Patagonia's Philosopher King. From The New Yorker
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When Yvon Chouinard, the climber and environmentalist and the co-founder of the outdoor-apparel company Patagonia, spends days by himself at a house he owns in Moose, Wyoming, his wife, Malinda, the other co-founder, often sends mass e-mails to their friends, with the number of the landline there. “He likes phone calls and will be alone,” she’ll write. Chouinard, who is seventy-seven, has a cell phone but hardly ever turns it on. He does not use e-mail and disdains the proliferation of devices. He considers Apple to be a manufacturer of toys. “I’m getting more and more marginalized,” he told me. “My friends are constantly e-mailing with each other, and I’m excluded.” To the suggestion that he take it up, he says, “It’s too late.” On his own in Moose, he fly-fishes, reads, ties flies—and fly-fishes some more. He can fish all day. He does not require an audience, although he likes to have someone around to outfish. Taciturn as he may be, he still prizes company. He has a lifelong habit of collecting garrulous friends and yet a tendency to induce some measure of taciturnity in all but the most voluble of them. His style of reticence is contagious.
Chouinard spent the heart of this past summer as he often does, wandering around the northern Rockies, visiting old friends, and fishing the prime trout streams of the greater Yellowstone region. He did so with one good arm (rotator-cuff surgery, in June), a scarred cheek (basal-cell removal, in July), and a heavy reliance on his tenkara fly rig—a simple pole with no reel, the latest implement in his long-running crusade for simplicity and thrift. Now and then, he checks in with the office—Patagonia headquarters and his primary home are in Ventura, California—but for days at a time no one really knows where he is. Malinda sends e-mails to the people he is supposed to be with, in case there are things he should hear or do. He’s less involved in the management of the company than he used to be, but since he got into the gear business, more than fifty years ago,
"He has frequently disappeared for months, sometimes for half the year, to climb, kayak, surf, ski, fish, and ramble around the planet's wilder precincts"
whose preservation he has dedicated the better part of his life to. He comes off, these days, as deeply disheartened, perhaps even defeated, and yet Patagonia is bigger, and more active in environmental and labor advocacy, than it has ever been.
On a Thursday night in late July, Chouinard sat in an easy chair by the window of the Moose house, ice pack on his cheek, glass of red wine in hand, left leg up on the arm of the chair. He had on flip-flops, tan fishing pants, and a green Salmonid Restoration Federation T-shirt, which a young busboy at a café had complimented an hour before, to no reply from Chouinard. A high-country twilight had him half in shadow. The window faced west, out onto a sage-and-wildflower meadow of several acres, and, beyond that, a phalanx of cottonwoods and spruce, and, beyond those, the Tetons, with the sun now sunk behind the dusky silhouette of the Grand. Chelsea Clinton was on the radio, introducing her mother at the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia.
The property is just north of the Jackson Hole airport, on the east side of the Snake River, up by the entrance to Grand Teton National Park. He and some friends built the house in 1976, out of beetle-kill lodgepole pine. It was one of the first log houses in the valley, on six acres he’d bought for fifteen thousand dollars an acre. It’s simple and small, a relic of a different idea of mountain living. (“Now everyone builds these huge trophy log houses,” he said.) The house was strewn outside with gear and inside with bric-a-brac: nature books, binoculars, the sheet music to “Don’t Fence Me In,” which the family sings at weddings. The only neighbor, in the early days, was Malcolm Forbes. Now there are seldom-used vacation houses on all sides. “They got me surrounded, the fuckers,” Chouinard said.
Jackson has boomed as a skiing and recreation town, as a national-park gateway, and as a tax haven for rich people attracted by Wyoming’s absence of a state income tax. Though probably eligible for residence, Chouinard would never consider such a thing. “Oh, God, no,” he says. “I happily pay my taxes.” The northern Rockies aren’t Clinton country. “I was at a rodeo in Livingston, and they burned Hillary in effigy on the rodeo grounds,” he said. He first met the Clintons in 1992, when Bill was running for President. A banker had a dinner for them in Jackson. “I guess we were the only Democrats in the county, so they invited us,” Chouinard said. “Chelsea was twelve at the time, same age as my daughter, Claire.” (He also has a son, Fletcher, who’s a few years older.) “The day before, Claire had dyed her hair orange with Kool-Aid. Claire and Chelsea got along great. Other than that, I don’t remember much.”
Hillary Clinton came on the radio. Chouinard hadn’t turned on any lights. The darkness in the house deepened as she spoke. He absent-mindedly flicked at a lamp cord, like a cat with a toy, and dispensed occasional blunt opinions. Of Tim Kaine, he said, laughing, “That guy’s a full-on nerd!” When Clinton mentioned the value of compromise, he said, rolling his eyes, “It’s the work of the Devil.” He and Patagonia have fiercely opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “I’m on Obama’s shit list,” he said. “I’ve become an isolationist, actually. Anything of any seriousness that happens has to happen on a local level. I think we’re seeing the end of empire, the end of globalism. It can’t hold. People will revert: protecting your family, protecting your village. Like the Dark Ages. I honestly believe that.” He added, “Trump is the perfect person to take us to the apocalypse.”
He listened to Clinton. The high-pitched political oratory seemed almost to pain him. He’d long ago despaired of the process, and of its inadequacy to address what he deems the existential threats to our climate, our food and water supplies, and the survival of life on earth, in any recognizable form. After listening for a while, he said, “Nobody’s mentioning global warming. No one wants to deal with it.” As though on cue, Clinton said, “I believe climate change is real!” But then she moved on to other wedges: immigration, the minimum wage.
“That was her environmental message?” Chouinard said. “Oh, God.”
Outside, the mountains had disappeared. Vague shadows flitted past the window—bats. The phone rang. Chouinard stood stiffly and answered. It was Malinda. He shut off the radio and turned on a few lights. “One half a sentence about global warming,” he complained. “That’s dismal. Jesus Christ. We’ve got another Obama—another city kid who’s never been out in nature.” They talked for a while, and then Chouinard rinsed out his wineglass and went to bed. Plan was to be up by five for a road trip to Montana, to the Crow Indian Reservation, where he had a date to teach some Crow kids to fish. The local level.
For a couple of months in the fall of 1992, I had a job answering phones at Patagonia’s mail-order office, in Bozeman, Montana, where I’d just moved after graduating from college. I had it vaguely in mind (too vaguely, it turned out) to join the mountain tribe of itinerant dirtbag outdoorsmen I’d been reading about in magazines. But first: the rent. I saw Patagonia’s classified ad in the local paper, the Daily Chronicle. (I worked briefly at the Chronicle, too—manning the stuffing machines.) As far as qualifications, I was another city kid, but I’d been out in nature a bit and was, in descending order of aptitude, a skier, whitewater kayaker, backpacker, mountain biker, and fly-rod flailer. I had come of age poring over the Patagonia catalogue, with its action shots and exotic locales, and I already had Yvon Chouinard right up there with Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix on my list of great Americans. Plus, I liked the idea of getting good gear at a discount.
Patagonia needed seasonal help. I was trained quickly, not only in the input formats and retail protocols but also in the company’s commitment to production quality and environmental ethics. Headset on, I sat at a computer terminal taking orders and advising strangers on matters of paramount importance: layering, wicking, breathability, size. The calls sometimes got intimate: there was talk here and there of how some long underwear rubbed various body parts. Some of the customers were serious gear addicts. One called from the bathroom, so his wife wouldn’t know about his latest fix. I grew conversant in the taxonomy of color: eggplant, larkspur, cobalt, mango. The ski anorak I got, wholesale, was ultramarine, with a coral-pink lining. I’d apologize for the color schemes of those years, but apparently they’re now big in Japan. I recently found a near-mint version of that jacket selling online for 25,704 yen (around $250). I quit the job before I was supposed to, in order to go on a ski trip. Of the two women who’d hired me, one was angry and the other understanding. Their reaction embodied an intrinsic schizophrenia at Patagonia. Chouinard had always encouraged his employees to cut work and go surfing when the swell came in. But it was also a company trying to claw its way out of a hole.
Patagonia at the time was going through an upheaval. It had grown too rapidly, in the late eighties, and in 1991, in the midst of a recession, it found itself overextended. Bankruptcy loomed. Bankers balked. Chouinard’s accountants took him to meet a representative of the Mafia, who offered a loan with an interest rate of eighteen per cent. In the end, the Chouinards borrowed from a friend and from some Argentines who wanted to get their money out of the country. The company laid off twenty per cent of its workforce, which no longer consisted mainly of friends and friends of friends. “It was hard,” Chouinard said.
"I realized we were just growing for the sake of growing, which is bullshit."
The ordeal, and the perspective of middle age, snapped him to attention and caused him to refine the company’s mission. In the eighties, he’d been feeling increasingly uneasy about being a businessman and about the transformations and compromises that seemed inevitably to accompany corporate success. The company, he worried, was straying from its hard-core origins. “I was faced with the prospect of owning a billion-dollar company, with thousands of employees making ‘outdoorlike’ clothing for posers,” he said early in 1991, in a speech to the employees, in which he outlined his misgivings and his new resolutions. These subsequently appeared in the Patagonia catalogue, as a manifesto, under the heading “The Next Hundred Years.”
The Chouinards undertook an environmental audit of their products and operations. For a few years, they’d been tithing ten per cent of their profit to grassroots environmental organizations. Now they enshrined a self-imposed “earth tax” of one per cent of their sales: a bigger number. “The capitalist ideal is you grow a company and focus on making it as profitable as possible. Then, when you cash out, you become a philanthropist,” Chouinard said. “We believe a company has a responsibility to do that all along—for the sake of the employees, for the sake of the planet.”
