THE LONG WALK HOME - Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Chapter Eleven




The major difference between walking from place to place and going on a walkabout is that you cannot avoid roads, people, and pollution. In the National Monument in Utah, I could easily go on a walkabout for a week without encountering any of those because I knew the land. But walking from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Boulder, Utah, despite picking the most remote, backcountry route, I knew that Jesse and I were going to cross roads and find disturbed areas, unregulated mines, and other things that would pain us to see when we were trying to have a very pure connection with the land.

From Flagstaff,  Jesse and I walked ninety-five miles across the desert and into Grand Canyon National Park. At the south entrance to the Grand Canyon, we stopped to resupply in Tusayan, Arizona. The town is a bastion of low-end commercialism, and the embarkation point for every conceivable tour of the Grand Canyon—air, foot, bus, bike, mule.

The businesses lining the main drag told the story. Mixed with souvenir shops and “trading posts” were helicopter rental companies, motels, fast-food joints, and a place labeled “The Tourist Center.” One motel featured a twenty-foot-tall Fred Flintstone pointing at a sign that read “ ‘Yabba-Dabba-Doo’ Means Welcome to You.” I felt anything but.

Tusayan is the home of Grand Canyon Airport, where helicopter and airplane tours of the Grand Canyon originate. At midday in high season, the skies are like LaGuardia Airport on a Friday afternoon. Seeing hundreds of helicopters in the sky eating up the environment and drowning out the natural sounds of the land frustrated me to no end. I felt like I had to do something.

I ran out into a clearing and frantically waved both arms at a low-flying helicopter. After seeing people wave back, I squatted, pointed my backside upward, pulled down my pants, and mooned them. Admittedly, it was not the most mature move, but it was the place I was in.

Jesse certainly didn’t mind. In fact, he broke up laughing so hard that he doubled over and ended up rolling on the ground.

Jesse was as disgusted by the noise pollution and hordes of tourists as I was; yet he was also happy to be near civilization. As I set up camp, he jogged into town to buy some comfort food. He returned with two bottles of Guinness and a bag of Oreos.

That night, we were able to ease our frustrations somewhat. I taught Jesse how to make a fire with a small chert, a yucca stick, a few pieces of bark, and some elbow grease to create friction. He was extremely pleased when his efforts produced a wisp of smoke, followed by flames.

Nevertheless, the experiences of seeing trashed areas of the land and helicopters leaving a film of smoke on what would otherwise be one of the cleanest vistas in the country wore on me. I found myself growing bitter and cynical, as well as judgmental and preachy. Our talks focused on what civilization is doing wrong rather than what we can do right. It was bringing me down, and I’m sure it was bringing Jesse down, too.


After we left Tusayan, we hiked to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and stopped for the day. I began making a new pair of sandals. We were within sight of the tourist path, and I could see that many noticed me sitting there, hammering on the yucca fibers with a rock. Jesse joked that they probably thought I was a paid attraction, a frontiersman working away to show how rustic the area once was.

We spent much of the day staring off the rim of the Grand Canyon and enjoying the view. I had us wait until 7 p.m. I figured by that hour the rangers would be off duty and we could just slip into the park before dark, as we did not have a hiking permit.

It was about two hours before dark. We had plenty of light to get into the canyon, but we needed to leave. We started running down the trail. But just as we hit the first turn, we ran into three rangers coming up the trail. They stopped us and asked where we were going.

I told them we were going to Boulder, Utah. The rangers looked uncertain. The lead ranger studied our meager belongings and asked if we were planning to camp in the canyon. They held the fate of this part of our journey in their hands. I smiled at him. “We might take a nap,” I said.

The lead ranger nodded. “Have a good trip, guys,” he said.

Jesse and I headed into the canyon. We traveled several miles and then slept for the night.


After days of walking through the canyon, Jesse’s knee began bothering him. It reached the point where he felt he was going to collapse under his own weight. Considering the dry and rugged crossing that lay ahead of us, we both decided he needed medical attention before continuing.

We made a plan. Jesse would hitchhike his way back to Flagstaff to have his knee checked out. When I reached Marble Canyon, which was about sixty miles away, I would call him and see if he was able to rejoin me.

