For the summer pleasure-seeker, Michigan brims with natural attractions. From the Sleeping Bear Dunes to the Pictured Rocks, from storied Beaver Island to the remote wilderness of the Porkies, the Wolverine State is loaded with outdoor attractions to rival any state in the union.
So it comes as something of a surprise that one of the state's top tourist attractions isn't a park or a wilderness at all: It's the Cabela's superstore in Monroe County, about a half-hour south of Ann Arbor. On the outskirts of the tiny community of Dundee, amid a cluster of chain restaurants, sits the massive beige-and-green outpost of the "World's Foremost Outfitter."
Though Cabela's is the largest direct marketer of outdoor equipment, founded almost 50 years ago at the Cabela family's kitchen table, the company's "destination shops" around the country offer a unique blend of retail and spectacle that gives the outfitter's stores the feel of an amusement park. That "retail as entertainment" spirit — and Dundee's proximity (about 20 miles) to Ohio — is what has made the superstore into a huge, huge draw for out-of-staters. In fact, when my group arrives, we casually spot cars in the 56-acre parking lot with plates from five different states and provinces. Inside, they even have a walk-through aquarium hall, a 250-seat café and postcards to commemorate your visit. It's stay-all-day spectacular.
The conceit of the store — a place where outdoorsmen may buy premium goods amid simulacra of the great outdoors — creates the unique kind of American experience that makes French deconstructionists pop a boner. At Cabela's, America's frontier spirit is shamelessly, cleverly parlayed into consumer culture. For the keen cultural observer, the mythology of self-reliance, thrift and respect for nature are perverted in hilarious and entertaining ways.
The spectacle begins when you first behold the store. Out front stands a mammoth bronze sculpture: Two 20-foot bears fight for the last serving of moose. This brutal portrait of natural conflict can be seen from the nearby highway, atop a platform in front of the store. It's imposing, dynamic, representational — like what public art used to be.
The nearby log cabin, in contrast, looks peaceful, although, upon closer inspection, it's actually a faux log cabin. The 150-square-foot edifice can be ordered from Cabela's with a phone call. Why build your own log cabin from local wood when you can have a prefab log cabin kit? It's made out of glue-laminated logs by Conestoga, which churns out prefabs "crafted for any lifestyle."
Also nearby are a few power boats, including a Maxum 1800 MX. It looks fast enough for a quick daydream. Hey, who needs the gentle paddling and nature sounds of a canoe when the runabout's 135-horsepower Alpha I engine can send you rocketing across the water? Don't like all that motor noise? Just turn up your MP3-enabled stereo system to drown out the roar. I mean, the runabout's only $14,995.
But, seriously, the real show awaits inside, under the massive cathedral ceiling that arches over the 180,000-square-foot main floor. Our party is stopped in its tracks by the sight of all this, only to peer overhead at a moose head mounted over the store entrance. While we gaze at it, a friendly greeter chats us up about the stuffed animals, mentioning an elephant one of the Cabela family "bagged" in Africa that's on display in the rear of the store. Asked where the mounted monstrosities come from, she says some were shot by the Cabela family, but new animals likely come from "contractors." It sounds a little ominous, but we leave it at that.
Only a dozen paces in, we encounter our first taxidermic tableau, a fairly tame scene of white-tailed deer in peaceful poses gated off near the men's wear department. After gazing at this tranquil nature scene, you may be more disposed to splurge on the nearby array of sporting shirts and jackets, including the fetching Dry-Plus Turlock Shooting Jacket ($149.95), with ultra-soft micro-fiber shell and a breathable waterproof membrane.
But these pleasures we hastily dismiss, because we can see the firearms department on the right. A sign implores shoppers to "take a number for help with firearms and scopes" at a counter where enough guns to arm a small nation stand erect and ready for inspection. High on the wall behind the counter, the heads of antlered creatures protrude.
But instead of picking over the rifles, I head for the "Gun Library," which specializes in historic and collectible firearms for enthusiasts. The roar of the store is muffled back in this dramatic, wood-paneled room, the walls lined with well-lit guns in showcases. I pepper the guy in charge with questions, kidding him a little.
"Why is it called a library? Can you check the guns out?"
"No, you can't," he says tolerantly, probably having heard this gag 1,000 times or more. Seriously, these guns are too expensive for that. The priciest gun in the room is hand-made and goes for $55,000.
