When I read that the Outdoor Industry Association threatened to move its biannual gear show out of Salt Lake City as a protest against Utah’s wilderness policies, I was taken aback. Not by the announcement, but by the reported magnitude of the show: 15,000 visitors spending $24 million in the region to pore over high-tech gear.
When, I wondered, did
we decide that going outdoors takes so much money?
Catalogs clutter my mailbox daily, featuring endless pages of
pricey items purportedly needed for forays into the wild. Hikers
and backpackers are urged to hit the trail with sun-blocking
clothing, moisture-wicking socks, waterproof roll-up hats,
anti-shock hiking poles, and distortion-free sunglasses — not
to mention a handheld Global Positioning System and, soon, remote
We can tote portable camp chairs,
lightweight cooking pots and prepackaged gourmet meals, and sleep
in snazzy tents boasting vestibules, sun roofs and
It’s free enterprise in
action — but something seems amiss when a hiker’s
clothes and accessories cost more than a fashion model’s. My
original camping set-up was scarcely a cut above Flint
McCullough’s bedroll in Wagon Train.
piece of equipment I bought, back in the early ’80s, was a
two-person dome tent for $19.95. Along with cheap sleeping bags and
foam ground pads, it allowed me and my beloved the luxury of
sojourning in the backcountry.
The well-heeled would have
laughed to see us stumbling across the Sonoran Desert at sunset,
searching for a cozy campsite while clutching in our arms (we
didn’t even have backpacks) our bulky, bright-green sleeping
bags, our equally lurid ground pads, and the tent.
modest shell went up quickly and easily, and I never felt more
secure than when tucked into a hollow of the desert, with the
zipper shut tight against wandering rattlesnakes or
Gradually, I came to believe the tent possessed
magical protective qualities. It kept us dry in the Olympic
rainforest and warm well into November. It sheltered us during one
dazzlingly violent Sonoran thunderstorm, when lightning pounded the
plain so closely all around us I expected each flash to be the last
thing I saw.
Eventually, we felt the itch to upgrade our
equipment. We acquired frame backpacks and better sleeping bags,
both good investments. But the inflatable ground pads proved
slippery and uncomfortable, so we returned to the indestructible
old foam pads. Once, when stuck in a snowdrift on Wolf Creek Pass,
I shoved one under a tire and gained enough traction to
The tent likewise kept going and going —
though it had close calls. It — and we — came within a
few yards of destruction in a private campground on the
I’d just dozed off when a
distant siren woke me. It grew steadily louder, heading straight
Sitting up, I unzipped the “front
door” to peer out. Two cars were racing through the
campground, dodging the scattered tents and RVs. One was a police
vehicle, lights flashing, siren still screaming. The other was a
nondescript sedan. There was no time to run to safety, so I just
watched, bemused. After a few wild seconds, the cars swept by us
— just a few yards away — and roared out of
My husband slumbered through the entire episode.
Indeed, in the morning he tried to convince me I’d imagined
it all — until the campground owner told us the police had
been chasing a stolen car whose driver had managed to jump a ditch
into Mexico and escape. This summer, the magical tent almost met
its match at a primitive campsite in Big Bend, Texas. We had just
erected and staked down the dome when a tremendous wind arose.
Blinded by dust, we ducked into our car.
Gales tore at the
20-year-old tent, bending its rods nearly in two. It bowed and
straightened, shuddered and ducked. It looked like a jellyfish
dancing a jig.
“Time for a new tent,” my
husband murmured. But when the storm abated, the dome was
unscathed. The next morning we packed it up, ready for another
Edward Abbey believed mechanical gadgets tend
to “separate a man from the world around him.” Flipping
through ads in the latest outdoor magazine, I wonder: Could Abbey
have written Desert Solitaire had he tromped the Southwest in
zip-off nylon pants and foam-padded all-terrain hikers, instead of
old boots and jeans? Does an obsession with costly gear tether us
to the corporate world even as we try to escape it? Does it foster
our image as moneyed dilettantes, instead of serious lovers of the
All I know is that I’ve had some of the
richest times of my life with some of the cheapest equipment. So
I’ll forgo the outdoor retail show for now. But keep those
catalogs coming — someday, my tent may wear out.