After leaving Jesse, I spent two days with my friend Farlinger on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, working on a flint-knapping project. Before leaving, I phoned Jesse. The diagnosis was an inflamed IT band along the outside of his knee. His doctor treated him with acupuncture and bee venom therapy and told him that after a few days’ rest he could return.

I set out across the Grand Canyon. I stayed away from the highway that ran north of the canyon. The route was rugged. There were a lot of canyons coming in and out. It was by far the hardest part of the journey. I walked more than thirty miles without any water.

I dropped down off the plateau to a beautiful canyon called North Creek. It was lined with oak trees and full of trout, watercress, and edible greens. Once I reached the bottom, it turned to pure desert. For miles and miles there was only clay. The tallest plants were about six inches. The land was tranquil. The temperature was upward of a hundred degrees. There was no water at all.

In the morning, I would get up as soon as I could see and begin to walk. Even before the sun would crest the horizon, the mercury would start to climb. Once the sun rose, it felt like a fire was searing me. At one point, partway through the walk across the desert, I put on my yucca sandals to start breaking them in because my rawhide sandals were almost worn out.

The first life anywhere close to me was a cottontail rabbit. I thought I should try to get it for food. I picked up a flat stone and threw it with the sidearm motion used for skipping rocks in a stream. I hit the ear of the rabbit. It dropped its head into a crouch and started sprinting. As the rabbit raced away, I picked up another rock and took one more throw. The rock sliced through its throat, killing it instantly.

I didn’t have any water, so I couldn’t cook the rabbit. I cut it up into strips and hung the meat on a stick with string. It was so hot I figured I would have jerky within a day.

The following day, I entered the Navajo reservation and found a white water tank for cows. There was no surface water, so I climbed up onto the tank to drop my water bottle in and pull out the water. For purification, the only thing I had was grapefruit extract, so I mixed it with the water. The rabbit at that point was bone dry. I enjoyed a meal of jerky with my water.

I didn’t have much farther to go. Fueled by the food and water, I hiked longer that day through the desert. As it started to get dark, I saw some lights in the distance. I could see it was the highway paralleling the cliff. I had no idea I was still at least eight miles from Marble Canyon.

Though I had a makeshift map, I was traveling mostly by memory. When I was on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I had traced a map of the region that stretched all the way to Marble Canyon. I had included the high points that would be easily identifiable, but there was no way to gauge distances.

I ran toward the lights, covering several miles fairly quickly. I came upon a hotel on the highway before Marble Canyon. As I approached, I saw two Native Americans leaning against a lit-up sign. When I reached them, I stopped and said hello to them.

One of the guys looked me up and down, turned to me, and said, “When I first saw you running out there, I thought you were Forrest Gump. But now that I see you, I know you’re a prophet.” It was a classic Indian line, mixed with a heavy dose of pop culture.

One of the guys introduced himself as Robert Mirabal. He was from Taos, New Mexico. I later learned that he was a world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning flutist whose flutes have been displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He explained that the following morning he was heading out on a raft trip on the Grand Canyon. A group was paying him to sit in their boat and play his flute.

We spoke for a while. I told him I had made a flute during the trip. It was the type of flute you blow into from the side. I couldn’t play it very well. He looked at me and said, “I can play anything with a hole in it.”

Sure enough, he took the flute and made it dance. The music was gorgeous. I was excited because he showed me that my flute had potential to make beautiful music. I vowed to keep practicing it until I was able to play it well.

Robert gave me an elk leather necklace. He said that he had worn it in Hawaii when he performed there. Because he had said he admired elk hide sandals, I took mine off and handed them to him. He told me to stay with him if I ever made it to Taos.

We shook hands. I walked a mile into the countryside to get away from the motel and camped for the night.


The following morning, I met Jesse in Marble Canyon. He was shocked at how tan I was since I had seen him. I told him that the sun had been hotter than I had ever encountered. He openly wondered if he could have made it.

“I have never met anyone who has so much faith that the wild will take care of him,” Jesse said.

“If you’re being respectful, the wild will take care of you, too,” I replied. Then I added, “Let’s go.”

We continued on our journey to Boulder. There were times that we pushed the envelope by everyday standards, but I felt that because we did, magical things happened and the land opened up to the point where you can’t deny that there is a large force taking care of everything.

