Rachel Gross, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Synthetic Wilderness: Consumption and Modernity in Outdoor Recreation

Twentieth-century Americans viewed wilderness as an escape but brought the modern world with them in their backpacks as well as in their minds. Wilderness might seem far removed from consumption, but the marketplace of outdoor recreation was nonetheless consistently intertwined with the search for authentic wilderness experiences. Did outdoorspeople experience contradictions when they sought out primitive experiences with increasingly modern equipment? The history of Gore-Tex, a waterproof and breathable synthetic laminate that took backpacking by storm in the 1970s, gets at the heart of that tension. Beginner backpackers welcomed what they called the miracle fabric because it seemed to improve people’s comfort in wet weather. Longtime participants in outdoor recreation resisted Gore-Tex, however, because the material seemed to make outdoor sports too comfortable and too easy, thereby opening up wilderness to masses it could not support. The debates about Gore-Tex revealed struggles over who determined appropriate consumption for outdoor sports and what it meant to be comfortable or dry in the wilderness. I argue that the selling and buying of outdoor clothing and equipment teaches us much more about shifts in twentieth-century American identity and society than might seem possible at first glance.