From Humble Beginnings: The Gleasons and MYSTERY RANCH

Published 2016-09-05

D3, MYSTERY RANCH’s co-owner Dana Gleason’s son, picks up where Dana leaves off, not only in skill set but in conversation. We sat both Dana and D3 down at different times and listened to their renditions of how MYSTERY RANCH has become what it is today.

“There’s a few certain simple bits of history that have maintained themselves through the utility of the overall bag designs for many years. Creating packs that have a pair of pockets on the back which allowed us to get quick access to stuff we wanted to have on the outside. To keep pockets out of the way of arm swing when cross country skiing, without getting in the way of the brush when bushwhacking, and without getting in the way of train doors when hopping on and off of urban transportation, were all very good reasons for the basics of having pockets on the back. Moreover, the bags have maintained themselves that way for the larger volumes for a long time because it suited our purposes.” states Dana Gleason.


Backpacker Editors’ Choice Award: 1999 winner Terraplane vs. the 2016 winners Mystic and Sphinx

In 2015, D3 took the same utility elements of Dana’s packs, streamlined and did another generation of framing that has a different mainframe from Dana’s original Terraplane series.

Dana tells us “The design ethos has come down to not a lot of ornamentation and not a lot of color work. The form of my overall designs is: just follow the function and that is a perfectly valid way to go. But now, because outdoor gear has become so sophisticated and the overall set of designs people can get has become so elaborate, the aesthetics of it have come to the fore. And so the big change – the generational change – has transitioned from the pretty raw representation of a function – as I did in the past – to building stuff that works extremely well and looks pretty darn good too, in part due to material evolution. It’s something that I am not sure I’d say I’m jealous of, but I see it as an evolution in how we do things and are proud to be working with.”

D3 describes to us – “Initially, the packs were too heavy and expensive. I was trying to switch up the aesthetic without losing sight of what makes MYSTERY RANCH packs top-of-the-line. I had a full design season to make this concept a reality. I knew the pack I wanted. It needed the zipper to go the whole way through the shroud and have the classic torpedo pockets, but I wanted them to be full length. And the deep dish lid, which I had developed for the 1-Day Assault, a bag we only sell in Japan – I fell in love with that – and needed to incorporate that into the design as well. The waist belt was redesigned, and there were all kinds of details that needed to be brought to the next level. And most importantly, you can make it sing at carrying 30 lbs., but can you at 50lbs? That’s the MYSTERY RANCH mentality when designing packs. Period. Load carriage is the utmost important factor.”

And proudly, at 2016 Winter Outdoor Retailer, D3’s masterpiece made its debut and crushed it! These new designs – the Sphinx and Mystic – won the Backpacker Editors’ Choice Award, as Dana’s original pack, the Terraplane, did back in 1999.

Dana comments about D3’s design – “The frame stands out and how he altered our fitting system to represent it better for both men and for women with each model being very gender specific. Also improving the access system doing the center zip that opens the top entirely and lets you peel the entire pack open to being able to get to any part of the load easily. He did a beautiful job, and he did a beautiful job sculpting the pack. I build pockets. I build packs – essentially compartments to take objects of a certain size. He was able to do that yet, meld the whole thing into something that was a great deal more pleasing than me simply building relatively utilitarian compartments. And it looks fast, and it looks more than just utility equipment. And he also made it lighter.”

When the award winner was announced, Dana congratulates D3 with “You won an award that I won twice back in the 90s! This is so cool. I mean, wow! This has never happened in a generational pass along. Maybe it is in the blood?!”

Is it in the blood? Our interrogation with Dana and D3: Like minds, like stories

Going back to 2001 – “Things were super tight. Paul (D3’s twin) and I were out of high school and had worked for the RANCH two and a half months before shit hit the fan and production had to shut down. MYSTERY RANCH just didn’t have the capital to continue to run the sewing floor.”

For the second time in Dana’s life, he had to go through the misfortune of hard times and laying people off and shutting down the factory. He had done it once before with Dana Design.

“Paul and I were brought in like every other employee, and they had to lay us off. About a week into being unemployed, my dad came to me and said we had to finish and get all the packs sold. We sold land in Belgrade to finance the company. It was our only shot at making this work.”

Dana reinforces “I cannot pay you… I need a year from you to make this work.” At this time, everything was at stake, everything that Dana had worked for – his house, Renee’s house, etc. – were all on the line. “If you can step up for us, this would be huge.”

