On several occasions in the past I’ve speculated on when, in the history of American outdoor culture, the hook and bullet sides of being in the outdoors separated as thoroughly as they have from the recreational sides. Today we have REI and we have Cabelas, and a cultural chasm between the two. The antipathy often expressed by one side towards the other can be quite severe.
I assume I am correct in thinking this was not always the case. At one point, perhaps when the US population was smaller and the distinction between rural and suburban ways of life less drastic, getting outside was getting outside. Then again, perhaps it has only been in the haze of post-WWII affluence that large numbers have had the leisure to get outside for purely recreational purposes. Perhaps this same haze has given us too much free time to contemplate identities built on the fragile moorings of non-life sustaining activities, which has given rise to the culture war which permeates so many aspects of contemporary American life.
Take coyote hunting as an example. In most western states, coyotes are classified as a predator, and can be hunted year-round, without limit, by anyone. This time of year they are one of the only things one can hunt, and thus serious hunters hunt coyotes in late winter. I assume almost none of them eat the coyotes they shoot. The normal narrative is that doing this helps control the population of these predators, and provides respite for ranchers of sheep and farmers of chickens.
Biologically, this is an absurd view. Coyotes have vastly expanded their North American range since 1500. They weren’t seen east of the Mississippi until the 1930s, and they now inhabit every state save Hawaii. Eastern coyotes are 30-50% heavier than western coyotes, and for at least several decades have been regularly forming Coywolf hybrids, usually when male coyotes mate with subordinate female wolves. A growing body of opinion holds that eastern coyotes are bigger because of wolf DNA, and not merely because of a robust diet of garbage and cats.
The point is that the last five centuries have consistently shown us that humans cannot significantly impact or control coyote populations. Even the most drastic poisoning operations in the early 1900s were remarkably ineffective. Coyotes have lots of pups, and when the populations come under external (non food) stress, they have even more.
Coyote hunters kill coyotes because they like killing coyotes. It is neither a harmful nor beneficial action for the ecosystem at large. This persistent mass delusion is a good example of the cultural belief the hook and bullet crowd uses to define itself. As is of course the contempt with which the prototypical Keen-shod REI denizen views coyote hunting and it’s proponents.
Another example is national parks. The REI crowd thinks nothing of going through a convoluted, irksome, advanced permitting process to go on a backpacking trip, nor driving a long ways and spending a lot of money on entrance fees, tourist food, and 28 dollar campsites. Few actively enjoy these aspects, but they are tolerable obstacles because the scenic reward at the end is so considerable. The hook and bullet view might be that only suckers and neophytes spend so much for an over-regulated, nanny-fied wilderness experience.
There are class dimensions here, but the cultural ones are far more robust.
In the end, the most important distinction might be in another place entirely. Most outdoor enthusiasts on the REI side favor day activities. The most popular outdoor pursuit, according to a report which came out around the latest Outdoor Retailer show, is running. A fine pursuit, but for 95% running has as much to do with the outdoors writ large as golf. The story is the same on the hook and bullet side; most folks prefer to fish somewhere reachable by road accessed downstream or motor power, and most hunters do so for the day and close to the road.
The outdoors, and the adventure found in it, is a mental construct. Mystery and challenge can be found almost anywhere, if your eyes can see it. But this creativity is predicated on the existence and influence of big places. If fewer people, for whatever reason, go big, that influence will grow faint, and the integrity of outdoor adventure will deteriorate.
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