Dumpster diving for frugality and fun

 

No, not the kind you might think. I'm not talking about extreme hunter-gatherer dumpster diving, like the Rainbow People do behind Burger King in Boulder, Colo. Mine is sartorially oriented. I'm talking about raiding the "unsalable" clothes bins outside of the Bargain Box and the Senior Center Thrift Store here in Cody, Wyo. I seem to have attained a consumer Zen state, where even Wal-Mart is to be shunned whenever possible as too upscale.

I like to refresh my wardrobe seasonally. I'm always on the lookout for clean, untattered caps, sweatshirts and T-shirts — reasonable political messages or sports logos on front and back OK — and souvenir shirts acquired during somebody's exotic foreign travel.

Jeans are problematic because they're mostly full of holes or worn out by the time they hit the bins. Also, many Wyoming guys like those jeans with the button-up flys that are impractical for anybody who doesn't have the hands of a musician. Footwear is also a challenge, and it never seems to fit properly anyway. Besides, I've always been skittish about wearing anonymously discarded shoes or boots; you don't know whose feet have been in them. Same goes for, uh, underwear, which I don't find much of anyway. My theory here is that women — who make most of the donations — don't want the world privy to a husband's or boyfriend's unmentionables, so they just throw them out.

I'm sometimes teased by members of my local weekend hiking club about this necessary hobby of mine. In the past year I've outfitted myself with a day pack, two pairs of khaki shorts, a sweatshirt, a pullover windbreaker, a half-dozen caps, a pair of "Thinsulate" wool gloves and — oddly — two perfectly good plastic "Nalgene" water bottles and three cigarette lighters, the latter useful not only for emergency fire starting, but also, once I've wrapped a couple of feet of duct tape around each one, for ersatz band-aids and moleskin to cover minor lacerations and blisters.

There seems to be a feeling in our amenity-driven New West that it should cost a lot of money to enjoy the outdoors; if you're going to do it right. Forget the gear-obsessed mountain bike-kayaker-rock climbing thrillheads. I'm talking about hikers. In the increasingly upscale Rockies, a walk in the woods is becoming a fashion statement. Regional retail outlets from Cabelas to Patagonia to REI continue to drive this point home in their advertising, as they hawk everything from titanium walking sticks and $200 hiking boots to fancy pedometers and Global Positioning System gizmos, not to mention the latest in de rigueur hiking togs.

I have a hard time picturing the late Edward Abbey clad in bright-colored Lycra, resting in the shade of a giant saguaro and sucking water from his bladder pack, while consulting his GPS thingamagig as to whether it's 3.1 or 3.3 miles to that next pretty little canyon. As for me, I've so far resisted the urge to buy a genuine Australian bush hat.

George Orwell famously wrote in the essay, "Politics and the English Language," that the decline of a culture can be seen in the debasement of its language, by which he meant, in part, its political discourse. This is true, and self-evident today. But I believe this decline is also visible in ways Orwell could only begin to comprehend 60 years ago. At the expense of civic virtue — such as voting and volunteering — America is slowly becoming an exclusively consumer culture. The world's greatest debtor nation sure loves to shop.

This in turn means that the closets of McMansions — and in our contemporary West that includes log trophy palaces — must be periodically cleaned out, filling up Dumpsters with deliciously durable and sometimes new and useful items. What would somebody like me do without the "throwaway" society?

Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and dives in Cody, Wyoming.

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