Get in Gear

You can't spell "credit" without REI.

"Sir, I need to talk to you about your helmet," I heard a young bike mechanic tell my husband last weekend. "You probably bought it before the new hard plastic shells came on the market, and I have to tell you, if you take a fall wearing that 'thing,' your head will literally grind itself into the pavement instead of skidding across it, which is the far safer alternative."

Were bike-helmet manufacturers so irresponsibly blind to the danger back in the pre-hard-shell days -- a whopping three years ago -- when we bought our now-deadly helmets? Apparently not; they were simply ignorant of the latest technology. This is why it is critical to keep up with all gear developments.

Yes, yes, I muse, we used to simply stretch before starting a sweaty activity, but that was then. Now we first go to a store to replenish our gear, because whatever we have is obsolete, whether it is used or not, whether it feels good or not. Why? Did Jeremiah Johnson need a new, improved bobcat-pelt schmatte for every year's Mountain Man rendezvous? Did Johnny Appleseed fling his stash from a $65 REI Musette Bag featuring Lumbar Support? Do the Flying Wallendas read Outside magazine to keep up with the latest advances in trapeze technology?

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.

REI is not the only culprit here, of course. The aforementioned Outside, once a fine anthologist of outdoor adventure stories, is now all gear, all the time. Maxim spawned a subsidiary titled Stuff, which is just another word for gear. Details didn't, which is why that magazine is dead. Can't someone take a stand for simple, healthful activities, such as walking, that require no more gear than a pair of Wal-Mart brogans?

Hmmm. Now I sound like a columnist for Prevention magazine, and besides, everyone knows that Wal-Mart walking shoes will shred your Achilles tendons, or lower your arches, or something.

To clear my head, I set out to circumnavigate the store. At its pinnacle are restrooms so enmeshed in the outdoor lifestyle that the caricature on the ladies' room door seems to be sprinting and the diaper-changing table is hewn from a slab of oak. I re-emerge into the space once filled with Mr. Forney's extraneous stuff, which is now open and airy. I head deep into the camping section, where I check out a lunch box that unfolds into what looks like an entire tailgate party. I consider Freshette, the "feminine urinary director." Explaining the need for Freshette-like devices is the "hydration pack" display -- an entire wall covered with plastic bladders equipped with drinking tubes. You attach them to your back, or your hips, or your dog, and then simply bite down on the tube to stay hydrated. Camel-Bak, the company that invented this product and spawned a host of imitators, boasts the engaging slogan "Hydrate or Die."

In the backpacking section, customers pre-vetted by the computerized Backpack Torso Fitter can purchase anything from a "body synchronous day pack" to Lowe Mountaineering's complex system of pack components: "Custom build your pack with zippered mesh pockets... strap on your snowboard...carry water bottles at your hip."

In the travel section, I move into a traffic jam of women my age, all of whom are consulting lists of gear necessary for trips to Patagonia or Nepal. "No," I hear one of them say, "my husband says the big duffel bag needs to weigh a few grams less."

Fortunately, there is no shortage of duffel bags, or "continental journey" packs, which are very, very different from day packs, backpacks, hydration packs or rock-climbing packs. Into these receptacles, you may put elements of the Pack-It packing system, which seals your clothes in plastic and sucks out any remaining grams of air, or a four-pack of all-terrain dog booties ($34), or the high-tech fibrous elements of your travel wardrobe, which you certainly realize by now is in no way connected to any of your daily khaki ensembles. For travel, you will need Tencel separates, a safari vest with many pockets, and a straw hat crafted in Panama that rolls neatly into your suitcase -- or your traveling-system component, whatever it may be (other than obsolete within a few years).

Here's what I wonder: If I buy some Tencel separates -- say, the Royal Robbins Trip Shirt for $48, in muted colors with names like Eggplant and Cielo -- will I achieve the look of a world traveler, by which I mean Bora Bora, as opposed to Club Med? Or will I resemble a Target Mom who should have known better? Will it make me feel as if I know what I'm doing when I don't speak Bora Boran and haven't washed my hair in two weeks? In other words, can gear confer competency on its owner?

"Is there anything I can help you with?"

I look over. It's a very chic and competent saleswoman, wearing Royal Robbins trekking shorts below her REI green vest.

"I want...the crushable Panama hat! " I blurt.

"Do you see it here?" she asks, showing me a wall of straw fedoras.

I begin trying them on at a feverish pace. "They're nice," I pant, "but can you crush them?"

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