If we go there to get away from it all, why do we take it all with us?
That’s the puzzle Rachel Gross wants to ponder in her new Historical Museum at Fort Missoula exhibit. “Outdoor Gear Stories from the Treasure State” collects both the equipment and stories that connect people to their experiences in the wilderness.
“Americans for 100 years have consistently turned first to outdoor stores as the jumping-off point for their nature escape,” said Gross, a University of Montana Davidson Honors College professor. “We persist in seeing nature as an escape from civilization, but we don’t see contradiction between the goods we acquire and spiritual awakening or invigoration. The stuff goes hand in hand with that.”
The “stuff” ranges from an ice ax made by Yvon Chouinard’s (pre-Patagonia) Great Pacific Ironworks shop to handmade sleeping bags from the do-it-yourself Frostline kits. Gross said donations fell into two categories: Items with historic or collector value, and souvenirs connected to personal stories.
“Sally Right donated her Gerry Superpad from 1967,” Gross said of a bulky inflatable backpacking mattress. “She talked about a miserable camping trip to the Grand Canyon where her feet always hung over the edge of a short pad. When she got home, she bought a wider and more comfortable one. It’s as big as a backpack we’d use now. You can really see how gear shrinks over time.”
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Natalie Mongeau, one of Gross’ student assistants, interviewed H. Duane “Hamp” Hampton about his favorite equipment. He loaned her a Trapper-Nelson wooden packboard designed for World War II soldiers to support anything from a rucksack to a munitions load. Hampton told Mongeau how he hauled his cast-iron skillet and tin cans of food into hunting camp, and packed out the elk quarters on the way home.
“It’s not just about necessary equipment,” Gross said. “A lot of this can’t be used any more. It’s passed the end of its useful phase. I was looking for times when it goes beyond necessary — what other standards do they have for wearing it downtown.”
For Julie Kahl’s loved-to-death Great Pacific Ironworks T-shirt, it was the link to a famous company’s early days. For Mike Fredrickson’s 1980s WhisperLite camping stove, it was the connection to years of family backpacking adventures with a tool that hasn’t changed design for decades.
Gross has spent a decade researching the outdoor recreation industry and is working on book compiling her findings. She said her central question is why people consistently go shopping on their way to the wilderness, when they seek a natural place apart from modern life.
“It’s easy to poke fun at some choices,” Gross said. “But I take their attitudes at face value. Goods are necessary to create the experiences you’re looking for. You do want high-quality goods you can trust, because you want to stay safe and warm and dry. People have lots of identity and stories attached to the goods they buy.”