sleeping in their cars. There were so many fish in the Merced River that you could live endlessly, if you could handle three meals of fish every day. But there are Dirtbag sects everywhere, not just in Yosemite.
The first Dirtbags showed up in Yosemite after WWII, realizing they could live in the most beautiful place on Earth, for free. They could hike in the mountains, swim in the rivers, and rock climb, without worrying about money.
How did the Park Service feel about that?
They didn’t like people living illegally on their land, obviously. The Dirtbags were living in the rocks behind Camp 4 in Yosemite, but the Park Service’s Climbing Rangers slowly rooted out most of the long-term campers. By the time I started Dirtbagging, the majority of the dirtbags had relocated to the bear caves behind the Ahwahnee Hotel. Tourists paid $400 a night to sleep in the hotel, while Dirtbags lived like cavemen right out their windows. At night, they would pillage the hotel dumpsters.
Where else would you eat in Yosemite?
There’s a pizza deck in Curry Village where every Dirtbag goes. We would slip in and finish the pizza, Pepsi, and beer that people left on their tables. I used to go with my friend who I call the Underwear Model. Our longstanding competition at Curry is the search for a chicken wing. In ten years in Yosemite, I’ve never found one abandoned chicken wing. The competition continues to this day.
You mentioned living in bear caves. Have you ever had some run-ins with bears?
The bears are crazy in Yosemite. I was backed into a bathroom once by a bear. It waited at the door for an hour while I cowered, terrified, with a random Australian man. It happens constantly.
Any bear attacks?
Once I was leaving to climb and there was a guy in the dirt, asleep, wrapped up in a blanket like a man burrito. For some reason, his food was wrapped in the blanket with him. He must have forgotten that bears have a sense of smell 2,000 times greater than humans.
I was on the other side of a boulder when I heard the screams. When I ran back, I found the guy, soaked in blood. His face was smashed and dented. A bear had come into camp and started eating his food. The man woke up, saw a 500-pound bear sitting next to him, and let out a tiny shout of surprise.
The bear lifted up its paw and patted the guy in the face to say, “Be quiet, I’m eating.” Bears are also three times as strong as men, so the bear’s pat broke the guy’s nose and sunk his cheek in.
Peter climbing in Yosemite's Camp 4.
Whoa. Can you tell me more about the Lodestar drug plane?
In the 70s, the rock climbing Dirtbags realized that, thanks to some new gear innovations, they could climb walls that had never been climbed before. The main Dirtbag ethic is time over money, so none of them wanted to waste their life working. Then some money fell out of the sky.
In the winter of 1977, a drug plane went down in a lake just outside of the Yosemite Valley. A Park Service Ranger mentioned it to one of the Dirtbags in Camp 4. It was still snowy in the high country, so recovering the plane was difficult for the Feds. They decided to hold off on an extensive recovery until springtime. The plane was sitting at the bottom of an iced-over lake, packed with pot.
The Dirtbags camped outside all year. I’m sure they were used to the snow.
Exactly. And they were all rugged outdoorspeople. So a group of Dirtbags hitchhiked into Fresno to rent SCUBA gear. They hiked up to the lake, smashed a hole in the ice, and brought up hundreds of pounds of marijuana.
The Dirtbags hauled duffle bags full of weed back to Camp 4 and dried it out around fires. The money they made by selling it bought them the best climbing and camping gear. The money changed the Dirtbags’ lifestyle a bit, but it allowed them to live in Yosemite almost indefinitely.
How much money did the Dirtbags end up with?
Nobody knew how much money anyone made on the Lodestar crash. And since I was born the year the score was recovered, I didn’t want to ask the people I climbed with. But I know a few world-famous climbers who supposedly lived for more than a decade off that money. Duffle bags full of good weed are worth big, big money.
I really like how you weaved the Yosemite Dirtbag world into Graphic the Valley. Are any of the characters real?
The narrator, Tenaya, a boy who has lived his entire life in Yosemite, dumpster dives with a Dirtbag named Kenny. Kenny is a real guy. He passed away while I was working on the novel. I wanted to somehow memorialize his spirit. He was one of those people who can never be replicated. He was the ultimate Dirtbag.
