Buda, Texas is a town which owes much to off-ramp commerce, a town where the frontage roads seem to carry as much traffic as I-35—and dangerously so—a town of chain restaurants and sprawling used car lots. Just thirteen miles south of Austin, the place has nothing in common with the capital and its celebrated culture of live music and mom-and-pop restaurants. Here it’s chain stores, commerce, and something else. It has the Cabelas store, a hulking edifice of some 200,000 square feet of merchandise, an enormous building that brings in as many camera-happy tourists as it does shoppers, as if the store has become the destination, not a means to adventure.
I visited the Cabelas on a weekend. The atmosphere had the feel of a college football Saturday, Texas vs. Texas A&M perhaps. The vast parking lot was full of late model trucks. A man on a loudspeaker announced fresh batches of Kettle Korn. You could smell it. After I worked my way through the racks of merchandise set outdoor for the ongoing “Sidewalk Sale,” I was approached by clean-cut youths who willingly held the doors open. They asked if I would buy a five-dollar raffle ticket to support their school athletic programs.
The smell of fresh paint, the bright casino lights of tittering registers, the bling-bling of new fishing reels, the far away sound of a customer trying, and failing, to make a turkey call—I felt like I entered a carnival. People were cued up in all sorts of lines. Some waited at registers. Others waited to return merchandise. Lines formed at the huge aquariums where grim-looking blue catfish plied the artificial lakebeds. People snapped photos with their cell phones. A grass carp, enormous and prehistoric, breathed ever so lightly at the bottom of the tank. There was a line for the toilettes. Thousands of fishing rod tips made the far end of the store look fuzzy. There was so much stimuli I nearly fell back into the wildlife prints which pictured small, bucolic utopias, Midwestern towns, frozen lakes.
I should have known what I was getting into. This was not my first foray into a Cabelas. I used to stop at the one in Sidney, Nebraska—their headquarters—on my way to hunt pheasants in Beaver City, Nebraska. I’d buy my out-of-state license there, a box or two of shells, maybe some jerky for the road. I’d hit the head and stop at one of the nearby gas stations to fill up. (It seems that Cabelas stores cause micro-economies to spring up complete with hotels and car lots, sometimes airstrips. In fact, the Sidney store has now become Nebraska’s leading tourist destination easily besting the national grasslands and forests.)
In the past, I have ordered boots and elk calls from the Cabelas catalogue, which arrives promptly each season in my mailbox whether I want it to or not. They send out some 60 million hefty catalogues a year, holiday editions and specialty catalogues aimed at fly-fishermen and archers. I’m never happy upon their arrival because they remind me that something crucial is missing from my life. Somehow they have my e-mail address too. Like an over-eager friend, they write too much. By frequently changing my address, I’ve tried to throw them off my heels, but they track me down just in time to send me their hulking Master Catalogue that rivals the thickness of a Tolstoy novel. Within these pages men fiddle with gear, pose as if they spy something just over the ridge, huddle around a smokeless fire with crisp clothes and apparently humorous stories to tell. They’re strikingly beautiful men. Foppish and sleek, cheekbones exposed just beneath their freshly trimmed beards, they wear their barn jackets and wool socks as if they just stepped from a hot bath. In their new shirts—Autumn Plaid, Tucson Sunrise, Woodland Gray—they’re men you’ll never measure up to. At first glance they seem like people you’d want to live next to, maybe send your kids to the same schools with theirs. But maybe not. The women, who appear rarely, are foxes—they titter in their camouflage bibs; they pull their hair back with camo hair ties; and they place toddlers in piles of perfectly fallen leaves. They’re busty babes, worked on. Check out the solar shower, the elk print nightgown any woman would love to wear. These are the typical lies of marketing.
