Wonk on the Wild Side

Want to experience the suicidal rush of trying to break into the outdoor gear biz? Join us now for the saga of GoLite, a crazy little startup with everything stacked against it—except for one featherweight idea whose time may have come.

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Salt Lake City, the last quiet before the big doors open.

A fluorescent gloaming hangs high overhead in the Salt Palace. Coup, dressed Dan-Quayle casual—dirt-free tennies, off-white chinos, belt embroidered with retrievers, polo shirt—is preparing to win over all comers to booth #3524. He tells me that he knows what failure would look like: "We're standing around and we're standing around, talking to each other." He's not exactly sure how to spot success, but he says he's more concerned about it over the long-term than here and now.

Not that he wouldn't mind if GoLite caught some buzz this weekend. On a voodoo level, the OR show is nothing more than a vast, expensive rite to generate buzz. Buzz can bestow riches: In 1997, for example, the Canadian gear maker Arc'Teryx hit with a fiendishly clever new method of fabricating Gore-Tex outerwear in a $450-plus jacket. Thereafter, the company went from 55 employees to 270. "If that jacket had tanked at OR, I'm 90 percent sure it would have been the end of Arc'Teryx," says Jayson Faulkner, the company's sales and marketing vice-president.

To jump-start the process, Coup spent $150,000 with Thibeault, his promotion consultant, to make GoLite buzz. A chunk of it went to printing the slick catalogs, designed with punched-out holes toward the edges of the pages as a nod to ultralight. Some $9,000 went for a "belly band" ad wrapped around thousands of free issues of Backpacker magazine that its publisher handed out at the show. The front of the ad pictures bricks and a feather, separated by the fine-print question: "How much does enjoyment weigh?" The backside answer: "Next to nothing when it's 'Ray-Way'!" The GoLite logo is orange-on-black, computer-form type under a dome with a curving incision (representing a trail up a hill, I'm told). "It says, 'Big Player,'" Coup enthuses. "It says, 'For Real.' It says, 'The peacock has bright feathers!'"

And here come the first people to behold those feathers. Two guys slope down the still-quiet aisle, obviously with no commercial mission, and Coup advances to ask if they'd like to learn about GoLite. They would, either because they want to or because "no" is impossible. When a pitchee mentions someone else's ultralight gear, Coup roars back, "No, that was LIGHTweight. This is the first ULLL-tralight." Now and again he lets loose a cavernous laugh.

On the afternoon of the first day, Erickson says he's impressed at the steady stream of visitors: "Somehow Coup has been able to generate more than an average amount of interest from buyers. He's loving it." Meanwhile, as Coup rattles on, GoLite has a change of legend. Its story becomes his, not Jardine's. People want to know who the hell is this egghead gone feral. "How did you get into this?" one buyer asks Coup, and he looks enthralled by the answer. Michael Blenkarn, a designer at Arc'Teryx, swings by because he heard that Jardine would have some product at the show. He's impressed with the gear, but he's knocked out by Coup. "Had he spent the same amount of energy in the outdoor business that he did balancing the U.S. federal budget, he'd be deadly," Blenkarn tells me. "He's just changing mediums."

GoLite gets its first order, worth almost $10,000, from a two-store chain in Hermosa Beach. Still, the parade of tire kickers seems like the bigger story. The assistant manager of one mountain shop stops by and takes in the performance. "I'm really excited about the clothing," he declares. "That's really lightweight stuff." But he admits he's disinclined to recommend stocking GoLite because of the effort it would take to sell it. "You've got to make the customer believe you believe in it," he says.

But I see more hope in the Jardinites. I expected geezers in hiking sandals, but the truest believers I meet are two guys in their early twenties. I can't get a read on one because he develops a beagle-eyed fixation on Kim Coupounas. The other is a multi-pierced, Caucasian hiphop wonder who's wearing strange sneakers, black socks, mid-calf pants, and a dirt-colored T. "A friend turned me on to the PCT guide and, um, we just about worship the book as a Bible," he says. He starts giggling when he picks up a prototype sleeping system: "Is this the one that Ray used?" He says he's not sure whether the average consumer will bite, but he does see a possibility for the clothing that nobody had thought of: wilderness street wear.

The guy asks Coup if he sports the clothes around town. Coup looks confused: "I don't know the answer to that question." When the two stand close and talk, Erickson yells for somebody to get a camera. "I'm Gen X, but barely," Coup tells me later. "I don't get it completely."

No, you don't get it at all. Yet somehow GoLite has produced something this kid is dying to have. The Jardinite asks Coup to sell him a prototype Coal jacket because it's black, which GoLite doesn't plan to make; he can't stand the Fruit Loops end of the palette, like Chinese red. "It just stands out too brightly," he remarks. "If somebody were aiming a gun at me..." Good point. The GoLite universe changes entirely when he puts on the black coat. Everything plain and sturdy becomes resplendent—so bad it's good. For the first time, something GoLite makes sense and speaks in words that didn't emanate from Demetri Coupounas or Ray Jardine. The black Coal says "Street." Better yet, it says, "Screw you, Boomers, with your ridiculous techie coats of many colors and zippers galore and every other feature you've grafted on to junk up gear." What it says, is that this odd union of the number-gushing frontman and the ultralight-crusading guru has created a certain chemistry, one that might just make GoLite the coolest thing going at some OR show to come.

Los Angeles–based Mike Steere, a longtime contributor to Outside, climbed Mount Whitney in August with a 52-pound pack.


Which Way?

"If I need it and I don't have it, then I don't need it."

—Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking (1999)

The Ray Way is only the latest salvo in a backpacking weight war stretching back decades. The publication of Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker in 1968 helped make backpacking a national rage. It also made carrying a third of your own body weight seem perfectly normal. The resulting acceptance of humping 65-pound packs gave rise to a counterforce of weight-paring zealots, who rebelled against this standard and obsessed about traveling light. Fletcher addressed them in the 1984 third edition of the Walker, mocking the compulsion to "gossamerize every item toward vanishing," though he acknowledges that periodically updating your stock of gear with lightweight innovations can make a difference for "those of us who walk for pleasure, not...equipment nuttery." Essentially, the grand old man argues that yes, weight carried can cause grief, but weight left behind can cause even more.

Certainly, if you were to plunge headlong into pure Ray Way—Jardine's austere trail philosophy and gear system—with nothing but the recommended 12-pound load and a copy of Beyond Backpacking, you'd be howling with grief. That's why the book itself suggests a blended, gradual approach. For instance, Jardine recommends that first-time tarp users might bring a backup tent (one with a floor).

That said, Jardinism still might not be your cup of herbal tea. Naturally, Ray doesn't drink coffee, which is where I draw the line. I will never give up my Lexan French press and the "artificial high," as Jardine calls it, induced by caffeine. To the ascetic author, making a cup of joe is simply "wasteful of time and stove fuel." Here are some other precepts from the Ray Way path to enlightenment:

*Give up the Therm-A-Rest and sleep on "leaves, pine needles, and duff."

*Hike in running shoes with the tongues cut out and the fronts split, which will give your feet a toughening coat of "dura-dirt."

*Let an umbrella be your rainy-day smile. (Rain gear is for fearsome gales.)

*Make fire like the ancients. First carve your own wooden bow-and-drill. When/if fire happens, "that ember is an extension of ourselves." —M.S.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!