We only saw two types of people on the mountain pass singletrack trail yesterday.
We saw several parties of heavily-laden backpackers, carrying what appeared to be 80s-era backpacks with old-school bedrolls strapped to the outside. Many of these folks were wearing jeans and in one case, a nylon sweatsuit. One party of eight all had fishing rods – they’d spent the night up at the lake and reported the fishing as “great!” Half of them carried sidearms on their hips, but they said they hadn’t seen any critters. Another party of six was strung out along the trail in groups of two, taking frequent breaks (we passed them twice; on the way out and on the way back) and, in one case, a smoke break or two. We saw one party of mountain bikers and their two dogs. The bikers rode vintage hardtails with panniers, and their dogs were having a fantastic time going at their human friends’ mellow pace.
We also saw four other parties of modern mountain bikers, all of whom were dressed in race-style logo-fied spandex. What wasn’t made of racing kit was high end cycling apparel – Castelli made an appearance on one rider. In the backcountry of Alaska this was a bizarre sight. One party was comprised of two friends that I know from the bike shop. We said howdy and passed on by. The next three biking parties were clearly more interested in hammering than they were in chatting. We noticed the high-end bikes everyone was sporting along with the expensive clothes on their riders, not to mention our own expensive bikes and top quality components (but at least none of us were in Spandex).
I wondered aloud why we hadn’t been seeing any super kitted-out backpackers; how the backpackers were all using old gear while the bikers were mostly using top end bikes and (except for us) super decked out pricey outfits. One of my companions surmised that the REI set was no longer turning to backpacking for fun; that they all have been lured by mountain biking and the more EXTREME activities being hailed as the new…new…whatever they’re supposed to be. “If you see a backpacker with new stuff anymore, chances are it’s an ULTRALIGHT ULTRAFAR disciple trying to run somewhere,” commented my friend, accurately as it turned out.
It’s kind of weird, isn’t it; how we’re constantly being pushed to take on new sports, more extreme endeavors, to find no joy in the old ways, to eschew a relaxed wander or ride in the woods that doesn’t get our heart rate into the max zone. To not go anywhere we can’t jump off or ski down or that doesn’t set a new record. To care more about the numbers that we record in our devices than about the things we see in the area we travel through. To pay money to hike as fast as we can, when we can just hike however fast we want for free*. To feel like we can’t do a thing unless we have the newest and best gear with which to do it.
And then we’re all raising the next generation of little consumers – hundreds of kids being signed up to bike races and to join climbing teams and to generally start competing and start being as EXTREME as possible as early as possible in life. Why are people doing this to their kids? Hundreds of kids line up every week for a local mountain bike race group here, some of whom complain about how stressful it is and worry about how their helmet isn’t as cool as the other kids’. Soon enough they’ll realize they need a full carbon race machine to do well in the kid race series, and the proud parents of the Next Rising Star will fall all over themselves to accommodate. And the sellers of gear rejoice, because they will sell gear to that kid for the rest of his/her natural life.
Maybe I’m just projecting; maybe my summer mood of doing only what I feel like doing for only as long as I feel like doing it, and not “training” (what is everyone “training” for anyway? Train, train train…) is just making me feel that all this frenetic competitive activity is just silly. Maybe I looked at those backpackers and thought of how they will all probably say what a great trip they had up there at Bench Lake fishing for grayling, and I wondered how I could get back to just plain having relaxed fun in the outdoors, without working out or “training” or pushing for more and more and more. Those people are lucky. They’ll probably go out for a burger using the money they didn’t spend on new fancy backpacks or fancy shoes or hydration vests designed to allow them to hurry more comfortably, and they’ll probably remember more about the trail than any of the superfit bikers and runners ever will.
I’ve declined to go to OR trade show this year and last. I used to really enjoy it, but now a week of in-your-face consumerism seems in exact opposition to the things I liked about the outdoors when I was growing up and first fell in love with the wilderness. I didn’t have fancy stuff back then and I didn’t even know about it, really. So far I still think that reviews of gear are important because they help keep the industry in check with its non-stop marketing and constant reinforcement of the consumerist lifestyle. But I hope you’re not seeing these reviews as an endorsement of the buy-stuff ethos, the one that brings us truly toxic commercials like this one:
See? That’s what our push for a bigger outdoor industry has done. It’s upped the ante on itself. It has created an automobile market, or all things, for people who probably think they are “outdoorsy,” ones who compete compete compete, even with each other, even with their loved ones, even with their wives and husbands. It’s no longer a romantic night on the town that will sell a Lexus, it’s finding out who can beat each other on a racing road bike. Note the prevalance of spandex in that commercial. Once Spandex is on the scene in a sport, you know the whole thing has gone full competition. I bet there’s a whole line of Lexus roof racks so you can carry all your toys around as you and your wife try to stay ahead of each other in all your sports. I guess the husband always wins the ro-sham-bo for the chance to drive, though, because not one of the three women in that commercial is actually behind the wheel. Some things never change, do they?
Contrary to what Lexus wants you to think, the outdoors and especially the wilderness isn’t about the pursuit of perfection. It’s about the pursuit of well being, of peace, of perhaps happiness. Of enjoying getting away from cities and roads and televisions and cell phone signals, not bringing all those things out to where they don’t belong.
You’ll never see a backpacker with a boy-scout-era rucksack on a Lexus commercial. Or at least let’s hope not.
*I say “we” but everyone knows there’s no way in hell I will pay to race on a public trail. But you do see people out for regular old hikes that are still driven to do it as fast as they possibly can. They’ll push past you on a trail so they don’t have to pause and cost them seconds off their “time,” or be too maxed out to even crack a smile. Looks like fun?