Publish date:

Bucking Convention

The bear fixed its assassin's gaze on me, and my blood ran cold.

That chill, it turned out, was nothing more than the robust air
conditioning at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake
City. That vast indoor hall housed the recent Outdoor Retailer
Summer Market 2001, the world's largest outdoor trade show, at
which 948 exhibitors unveiled a cornucopia of cool things and

Among the cool things was a bear-resistant food container called
a Backpacker's Cache, one of which had been stuffed with
sardines, smeared with fish oil and tossed into the pit of a
ravenous bear at the Fresno zoo. The beast's frantic, futile,
videotaped attempts to access the sardines could be seen on a
monitor in the Garcia Machine booth.

After a few hours inside the convention center I began to
empathize with the bear. Like the false promise of a sardine
meal, or a date with Penelope Cruz, the Outdoor Retailer is a
colossal tease, its tantalizing wares for display purposes only.
Ardently as you might covet that Suunto watch, those Atlas
snowshoes or that Islander kayak (or, for that matter, the pair
of sarong-clad Polynesian lovelies handing out leis in front of
the Islander booth), you could not go home with any of it.

I stand no chance, in lodging this complaint, of gaining even a
small measure of sympathy from my editors, who assume that this
trade-show gig was a thinly veiled quest for schwag. Fine. Let
them try to find a decent cup of coffee in this predominantly
Mormon city. Let them feign interest while the highly earnest
sales rep from a designer of "natural fiber" clothing assures
them that no alpaca was nicked or otherwise traumatized during
shearing for the wool that went into the company's alpaca

"It's strange," says Rebecca Rusch. "We're all here because we
love the outdoors, so what are we doing? We're spending four days
indoors, breathing recirculated air, drinking bad coffee and not
getting exercise." Rusch is a renowned adventure racer and rock
climber who attended the O.R. in her self-described capacity as a
"booth bimbo"--toiling for her sponsors, Five Ten Rock Shoes and
SealSkinz, makers of waterproof socks and gloves. The mood in the
SealSkinz booth was upbeat. "We just sold a big order of our camo
gloves to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," a company rep told
me. "They like them because they can shoot a gun while wearing

But really, who in their right mind would consider a waterproof
glove with which one could not discharge a firearm?

The aquatic equivalent of a "booth bimbo" is a "pool tool"--the
term for any one of the kayakers performing Eskimo rolls, bow
stalls and other stunts in the 24,000-gallon Paddle Tank. The
tank constituted the locus of Kayak City, a solid city block of
kayak-specific booths. Kayaks are among the hottest-selling items
in the universe of outdoor recreation. Not everyone at the O.R.
was thrilled by this development. Outside the main hall John
O'Russa kept his lonely vigil in the booth of Rome Industries,
makers of, among other things, the Heavy Duty Cast Iron Pie Iron
(for the perfect s'more, every time). "Over the past few years
this has become more and more of a kayaking show," he says, "and
the kayak booths have pushed other people out." The Swiss Army
Brands booth, it appeared, wasn't the only place where the knives
were coming out.

Trekking the aisles of the Outdoor Retailer, my thoughts turned
to my last trip to Utah. The previous February, I'd hiked Arches
National Monument near Moab. In his book Desert Solitaire,
published 33 years ago, Edward Abbey wrote of taking up
residence amid the cliff rock and canyons of Arches. His
purpose? "To evade for a while the clamor and filth and
confusion of the cultural confront, immediately
and directly, the bare bones of existence." Abbey has been dead
a dozen years, but it's safe to surmise that he wouldn't have
had much use for, say, a dog-bone-shaped anodized-aluminum
carabiner key clip or the latest "Euroshag" cardigan.

Just then, shattering my reverie, a North Face mannequin toppled
over and nearly brained a sales rep from Park City. I took that
as my cue to leave. As I exited the building, I was surprised at
how good it felt, trading the Outdoor Retailer for the actual

The next SI Adventure section will appear in the Sept. 17 issue.


Among the cool things was a bear-resistant food container, but
soon I began to empathize with the bear.