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:

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.

"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?

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. Maximspawned 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?"

"Let's see," she says, balling one up in her fist. "If not, they can always be ironed."

Ironed? Wait, that makes sense. All hotel rooms have irons, and most of the people buying these hats will be taking them off in hotel rooms, not pup tents. Including me. But wearing it, I will looklike I could be striding off on an adventure, and suddenly that is what matters. Grabbing a forty-dollar hat, I shoot over to the bicycle section, where I am instantly deep in conversation with another hyper-fit saleswoman who applies reverse psychology by telling me that a cyclist of my "recreational" nature probably doesn't need a new clipless pedal system that "transfers the power from your foot to the bike in a phenomenal way." Oh, no? I don't? You just unlock that case, missy, and hand over the merchandise. I'll show you recreational.

The next few minutes are a blur. I emerge from the fog to find myself approaching a cash register and see that I have somehow picked up a box of Balance Bars, several pairs of heavy sub-zero hiking socks for my children (neither of whom have the slightest intention of hiking, much less in the Arctic), and the latest book on kayaking and its attendant gear, which...No! No! I refuse to take up kayaking. I stuff the book under a pile of bandannas and approach the cashier, feeling virtuous.

He turns out to be a nice young man -- far more knowledgeable and courteous than his counterparts at Domino's Pizza or Blockbuster Video. According to him, I'll be getting a $20 refund from this little shopping spree. Hmmm. Twenty bucks. Maybe I do need that kayaking book after all. And that neoprene kayaking suit. And that matching kayak...

What a place. What a world.

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