That '70s Guy

Outside was born into a far-out Bicentennial world of Coors, cutoffs, and bright-orange tents. Maybe there's a reason they say, "Don't look back."

Sep 20, 2007
Outside Magazine
That '70s Guy

The author. ridin' like it's 1977

That '70s Guy

Putting in at the Clear Creek Whitewater Park, in Golden, Colorado

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DAMN, THIS MUSTACHE feels right. After a month of patient hair farming, it has really come into its own. Bushy like a caterpillar, the blond chevron stretches from my nose to just below the corners of my mouth, leaving a little peekaboo of rosy upper lip. It tingles in the downy warmthof a Colorado summer night. I pinch my thumb and index finger together and spread them across its ample length.

Redford would be proud, I'm thinking. For that matter, so would Steve Prefontaine, Burt Reynolds, and "magic man" Doug Henning.

It's 2:30 a.m., and I'm on my way up a dark forest path toward the 14,255-foot summit of Longs Peak, in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, when I happen to fall in with a thirty-something guy from Denver who's outfitted head to toe in REI's finest. As far as my impromptu hiking partner knows, we're nothing more than two disembodied voices looking for black bears in the night (not as easy as it sounds). But, actually, he's the first test subject in a study of sorts, my investigation into the enduring appeal—if that's the right word—of 1970s outdoor style. Dressed in period-perfect attire that only John Denver would call "far out," I'm hoping to see if he (or anybody, really) will sing the retro spirit electric.

As we walk along, I mentally review my ensemble, starting with the leaping-trout belt buckle that holds up my butt-hugger jeans and moving to my red-check flannel shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a gut-stretched polyester-blend T-shirt with a cartoon iron-on of a drunk logger. A large desert canteen and a bota bag hang around my bandana'd neck. My feet are shod in red-laced Italian-leather waffle-stompers. Best of all, the Stars 'n' Stripes are flying proudly, thanks to my super-bitchin' American-flag backpack.

"Look-ing good," I say to myself, and it's true. I am the avatar of the Bicentennial-era outdoors, embodiment of all that is joyous and unbridled!

My partner turns and, with the light of his headlamp, beholds the full glory of That '70s Guy for the first time. He shrinks back, not unlike a cheerleader recoiling from a zombie. He continues on for a couple of paces and then stops, ostensibly to retie his lightweight day hikers, which are already tied.

"Your walking stick reminds me that I forgot my trekking poles," he says hesitantly. "Did you make that?"

"Well, I painted on the vines and flowers."His face wrinkles into an awkward smile. "What's that hanging out of your pocket?"My flask of Yukon Jack. Want a nip?"Ahhh, no thanks."

"I'll have a little," I say, knocking back a hit.With the light from my billy-club flashlight, I can see that he's genuinely freaked."Camel straight?" I offer quietly.

"No, thanks," he says, striding into the woods alone. "I think I'm gonna motor on."All riiight! Catch you on the rebound, my man.

IT WAS ALMOST A YEAR ago that the editors of Outside proposed that I dress myself up, head into the outdoors like some live-action bobblehead, and see if the seventies still plays. They weren't sure (or wouldn't say) why they thought this was a good idea—something about the magazine's 30th anniversary—but as soon as I started flipping through back issues, it became obvious: The outdoors were boss back then.

Circa 1977, when I was two, adventurous people saw themselves as "mountain ramblers" and "wanderers," and their style was big and lusty. In the photos from those old issues, men in thin wool turtlenecks and women in tiny cutoff jeans sat around gigantic campfires munching on roasted rattlesnake. In my favorite, three buddies—one inexplicably outfitted in full pirate regalia—fearlessly paddled a flimsy birch-bark canoe in front of what appeared to be the bow wave of a supertanker.

How much grass they smoked we'll never know, but the magazine's early writers obviously enjoyed themselves. Blissed out on steaming cups of sassafras tea, they extolled the virtues of darn near any pursuit so long as it was real. "Our hearts are set on more freedom," wrote one, "on being free in even wilder places." Another said he felt "the quick vibrations of the Earth passing underneath." I have no idea what he was talking about, except that it wasn't a seismic event. Regardless, they were in search of bodacious vibes.

Of course, Outside's seventies incarnation saw its share of gear geeks: guys with worn-out copiesof The Complete Walker who were savvy enough to wear both Woolrich cotton and Woolrich wool, "a high-performance combination." These unfortunate dolts debated the merits of Bukflex II, Dacron, and Nylsilk, and then, to start the day out righteous after a night of "muskrat love" with a backpacking lady friend, served up freeze-dried eggs and bacon bits for breakfast.

Reading through those old issues left me wistful. Yes, everybody looked ridiculous, but they seemed to be having a blast. I think it's fair to say we've lost some of that.

People can be so grim now. Somewhere between the seventies and today, every outdoor pursuit became a sport. Canoeing led to rodeo kayaking, hiking to adventure racing, and Hacky Sacking to professional panhandling. These days, instead of innocence and enthusiasm, aggressiveness and training trump all. In my hometown of Boulder, you can't rent an apartment without a notarized document proving you have a VO2 max of 60-plus. "Rocky Mountain High" has become Rocky Mountain Tri, and outdoorspeople, fit though they are, could benefit from a 10cc dose of mellow.

So we got after it. The editors borrowed moth-eaten duds from aging hippie associates; some friends and I spent a long weekend hitting Denver vintage shops, including one place, Boss Unlimited, that served complimentary Pabst Blue Ribbon. The transformation was completed a week before July 4, when I emerged as the tube-sock-wearing messenger of all that is copacetic.

AS I RETURN FROM the summit of Longs Peak, no one suspects I'm in costume. I can tell because no one is willing to come near me. Adventure racers in matching spandex unis pound on, heads bowed, when I shout, "Hey, just got back from the top. Wanna know how to do it right?"

What gives, man? Clearly I need a woollier, freaky-deaky scene. I need to go kayaking!

I get in touch with Landis Arnold, the 47-year-old owner of Wildwasser Sport, in east Boulder. He's more than happy to loan me a classic river runner. The fiberglass number we pull from the scrap heap behind his warehouse was handmade, circa 1977, by a local hobbyist who probably bought the mold at a hardware store. A little over 13 feet, double the length of modern playboats, the hull has a teeny bit of rocker, a pointy nose and stern, and fraying fiberglass below the waterline. She's the pinnacle of hydrodynamic design from the Age of Captain & Tennille.

This mission requires a new set of threads. Forget constricting drytops and a neoprene girdle. Try a striped wool sweater the color of Froot Loops and a rubberized spray deck with suspenders. A paddler buddy loans me a sparkly purple lid, and I load up my underpowered VW Golf, the kayak's tip and tail overhanging the bumpers, and hold up traffic all the way to Golden, Colorado, whitewatercapital of the Front Range.

Out in the Golden whitewater park, a stretch of river right downtown, I discover that modern maneuvers (such as turns) are all but impossible, but the boat does cut into the current like an X-Acto knife through jelly. I delight in roaring downriver. Alone. Nobody actually runs rivers anymore. Instead, they cluster at the play wave—as spectators (today there's an amphitheater of parents watching their Junior Olympians train) or rodeo boaters (adults honing their "side-surf to space Godzilla to woo-woo").

I eddy out beside the jam-packed hole. The other boaters go bananas. "I had a kayak just like that!" many say, and they share old-timey stories about repairing their fragile boats over the campfire or teaching themselves to Eskimo-roll in the alligator-infested swamps of East Texas.Emboldened by their praise, I bump my way past other boaters and, to audible applause, pop vertical in a graceful "ender"—the kayaking equivalent of air guitar.

Next time, I really go for it—and really get it. I drop into the hole and my limousine is immediately stuck sideways. I try to swivel out backwards, but the nose of the boat, somewhere in Nebraska, sucks me back in. The same thing happens when I go forward. After a minute of pawing at a high brace, my shoulders quiver. Water seeps in through a crack widening beneath my legs. Bummer!I flip. Pop goes the spray deck, out comes me, away goes the boat. She fills with water and torpedoes downriver, bashing on boulders, causing a frightened elderly couple in an inflatable kayak to paddle like windmills for the shore.

Onlookers race down the bank to save my relic. I clamber ashore, sweater dripping like a wet dog. I have fiberglass rash on my wrists and possibly a busted toe, but I bound downstream anyway, dodging picnickers.

With the help of a ponytailed male sprinter, I finally retrieve the thing 300 yards downriver. The boat is kaput. Three cracks the length of my hand have opened in the bow, the furry underbelly, and halfway to the stern.

"You OK?" ponytail asks me.