Eventually, they went so far as to openly discourage their customers from buying their products, as in the notorious 2011 advertising campaign that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It went on, “The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing.” Manufacturing and shipping just one of the jackets in question required a hundred and thirty-five litres of water and generated nearly twenty pounds of carbon dioxide.
"Don't buy what you don't need."
(Some people at Patagonia had been considering declaring Black Friday a “no-buy day,” to make their point about consumption.) Guilt and high principle mutate into marketing: this was the Patagonia feedback loop, on high screech. To some, the slogan sounded an awful lot like “Buy this jacket, not that other one, from the North Face.” One plausible response was “Don’t worry, I won’t. I can’t afford it.” Chouinard may walk the walk, as far as not buying things—his own Patagonia gear tends to date back to the last century—but his customers are often the kinds of people who can afford as many jackets as they want. The credo “One Percent for the Planet” can misread. There are class implications, problems of privilege and access, the lingering taint of monikers like Fratagonia and Patagucci.
One catalogue, in the nineties, had a little chart of what Patagonia was versus what it was not: Fly fishing, not bass fishing. Long-haul trucking, not delivery-men. Surfing, not waterskiing. Upland bird hunting, not deer hunting. Gardeners, not survivalists. Patagonia’s people were the West’s recolonizers, the next wave of pioneers, the self-appointed protectors asserting a blue-state ethos in red-state territory—tree huggers pitching their tents in a logging camp. By now, this war for the West is a tired one, but it is in some ways a microcosm of the greater global battle between those who want to preserve lands and conserve resources and those who would prefer to exploit them.
The Patagonia catalogue can induce awe and envy. Authentic as its photographic subjects are—“We were the first to use real people, and captions saying who and where they were,” Chouinard said—it is a classic kind of aspirational branding. The life style, to a large swath, is unaffordable, if not in pure monetary terms (outdoor adventure is not in itself expensive, necessarily, although the clothing for sale certainly is), then at least in terms of time, talent, energy, and gumption.
"It isn't really a lack of funds that prevents most of us from spending half the year sleeping in vans and dodging the park rangers to free solo the big walls of Yosemite."
Back in Southern California, Chouinard tried community college for a spell, while working as a private detective for an agency run by his older brother. “Hanky-panky stuff,” he says. “Peeing in milk bottles.” Howard Hughes hired them to keep an eye on his girlfriends and certify that his yacht was germ-free. But mostly Chouinard devoted himself to Baja surfing trips and climbing excursions on the rocks near Palm Springs, where he joined a keen band of Sierra Clubbers who soon revolutionized the sport, on the towering granite walls of Yosemite.
In 1957, frustrated by the expense and unremovability of European pitons, the spikes one pounds into the wall to secure a rope, Chouinard bought a used forge, an anvil, and some hammers and tongs and taught himself how to be a blacksmith. He began making his own, reusable pitons, out of chrome steel, and before long he was selling them to friends and strangers, at a dollar-fifty a pop.
Eventually, he borrowed eight hundred and twenty-five dollars from his parents and had Alcoa build him a drop forging die, with which he began to produce carabiners that, like his pitons, were superior to anything then available. He set up shop in the chicken coop behind his parents’ house in Burbank, but he often travelled with his equipment, so he could surf and blacksmith his way up and down the coast during the winter, return to Yosemite in the spring, and then, in late summer and fall, go on climbing trips to Canada, the Shawangunks, and the Alps.
They were lean years: dumpster diving, cat food, “porcupines assassinated à la Trotsky with an ice axe.” Home was an Army-surplus sleeping bag. (He claims not to have owned a tent until he was almost forty.) At one point, he and a climbing companion spent eighteen days in jail in Arizona; the charge was wandering around “with no visible means of support” and “without any lawful business.”
Drafted in 1962, he was sent to South Korea for more than a year. He was not what you might call Army material, but he cadged enough free time to bag a slew of first ascents with a cohort of Koreans, in the mountains around Seoul. An honorable discharge returned him to Yosemite, where, with the big-wall pioneers, Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt, he completed a celebrated first ascent of the North American Wall on El Capitan, after nine nights on the face. Here now was fame, of a kind. He and his peers, colonizing the infamous Camp Four, called themselves the Valley Cong.
In 1966, he moved his blacksmith shop to Ventura, to a tin shed behind an abandoned slaughterhouse. He and his partners, Tom Frost, who was an engineer, and Frost’s wife, Dorene, called the business Chouinard Equipment, and, in due course, their hardware became the industry standard. (Their 1969 bamboo ice axe is now in the Museum of Modern Art.) Concerned about the degradation of rock, they stopped making pitons and instead came out with aluminum chocks that you could wedge into and remove from cracks without leaving any gear or scars behind. Their first catalogue, in 1972, opened with a clean-climbing manifesto, a rockhead’s version of leave-no-trace. A gambit for better gear had begun to extend into an argument for a better world.
