On Saturday mornings Elise watches the customers swamp Campland, pouring off Route 17, into the parking lot, out of their cars, and into the store, a deluge seeking deals on discount outdoor gear to outfit their weekend escapes to summit peaks in the Adirondacks and canoe across lakes in Vermont trying to spot Bernie Sanders in the wild and ride rail trails past derelict summer camps in the Poconos and snap photos of mutated fauna eking out precarious lives in the polluted marshes of New Jersey.
Campland, the aging Grand Old Dame of the outdoor retail industry, is nestled like a polyp in the sprawling intestinal tract of strip malls, shopping plazas and highways that Paramus, New Jersey is (in)famous for, dead center in the bowels of suburban northeastern New Jersey’s shopping mall scene. The store is home to a dozen departments, each specializing in a certain mode of exploration: skis, bicycles, kayaks…
Like Sergeant Slaughter said, knowing is half the battle. In pack fitting as in life. Before you choose a pack, know your torso size. Measure from the top of your C-7 vertebrae, the boney nub sticking out of the back of your neck, to your iliac crest or what those not walking the Way of the Stay call the hip bone. This sucker bears the weight of the whole torso, all that meat, those organs. Surely it can handle the few extra pounds of a pack?
The Pack Department is Elise’s domain, refuge and prison. Customers enter the department via a plywood ramp that announces their arrival with a creak as the warped wood strains under the weight of them. In the back of the department, ten feet from the ramp, Elise crouches behind the stay-bending table contemplating her fate.
Four years ago, when she dropped out of Eastern Christian high school at the start of her senior year, out of her family and her faith—the Dutch Reformed Church’s strictures and narrow interpretations of scripture—Campland was a liberation. She looked forward to starting her shift sans compulsory prayers and spending her days not with the Bible but with quirky coworkers whose only shared beliefs were worshipping in the temple of the Great Outdoors. And she looked forward to the steep discounts on gear to help facilitate said worship. Today, with parents who refuse to speak to her let alone cosign a student loan, with an overdrawn bank account and a tiny studio apartment she can barely afford stuffed to the gills with unnecessary gear — how many headlamps does one need? As if any of us can actually see where we are going. — her Campland life has lost much of its liberatory sheen.
She stands and dons her uniform, a maroon apron—and that’s how she feels, marooned, as if Campland were an inescapable island. Should she draw a smiley face on a favorite pack, fashion an idol to have something sympathetic to talk to? Kelty or Gregory as Wilson.
She bends forward, resting her head on the staybending table like a supplicant at the altar of Campland. The waist-high table is the heart of the department. The size of a bar cart, the top is a jig specially designed for bending stays, constructed of maple with a solid oak circle in the center, raised three inches above the rest of the table, a dark mountain rising from a plain of lighter grain. At the front corners stand wooden pegs the size of rolls of quarters sticking up so the salespeople who fit the customers for a new pack can customize it. Simply:
The ramp creaks. A customer. And the Sabeans fell upon them.
Consider your capacity carefully. A twenty-liter pack should suffice for a day trip. You’ll need more volume for longer trips. You might need sixty or even eighty liters for a week on trail. Will you have friends to share the load? Will there be places to resupply often? Are you taking a quick jaunt on a familiar trail in fine weather or a long, cold, solitary trek into the unknown?
Elise delays facing them. She fiddles with a pricing gun — crucial work, this, assigning value — the strain in her face a symptom of the panic attacks that started last month, commemorating her four-year anniversary at Campland alongside the keychain multitool management gifted her to mark the occasion. She cycles through the numbers and symbols on the gun, wishing there were letters too. She would mark everything in the store, every pack and strap and rain cover in her department: FREE. Take it. Go. Please, go. She could turn the label gun on herself. What would she print out? Twenty-two-year-old dropout in search of a decent job? A decent lay? A decent life? Or, simply, I quit? What’s more frightening, sliding further into poverty or another year at Campland? Another decade? A lifetime brutalized by a billion creaks—
“Excuse me. I was told to ask for the staybender. That you?”
