Get in Gear

You can't spell "credit" without REI.

I bring my wallet, telling myself that I will use a few old Post-its crammed inside for my notes. But the minute I pass through the massive wood-and-glass doors, my credit card begins to throb. I have come to the new REI flagship store, located in the husk of what was once the Forney Museum on the banks of the Platte, and already it's very, very bad. Worse than I thought.

I retreat outside to collect my thoughts, taking a seat below a clock that tells me what time it is on Mount Rainier. I am not planning to climb Mount Rainier or any other mountain anytime soon, and this is a soothing thought. I remind myself that I know what these REI people are up to. They're trying to lure me in, dazing me with merchandise until I actually think I will emerge from this place a chiseled mountaineer with thousands of vertical feet -- and a book deal -- under my new Swiss Army belt. Well, ha! Instead, I also tell myself, what I will gain from this expedition is a stuff-sack crammed with wry observation suitable for publication.

Extracting one of those battered sticky notes, I write down a few trenchant comments about the times in which we live:

Happy new gear: At REI's new flagship store, good intentions -- and your credit limit -- vanish into thin air.
John Johnston
Happy new gear: At REI's new flagship store, good intentions -- and your credit limit -- vanish into thin air.

1) American society has a problem, although as problems go, it's a good one to have.

Because 2) The economy is booming, and a great many of us, if we do not have ready cash, have just been offered credit. Almost certainly, we have accepted it.

Because 3) We have come to believe that the solution to life's little -- and big -- problems is the correct gear.

And 4) Portentously, dangerously and cataclysmically, we can just about afford it.

To sum up: Means have been provided that will enable us to acquire most of the stuff we want. Subsequently, there is a lot of stuff out there to want, and it's burgeoning daily. This is a better problem than war or cancer, but trust me, it is a Major Problem Facing Our Society nonetheless.

How refreshing that as I've compiled these wry observations, I've managed to remove myself from the hordes who are even now entering the REI flagship store. These people, in search of a freeze-dried dinner or a pair of socks that "wick moisture," don't see the big picture. Now that I do, I can relax. I have nothing to fear but gear itself.

So I rise to renew my assault on the big double doors, enter the building, and find myself face-to-face with a Trekking Pole Center, at which trekking poles sell for $38 and up. A trekking pole, I surmise, is kind of like a ski pole, but instead of helping you keep your balance on skis, it's a very specialized pole that keeps you from falling over while trekking. How ever did Sir Edmund Hillary manage without one? I, too, started my life as a hands-free trekker, and I aim to continue that way. Good for me.

And bad for REI.

What has happened to recreation -- the very activity that gave this store its first name? Twenty years ago, when I was in college, I associated REI with a certain granola/ascetic sensibility -- after all, it was a co-op that offered rebates, where you could maybe pick up a pair of splintering Army surplus snowshoes, some heavy woolen socks and hiking boots that weighed fifteen pounds apiece. If you were hoping to meet a humorless, long-haired male poet who drank green tea, you would look for him at REI -- and if you found him, you deserved him.

And who is REI's customer now?

For clues, I begin reading hang tags in a nearby clothing section. Whatever sport this gear pertains to, for peak performance it requires baggy shorts, skin-tight tops and fabrics that wick, repel, bead and/or soften moisture. "Destination shorts," these baggy numbers are called. "Our clothing was designed 100% for climbers -- no doubt!" I read. "Or outdoor people who enjoy the vertical realm and just kickin' it."

A sinewy young woman with dead-white skin and dyed black hair is just kickin' it over by the climbing shoes. Judging from her clothing and physique, she spends plenty of time in the vertical realm. She also is the only person under forty I will see at REI today -- other than the help.

Heading into the store's main room, I spy a smattering of gray-at-the-temples men in khaki pants and race-souvenir T-shirts and about twice as many women in the forty-to-fifty age group, all in long, sack-like dresses. A handful of healthy blond children cluster about the climbing wall. Green Tea Man is nowhere in sight. Where am I?

In another big khaki-shorts section, it turns out -- but these items are made specifically for hiking. Part of the confusion associated with gear stems from the non-transitive law of appropriate clothing. According to this tacitly understood statute, you never mix gear from Sport A with gear from Sport B. You do not, in other words, wear your hiking cargo pants for climbing or your bike jersey while running. And you never, ever wear your running shoes for anything but running, even if you occasionally jog across the street during a light change. And that reminds me: Running shoes must be replaced every year or every 500 miles, whichever comes first. (I have been running for twenty years and am still waiting for that first 500 miles to roll over.) Not because we need the buzz of buying new stuff -- which is the truth -- but because, according to all the professionals, using old, outdated or inappropriate gear is dangerous.

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