The Great American Outdoor Show

Finding your place, finding the truth.

The Main Hall at GAOS

February 9th, 2019

Saturday morning, my family and I got up early and piled into the car to head to Harrisburg for the Great American Outdoor Show, sponsored by the National Rifle Association. I had been to gun, boat, and RV shows in the past — coming from a family of fishers, hunters, and all-around outdoorsmen/women, we like to explore these shows and find the newest kinds of technology for our corresponding hobbies.

Upon arrival, we were given our day passes and ushered into the lobby of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, an overwhelmingly large building. As I stepped through the entryway doors, the hallway opened up into a huge atrium-like room with mile high ceilings. Just this room was about 150,000 square feet, and it was filled to the guts with tractors, four wheelers, trucks, gun safes, guns, and food stands. Every way you turn, you come face to face with a different business stand showing off their product.

A typical scene at GAOS, in the vehicle area

The purpose of the Great Outdoor Show is to combine all the elements of the outdoors in just one show; this means that the Show includes a great spectrum of products for all the outdoor activities you could think of, from quail hunting to the conservation of a special species of frogs to soybean farming. The sheer breadth of the Show is formidable. It’s like it went around the country, swallowed up every little show, and then puked it out on the outskirts of Harrisburg.

Two hours in, and we’ve finally made our way through the Main Hall. So far, we have played with the newest technologies of gun safes (fingerprinting), explored paintings that can sneakily hide your weapons inside them, driven strange little versions of four-wheelers, and had a laser gun competition at a target company’s booth. We amble towards the food, starving from our long trek through the Hall. At this point, my friend and I are separated from my parents and my brother. I try to call my mom to get linked up again, but the Hall is so loud that I can’t possibly hear her. So, we dig out our map and try to locate where they said they were going.

For a while, we couldn’t even find the door to exit the Hall. After about fifteen minutes of arguing, Nick spots a tiny door on the opposite wall and we make our way towards it. I expected to just find another room like the one we had just left, maybe one a little smaller this time, but that is far from what we saw. Instead, we were thrust into a bustling, wide hallway with big signs hanging from the ceiling every ten feet. Along the walls on each side were even more vendors, advertising for frog legs, beef jerky, and apparel. It was so crowded that I had to hold on to Nick to keep myself from getting pulled away by the people passing us with a pressing urgency to get to their next destination. We gave each other a look, both visibly shocked at what we had found. In the end, we decided to go with the flow and keep walking, hoping that maybe one of the signs above us would end up being the one we needed. We made our way forward, peeking our heads into each room we passed on the way — to our shock and somewhat dismay, each one was bigger than the last. We poked our head into one room and found a dirt football field, where show pigs meandered around their pens. In the center, a moderator stood and announced each hog and its owner. Once announced, the owner would lead their pig out into the ring and the audience would clap, congratulating the young girl or boy for their achievements in raising that animal. (It’s no small task, you know.) Surrounding the dirt pen, which was actually circular but did remind me of a football field because of the marks, were metal bleachers and a judges’ area. Upon researching it later, I learned that this room was over 39,000 square feet.

