Fall Speaker Series: Luke Mehall







 The brains behind the words this weekend: Luke Mehall.

The season is upon us here at the Gunks. Crisp days followed by cool nights, and, for the climbers among us, a sea of sticky stone. While your day might be filled with plugging gear or even a Catskills run and hike, join us at 8pm at Rock and Snow on select Saturday nights this fall for our annual Fall Speaker Series. We've hand-selected the most entertaining, stellar speakers for the series, which is free of charge. Check in at our Events page to stay up-to-date and follow our blog every Monday for musings on the upcoming speaker.


 (Show starts at 8pm on Saturday, October 3rd at Rock and Snow.)


Meet the brains behind the Climbing Zine: Luke Mehall. Currently based out of Durango, Colorado, Mehall spends most of his time writing and editing (the Zine, books, articles, poetry and hilarious quips like this one about red Patagonia underwear) and rolling burritos at his night job.


In some way, Mehall has become a dirtbag historian and philosopher. But he’s more known as being author of two books (with a third on its way), a storyteller and a modern-day beatnik. And his views of climbing—through the lenses of freedom, passion and expression—make for some good tales, our true possessions in the end. “The essence of climbing is the moment at hand, but what we come away with are these stories,” says Mehall.


Calling himself a “born again dirtbag” (we’ll get to that), Mehall’s voice is a kind of tribute to love, life and experience that comes through in a no-hold-barred style. This voice is hard to come by, but he owns it well—and perhaps for good reason. For him, climbing changed his life. It’s part of his own personal climbing story and one that makes his writing raw, unique and relatable.


But we’ll come to that, and how the Climbing Zine transformed from some scribbles to a full-fledged publication. But first things first: what happened to the original dirtbag? And how is Mehall’s underwear modeling gig shaping up these days?

 Enjoy a little Q & A between Rock and Snow and Mehall and remember, come to the show this Saturday:


How did you get into writing and how did the Climbing Zine come into existence? Do you have a favorite stories?


Well, my Mom was an English teacher, so I guess it’s in my blood, but I didn't really get into writing until I was in college over in Gunnison, Colorado. I was moved by writers like Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Tom Wolfe, Tim Leary, John Long, George Sibley, and Martin Luther King Jr. which inspired me to start writing myself. 


The Climbing Zine started on a whim. I'd written a couple other zines after discovering them in Salt Lake City, and since I knew so many climbers who write I thought it would be fun to put together one with a climbing theme. I thought we would do one issue, five years later and here we are. 


Originally it was like the old school punk black and white zines. I'm not a skater/punk kinda guy but I loved the freedom and independence. Eventually my friends started telling us we needed to go color with professional photos. That shot the printing costs through the roof and then we needed sponsorship. The climbing industry and community has rallied to support us, and that's how we've been able to keep doing it. 


A personal favorite story of ours is “Climbing Past War” by Stacy Bare. He told his story about going to war and how climbing saved his life. I think that's where climbing truly has its deepest value, how we can use it as a tool or a metaphor to overcome adversity. 

 Mehall reveling in his dimensional wheelhouse. 


Seems as though climbing has been used as a metaphor to overcome adversity in your own life.


Well, I got into climbing at just the right time in life, when I was a lost, depressed 20-year-old. The first climbing trip I ever went on was with two buddies and these three other guys who were heroin addicts. I wasn't addicted to hard drugs like that, but when I started climbing I was addicted to substances and had no exercise regiment. Climbing really came in and gave me something to live for. I think I'm the type of person who can naturally lean towards depression, but when I'm climbing regularly I feel like the happiest person in the world. 


When Stacy Bare, the author of that story, and I met we talked about how both of us "would be dead or in jail without climbing". I think that's true for me. 


Is this why you consider yourself a “born-again dirtbag"?  Can you explain that term? 


Well, that's just a joke, but climbing does take that path of fanaticism. I did think of giving up on the live to climb lifestyle for a couple years and got a 9-5. Then I realized I couldn't do that, so now I'm back to that life of living the climbing life, while working a creative schedule with flexible jobs. 


So on the thread of dirtbags, you seem to know a lot about them. I mean you authored a book called "The Great American Dirtbag"! So, in your opinion, is the climbing dirtbag in decline? Are there any true dirtbags left?


Well, in reality the dirtbag lifestyle is probably growing. The thing is gym climbing is the dominant force in the climbing culture. So dirtbagging comes later, not first. If you've been to places like Squamish and Indian Creek its apparent many people are still chasing the dirtbag dream. 


As for if there are any true dirtbags left, I think for sure there are. It's like asking if romance is still alive, or if hip-hop is dead. We can debate it online and people can lament the good 'ol days, but the reality is many people are still living out of a bag, in the dirt. 



How does climbing and its lifestyle meld with writing for you?


I think climbing gives me the headspace to be able to continually create. Most of my stories come from climbing adventures, so there's that as well. Plus, the ability to fail, over and over, but still have the love to come back. And, they can age together well. I'll probably lose my climbing prowess before I lose the ability to craft a story, but hopefully not! 


Why do stories matter to climbing?


The essence of climbing is the moment at hand, but what we come away with are these stories. My personal story matters because climbing saved my life from substances and depression. And, someone else who is going through the same thing could read my story and know there's a better life out there. 


Plus, I think with modern life there's this thing called boredom and a good climbing story is the perfect cure for that. 


 Feast your eyes on the Freedom Mobile. Keeping the dirtbag dream alive with flare. 


So you’ve written some books, two of which are published: "The Great American Dirtbag" and "Climbing Out of Bed". Tell me about those.


Both books I've published are collections of short stories about climbing and mountain town culture. I just finished a draft of my third book, a memoir called "American Climber". In short its the story of how climbing saved my life, and how it gives me life. 


I like to think I have my own simple style, that was heavily influenced by the beatniks, the desert rats, and other writers who love the mountains. 


Even dogs read it. 


Now, what is your funniest story? Lay it on me. 


I like the "Naked Disco Dance Party in J-Tree" that's in my first book. I also have a funny one about being MC Hammer for Halloween and taking over the streets of Crested Butte, Colorado. 


Nice, that one is funny. I really loved the Patagonia underwear modeling one. Soooooo is your dream job really to be an underwear model and perhaps the better question, do you still have that red pair of Patagonia underwear? 


Ha, ha, that whole thing was this joke that had some crazy synchronicity. I used to joke with my friends that I was going to be an underwear model for Patagonia, and then my friend started a petition. We contacted Patagonia and they said, okay, sure. And, then I did a story about it and a Dirtbag Diaries podcast. Kinda like the Flight of the Concords "It's Business Time". 


Crazy thing is I lost the red pair of underwear right when Patagonia published the story up on their blog. But, they gave me some new ones! 


What, in your eyes, is the current state of storytelling in your eyes? Is it a declining art or is it still going strong? Who is the best storyteller you can think of (and don’t tell me John Long)? 


It's going strong. The way we as climbers have been able to tell our story has really expanded over the last few years. If you're referring to climbing writers John Long is the man. I can't say there's any more influential climber-writer out there for someone like myself. As far as novelists go, the best of the best for me are Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac. They weren't really climbers, but they were. No climbing writer I've ever read can touch those two. 


I think the current generation will provide a great climbing novelist, and I don't think it's going to be a climber who fits the old mold of a climber. It will be a fresh story. 



Thanks Mehall! For more of Mehall’s own story and to hear some of his writing, join us on Saturday and be sure to check out his blog and The Climbing Zine.  


Mehall poses with one of his babies.