By then, Chouinard had taken up with Malinda Pennoyer, an art and home-economics student, and Yosemite lodge maid. “We were hanging out in Camp Four one day when a car full of tough girls drove up and the driver threw out a beer can,” he recalled in his book. “Malinda ran over and told them to pick it up. They gave her the finger, so with her bare hands Malinda ripped off their license plate and turned them in to the rangers. I was smitten.”
In the early seventies, they started selling apparel. During a climbing trip in England, Chouinard came across a mill that made vintage corduroy, which he fashioned into heavy-duty shorts and knickers. Later, in Scotland, he found a rugby shirt that was also suitable for climbing. These caught on with climbers, and soon the Chouinards and their band of friends and metalworkers had turned the old slaughterhouse into a retail store that sold bivy sacks, wool gloves, and other workaday gear. They began sewing garments upstairs and adding new products: sweaters, rain gear, so-called standup shorts of stiff canvas.
As sales of such soft goods began to outpace those of the hard, it was determined that the concern needed a name of its own. Chouinard suggested Patagonia. It sounded exotic, and it name-checked a place that had become dear to him since his Fun Hogs trip in 1968 with Doug Tompkins, an East Coast prep-school dropout who’d headed west to ski and climb. In the sixties, Tompkins and his then wife, Susie, started the North Face, an outdoor-gear retailer, as well as the clothing company Esprit, which Chouinard looked to as a model for his fledgling business. When Chouinard was in the Army, Tompkins used to spring him from base to go climbing by phoning his commanding officer and impersonating a colonel. Tompkins was more acerbic and domineering than Chouinard, who has always had a Zen calm about him, but they were both opinionated, talented, and tough, and did not easily suffer fools—a formidable duo.
Chouinard and Tompkins were the founding members of a loose band of adventurers known as the Do Boys.
A coinage they derived, with some self-mockery, from the Japanese translation of action sports as “do sports.” Besides Tompkins and Chouinard, the Do Boys included Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer (now a vice-president at Patagonia, in charge of public engagement), and Tom Brokaw, the journalist, especially valued by the mountain men for his anecdotal knack. The thing was the experience, not the accolades. After a climbing trip to Bhutan, Chouinard, Tompkins, and Ridgeway burned their self-made maps so no one would know where they’d been. In 1981, Chouinard and Ridgeway were part of a team that was caught in an avalanche on a peak called Gongga Shan, in China. One climber was killed, the rest badly hurt—and lucky. Chouinard, taking into account his kids, his risk appetite, and his encroaching distaste for these bigger expeditionary attempts, began to dial it back as a climber.
But there were always escapades. Tompkins had got Chouinard into whitewater kayaking, and they logged dozens of first descents, some famous, some obscure. They took on just about every navigable river in Chile. On one of them, some forty years ago, upstream of Santiago, they stopped to scout some falls. A soldier with a machine gun detained Tompkins, who ran for it, jumped into his boat, and paddled into the falls. Chouinard, trailing him, flipped his kayak and went through the rapid upside down, in case the guard decided to shoot. Later that night, they learned that they’d paddled through President Augusto Pinochet’s summer compound. “Tompkins had no regard for authority,” Chouinard said.
It wasn’t long before Patagonia encountered its first crisis—a surplus of poorly made rugby shirts from a factory in Hong Kong. It nearly bankrupted them. As Chouinard later wrote,
“We learned the hard way that there was a big difference between running a blacksmith shop and being in the rag business.”
(A pan of a Chouinard pack in Backpacker, in 1974: “How well would you expect iron-mongers to sew?”) Amid the fallout, the Frosts sold the Chouinards their share, making Yvon and Malinda the sole owners.
Functional innovations became fashions, which matured into cultural conventions. For example, fleece, the hydrophobic washable insulating material that the Chouinards later branded Synchilla. It took them a while to get it right. Their first pile jackets were of fabric that had been intended for toilet-seat covers. Since the nineties, they have been making fleece out of recycled plastic bottles. It works, and it sells. And along came Capilene, a state-of-the-art thermal underwear, a new base layer for the now routine system of layering, which Patagonia popularized.
By the end of the eighties, Patagonia was approaching a hundred million dollars in revenues, dwarfing the sales of Chouinard Equipment, which had stagnated as Chouinard soured on the popularization of climbing and focussed on the soft-goods side of the business. In 1989, Chouinard Equipment declared Chapter 11. A group of employees and supporters bought the company’s assets out of bankruptcy and, amid some tension with the founder, renamed it Black Diamond Equipment and moved it to Utah. It went public several years ago and, like Patagonia decades earlier, began expanding too fast. “Companies like that, they have to be privately held,” Chouinard said. “Venture capitalists are such assholes.”
