AN ALL-PRIMITIVE WALK - 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 Twelve




Ötzi the Iceman was the first all-primitive man discovered by archaeologists. A natural mummy unearthed on the Austria-Italy border, Ötzi was nearly fully preserved and carbon-dated to around 3,300 BCE. He was wearing a coat, a loincloth, tights, and shoes, all made of leather, and a bearskin hat. Around his waist was an ancient fanny pack containing a primitive tool kit of a drill, a bone awl, and flint-knapping tools tipped with copper that were used to shape stones. He was also carrying a copper ax and several arrows made with dogwood shafts.

His shoes became the subject of much debate. Resembling sandals, they were much wider than his feet and appeared to be constructed for walking across snow. The soles were made of bearskin and the sides were animal hide. They were insulated with grass for warmth and had netting around the ankles. What stood out the most was the detail and thought that went into the footwear.

Ötzi was also carrying two species of mushrooms with leather strings running through them. One, the birch fungus, had antibacterial properties and was likely used for medicinal purposes. The second, a tinder fungus, appeared to have been used in conjunction with several plants and some pyrite for fire-starting purposes.

My friend Breck Crystal and I studied Ötzi’s possessions in great detail as we prepared to embark on an all-primitive walk. We didn’t necessarily want to emulate him, but we did want to show ourselves that we could create tools and supplies like our most ancient ancestors and walk into the wilderness and survive.

Our primitive tool search led us to Ishi, who was considered the last Stone Age American man. He was the last surviving member of the Yahi, a group that was part of the Native American Yana people in California. After living nearly all of his life with no connection to modern society, Ishi emerged in 1911. It turned out that after his entire people were massacred, he had lived completely alone for three years.

Ishi allowed anthropologists and archaeologists to document his way of life, and the methods he had used to survive. After his tribe died, he burned off all his hair in mourning. He fended for himself for years, but with no tribe to back him up, that lifestyle took a toll. He was actually caught stealing eggs, which forced him to come out of the wilderness.

Ishi immediately adapted to the modern world because it was so much easier. After living for a year in the urban world, he said that life became so comfortable for him that he did not want to ever return to the woods. He could eat whatever he wanted, whenever he pleased. He could work on his crafts without the fear of letting down his guard.

Many people I’ve talked to over the years have the initial impression that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a laid-back one. The fact that Ishi was starving to the point where he had to steal eggs shows that even somebody who grew up in that situation has to work so hard for food that they can become desperate. Nature is not cruel; it just cannot be slowed down.

Someone who lives fully in nature cannot say: “I don’t think I’ll do the hunter-gatherer thing this week. I’m gonna take some time off and get back to it next week.” However, in our modern society, we can actually check out of our lives for a couple weeks and then resume them. But if a hunter-gatherer does that, he will die.

Closer to home, Breck and I also studied the Paiute Indians, one of the most fascinating and overlooked Indian tribes. The local Utah Paiute tribe was one of several in the Western states, and all of them had struggled to find and maintain a home. They lived a Stone Age lifestyle all the way through the 1900s.

Though information on the Paiute tribe was sparse, a friend of mine named Bill Latade, an archaeologist who lived in Boulder and was head curator of the Anasazi State Park Museum, had a private manual with photos and historical information. I was interested in their tools but also in their values and customs.

One of the most interesting bits of information I found about the Paiute tribe was their patience and dedication to craft. They made nets out of plants that were hundreds of yards long and stretched them across the plains to catch rabbits. It was the most impressive feat ever seen in a hunter-gatherer tribe.

It took a person roughly one year of constant work to make a hundred yards of the plant-fiber netting. Collecting a fistful of the fibers took several hours. They would then weave them together with their hands and feet, spending a year on one net. The long sections of net were woven just loose enough to trap a rabbit’s head. When the nets were not in use for hunting, they were folded over and over to create a well-insulated six-by-six-foot blanket.

