In Offense Of ‘Outdoors, Incorporated’

[Editor’s Note: This essay was written by guest contributor T.J. Hooks.]

You’ve seen it, in unnamed magazines purportedly dedicated to the adventurous lifestyle, yet in reality closer to a Mountain Hardwear/Marmot/Arc’teryx catalog of apparel you could never afford, but will buy none the same. Or, perhaps, browsing through Instagram, perfect pictures from that perfect blonde, of perfect days in the mountains, with somehow perfectly coiffed hair at 9,000 feet. #vanlife, #livingthedream

Then again, maybe it was that video posted by that Salomon/Patagonia/Outdoor Research athlete, one day skiing impossibly white summits in New Zealand, the next on some deserted beach in British Columbia.

This imagery exists in whole to reinforce a blatant lie that permeates our culture, and lifestyle at large: “Buy me! You need me! Without me, you cannot possibly fulfill your dreams!” Something practically viral has infested what we laughingly call ‘dirtbag culture,’ something incredibly dangerous, perhaps the most pestilent force in our history.

Money, and those who love it.

Long ago, our predecessors in spirit discovered something incredible, leaving their towns, cities, and villages for a time; they found nature! With boots cobbled with nails and polished saplings for support, these blacksmiths, bakers, and carpenters climbed mountains, explored unmapped rivers, and ran through crevassed valleys. They found what Money cannot buy, the gradual mountaintop sunrise, endorphins rushing through mind and body after an exhaustive run, that adrenaline-laden shock from peeking down un-fathomable depths. And in the exploration of the boundaries of nature, and their bodies as well as souls, they created a new breed of humanity, or perhaps re-awoke the most ancient one of all:

The Adventurer.

But Money, and those who love it, spread into this new culture to consume it, or at least they tried to. How can you sell a sunset, or a mountain breeze?

Simple, buy the mountain. And they did. Vail, Whistler, and Park City are all modern examples of Money’s success; only those who can afford this newly monetized form of nature stay. Even then though, Money couldn’t own all mountains, beaches, and meadows, in part due to the efforts of those conservationists, John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Henry David Thoreau (although, being practically anarchist of mind, Thoreau might not approve of our government’s current handling of our wild places), among many others.

Again, Money and greed were challenged, but Money will burrow its way into everything, whatever is priceless will find itself charged for, in time.

Money couldn’t own the mountains or the wind or snow, so it bought the culture of those who seek out nature’s beauty.

In the late 1950s, alpinist, innovator, and inventor Yvon Chouinard began the company that would become Black Diamond, hand forging revolutionary pitons (an early anchoring device for climbing, usually akin to a knife blade in shape) to fund his own expeditionary lifestyle as a climber, explorer, and environmentalist. In 1989, he filed Black Diamond for bankruptcy, it was acquired by former employees and several business investors, and became hugely successful once again. Two other conservationists and prolific climbers, Douglas and Susie Tompkins, started The North Face in 1964 as a small retail store for recreational gear. It was successful, potentially due to their unique and now mainstream tent design, and they sold the company, traveling to Patagonia with aforementioned Chouinard to film their adventures.

These men and women, and those like them, created something new, useful, and innovative with their own hands, quite literally! But in doing so, a gateway was opened for Money, and those who love it.

The North Face is now an asset of VF Corporation (formerly Vanity Fair), a massive corporation dedicated to one thing, Money. Black Diamond’s parent company recently changed their name to the Clarus Corporation, “to better reflect its recent return to a diversified holding company with a strategy to acquire high-quality, cash flow-producing assets.”

These corporations couldn’t make you pay for adventure, to step out freely into the wild, but they could convince you that you needed them first. How? By buying the forefront of the movement, the best of us. The fastest skiers, strongest climbers, and the prettiest trail runners. (Because, let’s face it, trail runners are way more attractive, just look at Hal Koerner.)

And those athletes and adventurers went along willingly, who wouldn’t? Instead of working minimum-wage shifts at Starbucks to fund their exploits, they could follow their passion completely, with one caveat, their names would be bound to said companies. No longer would unique individuals set FKTs, or new ski routes, but those athletes @TNF #neverstopbuying would. In lore, names have magical power over their owners, and in reality the same is true. By binding a groundbreaker to a brand, any success belongs in part to the brand.

Acquiring mountains and men was easy, but there were still those with no need for Money, and Money exists only through desire. Some people lived freely, with taped shoes and ripped jackets, needing only the rock on which they climbed and the trails they ran to be satisfied. A challenge, but one which could be overcome with time.

So Money changed our memories, with articles and ads running throughout those magazines dedicated originally to reflect a life of freedom in nature, until it seemed impossible for one to simply go into the outdoors, but rather that such freedom must be bought.

The dirtbag legend, to which many aspire, was altered. That wasn’t a van they drove, but a Volkswagen, or maybe a Sprinter. That ripped jacket? Not thrift-store material certainly, but REI! Likewise, one only climbs in the latest La Sportiva shoes, as those predecessors most definitely did!

How a homeless climber, runner, or alpinist with only 15 dollars “and some change in the cupholder” to their name could afford such expensive essentials to life needs not be explained.

These are the factors responsible for molding our present. Where the youngest among us see soaring peaks and aspen-laden valleys through a prism of logos and hashtags, catchy taglines for the ever-present viewers, “And sick shots for Instagram!”, emulating the very companies which now own our lifestyle. As we draw near to the conclusion of this… essay? Opinion article? Rant? Perhaps the best definition would be a flow of ideas, emotions, and facts knitted together in some semi-coherent fashion toward a well-defined endpoint, and perhaps a handy, simple solution to the problem. Except, I don’t have one.

Everything can and will be commercialized, and it is nearly impossible to reverse the cycle. Take for example, the Raramuri of the Sierra Tarahumara, arguably some of the greatest trail runners in existence, and thrust into the world’s spotlight in Christopher McDougall’s acclaimed book, Born To Run.

The locals of the Sierra Tarahumara are renowned in part for the ease in which they can run ultramarathon distances while either barefoot, or clad in homemade sandals cut from discarded tires. In 2013, Nike, a juggernaut of the recreational industry, brought media outlets to the center of Raramuri culture as part of a multi-day publicity stunt to unveil, you guessed it, their newest model of running shoe.

What can be done to turn the tide? To reset the clock, before a time of branded men and women, athletics, and exploration simplified into a catchphrase or logo, and the eternal, ceaseless need for more; more jackets, more backpacks, more shoes. Always the newest, brightest, most expensive equipment available. Beyond desire, into conceived necessity.

Can we return to that lost era? Well, no, unless every consumer ceased to purchase new equipment simultaneously, bankrupting both the companies and those employed in the outdoor industry, as well as leaving most of the highest-caliber athletes of our generation without the means to continue expressing themselves at their zenith. Clearly not an acceptable solution, even if feasible.

We cannot return to the past in our actions, not while striving toward a better future, and to permit or encourage the plans of ‘Adventure Incorporated’ will result in a tomorrow none of us desire, if history is any indicator.

But perhaps, perhaps we can stem the flow of un-necessitated need, and push against the false dogma of insufficiency. Because Salomon shoes didn’t climb that ridgeline, you did. It wasn’t a Mountain Hardwear jacket that braved that Colorado monsoon, with lightning striking so close you could feel static shivers creep along your arms; you ran, you stumbled through the rain-pour and thunder, up onward to an uncertain and perilous summit. In the remembrance and exhortation of this fact, that we are more than the tools we use, maybe we can develop a tomorrow not of adventurers owned by brands, but brands owned by us, the adventurous.

As an afterword,

Corporate entities are not immoral, evil, or maliciously inclined by rote, but rather an amalgamation, a molding of the talents and ideas of the people within. In essence, companies are reflections of us, comprised of our morals, ingenuity, and effort. To assume the worst of them without cause is to lose some semblance of hope in ourselves.

Like any individual, a company must decide which path to take, onto one of profit above life (sacrificing employees’ wages, environmental standards, and customer safety through cheaply produced, yet overpriced products) or the path of life above profit (with recycled materials, livable wages at each stage of production, and well-developed, long-lasting products.)

Yet my intention in this is not to discuss the actions or impact of these corporations, but our choices as consumers.

Most of my suggestions are hardly original; buy used, reuse, recycle, donate/volunteer for an environmentally focused group.

Also, by supporting publications (like iRunFar, of course) that do not function as 40-page advertisements for the newest jacket, but rather as legitimate news sites, and local races, where the focus still lies within the communal bond of trail running, far from the over-competitive zeal of some larger races.

Trail running, as with mountaineering, skiing, rock climbing, and so many other activities, is upon a balancing point. Unlike so many sports though, the decisions which will form our future lie not with some international organization, nor in the interests of a viewing public, but by us. Whether the sport grows, perhaps toward the Olympics and specialization, or diffusing into a grassroots-type movement of local races and personal reward, is up to us. We are the sport, we are the consumers, the readers, and we decide our fate.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Would you agree with the author’s statement that many outdoor sports, including trail running, are at a balancing point between too much and just enough commercialization? Can you share a few of your thoughts?
  • What pieces of clothing or gear have you had for ages? That has lasted forever and has remained as functional as it needs to be? Can you share stories of outdoor tools and clothing that have stood the test of time for you?
  • What do you think are some tangible steps each of us can take to maintain healthy relationships with our sport’s consumer goods? As in, to acquire the tools we need to be safe and happy trail runners but not to consume just for the sake of having something new/more/different?