Surviving survival school

Your mind is the strongest muscle in your body.

As I was jetting to Salt Lake City, throwing back pretzels, musing at the endless desert below, I was blissfully unaware that 9/11 would re-prioritize the need for survival skills in a new world of terrorist awareness. 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. We’re taking in a sunset lecture by a female outdoor survival guide on how to wipe our backsides using a handful of fine red sand or sagebrush. Pine needles and sticks wound, she warns. This is a 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 fish-tankish water we find, frequently from puddles.

The 14-day field course is a canyon-country wilderness four-stage marathon covering more than 200 walking miles. It’s an odyssey with missions––primitive wilderness living skills and a total detox from fast-paced advertising and internet addiction. Out here, we elect to be forced into many situations as diverse as deep thought and starvation, which I learn go hand in hand. Like most people, I took survival for granted.

On departure, hard learning follows hard lessons, many of which are 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 dangle with tied-off garments and one blue enamel cup. We pause to suckle water from potholes that are also home to darting tadpoles. The Olympic walking passes through myriad terrain changes in Escalante National Park, the elevation rising and falling from 10,000 to 5,000 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. I could die, but there’s that death waiver I signed.

En route seminars involve identifying animal tracks (rear bear tracks look amazingly human), eating river birch leaves (tasting like…leaves), and explaining why it’s necessary to pack two pairs of underwear (a backup for when you shit yourself from either nerves or lapping up buggy puddles). There is no angst resolution seminar.

Two routines emerge: We duct tape blistering toes and ergonomically strip and tie off clothing onto our belts as the sun demands. The breakout sessions on using knives and making fire without matches are the big leaps for humankind. We combust fire from carved sticks—imagine a mad pyro-fiddler contraption—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 am climbing out of canyon number 90 on day three, my supposedly high-tech sneaker boots herniate by flapping shoe-sole rubber like an 18-wheeler losing a retread. 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 11 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 when denied secretes superfluous bile, causing nausea.

The sneaker-boot blowout, however, is abnormal, so I duct tape my soles back on. In the midst of slicing tape sections to mummify my footwear, I glance away at the heaving-again Gatoradors and plant my knife a half-inch inside my thumb. Mommy flashes into my mind. Fortunately, nobody else notices her.

Marching into another night—everyone sporting duct-tape somewhere—we wonder how much more we can take. By day four, I down a half-cup of oatmealish veggie mush and feel bloated. Workshops continue on stone toolmaking, munching dandelion greens (the yellow part too), tying knots, and setting animal traps. All this while aiming to expend fewer calories finding food than the caloric value of the food found, a necessity 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. The next day, we humanely killed, dissected, and ate a sheep—the entire thing. This was predominantly a vegetarian outing, and there was no mention of meat in the course literature. Ironically, on the course application, which required an okay from your doctor regarding your physical ability to handle this challenge, they also ask you to list allergies. There, I wrote only “Detest liver.” Enter: Diced-organ stew. Still in starvation mode, most of the group don’t second-guess ingesting organs. After all, what are hot dogs and sausages? The smell of liver repeatedly triggers my dry-heave response and I go another day without eating. The sheep’s hide becomes a cloak, the bones become tools, fishhooks, and jewelry. Not attempting to be funny, the craftsman fashions the scrotum sack into a purse.

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, it all tastes good, even the spongy texturized vegetable protein (TVP). But the no-trail power walking isn’t over. Our mobile homes are hand-tied backpacks made from military-issue ponchos wrapped around wool blankets. We ration supplies for the next five days: carrots, cornmeal, garlic, lentils, millet, potatoes, powdered milk, onion, salt, pepper and vegetable bouillon––plus a cloth bag with enough peanuts and raisins to gorge a kitten.

Thinking our hard days are behind us, we begin to notice the little things. The aromas shift from juniper to armpit to sage to digestive gas from people battling the TVP. Living like a hunter-gatherer tribe shaved down to our humanity, we think the only apparent hazards are inhaling campfire smoke, relaxing to the point of collapse, or getting a whiff of someone’s breath (only baking soda is permitted to clean teeth).

At sunrise, it’s no bother that my canteen of mossy agua is 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, and must therefore sleep on my stomach. Consequently, I find myself face down in an ant ranch.

2. Once the stomach unbloats, an amazingly small amount of food suffices, and I must find other things to consider, such as the chasm between modern and ancient living. I consider an observation made by the Crow Indians: 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 80-year-old yoga devotee. Time is irrelevant, an opportunity to rethink the period from sun up till down. And, as surely as cottonwood trees and animal tracks usually lead to water, my love handles vanish and are replaced by skin stretched over my lower ribs.

My fiddling-for-fire machine won’t behave. The ointment cap I use atop the fiddle burned through and cut into the palm of my hand. Now I have no fire or cap for the ointment. I’ve got matted hair, a crusting scalp, and am in the midst of an involuntary cleanse. My savage reawakened, I brave the hours either reapplying a body mud-sheen to repel bugs or reckoning that’s it high time for a bug snack.

A vision quest usually gives the quester a direction, a plan, a dictum, or a new 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 itchiness. Food fantasies wane behind a daydream of a hot shower that will soothe 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 as a lizard bursts away on lightning-speed legs. But I’m too tired even to create the 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 traveling 30 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 wonder: Do wild animals stretch before going for a run?

Not surprisingly, 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, I lull myself to sleep on the final night with thoughts of lizards and ants and anticipate bliss in the morning gas can of powdered lime-ade.

“Do tadpoles contain protein?” —Survival school cohort, after suckling water from a pothole

Upon reentry, a van ride back to Salt Lake City flirts with the present, though we still smell like cavemen. I wake at 4:00a.m. in a friend’s den in Salt Lake City, where it takes me a minute to recognize that I am not in a really nice shelter. In the first mirror I see, I think, “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.

*from The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons