The Wild Adventures of Dirtbag Darling
The term “dirtbag” conjures up images of tank-topped rednecks nodding their mulleted heads to AC/DC in a truck. It’s hardly a word you’d associate with a long-legged, sun-kissed, intelligent blonde of the fairer sex. But for Californian adventurer Johnie Gall, it’s a humbling and endearing term that inspired her to break free from the shackles of corporate life and move into a van. From editor at female surf lifestyle title FOAM Magazine to free-rappelling across the Utah desert and documenting her adventures via her increasingly popular blog and writing for brands, Gall is doing what most only dare to dream of. And she’s carrying a message of realistic aspiration, too.
THE RED BULLETIN: Where did the name Dirtbag Darling come from?
JOHNIE GALL: Being called a “dirtbag” can be seen as endearing—at least in the outdoor community. It describes this subset of people who live and breathe rock climbing—watch the film “Valley Uprising” and you’ll catch my drift. In no way do I pretend to be on that level, but I’m also no stranger to spending two weeks in the back of a minivan, eating out oft ins and showering with baby wipes. I thought it had a nice ring to it.
What inspired the blog?
I started it simply because I couldn’t find anything else out there—you write what you want to read, right? I started the blog five years ago because there were no blogs that spoke specifically to someone like me—a perpetual beginner who had to borrow her boyfriend’s surfboard; a full-time professional who still prioritises adventure and travel; someone who could get her hands and hair dirty at the weekend but isn’t necessarily hardcore about it. And it resonated with a lot of women really quickly. It’s been cool to see the idea of the “modern outdoorswoman” evolve and gain steam since then.
What’s your background?
I was not an adventurous kid, but I was a voracious reader. And at some point, I must have confused fictional explorers with myself! My grandparents were also really influential. My grandmother was a scuba diver who flew her own plane and grandfather was a windsurfer who told some really tall tales about getting lost at sea and surfing over a whale’s back. I guess I was heavily influenced by stories of adventure.
What attracts you to this life?
I’m naturally introverted and scared of things, but I do them anyway. The way I see it, is you can think about jumping off a cliff. You can measure the distance to the water below, find a bathing suit that won’t fall off when you jump, find out how many others have successfully leaped—or you can just jump. I believe in taking calculated risks as they usually come with a lot of reward. I try to never say no to an adventure.
You live in a van but clearly don’t have to. Why?
My husband had wanted a Sprinter for years, and about four or five years ago we found a Dodge 2500 on Craigslist. We gutted it, re-fitted it with laminates floors, a bed, cabinets, the whole nine yards. The van was when we moved in together. It was definitely a learning experience. But I honestly feel like it made me a better person. It changed my whole outlook on life: now I believe in living really simply, only owning what you need, appreciating little moments and embracing the good with the bad. It sounds cliché, but you have to transform into a really go-with-the-flow person when you occasionally have to sleep in a shopping centre car park and never know when you’re next shower is.
The term “cool” doesn’t sit well with you…
“Cool” is so subjective and fleeting. I’m a firm believer in creating your own idea of what cool is, and I think that is what has helped the blog thrive. I was obsessed with Star Wars at school, and now that’s “cool”. I also wore a hemp necklace … which did not catch on! So I just stick with what I like and maybe some of it will resonate with our readers. There are more important things to strive for than “cool,” I think.
There aren’t too many pictures of you on your feed. Is that on purpose?
My goal with social media isn’t to just talk about myself, but I also don’t just want to upload a bunch of pictures of other women to get “likes”. It can be a tricky space to navigate, so I try to be as real and honest as possible—like I’m talking to a friend. The thinking is that it’ll make the outdoors relatable and accessible; an “if she can do it, I can do it” type of thing.
Is that why your images are more gritty than girlie?
I’ve actually purged myself of accounts that strictly post beautiful photos with dreamy captions—that’s not real life. I’d rather follow something interesting like the TSA’s (The Transportation Security Administration) Instagram—seriously, look that up immediately! I never knew there were so many ways to hide a knife.
There’s also a great image of you free-rappelling in Utah.
We drove to the middle of nowhere, climbed up four pitches, and tied in. The moment I unclipped myself and started lowering myself through this gorgeous 200-foot-high arch in the Utah desert, this huge “whoop!” erupted from my lungs. It was one of those moments that will be burned in my brain forever.