Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
GOING IT ALONE
The Kaiparowits Plateau is massive and intimidating. Once home to the ancient Paiute people, the area stretches for forty miles and has varying terrain. There are extensive flat clay surfaces, narrow canyons, and several undulating ranges. I was entering it in what would be my first winter with no home other than the untainted landscape, which made my spirit soar and allowed me to feel like I was living in a long-lost culture. I had four hundred miles to go to reach the Winter Count gathering in Page, Arizona, and much to discover.
After walking for two days along the Kaiparowits Plateau, I got down to the flats. There were no trees. The bushes grew only about six inches tall. There was nothing for me to keep a fire going. I was tired so I just sat down on the barren flatwash, scanning the horizon for shelter. The temperatures were dropping severely. It was going to be one of my coldest nights ever in the wilderness—and I had no shelter.
I started to have doubts about my skills. I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time—a potentially deadly mixture when you are alone in the wilderness. I was frustrated that I wasn’t farther south. I was even more upset that I hadn’t made it to a proper shelter for the night. I also realized there was no way I could use the fire-starting techniques I had used in the cave, because there was no fuel to burn.
I had a sense that I should get up and keep going. I knew I was near a highway. I thought, Maybe I should just call this journey good, run out to the highway tonight, put my thumb out, and end in Page, where I could have a hot meal and a warm bed.
As it was getting dark, with less than a half hour of daylight remaining, I sat back and scanned the wash. Rather than continuing down a path of self-doubt, I began to use my powers of observation.
Not far, maybe a quarter mile away, I noticed that there was a little bit of a pocket in a rock. It wasn’t big enough to be a cave. What was it?
I went over to investigate. The pocket was about five feet long—not long enough to stretch out in, but long enough to curl up for the night. Shelter.
I couldn’t start a fire, so I began to explore options the land could provide for warmth. Nearby, I spotted six-inch-tall rabbit brush growing wild. A big wash cut through the brush. I looked more closely. The roots were being eroded by the wash, and the rabbit brush was actually falling.
I walked through the wash and started pulling the loose rabbit brush. The base was twiggy, and the ends were feathery. It would make ideal bedding. I gathered the rabbit brush in bundles and stuffed the rock pocket with it. Then I burrowed out an area and crawled inside. The shell of rock was completely insulated by rabbit brush. I slept very well that night, as the land had granted me just enough to give me the courage to continue.
The next morning, I woke up fairly early. I continued walking toward the dam that stretches across the Colorado River that would take me toward Page, Arizona. From there, I walked another ten miles to Page.
Just as I was coming off the Kaiparowits, a ranger stopped me. He asked where I was going. I gave him the best description of my route that I could. I told him I was going to follow the Colorado River and then try to find a way into the Grand Canyon, which was a hundred miles away from where we were. When he heard the words Grand Canyon, it sparked his authority. He told me I would need a permit to enter the Grand Canyon. I explained to him that I was doing a walkabout on a whim, and that I hadn’t planned to stop at a ranger station. The ranger insisted I needed a permit. I appealed to him that I had once done trail work in the Grand Canyon for five months, and added that I didn’t have the financial means to buy a permit.
But he couldn’t be swayed. He told me that I would have to go to the Paria ranger station. Because Jesse Perry and I had been to the area on our walkabout, I knew the station was at least ten miles out of the way, meaning twenty miles round-trip. I nodded and gave him the “sure, whatever” treatment.
I continued into town to the Navajo trading post. I had a few things I didn’t need, and I wanted to add one more layer of warmth. I ended up trading a pair of moccasins and a stone knife for two thin wool blankets. I now had those two blankets, plus the wool one I had brought. The idea was that I could ditch my pack basket and roll my gear in a blanket. I would have to rely on my tire sandals for the rest of the journey. Though I knew I would have to walk through snow, my feet hadn’t been cold. I was more concerned about warmth at night, though as it turns out, the human obstacles were going to give me greater troubles. The trade was the type of calculated risk I often have to make.
After I left the trading post, I headed off the highway, away from the roads. I ended up in a maze of slot canyons. A slot canyon is a tight, narrow canyon where you can often touch both sides by extending your arms. The walls range from ten to three hundred feet in height and can prevent you from seeing what lies ahead. It was very confusing terrain, but I knew that if I could navigate the canyons, then the route would take me over Echo Cliffs.
Moving from the southeast over the top and going to the northwest side, I continued another thirty-plus miles and walked over Echo Cliffs and into Marble Canyon. A hole-in-the-wall place, Marble Canyon has a hotel and a gift shop but not much else. (The Marble Canyon Lodge is where I had met Jesse when he returned to our journey.)
