May 24 • 9M


"I have seen the enemy, and he is us." -- POGO

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This piece previously appeared in The Guardian as an excerpt from my book, “Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style.”

There are large areas of Kansas that are indistinguishable, in that painfully homogenous way, from too many other flat, strip-mall-and-large-box-store commercial real estate eyesores around other American interstates. Walmart and other ubiquitous beige squares, franchises, and fast food chains have successfully obliterated an enormous percentage of American regional character. Long stretches of Kansas may as well be in northern Virginia, or the Gulf Coast of Florida, or Merced, California. 

I found it striking, on my walkabout writing my last book, that (aside from neighborhoods that look as if they’d been suddenly airlifted and dropped in eight-block chunks directly from a foreign country) the lower-income the retail area in America is, the more the retail products in the chain stores are festooned with aggressive corporate marketing. My friend Mark Johnson coined the term “monopulated” to describe this phenomenon. The more economically depressed the venue and the cheaper, more mass-produced and petroleum-based the retail items become, the larger, louder, brighter, and more aesthetically intrusive the corporate branding is. 

Retail stores such as Kohl’s and JC Penney feature “masstige” collections, third-tier dispersion lines by designers like Vera Wang and Nicole Miller. On a shelf choked with Chinese vinyl handbags, the “Chaps by Ralph Lauren” logo is positively massive – etched on huge brass plaques riveted to the logo-handbag while still sealed in factory plastic. Coercing money out of poor people apparently means cranking up the ad campaign volume to a kind of Clockwork Orange, strobe-torture, throbbing scream level—and limiting choice. The poor, it seems, must pay for the sin of economic despair by acting as free billboards. Now, instead of slaves being branded by plantation owners, the poor must pay to brand themselves. 

I went to Kansas to be with my best friend Mitzy while she gave birth to my godson.  As a gift to me, the baby’s first retail experience was a trip to Cabela’s, the “world’s foremost outfitter” of all clothing and accessories related to hunting, fishing, and obsessively serious and gadgety outdoorsmanship (and, one must presume, a favorite of separatist militias, Unabombers, and other hobbyists whose leisure activities require assault rifles with laser scopes). 

I felt like I had been taken to the Holy Grail in terms of fashion op-ed. For me, Cabela’s was a brain-blisteringly perfect fashion articulation of the ideological gulf between left-wing coast-dwellers and right-wing heartlanders. It was Everything America Can’t Reconcile With Itself boiled down into one big, billowing camouflage poncho.

The Cabela’s in Kansas is a truly jaw-dropping spectacle—a kind of retail Disneyland for angry human carnivores. Pilgrimages to Cabela’s are made often enough by out-of-town customers—heavyset families with small children, older couples in matching tracksuits—for the store to have its own log cabin–style hotel resort across the parking lot, replete with indoor water slide. Funnel cakes are sold outside the front doors, next to a bronze statue of an elk huge enough to look size-appropriately threatening next to a bronze Stalin. 

The store features massive Costco-size lodge walls hung with every form of weaponry deemed necessary (or merely desirable) for the felling of every conceivable earth-beast. There are sumptuous racks upon racks of weapon-snuggling straps, holsters, and death-causing-object-concealing-and-transporting accessories in Kevlar and leather, Gore-Tex and waterproof canvas. Duck blinds sit on stilts about the aisles, looking a bit like the chicken-footed lair of Baba Yaga, if the legendary witch of Russian folklore had done a few tours in ‘Nam.

There are camouflage outfits for virtually every human shape, ritual, and occasion—camo-and-lace onesies for the christening of baby girls, formal murder accoutrements for discriminating Cub Scouts, banquet attire for Moms of Anarchy. 

The most astonishing spectacle at Cabela’s is its profound wealth of taxidermy, all of which is represented with Grand Guignol theatricality and monumental expense. This dead animal collection rivals that of New York’s Natural History Museum. The main difference: at Cabela’s, most of the animals are on gigantic, if not life-size, facsimiles of natural settings, and stuffed into surreally ultraviolent attack poses, as if they’d been arranged by Art Basel conceptual pranksters, or a giggling group of -seventeen-year-old sociopaths raised in a militant animal-hating cult. 

Example: on a very steep artificial mountain approximately three stories high, an entire herd of mule deer are posed crashing downward at perilous speeds, slipping on fragmenting shale, skidding out of control and crash-landing en masse at the bottom of the hill onto their own faces. They are all captured ashamed, and mid-head-fracture.

Overhead, cheetahs chase monkeys through the air (simply because, like Chuck Norris, they can).

My favorite display featured a full-size female lion, frozen launched in midair while plunging its teeth into the neck of an agonized zebra. The zebra, however, was at this same moment simultaneously kicking a male lion in the face with both of its back hooves. The male lion, presumably the mate of the female zebra assailant, was fated by his taxidermist to have his face forever contorted into a sideways action wince like one of the more painful still shots from Raging Bull. 

Next to all the infinite gun-rack and the war-of-all--taxidermy-against-all-taxidermy brought to you by Mutually Assured Destruction’s Wild Kingdom, there was a tank of mysteriously live albino catfish swimming amid a veritable forest of fishing poles (perhaps they weren’t albino, and merely pale from fright). 

If you are the kind of person who sees nature as something that needs to be prosecuted relentlessly with an endless, -obsessively accessorized campaign of all-out slaughter and turned into cold cuts, Cabela’s can and will outfit this quest. It has every object necessary to annihilate the entire food chain, even if you are a 500-pound man who wants to hunt the most dangerous game with a TenPoint Stealth SS Crossbow with ACUdraw™, in size sixteen hip-waders and a ghillie suit. Most mind--blowing, for me—more so than even the rack of BBQ lighters shaped like M16s, or the fact that children are allowed to run around the store shooting one another with artificial guns that resemble nearby actual guns—was an extensive section of the store entirely devoted to professional -delicatessen-style meat slicers.

(Incidentally: Cabela’s restaurant, despite an overall atmosphere resembling that of a hospital cafeteria, was voted one of the ten best restaurants in the area in 2009.)

If you are looking for world-beating, animal-humiliating family entertainment, shark-killing machetes, bushmeat sausages, Confederate flags, or meat hooks big enough to hang a Panzer tank, Cabela’s is your one-stop, ripstop nylon, camouflage paradise. 

If you want to dress in garments that don’t have kidney warmer slots or Molle webbing to hold your extra cartridges, well, honey ... that’s your problem. Good luck surviving the zombie invasion, or the robot apocalypse, or life after the inevitable water wars in 2023. Somebody needs to establish law and order, and make the grown-up decisions. Cabela’s provides the fashion statement that says: Hey, I am going to hit nature first. In the event of a societal collapse, I can and will be King.


Artwork: “Garden & Gun,” oil on linen by Cintra Wilson, 2020