»  The Straggler, No. 106

October 3rd, 2011

   Catalog Shopper

We do ever more of our shopping online, I am told. The printed book is facing extinction, I am also told. The U.S. Postal Service is in dire straits, I am further told. Taken together, these facts imply, along of course with much else, that the big, printed, mail-delivered store catalog may soon be at one with Nineveh and Tyre. The consumer revolution launched by Richard Sears in 1888 will then have run its course. Let us pause, therefore, to cherish the printed shopping catalog while it is still with us.

The particular one I have just been cherishing is from Cabela's, the national chain of country-sports megastores. (In which neither I nor National Review have any financial interest.) Cabela's actually issues an assortment of special-interest catalogs: one for fly fishing, one for archery, one for camping, and so on. The one I have on my desk is none of those picayune sub-catalogs. It is the Spring 2011 Master Catalog: a quarto-size hardback book of 1,364 pages, weighing four and a half pounds, left behind by a visiting friend. What a feast for the idle browser! — at any rate, for the browser with an interest in the outdoors.

My own interest therein is mostly theoretical. In my schooldays, and for a few years thereafter, I hiked energetically up and down the mountains of Scotland and Wales, spent many a night in tents of various sizes and degrees of water resistance, and subsisted for many a day on canned rations, tea made from spring water boiled over a Primus stove, and Kendal Mint Cake. (That last item was an early type of energy bar whose wrapping proudly told of its having been taken up Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary & Co. They must have used their ice picks to break the stuff up: as I remember, it had the consistency of granite.)

[Added April 2012 :  Kendal Mint Cake has just shown up in a news story.]

Adult Passive Sedentary Disorder (APSD) then set in, and it has been many long years since I last struck camp. I spend a night in the family treehouse now and then, weather permitting, and enjoy a very occasional pheasant shoot, but that's all of it. Yet still in memory I hear the call of the wild.

There are purely imaginative pleasures to be indulged, too. Could I survive alone for a time in the woods? How long a time? What would I need? What's available? How much does it cost? And here's the Cabela's catalog with the answers.

It's the "Camping/Backpacking" tab that I turn to first. What advances there have been! The march of progress is most noticeable in the art of finding your way around in the wild — or more to the point, in my experience, trying to avoid getting lost. The key equipment used to be a map, a map case (on the usefulness scale, wet maps are down there close to the bottom, just above chocolate teapots), and a Silva compass.

Maps are pretty much gone, other than some "trip planner" atlases and topographical software. Map cases are more thoroughly gone than that: Cabela's catalog doesn't even have an entry for "map case." This whole zone now belongs to the hand-held GPS gadget. Should a malicious enemy knock out our GPS satellites, the following few years will be punctuated by periodic news stories of ragged backpackers with foot-long beards emerging dazed from our wilderness areas like postwar Japanese soldiers from Philippine jungles. Oddly, though, the dear old Silva compass is still cataloged. Why? "Inexpensive insurance for those with high-tech navigational aids." Much use that will be without a map … and of course a map case.

The classic Primus stove fueled with paraffin (i.e. kerosene) is now an antique. Today's camp stoves are fed from nifty little gas cylinders. This is no loss at all. Considered simply as a gadget, the Primus stove was a masterpiece of design, but paraffin is an enemy of humanity, as Jerome K. Jerome explained in Three Men in a Boat:

We had taken up an oil-stove once, but "never again" … I never saw such a thing as paraffine [sic] oil is to ooze. We kept it in the nose of the boat, and, from there, it oozed down to the rudder, impregnating the whole boat and everything in it on its way, and it oozed over the river, and saturated the scenery and spoilt the atmosphere. Sometimes a westerly oily wind blew, and at other times an easterly oily wind, and sometimes it blew a northerly oily wind, and maybe a southerly oily wind; but whether it came from the Arctic snows, or was raised in the waste of the desert sands, it came alike to us laden with the fragrance of paraffine oil.

Footwear is next on my interest list. Again we are two or three design and technology revolutions away from the army-surplus stiff black leather boots of my own hiking days, with triple hobnails hammered into the leather soles for traction. Cabela's offers a whole gallery of footwear for the outdoorsperson: hunting boots, snake boots, logger boots, desert boots, and page upon endless page of "hikers." None of them have hobs; indeed, none have leather soles into which hobs could be nailed. Again, nothing to regret there. If, as advertised, wet feet have been eliminated from the hiker's life, I'd rate that a civilizational advance up there with the conquest of polio.

Activities less familiar to me — bow hunting, fishing, canoeing — have their own curious gadgets, garments, and gear. I did not know until browsing the Cabela's catalog that anglers need no longer rely on intuition and folklore to locate their prey: the FishEasy 350c portable sonar will "display fish targets at higher boat speeds." Nor need the modern Robin Hood depend on his unaided vision: the Ten Point crossbow comes equipped with a red-dot scope that "allows you to place the shot exactly where you want it."

Cabela's catalog is compelling enough to squeeze a dollar out of even the most reluctant consumer. I have treated myself to a camper's folding cot. ("Extreme comfort in seconds! 350-lb. weight capacity!") It will be handy for a quick nap in my attic study. Heck, I might even take it camping; though then I'll be needing a bivy tent, some hiking boots, one of those GPS things …