The big lesson for us was that a person could find the concentration and patience to twist these fibers with their hands and feet every day for a year.

I also read Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante’s journals. Father Escalante, for whom the nearby Utah town was named, and his companion, another priest, set out to travel from Santa Fe to Monterey, California, in 1776. They ended up in what would become Utah, the first two white men known to have set foot in the state. Father Escalante kept a record of their travels, detailing the survival tools and techniques they used, as well as what they encountered.

The goal that Breck and I had was to take a journey using primitive means. The BOSS season had ended in December 2000, and most of the staff had left Boulder for the winter. The final outing was something of a production. To promote the upcoming Charlie’s Angels movie, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu had gone on a four-day course as part of a promotional shoot for Marie Claire. The three actresses proved they could handle themselves better than many who had taken BOSS courses.

Although it wasn’t conscious, the contrast to the journey Breck and I were preparing for was somewhat comical.


Breck and I wanted to enter nature without any connections to the modern world. We both had a foundation for exploring the land, and we wanted to see if we could do it as the ancient explorers had, with only the materials they had used.

To build our primitive tool kit, we absorbed every story we could find, from Ötzi’s shoes to Ishi’s arrows. We looked at photos and decided what pouches, blankets, and bags to bring, and what foods we wanted to collect and prepare. We referred to Bill Latade’s books about the tools the indigenous people of Utah had used to build the area’s early living structures, as well as other illustrated books showing how Native Americans made their tools.

For food, we dried jerky and made pemmican, a jerkylike food consisting of dried berries, meat, and fat. The process took two months. We started by drying rose hips and berries. Next, we took deer that had been killed by motor vehicles and left roadside. The dried deer meat was pounded down along with the rose hips and berries. We then heated that up and mixed it with rendered raccoon fat.

The purpose of the fat was to preserve the meat. Rendering animal fat to its purest state keeps it from turning rancid. The fat is rendered in water and then the layers are scraped off. After several processes, only the superwhite fat is left. The white fat is the best. It keeps the meat from going bad and can last hundreds of years. Pure dried meat jerky, in contrast, lasts only about six months before it begins to lose flavor and feel like cardboard.

After rendering the fat and cooking the meat, we rolled the pemmican into small balls that we stored in parfleche. Parfleche is a method of storage for dried food used by Native American tribes. It is made by taking rawhide from an animal, stretching it out tight, and then staking it until it dries. After it dries, the rawhide is pounded with a round cobblestone until it starts to loosen up enough to be folded without breaking.

Our pemmican had just the right mix of meat and sweet berries. It was high in nutrients and tasted far better than it should have. That was actually a mistake. The pemmican was so good that it was hard not to eat it right away. Before we even started, our supply began to dwindle.

Along with the deerskins from the roadkill, we also collected deerskins from hunters (as they discard the skins). We processed the skins and made loincloths, vests, shirts, shorts, and moccasins. I tanned a full-size elk and made a blanket. We also wove together yucca and agave fibers to create the nets for our iceman packs. I made a pack very similar to Ötzi’s, while Breck made a more modern design in the shape of an X.

To cook our food, Breck made a clay pot and I hollowed out a gourd and oiled it really well so I could use a hot rock in it. We made our own knives out of stone and put shiny, wooden handles on them. We used the tanned skins for sheaths and sewed them with yucca fibers.

For hunting tools, I made a bow out of hickory with sinew backing for extra strength. We made our own arrows with stone tips. The bowstring was made out of the tendons from the deer. Those same tendons were used to tie the fletching—the guiding feathers—onto the arrows. The shaft was built with cane I had collected in Arizona and some tamarisk, a heavy wood that resembles a willow.

We went overboard on the footwear. We figured that if Ötzi had made snowshoes more than five thousand years ago, we as modern hunter-gatherers should have footwear for all different conditions. We each made heavy winter moccasins, plus three pairs of sandals. We also tanned hides.