Jesse was often concerned that we always seemed to be on the edge of dehydrating. At one point, we were down to a quart each. He was constantly concerned that we would run out. But just as the situation felt critical, water would appear. Once it was at a barely functioning desert spring. Another time we were dangerously low, and we ran into a man working for the government. He was making the area livable for bighorn sheep, and he directed us to the water source used for the sheep in drought conditions.

During one stretch when he became discouraged, I asked Jesse what he wanted. He responded that we were near Paria River and he had heard the fishing was good, so some fishing line would be nice. We walked a hundred yards. Sitting on the road was a brand-new spool of fishing line.

He was in shock.

“What else do you want?” I asked.

“Hooks,” he said.

Literally in another hundred yards, I found a bag of hooks. He laughed at the absurdity.

“I prefer lures,” I said.

Sure enough, we walked another fifty yards and found a bag of lures.

He was speechless. Had we not been in the middle of nowhere, he would have looked around for a hidden camera. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to make of those instant gifts, either. That kind of absolute synchronicity is rare.

How did it happen? I’m not sure, but it did show that if you have a relationship with the land, it will respond in positive ways. For Jesse, it confirmed that mystical events can happen when you place absolute trust in the land.


The Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness had prairielike plateaus interrupted by deep canyons. Though the land was unusually dry, we found a narrow river to follow and it led us to an apricot orchard. We picked a bushel of apricots and made camp. I then built an oven from sandstone slabs and wet clay, and we baked a loaf of apricot bread.

But the area was also teeming with tourists. We passed groups of hikers wearing heavy boots and lugging overstuffed backpacks. The groups seemed to be divided into two schools of thought on us. Some seemed enchanted by our mountain-man appearance, while others cast a wary glance and kept their distance.

Jesse and I debated the experience these hikers were having. He pointed out that before coming out with me he had no idea that the outdoor retail industry had scared the public into believing it needed vast amounts of gear to camp out. He felt that the majority of people were being lulled into believing they were having a wilderness experience when, in fact, they were on something that better resembled a ride at Disneyland and only gave them the illusion of the experience.

Part of this was due to the fact that hikers were supposed to buy a permit to travel through the Paria wilderness and stay on the trails. While I understand this was primarily for safety, it also showed an assumption that the average person could not venture from the predetermined path and learn the wilds for themselves. Though I felt that Jesse’s assessment was somewhat harsh, I wasn’t sure I would’ve wanted to see some of the people we passed trying to survive in a remote area.

Once we entered Paria Canyon, we were alone. The canyon was filled with beautiful oak trees and knee-high brush. A narrow river with sandy banks ran through it. Eight-hundred-foot red rock walls towered above both sides of the river. The river was narrow enough that you could jump across it.

My yucca sandals were shot. I had given my backup pair of sandals to Robert Mirabal, so I had to go barefoot. I stuck the yucca sandals in a cave by the river. We joked that someone would find them and think they were archaeological artifacts because they were made in the ancient way. Even the straps were woven from yucca fibers.

I was barefoot. Like a kid at the beach on a summer day, I would run through the hot sand and then cross into the water to cool my feet. I did this for the thirteen miles it took us to reach Big Water.

We sustained ourselves on the apricots and bulrush shoots we gathered along the river. The apricots were a godsend. Without those, we would have both been in trouble because nature was not giving us much during that stretch. Jesse later wrote of our meager meals: “Dreams of pancakes and hash browns carried me through the blood sugar debt of the late afternoon.”

After leaving the canyon, we crossed a stretch of desert. Parts were rocky and tough on my feet.

We moved at a pretty good clip because we had a goal in mind: a meal at the café in Big Water. When our reward came into sight, we sprinted to the door, only to be greeted by intense disappointment. The café had closed fifteen minutes earlier.

Jesse laughed and volunteered that we should press on rather than wait until it opened in the morning. The decision was made easier because we knew that we had a drop box waiting for us at the Big Water post office.

We walked across the highway to camp out in the desert for the night. The only food we had came from a ketchup packet we found on the highway. Luckily, it had not been run over. I tore it open and we shared the tomato paste for dinner that night.

The next morning, we went straight to the post office to pick up our shipment.

