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Field Notebook

January 25, 2014
The Buying & Selling of Nature

Cropped booth slogan at Winter 2014 OR Show
Cropped booth slogan at Winter 2014 OR Show
The Outdoor Retailer Show blooms twice a year in downtown Salt Lake City. It is an eruption of mostly petroleum-based products designed to get you outside and keep you from dying there: sleeping bags, avalanche pillows, solar-powered pens. You see sellers of outdoor equipment and clothing, and hordes of ragged-haired adventurers roaming the cavernous convention hall. The North Face fortress is surrounded by innumerable booths made into tree houses, trailers, and seamless curvilinear plastic housings displaying new-season wares. There are a thousand brands and 22,000 people in attendance. It is a jungle gym of slacklines and money, the conquering of the useless, and people are buying.

Janet Ross, who comes to every convention seeking funding for her environmentally-directed Four Corners School in Monticello, Utah, said that she once wore a pedometer to find out how far she roams the convention center. In three days, she walked 22 miles.

"Twenty-two miles of that," Ross said, thumbing over her shoulder at what sounded like a Las Vegas palace clanging with slot machines.

If you look past the unbridled capitalism, this show is actually about being outside. It is about firestrikers and adventurers, even under the hallucinogenic glow of convention-hall lighting.

Everywhere you turn you hear stories. You sit with a young man who broke records by launching his kayak down a 200-foot waterfall. Intentionally. In an after-hours OR nightclub, a sponsored athlete explains to you how on a climbing expedition to Nepal, she had to worm her way out from a local man who thought he'd purchased her.

Every story comes from out there somewhere. It comes from rock, ice, sky, and wind. From far-flung journeys beyond the boundaries of civilization.

Ace Kvale, a veteran mountaineer, life-long dog-aided dirtbag, and judge for Telluride Mountain Film, is an expert navigator at OR. To take you where you need to go in the convention hall, he avoids what he calls "Bro Row," which is where you meet everyone you know, and it's almost impossible to get anywhere. You haven't seen these people for months or years, and since then you've summited impossible mountains, or watched your friends die in avalanches or rockslides, or surfed your brains out on some lost coast. Not until now have you had a chance to talk to each other about it. That's why you avoid Bro Row.

Ace guides you in an out of lanes. He has a keen sense of movement on any terrain, recently returned from 27 days walking off trail around the high-desert arms of the Escalante River in Utah with no one else but his dog. The last time you were out with Kvale, you were sleeping in a cave. With him, you enter the clean, well-lit aisles of the Black Diamond booth where you were hoping to be given a pair of collapsible, Kevlar-strung trekking poles for an upcoming trip. Kvale introduces you to a healthy, stern-jawed man at the high end of middle age, and you're lucky to find he enjoys reading your books. He is an ultra-marathon trail-runner. His name is Roch, pronounced rock. He looks healthy enough to uproot a tree. The conversation quickly veers when Roch starts reciting Wallace Stegner, and waxing of the trail out yonder.

Instead of trekking poles, you find yourself talking about epic journeys, running and walking and crawling on the ground. He says how good it is to breath out there.

You walk away with the poles you wanted, brand new carbon fiber smelling like a gun barrel.

For companies and CEO's overseeing an industry that moves serveral hundred billion dollars a year through the US economy, preservation of nature is job security. Their gear is bought by people who yearn to be far from civilization. If there is no place to go, the industry cannot exist.

I first came to OR a couple years ago, invited by the Conservation Alliance, an outfit that combs the outdoor industry for donations for protecting wild places. Every year this nonprofit returns with a list of millions more acres they helped into permanently preserved status across North America.

If you didn't notice, the industry is about wilderness. Billboard-sized pictures show muscular women climbing cliffs in remote, practically untouched places. You walk the booths shaking hands, holding meetings, pitching for funding. You talk to filmmakers about collaborating on a project to help move the notion of a wished-for Greater Canyonlands National Monument in Utah into President Obama's lap. Business gets done, plans made. You walk away with three pair of new sunglasses, a new shell-jacket, a couple new packs, and the aforementioned trekking poles.

At night, you walk back to your hotel room. You open the door on a mountain of packs and packaging material. A path has been cleared to the beds where you are sharing a room with John Grandt, seller for Osprey, a pack-maker out of Dolores, Colorado. Osprey is one of the more forward-thinking companies as far as preservation, using it's position to lean on politicians, funding athletes and projects that promise environmental change.

John is as baffled by the experience of OR as I am. He says, "This is America, man, our dumpsters are full."

You stay up late talking with him about how ridiculous it feels to sell anything when your truest love lies in places, not things. He has a lean, efficient body, a short, clean beard, and a face of friendly fierceness. He could probably live without all of this. He'd be just as happy in Hotel Subaru, though now he has a wife and a daughter and needs the money more than ever.

And I need funding for treks more than ever.

Stories need to be told, and feet need to touch the ground. We keep the machine going.

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