By 1980, day-to-day management of Patagonia’s operations had fallen to a close friend, Kris McDivitt. The daughter of an oilman, she’d grown up on a family ranch near Santa Barbara, with three years in Venezuela. Her refusal to go to a posh boarding school in La Jolla, at age fifteen, led to her meeting Chouinard, who was renting a place near her parents’ beach house, in Ventura. She fell in with his older gang of surfers, skiers, and climbers. “If that hadn’t happened, I’d probably be an alcoholic old woman with pearls around her neck,” she told me.
She eventually became Patagonia’s first C.E.O. and, really, with the Chouinards, part of its founding triumvirate. In the early nineties, she married Doug Tompkins and left Patagonia the company to dedicate herself, with Tompkins, to saving Patagonia the place. She remembers the first time she realized that any place needed saving. The Chouinards told her, one day in 1970, to find an office and some room in the budget for an activist who was spearheading a local effort to reintroduce steelhead trout to the Ventura River. “I said, ‘Why is this important?’ I didn’t even know what a steelhead was. I thought it was a machine part.” Since then, the company’s causes have proliferated. Dams, pesticides. Organic cotton, humanely sourced wool and down. Since 1985, under its one-per-cent program, it has given away more than seventy-five million dollars to some thirty-four hundred environmental organizations.
Typically, the first person you meet at Patagonia’s headquarters, in Ventura, is a receptionist and former freestyle Frisbee world champion who goes by Chipper Bro. When I visited, in May, he invited me to surf with him at dawn the next day. When I left reception, he said, “Nice hanging with you.”
Chouinard may be the face of Patagonia, and its presiding saturnine spirit, but the mood around the place is distinctly upbeat, optimistic, and youthful—a distillation of his can-and-must-do side, minus the ain’t-no-use. The idea is to recruit activist outdoorspeople and teach them business. “I’m terrible at hiring,” Chouinard told me. “I only trust women to hire people here. In an interview I have no idea. They can bullshit me, and I believe them.”
To a jaundiced East Coaster, the fervor can feel almost cultish.
One executive told me, “If there were a hundred employees in the parking lot, you’d be hard-pressed to find two who aren’t as idealistic as the next person.” A few employees told me that the only difficulty was the occasional excess of the altruistic urge. Various issues around the question of animal rights had recently turned thorny, in part because animal rights are perhaps not highest on Chouinard’s list of concerns.
The campus is at the west end of town, less than a mile from a couple of famous surf breaks. It has grown from the tin shed into a small village of about a dozen buildings. Inside, it’s like the catalogue, in V.R.: a hale crew, attired in Patagonia, talking up their trips. Here and there are vitrines with old articles of gear. Some have Post-its affixed—handwritten annotations provided by Malinda Chouinard. Malinda is virtually invisible, in standard accounts of the company, but in Ventura, and in routine conversation with anyone who has ever been involved with Patagonia, she looms as large, in many respects, as her husband. She rides herd. Her e-mail blasts—known as Malindagrams—are exhaustive, as is her head for detail. When I first met her, she told me, with something like ferocity, that I was not to quote her. “I don’t exist,” she said. (Thereafter, she was very kind and civil.)
“Malinda is much more involved than I am,” her husband said. “She’s more of a micromanager.” Still, he told me one day, “She has never got up and addressed the company. She won’t let anyone take her picture. She’s a little bit of a Howard Hughes type. Her mother was the same way.”
Malinda is principally responsible for making the company a notably humane place to work. Many there cite the advantage of having day care on site. In 1985, Malinda created (and has since put aside a vast patchwork of space for) what became known as the Great Pacific Child Development Center, to which I didn’t give much consideration, until I got a tour. A staff of twenty-eight oversees some eighty kids, on sprawling grounds of more than twelve thousand square feet, roughly half of it outdoors, among the fruit trees. A recent baby boom had led to another expansion, which displaced the H.R. department to a trailer. “We’ve raised fifteen hundred kids so far,” Chouinard told me. “None of them have been in prison—that I know of, anyway.”
In early 2012, Patagonia, at Malinda’s urging, became the first California business to become a B Corp, a class of company certified by a nonprofit organization called B Lab. To become a B Corp, you must adopt stringent objectives with regard to labor practices and social and environmental impact. The following year, Patagonia, also a founder of the Fair Labor Association, discovered, further down its supply chain, that many of its textile mills, principally in Taiwan, engaged in human trafficking. Even though Patagonia was one of the smaller customers, it led a movement, in conjunction with other clients, N.G.O.s, and governments, to reform them. “No other brand was monitoring its mills,” Doug Freeman, the chief operating officer, said. He estimated that the company’s attention to manufacturing its goods responsibly adds twenty to thirty per cent to the cost of production.