So it begins. “Here I am,” she says, the words ingrained now, a reflex.
“I need a pack. I’m doing a trip with my buddy on the Appalachian trail this summer.”
Customer no 1. is a stout man, the requisite extra, middle-age, middle-class paunch around the midsection—medium torso, large hip belt, medium shoulder harness. A novice who might actually do the hike, and one or two more, but not often. Who can afford the necessary gear, but neither the lightest nor best. Elise imagines herself on trail, any trail, quads tight, her body given over to the pure logic of one foot in front of the other until night falls. No inventory to price. No customers to fit. No stays to bend. Just miles of mud and rocks with the creaks heard emanating not from a plywood ramp but from the surrounding trees swaying in the breeze.
She directs him towards the mid-range packs on display along the yellow-brown slatwall behind. He accidently takes the hook off the wall with it. Chunks of Campland fall to the floor. A particle board avalanche.
“Is that supposed to happen?” customer no. 1 asks.
“Just a weak spot in the wall, sir.” Weak spots. This world, crumbling.
Make sure your hip belt is snug and comfortable. It will transfer the weight from your tired shoulders to your strong hips. The buckle should cover your belly-button. The belt should wrap around you tightly like the arms of a lover or the last embrace of a dying relative.
Customer no. 1 clips the sternum strap and, wrongly, sticks his arm through it, becomes tangled and helpless like a trussed-up animal. Elise adjusts the strap, corrects it, putting the pack on customer no. 1 properly, with a light touch, making it seem like he figures it out himself.
“It’s one of these kinds,” he says.
These kinds. Elise wonders what kind she is. What kind the man is. If there’s any kindness in these classifications. She breathes. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Particle board dust and stale Campland air.
Customer no. 2 creaks in and heads straight for the high-end climbing packs along the wall. Climbers. Ugh. “What’s the lightest, 3,000 cubic inch pack you have?”
The climber, of course, is an ultralight zealot. Climbers sometimes bring their own scales into the store. Not trusting the companies’ statistics on the labels, they count off the ounces themselves. The sheep hath burned.
“Well, there’s this one,” Elise says, pulling down a neon orange sack that weighs in under two pounds.
“And that one,” customer no 2. adds, gesturing towards a baby blue pack, a competitor of the orange one but essentially the same sack of rip-stop nylon, paracord and plastic buckles.
The companies might have even merged. Or outsourced manufacturing to the same factory in Vietnam. Elise can’t recall though the sales rep must have told her.
“This wasn’t reviewed in Backpacker,” customer no 2. says. “Or Outside.”
“No, but it’s very similar to the model Backpacker looked at.”
“Then why didn’t they review this one?”
Mud, rocks, trees. “This brand probably didn’t buy ads in that month’s issue.”
The climber looks at Elise, unsure if she is joking. If the joke, if it is one, is funny. And at whose expense. Elise isn’t sure either though she suspects, in the end, they’re all on her.
“Load it for me,” customer no 2 commands.
Elise moves towards the sandbags in a bin by the stay table. Assorted weights, from one to twenty-pound bags. “How much?”
“Seventeen pounds, eight ounces.”
Load your pack properly. To make sure you have a balanced pack, the heaviest items should be close to your back. Think water, food, tent. Think parents’ expectations, deep-seated shame, childhood dreams.
So Elise fills packs, being broke and devoid of faith. She throws in a twenty-pound bag. More feet creak up the ramp. “Hey. Hey. Hello. Do you work here?”
Elise looks down at her maroon apron and her photo ID clipped to it. A two-dimensional, laminated Elise, freshly freed from high school, lean and tan and covered in black fly bites from a long backpacking trip through Vermont, looks back at her. A smiling Elise who had lost faith in God but not in herself. She nods, tries to mimic that smile. Tries, fails. Takes a deep breath.