In what way?
Kenny was hitchhiking one time, and the car he was riding in hit a deer. Kenny got out and dragged the carcass into the forest. He gutted it, dried the meat, and ate nothing but the deer for a month. Only Kenny would have called it "one full moon."
A few years ago, Kenny decided to go on an ultimate survival experience in Waimea Canyon in Kauai, Hawaii. He had a whole plan laid out. He knew what plants he could eat and how to catch the feral goats and chickens in the canyon. Kenny spent 77 days alone in the Canyon. It was amazing, but the story has a rough ending. He died a few weeks after coming out of the canyon, and we think that it was from drinking compromised water. But we don't know.
But Kenny remains an inspiration to me and his other friends. He worried less about consequences and more about adventure, more about living the right way, for the right things. He was doing what he wanted to do. But it’s complicated. I know Kenny’s dad, and what is it like to lose your son to something totally preventable? That's something that makes me really sad, and I miss him.
That’s terrible. Owning nature, or the inability to do so, is a big theme of Graphic the Valley.
I’m constantly questioning whether any human should own anything. Certainly not anything as beautiful as the Yosemite Valley. That’s one of its great problems. For at least 1,000 years, people have been fighting to own it.
The National Park Service thinks they own Yosemite. They swear to preserve and protect it for the future enjoyment of everyone to come. But do they have the right to regulate everything? Maybe the Park Service should limit visitation to the Valley, or ban motorized transportation, and preserve it even more. I’m not sure how I feel about all of this, really. I don’t have any answers. But the questions are important.
Keep reading for the first chapter of Graphic the Valley, out in July. Pre-order a copy here.
I’d slept against the bear box, the iron food cache cold through my sleeping bag, and woke when it was dark. I couldn’t sleep a night without picturing her, eight years after, the way she lay against the river boulder, her right hand turned away, like it held a valuable.
I choked on nothing and sat up.
I leaned back against the box and looked out at the sleeping camp, the orange, blue, and red tents pieced together like cars in the Curry lot. I stood. Pulled on my wool hat and slid into my shoes.
Started to walk.
Low clouds hung in the Valley, the ends torn as wet paper. I crossed at the T near the Lower Falls, toward the meadow, moving south, spooking mule deer on the road, their hooves skittering against the asphalt like young horses’. Then they were gone. I had no headlamp to follow.
I stepped through the bracken fern and followed the dirt road up to the boardwalk, left across the meadow. Halfway into the open, I lay down, back flat on the fiberglass replacement boards that the ParkService bolted down the year before. Looking up at the sky, I couldn’t see anything but gray, the mist backed with massing low clouds.
I lay shivering, thinking of her at the river. Her body, and my mother. The stories I’d heard my whole life. I was 14 years old, and I would not make it back to camp.
I braided my hair, three feet. Pulled my braids tight. A long-haired boy, never a hair cut, I’d been confused for a girl when I was younger.
I rolled over and did push-ups to stay warm, a trick my father had taught me. He’d say, Lie back and wait for the blood to move. I pictured him pointing with that missing index finger. People who didn’t know him would just see a fist, no pointing at all.
I got up and walked the boardwalk, back and forth, waiting for the smell of wet granite and ponderosa, bark like puzzle pieces chipped into moving water. I slept away from camp now sometimes, but still I couldn’t sleep. My mind pounded the Upper Falls in spring. I would add to that now. This morning.
He came alone, in the haze, and I didn’t know who he was. I was pacing the boardwalk in the early light, near the Merced, no sleep, tired like two stones grating behind my eyes.
He walked up in a full suit, expensive clothes, rare in the Valley. There were all-night gatherings at the Ahwahnee, and I guessed at that. But his suit had no wrinkles, the suit pressed, a white shirt starched clean, and the pants creased to the outside. He had his right hand in his pocket as he stared off, standing on the edge of the boardwalk while the sun struggled to rise south of Half Dome.
That was how it looked. The sun there as a slit. My mind the big falls, 2,000 feet above the meadow, pumping into the daylight elevation. Me walking toward him.