One cathedral-sized room at the Buda store featured a range of taxidermied heads. These bucks were tremendous animals, not your typical ten-points. Some were freaks with over twenty-five points of antler. Brass plaques told a bit about the herbivores, where they were taken and who the hunters were. I found myself underneath one buck wondering about his life near Wichita, Kansas before John H. Grimes shot him in 1987 near a wheat thresher. Then there were the exotics: ibexes, dik-diks, gemsboks, blackbucks, addaxes, strange African antelope of various design, hartebeests, guar, Corsican sheep, and all manner of strange horned beasts. A whole herd of mule deer fed on a fake ridge that reminded me of my home in Casper, Wyoming. Even the trees were right, the stunted, wind-gnarled ponderosa pines. I could almost smell them.
There’s an animated figure seated by a campsite. He’s meant to replicate the quintessential Old Timer. He sits by a canvas wall tent. His firewood cut, neatly stacked, and ready for the cold night ahead. He reminded me of a well-armed Burl Ives. He said that the deer on the walls represented great examples of bucks, but if you tried hard you might find one just like these on your farm, your forty acres. Landscape, according to this guy, is immense and all-giving. We will never run out of useful species like whitetails and rainbows. Therefore, you can sell and buy fishing rods and deer stands into eternity. Trust me, he says. He says, essentially, what Cabelas says.
Then the talking Old Timer seems to wink. He spouts some ahistorical politics about game ranches and how Texas, in particular, is leading the country in developing herds of exotic species that otherwise would be endangered—the nilgai Antelope for instance, exist in great numbers right here in the Lone Star State, he said. In Wyoming, where I’m from, the biologists fear, more than any other factor, introduced plant and animal species. They know that the private game ranch is the biggest threat to indigenous populations. I was appalled by the donation boxes. The old man nattered on about property rights—closing in, no doubt on a speech about individual freedom—as I exited back into the main wing of the store.
The story of Cabelas is one of the true rags to riches stories woven into the fabric of Americana. In 1961, Dick Cabela was working for his parent’s furniture store in Nebraska when he accompanied his father to Chicago with the purpose to buy more inventory. In a water-damaged warehouse, he stumbled upon some cheap hand-tied flies from Japan. He knew they were too cheap to pass up, so he bought several thousand. Back in Nebraska, he and his wife Mary tried to figure out how to sell the flies. Certainly, he had more than he could ever use himself. His first ad ran in the Casper Tribune, my hometown. Only one person replied. His next ad ran in Field & Stream.
5 hand-tied fishing flies…FREE 25 cents postage and handling.
This ad did the trick. Dick and Mary Cabela spent their free time filling out orders on their kitchen table. They collected the names and addresses of their first customers on recipe cards and sent them future offers. Regrettably, these were the first catalogues, the birth of a revolution. The flies and the postage to send them back to customers only cost the Cabelas fourteen cents, so they made a profit of eleven cents on each order they filled. There really were no free flies. This was the humble beginning of America’s biggest outdoor gear company, the World’s Foremost Outfitter today.
Dick’s brother, Jim, joined the operation and suddenly their rented warehouse was too small to hold their inventory. They traded up, but soon even that space was too small. Their warehouse in Sidney, Nebraska—population 6,000—became their headquarters and remains so today, even though there are now twenty-nine mega-stores, all of which advertise themselves as tourist destinations: “…a visit to Cabelas is much more than just another shopping trip—it’s an educational and entertaining adventure…”
It’s astonishing that Cabelas began with a few thousand cheap fishing flies. Much like the stories of Karl Karcher, Henry Ford and Walt Disney, the story of the Cabela family makes you believe that the sky is the limit. Cabelas, now listed as CAB on the New York Stock Exchange, is an enormous corporation complete with CEOs, shareholders, and board members. They have their own television show, their own magazine. Frequently landing strips are built near their stores so that the dandies can fly in and pick up what they need on their way to their next adventures. Cabelas offers over 200,000 products, and you can purchase any of them online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no limit to what they will sell their customers. They sell ranches and riverfront properties that run all the way up into the tens of millions of dollars. They sell financial services. They sell guided African safaris (the Cabela family is big into transcontinental hunting) and they sell the tiniest flies, some for only fifty cents. Everything, it seems, is for sale, from an Alaska Grizzly bear hunt to a pair of heated socks that you don’t need, never wanted, could not in your wildest imagination see a reason to keep around.