“Finally. I thought no one worked here. I need a backpack,” customer no. 3 says.
“I’ll be with you in a sec. I’m just loading a pack for this customer.”
“In a sec? What kind of store is this?”
What kind? “I’m the only one in the department at the moment, sorry.”
“This is un-fucking-believable. I’ve got to be at the trailhead by noon.”
Where will Elise be at noon? Campland. Bending stays. And slain the servants with the edge of the sword.
Keep it tight! Use your compression straps to cinch up your pack to keep the load from shifting while on trail. This will improve your balance. Tightness is your mantra. Think seatbelt, Kegel, noose.
The customer looks at his watch, a Tag Heuer chronograph with a face the size of a frying pan and an MSRP ten times Elise’s net worth, at the climber, at Elise, at his watch again.
Elise loads the pack while fielding questions about the weight of the suspensions, the material’s durability. Whether it is waterproof. Whether the lid of it, perched atop the pack like a lopsided toupee, is removable.
“For summiting,” customer no 3. says. “For bagging peaks.”
The climber doesn’t purchase the ultralight pack. In the end, like many a burden, it’s still too heavy. The ramp creaks and creaks and creaks again.
Another creak announces Doug’s arrival, Elise’s mentor, harasser, and the longest-serving member of the Pack Department (Doug’s mentor Phil is considered the most talented staybender in Pack Department history. His is a mixed legacy however. He was a whiz at the staybending jig and had authored Campland’s peculiar yet nonetheless popular pack fitting cheat sheet. But he also hanged himself in the warehouse in the middle of a shift wearing a fully-weighted pack. Management still holds a grudge towards the entire department for the lost sales caused by the investigation and the removal of the body.) During Elise’s training, it took her a week to realize Doug insisted she try on each pack not so she could familiarize herself with the products she’d be selling, but so he could ogle her breasts as the sternum strap smooshed them together like a push-up bra. Doug: thick red beard, thinning blond hair, overactive libido—Van Gogh in the asylum with a constant hard-on.
“Where the hell were you?” Elise says.
“You do something new with your hair?”
“Forgot to wash it. Here, set these frames up for the lunch rush,”
Doug reaches past Elise, smells her hair, and picks up an external frame pack. The large aluminum frame looks like a stretcher and the pack attached to it is limp, empty, the husk of a corpse. “I was in the warehouse eating the bagels. Still smells fresh, like peppermint.”
“Your hair. I put a dozen in the freezer to take home too. Here’s one for you.” Bill, the store manager, brings the free day-olds from his brother’s shop and leaves them in the breakroom every Saturday with the gravitas of a land baron leaving scraps for his serfs. Doug pulls out an everything bagel wrapped in toilet paper from his Campland apron pocket. Sesame and poppy seeds rain down onto the floor, burrow into the brown carpet like scabies into skin.
Elise wants to reject the offering but she’s starving and has eaten nothing but ramen with eggs and frozen peas for the last three days. She takes a bite as customer no 1. stomps back and forth in a new pack. The bagel tastes like a day-old, half-way on its journey to becoming a bagel chip.
When you’re ready to put on your pack, make sure all of the straps are loose. This will ensure an optimal fit as you tighten each strap, drawing the pack close to your back. Visualize a fireman carrying a person out of a burning building or giving a final piggyback ride to your inner child before adolescent disenchantment sets in.
Elise is half-choking, half-chewing, when Bill swoops into the department slurping the coffee his subsists on, rail-thin, manic, ulcerous. On a carabiner attached to his belt hang the keys to the Kingdom of Campland along with a multitool and a miniature tactical flashlight. They jangle loud and metallic like a truck grinding its gears. He’s wearing his signature long-sleeve maroon T-shirt, the Campland logo on his chest fading into oblivion. “What’s the word? Working hard or hardly working?” His greeting every morning. Multiple times throughout the day too. Like he is constantly surprised his employees are still there.