The man said, “It’s a beautiful morning, huh?”
I looked around. The mist was in and I couldn’t see the details of the south side: the Shield, the Sentinel, the triple pillars of the Cathedrals. I’d seen more beautiful mornings in the Valley, but I said, “Yes.”
He didn’t say anything else for a minute.
I didn’t know about his programs. I didn’t know about his new park plan. How he’d moved from the private sector to the National Park Service three years earlier. I would read all of that later in the newspaper accounts of what was about to happen.
A few feet from me, he was a man in a suit, nobody I knew, a man with a belly like something hidden underneath his shirt. He was tall above his paunch, as if three people were put together: A thin man, the heavier middle man, then a third person’s legs.
I smelled cologne and smoke. He brought the cigar up to his lips and pulled, the smell like two fingers snapping in front of my eyes.
The Valley was in me. The Valley yellow turning to brown, a thousand bears in late fall. I looked down at my hands, the dirty black fingernail ends, and I bit one off. Spit that into the blooming milkweed.
The man leaned down to mash out his cigar, marking a stain on the low rail. He flicked the butt on the same trajectory as my fingernail, following it into the green. Dark mud crawling up the reed stalks, black bottomed, waiting for the next rain.
He said, “Do you spend a lot of time in the park?”
“No,” I said, the lie that my father had asked me to tell when I was eight years old, when I first found out that it was illegal to live where we did. That no one else camped their whole lives off of the Northside Loop Road near the 120.
The man stood in front of me. The Valley rolling its shoulders, ten thousand years, after the final ice receded, boulders sitting as terminal moraines, the chambers of the ancient volcano exposed in white-and-gray plugs, flakes weakened by freeze water and the sloughed granite crashing, the Domes shrugging awake.
“Not camping, huh?” The man smiled like a forest fire. “It’s a beautiful place to camp.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t walk away. Didn’t explain. I was never good at saying what I was thinking.
He stepped toward me. That smile. I was 14 that day, but not small, never small, and my hands were like the rocks that they climbed.
The man was going to hit me or reach out to shake my hand. I didn’t know which one. His shoulder came up, twitched, and he started to move his right arm toward me.
But I pushed him before that happened. With two hands and hard. I didn’t know what I was hoping for. There was the Valley, and the Valley was in me, and the Valley was with me.
It was only a few feet down off of the boardwalk there, only four or five feet down to the ground, to the milkweed and the reeds, not far, but his shoe caught on the low rail near the cigar stain, and the rail flipped him. He went over, upside down, a scrub jay caught by a gust. I smiled as I watched him fall into the wet reeds and the mud, smiled as I imagined him scrambling back up, muddy and angry in his soiled clothes, yelling at me, chasing me.
But his left hand stayed down in his pocket, where it had been before he went over the rail. His right hand reached out in front of him, waving once, touching nothing. He hit a rock, a foot wide, with his head, and his face twisted around beneath him, under the weight of his body. His head turned six inches too far, and I heard something pop as his body rolled over the top.
I bit a hole though the front left corner of my tongue. Bit down, and the blood filled my mouth. A tongue can bleed, and fast. I coughed blood there on the boardwalk, spit and drooled it into my hand, my palm filling with blood before I dumped it at my feet.
But the man did not bleed. Not at all. His legs flattened and his arms twisted, limbs in the reeds like the loose limbs of an old doll.
Her doll. The way she dragged it, wet, that hand-sewn cloth doll, as it went through the pool above the rocks my father stacked to make a swimming hole at Ribbon Creek’s narrows. I found her doll months later, under a blanket in the tent, blackening with mold.
The man’s face was looking over his shoulder, his eyes open, and I stared down into those eyes. The mist came, new smoke above me, and soon there was nothing I could see farther away than ten feet. The man’s body and the boardwalk. The flash of green leading to the river, the dark-bottomed reeds, the tongue blood in my hands.
The man never blinked or twitched. His eyes open, and I didn’t mean that. Not at all. Like suffocating doves.
Check out Peter Hoffmeister's website for more Dirtbag stories and information about his upcoming novel.
More fiction on VICE: