Bruce Northam enrolls in desert survival school and finds that the mind is the strongest muscle in the body.
I'm jetting to Salt Lake City, throwing back pretzels, musing at an endless desert below. Hours later, I'm one of eight apprehensive fellows––in search of something not found anywhere near concrete––seated in a semicircle at the bottom of a southern Utah canyon, taking in a sunset lecture by a female outdoor survival guide on how to wipe your backside using a handful of fine red sand or sagebrush. Pine needles and sticks wound, she warns. This is prelude to a three–day fast that begins with an overnight speed hike through sandstone–cactus backcountry; we are relentlessly mobile, eating nothing, and drinking only the fishtanky water we find, frequently from puddles.
The fourteen–day field course is a canyon country wilderness four–stage marathon covering more than two hundred walking miles. It's an odyssey with missions––primitive wilderness living skills and a total detox from fast–paced advertising and Internet habitude. Out here, we elect to be forced into many situations as diverse as deep thought and starving––which, I learn, go hand in hand. Hitherto, I took survival for granted.
Hard learning follows hard lessons. Many were magnified in the wake of three days of extreme trekking without food. We set off at dusk, wearing only waist packs (minus water bottles), our belts dangling with tied–off garments, and one sparkly–blue enamel cup, suckling water from potholes that are also home also to innumerable darting tadpoles. We set out for more Olympic walking through myriad terrain changes, the elevation rising and falling from ten thousand to five thousand feet. We're being pushed to simulate a survival situation. Jet–lagged and visiting from sea–level cement, I'm punchy with hungry exhaustion, reminding myself I can quit, but there's no refund. You can die, but there's that death waiver you signed…
En–route seminars include animal track identification (rear bear tracks look amazingly human), eating river birch leaves (tasting like … leaves), and the explanation for packing two pair of underwear: a backup for when you shit yourself from either nerves or lapping up buggy puddles. The gaze of angst widens.
We fall into routines of duct taping blistering toes and ergonomically stripping and tying off clothing onto our belts as the sun demands. The breakout sessions on knife use and making fire without matches are the "big leaps for humankind." We combust fire from carved sticks. This is making bow drills by whittling a baseboard, a stringed stick–cum–bow, and spindle. Then imagine a mad pyro–fiddler spinning embers by wailing hurriedly back and forth with the bow on a handmade paper towel holder tipped on its side. The turning spindle point creates smoking friction with the baseboard. You plant the resulting ember into your fine–kindling bird's nest, blow, then appreciate matches for life.
Still no food. The mood swings from chatty to solemn. Guides are intentionally elusive about even the near future––they only act as safety nets in the event of an emergency. Five–minute breaks collapse into instant group naps.
As I was climbing out of canyon number ninety on day three, my supposedly high–tech mountain–fearless sneakerboots herniate by flapping shoe–sole rubber like an eighteen–wheeler losing a retread. Most adventure gear isn't meant for this kind of testing. Branded into various zones on the sole are logos indicating the miraculous ability of each engineered area—intricate parts of footwear able to turn me into a wilderness machine. Soleless, I plod on, now wearing the equivalent of hospital slippers.
My contemplation on wearing slippers for the next eleven days is interrupted when the business school graduate and his associate become the Gatorade brothers by kneeling simultaneously to vomit lime–green antifreeze. Yakking up bile is normal under extreme exertion circumstances without food. The body expects scheduled snacks and secretes superfluous bile, causing nausea.
The sneakerboot blowout however, was abnormal, so I duct tape my soles back on. In the midst of slicing tape sections to mummify my "boots," I glance away at the heaving–again Gatoradors and plant my knife a half–inch inside my thumb. Mommy flashes into my mind––nobody else notices her.
Duct taped in five regions, we march into another night. How much more can we take? By day four, you down a half–cup of oatmealish veggie mush, and you're bloated. Workshops continue on flint napping, munching dandelion greens (the yellow part too), tying knots, setting animal traps, and expending fewer calories finding food than the caloric value of food found to endure in the outdoor supermarket.
We're now handy at stone–grinding oats and barley into flour. The guide surmises that, "Consumers, never knowing where their food comes from, are out of touch with the circle of life." Think about your next burger.
One of our staples becomes sheep jerky, made by dangling strips of raw sheep meat on a rack baking in the sun. On a 1,500–calorie–per–day diet (rivaling a Snickers bar and fat stack of Pringles combo) it all tastes good, even the spongy texturized vegetable protein (TVP).
But the no–trail power walking ain't over. Our mobile homes are hand–tied backpacks made from military–issue ponchos wrapped around a wool blanket. Both are string bound like bakery cakes. The bundle is carried by one long section of seat–belt strap woven through the parcel and around both shoulders, then tied around your waist. We ration the supplies for the next five days: carrots, cornmeal, garlic, lentils, millet, potatoes, powdered milk, pepper, onion, salt, and vegetable bouillon—plus a cloth bag with enough peanuts and raisins to gorge a kitten.
Thinking our hard days are behind us, we realize it's time to sense this place. The aromas shift from juniper to armpit to sage to people battling digestive gas wars with the TVP. Living like a hunter–gatherer tribe shaved down to our humanity, we think the only apparent hazards are campfire smoke inhalation, being relaxed to the point of collapse, or getting a whiff of someone's breath (only baking soda is permitted to clean teeth).
At sunrise, no bother that my canteen of mossy agua was nearly frozen solid. I'm alone in a red canyon with two dilemmas:
1. While doing laundry naked by the river I sunburnt my butt cheeks. Must sleep on stomach, face down into ant ranch.
2. Once the stomach unbloats, an amazingly small amount of food suffices and you must find other things to consider… time to ponder the chasm between modern and ancient living. I consider the Crow Indian observation that they build small fires and stand close; white men build large fires and stand far away.
Eating uncooked food has blessed me with gas and diarrhea rivaling an experience I sampled in Nepal. So I'm mellow, slow moving like a patient eighty–year–old yoga devotee. Time is irrelevant. Perfect plodding and rethinking the period from sun up to down.
As surely as cottonwood trees and animal tracks usually lead to water, my love handles have vanished and been replaced by skin stretched over my lower ribs.
My fire machine (bow drill) wouldn't behave. The ointment cap I used to clamp the top of the spindle burned through, and the spindle cut into the palm of my hand. Now I have no fire or cap for the ointment. Matted hair, scalp crusting, involuntary fast (the shits). My savage reawakened, I brave the hours either reapplying a body mud–sheen to repel bugs or figuring that's it high time for a bug snack.
A vision quest usually gives the questor a direction, a plan, a dictum, or a purpose for their life from that point on. The scope of this experience remains unclear, because I'm consumed by a few rudimentary issues, like suffering from ant–fly madness complicated by widespread body and scalp itchiness. Food fantasies wane behind a daydream of a hot shower that will sooth skull–dermis decay and cactus attacks.
Knocked out, I amuse myself by watching an ant war and wonder how the ages revolve, rockwise. Night birds conduct low flybys, a lizard bursts away on lightening–speed legs. But I'm too tired even to create indents in the sand that will prevent my hip and shoulder from falling asleep. Through a process of elimination (eating only sheep jerky), I link sheep jerky to diarrhea.
The group rejoins and is split in two, and we're on our own to travel thirty miles in two days without a guide. I'm heading into the river canyon with three other guys, and one of them begins stretching to prepare for exertion. I wondered: Do wild animals stretch before going for a run?
The common realization concluding survival schools—and getting in touch with any desert—is that you can do more with less. You also gain a renewed appreciation for modern convenience.
Dyed red–orange after two weeks in Mother Earth's sandbox, on the final night I lulled myself to sleep with thoughts of lizards and ants and anticipating bliss in the morning gas can of powdered lime–ade.
"Do tadpoles contain protein?"
— Survival school cohort, after suckling water from a pothole
A van ride back to Salt Lake City flirts with the present, but we still smell like cavemen. I wake at 4:00 a.m. in a Salt Lake friend's den, where it takes me a minute to recognize that I am not in a really nice shelter. Sighting the first mirror, I wink, "Hey, you can survive in the wilderness." I am cutting a better self–image and still snacking like a fashion model—until I fly the next day, on assignment, to Scotland's Glenlivet Estate to sample a different sort of barley, the single–malt–scotch version. In flight, I look out the plane window into a desert canyon and take a bit more with me. And wonder if ants like sheep jerky.
The airtime linking Salt Lake City and Aberdeen initiates a voracious three–day food binge of triple servings, extra salt, and constant confection. As opposed to the homeless–in–the–desert lifestyle, I'm now bunking in a Royal countryside castle of a home where, outside finding the appropriate verbosity to illuminate the ultimate whisky swill, adjusting my kilt is my only worry. Neighboring the first licensed distillery, inside the stone–built Minmore House, former residence of the Glenlivet founder, George Smith, I'm still frail and feeling rather Thoreauvian–––an easy target for the amber "speah-rit." My scotch–enhanced babbling during our nightly long–table dinners in an oakey dining auditorium with 50–foot high ceilings confuse the staff.
"This is almost as much fun as when two school buses pull along side each other at a red light!" I beam.
Single malts are only 5% of the scotch market, but that 5% worshipping the buzz juice from the heath covered mountains of Scotia don't understand starved caveman–speak. Plus, the flirting–with–pretense "cigar and scotch" craze of the '90s escaped me.
"Well, everyone knows that scotch drinkers are lofty talkers with corresponding egos," I assure them.
"You're a bit odd?" the master of ceremony inquires.
"But you said that that the fusil oils and 'impurities' create the taste," I wonder aloud, attempting to impress with data from my distillery tour.
Stillness. A raindrop crawls down the window.
My headlong into highland fermentation annuls my desert piety. The statuesque butler, the maid who polishes my mammoth bathtub twice a day, the tuxedoed staffer who only seems to dust things in the library, the haggis architect, three adorable waitresses, and the live teen violin–bagpipe concerto performers all avert their eyes.
Attempting to resonate that narrow slice of DNA that separates us (well, just mine) from chimps, I sip again, and then suggest that perhaps I am a reincarnated medieval bootlegger.
They all look at each other and changed the subject back to the log fire in the corner. I am not surviving this State Dinner civilization. I did learn that livet means valley, and, as the glow of one more "wee dram" burns my gullet, I recalled an Eskimo saying … every taboo is holy … and remain seduced by my own spin.
Later that week near a North Sea oil port, I come face–to–face with unrehearsed survival. Speed walking through a gritty quarter of Aberdeen, I nearly trip over a rhetorically blessed drifter, living in an urban lean–to, adrift in reverie. After sharing a few nips of the scotch I was gifted by the Estate, our conversation sways to the contents of his tattered olive rucksack.
As he fishes each item out, he surrenders gut histories of his worldly possessions and arranges them on the sidewalk, exhibiting and professing the import of rope, tarp, a risqué magazine, airline eyeshades, his "idea registry," and an antique army mess kit.
Last, he produces damp, hulking dictionary, holds it high, widens an eye, and swears, "Mate, this book's got everything."
"We need the tonic of wildness" –Thoreau
Bruce Northam is an award–winning travel writer and speaker. He is the author of Globetrotter Dogma and editor of In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. He contributes to a wide variety of publications and is a regular columnist for the New York publication Canvas.
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