The Cultural Apotheosis of Gear

“So economic growth is dead. It’s dead because the planet will not support it. But it’s also dead because it’s economically and socially irrational- it isn’t delivering improvements to…quality of life…it’s actually now degrading it because of all the social problems inequality is causing.”

-Paul Gilding

Robbers Roost country, November 2005.

I’ve written a lot about gear lately, a sign of a restless mind.  Another sign being blogging at 11pm on a Friday night, rather than falling asleep.  Beyond being potentially evil, writing about gear is easy.  Quality trip reports require trips, and reflections like this take for me a long time percolating in the back of the brain.  For a range of reasons in the last few weeks I’ve found myself combing the internet more than usual, finding gems like Dan’s fantastic report to open the sweet gates of memory (ergo the photo above) and sooth a restless mind.  Temporarily.

Outdoor gear is only one example of a larger cultural paradox.  Gear should facilitate and celebrate outdoor adventure, and (social) virtues of which will be self-evident, here.  Stuff in general, be it food cars or shoes, should first enable and then enhance and celebrate living.  Alas, we in the west, and increasingly we humans, are co-creators of a culture in which this is not the case.  It’s hard to celebrate outdoor adventure as a potentially uplifting and even subversive form of living, while at the same time examining the tools which make it possible, without slipping back in to cliche and old habit and becoming an indistinguishable part of progress.  There will always be an unfinished tension there, a logical contradiction which is a usual sign of something accurate and useful.  That is what I do here.  Nonetheless, responsible outdoor gear writers need to be damn careful.

BackpackingLight made all the PDFs of the old print magazine free to members, and I’ve read most of those 11 issues this week.  It’s interesting to watch the ark of growth in that decade (my dramatic side wants to indulge and write about the decline and fall of BPL), from scrappy homegrown website to insurgent magazine back to forum-driven web presence.  A web presence with lots of gear reviews and even more gear talk, and precious little un-anecdotal evidence of life lived.  Nonetheless, BPL is the only business associated with outdoor adventure of which I’m aware that even acknowledges the problem mentioned in the above paragraph exists.  Not only do they discuss it, but in their best moments they take it very seriously, which is the only thing which enables me to use them as an example, and has accelerated my own understanding of the issue a great deal.  (It’s time for me to propose the “Don’t Hike Your Own Hike article I’ve been mulling all year.)

Can’t recall which canyon this is.  Also late 2005.

Gilding, in the epigraphical quotation from The Great Disruption, hedges his bets a bit and doesn’t universalize the damage to quality of life wrought by a growth/progress driven culture.  I fixed it for him.  The problems caused by growth have been especially ubiquitous in my life lately.  I see them at work, at the root of cultural pathologies which spawn transgenerational mental illnesses.  And I see them in myself.  I think about buying stuff too much, especially when I already have a really good _____ which is for all intents and purposes perfect.  I’m not denying in and for myself the satisfaction I get from neat stuff, will buy more stuff, and not just categorically new stuff.  At the same time it’s frightening to realize how thoroughly my moods are a slave to material things.  (Our truck was out of commission for a while lately getting a new valve gasket, and the centrality of a car in American life is sublime.)

As with most things in my professional life, anyone who takes a profound social problem seriously enough to being to fully see it in people they meet in person finds that they can only looks closely and fully for so long, every so often.  Long term engagement with the world’s problems requires a metered approach.  And with that said, I hope the creeping ressentiment of outdoor materialism will slide back under the surface of my life for a bit.  It’s the weekend and time to get out in the woods.


18 thoughts on “The Cultural Apotheosis of Gear

  1. Just got home from a great nighttime trail ride. Ride-your-own-ride. Hike-your-own-hike. Float-your-own-float. Why is all the drama and discussion necessary?

    1. In summary: because we don’t live in isolation. What one person does shapes the world, especially if that action is multiplied out into 6 billion souls. The unexamined life is still not worth living, and HYOH has become a shorthand for “I don’t want to think.”

    2. HYOH also = don’t criticize me for doing it my way. “Me, my, mine” – a contradictory ethic for a wise steward whose actions impact others and are impacted by others. Out culture is not just one of cooperation and collaboration anymore, and with 6B connected by communications that are faster than oceans and more careless, the need for … mindfulness … becomes more important to preserve some sense of fabric in out community, no? I postulate that HYOH fragments us more than stitches us together.

  2. Two of the wisest comments – sorry Samh – I’ve ever read on line, but what is the way forward?

    Was there ever a time when human activities were sustainable? Weren’t mesolithic manufacturers running out of good flint? Six billion plus living unsustainably brings the problem into focus. On a population scale, almost every measure ends up looking unethical.

  3. Well Dave, I just woke up about 30 minutes ago and I’m heading out the door to go run in the Robledos Mtns, so I’m going to have to mull over this some more out there. I want the “Don’t Hike Your Own Hike” article to materialize, that much I’m sure of. Love your old photographs, they have the appearance of being shot on a 35mm with light leaks.

    1. Nikon FM2, 20mm prime, 3200 Ilford B and W print film. I took pics of the old prints with a cheap digital camera years ago. That film was really cool stuff to use in low light.

  4. By the same token, the opposite of HYOH can also result in one following the herd as it heads straight for a cliff.

  5. I can see the view of both sides here: Ryan and Dave’s position that we cannot live in isolation from each other resonates strongly within me but I am ‘mindful’ of blindly following the herd.