While wandering around in search of the canine department I found an Alaskan moose. He was a full-body mount. His paddles were the color of maple syrup. The hide seemed large enough to project a movie on his flanks. He was standing in a tumbling stream beside faux boulders. And, to my amazement, there were actual rainbow trout in the stream, weaving in and out of the moose’s spindly legs. I peered over what passed as a beaver dam and looked down at the fish. They were large for rainbows, some of them pushing twenty inches or so, the kind of fish you catch on the North Platte in March if you can stand the cold and the wind. The tannic smell of the creek, the raw, exposed scent of rot and fish, struck me as original. A large man grazing on peanut brittle he had just purchased leaned over beside me and looked down too.
“Those are some nice’ens,” he said. A bit of brittle fell from his mouth and the trout scrambled for it. The spell was broken, just like that. But that is the danger of simulacra. The experience itself—just walking into the store—has become the outing, the goal. Just going to a Cabelas replaces the need to climb a mountain or find the grosbeak in your binoculars. You say you want adventure? Try the on premises café. Today’s special is catfish, fries, and a large soda. A trip to Cabelas, any Cabelas, does not ask that you risk mosquitoes or a night on the uncomfortable ground. It asks only that you shop, drowsily, impulsively; it asks that you sign up for the in-store newsletter, a Cabelas credit card; it asks that you fill your carts and arms with products, that you haul them away happily and contented as if the adventure is within these vaulted showrooms, not some other place without.
I was standing in the shadow of “Conservation Mountain,” a simulated landscape that housed the mounts of huge elk, deer, and mountain sheep. Here grizzly bears munched eternally with ptarmigan by their sides. This one bear, shot by Hollis Perkins on the Ungalik River in 2003, seemed too gentle for the snarl it bore. On the opposite side of “Conservation Mountain,” six musk oxen faced an artic storm. Their wispy overcoats seemed as if they were just touched by the passing gale. An arctic fox pounced; a polar bear seemed nonplussed, waving really. But in Buda, Texas, it seemed suspicious to stand at the base of a mountain made of plasterboard and calk. As it turns out, each Cabelas retail store features a similar mountain. In their literature, Cabelas claims that the ranges of “Conservation Mountains” serve as a dedication to all of the sportsmen all over the world who love and admire the outdoors.
After I found the leash I wanted, it was on to fly-fishing. The section was pretty small in comparison with other departments. This makes sense, Texas is more of a bass and catfish state, meat and hook fishing. But the diminutive fly-fishing section did offer an extensive range of equipment. Cabelas even has its own line of quality fly rods and reels. I know many fishermen in Wyoming who use their gear and they seem to catch as many trout as the next guy. The problem here was getting good advice. The sales associate shyly admitted that he had not been fishing this year. (In Wyoming the fishing guides often serve time at the registers between fishing trips. Windburned and sore from rowing, they can accurately tell you what fly is working that particular day. When they’re wrong they hear about it.) This Cabelas cashier was lacking.
“You ought to go up to Georgetown Lake and fish the North Fork of the San Gabriel River,” he said, finally. “It’s full of male white bass, two pounds or so. The big females come in later.” I had heard it all before: you should have been here yesterday, fish so thick you could walk across their backs, I had to beat them off of my hook with my net. But, dreary by so many days holed up novel-writing, I needed to believe.
The following Monday morning, I waited for the rush hour traffic to subside before I left my apartment. Still, I crept along the I-35 so slowly I wondered if I’d ever make my destination, Georgetown Lake, the North Fork of the San Gabriel River. When I arrived at the park’s visitors center I asked for directions to the river. The park official was a balding man with beady eyes and a goatee. He looked at me quizzically, disbelievingly.
