My Great Outdoor Adventure—Indoors
Our correspondent, buzzed on way too many energy bars, sweats and shakes his way through a huge outdoor retailer trade show.
By the seventh glob of translucent organic amphetamine-laced candy, things are starting to go south.
I’m not sure which will bring me down first, the pounding of my sleep-deprived, speed-addled heart or the looming sugar crash and impending diabetes.
While I could use the fire in my veins to complete an Ironman right now, this does not fill me with hope or pride, instead further convincing me that my end is near.
I will collapse to the floor, exploded from the inside, and all of these physically fit, flannel-clad highlanders at Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace, which is hosting the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market (or “OR” in the parlance of those in the know), will know that I am a fraud.
I am not one of them. I am an interloper, a doughy computer jockey lurking in their hyper-healthy midst. My central nervous system can’t hang with their scientifically engineered energy foods, foods designed to hasten Dawn Wall and Everest climbs and century ultra runs, not propel an average out-of-shape 40-year-old around a sprawling convention center, twitching and yammering and avoiding direct eye contact.
OR is the biannual Mecca for every brand with some skin in the action / adventure / outdoor game to strut their newest stuff to potential resellers, row upon row of flannel and down and skis and sunglasses and boots and hammocks, and everything else you could ever possibly desire to make your time in nature that much more enjoyable.
There are tent pole brands like The North Face, Patagonia, and Columbia and heritage labels trying to remain relevant, such as insulated container maker Stanley, or their competition Thermos.
“Core” companies are here as well, makers of technical equipment for radical endeavors, plying gizmos that look like robot parts, sleeping bags that can withstand the apocalypse, and other foreign or unnecessary to the layman items.
A whole arena is devoted to footwear, with everything from hiking boots that will outlast their wearer to sneakers, sandals, cowboy boots, Uggs, and even Crocs, wrapping their foam forms with natural fabrics and pushing for a higher design standard, though the salesman at their booth assures me when asked the base material is still edible.
I consider taking a bite from the sole of their camouflage slippers, but decide against it. Something about his smirk makes me think he’s kidding.
Mixed in amongst the labyrinth of booths, like crack dealers in an old seedy urban downtown, are countless purveyors of energy-providing snacks.
From goo and goop to waffles and bars to gels and jellybeans, if you can pack it with B vitamins, taurine, caffeine, sugar, or herbal Adderall, it has been refined to an innocuous-appearing food product and is available for sampling.
Fresh off a very early flight from Boston and barely pushing two hours of sleep, I naturally decide to sample each and every one I come across. It’s like a drinking game, but organic. Healthy, even. Or so I tell myself.
What could possibly go wrong?
That was hours ago, not that normal time has any bearing on this swirling sea of earth tones and flannel and beards and dogs and muscles I find myself desperately attempting to stay afloat in.
At every intersection, intensely healthy humans nonchalantly discuss their latest feats of endurance or strength, embracing and patting each other on the back with enough force to crush my ribs or send me flying.
It smells like new shoes and beer and patchouli.
Amongst the endless jumble of companies looking for attention, there are those that stand out, including Goal Zero, who have taken the art of portable solar devices and mastered it while powering adventures and humanitarian missions to every corner of the globe. Meridian Line is the brainchild of artist Jeremy Collins, who also won this year’s Outdoor Inspiration Award, featuring beautifully cartoony and original line art.
Outside the main room is Venture Out, a “show-within-a-show” of small companies that undoubtedly draw the tired stereotype of “hipster,” whatever that even means any more.
In the center of this is skate/surf/camp lifestyle staple Poler, who laid the blueprint the other Venture Out brands are following. Retro cool, beards, and positive vibes.
In the dark out-of-the-way corners of the Salt Palace things get weird. Cowboy boot manufacturers from Canada. A stunning variety of aftermarket insole enhancements. Sticker companies with graphics of screaming eagles and airbrushed women wearing tattered American flags.
There are inventors who were sure they had the next big thing and mortgaged the family home in hopes of hitting it big. Old men are urging sexily dressed middle aged women to cajole passerby into stopping and checking out their line of knives and lighters.
If there is a trend to be seen at the show, it’s that simplicity is making a comeback: quality materials, but with a functionality that is as realistic as aspirational. A clear-headed revelation from an industry that can get lost within itself, and a welcome one.
Sure, there will always be a need for the highest end, most amazingly technical superhero gear. But the vast majority of devotees of the great outdoors who are forced by circumstance—jobs, children, mortgages, physical reality—to be at best weekend warriors will benefit from a more approachable product base.
And people need to get out there. More than any other agency, the outdoor industry is in a unique position to inspire and entice us out of our iShells and into the great wide open, and by making their offerings more fun and fashionable, they’re on the right track.
The more we as humans can connect with nature, the more likely we’ll be to take a stand for it, especially when we seem to have such an anti-environment government, when it comes time to vote.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get some sleep. Or maybe an EKG.