Big-box safari

"LET'S start up here."

John Castillo bounds into a doorway, up a flight of stairs, through backroom offices, to an archway over the entrance.

"This," he says with an appreciative sweep of his eyes, "is my favorite view."

A mountain three stories tall and covered with wildlife rises in the distance. Trees flame in autumn reds and yellows. Trout swim in a pond at the foot of a cascading stream. Beyond the mountain, in filtered sunlight, a yellow float plane arcs through the sky.

Directly in front of Castillo, 15 geese appear to be headed for a landing. To the right, a bull moose is frozen in a grazing posture, its mouth biting down on grass. Below and beyond, 390 game animals, elephant to hammerhead, seem to gaze back at the humans who gaze at them. In the distance, not one but two shooting galleries add a carnival feel to the scene — plus an archery range for those who want to tune up for deer season.

Oh yes, there's a store down there too. That's the point after all, and it cannot be missed.

More than three football fields of retail acreage — 185,000 square feet — sprawl across a prairie-sized main floor with a smaller balcony yonder, and a circus-sized tent outside for sale items. On the right, guns sprout forest-like from hundreds of feet of casements. To the left, more water — aquariums totaling 55,000 gallons with an array of live game fish, most notably a surfboard-sized musky with a glower on its face — and enough lures, flies, artificial worms and bait to get a rise out of everything that swims in Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.

This is Cabela's.

And this is Cabela's multimillion-dollar vision of the future of the outdoors.

Looming alongside Interstate 94 west of Minneapolis in the fashion of a stone-and-log national park lodge, only on a scale of acres rather than square feet, this store, barely a month old, is the latest in a new breed of gigantic entertainment trading posts to sprout up in the U.S. — a trend that flies in the face of the popular belief that ours is becoming a virtual world of commerce via the Web.

A 44-year-old catalog company for hunters, fishermen and campers, Cabela's — and its arch rival, Bass Pro Shops — are filling in the map of the United States with Boone and Crockett-size "destination" retail emporiums. Shop, play, hang out, gawk, go shootin' if you wish, have lunch and maybe learn a thing or two — and never get your boots muddy.

The great outdoors, we might say, is coming to an indoors location near you.


New possibilities

THE mountain men called them their "possibles" — the essential possessions that make outdoor pursuits possible.

If we recall that interval of history, we remember that the early 19th century mountain men and the Native Americans who befriended them ventured out of the woods periodically to gather at a rendezvous for the purpose of trading: their outdoor labors — furs, pelts, food — for outdoor gear. It was a rollicking time, and few wanted to miss it.

Today, the circle of time has closed back on the past. Once again the trade in possibles has become a spectacle to draw people from afar. The rendezvous has returned, 21st century style.

"On any given day, half our customers come from farther than 100 miles away … some from around the country and some from around the world," Castillo explains. "The average visit lasts about four hours."

Of course, what's possible these days in terms of possibles is something else again. And there's nothing like a visit to Cabela's to remind one of the industriousness, the breathtaking inventiveness, the sheer wackiness of our culture.

We could pause here, for instance, and reflect about the imperative of a toilet seat embedded with fishing lures or bullets. We might wonder what practical application we'd find for a camouflage steering-wheel cover for the pickup truck. We could ponder the nature of progress when today's possibles include underwater video cameras and portable display screens so we can watch as fish bite our bait.

But that would be getting ahead of the story.


Bait and beyond

LET'S begin with something simple, say worms. Castillo pauses at the plastic worms. Not the complete selection of plastic worms, mind you: That covers aisles. This is just one display.

Here, hanging from cases, we have the latest in artificial worm bait — the deluxe biodegradable variety that slowly melts in the water and gives off aromas said to be irresistible to worm-eating fish, not to mention leaving anglers in perpetual need of returning to the store for more melting worms.

Of this particular bait, 144 color and worm variations are on display, including grubs, crawlers, turtlebacks, maggots, leeches, noodles and just plain earthworms.


That's a brand name, if not also a comment.

To think, Dick Cabela started it all in 1961 on his kitchen table in Chappell, Neb., selling cut-rate flies tied in Japan. First, he advertised 12 flies for $1 and got only one customer. He cut the price to five flies for free with a 25-cent charge for shipping and handling, and the orders started rolling in. According to the hardcover history of the company written by his son, David Cabela, the profit margin on each order was 2.2 cents per fly.

These days, Cabela's mail-order catalog — a coffee table and bathroom companion to practically every hunting or fishing lodge you might visit — is 616 pages, and that covers only the hunting season. It would take a fair-sized backpack to carry the fishing and other supplemental catalogs. Plus, the company operates 14 destination stores like this one with eight more in the works. Cabela's calls itself "The World's Foremost Outfitter."

In case the point is the least bit fuzzy, let's emphasize that "outfitting" in the language of Cabela's means hunting, fishing, camping — no golf shoes here, or tennis rackets, baseball bats, bicycles or any other gear of that sort.

"We are proud members, as it is known in our industry, of the hook-and-bullet crowd," says Castillo. He adds, without condescension, "This is not a place for the sock-and-jock folks."

Cabela's has not ventured out of its predominantly red-state base into California, but spokesman David Draper said, "California is definitely on the map, and we're looking at it aggressively."

Bass Pro Shops is no less a marvel of jumbo-sized ambitions to contain the outdoors indoors, and it is poised to have a leg up in bringing the phenomenon to the California market. Already, the retail giant, which calls itself "The World's Leading Supplier of Premium Outdoor Gear," operates 31 destination stores — with two more about to open and 12 in the planning. Among those upcoming for 2007 is a 4 1/2 -acre retail entertainment and "adventure" outpost in Rancho Cucamonga.

