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Desert Companion

Tom Moulin: Author, explorer, dirtbag

Rock Climbing

Tom Moulin lives out of a white Dodge Sprinter cargo van. During the day, he rock-climbs. Home, for Tom, is on the rocks. He’s a dirtbag.

That’s not an insult. In the rock-climbing scene, “dirtbag” is an honorific, denoting those who’ve completely given themselves to their love of rock climbing, eschewing the 9-to-5 and the house in the ’burbs in favor of a simpler life with a schedule set by the sun and the seasons. Think the Southwest version of surf bums.

“‘Avid’ does not properly describe my relationship with rock climbing,” says Moulin. “While there are quite a few people who go rock climbing, there is a smaller group to whom rock climbing is a way of life. It’s how they define their life and find purpose and meaning in their lives. I’m one of those people.”

That intense relationship with the outdoors has resulted in more than conquering perilous climbs and bagging peaks. Moulin’s fixation has inspired him to publish what may be the definitive tome on all things Red Rock: the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Guide, published by Snell Press (

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[HEAR MORE: Tom Moulin talks more about his guidebook on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

The countless color photos that adorn almost every page are a testament to Moulin’s dedication. So is the fact he catalogued every major species of plant at Red Rock. (He kept a meticulous spreadsheet listing the areas where flowers could be found and the dates he hoped to see blossoms.) Turns out the histories were even tougher to collect than the flowers. Little about Red Rock’s pre-BLM history has been preserved. Archival newspapers had some information, but Moulin also had to rely on oral histories handed down to tour guides and curators. All this he artfully stuffed into a book small enough to fit in a hiker’s back pocket.

Rock Climbing

“When researching and working on the book,” he says of the two-year process, “nearly all of my waking hours were devoted to work on the book.”

Given that Moulin lives in a van, publishing the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Guide wasn’t as hard as you may think. His well-appointed Sprinter is more like an RV than a van, complete with kitchen and work station. He’s got day-to-day living down to an art, too. He showers by way of a gym membership, and over the years he’s figured out where he can park without being harassed. After a day of climbing, he’ll take his van somewhere he can get a good wi-fi signal and do more writing  — and somewhere close to where he plans to climb the next day. That’s the entire purpose of the dirtbag lifestyle.

“There is also a negative connotation to dirtbag, as in a leech,” says Moulin. “Although I did live off dumpster diving for the better part of two years and currently live in a van, I hope that I don’t fit all the characteristics of a dirtbag. Perhaps a ‘passionate chuffer’ would better describe myself, since I can rock climb, but not at the highest levels.” Or just call him a lover of the outdoors who’s found a way to share his passion with others — no van required