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The Sporting Life

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Many different kinds of travelers bound across the continent in search of experiences that
will pique their interests. Some RVers like roadside whimsy and small-town novelties such
as a taxidermist who specializes in “jackelopes,” whereas others define their trips by the
delicious meals they eat along the way. And still others prefer to lessen the “oh-no” risk
of travel by heading for time-tested attractions such as Walt Disney World and the Grand
Canyon, certain that their excursions will pay dividends. Outdoor World – the flagship Bass
Pro Shop in Springfield, Missouri – pleases almost every kind of traveler, with 4 million
visitors a year turning this retail extravaganza into the Show Me State’s No. 1 attraction.
Since more people visit Outdoor World than the St. Louis Arch – with its can-do symbolism,
swooping photographic opportunities and its Westward Expansion Museum – Outdoor World must
be doing something right. In fact, it does many things right, not the least of which is
creating an environment in which visitors have reason to linger. So linger-worthy is this
more than 300,000-square-foot Missouri institution that people who are only ho-hum about
outdoor pursuits can easily spend a day exploring its unique architecture and
tourist-friendly presentations, as well as the world-class nature experience next door –
Wonders of Wildlife. Anyone passionate about hunting, fishing, boating and other outdoor
activities should take advantage of Outdoor World’s policy that allows RVers to boondock in
its parking lot. Next, they should free up space in the hatches for new purchases, then
peruse this shopping behemoth for a weekend. Maybe a long one. How is this possible? How
can a store, however big it may be, consume a swath of time that would normally be better
spent outdoors? Variety, passion, novelty and attention to detail certainly factor into the
answer. And, of course, so does Bass Pro Shops’ president and founder, Johnny Morris. Upon
first spying the block-long, lodge-style structure that cannot be mistaken for just another
well-stocked box store, visitors to Outdoor World know they are in for something special.
The slogan splashed above the main entrance sets the playful tone that permeates the store:
Welcome Fishermen, Hunters and Other Liars. A four-story waterfall cascades past an
assortment of wild animals that a taxidermist has preserved. Above the Hunting Hall, a
hiker hangs precariously from a busted rope ladder, the slats having given way beneath his
boots, his fate forever suspended. Between shopping zones, a large water tank brings
children to its vertical acrylic panels, there to point at the numerous fish species that
explore its depths. In another tank, daily fish feedings, performed by an employee in scuba
gear, draw crowds who snap photos of the colorful fish eating out of the employee’s hand.
Elsewhere, visitors can slip on an arm guard, pick up a bow and a few arrows, and take aim
at the targets affixed to the distant hay bales. Or, after signing the requisite paperwork,
marksmen can test their pistols – or the guns the store rents – at the shooting range.
Should they be so inclined, anglers can get a haircut, then have the clippings fashioned
onto a fly hook. A visit to the wildlife museum upstairs exposes guests to an array of
animals so vast that the museum could be a destination unto itself. After working up an
appetite exploring these Outdoor World attractions – not one of which, you’ll notice,
involves actually shopping – visitors should eat in the quality on-site restaurant,
Hemingway’s Blue Water Café (Uncle Buck’s Snack Bar and McDonald’s are also options).
Sesame-encrusted salmon, chicken florentine and blackened ribeye are but a few of the
delicious entrees this upper-crust restaurant serves. After all, in order to negotiate all
that retail-space, one should be well-fortified. And what a lot of space it is. The more
than square footage at this Springfield location doesn’t include the gigantic indoor
Tracker Country boat showroom, where fans of watercraft will almost certainly start to
drool. Nationwide, there are 21 Bass Pro Shops, collectively serving up 2.5 million square
feet of “outdoor shopping excitement,” according to Outdoor Communications Coordinator
Katie Mitchell. Together these shops open their doors to more than 54 million people
annually. The company also publishes 21 annual catalogs that are distributed to outdoor
enthusiasts worldwide. With the overwhelming success and continued expansion of the Bass
Pro Shop empire, it’s difficult to imagine – as one wanders among the endless bins,
countless shelves, numerous showrooms and the hordes of shoppers with overflowing carts –
that Johnny Morris began the whole operation in 1971, simply by stocking hard-to-find
fishing gear for the burgeoning sport of tournament fishing. (He started with 8 feet of
retail space.) Today, next to the flagship store, shoppers can add a delightful wrinkle to
their Bass Pro Shops experience, one that is not available at the other locations – a visit
to Wonders of Wildlife. So difficult is this must-see attraction to categorize, that the
name American National Fish and Wildlife Museum proved inadequate, since it didn’t capture
the fact that many of the species inside are alive, a good number of which live in giant
aquariums. A new word was invented: Zooquarium. For all its linguistic cleverness, however,
it still does not adequately sum up all the enclosed wonders of wildlife. Nearly 160
species of living animals in artfully deployed, realistic habitats keep the place vibrant,
with screeches and scurryings coming equally, it seems, from the residents and the guests.
Wild turkeys roam throughout the lower level of the museum, bats blindly negotiate the bat
cave, the two resident beavers gnaw their way through six-inch-thick trees every three
days, and the wall of acrylic that holds back the 220,000-gallon Out to Sea Gallery –
featuring various saltwater species, including sharks and rays – weighs 12 tons. Guests can
test their grip strength against that of an American bald eagle, which exerts 2,000 pounds
of pressure per square inch. Or anglers can feel the heart-pounding thrill of fighting a
largemouth bass, sailfish or tarpon by standing in front of a video simulator that is
attached to the rod and reel in their hands. The $9.95 admission price ($8.95 for seniors)
is money well-spent. If visitors to Springfield’s Outdoor World still have more money to
spend, they can buy a tackle box, a bass boat, a spinning reel, a rotating food dehydrator,
a parka, a GPS device, a canoe, a plastic salamander, a pair of sunglasses, a tent, waders,
a dusty-coral polo shirt, a float tube, a tippet, a portable utility chair, a shotgun, a
pair of deerskin gloves, a camouflage hat, a rain jacket, duck decoys, nylon zip-off pants,
an antler lamp, a pair of hunting boots, a brawny flannel shirt, a tent, denim work pants,
a cooler, a headlamp, a stainless-steel turkey pot, a travel shower, a pair of tundra
socks, a summer-sausage kit, a hammock, binoculars, a sleeping bag, a compression bow, a
gun safe, an ATV cargo box, a pickup-truck bedliner, an anchor, an electric motor, a
largemouth-bass mailbox….

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