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Article: Road Trip

Patrick Smith

Road Trip

Hello Gents, I just returned from a fairly long road trip to some places that have been on my Bucket List as long as I can remember. First destination was Big Bend National Park way down on the Texas/Mexico border...which is to say right along the Rio Grande. As you might imagine I have much catching up to do, so please allow me a little time until I get squared away and can launch into the details, and impressions, of my journey. 

Meanwhile, I'll ask our Webmaster, Ryan Avery, what happened to the record here on my Blog. I haven't posted here in a long time but what went before might be of interest/amusement to current and new readers. 

I plan on posting more often here in the future. I'll explain why when I get organized and return with more words about the Trip. If any of you have rambled down in the Big Bend weigh in any time. Oh, and the Gila National Forrest as well...I cruised around in there too. 



Me and Sheeba 3 rolled out of Golden early on Tuesday morning Feb. 2nd during a snowstorm. 

(INTERLUDE ONE: Sheeba 3 is my third in a line of 4wd backcountry vehicles dating back to about 1981. Sheeba 1 was a 1960’s vintage 4WD International Harvester Travelall…large, capable of hauling a LOT of gear, going anywhere and sleeping in. Consider it much like a modern day Suburban in size and configuration. It saw much use in the early days of Mountainsmith going BIG. “Big” as in being summoned to REI headquarters in Seattle in 1981 and told that our packs were going system-wide, and that we would be responsible for training the store staffs around the country about them. The gear had excelled in the Denver store test market. I had been a cross country ski guide/instructor, survival school owner and year- round backcountry guide. Some of the hard core Denver staff members were friends—having packed with me, attended some of my classes, and had been guests in my remote backcountry tipi. (I’ll try to remember to tell the story of the “original” tipis one of these days.) These folks knew about my packs, loved them, and used them themselves. Their clamoring to Seattle about getting Mountainsmith packs into the REI system was the reason Headquarters had consented to allow the Denver store to test the market waters in the first place. They were very enthusiastic sellers of Mountainsmith packs—hence the success of the test store sell-through and the announcement of system-wide distribution.

What was I to do now? I had this huge assignment: Get the entire far-flung REI store network up to speed on our packs! Our company was still a fledgling outfit and we didn’t even have a Rep network! It was up to me and my in-house sales manager, Brooks Montgomery, to get the job done. The standard procedure with all companies selling to REI, in fact to any outdoor gear retailer, was to have a local territorial “Representative” schedule an appointment to show up at the store and give a “clinic” to sales staff. Well, we didn’t have any reps! Besides, “carpet clinics” seemed lame, tame, in comparison to the path that got us into the Denver test store, with stellar sales results. I thought, and do to this day, that folks selling our gear should learn about its goodness from actual FIELD use. A revelation presented itself: since we had no rep network and I didn’t respect carpet clinics why not change rules? Instead of subscribing to the standard training clinic procedure, which always took place in the store itself, why not get the sales staff out there in the dirt for a real world spin with the gear? We decided to put our dirt clinic show on the road. Sheeba 1 was purchased, loaded with a pile of packs and we set out for the Tempe Arizona REI store. We rolled up and went inside and invited as many pack sellers as could get free to go backpacking with us—using our packs. They could choose the location. They loved the idea! Brooks and I loitered in the backcountry a couple of days while our Tempe store folks got organized. Then we showed up again and issued packs in the parking lot. To make sure our store partners had heavy packs—the better to experience Mountainsmith comfort--we also issued plenty of 12 ounce Test Weights—cans of Coors beer. We had a grand time in the Superstition Wilderness, covering lots of ground with heavy packs—perfect real world testing. Our colleagues loved the gear, and loved our hard-core authenticity. (Note: Nobody ever did Dirt Clinics except Mountainsmith, and still don’t.)

As I said, these folks loved the packs—which really were superior and now they had experienced that fact first-hand. They were on the phones and faxes spreading the word about these great packs and the nut-cases conducting very different “clinics” with their friends and acquaintances at REI stores in our path-- California. By the time we rolled up at the San Diego store the dudes and dudettes were waiting for us…and off we went on a rollicking foot tour of the Anza Borrego Wilderness. And so on…stopping at every REI store all the way up the west coast to backpack in beautiful backcountry with local guides who would sell hell out of our gear. Mountainsmith was well and truly launched. (Along the way Brooks coined the name for our cranky old Travellall…”Sheeba, the Great She Beast of the Mountains”. It stuck). By the time Sheeba 1 wheezed back into Golden from this tour every REI store across the country knew about Mountainsmith and our unorthodox clinic style. And were clamoring for their own dirt clinic. We never had to make another Sheeba trip; regional reps from across the country were well aware of this phenomenon by now (the word had spread everywhere) and were petitioning to represent us. We suddenly had a full-fledged Rep network! New hires had two pre-requisites: they had to be real backpackers and they had to conduct Dirt Clinics. Those who met our requirements took the Show to the rest of the country. To ALL mountain shops in their territories. Henceforth, I would fly to wherever the Event was and participate. I have packed everywhere in the country compliments of that single marketing decision and have made scores of great outdoorsy friends along the way. Sheeba 1 could stay local. And did, giving yeoman service for many more years.

Sheeba 2 was a one ton Dodge 4WD conversion van. Old number two had the distinction of rolling up the Alcan Highway and covering every contiguous road in Alaska, including clear up the Haul Road the Prudhoe Bay. (I did a lot of rambling off the Haul Road, collecting small game, grayling and caribou.) Another grand old beast. I wore her plumb out, and acquired Sheeba 3 in about 1999 or so. Sheeba 3 is a Tiger brand…a small chassis-built 4WD camper built on a Chevy Silverado platform. She is fully qualified as the latest in the Sheeba lineage.)

The snow persisted all the way over Raton Pass, giving way finally to dry, juniper-clad uplands (one of my favorite landscapes). In addition to exploring Big Bend I wanted to find some Rambling country I could access during winter. Country I could walk rather than resorting to skis. From about late November to June the Colorado high country is snowed in. I wander it anyway, on X-C skis. But I appreciate variety, specifically simple backpacking, during the long winter months . Traditionally I’ve headed out to BLM land on our Western Slope to get it. I was looking for new versions of it. New places to ramble. 

To be continued….

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We left off our narrative just on the New Mexico side of Raton Pass to insert an INTERLUDE explaining the dual purpose of the trip—to see the Big Bend and Gila, etc. as well as investigate wint...

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