For those who might scratch their heads and wonder about the appeal of these enterprises, Bass Pro Shops' mother store in Springfield, Mo., an emporium almost seven football fields in size — 330,000 square feet — attracted 4 million visitors last year and was said to be Missouri's No. 1 tourist destination.

(And lest you think this phenomena is the exclusive domain of the hook-and-bullet crowd, REI's flagship stores in Denver and Seattle feature mammoth climbing walls, mountain bike trails and gear testing chambers at their cavernous sites.)


New terrain

CASTILLO'S walk through Cabela's is starting to feel more like a hike, and he hasn't left the fishing department yet. If much of this gear is at least vaguely familiar, some of it isn't.

Castillo stops in what is foreign terrain for many outside the Midwest: ice fishing. By studying the gear, we can get at least an anthropologist's understanding of the "how" of it, if not the "why."

First, ice fishing is not about exercise. There are racks of gasoline powered augers to drill a fishing hole through the ice. Second, it's only marginally about the outdoors since the well-equipped ice fishermen can choose among rows of portable shelters, which are towed onto the ice, placed over the hole and locked into place by special anchors so as to not blow away in the howling wind.

If you joke and tell an ice fishermen that his rig looks a lot like an outhouse, he'll give you the stinkeye and peg you for, what else, a creep from Southern California.

Castillo is on the move again. Boats? Got 'em, a whole warehouse-sized room of them. And why not? Summer is only seven months off. Canoes and kayaks, check. Bows, arrows, strings, quivers, points, sights, scent eliminators, but of course. Equipment for the hunting dog, naturally. Targets? Paper as well as life-like sculpture. And more: salt licks, stealth cameras to record what is licking the salt licks, hunting blinds, hunting blinds meant to be placed in trees, snowshoes, walkie-talkies, weather gauges, those clear-plastic toilet seat covers, rustic lodge furnishings, dog portraits, backpacks, tents, boots (high-tops, please), waterfowl decoys, apparel.

Now here's something serious: When the day's hunting or fishing ends, what then? Dinner, of course. "Kill It & Grill It," as one cookbook here puts it.

Encompassing an area larger than a tract home, Cabela's satisfies the modern meat hunter with assorted grinders, sausage stuffers, meat mixers, slicers, dehydrators (think venison jerky), seasonings, cast-iron cookware, sausage casings and more.

"This has a very high 'cool-guy' quotient," Castillo interrupts. He hoists from the shelf a 10-pound, 2 1/4 -horsepower, gasoline-fired blender. The manufacturer promises "enough torque to perfectly blend a pitcher of drinks (without lumps) in 15 seconds."


Endless equipment

TO think, a couple of hundred years ago Native Americans and trappers roamed the upper Mississippi reaches here and the mountains to the west with no more than they could carry in a canoe or on a pack mule. The wild went on forever. Today our free-roaming wild lands have been reduced to enclaves, but our gear is endless. Perhaps archeologists of the future will describe it as equilibrium of a sort.

Four hours at Cabela's seems hardly enough. After all, one must visit the laser shooting galleries. Click-click-click-click-click — five imaginary boars bite the dust in rapid succession. Hey, does that scowling ice fisherman want to see a Southern Californian in action? For $2,000, less 1 cent, this wide-screen shooting gallery can be the beginning of a home entertainment center.

Then there's the real thing.

A sales clerk along the wall of guns apologizes. "These racks were full just a couple of weeks ago," he says with a shrug. Demand is outstripping supply just now — half the muzzleloaders are gone, but the $25,500 custom Rigby .416-caliber buffalo gun is still available. And maybe a few thousand other rifles and handguns too — the finest in a circular room called the Library that smells of sweet gun oil and wood polish. Ammo is boxed and stacked in rows 6-feet high.

If the rest of this vast store is airy and spacious, the gun counters are cramped and crowded. Men and no small number of women are sighting down barrels, palming polished walnut, feeling for balance, working steel against steel, ch-chung. Kids are being fitted for their first rifle. Jot a reminder: Make no furtive movements in the presence of Midwesterners during hunting season.

Moving down the aisle, it appears that other journalists have been drawn to the rendezvous today. A team has arrived from a Minneapolis-St. Paul paper. They are from the fashion staff, but, no, they are not reporting on the latest in camo clothing — there's 10,000 square feet or so of display area devoted to it. "We've done that," says one.

This time, the local fashionistas are covering trends in gun belts.


Fighting controversy

CABELA'S proves one thing quite plainly — when it comes to outdoor gear, what we need and what we want are not the same thing. But this store, and the others like it spreading across the United States and Canada, have an additional purpose.

Hunting is a matter of serious controversy in the land, and the number of licensed hunters has been on the decline. Nationwide, the legions of fishermen are not booming either. The very term "outdoor sportsman" will get you an argument in many urban areas.

Rather than retrench and downsize in the face of unfavorable trends, Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops have chosen to expand, and in breathtaking fashion, seem to be betting on their power to turn things around, believing that the culture wars cannot be won without abundant supplies.

Look carefully, and you see that this is not just a men's hook-and-bullet store. Far from it. There are Barbie and SpongeBob fishing kits to entice kids, and paintball for teens. Old-fashioned games such as tiddlywinks, jacks and hopscotch are packaged as they might have been generations ago, evoking a nostalgic Americana. Rustic furniture of log, leather, fur and camouflage likewise presents a defense against the onrush of modernism. Candles with a "woodland mist" scent, woodland-themed table linens, fresh fudge and sheepskin slippers speak of a style of living very different than "lifestyle."

"What a Cabela's does to the community is bring hunting and fishing to the forefront …. Our obligation is to get people involved in the outdoors," says Castillo. "Yes, we're a business, we're not a nonprofit. But we need to make every effort to get people excited again about the outdoors."

For a good many, as we can see, the thrill begins indoors.


John Balzar can be reached at