The Accidental Anthropologist Visits REI

KK needed special pants to wear on her upcoming climbing trip in Colorado. She had exhausted all the usual outlets (thrift stores), one unusual outlet (Rock/Creek in Chattanooga), and decided it was time to shop the experts.

I made my first observation before we even entered the building. Those door pulls — are those crampons? Ice picks? Axes shaped like that thing in Alien?

Picture borrowed from, because I was too confused and intimidated to take my photo at the time.

My assistant tells me they were ice axes, commonly used in moutaineering and alpine travel. I began to fear that I should have brought more than the gluten-free energy bar stashed in my purse for hangry emergencies. I’d hate for this trip to a suburban sprawl-mall to turn into the Donner Party.

Walking to the back of the store, the first phalanx of women’s clothing we encountered were the jackets. This outerwear came in a dizzying array of options: insect repellent, UV protecting, waterproof, breathable, warm into the many negatives of  degrees.

To keep my bearings and to help you become more familiar with the possibilities, I created this lingo bingo game. Play at your own risk.

Edutainment at its finest. A game for learning the REI patois by practicing phrases drawn from women’s jackets descriptions.

The jackets were available in an equally broad palette of colors. In addition to utilitarian grays and blacks, there were plenty in exotic lime green, fuschia, yellow, pink, and purple.  So you can imagine my surprise that one manufacturer had named their gray jacket “Porpoise.” Was “Fat Whale” already taken? But “porpoise” — it even sounds like “corpulent.” “Dolphin,” at least, is sleek and smart and cute.

Isn’t that right, Lisa Frank?

It also reminded me of that old SNL skit where Little Richard Simmons tells a chunky girl in a gray leotard to “never wear battleship gray – 2,000 sailors will try to board you!”

But pants were the point of the trip, and we soon found some.

Because these pants were designed (or, at least, marketed) to be functional, they had enough features to quickly send one down a spiral of decision fatigue that would make public nudity look like a welcome relief: knee gussets or crotch gussets, zippers here or zippers there, velcro or buttons or snaps, drawstrings or belts, zip-off convertibles or just roll-em-ups.

Undaunted, KK collected about 15 pairs and headed for the dressing room.  The pants that passed the initial fit test were subjected to a more rigorous testing process.

This is from that Chattanooga shopping trip – they had nice huge dressing rooms.

This included chicken dance impressions and as much jumping, lunging, bending, and knee lifting as could fit into that <10 sq ft space — everything but a few roundhouse kicks, which would have splintered the door and rained mirror shards.

The Accidental Anthropologist was left to dodge flying knees and elbows while trying to come up with an original comment for each pair. Low-hanging fruit like “Those look…comfortable” soon devolved into “Those look…like pants” which turned into “Didn’t you already try those on?” Because unlike most women’s clothing, which comes in a maddening variety of colors and materials, the hikey/climby pants came in only two colors — black and a narrow spectrum of brownish-grayish-greenish I’ll call “dirt.”

Success at last! A suitable pair of climbing pants had been isolated. But “while we’re all the way up here,” KK wanted to weave through the rest of the yoga tanks, hundred-dollar hoodies, and post-apocalyptic hooded sack dresses.

Harmless fun, I thought. And then I was captivated by a lovely green plaid shirt, perched like a rare Amazonian parrot, on an upper rack.

I tentatively touched the hem of the garment and found it was made of flannel, soft and supple. Wondering if I might be able to fit into a Large, I gaily flipped through the 2, 4, 10, 6, and finally landed on the largest available, a 12 — just like haute couture!

Slipping my arms into the sleeves, I was pleased to find that it almost met over the bosom. I flattered myself that a 14 might have been too big (ha ha!).

Smoothing the princess seams, which made for a great fit and accentuated my waist, my left hand ran over a thicker area down near the hem. To my amazement, there was a hidden inside pocket inside there, just big enough for a phone or a kingsize Tear ‘n Share Size bag of M&Ms.

The gentlemen reading today may not know it, but women’s clothes are almost entirely devoid of the handy interior pockets common in menswear. I can still remember the day, as a young tween, I found out that even men’s bathing trunks came with pockets. I might have burned something down in frustration.

This lovely green plaid shirt was a black swan.

A huge improvement over my favorite flannel shirt in high school:

It was a man’s 2X I found at the thrift store for half price. There’s an AC/DC shirt underneath, if that helps.

I might have to splurge a little. Would it hurt my ability to remain an objective observer? No! What better way to understand the denizens of REI than by participating in one of their most sacred retail rituals?

I fumbled with the packet of tags to find the one with the price on it. No, not the Brand Vision. Not the Manufacturing Values Statement. Not the Founders Biography or the Carbon Footprint Reduction Credo or the Fiber Care Chorus. Aha — this lovely shirt would be mine for a mere $75.


It was a flannel shirt. Cotton. Two sleeves, a front, and a back. The kind of shirt you might wear to a football game or to rake leaves this fall. It was nice.

Who were these mysterious people who could, and would, spend $75 for a casual shirt? I realized then that I knew less than ever about the rare breed of REI shoppers.  I glanced around, hoping to catch a glimpse or even find one to interview, but we had the bad luck of shopping on a Tuesday evening. All of the usual shoppers were probably either still at the firm making the big bucks or passed out drunk from their lavish lives of unmentionable excesses.

My initial enthusiasm to explore the realm was dimming, but KK had to look for a headlamp before we could leave. Apparently, the 2-pack I got for $5 at Home Depot around Fathers Day would be insufficient for risking one’s life in jagged canyon crags halfway across the continent in the pre-dawn/post-sunset hours. Touché.

I was relieved to find that the headlamps had fewer features than any of the clothing we’d viewed. Is it a lamp? Check. That you wear on your head? Check. Then we just have to decide how many lumens you want.

Handy consumer tip:  A lumen is a measure of the time it takes for you to see again after somebody looks at you with their headlamp on. More lumens mean a brighter (and more blinding) light.

The winner? The Black Diamond Moxie, with 55 lumens of blinding power, in Crystal Blue. Currently on sale for only $19.93.

That’s a lotta lumens.


  • I am not sporty enough and waaayyy too working-class to shop at REI.
  • Likely, also too porpoisey.
  • Tuesday is not a busy night. The shoe section guy who looked like that fat kid with the curly hair in that movie “greeted” me 3 times in about 10 minutes. A weekend visit would likely provide more opportunities to observe the locals.

Check back next week as the Accidental Anthropologist visits Anthropologie.

2 thoughts on “The Accidental Anthropologist Visits REI”

  1. Sorry – I think I found the setting to tweak so it won’t ask every time.
    And no, I did not get the shirt. For that trip, we followed the “take only memories, leave only footprints” guideline. And I think I really did need the 14 they didn’t have (shrinkage and whatnot).


Now it's your turn

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s