Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
Tanning hides is a very meditative exercise. Hunters often discard animal hides, but using them properly fills a part of the cycle of life. When tanned properly, a hide becomes a durable piece of fabric that wears well, has no odor, and is something of a work of art. Wearing animal skins gives you an added connection to the land. There is no way to feel alienated from the natural world with a hide on.
However, if most people saw a fresh hide being skinned from an animal, they would be disgusted. There is a membrane layer like the one on a rack of baby back ribs, only it doesn’t peel off quite as easily and it’s an inch thick. The hide is covered in blood and pus, with pieces of fat stuck to it. The sight is so gruesome that not even the grittiest movies dare show it.
The smell makes it even less attractive to the uninitiated. In the early phases of the process when I’m stripping down a hide, I find that I breathe so much of the hide that my bowel movements smell like the detritus I peeled off the hide.
In the winter of 1999, I was working the hides of several large animals. I lived in a tepee on a piece of private land in the middle of the National Monument in Boulder. My days were occupied from morning to night with perfecting the hides, but my concentration was spotty at the time, as I felt the pull of a relationship.
I was dating a smart, multifaceted woman named Karen. She was a ranger and had moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to continue her schooling. We both respected that we had commitments that kept us apart—her education and my work tanning hides.
The fall passed, and we hadn’t seen each other for months. At Christmastime, she called me late one night and pressed me to come and live with her. “I need you here, not there,” she said.
I told Karen to give me another three weeks. When she protested that that was too long, I told her I couldn’t interrupt my project. “I’ve got to finish tanning these hides,” I said in all seriousness. Then I surprised myself by adding, “Maybe we should call it quits.”
Undoubtedly, she was thinking, If Matt’s priority is scraping flesh and washing blood off dead animals, then he doesn’t love me. She agreed, and we broke up.
I hung up the phone. A half hour passed. I felt sick to my stomach, far more so that I ever had smelling a hide. I knew what I had done wasn’t right. I was being stubborn and selfish, and I quickly began to regret my rigidity. Even the most ancient hunter-gatherers had to factor human interactions into their lives. Maybe it was time for me to do some growing in that area.
So I made a split-second decision to win her back. I decided to leave the unfinished hides behind for my friend to finish. I hurriedly packed a bag, got in my car, and drove through the night to Flagstaff.
I arrived at 8 a.m. the following morning. With a bouquet of flowers in hand, I knocked on her apartment door. A guy answered. Karen heard us talking and rushed to the door. Defensively, she claimed it wasn’t what it looked like. But I knew it was—and that I probably deserved it. After all, I had told her I was choosing animal hides over her.
Rather than returning to Boulder right away, I decided to stay on in Flagstaff. I had some money saved up from the guiding season. I had never rented my own place, so I thought, why not try the proverbial “normal life” and see what I could learn? Perhaps it would help me in my next relationship, or at the very least in my ability to communicate with my students.
I rented a room in a house and took a job working in a health food co-op. I bought a membership to a climbing gym, and I even signed up for three classes at the community college—theater, anthropology, and dance. There was no stewing about my ex-girlfriend. There was no moment that wasn’t full.
At the climbing gym, I became friends with one of the instructors, Jesse Perry, who was an expert climber. On his days off, we climbed routes in the mountains outside of town. Jesse also had an interest in primitive skills. I started teaching him how to make rabbit sticks, hunting boomerangs, bows, and buckskin pouches and bags. At that time, my belongings were still very primitive. I didn’t own any modern gear. Everything was made by hand. He commented that my room looked like a museum.
As spring 2000 drew closer, I decided to return home to Boulder, but I didn’t like driving. I had owned a truck camper for four years and only put a total of twelve thousand miles on it, despite the fact that I lived in rural Utah. I decided to leave the truck with Jesse’s parents and walk back home for the summer. Jesse asked if he could join me on the walk to see what he could learn about living in the wilderness.
We set out on May 17, 2000. I wore rawhide sandals and carried a wool cloth, tools for flint knapping, a few tablespoons of spirulina—dried algae so complete in vitamins it is called a “superfood”—and a water bottle. Jesse also wore sandals and rolled up all of his supplies, including a mechanical pencil and a blank journal to record our journey, in a cloth. He dubbed his traveling pack “my burrito.” We also carried a bow and several reed arrows that I had made.
The route we chose was about 450 miles, roughly 100 miles longer than the driving route. I wanted to try to miss as much of modern civilization as possible. As expected, there were spectacular wilds, but also plenty of things I didn’t want to see.
To reach the national forest trails without following the roads, we started out by crossing a vast forest. We were forced to climb over several barbed wire fences separating one plot of private land from the next. With each new area of land came a different pack of barking dogs. As we jogged, ran, and dodged our way through, I felt like exactly what I was—a trespasser. It was not a way to begin a teaching-and-learning experience.
Once we reached the federally protected land, there were more signs of man interacting recklessly with the land. The forestland was dotted with burned ponderosas. The trees served as a reminder of careless campers whose unextinguished fires were all too often sparked by windy, dry conditions and burned through the land.
On the second day, we experienced yet another contrast between the wilds and modern society. We awoke in a sea of aspen and Douglas fir banked by the distant glow of purplish mountains. After we ate thistle roots and cleaned up our campsite, we headed north and ran into Highway 180. We walked along the shoulder for several miles, as cars and trucks roared past us. The shoulder was littered with trash tossed out of car windows, such as Doritos bags, crushed soda bottles, and a torn T-shirt.
We shifted about four miles from the highway and paralleled it. At that point, Jesse felt like we were pushing our dehydration limits. It was early in the journey, but he was uncomfortable. He said he was considering turning around and walking back to the highway. I didn’t respond. I pressed on, and he followed.
After another mile, we crossed a dirt road. The tracks were so old and so deep that it was clear that no car had driven on it for months. Sitting on the road right in the exact spot where we crossed was a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. It had been sitting there so long that the label was completely sun beaten.
I opened the bottle. We both smelled it. Undoubtedly, it was passed its expiration date. We each took a few sips. We realized that it was a little bit on the fermented side, but we decided to carry it with us and drink it later.
I could also see that Jesse’s energy level was low. For the first couple days, we had eaten only chia seeds, thistle roots, steamed greens, and pine tree bark. The lack of food and the walking in the hot sun caused Jesse to half joke that he was feeling like he was tripping on psychedelic mushrooms.
His blood sugar was crashing from a lack of calories, and it was taking his spirits down with it. In the middle of the highway, I spotted a dead squirrel. I waited for a break in the traffic and then ran onto the highway and scooped up the squirrel. Not surprisingly, Jesse had never eaten roadkill, but we needed the nutrition.
I took the squirrel into the bushes to clean it. I asked Jesse to hold one end while I held the other. As I began to cut off the head with my knife, the look on Jesse’s face told me he wasn’t going to eat the animal, regardless of how desperate he was for the calories.
Jesse had grown up as a vegetarian. Eating meat was something he didn’t want to take part in, but ultimately he knew that he would need to in a survival experience. But he was not ready to make the compromise, which I fully respected.
As our journey continued, Jesse continued to face the same dilemma. He was coming to the conclusion that he could not exist on chia seeds and greens. Food—particularly that which would be classified as vegetarian—was at a premium.
At one point, I managed to get a rabbit with the bow and arrow Jesse was carrying. I skinned the rabbit and cooked it up. Jesse was disgusted. Not only did he not eat any of the rabbit; he threatened to leave at that very moment.
“I don’t feel like this trip is for me,” he said.
I was sympathetic. I told Jesse that I understood how he felt. I asked him if he would at least continue with me for a few days to see how he felt. He agreed and settled for eating pine nuts that night.
As we continued hiking, I immediately felt stronger. Jesse, on the other hand, was feeling weak, and could see how energized I was. There was a stark difference in our energy levels. Later that day when we made camp, Jesse decided to eat the rabbit meat. He had concluded that there was more to learn.
Though Jesse’s beliefs were being challenged, he was also going through the physiology of what happens to human beings when they don’t have a lot of food. While their stomach is growling, that is not the real mental challenge. In fact, they are experiencing a flood of emotions they have never previously experienced.