“Eat shit,” Doug whispers into the pack. “Eat wet, runny, diseased shit. You fuck. You dirty fucker.” To Bill, he says “hey,” then descends the ramp, hanging up displays, straightening up now that the first wave of customers seems sated or has successfully been shunted to a different department.
“What’s that, there? A new Kelty?” Bill says.
“Big, juicy turds in your mouth…” Doug mutters to himself in a sing-song way.
So Elise answers questions, being exhausted and resigned. “Much the same as the older model.” She drops her bagel in her apron pocket. “And the one before that.”
Bill looks confused, zips and unzips the pack, over and over. “I don’t know. Look at these zippers. They’re perforated. Must have lightened the load considerably. How much does it weigh?”
Before Elise can answer, Bill is paged over the PA system by a voice that sounds conspicuously like a severely congested Doug: “Manager needed in the warehouse.”
Bill looks up as if heaven itself is calling. “You all ever go out for drinks after work? I was wondering if we could, you know, for teambuilding purposes—”
“Manager needed in the warehouse. Now. Manager needed. Manager.”
Bill strokes the keys and multitool on his carabiner and loudly licks the front of his teeth. “Ah, well. Duty calls.” He dashes off with a final slurp of coffee. Two drops spill on the ramp, staining the wood.
Doug returns looking smug. “As if the customers weren’t bad enough, we’ve got to entertain that cretin. All right, love,” he says, rubbing his crotch. “I’m off.”
“Where are you going?” Elise is still staring at the coffee soaking into the plywood floor.
“What kind of shampoo do you use?”
“Will you miss me?”
“If you abandon me up here, I’ll shove a stay up your ass.”
“You’re still green, work wife o’ mine. Stick with me for another decade and you’ll know the ins and outs of this place. You’ll be a true Camplander, maroon to the core.” Doug scurries down the ramp, crooning venomously to the tune of Green Acres like a demented lounge act, “staybending is the life for me…”
A pack, like a person, must be cared for. Store it in a cool, dry place so it’s ready to serve you well on your next adventure. If it’s dirty, hand-wash it with mild soap. If it sits empty too long, fill it.
Elise stares at the wall of packs. Breathes deep the stink of Campland: outgassed plastics, Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, body odor, bagels. The packs dangle from the wall like dead things, the department a butcher shop or taxidermist’s parlor. Some packs are stuffed with plastic bags and packing peanuts, full-bodied to give customers a sense of what they will look like loaded for the trail. Others, half full, sag. The newest, yet-to-be-stuffed, look like gutted animals.
Elise’s chest constricts. A great wind from the wilderness. She places a hand on her heart, tries to imagine some core within, an untapped talent waiting to break free. Is there still time to fight this deflation? To refill herself somehow? There are costs she can cut. Cancel her cellphone plan. Visit more food pantries. Sell some gear. She has options. She could get her GED. Her cousin got a good gig at a shipping company that pays for an associate’s degree. She could learn a trade, something outside, become an electrical lineman or a forester. Join a union. A path begins to appear through the woods. She has to believe in something.
She survives another two hours of creaks and questions and bent stays and heads towards the warehouse to scrounge for more plastic stuffing. One foot in front of the other. Breathe in, breathe out. She is looking forward to how fresh the packs will look once full. How hard could the GED be?
Behind a stack of external frame packs beneath the site of Phil’s hanging, she spies Doug jerking off onto the emergency exit, his pants around his knees, his ass pale and pimply, palming the gray metal door with one hand, fingers splayed, the other furiously, joylessly, masturbating. He’s whispering to himself, “you dirty fucker,” over and over. The wild asses in the desert. She slips past him unnoticed or ignored and gathers up the plastic she needs. She hears something, wonders if Doug is about to blow his load but realizes it’s coming from behind her by the shipping pallets. She peers around a stack of cardboard boxes and sees Bill sitting at a metal desk and cutting into his left forearm with the blade of a familiar-looking multitool attached to his carabiner, adding to a long row of old scars and newer scabs, interrogating himself, muttering “working hard or hardly working” and whimpering like a puppy abandoned at the pound.
