Cell Phone Naturalists

Affluent adventurers are changing the face of environmentalism

| March-April 1999

I must have been crazy to think I could trek all the way across the REI outdoor-gear store in Seattle without a professional guide and months of training. I'm only a few steps inside the front door, in the ice-ax section, and already I'm feeling oxygen-deprived. Before me stretch more than 80,000 square feet of snowshoes, kayaks, tents, crampons, and parkas. My goal of reaching the coffee shop upstairs at the store's summit suddenly seems an absurdity. Yet somehow I must summon the strength to trudge on. If I am ever to penetrate the essence of our environmentally conscious culture, I must conquer the north face of REI.

To get this far, I drove my rented minivan to downtown Seattle and parked among the muddied-up sport-utes in the REI lot. I walked through the postage stamp–sized forest where customers test-ride mountain bikes. I rode up in the slate-floored exterior elevator and stepped on to the front balcony with its huge benches. A plaque on each reassured me that the bench is made of wood from trees blown down in 1995; no tree was murdered in the making of this rest spot. Above me, clocks told the time atop Mount Everest and Eiger in the Swiss Alps.

Up to this point, I was feeling good, but now that I'm inside, the sheer vastness of the place knocks me back. It's not the salespeople who make my brain spin. I knew they'd be products of Seattle's cult of hiking-shorts macho. They bounce around the store flashing their enormous calves, looking like escapees from the Norwegian Olympic team. Nor is it my fellow customers who have put me in this state. I was ready for squads of super-fit software designers with glacier glasses hanging around their necks (because you can never tell when a 600-foot mountain of ice might roll into town, sending off a hazardous glare).

It's the technology I am unprepared for. I was expecting to enter a world of reverence for nature; I didn't realize I'd need a degree in physics from MIT. Every item in the store comes with a mind-boggling number of chemically engineered options that only experienced wilderness geeks could possibly appreciate.

I'm dimly aware of some code of gear connoisseurship to which I should be paying attention. For true nature techies, some things, like boots and sport-utility vehicles, should be as big as possible. Other things, like stoves and food packs, should be as small as possible.

But the REI store's real raison d'être is upstairs on the mezzanine, in the clothing department. While only a few people actually climb glaciers, millions and millions want to dress as if they did. Just a few miles east of here at Microsoft's headquarters, for example, you'd get strange looks if you showed up for work in a suit, carrying a briefcase. But if you came dressed for Everest in a parka and boots that keep you warm to minus 70 Fahrenheit, you'd blend right in.

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