Like shimmering diamonds resting on a woman’s fair neck, the turquoise-tinted aluminum of the Black Diamond trekking poles caught my eye as they magnificently reflected the fluorescent glow from overhead.
It was a typical Saturday for me – perusing one of my neighboring REI stores.
Most Saturdays I “window shop” here. But that day was different. They were running their annual Labor Day sale all weekend. That day, I was actually going home with something.
I revel in those Saturdays when I have nothing planned, so I can devote a few hours to browsing REI in the morning as I clutch my latte, followed by a free, afternoon wine tasting at the nearby Total Wine.
What is it about a wall full of hiking boots and shelves lined top-to-bottom with camping cookware that draws me in? Audrey Hepburn ogled stunning jewels; I covet SmartWool socks.
When I walk through the doors of an REI, after a quick survey of the chalkboard listing this month’s classes, I then turn my attention to the full expanse of the store and get the same twinkle in my eye as when I see braised pork belly on a restaurant’s menu.
I spend a second taking it all in. And then I angle toward the MREs and 10-in-1 outdoor cooking sets akin to Swiss Army knives. Although I never buy any of the MREs – or the cooking sets, for that matter – I’m like a moth to a flame. Modern technology and man’s relentless will to repurpose everything in the name of voluntary “survival” in the woods fascinates me.
Although I sometimes complain about REI’s prices, I have to admit, the tatted, sunkissed sales reps know what they’re talking about. They make recommendations and give guidance sprung from their own, hard-won experiences, so I feel confident when I decide to buy. Walking into an REI is my substitute for when I can’t make it outdoors. It helps me bide my time until I can stomp my Keen boots on the campgrounds and trails of the North Georgia mountains once again. It represents all the waterfalls, rivers, mountains, and more that I have yet to explore.
Admittedly, I don’t buy all my outdoorsy/adventure-y equipment and clothing at REI. I do sometimes test out items in the store and then buy something similar but a lot more affordable online. However, REI does have some durable, clever tools and supplies – and did I mention the store reps really know their stuff? So it’s hard to not get starry-eyed when in the store. I just can’t afford to buy everything from there, especially when all my hobbies tend to get expensive.
Over these past few years, I’ve become a part of this “crunchy” tribe I used to make fun of – I sometimes elect to sleep on the ground and cook my meals over a campfire during a crisp, autumn weekend, when I have a perfectly good, warm bed at home and an electric stove.
My immigrant parents have asked me, “Why would you choose to sleep on the uncomfortable ground when you have the option of your bed and air conditioning?” They come from a people who were refugees fleeing underdeveloped Laos in the 1970s and 1980s, escaping bombs and communism. Although they were fortunate to never have had to experience refugee camps themselves, I have aunts, uncles, and first cousins who did go through that.
The housing/shelter situation at these camps were the furthest thing from a Marriott or a Hilton. Families often had to sleep on straw mats on the ground, or if they were lucky enough to still have some money, they were able to secure a small, hard mattress that they’d share with each other. Pair that with straw roofs, no A/C, and sweltering heat year round, since the camps were located in countries so close to the equator.
So when my parents ask me this question time and again, I reply: “I don’t know. I really like it. I can’t explain why.” But in my head, I’m thinking that there’s just something about the solitude, the distance from the city, and the pride I get in using the fire I built for such vital needs as cooking my meals and keeping me warm. There’s something so primal about it all. It’s a chance for me to reflect … on everything.
But how do I explain this feeling to my parents in Lao? How do I get them to understand that, although I grew up very privileged, that I actively choose to walk away from those luxuries for a few days to regain my balance and perspective in this crazy, fast-paced world? And how do I convey that this doesn’t mean I take these luxuries for granted for one second?
The words on the tip of my tongue and the perspective I have from growing up as a Lao-Chinese-American would be lost in translation. So I just leave it at that: “I don’t know. I really like it. I can’t explain why.”
So as it stands, given the choice, a sturdy, insulated sleeping pad for camping in the desert will win over a Louis Vuitton clutch.
As I got further into writing this post, I started to unpack those feelings and motivations of why the gear and what REI stands for appeal so much to me. Of why I like being “out in the elements” so much. Of why I actively seek experiences and places where things aren’t “easy” or “comfortable” in the Western sense. (For example, I’ve previously chosen to travel through underdeveloped Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos over developed Japan and Korea.)
Though I was born and raised in a first-world country and never went without food or shelter, I seek these tough physical situations. I like to test myself and see what I’m made of. Perhaps, I feel it brings me closer to those in the world who had to survive on very little. It’s that grit from within that I want to coax out of myself. That same grit that my maternal grandmother had to call forth when she had to run a roadside grocery store in Vientiane, Laos, while raising nine kids on her own when her husband passed away unexpectedly.
It’s the grit my parents had to rely on when they fled Vientiane to Paris, and again when they uprooted from Paris to settle in Atlanta, all the while having to adapt and learn new languages, new governments, and new ways of life.
It’s that same grit that my paternal grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins had to summon as they crossed the wide Mekong River to get to the safe haven of the refugee camps in Thailand.
And it’s that same grit that the Lao people dug up from deep within as they waited out days, months, years in these camps in hopes of being reunited with family in some foreign country that was accepting refugees. A foreign country in which they would work hard, take pride in being able to earn their keep, share what little they had with others, and no longer live in fear of communists, “re-education camps,” and bombs.
Now, I know that my experiences don’t come anywhere close to what they went through. But perhaps me turning away from these luxuries sometimes is my way of honoring my family’s past and my people’s past. Something deep within me needs validation that I, too, can survive anything, can deal with tough situations, and am made of the same hard-as-nails stuff that my parents, my ancestors, and the Lao people are made of.
I’m well aware that I’m going through all these experiences with really well-made gear that still offer me some comfort as I’m “roughing it.” So, technically, I’m not really staring hardship in the face, like others have. But a woman still has got to test and stretch herself in this modern, Western world.
I know this probably doesn’t make sense to some, and that I’m full of contradictions: I grew up privileged, yet I seek suffering. I get lost in the woods so that I can “find myself.” I seek balance amidst a dancing fire.
I’m sure there’s a lesson in Buddhism somewhere in there.
I guess I’m still learning that lesson.
In the meantime, REI will continue to be my sanctuary, next to trails and campfires – all somehow keeping me connected to those who came before me and to the trials they went through so that I could be here and be this: Free, American, gritty, and grateful.