The Gold-Plated Axe: Isaiah Bowman and the Pioneer Fringe



Early in this millennium’s awkward tweens, young lumberjacks invaded some of the US’s most urbane hotspots — exhaustively documenting their migration, mating, and dietary habits via Instagram. Were they flannel-clad wilder-people displaced by deforestation? Or hipsters jumping from fad to fad? (Pirates are out. Vampires, too. Lumberjacks are in!)

Answer: Hipsters. (Mindless, trend-hungry hipsters.)

A shop in the Houston Heights called Manready Mercantile is the local embassy for the Ron-Swanson/Old-Spice-Guy/Most-Interesting-Man-In-The-World cult of masculinity that has mass-produced scrawny, mustachioed lumberjacks in the heart of urban sprawl.

Do you need faux-vintage hiking boots or craft-brewed bubble bath in a whiskey bottle capped with black wax? (I mean, who doesn’t?) How about a 24k-gold-plated axe? Manready is the premier outfitter for the lumberjack with disposable income and an eye for rugged luxury.

Tub Elixir: The World’s Most Badass Bubble Bath (source:

Not to be too hard on Manready; they staff talented craftsmen and carry some top-notch merchandise. (I mean, “next-level” merchandise. The kids say “next-level,” right?) It’s really the fickle costume of what’s-cool-now that unsettles me. Manready’s inventory invokes images of Marlboro-Man urban cowboys from the late-1960s and 1970s and that Fess-Parker’s-Davy-Crockett breed of frontier faker of the 1950s — with fringe dangling from their buckskin jackets.

That’s where the title of this blog originated: Pioneer Fringe. Before I launched the blog, however, I did a little digging to see whether anyone else had a blog with a similar title or if some brand had trademarked the phrase. Turns out, I’m not so original myself.

In 1927, geographer Isaiah Bowman coined the term “Pioneer Fringe” to describe the cusp of global industry and commerce — the edge of what he believed to be civilization — beyond which lie untapped and under-studied frontier. Bowman’s Pioneer Fringe was all about railroads, irrigation, and innovative ways to exploit natural resources recently cleansed of pesky natives. Pioneers! O, Pioneers! Bowman opined that there was so much left unexploited if only pioneers could again muster the gall for a second push into the frontier.

“Humanity is not the same today as it was yesterday… Today it requires courage to leave the telephone behind, for at the other end of it is a doctor who may save the life of a member of the family in a crisis. Social pleasures and social communication have increased enormously and these the pioneer must give up or enjoy in greatly attenuated forms… To become a pioneer he has to turn his back upon many more things than his forefathers did.”

Bowman wrote that in 1927.

Despite an overexploited planet — whose inhabitants now often (at least) acknowledge definitions for “civilization” other than “white occupancy” — Bowman’s Pioneer Fringe is still a useful concept. But it’s not the edge of civilization.

I like to think of the Pioneer Fringe as the catalyst for curiosity and exploration. In the Hobbit, Tolkien tells of how Bilbo “looked at maps and wondered what lay beyond their edges. Maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond their borders.” Marlow, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, had a similar fascination with those blank “spaces beyond.” The details that clutter maps over time only hastened Marlow’s desire to explore. Those blank spaces are the frontier. The Pioneer Fringe is the edge of what you know, the point from which you stare into the frontier and wonder.

Age of Empires Blank Map

For me, it was the real-time-strategy PC game Age of Empires. In the game, you are given a handful of villagers stuck somewhere in a blank map. As you send your villagers further into the unknown, the map’s blank spaces fill in — forests, mountains, rivers and seas, gold and iron deposits, and other societies and cultures. Playing Age of Empires (or Civilization, Starcraft, Warcraft) is playing Bowman’s Pioneer Fringe. You explore. You discover. You gather resources. Your digital society is enriched by a deeper knowledge of its digital surroundings.

How sad is that?! I could have been the poster-child for Nature Deficit Disorder. My upbringing was so suburban that the common human desire to explore had to be satisfied by a video game.

Rugged life can now be conceptualized by a hashtag. (On Instagram, search #AuthenticLiving and despair.) Jeans are pre-faded and jackets pre-frayed. Tools come gold-plated and are intended to be mounted on walls like participation trophies commemorating the things we could have achieved if only we had been born before the maps were all filled-in.

But this observation has been penned before (and much more eloquently). I am not so original. It goes back before Isaiah Bowman to Theodore Roosevelt, before Roosevelt to Thoreau.

Wonder and wanderlust still exist. Backpackers and mountaineers still strike-out into their personal frontiers the world over. But why invest so much time, money, and effort to sleep on the cold ground and grind feet to pulpy blisters? Why not just buy the gold-plated axe? Why not just look the part? After all, it’s all been done before.

Because, despite a posh and useless shell, there is iron underneath.

We’re not the hearty pioneers of distant centuries. It takes courage to leave the iPhone behind; all the more reason for recreation to be hard. Even with modern safety nets, a long romp in the woods will hint at your ability in the context of greater things.

What lies beyond our familiar haunts and habitations? Go see. It begins with the Pioneer Fringe.

Disappointing Stuff:

Faux-Vintage Hiking Boots –

Bubble Bath in Whiskey Bottle –

Copper Axe –

Gold-plated Axe Head –


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