A teenager shows her hog during the competition

We left the hog showing area and continued on our journey to find my family. The next room we entered was similar to the original Main Hall we had started in — it was huge, and it was much more open and wider than the hallway. The first thing we saw when we walked in was a taxidermy display. At first, I was kind of upset when I noticed the baby lions and the elephant that they had there on display — my thought was this: why would they go out and kill endangered animals for no reason? That didn’t seem to go with the conservationist label I have always associated with these types of organizations. In fact, I actually asked an employee about the animals they had, and I’m glad I did. When I voiced my concerns and disapproval, the man who I was speaking to quickly dispelled my issues. He explained to me that most of the animals that they “hunt” in order to taxidermy them are actually already dead when they find them, like the baby deer they had displayed to my right. As for the most exotic animals, like the adult lions and elephants, he said, they were ill and they could no longer reproduce. By removing them from the community, the hunters are purifying the reproduction lines and actually helping the species survive by taking out the ill individuals that could destroy a whole new, younger generation. They aren’t just going out there and shooting whichever animals they feel like. I also asked about the “Expedition Trips” where the company takes a few wealthy individuals to a faraway place like Africa to hunt; to me, this seems cruel, harmful to the environment, and useless besides the amusement these people are getting. The employee let me know that the whole hunt is carefully controlled by environmentalists and their company; it is all manufactured so that the hunters cannot do damage to the species. The animals that get killed are the ones that are no longer productive within their ecosystem; in addition, the obscene amount of money that the hunters spend on these trips mostly goes towards protecting the healthy animals. It is the perfect solution for sacrificing the old and sick for the young and fertile. The employee went on to speak to me for a little bit about the problems with poachers. Poachers go completely around the system that conservationists have put in place to protect these species. While the company I spoke to does make a profit on their excursions, that’s not the only thing they care about. Poachers only care about the money, and they will be cruel and brutal with the animals if that’s what it takes to make their profit. There is no rhyme or reason to the animals they choose to target, other than the fact that pieces of their bodies may make them some cash on the black market.

After having a long conversation with a few of those employees, I felt like I had a much more clear understanding of what exotic hunting is about. In the past, I had always been really bothered by the practice, but after learning more about it from the people who actually organize it, I felt much better.

The crowd in one of the alternative rooms

We moved onward, weaving through the rows of booths and the shouting customers. After passing a giant fish tank full of carp, a grass display with dogs chasing a fake rabbit, and a fried pickle stand, we finally spotted my family a few yards away. When we reached them, my brother immediately made fun of us for getting lost for hours, but I didn’t mind. I had learned more in the last five hours about this lifestyle than I had my whole life, even though I was used to being involved in these sorts of activities. Sometimes you have to go straight to the source to get the facts. For me, the cheery atmosphere and the sincere people I met were enough to convince me that maybe there are more people out there who live the same kind of life that my family and I do. Concern for the environment, dedication to production, and community bonding guides the nature of the Great American Outdoor Show, and I have a much better understanding of how those principles manifest now that I have actually experienced it for myself and seen these mystical sportsmen/women with my own eyes.

To me, the biggest component of this experience was my having the ability to include Nick in the festivities. While I had grown up in this type of atmosphere — beards, mud, and pickup trucks — this was a completely new world for him. I have always tried to convey to him how my childhood and earlier years were, and what my summertime life is still like, but nothing covers all the bases quite as fully as experiencing it for himself. I think he was kind of shocked to see how many people there were. Yes, there were the redneck type, but there were also businesspeople, academics, and teenagers like us. While we sat in one of the lecture halls for the “Don’t Be a Victim” seminar, a man seated behind us tapped my shoulder. I had been wearing a Northwestern sweatshirt, and he leaned forward to start a conversation with me about his undergraduate experience there. (McCormick ’07 graduate!) We easily chatted for about twenty minutes. Nick looked bewildered — how could we meet someone with such a resume at an event like this? I was happy to explain to him that your background doesn’t necessarily determine your interests. You don’t need to be interested in something just because society tells you that people like you should be, an idea that reminds me a lot of harmful identity politics that are pushed on the vast majority of Americans. You can like what you like, you can vote for who you want to vote for. That’s the beauty of America. No one can tell you what to think or how to feel, and if they try, I hope you can recognize and stand up against the blatant destruction of the American social and political system.

The Great American Outdoor Show is sponsored by the NRA, but it’s so much more than guns. I think that many people who are poorly educated about the type of work the NRA does assume that they only care about gun sales — which, as I’ve learned and experienced myself, couldn’t be further from the truth. The NRA’s main goal, other than protecting the Second Amendment, is to protect a culture and a way of life. The Great American Outdoor Show encapsulates the values and interests of the average, middle-America citizen. It focuses on community, protection of the environment and the home, hard work, and honesty. It is unapologetic, and it is popular, regardless of the narrative the large scale media pushes out. By going to the Show, which included just a fraction of the larger population that participates in these outdoorsy activities, I was able to finally feel like I had found a community in Pennsylvania instead of simply reminiscing about the community I had left behind in Indiana five years ago. There are always people who will share your interests and values; you just have to find them.

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