Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Even after I researched Tom Brown Jr. on the Internet and discovered that nearly every person who ran a respected survival school had once been a student of his—
Even after I read his book The Tracker, in which he describes such boyhood adventures as walking miles in a snowstorm wearing nothing but cut-off shorts, surviving weekends in the woods blindfolded, and perching two nights straight on a tree branch avoiding wild dogs—
Even after I learned he’d been shot four times while tracking criminals and found trails leading to some one hundred and sixty dead bodies—
Even after I watched the Tommy Lee Jones movie The Hunted, in part based on Brown—
Even as I flew to New Jersey to meet the man…—
I had no idea what a force of nature Tom Brown was.
To this day, those two words alone continue to fill me with admiration and intimidation.
After arriving at Brown’s Tracker School in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens—the stomping grounds for most of his tales of nearly inhuman feats—I looked around the campground. Scattered throughout were various sweat lodges, wooden shelters, and a shower area consisting of several buckets and mirrors. The buckets were for hauling water from the creek nearby to wash with. The mirrors were for daily tick checks. The woods were crawling with infected deer ticks, which had a nasty habit of jumping onto passing humans, burying their heads in the flesh, gorging on blood, and, if not stopped within two days, leaving a souvenir called Lyme disease.
I found a clearing near an open-air lecture shelter and unpacked my one-pound spinnaker-cloth tent. It was the first tent I’d ever pitched by myself, and at the time, I thought I’d put it together correctly.
By eight P.M. that night, the temperature had dropped to 56 degrees. As we huddled on the benches of the lecture shelter, wrapped in sweatshirts and jackets, Brown stepped up to the podium. Seemingly impervious to the cold, he wore a faded gray tank top with wide cutouts on the sides that ran from his shoulders to his abdomen, exposing as much skin as it covered. Above him, a sign carved out of wood read NO SNIVELING.
“All right—holy shit,” Brown bellowed, projecting deep into the woods. “Welcome to Tracker School. This is the center. This is where everything took place.”
He gestured grandly to the wilderness around him.
“There’s a vast difference between theory and experience,” he continued. “If you don’t believe me, watch TV. The survivor programs make me vomit. Snivelly assholes!” His face reddened as he spoke. “Between Survivor, Man vs. Wild, and Survivorman, I’ve got a nest of snivelers. Surviving in the woods for a year? That’s not even getting your feet wet.”
In front of him, he had three Poland Spring water bottles lined up. He took a swig from one of them and crushed it dramatically in his hands. “You can walk into any store and there are five survival manuals you can buy that will kill you. Same with those edible plant books. I recover the bodies in their pathetic shelters that don’t work because they learned it badly.” His unblinking eyes bulged furiously out of their sockets. He almost spit as he spoke his last words: “So forget you have a past.”
Unlike Kurt Saxon, Bruce Clayton, and the denizens of the Survivalist Boards, Brown wasn’t of the Cold War school of survivalism. He didn’t advocate stockpiling dozens of sacks of grain and hundreds of gallons of gasoline and thousands of rounds of ammunition. He advocated taking a stroll in the woods.
“How many people can say that they’re free?” he yelled at his students—a mix of marines, hippies, businessmen, and a few psychiatric patients hoping a week of primitive living would restore their balance. “How many people can take a walk for the rest of their lives and never need a damn thing from society?”
Though Brown was fifty-eight, he looked anything but old. He had gray hair parted on the right and plastered by sweat to a face chiseled like an aging superhero’s. His flesh was an onion of tan, red, peeling skin in seemingly endless layers, testifying to countless exposures to the elements. His body was thick and powerful, and though it was beginning to atrophy, every slight sag seemed to tell a story few would ever know or experience.
“Why would you want wilderness survival?” His voice raised to a shout. “Because of the what-if question. I’m going to hand you an insurance policy against the what-if question.” Now he grew quiet. “By the time I’m done with you, you will be able to survive anyplace with nothing. I’ll teach you to build shelters, make fire, forage for food, find water—even if you’re in the Sahara.”
He was a fantastic performer. One minute he was a drill sergeant, then a preacher, then a crazy old coot. If he delivered even one-tenth of what he promised, attending Tracker School would be the best decision I’d made since deciding to learn self-sufficiency.
Equal parts fact, hyperbole, and self-mythologizing, the Tom Brown legend is on par with the stories of Paul Bunyan, Geronimo, and Mowgli from The Jungle Book.
As he tells it, he had a childhood friend named Rick. And Rick had a grandfather who was a Lipan Apache scout and shaman known as Stalking Wolf (usually referred to as Grandfather, though not to be confused with Grandpa the PT).
At age seven, Brown met Grandfather and spent the next ten years learning about animals, the wilderness, and Native American life under the elder’s almost frustrating figure-it-out-for-yourself tutelage, known as the coyote style of teaching.
When he was twenty, Brown stripped off his clothes, stepped into the woods, and lived by his wits for a year. When he returned, he started helping the police track missing children, hikers, and criminals in the forest.
After Brown tracked a suspected robber and rapist who had eluded some two hundred cops and firemen, the New York Times ran a front-page story on this amazing “27-year-old woodsman” (though the suspect Brown discovered was reportedly acquitted of the crimes). A media frenzy ensued, and soon Brown was doing talk shows, signing a book deal, and opening his own school.
Antisocial and somewhat misanthropic, Brown used to read his students excerpts from Touch the Earth, a collection of Native American wisdom. But when he noticed he wasn’t connecting, he reinvented himself by studying televangelists and the title character from the campy action movie Billy Jack.
“Survival is an art, a philosophy, a doorway to the earth,” Brown yelled at us. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat up his forehead, along the top of his head, and around the back of his neck. “It’s the fucking garden of Eden. Anyone who says it’s a struggle lacks knowledge and skills.”
By the time the lecture ended, it was eleven P.M. and the temperature had dropped several more degrees. I walked to my tent and zipped into my ultralight sleeping bag with my clothing still on. With deer ticks around, the last thing I wanted to do was get naked.
The problem with my ultralight sleeping bag was that it was practically useless against the cold. I tried not to snivel as I pulled the nylon top over my head like a cocoon and cinched the drawstring tight. As soon as I generated a little body heat, my bladder began to squeeze urgently. So I extracted myself from my cocoon, stepped into the cold night air, and walked to the outhouse.
All night, the pattern continued: a vague semblance of comfort, followed by a powerful need to urinate. I couldn’t understand how anyone enjoyed this hellish torment. Mankind had invented the mattress, the comforter, the asphalt-shingle roof, and climate control for a reason. In comparison with Brown’s stories of surviving in the wilderness with no tent, sleeping bag, or even clothes, I felt incredibly lame.
I could order room service like nobody’s business, though.
In the morning, I walked to the campfire, where a dozen students had already gathered. I asked them how they slept. “Just fine,” they replied.
When I said I’d been cold all night, they looked at me like I was the retarded kid in class.
An older man wearing a military vest with at least eight pockets in the front took pity on me. “You know,” he walked up to me and confided, “the secret to staying warm in a sleeping bag is not to wear any clothes.”
“Really? I thought clothes would be good for insulation.”
“Think about it: your body was designed to warm itself. Your legs, when they’re touching, will heat each other.”
“But what if you have to go to the bathroom? Isn’t it cold getting out of the sleeping bag all the time?”
He smiled and patted the upper left pocket of his jacket. “That’s why I carry this.” The head of a crushed water bottle poked out of the flap. “Never have to leave the tent.”
Though the sight of his emptied urine container revolted me, it also filled me with inspiration. That night, I promised myself, things would be different. I would be prepared.
There was just one last thing that worried me. “What about the ticks?”
The question triggered a group discussion of Lyme disease. According to one of the volunteer employees, half the people working at Tracker School had been infected. “I had it pretty bad,” he said. “Half my face was paralyzed for about a year.”
My newfound hope drained out of me. I couldn’t wait for the week to end. I didn’t like camping. I didn’t like cold. I didn’t like facial paralysis.
I noticed that most of the instructors and volunteers spoke with disdain for the modern world. They called sneakers foot coffins, in comparison with traditional Indian moccasins; they referred to cell phones as ear prisons; and cotton was death cloth, because it loses the ability to insulate when wet. They seemed to believe everyone driving cars and going to offices and watching television in the outside world was unfulfilled because they didn’t know these far superior native skills.
One of the lectures that day was on stalking animals. It was taught by Brown’s son, Tom Brown III. After describing the areas where we would most likely find game, he told us, “One of the major rules of survival with all living things is conservation of energy.”
It was the third time I’d heard that rule at Tracker School. If it was true, then the instructors’ scorn for the modern world made no sense. The automobile, the Internet, the nuclear bomb—they’re all means of making transportation, communication, and warfare quicker and more efficient. Thus, they all obey the same natural law animals do: conservation of energy.
By the end of the day, I was tired of this primitive superiority complex. Just because a Native American did something two hundred years ago doesn’t make it better than what we do today.
When my BlackBerry happened to ring once, even though I didn’t answer it, the students and volunteers nearby turned to glare at me in disapproval. Tracker School was turning out to be a cold, inhospitable place, full of pompous hippies and deadly ticks, run by an aging egomaniac. So I decided to flaunt my foot coffins and ear prisons and death cloth in their face. Throughout the rest of the lectures, I sat and texted Katie on the BlackBerry to my heart’s delight.
I couldn’t wait to get home.