“The river? It’s too far down to fish. There’s a drought, ya know?”
“I was told the white bass were running.”
He returned a sympathetic smile. He suggested I try one of the coves.
The signs in the abandoned parking area said I had to keep my two dogs on leashes. Cacti grew in odd lobed formations. The ground sparkled with shattered glass. Winter birds flew in and out of the deadened brush. I put the dogs on their leashes and headed to the lake.
I found the pipe, a rusting artifact from the days of high water. The cove was full of dead trees and submerged brush, a fly-fisherman’s worst nightmare. There was nowhere to back-cast. Strands of tangled tackle showed the history of errant casts and frustrated anglers. I saw a bobber on a line wrapped around a tree branch. A single flip-flop floated with an array of curious flotsam. There were bits of Styrofoam, beer cans, oil cans for two-stroke engines. I found a battered tackle box. It was empty but for rainwater.
Limestone rocks slipped and rolled under my feet. I was off-balance. I had not been on a walk outdoors for months. I let my dogs off leash, and they sprinted into the lake, swimming and snorting around places where I might have tried for bass. In the back of the cove was and ancient streambed; a trickle of algae-rich water seeped into the lake. I caught a small bass on a zonker, a white fly that imitates a minnow. That was it, even after two more hours of casting and several lost flies.
Back to the visitors center I loped, manically seeking information. Someone suggested I try a spot just past Juda. I inquired about a spinning outfit.
“What about a little tackle shop, you know, one owned by locals?”
“Wal-mart,” she said. “There’s a Cabelas down in Buda.”
As I drove back through Georgetown and out into what I recognized as countryside, I felt myself calm. The view opened. The fields looked green and youngish, like the fields of Kansas after a raw spell of spring storms. There was roadkill in the ditches, the bloated raccoons, the twisted deer. Limestone buildings, long retired, rusted with age. The town, Juda, population 21, advertised a chili feed on March 14th: five bucks all-you-can-eat and the proceeds went to the volunteer fire department. Relaxing a bit, I pulled into a tiny gas station that sold minnows and soda pop to buy a 24-ounce beer. In Texas, all of the gas stations have single beers by the register, just one of the many reasons to become a Texan, even if just for a little while. These beers are already iced down, so cold they sting your throat. They’re right there where you pay, as if drinking beer and driving are activities paired by logic. The cashier placed the can in a snug brown bag.
It was easy to find the San Gabriel River. There were so many cars parked along the road that I knew I was in the right spot. I leashed my dogs. Other men, probably just off work, were struggling into their waders and stringing their fly rods. There was an air of urgency to it which reminded me of times when the red salmon were running the Russian River near Soldotna, Alaska, and people risked injury and mauling to get in with the throngs of anglers and yank fish from the river. My dogs must have felt the energy too, for they leapt and pulled at their leashes, ignoring my pleas to settle down.
We wandered down into the raucous atmosphere of the white bass run. We were, I was told, hitting it just about right, the peak of the run. Men staggered mid-river with huge stringers of fish tied to their wader belts. The fish, strung like chilies on twine, swirled in the water beside them. They were captured, yet plainly alive. One couple hawked over a small run and seemed to hook a fish every ten seconds. These fish were nowhere near two pounds—in fact, white bass never get much bigger than 14 inches. The cashier at Buda Cabelas was wrong again. But people were having some sort of fun. They smoked and drank beers while they fished; they talked to each other; knee deep in the river, they answered their cell phones and spoke to people on the other end. “Yeah, I’m here at the Cottonwood hole. You’ll see my truck.”