D3 passionately explains to us “Who could say no to this? I’m just always of that character. Family in need, friends in need – I just always step up, so it ended up being 17 months of living at dad’s house. Dad was paying for food, an occasional book, whatever was inexpensive…I wasn’t buying any new gear, no new clothing. We were just coasting…we were going to have to move from our huge facility in Belgrade to a tiny little building in Sypes Canyon – from a 10,000 sq. ft. building to 2300 sq. ft. to survive.”

Like words flow from Dana’s mouth: “D3 and Paul are twins. They graduated the year we had our toughest initial times, and I asked them to give me a year. And when I say ‘give me a year as they come out of high school’ – that meant you’re living at home, getting an allowance, essentially, we are making our lunches and living minimally. It’s like being on the family farm and bucking hay and doing whatever else is needed because you are in the family.”

“In both cases, D3 and Paul, like myself, we’re not entirely bought into the mythology that if you don’t go to college, you’ll never amount to anything. Back in the day, I went to college. I did a year. I tried to imagine what kind of work I’d get that I’d have to have a college degree, and I laughed and hitchhiked off to the west and started working at outdoor stores, climbing, backpacking, and skiing because that was what I loved doing. I, then, ended up finding my way into building the gear and solving problems because that was something you could do and it’s still something you can do – if you got a bit of intelligence, motivation and have a little bit of luck and, well, just being stupid enough to think you can just do it, things can go your way! So, I knew asking for a year of their lives wouldn’t hinder them.”

“At this point, I(D3) was learning to sew from Renee. Dana was coming up with plan B while still developing packs. He finally came to us and said ‘ok we need people to sell’ and it was from that point that Luke Buckingham was graduating from college and decided he wanted to come with us, even though we couldn’t pay him except maybe for his rent. He didn’t care. It was what he wanted. He had nothing to lose, and if it didn’t work out, he’d do something else, but for that time, it was what he wanted.”

Today, Luke Buckingham still works for MYSTERY RANCH and is now head of Mission product development (Military and Wildland Fire Packs).

“Luke and I hit the road, and we traveled with a couple of other people that we just couldn’t tell to go away. They wanted to help. It was that next three and a half years I was making a sales trip through the northwest, stopping at shops to open up. Trying to get some of the shops to sell through better. I had huge successes and a bunch of failures. It was hard. And between that, I’d come back; I’d sew more and work with Dana on more development to pick up skills in production. That’s when I learned how to cut and sew. And then we moved to the small place in Sypes Canyon. We got rid of a ton of stuff, put stuff in storage – tons of sewing machines, and it was at that point we were going to collapse and die or grow back into something else that could be viable. Then, we got the contract and the whole prospect of doing the Navy Seals packs. They had initially been introduced to Dana packs back in the Dana Design days.”

“They asked if we could do a new rendition of the Terraplane so Dana built an ArcFlex-type pack with a SpeedZip™, which became known as “Big D’s Special Blend” and then he threw in a frame he had been working on but hadn’t commercialized yet, and he called that the “guide frame.” That bag eventually became the G7000 then G6000. We sent both bags, and they were tested in Kodiak, AK, and they picked our bag over the old Dana Design bag which was awesome! We had succeeded!”


Dana Gleason’s beginnings vs. D3’s: A strange set of parallels

Dana says “Back in the 70s, I had been active working at retail stores and became a sales rep for some outdoor companies before I even started modifying and repairing gear. The first stuff he (D3) did at MR was going out and being a sales person on the road, (as described above). And one of the key things to designing is the pack’s purpose! What will it need to do? But you can do it a lot better if you encounter the people using the gear and also who have to sell your gear because that’s an entirely different skill set. It’s establishing relationships with the folks who are on the front line showing the gear to actual users. So, to a degree, that was an important part of D3’s development as well. It can be frustrating, and you need to learn that not everything is going to go your way, and you have to be adaptive to how people use the gear and respond to the gear we’ve been building. It won’t always go according to plan, so you have to be able to deal with the reality of the situation. I think that’s an important parallel in D3’s career.”

“I didn’t’ teach him pattern sets and such. He had been doing a lot of cutting and had been responding to people’s comments on how things fit and because he was doing the cutting, people would come to him and say stuff doesn’t fit precisely, and he’s the person who ended up fixing “the Big Guy’s goofy patterns.” [laughs, as he refers to himself] Just as I learned by fixing things and repairing things I just encountered in everyday life or working with other users, he picked up a huge amount of his patterning skills fixing my stuff! [laughs] My patterns, which were pretty darn good and fairly creative, but not accurate to the mm or even in some cases, accurate to the quarter inch.” [laughs]

“People think that he’s probably new at it, but he’s been doing it for almost 15 years. And paid a lot of dues along the way. As did Paul and everyone else who had been at the RANCH the whole time, including Luke Buckingham.”