Most of the craftwork was done outside of the BOSS survival school office, which happened to be adjacent to the Anasazi State Park Museum. This provided a nice sideshow for museum visitors, who often sat and watched us after touring the exhibits.

The process of building our primitive-living gear took nearly three months. Though it was enlightening, we became so carried away that rather than building the tools that made the most sense for our location, we built the ones we liked from each different story. Pretty soon, our backpacks weighed fifty pounds each.

Aside from wanting to travel and live like the Native Americans, we were both hoping to reconnect with some of the traditions of the past. We hoped to re-create a trade walk. We brought no cash. Instead, we made trinkets and extra hides to trade for whatever supplies or food we needed.

Our initial destination was Chaco Canyon, which wasn’t then but is now a national monument. Historically, Chaco Canyon had been the epicenter for trading in our area. Though we couldn’t trade at Chaco, we wanted to see the area, and we knew that there were trading posts run by the Navajo nearby, where we hoped to trade for food and dry goods.

After venturing through Chaco Canyon, we planned to continue across the mountains and canyons. One possibility was ultimately ending up at Winter Count, the annual primitive-skills gathering on the Ak-Chin reservation in Arizona, some four hundred miles and two months away. But any destination was secondary to the feeling we wanted to achieve. We wanted the journey to be something that two men could have embarked on a thousand years ago.


The first steps of the walk felt magical. We were two travelers dressed in long buckskin shirts, breechcloths flapping in the wind, stone knives dangling on the waist, walking down a spring-fed canyon. On our backs were agave fiber packs holding elk skin blankets and buckskin pouches filled with pemmican. Clutched in our hands were bows backed with sinew for added strength, and arrows made of cane tipped with finely honed, razor-sharp chert, a sedimentary rock. Nothing we carried was modern. Everything was handmade from the land and could have been hundreds or even thousands of years old.

I was elated. I felt like we were headed to an ancient city, where people grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton. There, we would trade for what we needed by offering up one of our intricately tanned hides.

Leaving town, we headed straight into the backcountry, through a lush river valley. Within an hour, we were in a place with no people in sight and no hiking trails. But after a couple hours, the practical aspects took hold.

We stopped to take a break to adjust our packs because they were digging into our shoulders. From then on, we had to stop constantly to fiddle with the straps on our backpacks, which seemed to become heavier with each step.

By the end of the day, we were completely worn out from the loads we were carrying. We hadn’t done any test walks with the fifty pounds of gear, so we had no idea how taxing it would be. We had forgotten the most basic lesson: be familiar with the load you are carrying.

It was the same thing as the backpacker who buys out the REI store versus the seasoned backpacker who pares down his gear to the bare minimum. Despite the fact that our gear was handmade and paid homage to primitive cultures, carrying so much of it—regardless of how spiritual it might be—was no different from overloading on modern gear. If you haven’t used the gear or carried it, there is no way to know how it will perform or how you can perform with it. In short, we had a load of ancient tricks that we didn’t fully understand, and we were as uncomfortable as we had ever been in the wilderness.

We stopped for the night to make camp. We were miserable. We built a fire and crawled under our hide skins. The temperature dropped to near zero. In order to preserve our rations, we hadn’t eaten the first day. Because we weren’t conditioned to go without food, the night was even more uncomfortable.

Intuitively, we knew that food can be hard to come by in the winter months, but at some level we were denying that. We wanted to believe we could walk out onto the landscape and survive off the land at any time. But the reality is that on this landscape everything hunkers down in the winter. This fact was not lost on the native people, who did the same in the winter. The difference was that they spent the fall preparing by stocking up on food.

After the first day, for many reasons, it became evident that the journey would be tougher than we imagined. By the end of the second day, before the sunset, we realized we could not make the trip with the amount of gear we had.

Breck and I discussed what to do. Clearly, we needed to rethink our primitive walk. We decided that in good conscience we couldn’t ditch our gear, because we had put so much love into making it. So on the second day, we hiked back to town to drop off our gear and restock with our more technical—and infinitely lighter—gear that we used for teaching outings.


Neither of us felt like we had failed; rather we felt like we had not properly prepared. Back at the BOSS office, we regrouped and repacked. Our packs now held the essentials, such as a knife, a few clay pots, a wool blanket, sandals, wool socks, nylon shorts, and a wool shirt. We exchanged our hide footwear for sandals made from tires.

We also brought a bag of knives and arrowheads we had made, as well as the pemmican. Still, it wasn’t like we had gone to the North Face store. Even with a fire burning, sleeping under only a wool blanket on December nights where the temperature hovers around zero still requires a tough constitution physically and mentally to ward off feelings of freezing.

We set back out with our packs at roughly one-third their original weight on what was now a somewhat-primitive walk. We dipped down into the canyon. The changing clouds elevated our spirits. Just before sunset, we discovered a patch of savory oyster mushrooms. It felt like we were on the right path.

That night, a rainstorm rolled in. We found shelter under an overhang in the cliff that gave us protection and lined it with cottonwood leaves. We set up a stone slab just outside the cave and dug a pit to make a fire. We gathered sagebrush bark. Using a fire made from yucca, I spun a coal.

With the fire started, we made a stew of oyster mushrooms, thistle greens, and pemmican. After dinner, we sat in the cave in silence, writing in our journals. The temperature hovered around twenty-five degrees, but the cave was so toasty warm that we were both in shorts.

But as we began to look ahead, it became apparent that we were seeing different things. We were camped in an area where we had guided, and therefore knew the terrain well. Soon we would be miles away, in a new land. I had the mind of an explorer. I was anxious to experience the land like a newborn baby, seeing, feeling, hearing, and smelling life for the first time.

Breck, however, was in a different mental space. As hard as we had prepared for the trip, we had never addressed the emotional aspect. He was thinking of his girlfriend, whom he had been dating for a year. Ahead for him was the time they would be apart.

Over the next few days, it was clear that his focus was wandering. We talked on and off about what he was going through. His emotions were pulling him back to his normal life, even as he needed them to be wholly invested in the journey.

Tensions between us began to rise. Admittedly, I wasn’t offering any comforting words. I didn’t have the personality or experience to empathize with what he was going through, because I hadn’t put any energy into a long-term relationship at that point in my life. There was no way I could motivate him to finish the journey and then deal with his emotions. As much promise as the journey held, it was also going to be very tough physically and mentally. If one person was slightly off, it would eventually break the other.

We both realized we were processing different thoughts and needed time with those thoughts. So at the end of the first week, without any acrimony, we split up. Breck turned back. I pressed on.

I watched him split off in the distance, as we both climbed out of the canyon. He traveled in a northwest direction to get up on the rim of the canyon, and I headed straight north.

It began to snow the day we parted. The first major winter storm was approaching, and the animals were preparing their homes and storing food. The wind was cold, but the scenery was spectacular. I was surrounded by snowcapped mesas topped with clouds that looked like whipped cream. Above the clouds was a searing blue sky. The snow was not only beautiful but also gave me moisture for the hike.


Once Breck and I had shed our all-primitive gear, the journey had lost its purity. We had started out with a very specific goal in mind. We had painted a clear picture in our minds and for others. We had told everyone we were going out in primitive gear, that we were going to re-create a trade route, and that we were going to collect salt along the way. We were going to trade tools and goods like our primitive ancestors did. We had set a certain expectation, rather than keeping our goal vague and doing it for the sake of exploration and for ourselves.

But now that we had parted, I was still on a journey. Even though I no longer felt a calling to go to Chaco Canyon or to the Navajo trading post, I needed to consider my circumstances in no less a way than the indigenous people of the area would have done. I was entering a potentially dangerous survival situation.

