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Big-box safari

A new breed of gigantic entertainment trading posts is spreading across the country, and in these temples of gear, the modern outdoors enthusiast may never get outdoors.

November 29, 2005|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Rogers, Minn. — "LET'S start up here."

John Castillo bounds into a doorway, up a flight of stairs, through backroom offices, to an archway over the entrance.

"This," he says with an appreciative sweep of his eyes, "is my favorite view."

A mountain three stories tall and covered with wildlife rises in the distance. Trees flame in autumn reds and yellows. Trout swim in a pond at the foot of a cascading stream. Beyond the mountain, in filtered sunlight, a yellow float plane arcs through the sky.

Directly in front of Castillo, 15 geese appear to be headed for a landing. To the right, a bull moose is frozen in a grazing posture, its mouth biting down on grass. Below and beyond, 390 game animals, elephant to hammerhead, seem to gaze back at the humans who gaze at them. In the distance, not one but two shooting galleries add a carnival feel to the scene -- plus an archery range for those who want to tune up for deer season.

Oh yes, there's a store down there too. That's the point after all, and it cannot be missed.

More than three football fields of retail acreage -- 185,000 square feet -- sprawl across a prairie-sized main floor with a smaller balcony yonder, and a circus-sized tent outside for sale items. On the right, guns sprout forest-like from hundreds of feet of casements. To the left, more water -- aquariums totaling 55,000 gallons with an array of live game fish, most notably a surfboard-sized musky with a glower on its face -- and enough lures, flies, artificial worms and bait to get a rise out of everything that swims in Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.

This is Cabela's.

And this is Cabela's multimillion-dollar vision of the future of the outdoors.

Looming alongside Interstate 94 west of Minneapolis in the fashion of a stone-and-log national park lodge, only on a scale of acres rather than square feet, this store, barely a month old, is the latest in a new breed of gigantic entertainment trading posts to sprout up in the U.S. -- a trend that flies in the face of the popular belief that ours is becoming a virtual world of commerce via the Web.

A 44-year-old catalog company for hunters, fishermen and campers, Cabela's -- and its arch rival, Bass Pro Shops -- are filling in the map of the United States with Boone and Crockett-size "destination" retail emporiums. Shop, play, hang out, gawk, go shootin' if you wish, have lunch and maybe learn a thing or two -- and never get your boots muddy.

The great outdoors, we might say, is coming to an indoors location near you.

*

New possibilities

THE mountain men called them their "possibles" -- the essential possessions that make outdoor pursuits possible.

If we recall that interval of history, we remember that the early 19th century mountain men and the Native Americans who befriended them ventured out of the woods periodically to gather at a rendezvous for the purpose of trading: their outdoor labors -- furs, pelts, food -- for outdoor gear. It was a rollicking time, and few wanted to miss it.

Today, the circle of time has closed back on the past. Once again the trade in possibles has become a spectacle to draw people from afar. The rendezvous has returned, 21st century style.

"On any given day, half our customers come from farther than 100 miles away ... some from around the country and some from around the world," Castillo explains. "The average visit lasts about four hours."

Of course, what's possible these days in terms of possibles is something else again. And there's nothing like a visit to Cabela's to remind one of the industriousness, the breathtaking inventiveness, the sheer wackiness of our culture.

We could pause here, for instance, and reflect about the imperative of a toilet seat embedded with fishing lures or bullets. We might wonder what practical application we'd find for a camouflage steering-wheel cover for the pickup truck. We could ponder the nature of progress when today's possibles include underwater video cameras and portable display screens so we can watch as fish bite our bait.

But that would be getting ahead of the story.

*

Bait and beyond

LET'S begin with something simple, say worms. Castillo pauses at the plastic worms. Not the complete selection of plastic worms, mind you: That covers aisles. This is just one display.

Here, hanging from cases, we have the latest in artificial worm bait -- the deluxe biodegradable variety that slowly melts in the water and gives off aromas said to be irresistible to worm-eating fish, not to mention leaving anglers in perpetual need of returning to the store for more melting worms.

Of this particular bait, 144 color and worm variations are on display, including grubs, crawlers, turtlebacks, maggots, leeches, noodles and just plain earthworms.

"Gulp."

That's a brand name, if not also a comment.

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