Interested in the global export economy of Southeast Asia? Pick up the August edition of Backpacker magazine!
I, personally, choose to sleep in my own bed at a comfortable 60 degrees. And while I like to get away from the office as much as the next guy, a good number of my leisure hours are spent manning the remote control or the mouse. What I like about REI, then, is the mystique it is selling, the rapids I could run and the frozen waterfalls I could scale. If only I had the right gear.
An industry of consumer lifestyle magazines has grown up to flesh out this fantasy world. (We're not buying products, we're buying a better way of being.) Maybe you subscribe to one or two, such as Skiing, Vogue, Dwell, or Train--the magazine for model railroad enthusiasts. (You're not alone: Some 300,000 souls share your interest in miniature locomotives. That's probably a few more folks than subscribe to Harper's or Mother Jones.) While the big, "reputable" titles like the Atlantic and the New Yorker soak up the spotlight (and struggle to be profitable), these hobby mags go about the dirty little business of making money.
Rodale is one of the companies that has thrived in this market, printing nine magazines, including Men's Health, Prevention, Mountain Bike and Organic Style. For reasons no one here at the City Pages home office can figure out, Rodale has been sending us Runner's World and Backpacker for a few years now. I prefer the latter. The magazine publishes invaluable information on hikes I'll never take and trail technology I'll never need. The August issue, for instance, contains travel tips for Skagway, Alaska, hints for viewing caribou, and tasty camp recipes for five-minute sesame almond fudge.
Perhaps the oddest thing about these magazines is that fine journalism occasionally hides inside--like the interviews that gentlemen always claimed to read next to the Playboy centerfold. A few years back, Gen. Tommy Franks predicted that a WMD attack in the United States could bring about the abandonment of the Constitution--in the pages of Cigar Aficionado. In Backpacker this month, writer Jonathan Miles visits the Vietnamese factories where economic migrants manufacture high-end adventure gear for the outdoor segment of America's consumer-lifestyle economy. It's an honest account of why the business of making backpacks left the United States, and who the new workers are. (To its considerable credit, the article demonstrates almost no fear of pissing off the magazine's advertisers.)
In a typically wry incident, Miles tries to convince a few factory workers to join him for a little expedition, to try out the equipment that they sew every day. It's an ingenious idea for the article, the only catch being that "none of the sewers wants to go." The jungle is thick and hot and there's unexploded ordinance--and bad memories--that date back to the Vietnam War. Fundamentally, the Vietnamese workers have no idea what they're crafting and what role it holds in the marketplace:
A few energetic [workers] sop up the balance of their lunch breaks outside, passing around a guitar and smoking cigarettes in the shadow of the 25-foot climbing wall that Pungkook installed for its workers when PK2 opened three years ago--its version, apparently, of a factory gym. The wall is emblazoned with the logos of all the backpack companies PK2 supplies, which is perhaps why the workers lounging beneath it consider it a massive, if weirdly bumpy, decoration--an acned, ornamental slab in their otherwise drab surroundings. When I ask a group of them if the wall might have some other purpose, I'm met with rounds of shrugs, and when a photographer accompanying me begins clambering up it, they startle and stare, openmouthed.
Similarly, many of the workers on the sewing floors are vaguely puzzled as to the uses of the backpacks they're making each day. "What," I ask them, holding up an Osprey Atmos 25 pack, "would you use this for?" The vast majority say they would use it for shopping. "When you buy food," says one woman, "you could put it in there to take home. Or shoes--you could take new shoes home inside it."
For the workers, many of whom arrived here after fleeing the mud and jungle of the Vietnamese countryside, loading the pack up with gear and heading off into the wilderness is a ludicrous notion, almost as knuckleheaded as trying to climb to the top of the logo [climbing] wall outside. "Yes," says another woman, carefully eyeing the Atmos, with its back-panel airspace and welded stretch-woven front pocket, as if seeing for the first time what she's been staring at, piecemeal, for weeks. "It might be very useful for shopping."
If that doesn't interest you, on the page that faces "Made in Vietnam," you can read a favorable appraisal of the amber oxide polycarbonate lenses in the new North Face Adrenaline Pack Glasses ($110).