    In which case I too will need time in the hills to mull this one over. In the meantime I will park myself squarely on the fence as usual and leap headlong at the last minute.

  6. Dave,

    I think the answer to your personal conundrum is pretty simple. Stop reading the forums on BPL. Or at least limit the amount of time spent there. In my estimation the topics of discussion on BPL are as follows: 90% gear talk; 9% off-topic prattle titled Chaff and; 1% actual discussion of the said outdoor activities. BPL is more for beginners than seasoned wilderness travelers anyway.

    I’m not ripping on BPL, just pointing out that the site is kinda like a liquor store to an alcoholic, if you indeed a self-diagnosed on ‘materialistic gear-aholic’. You wrote…”I hope the creeping resentment of outdoor materialism will slide back under the surface of my life…” It’s not the resentment of materialism that you disdain but your own susceptibility toward a materialistic lifestyle.

    I walked the same road, until I caught a presentation by Canadian climber Sean Isaac. He spoke of his friend, the great, late Guy Edwards and the time they went to Patagonia to climb. Sean was sponsored by Arc’Teryx and Guy decided to make fun of Sean and buy all of his climbing clothing from Wal-Mart. They did summit one of the Torres and Guy was pictured in a neon Ocean Pacific windbreaker. In what other world would it make sense to buy a $500-$1,000 handmade Cilogear pack when a $150 pack will function the same and last probably as long.

    If you have the gear you need and it works, then there’s no need to look at or talk about gear. Think of the quote… “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without!” I personally look forward to wearing out my reasonably priced pack.

    You want to make yourself feel better, expose somebody new to the great outdoors. If that doesn’t fix it, start a new website about wilderness adventures reports where gear talk is expressly forbidden.

    On a separate note, check out the book “Dersu the Trapper” by V.K. Arseniev… or my all-time favorite – “A Vagabond Journey Around the World” by Harry A. Franck. Two guys who did a lot with nearly nothing.

    Take care and have fun outside!


    1. I imagine you’re correct Rog, and I’d benefit from more restraint there. I’d not going to go the luddite route (nor stop being contemplative about all this), but perspective is important.

  7. I look forward to the day when I have sewn or crafted every piece of gear I need for an outdoor adventure with my own two hands. And yes, that will be a highly personal experience done for ME, by ME, and with only ME in mind. I will then hike my own hike with it. Afterwards I’ll probably wax poetic about it and some folks who relate to me will appreciate it but it will still be my experience.

    Perhaps it’s bullheaded but I feel that premise behind Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead” and the rugged individualism displayed by the main character and his unwillingness to accept anything but that which he knew to be the absolute best is lost in this day. We have access to so many different opinions and are so quickly praised and/or admonished that we think for ourselves less and less.

    1. That’d be awesome Sam. Shoes could be a tough one.

      As much as I think Ayn Rand was full of shit (or more accurately, never had a good teacher of Hume and Kant), I do think you’re correct. Humans are capable of amazing things, much moreso than is often thought today.

  8. looks like that second photo is the final rap in pine creek, zion….

    i’ll put up another vote for your “don’t HYOK” article too. good stuff.

    1. M thought the same, re the photo.

  9. I love that first photo, Dave. At first glance I saw an illustration of someone rappelling off a craggy, snowy peak until I looked closer and realized it was a photo of a canyon. Very cool.

    As for this gear discussion, I’m curious to see where you take this. Ethics is a thick subject that you can’t really even graze with a blog comment, but I too remember a time when I had no clue about gear, and I hiked and swam Upper and Lower Black Box on the San Rafael River wearing Lucky jeans, a cotton T-shirt, and clunky Sketchers, carrying an old bookbag filled with plastic water bottles and a peanut butter jar stuffed with PB and crackers for my lunch. It’s not that I want to go back to those days, and not like I don’t realize that I would freeze to death in that clothing if we hadn’t met ideal weather, but a larger part of me believes that the finer specifics of gear don’t really matter, really — at least not to me. Knowledge, experience and amassing of gear (and I surely have more than my fair share) hasn’t necessarily made me any happier in my outdoor pursuits.

    But I do find the ethical and personal dilemma of materialsim fascinating, because I think we all struggle with it to some degree. I hope you do write that Hike your own hike article. Because, if I’m completely honest with myself, my own hike would still be that 18-year-old girl in Sketchers who had a whole world to discover and very little to lose.

  10. Worthy thoughts to continue to ponder. Complicating things further, our very notion of “outdoor adventure”–as well as the very land that we adventure in–is the result of the long imperial drive to possess and own that which we can never truly possess and own. (Google “neurasthenia” with “Theodore Roosevelt” to see this most clearly in action.) It is this same root desire to conquer and own that drives capitalist materialism today.

    And I have to say, as much as I despise the imperial aspirations of the United States, past and present, I really like national parks/monuments/wildernesses/forests/whatever and I really like awesome gear used in those places.

    I don’t have a solution yet. Starving myself from the BPL forums won’t fix that. All I can say is that it’s a mess.

  11. When age creeps in, and infirmity, as they have for me, fab ultralight gear can make the difference between going to the Munros and not going. I’ve even repeated epic days from 25 years ago with ultralight gear. Going again with my gear from those days would have made those hikes impossible. Interestingly, the ultralight approach means taking fewer inorganic, hard to recycle items than went along a quarter of a century ago. And public transport to the Highlands almost certainly uses less fuel per person than it did back in the Eighties.

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