The fact is, the Boulder area is a pretty hard environment to live in during the wintertime without a house or regular access to a grocery store. I knew that I hadn’t gathered enough food to make it through the winter. I also didn’t have that much money at the time. It wasn’t like I could check out of my lifestyle, rent a place, and buy some food. But aside from not having the financial means, I didn’t have the desire to do that.

I figured that as a follower of primitive-living skills, my best alternative was to migrate south. That meant walking until I reached lower elevations, where there would be more natural resources. At the same time, I established a second goal: to walk the four hundred miles to Winter Count, the annual primitive-skills gathering in Arizona. In reality, because of all the zigzags, my walk would be closer to six hundred miles.

As I thought about what had been lost, I began to feel that more could be gained by walking to Winter Count. The goal that Breck and I had set was to go through Chaco Canyon to feel what it had been like back when twenty thousand Native Americans traded goods there. But the fact is, Chaco Canyon was now a national monument where people came to see the ruins, not trade goods.

Winter Count, however, was a real gathering of 450 like-minded people. All my friends would be there. In essence, it was our Chaco Canyon. We met there to trade goods, as well as lessons and stories. It would be a similar experience, only now I was actually chasing something real rather than an ideal that had disappeared long ago.

After Breck and I parted, I walked through an area called Little Egypt, which is known for its resemblance to the rolling sand dunes of the Middle Eastern country. It was surreal to be walking across sand dunes that were being carpeted with a thin layer of snow.

After I topped out of the canyon, I ended up on the Kaiparowits Plateau. Snow began falling more heavily, accumulating to about six inches. It was a peaceful snow, not the kind that drifts. There was very little wind. I was wearing sandals with no socks, but the snow was so powdery that as long as I kept moving, I was able to stay warm. The canyon had numerous caves in its walls, which provided a sense of security should the snow pick up.

As the sun began to set, I looked for shelter for the night. I found a rock overhang and I hunkered down. I built a reflector wall and then made a fire. The fire was built outside the cave, up against the reflector wall rock, facing toward me in the cave. This allows the smoke to escape and the heat to be contained, but also does not tarnish the cave wall as making a fire inside the cave would.

Once the fire was lit, I crawled into that space. I felt a sense of peace and joy. I sat in the rock ledge, watching the snowfall. I was warm and cozy in a cocoon of rock, with the heat from the fire, and I had put it up in a matter of minutes.

The truth is, that shelter can be put up faster than most backpackers could set up their tent and camp. Even in a tent, most people would be uncomfortable with such low temperatures and snow. The reflector rock made all the difference. It is set up outside the cave, and the fire is then built on the inside of the wall. The wall contains the heat in the cave and can easily add twenty to thirty degrees of warmth to the space.

The evening was made even more blissful now that I had restored purpose to my journey.



In the wild, the demands are immediate and constant, and I am the only one who can guard myself against the danger.

Sure, cities are full of dangers, but much of modern society is consumed by guarding against these dangers. People protect themselves with everything from proper shoes to safer cars to door locks for their homes. Houses are insulated against cold, and air-conditioning and heat provide comfort and safety.

When these people venture out into the wild, they strive to reach the point where they feel at one with nature. They go backpacking or hiking because they want to leave their houses. Yet most go on a shopping spree at the REI store and stuff their backpacks full of gear because they are so afraid that if they don’t have these things, they will not be able to survive.

I also often hear about people in the wild being scared of the animals. Dealing with wild animals is rooted in respecting them and their environment. They sense someone who respects their land.

Once I was in the backcountry and a mountain lion spotted me. It just stopped and stared. Then it began moving its head rhythmically from side to side, like a Michael Jackson maneuver in slow motion. It kept staring intently into my eyes. At that point, I felt like there was a soul exchange, that we were both reading each other. That mountain lion was like a brother, if you will, and it felt as though we had a mutual understanding that he wouldn’t hurt me if I didn’t hurt his land.

The demands of the wild can be unpredictable and sometimes life threatening, but I am finding that dangerous situations can be handled in different ways. I try to avoid putting myself in danger, but that is not always possible.