There is something magical about being dirty. Not the old mustard stained shirt dirty. The gritty dirt covered and water soaked, filthy with adventure dirty. The kind of dirty where you want to keep wearing your clothes because they are so dirty dirty.
This thought came to me on top of a waterfall in Hunan Province in southwest China. I had just spent two hours clawing my way up cliffs, navigating my way through caves with a lighter, my only source of light, and sweating my way through dense woods to get to this point. I was staring out over the falls upon deep gorges, snaking their way through the wilderness. They had the appearance of a vast canyon like crossword puzzle. Huge pillars of chalk- and sand-colored rock pierced the sky and loomed over the forest, where trees were beginning to change colors from deep, lush green to a campfire orange to a depressed brown.
Amid the calls of birds and chirping of insects, a new sound arose. My attention was diverted by the familiar whir and click of a camera shutter. I turned to my left to find my hiking buddies, Cody and Joe, giggling. “Dude,” Joe said, “You look awesome.”
I examined myself and realized how unbelievably dirty I was. My hiking boots were slathered with a deeply brown muck. It looked like I had just smeared two jars of Skippy Extra Chunky peanut butter all over them. My socks were soaked from river water, and my jeans were caked with dried mud and the dust from rocks that I had dragged myself over. A new assortment of rips adorned my shins and the back of my legs. My shirt was soaked from dirt, that, when mixed with perspiration, had run down my face and neck, blackening my collar and chest. A few new holes to match my jeans, along with a few scrapes completed my wardrobe. I looked like nature’s landfill, as if Mother Nature had just swept up all the earth that did not quite go with her woodsy living room and dumped it on me. Pig Pen, the perpetually and bewilderingly dirt-covered, bath-deprived boy from the cartoon Peanuts, looked like George Clooney on Oscar night compared to me. I spit out a mouthful of grime and smiled for the camera.
We could have changed clothes after we trekked back into the small local village where we would be spending the night. We could have gone into the basement of the local inn and taken an old fashioned bucket shower, but we were just too dirty and looked too damn good. Wherever we walked, we got quizzical stares from wrinkled and hunchbacked old Chinese women who furiously attempted to clean us. One woman jokingly went after Cody with a broom to the hilarity of the children nearby. But, we had three days of backpacking left and zero intentions of showering.
When we did get clean, it was two days later. We stumbled across a small pool, created by a dam in the river, filled with disconcertingly blue water; it looked like a toilet bowl that had just had bowl cleaner poured into. I leaned back on the rock and noticed that the bottom of the pool was pebbled with trash and plastic bottles. We stripped down and plunged into the frigid water. The chill took my breath away and made me squirm and thrash about under the surface in a seizure-like dance to shake the cold off. I erupted through the surface of the pool and hoisted myself up onto a collection of mossy rocks. I gazed around the piercing cliffs and gnarled trees. Steam rose off my flesh and clouded the air around me. It swirled in tight circles, like a great smoky dragon, bucking and twisting through the air before dissipating. The dirt and mud had melted off my legs and arms leaving my skin more or less resembling its original tone.
Being clean was a bittersweet affair. I enjoyed the refreshment and surely not having to scrape out the dirt that continually fell into my food would be nice. Still, it felt as if I had just washed away our adventures, as if now that chapter was over. And I did not want it to be over. I suppose that’s why I love being so dirty after a good adventure, rugby game, or any other physical activity. It’s a reminder of your accomplishments. Grit and grime are medals to be displayed; they appeal only to you and repulse everyone else. You can’t taste or smell pictures; similarly, no one else can feel the water in your shoes or the mud caked on your jeans. But I love that feeling. So I’m going to keep getting dirty. Dirty is what I want to be.
— Dallas Koller