But I could not catch a thing. I was surrounded by Hill Country anglers who had long ago learned what to use and how to use it to catch these fish. Frequently, I had feisty bass chase my streamers, yet it seemed as if my hooks were too large for the small fish. I missed every one that hit the fly. I moved about often, seeking better vantages, places where I might have room to let my dogs off leash, let them bound about. I found none. There were fishermen and fisherwomen at every river bend. Finally, I found some space. There was an enormous bur oak tree that had fallen into the river. It created a dam of sorts and a large bay of water formed behind its great limbs. I fished the top of the pool near a sandbar, which extended like a finger into the pool. Wading in, I wetted my sneakers and jeans. There was no one about, so I let my dogs off their leashes. The old dog, Sweets, sat on the shoreline and gazed at me as she always had. The puppy, Rocket, galloped up into the woods and came down to the bank on a dead sprint. He dove in with me and bolted around the sandbar like a wild animal, like a dik-dik, or a nalgai.
As the sun set, I moved back downstream toward some of the better runs. The crowds were dispersing. Men stomped wetly by under the strain of huge stringers of white bass. The fish gulped the air and their eyes seemed to bulge, all of them still alive. I wandered down to the banks where two men in waders were leaving a hole.
Tying Rocket’s leash to my belt, I waded out into the San Gabriel. The other fishermen continued to bring fish out of the deep runs. They were fishing automatically, casting, hauling the fish in, placing them on stringers, casting again. Their movements lacked pleasure. They did not look up at me when I began to cast, though I felt their annoyance at my arrival. Rocket whined and squirmed at my side; he jerked me sideways when he saw another angler bring in a fish.
Coyotes, heralding the sunset, yipped upstream, about where the large oak lay across the river. They startled the man next to me.
“Boy, they’re close tonight. Usually, they’re off in the distance.”
“I like the sound,” I said.
“Me too.” He watched me fish. “Let your fly sink more. Just let it sink, then bring it in slowly.”
Did he know he was fishing beside Greatness, a major presence on The Miracle Mile? Apparently not, and I decided to stay anonymous.
“See those muddy troughs on the banks there?” he said in the gathering dark. “That’s where wild boars come down to water.”
“Really?” I played along.
“I had one charge me the other night.”
“Really?” I said again. He told me how wild pigs had taken over Texas, stomping farmers and other unsuspecting folks into the ground. I had a hard time matching his fear of pork, so I just stood there in the river. Then he came closer and showed me his streamer. It was almost too dark to see and Rocket was going berserk in the current.
“I’m developing these myself. I’m going to see if Cabelas will carry them.”
I sloshed away, up through the great green leafy shields of skunk cabbage which had gone opaque with the loss of light, back through throngs of anglers who milled about the parking lights of their vehicles and drank Lone Star. They talked about white bass and how many they had caught last week. Huge numbers. Some dumped their bass into white buckets and stood around looking down at them. The fish glowed in the evening light, the nacreous failing light of Texas. You could smell the fresh earth of fields intermingled with the pleasant smell of cigar smoke and fish slime. Celebration was the topic.
Back on the road, I sat in wet pants with wet dogs crowding my gearbox. Rocket leaned heavily on my shoulder. It had been a long day and I was tired of him crowding me and panting in my face. I pulled in to a gas station and bought some homemade tacos and another one of those ice-cold beers. In Texas, the tacos come with raw onion and cilantro on top; I could feel the warmth through the foil. Again, the clerk placed the beer in a tiny brown bag, which made it hard to fit in my Toyota cup holder. You need slicker bags for that. And besides, what is the purpose of the brown bags, to hide the fact that it’s a beer? I doubted it. What about a camo sleeve to go over your beer can, or one that read “Soda” so that the authorities wouldn’t know the difference? There was a marketing opportunity here somewhere, but I was too daft to pin it down. I rolled back into Austin, my mind swimming with shoals of white bass, and plots on how to capture them all.
My best laid plans, my greatest schemes, never panned out. I missed the rest of the white bass run without returning to the San Gabriel. I busied myself writing the novel and watching live music in Austin (the Mother Truckers were the hot band). When I could write no more, I spent afternoons training Rocket in the public parks, the grackles breeding aggressively in the low-hanging braches of Live Oaks. For months we worked on “Sit” and “Stay.” He wasn’t getting it. And I wasn’t getting why he wasn’t getting it. Unfortunately, the leash I purchased at the Buda Cabelas would not open. The metal clasp seemed soldered shut. I tried to force it and it snapped. Not willing to chalk it up as a loss, I drove back to Cabelas to return the leash and reclaim my twenty-three dollars. (Cabelas has a great return policy; one of the best I’ve come across.) I had my money in no time and I decided to wander around a bit. It was a Wednesday, and the crowds were less intimidating than the first time I had been there.
My moose was there still. Where else would he be? This time it was just he and me, and the swarm of trout that swam in and out about his legs like flocks of birds. In my absence they had added enormous brown trout to the pools. They whirled and lurched at each other. The moose was the same though—I felt sad again, and as I turned to leave, I found myself staying, looking into those brown glass eyes for answers to the human condition.
Last fall I backpacked into the Wyoming Range with my friend Dave Brown, a ferrier from Cheyenne. We carried everything we needed—food, knives, tents, sleeping bags, and water purifiers—on our backs, uphill for several hours. This is the way I hunt now, though I know I will not be able to do it forever. These days I take more frequent rests. It was on one of these rests, Dave sitting to my right putting in a chew, when we thought we heard a bull moose grunting his love call in the black timber. As a joke, Dave mimicked the sound, and to our amazement, we saw a young bull moose, his eyes crazy and white, heading our way on a trot. Dave continued to call and the animal came on, slowing as he neared us.
His great hooves sunk into the soggy earth. He was now only ten yards away, swaying his small paddles to and fro, rolling his mad eyes, drooling, and grunting. Then he was five yards away, then so close I was afraid he was going to step on me. The size of the being was incredible and I was too engrossed to say anything. He stood over us and swung his paddles—I found myself feeling surreally lucky, as if the animal were giving us a papal blessing before we set off for our hunt. His sides swelled with his breathing. Like an apparition, the smells of the deep forest accompanied him, clung to him. Almost close enough to touch, he shifted his weight and looked back down the valley. Then, after a while, he turned and walked off, not in a hurry, just regular walking. Dave could have called him back, he said, but he decided not to because the moose needed a chance to find a receptive cow.
The moose in the Cabelas made me sad because people come and see it and say how real it is—I heard them plainly—when it is not real at all. It bothers me that such an item hoodwinks people, that they are led astray by the idea of trophy, that they are exploited by the game ranches, which sell trophy animals such as this to the highest bidder, especially in Texas, the state with the most high-fence operations. It bothers me that real experiences have been substituted with simulated ones and no one is questioning the equation. It bothers me most though, that consumer experiences are replacing wilderness experiences all over our land, that Cabelas and others cloak themselves in authentic rituals of Americana, and sell us out when no one is looking.
I went back into the sea merchandise to answer another question I had always harbored about Cabelas—and Bass Pro Shops, Sports Authority, Dick’s, Academy, REI, and Sportsman’s Warehouse—where does all of their stuff, all of their merchandise come from? I knew before I looked. (You know too.) But I looked anyway. China mostly. Vietnam. India. The Philippines. A country called Macau. The tags on their clothing and gear reads like a Who’s Who among countries with deplorable working conditions and miserable environmental policies. My fellow shoppers did not seem to mind.
They were now anxiously milling about the trout pond where it was nearing feeding time. A man with a camcorder filmed hungrily. Children sniggered and cooed. The swarming trout were the biggest myth of all—they represent that old pioneer belief that the world was teeming with wildness, that you could never run out.
“Just look at them all,” said a woman.
The feed struck the pond. The trout erupted in frenzy. There were too many fish to count, too many to believe. And if we ever run out, we’ll just make more.