Meanwhile, Chouinard had become an adviser and scold to big business. “It started out with the Walton family,” Chouinard told me. Rob Walton had been talking to a conservationist and a kayaking buddy of Chouinard’s, Jib Ellison. “They sent a directive to their C.E.O. to green Walmart. He was clueless. He sent all his top managers out to find out what that means.” Walmart executives paid a couple of visits to Ventura, and Chouinard went to their headquarters, in Bentonville, Arkansas, to give a talk. Rick Ridgeway spent a couple of years advising them. The two companies, unlikely partners at first blush, also co-hosted a sustainability conference in New York. “I realized how much power we had as a company,” Chouinard said.
Patagonia helped launch something called the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a consortium of big retailers, like Walmart, Macy’s, and the Gap, which, among other things, is now devising a system to give a sustainability grade to every purchasable product. “But I’ve become cynical about whether we can have any influence,” Chouinard said. “Everyone’s just greenwashing. The revolution isn’t going to happen with corporations. The elephant in the room is growth. Growth is the culprit.”
Chouinard has a desk in an office he shares with the C.E.O., Rose Marcario, and their two assistants, but there's no computer on it. Sometimes he wanders over to the old tin shed, a kind of shrine. "When I die, they're gonna stuff me and stick me in here, do tours." He still fires up the forge now and then, either to do donnish demonstrations for new hires or to make things: door hinges, fireplace sets, a shovel for his son's pizza oven.
One day, I found him sitting outside on a bench under the jacarandas by the parking lot, watching his company bustle around him, while kids’ shouts bubbled up from one of the day-care center’s outdoor classrooms. He had on a worn chili-red polo shirt, khaki standup shorts, and flip-flops—burly forearms crossed over a paunch. “Tough as a pine knot,” a friend had said of him. He is not tall. Tom McGuane, a fishing buddy, calls him the Tiny Terror but insists that the coinage is Tom Brokaw’s.
“This is my job,” Chouinard said. “I just sit here. I take care of my correspondence, and I’m out of here. Some days, I’m here from eleven to two. If I want to go surfing all day tomorrow, I’ll go surfing all day tomorrow.”
I asked him how much power he had. “Power? I don’t have any power. If I complain about something, I often get a passive-aggressive response. I put up with it, because the alternative is to micromanage. I’m just the owner.” He called his executive style “management by absence.” He used to read business books and study various executive styles and corporate structures, here and abroad, but he prefers to take his lessons from nature—from ant colonies, for example. “There’s no management,” he said. “Every ant just does his job. They communicate and figure it out. It’s like a Navy seal team. The whole team has to agree on what the mission is.” It’s also true, however, that Chouinard’s occasionally whimsical notions send the ants scurrying. Absent or not, he’s still the big ant.
He has a succession plan in place to insure that Patagonia remains in the family after he dies. “Going public would be the death of this company,” he said. “It’s impossible to be a public company and be responsible. My kids realize that. They are taking over more and more. I never dreamed they’d be interested.”
I met them that night at the Chouinards’ house, for dinner. Fletcher, who is forty-one, shapes boards for Patagonia’s growing surf business. Claire, thirty-eight, works in the design department. “It helps that we’re working here,” Fletcher said. “We’re not just owners, or board members. We have normal salaries. We weren’t brought up to give a shit about money. Actually, I think we were raised to be slightly embarrassed about it.” Claire said, “If the company became something I didn’t believe in or approve of, I wouldn’t want to be here.” They both live with their own families up the street from their parents’ house on the ocean, a few miles north of town. In a storm, in 1983, waves came up over the roof. “I don’t believe people should have houses on the beach,” Chouinard said. “But until they change the laws I’m doing it.” Its footprint is modest: just over two thousand square feet, mostly old-growth Douglas fir, with a big plate-glass window facing the sea. Around the house Malinda has taped up newspaper clippings about exercise, memory, alcohol, and age. Chouinard cooked. He said, “We have a rule here. Whatever you touch first in the freezer you eat. It’s mostly game. I touched a goose. Watch your teeth.” There was no buckshot in mine. The meal also included cured duck, pasta with anchovies and fish roe, and a nice Italian red he’d found for fifteen bucks. The cat-food days are long gone.
Over the years, the Chouinards had taken very little money out of the business. “Until the last couple of years, it was just houses,” Chouinard told me. In addition to Ventura and Jackson, they have a small place up the coast at the Hollister Ranch, a famous surfing spot that is off-limits to the public. He’s probably worth hundreds of millions, but he’s one of those could-be high rollers who fly coach. Every now and then, he still sleeps in his car. (McGuane told me, “He lives an unpretentious life, but does it on a lot of expensive real estate.”) He distrusts the stock market. “I had a 401(k), but I took that money out of the market and put it into trees. Second-growth timberland in the Pacific Northwest”—in part to protect salmon and steelhead watersheds. He says that he and his wife give away half their salaries to charity.