The town’s postmistress was amused by us. “I’ve been waiting for you two,” the small lady said. “For three weeks I’ve been wondering what’s in these two boxes, but mostly, I’ve been curious who was going to pick them up.” By her smile, I guessed that her two new customers did not disappoint her.

My box had a leather bag full of beans and rice, and my tire sandals. Jesse’s had a nylon backpack, food, and a water filter. I strapped on my tire sandals. After walking in sandals that were falling apart and then going barefoot for thirteen miles, I was very appreciative to have new footwear.


Jesse and I traveled another fifty miles and reached Last Chance Canyon on June 5. We decided to make it our home for the next week to give us a reprieve from some of the ugliness we had encountered. The worst, which stuck with me, was when we had come upon a spot on an Indian reservation that was trashed. Inconsiderate campers had left bottles and plastic containers, as well as the coal remains from their campfires. We cleaned up the site as best we could.

Located just over the Arizona-Utah border, Last Chance Canyon is hot and dry and extremely remote. We managed to find a nice cotton-wood tree to shelter us from the sun. Water was an issue. The streams contained visible cow dung, as ranchers in the area allow their cows to wander the public land. We made the water potable by filtering it through some fine mesh I had brought for such emergency situations.

During our time there, I busied myself with projects in hopes of evoking Jesse’s interest. I carved rabbit sticks and made a cloak out of my blanket. Jesse, however, was content to do nothing. He went on a few walks to get a better view of the sunset. He did do some gathering of juniper berries and cooking, but I still felt as if he wasn’t attempting to forge a close connection with the land.

After leaving Last Chance Canyon and hiking across the Kaiparowits Plateau, we reached the Canyons of the Escalante. A year earlier, I had buried a stash of food in a large bucket for my trips through the canyon. I located the rock formation. We made digging sticks from a juniper bush and dug for the food.

The journey was in its final leg, and our differing goals for the trip finally came to a head. The following night over a fire, we aired our grievances. I told Jesse I didn’t feel he was making a true effort to learn the primitive skills I was teaching him.

He, in turn, explained that he didn’t embark on this journey as a student. He simply wanted to live away from the workaday world for six weeks and take in the environment. It was a simple, honest, and straightforward conversation that not only reestablished our friendship but also ended up becoming a building block for me as a teacher.

With our hopes more clearly defined and better understood, the final week of our trip was the best. We spent two days in Choprock Canyon, which offered both of us the reprieve we were seeking. One wall of the canyon had a huge mural of petroglyphs—tiny, detailed pictures carved into the rock depicting an ancient society. The area was filled with cattails and bulrush. The spring water from the creek was the purest of the trip.

We also established a new level of understanding. While sitting in camp, I heard a bird chirp far up in the tangled vines of a tree. I went to investigate. As I climbed up, a bird flew out of a nest. I noticed there were eggs in the nest. As I tried to get my hand into the nest to grab the eggs, the momma bird dove at me and attempted to peck me with her beak. I didn’t have any interest in killing the momma bird. I instructed Jesse to grab his rabbit stick to push the momma bird away so she didn’t nail me with her beak.

The nest had three eggs. I was planning on us each taking an egg. I reached in and grabbed a small egg and handed it down to Jesse. He refused to take it.

Though I was frustrated, I was beginning to understand his perspective. That moment became a learning experience for me, too. Never again would I consider taking two eggs out of a three-egg nest because I know the momma would abandon the nest.

Three days later, Jesse and I arrived in Boulder on June 23, the eve of my twenty-eighth birthday. After I showed him around my space, we parted ways. Jesse hiked into town to plan his return to Flagstaff.

The trip was a turning point for me in several ways. I realized that I had a weakness as a teacher. I needed to figure out how to bring light to my students, not tear things down in front of them. I had to accentuate the positive of the wilderness in a way they could understand. It couldn’t be a simple contrast where nature represented good and man-made represented evil. Even though I saw destructive things, I couldn’t focus on the bitterness they evoked. That wouldn’t do my life or theirs any good.

I ended up becoming close friends with Jesse. He sent me his diary. Reading his thoughts only underscored the learning curve I was on. The diary made it clear that I was more aggressive when it came to pushing survival concepts and less receptive to him taking them in on his own terms than I needed to be. I had to find a way to better convey the natural world to people willing to learn its gifts. I wasn’t yet the teacher I hoped to be.