She hurries back to the Pack Department with her arms full of plastic and drops the load on the floor by the staybending table. She’ll call her cousin this week. Her parents too. She’ll apologize. She’ll beg. She’ll—
The ramp creaks. The sound of a tree bending — or breaking — in the wind.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for a backpack expert?” Customer 121 says.
“Here I am,” Elise responds automatically as if Campland is answering through her, for her. As if she and the store are one.
The customer needs a custom-fit pack for her upcoming mountaineering trip to Denali. Elise sizes her up: a short, fat lady just past middle age with a short torso and narrow shoulders and minor scoliosis manifesting in a slight leftward bend to her spine. “You are going to climb Denali?”
Elise nods, admiring the customer’s optimism or idiocy. She removes the stays from the customer’s preferred pack and begins bending them, sliding them onto the jig in the table and checking her work against the curve of her spine as she stands with her back to Elise.
“It’s valuable, this kind of skill, no?” The customer asks.
Instead of answering, Elise leaves one stay in the jig and pulls the day-old bagel from her pocket and takes a bite. The hunk of stale bagel sticks in her dry throat. She tries to cough through it but begins to panic, her face reddening, her throat constricting.
The customer continues to face the wall of limp packs. “You probably get a good deal on gear working here too, right?”
Elise steps in the pile of plastic she’s just collected and falls forward, faceplanting on the stay table and sliding onto the floor feeble-kneed, blood-smeared, and coughs up the half-chewed bagel. Her nose is broken. Pain pulses across her face. Her father’s belt. Her mother’s nails. Mrs. Wortendyke’s wooden ruler across her knuckles during Bible Studies. God’s silence. She tastes snot and blood and bagel.
The customer rushes over, pulls a quick-drying towel from her basket, tears open the packaging and holds it to Elise’s nose. “You ok, honey? That was a nasty fall.”
“My bowels boiled and rested not,” Elise mutters.
“Want me to call someone? The manager?” the customer asks with genuine concern.
“Dirty fuckers,” Elise says. She shakes her head and shakily stands, picks up the stay and resumes bending with renewed purpose. Her blood dribbles on the stay, her hands, and the table. Under Campland’s dim fluorescent lights, it looks dark brown, even maroon.
It’s time. Your pack is fitted and loaded. All you have to do is put it on. Bend your knee and hoist the pack onto your thigh. Slip into one shoulder strap and then slide into the rest of the pack. Clip your hip belt and tighten the shoulder straps, the side stabilizers, the upper-load stabilizers, the sternum. Now you’re ready to hit the trail. You and your pack are one.
The customer flashes one last look of concern, even tenderness, then turns to read about her pack.
Elise stands straight, tips her head back and her nosebleed slows to a trickle. She feels lightheaded, ultralight, like she could drift up and off and away, but something in her rejects this lightness. She craves weight. She bends the stays and becomes attuned to her own back in the process, each vertebra, and imagines a custom-fit pack out there for her, something to conform to her spine, and isn’t life one long fitting? We’re all connected vertebrae in a spine bearing the gigantic pack that is the world, the promise of this world, the responsibility, with thoughts, emotions, souls as so much spinal fluid sloshing about, and staybending is Elise’s role, her task and burden, one neuron traveling down the infinite spine. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered.
“I’m working hard,” she avows to the ceiling, to Campland, to the customer, to herself, to a God she half believes in, bending the stays and sniffing and sniveling through the blood and the snot and the pain.
Save for the sounds of Elise’s exertions, the department is silent until the customer says, “Amen to that.”
So Elise lives, being young and bending stays.