You know those stories where a character walks through a door into a completely different world? One where things are totally alien and fascinating and sometimes scary and dangerous? Lucy into Narnia, Alice into Wonderland. I, too, opened a magic door and went into a parallel universe.
A few years ago, I was on a decorating quest in December. I needed a wooden oar and a wicker creel for my dad’s home office. The only place that had both items was Cabela’s, the “world’s foremost outfitter.” I’d heard of Cabela’s, but had never been there. I figured there would be fishing stuff, some camping gear, maybe a kayak or two. And Alice figured it was just a rabbit hole.
I approached the huge, lodge-like building along with hundreds of other Christmas shoppers. I walked up to the glass doors beside a nice looking family carrying their 3-year-old princess. There was a small sign that encouraged me to check my guns at the door. I raised an eyebrow. But the princess wasn’t packing and neither was I, so we went inside.
Now, let me say that I’m not a complete outdoor neophyte. My dad has been a fisherman and hunter most of his life. I was a fisherkid for quite a while. I like nature and have been camping a time or two. But nothing in my experience had prepared me for this place.
Like Dorothy seeing Oz for the first time, I stood there with my mouth hanging open and my eyes bugging out. Stretched out before me were two stories jam packed with outdoor gear. My eyes bounced from vests and boots to poles and boats to sonars and sights to guns and ammo. The place was so big it made all the shoppers look like Munchkins. The sheer volume of stuff was overwhelming. I couldn’t take it all in. I was a stranger in a very strange land. I just hoped someone there spoke Suburban English.
Fortunately, the Land of Cabela’s is divided into mini-lands, each with its own character and signage. Each mini-land is further divided into smaller territories. I wondered if I needed a passport. I put my eyes back into their sockets and headed toward the province called Fish World. I found what I needed in about five minutes. But I was so curious that I decided to explore more of this odd country.
Fish World had a very large walk-through aquarium. Lots of lovely and strange creatures dreamily swimming about in a soft blue glow. It was kind of nice until I realized that they were surrounded by everything you need to kill a fish. Imagine having to stare all day at the tools that would some day snag and gut you. That could mess you up. A large-mouth bass swam up to the glass and gave me boo-boo eyes, begging me for help. It creeped me out a little, so I left.
Up ahead was Crappie Land. I was savvy enough to know that this area had nothing to do with port-a-potties or lousy theme parks. It had to do with an unfortunately named freshwater fish that you catch and throw back. Seems kind of pointless, I know, but there was a ton of Crappie crap to be bought, so somebody must enjoy it.
I was being hypnotized by a wall of fluorescent lures when the heads caught my eye.
Hanging above me, along the store walls, were mounted deer heads. My dad used to have a six-point buck hanging in our home, so it wasn’t a big shock to see something like that. Until I started counting them. I quit at 60. The entire 180,000 square foot showroom was ringed with the heads of dead animals. All sorts of woodland creatures stared down at me with glass eyes and formaldehyde induced grimaces.
As I scanned the showroom with a growing sense of yuck, I saw it. In the center of Cabela Country was Conservation Mountain.
Two stories of fake rock sprinkled with “hundreds of museum-quality wildlife displays in natural habitats.” On one side were polar bears; around the bend were deer and mountain goats. Lynx and caribou and badgers, oh my.
My brain refused to accept the obvious. I found an employee and stuttered, “So, all these animals. . . are they, um, real, or are they just really nice recreations?” She laughed and said, “Oh, they’re real!” Apparently, if you shoot a trophy sized animal Cabela’s will buy and display it in one of their stores. If it’s really special it’ll go on Conservation Mountain. I wanted to ask, “So, you’re conserving what, carcasses?” but I didn’t want to get kicked out just yet, so I just smiled and let her get back to sorting camouflage baby bibs.
It seems that Mule Deer are on the decline, which is a bad thing. So they have a museum displaying 90 stuffed “Mulies” in their natural surroundings. (I’m assuming that their natural surroundings are fake hills and trees nestled close to hunting rifles inside a giant retail outlet.) There’s also an animatronic “Old Timer” who is happy to tell you that he’d be content huntin’ Mule Deer ‘til the day he dies. Yahoo.
Scattered throughout the display were signs that said, ”Without you the future of the Mule Deer is bleak!” They tried to explain that without hunters the Mule Deer just might disappear.
Now I admit I’ve never had a bent for logic. My kids can solve logic problems better than I can. But it seems to me that when a large company that sells hunting rifles to people who like to shoot animals rewards people for shooting said animals, it just might create a pretty bleak situation right there. Let’s keep the deer alive by giving you guns-n-things to kill them with. And to help motivate you, here’s some money and a shiny plaque. This kind of logic is way over my little head.
I’d had enough of Bleakville, so I moved on. I began to wonder about the other shoppers. What kinds of people voluntarily came to a place like this? I guess I was expecting a bunch of guys named Cletus wandering around in overalls and scratching a lot. But what I saw were normal looking people, most of whom weren’t scratching. Some guys looked like they drove trucks, others probably drove BMWs. I saw a mom with a Cheerio popping toddler near the hunting hats. A young man telling his wife how good she’d look in those camo overalls. A grandma checking the scope on a rifle. The longer I looked, the weirder it got. I felt way out of my element so I tried to be invisible, which is hard to do carrying a six-foot oar and a large basket. Still, I moved carefully. You don’t want to startle someone with a gutting knife in their hands.
I realized that I’d only been exploring the first level of this death world, so I hiked up the grand staircase, which ran right up alongside Conservation Mountain. I got a close up view of all those animals they had saved, especially the ones who had been conserved at higher elevations. Their glassy stares followed me all the way up, making my skin crawl.
I was now in the Realm of Gamey Gourmet Goodness. This place was all about what to do with your critters once they’re dead (besides stuffing them). Did you know that after you kill [insert your favorite animal here] with [insert favorite weapon here] you can gut it, skin it, slice it and grind it up immediately? Yes, for only $49.99, you, too, can own your very own portable meat grinding kit. No more bloody messes in your truck or at home – just grind, heat and eat! Don’t feel like rabbit patties tonight? How about a jerky gun and drying rack for a leathery late night snack? Or a mix to whip up a batch of squirrel stew? And if all that makes you hungry now, you can stop by the in-store café for a freshly killed nosh and a latte. I suppressed the need to hurl and went the other way.
If you want to shop unencumbered by children, just drop your tykes off at the family friendly shooting gallery.
Yes, in this Land O’Killer Kiddies, an animatronic bear and lion greet you at the door, then toss lame insults at each other as the sound of gunshots fills the air. Kids can spend hours with a rifle at the shoulder, popping off half of Noah’s ark. Hmmm, how can we focus the energies of today’s youth? I know, let’s give them guns!
Back downstairs there was a line of people snaking toward another world-within-a-world: Fake African Savannahville. A blue sky backdrop surrounded loads of majestic dead creatures. A small pride of lions lounging peacefully. Some quietly grazing antelope. The special attraction, though, was Santa Claus. People had lined up to have pictures taken with the Jolly Old Elf (he was alive). There he was, in his chair, happy kiddies on his lap. And in the background of all those pictures?
A lion tearing the throat out of a terrified zebra.
And the scariest thing was that no one seemed to mind. Time for me to go.
I hastily dodged through the hordes of holiday hunters, paid for my items and escaped through the magic glass doors. As I breathed in some fresh air and tried to find my happy place, I noticed another line in the parking lot. More parents and their dolled up hunters-to-be were queued up at a little white tent. A sign read “Pictures with Live Reindeer.” I assumed that inside was a hapless reindeer tethered to a festive backdrop of some kind (Armageddon?) and wearing a blanket to soak up dribbles from leaky diapers. I briefly toyed with the idea of setting Rudolph free, just in case anybody had a hankering for reindeer jerky. But angering a bunch of newly armed predators and their spawn at Christmas probably wasn’t such a good idea. I sadly left him to his fate.
As I peeled out of the parking lot, tires smoking, I was grateful that the doors to the eerie world of Cabela’s didn’t open into other worlds. What if the natives encountered Aslan, the White Rabbit, or the Cowardly Lion? The glare of shiny new plaques would be blinding.
So, if ever you find yourself lost in Crappie Land or caught in the laser sights of a 9-year-old on safari, click your heels three times and make a mad dash for the wardrobe. And grab some camo for cover on your way out – there’s an Old Timer in there with an itchy trigger finger looking for something else he can conserve.