Chouinard isn’t a sentimental man, although he confessed, at one point, that he tends to cry at Fourth of July parades—“when the flag girls go around on horseback.” He fainted when Claire was born. I asked him one day if the prospect of death bothered him, especially with many of his friends and contemporaries dying or getting ill. “Nah, I’ve always considered death to be a part of life,” he said. “Tell you the secret to a good life: always be the oldest one in the room.”
Doug and Kris Tompkins spent decades assembling land in Chile and Argentina, in an unprecedented, and not uncontroversial, effort to create vast nature preserves and national parks. The governments there have supplemented the Tompkinses’ gift of 2.2 million acres with commitments of as much as twelve million more. This is equivalent, in area, to six Yellowstones. “No human has ever done anything like this,” Chouinard told me.
Last December, the Do Boys set out on a paddling trip on a remote lake in southern Chile. It was supposed to be a mellow five-day affair, but a sudden Patagonian gale kicked up. Chouinard and Jib Ellison, in a two-man kayak, managed to reach an island. But Ridgeway and Tompkins capsized, and spent almost an hour in the near-freezing water, battling the tumult. “Every day, many times a day, I go back to that accident, go through it in my mind,” Ridgeway told me. “I assumed I was dead. I did something I’d never done. I gave up. I thought, I can’t make it. I was starting to drown. I decided to take it all in. It was so deeply beautiful. That was when I saw my comrades coming around the corner. So I still had a chance. I snapped out of it. ”
Tompkins was in worse shape. After they were towed to shore, he was suffering so badly from hypothermia that he was helicoptered to a hospital, and he died there that night. For all the perils that he and the others had faced down, over the decades, this end, on a supposedly gentle excursion, came as a shock to everyone in their circle.
“We thought we’d die together,” Kris Tompkins told me. She and her husband lived in Patagonia and flew in a small plane together almost every day. “We were obsessed with one another for twenty-five years. It’s the Great Amputation.”
Doug Tompkins’s death left his widow with the daunting task of continuing the work. “Doug left a real mess,” Chouinard said. “He was an entrepreneur. He starts something, and you need an entourage to clean it up. He micromanages and left no clear marching orders. Kris is now delegating. They’re going to pull it off.”
“Yvon is a kind of genius,” Kris Tompkins told me. “He can also be a knucklehead. The thing about Yvon and Doug, though they weren’t alike in personality at all, they shared an extraordinary confidence in themselves and were completely unburdened by conventional thinking or the wise advice of others. They calculated risk better than most. I was in both cases the conservative one, the one always wringing my hands.”
We left Moose at 6 a.m. Chouinard was driving a silver Honda Element that belonged to Fletcher. The front windshield was pocked with dings and cracked all the way across, and the side pockets were stuffed with maps. “I just got a recall on the passenger airbag,” he said as I got in. There was a peach pit in the passenger seat and, from the back, the clanking of glass. “That’s the wine.”
Our destination was the Bighorn River near Fort Smith, where it flows out of the Yellowtail Dam and north through the Crow Reservation, one of the biggest and poorest tribal territories in the country. The federal government cheekily named the dam after the Crow chairman who had fiercely opposed it. The river holds more trout per mile than any other river in the country, Chouinard told me. And yet the Crow don’t much fish it or participate in the economy that the trout attract. Tourists pay around five hundred dollars a day to float downstream with a guide.
Chouinard disdains fishing with guides. “And I won’t fish from a boat. But Wyoming and Utah and some of these states have awful access laws. You can’t fish any other way. Homeowners own to the middle of the river—you can’t even put down an anchor. That’s why fly-fishing is dying.”
There was some smoke in the air from a forest fire in the mountains to the southeast. The plan was to drive over the Teton Pass, from Wyoming into Idaho, and north along the Madison River through Ennis, and then through Bozeman and east: the long way, to avoid the traffic in the park, he said, and to look in on a few fishing stores that carried Patagonia merchandise. Each mile seemed to bring a fond memory (a remote lake where trout ate hoppers from his hand; a woman who wore her husband’s severed index finger around her neck, after a grizzly attack; a beer-drinking barstool dog) or a dire sign (dead pines, dry stream, dumb dam).
“Look at this,” Chouinard said, as we raced through rolling seed-potato farmland on the Idaho side of the Tetons. “It’s gorgeous. But it’s all toxic. Pesticides. People can’t drink water out of their wells. In Ashton, you can’t drink the water. It’s like Flint, Michigan, except at least here the water company told everybody.”
