One of the things that makes life-long hunters deeply passionate about their lifestyle is the years and layers of traditions. Some are small and seemingly mundane, like the scent that escapes your duffel bag that you only use for hunting season. Or the trace of stored camo and a hint of fall that immediately takes you back to a collage of memories. Or the years of gathering the day before the season opener with friends you only see for that occasion. Or simply feeling the weight of your gun that’s been with you for decades.
Often it is only after a period of reflection you realize that a certain something or someone has been a part of your journey for many years, possibly decades. People, places, sights, sounds, and scents weave together in layers creating the fabric of a lifestyle filled with lasting memories. It is a feeling only other hunters will have a similar appreciation for. You know these people when you meet them; it doesn’t take but a few sentences.
One of the simplest things I had never consciously acknowledged before was the presence of Cabela’s in my life. After all, why would I have included Cabela’s among these memories? It’s just a store, right? No. To me and my family, it is much more than that. Maybe it’s not a tradition equal to my hand-me-down buffalo plaid shirt, but as I look back over the years, I see that Cabela’s has always been there.
My earliest memories of Cabela’s are of their sale flyers printed-up on a thin newspaper. My dad, brother, and uncle would flip through those pages under the fluorescent lights in our cabin, carefully pondering what items would bring us greater success. You could say it became a Friday night tradition. We didn’t play cards. So instead, we gawked at pictures of hunting gear like it was an adult magazine.
Over time, Cabela’s started branding its own clothing and equipment line. Their little newspaper circular turned into a glossy magazine and eventually a two-inch thick catalog. I distinctly remember asking family members if they received the annual catalog as though somehow if you didn’t, you weren’t part of the club. I even kept the damn thing around like it was a coffee table book and would flip through it when my mind got to wandering. There was more than one year that I did all of my Christmas shopping from the catalog. You could say it became a tradition.
Over the years, Cabela’s became an outdoor retail powerhouse with iconic physical locations. The first time I traveled west, my Dad and I made sure we allotted time for a stop at the Cabela’s store in Mitchell, South Dakota. We had waited eagerly in the parking lot since well before they opened…..and we weren’t alone. It became a tradition.
Now, each year when the Pittsburgh Chapter of Safari Club International hosts its annual Veteran’s Adventure Project fishing weekend, we meet at the West Virginia Cabela’s. You could say it’s become a tradition.
And how could I forget the credit card? I can’t because I’ve carried it with me every day for decades, and possibly to the detriment of my bank account. I’m definitely a “loyal Cabela’s Card Member,” having achieved the coveted “Black” status. On my ten-year anniversary, I even earned myself a really nice folding knife. That was a long time ago, but I still carry the knife, and it still can catch a nail.
Cabela’s has come a long way from its humble beginnings at Dick and Mary’s dining room table. Over that same period of time, our own little cabin has improved and expanded. No more buzzing fluorescent lights, and there is plenty of evidence of catalog purchases. Our hunting pursuits have taken us beyond the borders of our state and country. And our hunting gear now pushes the limits of our storage space.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I’m now an active Life Member of Safari Club International (SCI). This past February, I attended the annual convention in Nashville. On the last day of the convention, I was busy making sure I spoke with everyone on my list and closed the show down, staying until I was asked to leave. No one likes a quitter.
On the convention's last night, there is always a formal dinner and auction. So it had come time to head back to my room for more formal attire. Having a little extra time, I made the obligatory stop at the hotel bar before heading up to my room to change. With just a handful of people being served, it was impossible to miss the elegant woman sitting alone at the end of the serving table. I was third in line and waited my turn. A compliment surely was in order. As the man in the first position grabbed his drink, he beat me to the punch, offering the lady a kind word with a humorous delivery. Well done, sir.
Then, it was my turn. I ordered, shared my compliment, and asked about her plans for the evening. She said she was there for the awards and going to the dinner. We parted ways, but about 40 minutes later, I returned with my empty glass, only to find her still in the same seat.
I had to ask. “Do you hunt?”
“Yes,” she replied with a soft smile.
So, I asked her what one of her favorite experiences had been. She said that she had so many she couldn’t say.
“How about your top three,” I asked.
“Maybe my first elephant,” she said. “But I was also once charged by a Banteng.”
This moment is where I earned my loser award. Clearly, this was no ordinary exchange. At least not in the course of my normal life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But then, we were at the Safari Club International convention, and maybe I felt like I needed to play it off like I hear that sort of thing all the time from perfect strangers. After exchanging pleasantries, I wished her good evening and went on my way, not realizing I had been in the presence of a hunting icon.
A full month later, while reading the Safari Times, I saw a picture of the lovely lady. It was none other than Mary Cabela herself. She had been there to receive the Beretta SCI Foundation Conservation Leadership Award - the matriarch of the family and business that has been a part of my hunting life since its beginning had been right in front of me with no one else around, and I just walked away. An opportunity to just listen to a story – or a dozen – about what she has seen and experienced and I didn’t even know it happened. An opportunity to say “Thank you” was missed.
I wish I could have shared a story that she may have kept with her—one about how Cabela’s has been a part of life. I missed my opportunity to trade stories and to ask so many questions, but she did leave me with a cherished memory. One that I will always have and a story I will continue to share. Isn’t that what it’s all about?