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January 12th, 2014

The Parka That Represented A Mindset

OhMyGod…Sierra Designs is (or was) making it’s original Mountain Parka!!! It’s on the kind of sale that looks like it’s a discontinued item (again) and some sizes for some colors are marked as not in stock. But you can get to them from the main page if you go to “Men’s Apparel -> 60/40 Heritage”. Or you can just do a Google search on them like I did just a few moments ago on a lark.  Or just click this link.

See…I’ve been wishfully thinking about that parka for decades. Decades. I had one way back when, but not understanding the concept fully I bought one that had a Thinsulate liner and really, it’s supposed to be a shell. The idea was if you needed to you wore something else under it like a sweater or a vest. Otherwise it made a good wind breaker for back country hiking.  But there was more to it.  Oddly enough, a piece of clothing can also represent something more than itself and the purpose it was made to.

Back when I was a kid a lot of outdoor stuff you saw was made the same way they’d been making outdoor equipment since almost the turn of the century…much it merely riffing off old army designs that even the army wasn’t using anymore. Nobody was really thinking about what the equipment was supposed to do. New materials were mindlessly used in old designs that had been originally made with canvas and trotted out as something new and great simply because the canvas had been replaced with nylon or some other synthetic fabric.

In the late 60s a few small companies in California began rethinking everything. One of them was Sierra Designs which began selling their Mountain Parka in 1968. It hit the outdoor market like a bombshell for its innovative design and over engineered construction (they used to guarantee their stitching for life). It quickly became a thing. If you’ve ever watched the original Carl Sagan “Cosmos” series, that parka he was wearing at various points in it was one. It was a very recognizable item because its design was so unique for its day, yet it made so much sense for its purpose.

Nowadays all this is old hat…but I remember the thrill of walking into a Hudson Bay Outfitters store in the 70s and seeing so many new ideas and designs for outdoor equipment (I was in my wilderness backpacking phase then) that looked so different and yet made so much sense. Because some people had started rethinking what that equipment was For, had begun to realize what new materials and new technologies could accomplish. And those people got other people to thinking too.  This was the same think outside the box mindset…you saw it mostly but not exclusively on the west coast…that would eventually yank the power of the computer out of the mainframe and put it on people’s desktops, and then into their hands.  It was this:

We keep moving forward opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. -Walt Disney.

After the stifling 50s, that was the future I thought was was walking into when I was a teenager.  Well…it wasn’t all that.  But in some ways it was.  And still is.

Time passes…the universe expands…my economic status declined rapidly after the Reagan recession and the Savings and Loan scandals wreaked the economy. I got rid of my Thinsulate lined parka when its fabric got hopelessly torn and I had no money for a new one but I figured I’d get one of the basic shells at some point. But the company changed hands, joined with other outdoor companies like Kelty and stopped making some of its classic products including the Mountain Parka. Every now and then I’d check the company web site to see if they’d re-introduced it but it was never there.

Last Christmas my brother bought me a really nice L.L. Bean down vest and I started thinking again about the Sierra Designs parka and just now I looked and it’s back!  So of course I bought one. I didn’t need one…I have some very good coats and parkas in the coat closet already. But sometimes you wear an item of clothing not for what it is entirely, but for what it represents.

sagan-cosmos-2

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