The Outdoor Dreams of the Things We Own


Weverton Cliffs on the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail

I looked at the jacket, with its special pocket in the back designed for carrying a map, almost in awe. The desire was instant. Imagine that: a map pocket! If only I had this jacket, I mused, just think of the maps I would put in there. Sections of the Appalachian Trail, rural patches of Iceland, the endlessly rising and falling pathways over the mountains of South Korea. The oiled fabric of the coat would shed the rain that fell on these places, shelter my bones from the chilling gusts. It all seemed so possible, so in front of me, as I literally held the image of this jacket on the phone in the palm of my hand.

It’s not the only article of clothing, or bag, or other piece of gear I have felt this way about. A good number of these items I subsequently purchased. If I have one vice, it is outerwear. (Spicy food and craft beer may also fall into this category.) That, as I see it, is not so much the problem. It is the unfulfilled uses of these articles that makes me uneasy, that causes me to question whether their accumulation makes me simply – to borrow the words of an old professor I know – a “rank materialist.” Even contemplating this is uncomfortable. I’d like to think that those adventures still await, and that there really is a reason for me to buy those new hiking boots.

The reality is that in today’s Internet, researching, finding and purchasing these things – funds permitting – is the easy part. Having the imagination, the time, and the commitment to pursue an adventure is less so.

I suspect I am not the only thirty-something, goosedown-and-Capilene bedecked Subaru driver wrestling with this problem. Patagonia (the brand) inspires in its customers a calling to remote places. Its sustainability drive prods us to envision life in a hillside cabin where we end the day drying and darning our socks by the fire. When I flip through a catalog from the easy comfort of our concrete-laden Northern Virginia suburb, a part of me feels like a fraud.

And indeed, I am not alone: the Outdoor Industry Association, in a 2014 report, identified a whole segment of “outdoor consumers” that I probably fall into – “The Aspirational Core.” Making up roughly 14 percent of spending on outdoor goods, these folks “stick close to home for most of their day-to-day activities but aspire to get further from home.” The bulk of outdoor spending (OIA says “outdoor consumers” spend $465 on average annually on apparel, footwear, equipment, and electronics for their activities) is not shelled out by people who spend every other day hanging off a rock face, but rather by “Urban Athletes,” “Athleisurists,” and would-be boyscouts like myself.

Some businesses have latched onto the interrelationship between outdoor daydreams and commerce in novel ways. When REI started its #OptOutside campaign, on some level it must have calculated that inspiring its customers to venture into the wilderness in late November would offset the negatives of shuttering its stores on Black Friday. Pulled out of their Thanksgiving torpor by the brisk air, some surely decided on the trail that day that they really needed a new Jetboil for making hot drinks away from home.

I have made forays into fulfilling the usefulness of my stuff. Last fall, a friend of mine (who actually was an Eagle Scout) hiked a short portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Maryland and camped overnight at a site not far from the trailhead. During the trip, my sleek new pocketknife got a break from its usual task – breaking down Amazon Prime boxes – and actually got to carve some wood shavings for our fire.

But I could be doing a lot more. Either that, or I should be having a garage sale. In the end, I bought the coat with the map pocket. I even have a few maps of the A.T. that I could put in there. All I need to do now is figure out how to use my compass.