Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Later that day, I sat in the lecture shelter—with not just my ear prison gone but my resistance to nature gone—and listened to Brown talk about tracking. He told me that around dawn, according to tracks he’d seen, a doe and a yearling had passed my tent. And I was too busy pitying myself to even notice.
“Watch my feet,” he instructed the class. “I’m going to raise my right arm. Now I’m going to touch my nose. I’m going to lower my hand four inches. Now I’m going to breathe.”
With each movement, his feet raised or compressed slightly on the ground. And as they did, I realized that footprints convey a lot more information than just shoe size and direction of travel. Every movement people make affects their posture, balance, and weight distribution, which changes the pressure they put on the ground and alters their footprint.
“I will never invade a student’s right to privacy.” His voice became strident again and his blood pressure seemed to rise, indicating he was switching from teacher to preacher mode. “But some things are red flags. I can pick out breast cancer from a track. I can pick up pregnancy within eleven days—sometimes less. So if I tell you to go to a specialist, please go see a specialist.”
Whether his claims were genuine or not, he was truly a freak of nature. The way some people are born to be singers or painters, he was born to be a tracker. Over the course of several lectures, he taught us more than seven hundred different pressure releases made by the interaction between a foot or paw and the earth, how to recognize different animals by their prints, how to track on solid surfaces like rocks and wooden floors, and how to find lost people.
Fact: When lost, individuals generally circle in the direction of their dominant hand. And though they may think they’re traveling in a straight line, they’re usually circling within the same square-mile area.
After his final tracking lecture, Brown led us into the woods. “I want you to see what’s gone on underneath your nose for the last half hour,” he yelled at us. “Aliens did not land overnight. Mother Nature does not get goose pimples. If it’s a dent in the ground, by God, something made it.”
Every few yards, he stopped walking, laid down a popsicle stick, and announced what had happened at that spot earlier—“Here’s where a coyote got into a scuffle with a rabbit,” “Here’s where a shrew peered into a hole,” “Here’s where a squirrel stopped eating an acorn.”
And sure enough, when I got down on my hands and knees and squinted, there was the evidence, glaring at me in prints with the exact pressure releases Brown had just taught us. Some tracks were in dirt, others were on pine needles, and a few were on moss, a log, even a leaf. As Brown had promised, the ground, which was just a monotonous layer of dirt and debris before, was now a library full of stories to be read.
He instructed me to crouch next to the front right paw-print of a tiny mouselike shrew and study it. It was a small, shallow, shell-like dent in front of a thumb-sized hole in the ground. Once my eyes adjusted to the world of the very small, I was able to see the print in detail—even the thin ridges between each toe and the little black dots where each claw had touched the ground. I could tell where the shrew was heading, how fast it was going, and what it was doing. Eventually, I felt I knew the personality of the animal itself. When I stood up after staring at the ground for a good forty-five minutes, I was able to spot the print even at a distance. It was like learning a new way of seeing.
By this point, the turnaround that had begun in the sweat lodge was complete. I was paying close attention to the lectures, enjoying the outdoors, and looking forward to curling up in my sleeping bag at night—in warm clothes, of course, and minus the plastic bottle. With no phone to run to when I was bored or uncomfortable, I started talking to other students and catching up on survival techniques from the lectures I’d resisted.
As I was standing around the fire one evening, cooking fish that an instructor had taught us how to gut, I found myself immersed in a conversation with the marines.
A younger marine, Luke, was speaking. He had close-cropped black hair, thin lips, and small, sparkling brown eyes. “This is going out on a limb, but I think there will be a revolution in America in the next hundred years.”
“Where’s it going to come from?” I asked.
“Me,” he said without smiling. He paused, then explained. “If you ask anyone in the military, they hate the government. They have all these rules that hold us back and put our lives in danger.”
“If we followed the rules of engagement,” an enormous older marine named Dave added, “we’d be dead.”
Luke told a story about how he’d gotten in trouble with the government for breaking these rules. His battalion had captured a top-ten Iraqi fugitive, which provoked villagers in the prisoner’s hometown to rebel.
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“They ended up looking like that.” Luke pointed to the fire, where fish wrapped in smoke-blackened tinfoil were cooking on hot coals.
I could tell he was proud, that he thought it was cool, that it was a Hollywood action movie come to life with him as the star, but all I could think was that those people had futures that were now gone. One of my War Card fears was running into someone as power-drunk and desensitized as Luke, but being on the other side.
Later that afternoon, Brown taught us what he called the sacred order: shelter, water, fire, food. Wilderness survival, he explained, required taking care of each of those needs, in that order of importance.
For the remainder of the week, we were taught how to use nature to fulfill the sacred order, which was the reason I’d signed up for Tracker School in the first place.
Every now and then, usually as the sun set, Brown stepped up to the pulpit and delivered a fire-and-brimstone lecture about the imminent apocalypse. Each successive lecture grew more extreme, until he was telling us, “If the shit hits the fan and you’re being hunted by other humans for food, your chance of survival is now ninety percent because you’ve taken this class.”
I wished I could believe him, but I knew I still wasn’t a survivor. Not only would I need to intensively practice and internalize the skills he’d taught, but most of them presented a new problem my upbringing hadn’t prepared me for. They required the use of a knife.
When I turned thirteen, my aunt bought me a Swiss Army knife. But my parents immediately confiscated it and said they’d return it to me when I was eighteen. When I asked for the knife five years later, they claimed to have lost it. I think they were hoping I’d have forgotten by then.
Consequently, where other students had no problem whittling functioning traps and fireboards from branches, it took me half a day to carve lumpy, ungainly, barely functioning survival tools. If I wanted the ability to live in the woods with nothing but a knife, I’d need to know how to use one. So I added knife training to my survival to-do list.
By his last lecture, Brown had almost completely transformed from naturalist to mystic, warning that, according to the prophecies of Grandfather, the skies would soon turn red for a week and mankind would be forced to flee civilization to survive. “That’s what drives me—fear,” he concluded in a dramatic whisper. “Fear that we have run out of time.”
Apocalyptic prophecy has been around since the dawn of man—most recently manifesting in an obsession with December 21, 2012, a date on which several different predictions coincide, most notably the end of the Mayan Long Form calendar and thus, claim some of its interpreters, so too the world. Of course, what the sport is really about is not the end of the world, but the end of mankind. And our warnings about it are not examples of our madness, but of our own quest for significance. After all, what could be more meaningful than trying to save the species?
As Brown walked offstage in silence, with tears in his eyes, I looked around the lecture shelter. Almost everyone was wearing a jacket or a hooded sweatshirt. I was still wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and I wasn’t shivering or sniveling. I looked for the shirtless smoker I’d seen a few days earlier, but he was nowhere to be found. I asked the marines what had happened, and they told me he’d gone off his medication that week and was taken to a psychiatric hospital because he’d become a threat to other students.
It seemed that the toughest survivors were also the craziest human beings.
That night I slept comfortably, soundly, and warmly. In the morning, when I was called to the podium to receive this course completion certificate, I was actually sorry to leave:
As the van taking me to the airport pulled away from the Tracker School office and made its way to the Garden State Park-way, I gazed through the window at the dense green thicket that ran along the shoulder of the road and realized that, in a single week, my entire reality had changed. I used to think the pavement was my home and the trees and shrubbery off to the side of the road were no-man’s-land.
Now, I knew that it could all be my home.