May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Sin in the Wild Outdoors, June 1997


How much is that bivy sack in the window? And can I get it in all three sizes
By Bill McKibben

At a recent mammoth outdoor-equipment show, I stopped by a seminar in which a merchandising specialist was advising shop-keepers how to paint and light their outlets for maximum sales; he also pitched a machine that pumped certain pleasing scents into the retail air. Anyway, the crucial place in any store, according to this man, was the Zone of Decision. That was the place about three feet back from the shelf where the customer takes a backpack and turns it over in his hands and wonders if he might, you know, appear somewhat Himalayan if he purchased it. And look at all those ice-ax loops. Why, a person could carry four ice axes simultaneously! The expert warned that the Zone of Decision is often improperly lighted, causing the merchandise to look less desirable (flatter, almost real) than it does on the shelf or in the mind's eye, hence depressing sales. The solution? Halogen bulbs. And blast some of that pine smell over this way.

It is true that I am a Methodist Sunday-school teacher theoretically immune to covetousness of all sorts, and that as an environmental writer I'm quite aware that if we all continue to buy immense amounts of things we will wreck the planet, requiring us to wear SPF 300 sunscreen and grow webbed feet. I own a crummy car, no television, a wood-burning stove, and extremely virtuous if somewhat abrasive toilet paper. On the other hand, I'm a sucker in the Zone of Decision.

Why, I'll say to myself, this pair of hiking boots weighs a full two ounces less than the pair I currently own. Lifting two ounces at a time in the course of taking, oh, eight million steps would waste enough energy to raise the level of the Nile six inches. I'll take them. I've got a six-person, four-season tent, but do I have a four-person, six-season tent? I do now. Why, this field guide is covered in Gore-Tex! Maybe they have one covered in Activent for summer reading! Maybe I could have my whole body dipped in liquid Gore-Tex! Perhaps if I drank Gore-Tex, I would never sweat again!

Whenever I am pinned down in the Zone of Decision, I try to recall my Uncle Ernie. A couple of years ago we hiked the Wonderland Trail, a hundred miles or so around Mount Rainier. Uncle Ernie was 75 at the time, and he was retracing a journey he'd first taken 60 years earlier. Not only that, he was retracing it with what must have been the same pack. It was called a Trapper Nelson, and it came with canvas shoulder straps, a wood frame, and no hipbelt. He was outfitted more or less like that Ice Man they found in the Alps, though Uncle Ernie did have some matches he'd dipped in wax instead of a live ember in a little grass bag. Somehow my uncle made it, and quite cheerfully too.

So now when I stand in the Zone of Decision, overawed by a sleeping pad with a sticky cover or a stove that burns not only unleaded gas but also fermenting yak dung, I try to imagine what Uncle Ernie would do. And then, after I break down and buy the thing anyway, I tell myself that when I'm 75 it will look really cool, in a retro kind of way.

Illustration by Barry Blitt

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