There are valid reasons to doubt my bona fides as an outdoorsman. I’m incapable of regarding a kayak or raft expedition as anything other than as a preamble to a sexy splashfight. My first orienteering session concluded in a different time zone than the one in which it commenced. While I could start a fire or pitch a tent if pressed, the over/under on how long I’d be able to survive in the woods is 12 minutes. That number doesn’t change even if it’s the woods behind my house.
So despite residing in its desired demographic - on the extreme outer edge of it, anyway - I doubt outdoor retailer REI views me as a prize catch. Do I enjoy an occasional into-nature excursion while enveloped in layers of fleecy softness? Of course. Who doesn’t? At the same time, my preferences tend towards nonthreatening outdoor activities, like afternoon-long hammock residencies or turning on the sprinklers during a commercial break. I’m more about climbing metaphorical mountains - way to refrain from honking that wayward driver stupid, kiddo! - than actual ones, what with the wind and steep angles and granola snacks and whatnot.
That does not, however, mean I wouldn’t love to spend some time in the company of one Frank Sanders, the subject of the REI-backed “Frank and the Tower.” The 12-minute-long film, which debuted this week, details Sanders’ years spent in the shadow and on the serrated ridges of Wyoming’s Devils Tower. It paints a portrait of a unique individual, one who triumphed over demons (he talks about spending 33 straight days intoxicated… and having “no inclination to stop at 33 days”) and ultimately became the monument’s de facto host, promoter and reverent worshipper. We see him playing piano (really well), flirting with visitors (non-lecherously) and reflecting on his journey (minus the usual sap/sentimentality).
But “Frank and the Tower” is about more than one life well-spent and one person who became a local institution. It’s about perseverance, mystery and, perhaps above all else, community. For me, the money quote comes about halfway in, when Sanders discusses his many years spent as a Devils Tower guide. “I got to be included on everybody’s voyage of discovery here,” he says in a voice that’s somehow both folksy and professorial. “I get to sail with Columbus to a new world every day I guide.”
Inclusivity is a huge part of REI’s brand proposition. The company isn’t suggesting that its customers venture down the Appalachian Trail by themselves, Mark Sanford-style; REI is about activity and achievement in a non-solo context. And that’s a lovely way to sell oneself in an era of fraying personal connection.
Sanders likens his guests to “a group of pilgrims all shrugging their way towards Mecca for a slightly unknown reason,” adding that, “We do know we’re all here together.” Whether by dint of his history or the omnipresent glint in his eye, Sanders delivers this message of harmony - with each other and with nature - with warmth and uncommon understatement.
I buy it. I buy him. And thus, by the transitive property, I buy that REI is aligned with such values and priorities. Only here do I pause to remember that this is an organization that sells ultra-thermal sleeping bags, not sex or sustenance or salvation.I wish “Frank and the Tower” hadn’t brought in young actors to reenact brief scenes from Sanders’ childhood and young-adulthood, and I wish the young-adulthood scene didn’t tap the expected clichés associated with circa-1972 cross-country walkabouts (the headband, the facial scruff, the Volkswagen van). But beyond those minor quibbles, “Frank and the Tower” is lively and touching in all the ways that most brand content yearns to be but rarely is. You watch - this one’s gonna bolster REI’s sales/customer affinity as well as overflow Sanders’ climbing calendar.