"Yeah, yeah, fine, thanks," I blubber, water flushing out my nostrils.

"You know," he adds, "that's a nice boat."

THE KAYAKER SPIRIT seems right on—if nostalgia were a river, many of them would drown. But with my boat wrecked, I gotta try something else. I decide to storm the dark citadel of the fitness-geek establishment. I will enter a bike race.

A quick scan of the Web shows there's a race in Boulder this weekend (surprise!), and Doug Emerson, owner of University Bicycles, happily loans me a mondo-cool vintage rig. At 5:45 a.m. on a hot Saturday, I ride to the Sunshine Hillclimb wearing a mushroom-cap Bell Biker helmet, thick crocheted gloves, a pink-and-periwinkle wool jersey, and itchy black wool shorts. My bike is a pristine, meticulously lugged white Allegro race frame made in Switzerland in 1973. It has ten tough gears on downtube shifters and a total weight of 25.25 pounds, including the full-length frame pump—not far above that of a modern full-suspension mountain bike. Primo!

I use the two hours before the start to talk shit with some of the 375 competitors, most of whom look like they survive on steroids and baby formula. A few smile at my kit, offering jockish one-liner flattery: "Sick bike, dude." Most simply nod before returning to their stationary trainers and tuning bikes made from repurposed Space Shuttle parts.

Before long we're massed up and preparing to go. My Cat IV beginner's heat bolts off in a cacophony of snaps, everyone clicking in to their pedals as I seek the help of a mechanic to insert my feet into my bike's old-school leather toe straps. Within a mile, I feel groovy and free … of the peloton, which is already a blur in the distance. A waterfall of sweat pours down from my unventilated helmet.

Over the next nine miles I am passed by, among others, a whirring heat of honest-to-God grandfathers and, just before the fifth mile, most of the 15-to-18-year-old twigs. Adding to the humiliation, I realize that weak elastic has allowed my shorts to sag. My pasty white ass has mooned each passerby.I end up in an inspiring sprint finish with a chubby teen I passed while he was resting under a tree. He edges me out at the line. Race organizers and mothers stop disassembling the finish tents to clap for us. One mom kindly offers sunscreen for the red crescent appearing across the top of my butt cheeks.

I finish in one hour and 38 minutes: more than double the winner's time and dead last among all competitors. A few of the best guys arrive at the top a second time, having completed their "cooldown." I lie in the ditchweed panting, waiting for the sweet relief of heatstroke as the previous week's adventures play before me in mildly psychedelic flashbacks.

I have been ignored, nearly drowned, and wholly beaten. As far as I can tell, the spirit of the seventies has shone brightly only in my mind and that of a few insane paddlers. Nobody else seems to care. I begin to feel sorry for myself—until I realize that there is one last place I can go, one final arena that promises solace.

And I think you know what I'm talkin' about: Boogie Night!

I DESCEND THE STAIRS into a subterranean Denver lounge called Lime. Instead of bell-bottoms, this place is all spaghetti-strap black dresses and button-down Kenneth Coles. But it'sas disco as Denver gets.

Hitting the first landing, I can't help but feel sexy, dressed as I am in green Adidas, corduroy shorts with a one-inch inseam, and another nipple-tight T-shirt. This one is baby blue and reads, in shimmery letters, LOVE MEANS NOTHING TO A TENNIS PLAYER.

"Oh. My. God. You are my favorite person right now." It's the hostess, who busts out laughing. "I love you."

"Well, thank you," I smile. "But, you know …" And I show her my T-shirt.

Shenanigans and flirtation continue unabated as a group of stellar dudes and I roll to two other clubs, breezing past meaty bouncers so stunned they cannot speak.

At the bar inside the dance club Le Rouge, three pert young women giggle and splash some sort of cologne/perfume on my neck. "It has pheromones," one explains.

I have found my people! Gone are the failures, the humiliation. Roped into a bachelorette party, caught up by a stream of women exiting a stretch white Hummer, we continue on. It's difficult to tell if the women who cross the bar to chat me up take me seriously or think I'm a harmless dope on the way to a costume party.

So what? If I've learned anything from this experiment, it's that reality is a trip, make of it what you will. Tonight, I figure, that reality is gonna include a sexy lady sharing a little Courvoisier, kicking off her shoes, and running her bare feet through my shag carpet. Just her, me, and the mustache.

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