As Black Friday throngs filled Missoula’s malls and shopping centers, the Senf family was hitting the trail.
“It didn’t even occur to us to go shopping,” said Geraldine Senf after racing her daughter Hazel down a snow-dusted path in Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Cars were trickling into the forest’s nearby trailhead, and hikers, cyclists and joggers could all be found beneath the branches.
“There’s no better day to get out” than Black Friday, Senf said. “Everybody else is out at the wherever.”
Hitting the trails on a day off is hardly novel to Missoula residents. For four years, a major outdoor retailer has been prodding other Americans in the same direction. In 2015, REI announced that it would neither open any of its stores nor process online sales on Black Friday.
Instead, it launched the social media hashtag “#optoutside” and encouraged both its customers and employees — who receive a paid day off — to opt for some time outdoors, rather than in line or in front of a screen.
“Back then, closing down on the busiest retail day of the year shocked the system,” wrote CEO Jerry Stritzke on the company's website. “Now, millions of people have chosen to make a walk in the park part of their family tradition.”
No Montana cities made the company’s list of “Top 50 Cities to #OptOutside,” using data compiled by the Trust for Public Land. But another group of hikers in the Rattlesnake, the Ballinger family, didn’t need a list to know they were in prime recreation territory.
“You have solitude within half an hour of downtown,” said Susan Ballinger. She, her husband Paul, their daughter Lauren, and their dog Jocko had come from Wenatchee, Washington, to spend Thanksgiving with her father.
“We have a very similar canyon just four miles up from our house, so it's kind of fun to see similar plants and animals,” she said. “Missoula's ahead of where we are for multi-use trails and not damaging the habitat.”
Long active in her area’s Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Ballinger knows the challenges of preserving areas and opening them to recreation, and likes what she’s seen here.
“We look to Missoula as an example of where we could go for signage and trails,” she said. “Boise and Missoula are so often held up in the Pacific Northwest as examples” of this kind of conservation.
Nearing the end of a two-hour hike, the Ballingers said that their family treks outdoors far predated REI’s campaign. Susan approvingly described it as “another nudge” to get outdoors. Paul, who said he was a longtime member of the outdoors cooperative, could only think of one downside: Because the store was closed Friday, “we can't get a map there.”
But while REI’s Stritzke scorned Black Friday as “a day that was distorting a time to give thanks for what we have,” the Ballingers tempered their criticism of the retail ritual. “A lot of people need to shop on Black Friday” for deals they can’t get any other day, she acknowledged. The ability to pass those up, she said, was “part of our privilege that we take for granted.”
Even so, more cars and larger groups were pulling into the Rattlesnake trailhead as noon approached. Spurred on by a store’s decision or not, once they entered the recreation area’s 61,000 acres, they had plenty of space to themselves.