The fact that I had killed and cooked a rabbit was not the issue. It was that he was in a deprived state of being. The feelings are so overwhelming and intense that they fool your mind to the point that you can become depressed because you are seeing and feeling too much. At the end of the range of emotions, when he ate the rabbit, his body equalized and gave him a clearer perspective on what it would take to survive.
That night, we climbed Humphreys Peak, up to some twelve thousand feet. We walked through a forest of aspens. As we headed down off the mountain toward the high desert, it was getting late in the day. Darkness was falling fast. The winds were kicking up. But I made the decision to continue hiking through the night, both to make miles and to drop some elevation.
We weren’t dressed to travel in that kind of weather. I was wearing shorts, a buckskin top, and a felt hat. Jesse had on shorts and a cotton shirt. The temperature was in the forties but the wind chill dropped it to the twenties. Temperature-wise we weren’t in the danger zone, but we were because of how we were dressed.
We continued walking to make those miles and to stay warm. In survival situations, when it is cold and you have enough visibility, you want to walk because it keeps you warm. However, all the while, it is scary because you know you will have to stop and deal with your survival needs. The dilemma is making sure that when you do stop, you have a clear head.
The light seemed to be coming from an otherworldly source. Every few minutes, places on the desert floor would light up, like sparks jumping off an electrical box. The flashes of light were coming from the ground and going up into the sky. One would be a hundred feet away from us, followed by another thirty feet away, and then another fifty feet in the other direction. Sometimes we both saw the flashes together; other times only one of us would see the flash.
After each flash, we would walk to the spot where it had originated. When we reached that place, it was just dirt. Granted it was dark, but we never saw an explanation for why a flash of light would be rocketing up from the ground.
When we finally stopped that night out of fatigue, it was pitch-black. There was no moon. Clouds were covering the stars so we didn’t have that light, either. It was nearly impossible to see. Feeling my way through our supplies, I pulled out our fire kit. I had packed a hard drill and piece of cottonwood root.
I took the stone knife out and then I started drilling into the board. I couldn’t see where to cut the notch, so I had to feel the hole with my finger. I started carving the notch with my stone knife, hoping it was in the right place. I felt back and forth between the notch and the hole. It seemed to be right.
I kept drilling. In the day, when you are making a coal, you can watch for the smoke. But even if there was smoke, I couldn’t see it in the dark. I had to wait for the red glow. That added an extra thirty seconds to a minute of drilling.
As I was drilling, I finally saw the salvation: a faint red glow. Jesse brought me some bark and I put it on the nest. I blew the spark into a flame. We then gathered a few sticks and ignited them. That light enabled us to see other wood in the area, which we collected and put on the fire.
After the fire was lit, I looked at the fire board. I realized that the notch wasn’t touching the hole. I had been very lucky to get a coal. Normally, if the notch isn’t directly in the hole, you cannot get a coal.
Both Jesse and I were grateful for the fire. We spoke only briefly about what a tough night it would have been without the fire. Jesse was on his first survival walkabout. He didn’t understand the severity of the situation had I not gotten the fire going. For me, there was no point to take him down that path.
It was our second night out. Jesse was looking at the journey through fresh eyes, so he regarded it as mild drama. Could we have survived the night without a fire? Maybe. But without a doubt, we would have been in the early stage of hypothermia. I had been there before. Likely, I would have survived. I’m not sure about Jesse.
In a survival situation, there are a certain amount of priorities that must be met to stay alive. Sometimes those priorities come one at a time, but other times they hit you all at once. It is easy to get into that kind of predicament. When they hit you all at once, that’s when you have to really know the flow of the land. That’s when people get into trouble, when there are multiple survival issues that compound themselves. If you don’t know how to prioritize those, you will die.
That night, likely because I knew the situation had been dangerous, I began processing thoughts on life issues I needed to address. Before leaving on the trip, I had briefly gotten back together with Karen. We had shared some wonderful moments. But during those first few days with Jesse, as I began sinking back into the land, I regretted that decision. Our relationship had not been a healthy one emotionally.
I knew I was seeing the land in a way she would never be able to comprehend. I was on my own path to become a teacher of the land. I hoped I would find students willing to learn, because I concluded that was more important to me than my own personal relationships.