Mountain climbers have a special term of disparagement for the sort of fellow who talks tent design and pack capacity at cocktail parties. The "equipment freak" not only loves gear for its own sake; he tends to be a mad reductionist who yearns to convert risk and adventure into questions of merchandise. If he can't climb a route at a local crag, it's because his boot welt was too large. If he enjoys a high-altitude dinner, it's thanks to a new camp stove that boils his water in half the time it used to take.
Like their kindred zealots of nutrition and astrology, equipment freaks are secret narcissists. Brooding over snowshoe bindings stems as directly from self-concern, as does concocting diets or charting horoscopes -- no matter how "objective" the disguise in which the passion is cloaked.
The most prevalent form of outdoor literature, as well as the dullest, is not the personal narrative but the how-to book. It is perhaps not surprising that a work like "The L.L. Bean Guide to the Outdoors" should be chosen as a Literary Guild alternate selection, and it will not be unprecedented if it sells well and has a long shelf life. A typical best-seller list usually includes a majority of self-help manuals of one kind or another (diet, sex, money, living alone and Miss Piggy). The how-to guide is the self-help book of the outdoors.
Even among works of its genre, however, the "L.L. Bean Guide" is remarkably preoccupied with gear. Only two of its 11 chapters deal primarily with technique (they cover orienting and weather). The rest focus on telling the reader what kind of equipment to buy. A cynical reviewer, glancing at the book's title, might guess that the appropriation of the name of one of the country's most venerable equipment stores serves the same function as "Scarsdale" or "Beverly Hills" does in the diet best seller. The actual substance of the book may reflect a premise even more cynical. Ostensibly, the new guide is meant to update the 1942 classic by L.L. Bean himself, "Hunting -- Fishing and Camping." But Bill Riviere's prose amounts to a rationalization of the catalog of the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine; nearly every piece of gear he recommends can be purchased there, and brand names are unblushingly specified.
It's not clear whether Riviere, a former Maine guide and a columnist for the Boston Globe, is himself an equipment freak, or whether he merely succumbed to an equipment freak's dream devised by Random House. The "Bean Guide," in covering cross-country skiing, proffers a few halfhearted hints about how to do it, but devotes whole subsections to "camber" and "tip flex and torsional stiffness." There are seven pages on knives, six paragraphs on the virtues and drawbacks of various kinds of frying pans.
On the other hand, Riviere is a graceful writer, his advice is usually sound even when he overkills with explicitness, and his book will no doubt teach legions of potential customers how to intimidate clerks with discussions of tip flex. The author is at his best on his home ground -- Maine, by canoe, which he clearly knows inside out.
Most how-to guides, however, suffer from regionalism, and "Bean" is no exception. Thus the chapter on canoeing exudes no whiff of suspicion that river runners elsewhere -- in the West, for instance -- prefer kayaks and rubber rafts. A Down East conservatism informs the book's ecological stance. At a time when many how-to books condemn lug-soled boots because they chew up trails, Riviere happily promotes them. An appendix listing outdoor organizations ("All are worthy of your support") includes Ducks Unlimited and the National Rifle Association but not Friends of the Earth or the World Wildlife Fund.
Riviere evidently believes in history as progress. Gear gets better and better: So must the outdoor experience. Back in 1917, he indicates, the benighted outdoorsman had recourse only to "primitive" sleeping equipment. "Two or more wool blankets would be folded to form an envelope held together with horse-blanket pins, sometimes encased in a canvas tarp or rubber poncho -- the total weighing twelve to twenty pounds."
Well, maybe in Maine. A few years before 1917, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was laying plans to go to the South Pole, he bought 250 reindeer skins from the Lapps, found a man who could sew them, and produced therefrom his expedition's entire supply of sleeping bags and clothing by imitating the designs of the Netsilik Eskimo. The bags Amundsen and his four companions slept in at the Pole were probably superior in extreme conditions to anything now sold at L.L. Bean's.
Despite such craftsmanship, Amundsen devoted to his equipment a scant 14 pages of the 449 in his sunny chronicle, "The South Pole." Even today, in a world enriched by hang gliders and punk surfers, the essential information for the general outdoorsman can probably be condensed into a 20-page pamphlet. Book-length treatment breeds dogmatism. Hiking, camping and paddling are matters of personal style, just like singing in the shower. When Bill Riviere insists that a person cannot safely venture into the woods for two days without a tube of antibiotic ointment and a pair of tweezers, he's reinforcing the very rule-bound gear-crazy orthodoxy that most of us set off into nature to escape.