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?
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 locator-beacons.
We can tote portable camp chairs, lightweight cooking
pots and pre-packaged gourmet meals, and sleep in snazzy tents
boasting vestibules, sun roofs and climate-controlled doors.
It's free enterprise in action - but something seems
amiss when a hiker's clothes and accessories cost more than a
My original camping set-up was scarcely
a cut above Flint McCullough's bedroll in "Wagon Train." The first
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 scorpions.
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
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 escape.
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 Arizona-Mexico border.
just dozed off when a distant siren woke me. It grew steadily
louder, heading straight toward us.
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 sight.
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 excursion.
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 wild?
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 catalogues coming - someday, my tent may wear out.