Eat or Be Eaten

Cabela's Northwood Cache Restaurant
3900 Cabela Dr. (exit 45 off I-35), Owatonna; (507) 451-4545
Hours: Monday-Saturday 8:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Bunky, are you feeling tired? Listless? Worn-out as a horsefly pulled out of the belly of a 20-pound trout? Does a rendezvous with the looking glass reveal eyes like poached eggs and skin like antediluvian antifreeze? I thought so. It's the last gasp of a particularly spastic winter, it's the dark before the dawn, the what-doesn't-kill-us of the year. And heavens to Murgatroid, Bunky, you look it.

What you need is a road trip. A journey to foreign lands. The restorative eye-opener of the old cultural compare-and-contrast. What? You say you don't have two dead presidents to rub together? Well, Bunky, fear not, I've got a way for you to eyeball the stunning critters of foreign lands, the lions, tigers, bears, and rhinoceroses, the savannas, mountains, and watersides of the great, green globe. And it's all right here in our own back yard, and it's free, free, free.

Well, true, all the critters are dead and the landscapes are man-made, but still, I'm telling you: free, free, free.

Unless you're hankering to chaw some of this here wildlife. But I get ahead of myself. For the time being, throw your next of kin in the car and point your motor south, 60 miles straight down I-35 to Cabela's, the Disney World/natural-history museum/Menards of hunting and fishing.

Personally, I've been slumbering under a rock for so long, I knew zed about this glitzy 150,000-square-foot hunting-and-sporting outfitter set on a decidedly unglitzy swath of rolling not-much just east of downtown Owatonna. But when I saw two Buick-sized shiny brass bucks gamboling down a steep incline and looking as eager and driven as a pair of ravers eyeballing a distant strobe light, I knew I had really found something.

Securing one of Cabela's 700 parking spaces, I took note of the very varied license plates on the macadam: Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Oregon (Oregon??), and more than a few Minnesota fish-and-wildlife plates. Once inside the bank of front doors, I threw myself upon the ground, squawking and screaming at the top of my lungs, for it seemed an entire flock of geese was about to land on my head, followed by a whole passel of ducks. Not so, advised the kindly salespeople who scraped me off the decks: The descending flocks were merely taxidermied specimens hung from invisible wires and posed to look as if they were landing on your head.

Recovering my breath, I looked round the cavernous space: As far as the eye could see were the immobilized, mounted heads of the globe's finest fauna, with a particular emphasis on deer. In fact, just past the information desk were two mounted bucks gaily rotating on a dais, with a nearby sign describing one of them as the "greatest typical whitetail ever to have walked the woods and prairies of North America." As they spun, these great bucks passed through an arc made of another dozen mounted deer heads--an ungulate version of Amityville Horror-does-Silence of the Lambs.

For the next two hours, I walked around with my mouth open, dazzled at the quantity, variety, and, well, quantity of taxidermied animals tossed around the joint. A veldty display held the African and exotic animals: bongo, roan, hartebeest, oryx, bontebok, klipspringer, baboon, warthogs, impala, zebra, lesser kudu, hyenas (with and without bloody meat scraps), crested cranes, vultures, male and female lions, an African elephant, rhinoceroses, leopards, and other, many other, critters. Toward the rear of the store sat "Conservation Mountain," an awesome, 35-foot peak chock-a-block with a hundred exemplars of North American stuffed game: Grizzly bears, polar bears, black bears, caribou, mountain goats, bison, foxes, wild turkeys, moose, pheasants, doves, all kinds of deer, squirrels, beaver, porcupine, javelinas, rabbits, and a coyote--the latter so convincing, I stood by helpless as a tot ducked under the fence that separates shoppers and varmints, cooing "doggy, doggy," as he leapt upon the creature.

In between the animals are zillions of other things to amuse: swords, bayonets, black-powder reproduction guns (for Civil War reenactors and such), a library of collector shotguns (costing up to $10,000 apiece), handguns, even smallish cannons, (which can shoot a golf ball four miles, according to one Cabela's employee). There are virtual-reality shooting parlors, for both bow and arrow and gun, where you could shoot at a video screen for $30 an hour, or $10 for 15 minutes. There are wild-turkey decoys (two options to consider are the Hot Hen, who does a mating dance when you pull a cord, or Bubba the male turkey, with whom other turkeys will want to pick fights) and turkey calls, which are laid out for all to try--I blew "When Froggy Went A-Courtin'," which came out more like "When Froggy Went A-Dyin'".

Exhausted from my sightseeing, I climbed a set of steps up to the second level of the store, to Cabela's Northwood Cache. Now a cache, according to a Cabela's sign, is a spot where "during the 1800s, frontiersmen would often deposit provisions and supplies along the way to be picked up for the journey home. This cache (pronounced cash), which was a hiding place for provisions, was marked by a tree, rock formation, or a particular bend in a river or a stream." Hereabouts, a cache is marked by a refrigerator case stuffed with little tubs of potato salad.

So I grabbed a couple of said tubs and proceeded up a cafeteria-style line, where I ordered as many pieces of great animals as I could: elk, caribou, venison, bison. What, no hyena? I asked the woman behind the counter, who grinned the mirthless grin of someone who has heard the same joke 30,000 times this year.

Then, to my great surprise, she asked me if I wanted butter or mayonnaise on my sandwiches. For some reason I had assumed that game sandwiches would have some predetermined makeup, something like elk tenderloin served rare on pumpernickel with a lingonberry chutney--which goes to show how feeble-minded constant dining out can make you. That may be how they treat elk in fancy restaurants like Schumacher's, but elk and caribou are to Cabela's as turkey breast is to Subway--which seems fitting for a place that has, by my count, about three billion elk heads on the wall.

It turns out that the Northwoods Cache serves about a dozen different sandwiches, all made to order on your choice of bread with your choice of cheese and the usual fixings. You can have ham ($4.25), roast beef ($4.95), smoked buffalo ($5.75), smoked elk ($6.25), or caribou ($7.95). Not to mention a hot dog ($2.75), a bison brat ($3.45), or a venison brat ($3.45). (Are there vegetarian offerings? Yes, all the sandwiches are chock-full of vegetarians...)

I'd never before seen elk, bison, or caribou made in the manner of cold cuts (brined, cooked, machine-sliced thin) and was surprised that they came out tasting like, well, cold cuts. The buffalo resembled roast beef; the caribou was not unlike bland supermarket pastrami. The elk, however, was a cut above average sandwich meat, tender, almost buttery, and tinged with a mysterious, appealing taste from a spice rub--pepper and sumac, as best I can tell. Both the brats were very good, the venison version pale and slightly garlicky like a very nice, lean, German-made sausage, the buffalo one sweet, smoky, reddish, and very distinct. As far as lunch goes, it was fine. As far as lunch among motionless wildlife goes, it was the best I've ever had.

Refreshed, I checked out the cooking section of the store--the "Jerky Shooter" (more like a jerky caulk gun), the cigarette-lighter blender (car daiquiris!), the gas-powered blender (canoe daiquiris!), the combination French-press coffee pot and travel mug, and the most comprehensive collection of Dutch ovens, camp stoves, sausage-making equipment, and smokers I've ever seen. I also worked my way into the fishing section, where 50,000-plus-gallon aquariums hold native fish and the walls are covered with native trophy fish. For someone who has eaten about a thousand walleyes and caught exactly none, it was fascinating going--who knew they were so brown and lived in such a murky world? (Don't answer that.)

It was also fascinating to eavesdrop on the other people gaping at the aquariums, mostly boyfriends whispering to girlfriends: "That's a walleye, that's a muskie, that's another walleye, see? It's almost about the size of that one last summer..." It was nearly as good as standing under the prize halibut mounted on one wall, and hearing everyone who walked by say: "That's a helluva halibut. A helluva halibut!" Indeed it was.

On the way home I detoured through downtown Owatonna for a glance at the famous bank built by Prairie School luminary Louis Sullivan. But as dazzled as I was by the elaborate ironwork, gorgeous stained glass, breathtaking plaster, and general majesty of this jewel box of a building, I couldn't help but think that the best part of this road trip had been the experience of gazing upon large, active-looking animals as you ate of their flesh. And by best, what I really mean is surreal, creepy, disturbing, and altogether jarring--and all the more so for being not at all strange to so very many people. According to the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce, four million visitors have already passed through the Owatonna store; brochures from Cabela's corporate offices say the Sidney, Nebraska, Cabela's is the state's second-largest tourist attraction, and the forthcoming Dundee Cabela's aims to be the biggest tourist attraction in Michigan.

And, Bunky, isn't that the whole point of travel--to make the commonplace seem strange and the strange seem commonplace, and to jumble everything up for a new way of looking at the world? Let me tell you, the briefest mention of in-canoe daiquiris, roadside stuffed lions, fish-head can coolers, ersatz stuffed bald eagles (made from 12 species of non-endangered bird! and only $10,000!) and bison-filled croissants has you looking better already.

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