"Would you have a gun that Teddy Roosevelt would shoot?" I ask half in jest. The guy walks straight over to a showcase, opens it and hands me a heavy weapon that balances easily in my inexpert hands.
"That's the 1895 Winchester rifle. That's Teddy Roosevelt's big-game gun that he used in Africa."
"Well, it fires a heavy round."
After briefly scanning the price ($7,499.95), I hand the weapon back to him. At these prices, it's hard to believe they sell about 100 guns out of the library a month.
We take a quick detour upstairs to the 45,000-square-foot balcony to see the oddities in the furniture department, a monument to kitsch that could strike a sensitive interior decorator blind. There, the enthusiast can procure any kind of furniture with a woodland scene printed on it. Midwestern hunters can outfit their cabin with a rustic-seeming aspen log bed, available in twin, full, queen and king ($1,199.99). They may choose to put their 40-watt bulbs in a 9-antler "reproduction" elk chandelier, hand-stained and rubbed to resemble authentic sheds. And, frankly, when you kick back at the cabin, don't you want a $2,799.99 theater sofa? It comes in a choice of more than 100 fabrics!
The art gallery, which includes almost a dozen cuckoo clocks, skews heavily to the ducks-on-the-wing end of the artistic spectrum. There, amid a wall of almost all puppy and dog prints, you may find the 100 percent American picture, "On Freedom's Wing," with an eagle soaring over a mountain that not so subtly resembles Old Glory. God bless America.
Excess reigns in the camping department, where few things would appeal to the really rustic type. At some point, you start to wonder, "What would Thoreau think of this place?" Would he forsake the open-faced cotton shanties of pioneers if he saw the Eureka! Copper Canyon 1610, a multi-room tent that comes with skylights and a bug-free power port? Would he still cook fish over hot wood coals when he could fire up the Whitetail Teton Grill ($1,249.99) with a "smoker box for mouthwatering smoky flavor," an "infrared searing block," and a "whopping 72,000-BTU output"? The mind reels.
Wandering back downstairs in a daze, we get a breathtaking view of the "mountain" that rises 35 feet into the air from the main floor. A waterfall cascades down the side of it, feeding into the 60-foot stream, stocked with live fish, that leads through the store to the bait and tackle department. The mighty-looking fake-rock structure is populated with stuffed trophy animals, many of them posed in battle stances. A grizzly and a polar bear both stand erect in mid-roar. One tense scene shows a few wolves squaring off against their prey. A large cat looks about ready to make a quick dinner of a cute little snowshoe hare.
For all the alleged educational value of the displays (Cabela's touts that their stores are "as much wildlife museums and education centers as retail stores"), there's a not-so-subtle political positioning at play. Yes, the displays educate customers about nature, but it is from the perspective, not of the naturalist, but of the hunter, with a view of the earth that's set somewhere behind the gun sights or fishing rod. The attack scenes seem tailored to present nature as a place where, if you didn't kill them, they'd kill you — or something else cuter than you.
And that may be a vital function: providing a great setting for a sober father-son talk about nature, our place in the food chain, and why Bambi must die every autumn. It's a lot easier to sell the kids on hunting looking at these posed stuffed animals and talking about God's great natural order than giving the same speech while cutting the bung out of a bagged buck's ass.
And these scenes, both tense and gentle, aim to provide a sense of reassurance that our consumer-driven culture can strike some balance with rapidly disappearing nature. You may be staring at a mounted critter, as cute and cuddly as the day he was blown to Kingdom Come, and then turn your eyes to a 2008 Kawasaki Bayou 250 (comes in red or green) or a Fish Cat Pontoon boat ($699). On one platform with rocks and turf sits a pair of Ford F250 Super Duty trucks, suggesting that moose, elk and light truck can co-exist in harmony.
And, frankly, it's sometimes just so perfectly beautiful that you can forget that the whole reason you're there is to be outfitted to shoot, hook, spear and slaughter animals, using the latest Ameristep Buckbuster prefab deer ladder and platform or the "Bass Hunter Extreme" fishing platform boat ($699.99). Even the 3D animal targets look inviting. You can almost forget you're supposed to shoot arrows at them— if not for the IBO-approved scoring ring.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Cabela's is at 110 Cabela Blvd. E., Dundee, at exit 17 on US-23, about 18 miles south of I-94. Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 734-529-4700 or see cabelas.com.