The next generation’s interpretation

“The redesign of Kletterwerks was D3’s first big, commercialized project in the evolution of his career, but initially, he was doing a lot of work packaging electronic equipment into body armor, the first part of what was known as the Land Warrior initiative of the US army. He was designing successful systems that incorporated load backpack, load-bearing technology into body armor and integrating the power, the computing, and the communications. This was a big, highly-technical deal. And he had to do many versions, and he did a great job with it. He wanted to get into something that would allow him to express his aesthetic sense, so, it was after that – which was a huge responsibility and technically, very demanding – he then made the choice to get in the outdoor side of things and started working on commercialized pack designs. Then the Kletterwerks project happened and in many ways, the Kletterwerks project wasn’t something he was cleaning up after something I was doing right then, he was bringing, what were at the time, 35-year-old designs forward, into this century – the first stuff I had ever built that became a coherent line of products.”

“I could have taken that project and thought about doing it, but I had already done that my way and it was time for an interpretation, not just an old guy going “oh, here’s how we did it in the old days.” It was taking, yet, keeping the spirit of the stuff that had been done and bringing the comfort level and polish into this century, and he did a great job of it.”


Dana’s words about the next generation of RANCHERS

“And as for the comment, is it in the blood? Perhaps! I’m super proud of Paul who updated my NICE frame and improved its weight and performance hugely for the new hunting line. And the stuff he did got an award at the same show. And the same with daughter Claire, she is in operations and that is hugely important. And also, I give credit to my daughter Alice…she got me back into building packs after the Dana Design days as well as running our retail store.”

“The basic split in responsibilities at the core. Renee (Co-Owner of MYSTERY RANCH), is on the operational side of things at the RANCH. Getting it built and keeping a promise! And myself? Having the vision to keep on building new things and finding groups of people we could build packs for and that it matters for. And that’s the basic demarcation. And most companies that are out there don’t have that operational side. They’ve simply outsourced to Asia and pretend that it’s just a detail. And it’s not! It’s the absolute foundation – that reliability, the function – of our products and where our promise comes from.”

“The other side of it is we now have, depending on how you regard designers or design engineers, I regard them as cool, operational people. [laughs] We have six teams, in addition to what Paul had going until he went off and found his own independent path. And D3 and all of these folks have built stuff that I’m proud of and in some ways, not sure jealous is the word, but I’m just sort of like wow, that’s so cool! And the number of ways some of them (design engineers) who built stuff, that I couldn’t have or wouldn’t have done, they’ve made it happen for real! And they are making MYSTERY RANCH real for another entire generation, and I don’t mean some 10 or 15-year generation, but getting us ready to do the next 50 years!”

“We have trained in-house – not in a designer art-school approach – but in a functional approach to solving problems the actual users have. And I’m in awe of everyone. Not only my personal, genetic family but when I see the ideological family, the functional family, the people we’ve brought up in our way of doing things, going forward and being able to do things like this. Including the people who aren’t here anymore but are out there doing things in the industry overall! There is a school of design here, at the RANCH, that we have founded, and it’s pretty cool for someone, like me, who just wanted to fix backpacks and get gear he wanted.” [laughs]

“I’ve watched a lot of really smart people end up on the windshields of the speeding cars of reality. One of the things that was reinforced early, like earlier on doing Kletterwerks in 1975, was maybe I just better stay up here in Montana and keep building backpacks. I can do that, I told myself. I stuck with what I knew how to do. Our success goes back to the principals that we have laid down regarding durability, utility, usefulness and in simply making it so we can turn it out as a regular, consistent thing. And that just means we become stronger as an organization. That’s a huge part of what’s going on with having teams of designers, having D3 doing stuff, having folk who are testing and establishing a standard in materials. They are making this whole thing so it will carry on with the standards that, ok, ego time here…that I established [laughs], in a replicable, ISO 9001 way, and able to do it for as long as the company exists – as long as people have the needs, we have the ability to fulfill our responsibility to our customers and the people who depend on us to make this stuff work better in the world – that’s the process we are going through right now. And it can continue long after I am here.”


Dana’s departing statement

“And by the way…. I am having the fucking time of my life doing this. You know, we, at the RANCH, have taken on a certain mindset and certain way of doing things makes us something bigger than a company that is just looking to make some money. It’s bigger than us just trying to earn a paycheck, and that is something from people who are just starting out working here, being on the floor, learning how important building the gear right is and how fundamental it is to what we do, to everybody here. We have a bit of a calling…more than just earning a living, and THAT, I think enriches us as an organization and all the individuals here.”