Meta note: The new Grand Adventure tag, for backcountry-related escapades, is a direct result of this story.
So Morgan and I had an interesting experience today.
After the Peace River trip and this summer’s Platte River rental kayak trip, I am absolutely, utterly, madly enamored of kayaking and tremendously excited about pursuing a long-term strategic plan of building a skills kit and a gear kit.
Look, I’m well aware that I’m 42 years old and not an athlete by experience or temperament, and I’ve never in my life wanted a sporting or fitness practice like I want this, and I have a lot of work to do to get to a point where I’m, say, taking a 5-day, 4-night paddle through Dinosaur National Monument, which is a thing I am enthralled by the idea of doing.
So this winter, I’m researching and buying river gear, and planning next season’s daytrips on the Platte and other local rivers. I’m a librarian; I can research anything. And Morgan, who is doing the camping gear side of the research, knows backcountry hiking; her much-beloved step-grandfather had a long career as a NPS park ranger, and she spent a lot of time learning a lot from him.
But some of this stuff neither of us have any real experience with, and this gear needs to be handled and tried directly, and so, armed with a shortlist of internet-vetted gear items to check out, Morgan and I headed up to the Denver flagship REI store, which is a pretty damn neat building.
So we get in and head directly to the paddlesports section, and immediately start trying on PFDs, which is really the main purpose of the excursion. I don’t like the Astral women’s cut models, which is a surprise because they have such great reviews online, but Morgan and I are both taken with the NRS Ninja, which is the second one I try on. The young woman working the area stops and chats with us for a little while, and she asks some smart questions about the research we’ve already done, and talks about her experience which is considerable, and reassures me that internet reviews mean shit next to actual empirical first-person testing (which I know, and which is the reason we’re standing here in the store, but I’m still a little disconcerted by my lack of impress with the Astrals – like, what do all of these other reviewers know that I’m missing?). Now I’m not sure that I would have looked at 1.) unisex PFDs or 2.) the NRS brand specifically if I hadn’t gone into the store, but I’m sold on this model, and it’s actually not any more expensive at REI than it is online, so I’m now I’m open to spending some real money at what I’ve always dismissed with a reverse-elite sneer as the Whole Paycheck of the sporting world. This is a big deal for me, and a testament to this young saleswoman’s warmth, genuine interest, and competence.
And then we run around checking out snacks and finding them mostly overpriced and lacking (lacking in protein, especially, which Morgan went on a highly entertaining rant about) and mocking women’s workout fashion with poor form/function priorities and admiring those pieces that are really well designed, and generally having a silly old time. And then, because a lot of our long-range plans involve park-at-the-pullout, hike-up-kayak-back multiday trips, we went to look at the backpacks.
The older salesman approaches with a slight smile, as Morgan is checking out an Osprey, and says, “You know that’s a men’s pack, don’t you?”
Morgan, flippant smartass that she is, shoots back, “Yeah, I didn’t realize men’s and women’s backs are all that different.”
Dude apparently misses the sarcasm, steps in to adjust her hip belt for her, and she steps out of his reach (with the DEATH GLARE OF DEATH) so he just gestures for her to adjust it upwards. “The latest research,” he says, in a grandiose tone, “is that women should be belting at the natural waist.” (The latest research does not say that.) He natters some more, but at this point Morgan is already ignoring him, and she’s taken the pack off and set it on the floor and I’m trying to guesstimate whether the pack is big enough to hold both the uninflated kayak and all of our camping shit.
He sees us evaluating… something? and asks, and I make the mistake of engaging, because I am dumb and bubbly like that. I explain that we’re planning these touring trips, and I’m trying to decide whether this pack will carry the load. I’m searching online for the packed specs, to no avail; all I can find is the inflated dimensions, and I just can’t remember what the packed measurements are. “How much does your kayak weigh?” he asks.
“Twenty-seven pounds,” I say.
He looks us up and down. “Oh, that’s a LOT. That’s HUGE.” (It’s actually one of the lightest inflatable kayaks on the market.) “Have you seen our inflatables?” And he steers us to the paddlesports area, which is right next to the backpacks, talking as he goes. “I’m a master packfitter,” he says, “and if you girls are going to go on this grand adventure of yours, you need to think carefully about weight. Twenty-seven pounds, plus five pounds of food a day (who takes FIVE POUNDS OF FOOD PER DAY into the backcountry when we have freezedry technology???) and and all your camping gear, and don’t forget your clothes and toiletries – that’s a lot of weight. Here, let me show you.” He ignores the one really good inflatable kayak they have in stock (which I have already decided is going to be my SECOND kayak, but not my starter kayak, because I am a librarian and I research shit) and beelines to THE KOKOPELLI PACKRAFT and holds it up and with great pleasure announces, “This is seven pounds! Much more what you’re looking for!”
I am proud and pleased to say that there is no swearing directly in the face of this pretentious idiot. But at that point we are DONE. So we take our fucking Honey Stinger stroopwaffels (which were actually the most nutritious snacks in the store, because obviously the cookie would be) and head for the checkout line.
(We almost put the waffels back.)
In line, we get talking dogs with the sixty-something woman in front of us, and loosen up again and shake our heads and laugh at the absurdity of the whole business, and by the time we get to the front of the line we’re having fun again, and I remember that I really did like the PFDs we looked at, so when the clerk asks if we have a membership, I say, “No, but I’m open to hearing information about it.”
She takes some real time, then, to tell us in detail (but without an obnoxious sales push) about the benefits of membership in REI in general and of this store in particular, the upcoming sales and and when in the year to expect certain sales to happen. She’s wry and funny and self-aware about “well, yes, we’re expensive,” but with a little knowledge and patience some really good deals are to be had, and she tells us with great enthusiasm about the Women in Sport event that just concluded, and we tell her with great enthusiasm about our Grand Adventure(TM) and she is SO EXCITED and says, “wow, you are going to have so much fun!” and before I know it I’m walking out with four stroopwaffels, a shiny new membership card, and the dates of the next scratch-and-dent sale, which should fall at a point in the autumn when I have some money to spend.
And we spend the next half hour walking through LoDo, half-furious, half-laughing:
“If you go on your GRAND ADVENTURE – ”
“- and then he tried to sell us a FUCKING PACKRAFT – ”
” – YOU GIRLS – ”
“- FUCK YOU.”
*queue mad laughter*
Seriously, if it hadn’t been for the two women salespeople, I would have walked out of there thinking, “every bad impression of this place that I have ever formed has been completely validated,” and I would never, ever have gone back. Instead, I’m adding it to my toolkit of useful resources; I’ll go back for classes and sales and to try and rent equipment, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot of great experiences. But I will never forget You Girls And Your Grand Adventure dude.
That, folks, is not how you get a couple of people who are enthusiastic about a new hobby to come back and spend hundreds to thousands of dollars in your store. More importantly, it’s not how you make a newcomer to a community feel welcome and wanted. It’s not hard to show a little respect and warmth and genuine interest in someone else’s experience.