Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
As dawn leaked into the tent, I woke up and felt inside the damp sleeping bag for my phone. It wasn’t there. I looked over the side of the island, and there was my precious BlackBerry—lying facedown in the lake. That must have been the splash I’d heard the night before. My lifeline to the outside world had been severed. And, as upset and urine-soaked as I was, I had to admit that perhaps justice had been served.
If I was truly going to learn to live without the system, I would have to let go of my dependencies on technology and the outside world. Nature had spoken. The sitcom of the gods had its punch line.
That morning, I asked my usual city-idiot questions around the campfire. “Were you guys cold last night?” “Did your tents leak?” “Were you uncomfortable?” And just like the previous night, everyone replied no. One student said he’d actually found a female volunteer to share his sleeping bag with. I hated him for that.
“I even slept naked to stay warm and that didn’t work,” I told them.
“That sounds like a good way to get hypothermia,” one of the other students replied.
“Are you sure? Some guy told me yesterday that your body keeps itself warm that way.”
Another student said that was true only for certain types of sleeping bags. Someone else said it was only true if the alternative was wearing death cloth. And a volunteer informed me that it just plain wasn’t true. I didn’t bother to ask them about the water bottle.
I guess I’d learned that the wrong survival tip can, in the right situation, kill you.
While we were talking, Brown stepped out of a new black Hummer that just barely fit onto the narrow trail. “Take a look at the ground,” he yelled at us. “It’ll be the last time you see it that way.”
He turned away, then shouted back over his shoulder, “You’ll soon be as obsessed as I am.”
I wanted the level of comfort with discomfort that Brown and that shirtless smoking guy the night before had. I needed to stop sniveling and toughen up. So what if I was wet? So what if I was cold? So what if I was covered in my own urine? As long as I didn’t develop hypothermia, I wasn’t going to die from it.
I decided to get advice from the military officers taking the course. Evidently, the government was paying Brown close to a million dollars to design a program specifically for the marines.
The leader of the battalion was a tall blonde in his thirties. After some small talk about what type of enlistee makes a bad marine (people raised by “octopuses” who coddle and smother them) and a good marine (people who follow orders without questioning them), I asked what I really wanted to know: “How can someone learn endurance?”
“I think about that a lot,” he replied. “I see some people in certain situations put up with all kinds of pain and humiliation and struggle, and then in other situations, they crap out after just a little work. True endurance, I think, comes from the inside. It comes from motivation and belief in what you’re doing.”
I thought about those words and realized that I was resisting the whole camping experience—approaching it with a tight sphincter, as McNeese would say. With my ultralight technology, I was trying to protect myself from nature rather than letting go and trying to get closer to the earth, like Brown preached.
“Do you know what I think when I see a backpacker?” he had shouted at us during our orientation. “I think the same thing when I see a scuba diver or an astronaut. They’re aliens to their own environment. If something goes wrong with their equipment, they’re dead. They’re dead because they don’t belong.”
Near my campsite, there was a sweat lodge still smoking from recent use. I’d never seen the inside of one before, so I opened the door, crept inside, and sat near a pile of warm rocks in the center. I hugged my knees, rocked back and forth, and tried to empty my head and allow my logic brain to loosen its grip over my wild brain.
Something else Brown had said in one of his lectures popped into my head: “In a survival situation, you’ve got to know when to let go of your humanness and become an animal. Because if you hold on to thought, there is restriction.”
He was right. The more I thought about the cold and the rain and the ticks, the more power I gave them over me. How smart is a duck, really? And an ant—how big can its brain be? If they can figure out how to survive without electricity and running water and gas and fast food, why can’t I?
It was only 44 degrees, after all. I could withstand that. And if I took my tent down and asked someone to help me pitch it correctly, I wouldn’t have to deal with leaks again.
If I wanted to become a survivalist—in fact, if I wanted to become a human being fully engaged in life—I needed to start enjoying nature instead of fearing it.
In Los Angeles, I didn’t let the very real possibility of a high-speed car crash keep me from getting on the freeway. In New York, I didn’t let the very real possibility of being mugged keep me from going out at night. So why was I letting a tiny little tick, whose worst effect can be cured with antibiotics, ruin the outdoors for me?
Perhaps I wasn’t actually scared of nature, then, but of the unknown. If I wanted to get past this, I needed to stop resisting the one man who promised to make nature known to me.
I left the sweat lodge an hour later with a new attitude—not just toward Tracker School, but toward life. And I didn’t even have to sweat for it.