A Step to the West

Stitching Together a Community Through Dirt, Chalk & Bags

By | Julianne Mahoney, Owner & Founder of Dirt Chalk Bags

At 20 years old, there were a lot of things I hadn’t done.

I hadn’t climbed outside, left the east coast, or seen the desert. I didn’t know the magic of climbing its sandstone or the spiritual experience of watching the shadows dance as the sun moved across its towers and arches. I’d never laid in a cool stream, orange dirt caked around my ankles, and smiled as the sun beamed on my face.

I had no idea what it was like to belong to the community of sun-tanned, river-drenched dirtbags that called the desert west--and the vans parked throughout it--home. All I knew of climbing were the color-coded holds of my local gym and a small gear collection that included a chalk back I had sewn together out of scraps. 

That all changed when I went west.

I crammed three changes of clothes, a sleeping bag, and all my climbing gear into a 40-liter pack and boarded a $30 Spirit flight to Albuquerque. I didn’t know what was waiting for me on the other side.

When I landed some days later I touched sandstone for the first time - it ignited a fire in me that’s yet to waver. There was so much reward in unlocking the puzzle of climbing on real rock and learning to create my own beta rather than following the predetermined routes and moves in the gym. Tapping those chains at the top of an outdoor route didn’t just bring a smile to my face, it fed my soul.

With each crimp or heel hook, I rewrote a line of hate- and weaknesses-filled inner dialogue fueled by years of struggling with an eating disorder. I discovered a capable body, my body, that was strong enough to make each move up the wall. I was able to let go of my insecurity that held me back from taking risks and making new friends. As I sat in these breathtaking places, camping below the stars and sending as hard as I could, I felt like myself for the first time in my life. I had never been happier.

I found a piece of myself I never knew was missing. At each crag, I talked to climbers, ogled van builds and shared drinks and stories around the fire. I spent my days bathing in creeks under the summer sun and took in the climbing world with eager fresh eyes.

Yet, as the sun-filled season stretched on and my trip wound to an end, I began to wonder how I could contribute more to this community of climbers. All I had with me was this new-found love of the desert and a little lumpy homemade chalk bag I carried around like a precious child.

Pictured below: Julianne's first homemade chalk bag
Pictured here: Julianne's homemade chalk bag

A month later, back in Maryland, I could scrub the dirt lines from my skin, but not the desert from my mind.

I struggled to marry my dirtbag aspirations with my professional pursuits. As I sat in my classes, my mind filled with dreams about living out in the wild, climbing till my fingers bled and seeing remote, blessed destinations. I knew in those moments that I had to change course. That every life decision I made had to bring me closer to the desert.

I decided then that my goal was to create a business that sustained my outdoor pursuits and also gave back to the climbing community I fell in love with. As I wracked my brain for ideas, I remember my handmade chalk bag and the compliments it garnered during my trip out west.

Dirt Chalk Bags was born.

I took the leftover remnants from my first bag, invested in a yard of red Aztec fabric, and got to work sewing 10 more slightly less-lumpy bags. My college’s gym let me list them on their climbing page, and I immediately felt like a part of the community.

In the coming months, people would come up to me and compliment my work, and customers who were once strangers became my friends.

I went from quietly sitting alone on the bouldering mat afraid to having a group of humans--and community--that I loved dearly.

Dirt Chalk Bags allowed me to take the pieces of me I found in the desert sandstone and transplant it back east.

Still, I missed the scenes of the west and wanted to find a way to incorporate them into the designs. A lightbulb went off. I nervously wrote an email to Laura Aldrige, a Virginia-based watercolor and ink artist who I admired, about creating the first artist-designed chalk bag.

She agreed and kicked off what has become an entire artist series that’s expanded from chalk bags to quilts to backpacks and more. 

Dirt Chalk Bags has allowed me to connect with people who love the wild as much as I do and made every place I go feel like home. It makes me smile every time I see a Dirt Chalk Bag swinging off a climber’s harness. On trips, friends offer couches, showers, and laundry. I’ll meet up with artists I collaborate with for coffee and a hometown tour as I pass through.

This business has given me a sense of belonging I never knew growing up. But during that first trip west--between miraculously taking the car up jeep roads, trading beers for a camping spot in Yosemite and climbing until our forearms couldn’t take it anymore--I managed to find my home.

I found where I belong.


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