Since then, I've keenly avoided most activities that require a natural setting. I admire all of my manly friends who pull on their boots and camouflage jackets and go off hunting and trapping and fly-fishing, but I'm just too lazy, baby. The only trout I want to see is one that's already been hooked, cleaned, pan-fried and garnished with parsley.
So what the hell was I doing wandering through miles of fishing lures and hunting jackets at Cabela's, the "World's Foremost Outfitter"? Just experiencing the phenomenon. The place is a 190,000-square-foot temple to outdoor sporting life, with a splendid aquarium (stocked with a mammoth catfish that looks larger than the great white shark in Jaws) and an artificial mountain reaching from the ground floor up to the skylight in the roof, with dozens of dead animals -- beautifully preserved by an army of talented taxidermists -- posing from every plateau, crevasse and crag.
Many of the stuffed and mounted mammals are identified not only by their common names (an American elk, for example) but also by the names of the hunters who dispatched their life forces to the Great Diorama in the Sky and by the dates the fatal deeds were done. This is handled in the most discreet way. Instead of noting that the elk or mountain lion or raccoon was killed, the description is much more gentle: The animal "was taken." I liked that concept. Bambi wasn't murdered, honey, she was just taken away, like Dana Wynter in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I'm not dissing the displays here, because they're pretty tasteful, as these things go. And I can hardly pity that magnificent stuffed elk standing at attention on the first floor, because I passed it on my way to the Yukon Base Camp Grill, where I planned to chow down on a little elk stew. Elk was one of President Theodore Roosevelt's favorites ("No meat tastes better or is more nourishing," he wrote in 1899), and I was eager to sample it. So I made my way through a jungle of merchandise: packets of beef jerky, piles of sweaters, rows of sunglasses, a half-dozen Barbie Fly Fishing Kits (in pink, of course).
The restaurant is over the bridge and up the stairs on the store's second level, right in front of the fudge shop and the Country Store. To call the Yukon Base Camp Grill a restaurant, though, is an overstatement. Despite its artistic pretensions, the combination high school cafeteria and airport food court is one of the most poorly designed dining facilities I've ever seen, with a helter-skelter flow and several different serving stations, each overseen by a kid who may, depending on the day, be pleasant and helpful or a complete moose.
The afternoon that I walked past the entrance -- which could use a bright host or hostess to explain the differences among the grill area, the deli area and the hot bar -- I saw a board with a handwritten list of that day's specials, including "Exotic Elk Stew." I looked around, not sure which station had the stew. I asked the pup at the deli counter where it was. "We don't have elk stew," he snapped. His snotty attitude made me wish I had picked up one of the store's rifles on my way up the stairs.
Looking ahead, I saw a small sign near a steam table marked "Daily Specials." Grabbing a cafeteria tray, I asked the teenager behind the glass partition for a plate of elk stew and the pulled-pork sandwich special. A man stepped up next to me and asked if I had ever tasted elk. "Have you?" I asked him. "No," he said, practically quivering with anticipation. "And I can't wait!"
My friend Bob had stopped at the tiny cafeteria line with the "Hot Bar" sign. The stuff on this station was traditional buffet-style fare, but not all-you-can-eat. After noting that customers could go through the line only once, Bob stocked up his plate with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, kernel corn and green beans. And we both grabbed side dishes -- a plastic carton of Jell-O, a slab of coconut cream pie -- from various refrigerated cabinets along the way.
Then the nightmare began. On this particular Sunday afternoon, the store was jammed with shoppers. In the restaurant, nearly a dozen diners stood in line waiting for a single harried cashier, who was methodically ringing up tickets. Bob started fuming after he noticed three other unmanned cashier stations, and he grabbed a loitering employee and insisted on seeing a manager. ("You tell him," muttered the woman standing behind us. "This waiting is for shit!") Suddenly a couple more employees wandered out from the kitchen (one of them still chewing food) and fired up their cash registers.
It was too little, too late. The grub we'd carried to the cashier was lukewarm by the time we finally discovered one clean table among the many begging to be bussed. In a row of booths along one wall, every table was dirty except for the one where an employee was sleeping.
OK, so Cabela's isn't exactly a dining destination, but doesn't customer service mean anything anymore? It's not as if the kitchen can't get some things right -- I loved the pulled-pork sandwich, which was surprisingly spicy on a fluffy bun, and the wonderful sweet-potato fries that came with it.
The well-done chunks of elk in the stew, however, weren't exactly tender or flavorful, even though they'd been slowly simmered with onions, carrots and celery. And Bob's fried-chicken dinner was standard-issue cafeteria quality, the instant potatoes blanketed in shiny gravy that tasted as if it had come straight from a can.
The restaurant's manager, Mark Drews, did stop to apologize for the chaos in the dining room. "I've only been here a week," he said. "I've got a lot of things to work on."
I'd start by training the staff, many of whom can't answer the simplest question about the restaurant's cuisine. A few days earlier, I had stopped in for a venison bratwurst and what turned out to be an excellent bowl of beefy chili stuffed with cheese and onion. The woman standing in front of me asked the white-jacketed kid behind the counter, "What's venison?" His response? "I dunno."
Not even Drews knows all the secrets of the Yukon Base Camp Grill. Why, I asked him, do the receipts list both an "original price" and "Cabela's Special Price," as if customers are given a mysterious discount with each purchase? "That's a good question," Drews said. "I need to find the answer to that."
He should send out a hunting expedition.