He went on, “That’s why I’m getting into food.” He was referring to Patagonia Provisions, a new venture to source and sell sustainable food—his latest fixation. He’s big on canned fish. “Organic cotton: You can insist on it, but do people care? If we’re going to have a revolution, it’s going to be in food, and I want to be the guy making the guillotine in my blacksmith shop.”
We rolled up to the goat ranch of Mark Harbaugh, an Idaho native and excommunicated Mormon who is the global sales manager of the fly-fishing division at Patagonia. He sends his goats into the foothills to eat noxious weeds, on a Bureau of Land Management contract. (He trains the goats to eat thistle by spraying the weeds with salt.) The company’s fly-fishing line has boomed—it has tripled in volume since 2012.
Harbaugh had a truckload of gear for the Crow event. The most important element was a supply of tenkara rigs: telescoping graphite rods with a fixed twenty-foot line, leader, and no reel. The name, and the technique, came from Japan, but it mimicked the way people have been fishing all over the world for thousands of years. You just cast, let the fly drift, and then cast again. When you catch a fish, you haul it in by hand. If it’s fighting hard, you can even drop the rod in the river, and the fish will return to its resting spot. Wade in, fetch the rod, land the fish. The line, when idle, can be looped around a pair of paper clips on the handle. It’s cheap and easy to use.
“Fly-fishing has become so esoteric,” Chouinard said.
“People have decided to learn more and more about less and less.
Guys write tomes this thick on midges, and they don’t even fish. Then, there are the guys who cast. That’s all they care about—casting. They don’t fish. They cast. Then, there are the flytiers, with flies so real you wanna swat ’em.” Chouinard has been on a kind of tenkara crusade, both for fishing’s sake and for the broader metaphorical implications. He spent 2015 fishing with just one type of fly, for all kinds of fish in all kinds of water, to prove the point that people spend way too much on way too much gear. The fly he used, and still relies on almost exclusively, is a brown pheasant-tail-and-partridge soft hackle. Each one takes him four minutes to make. The soft hackle makes it a wet fly; you fish it beneath the surface. He gives it a little twitch during its swing through the current, and the fish, allegedly, cannot resist. “It’s like playing with your cat, with a toy mouse,” he said. “Drag it along and the cat watches. Stop it and give it a twitch, and the cat pounces.”
As Chouinard steered us through the sublime vistas of Montana, enumerating extinctions and threats, one felt not depressed—or even, as one often is, in the presence of ecological jeremiads, exasperated—but, rather, almost inexplicably exhilarated. Maybe it was the trench humor, the dark comedy of the climber in dire straits. Whenever Chouinard says, “We’re fucked,” he laughs.
“He’s one of the most pessimistic people I’ve ever known,” McGuane said. “And yet one of the most fun people to do things with.”
The optimism, when it comes, is in his accounts of tiny victories, rare as they may be, and his belief in the effort, if not the outcome. “We stopped a dam the other day,” he said, at one point, as we drove along the Madison. “In Alaska, on the Susitna River. We gave a grant of twenty-five thousand dollars to a filmmaker who was making a film called ‘Supersalmon.’ The film comes out, the guy shows it around, and the governor, just like that, he kills the dam. You don’t get many clear-cut victories like that. But sometimes all it takes is one person.”
After then and a half hours, we reached the Bighorn River Lodge, which was helping Chouinard and his friends stage the Crow event. The lodge had set them up with a cabin nearby. He'd been coming to this stretch of river for many years, to fish and to hunt for pheasant. We wandered down to the river for a look at where the Crow kids would be learning the next day. It was a wide riffle, swift, wadeable. "This looks perfect," Chouinard said. "We can catch a lot of fish here."
“I just teach women and kids,” he’d told me. “I don’t teach guys. Too frustrating. They don’t listen. You tell them to cast, take two steps, then cast again, but either they take no steps or they take ten.” He went on, “Women don’t want to go out there with a redneck guide who’s chewing tobacco and telling them how to cast. But they want to fish. They just don’t seem to like the toys as much as the boys do.” The tenkara, he felt, was the trick to getting women and kids to like fishing. And fishing was the way to get them to care about the water.
Only seven kids were there by the river the next morning, out of an anticipated fifteen. Two of them were with their father, Dana Wilson, the tribe’s vice-chairman. Someone had laid out some tables of Patagonia swag and eco lit under a makeshift tent. After Wilson led an informal ceremony with a sheaf of burning sage, Chouinard, in chest waders, showed them a willow stick with a line attached, a version of the rig he had as a kid. “O.K., so, hey, this is how I learned to fish. I used to use worms. This don’t cost much compared to all the ones those dudes got in those boats drifting by all day. Those cost a lot.” He went on, “The line is made of horsetail hair—from a stallion, since mares pee on their own tails. You can walk out there with a stick and a horsehair line and catch anything.”
“What do you call that?” Wilson asked.
Chouinard looked at him for a moment, and then said, “A pole.”
Nick Paumgarten has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2005.