Just as I was about to cross Highway 89 into the Navajo reservation, the same ranger drove up in his truck and motioned me over.
The country was wide open. With a pair of powerful binoculars, you can see for miles. Clearly, the ranger had been tracking me.
The ranger asked me if I had gotten my permit. I told him there was no place on my route where I could get one. He then informed me that I would have to go to the Lees Ferry ranger station, which was eight miles out of the way, or sixteen miles round-trip.
I tried to explain my situation. I told him that I was exhausted. I was crossing some 120 miles alone with mostly primitive gear. My respect for the land was absolute. After all, I had only a small roll of supplies, on which I was traveling hundreds of miles. I appealed to him to let me continue my journey without any bureaucratic interference.
But he wouldn’t budge. And he didn’t offer me a ride, either—not that I would have taken it.
In nature, I teach my students to think for themselves. Rules, I tell them, are a guideline. To me, that incident showed that this ranger was not thinking for himself. He could plainly see that I had no money and that I respected the land. He knew my story was legitimate; yet he was not willing to let me go.
There was another dynamic at work. I walked everywhere in my life. The result was that some days I looked good, while other days I was really dirty and looked tired and hungry. Authority figures often assumed I was a homeless bum, and they would harass me in different ways. It was ironic. People who are supposed to be protectors harassed me. It left me with a bitter feeling toward authority. It was also frustrating because I was trying to lead a humble existence and be a steward of the earth, yet people who likely were not living as respectfully tried to defile my existence.
I had no choice. I walked in the direction of the ranger station. I decided that the fastest way was to run it both ways. I stashed my pack in the woods and ran the eight miles to the ranger station.
When I arrived, the situation turned into a fiasco. First, the ranger on duty insisted that I call the ranger station in the Grand Canyon, where I was headed. The ranger on the phone asked me where I planned to camp every night. Being honest, I said I didn’t have a clue. The Grand Canyon ranger asked my route. I told him I had seen a place to enter the Grand Canyon near the Little Colorado, and I asked if I could get in there. He wasn’t sure; no one had ever been over there.
I explained that I used to work in the park and asked him to waive the fee given my history with the area. The ranger seemed sympathetic, but said he could not go against “regulations.” The permit was $55.
To put things into perspective, I had about $350 to my name. For most people, paying $55 would not be a big deal, but it literally cost me one-seventh of my money. Federal park officials don’t realize that there are people who live in the bush full-time, and when they are forced to cough up those fees, it can be a significant chunk of their wealth. That ranger had no comprehension of what that meant. That was why I was upset with the process.
When I asked the ranger what the money was used for, he told me it was for “the knowledge and resources we supply to the public.” So I turned that around on him and told him that if he would waive the fee, I would let the ranger station know if the route was doable. He gave me the whole “dude, man” speech.
“Believe me, I totally get it, man,” he said. “I understand what you are doing. If it were up to me, dude, I’d pay you for that. But I’ve got my boss listening over my shoulder.”
I stopped him. “I’ll just do the route and let you know if it’s viable; then you will have information to give up to others,” I said. “It’s on me.”
I felt I was due a favor, particularly if I discovered a route they had never traveled—not possibly couldn’t travel.
I paid the money that I really could not afford to spend, and ran back to retrieve my sack. I then trekked thirty miles across the Navajo reservation and came to the entry point for the route I had asked him about, which dropped into the Little Colorado valley. I studied the gazetteer map that I had torn from an old book, but it wasn’t very helpful. It was not like a regular topo map, where you can see the trails and details of the land features.
Just as I was about to head down, I encountered a Navajo man. I was standing at a fork in the trail. I asked him if I could get down into the canyon.
The man smiled. “Oh sure,” he said, gesturing in no particular direction.
“Sorry … right or left?” I asked.
“Just dat-a-way,” he said. Then he turned and walked away.
So I was left to my own devices to choose. I guessed right. Soon I ran into a sheer cliff. Just below it was a trail the Navajo had built to get down to the bottom of the canyon.
It was a steep, switchbacky trail, but it seemed purposefully carved out. When I reached the bottom, I discovered the purpose for the trail. The Navajo had built a fishing camp at the very bottom, some two thousand-plus feet below the cliff. As there were nets strung across the river, I knew the fishing camp was still active.
No one was there. I looked around. There was no evidence of anyone having been there recently, probably for at least a month. But the camp was still intact.
I didn’t invest the energy into fishing there, because I couldn’t physically see any fish. The water was turquoise, but I could see only a foot down into it. I didn’t have any fishing supplies. Even though I was skilled at catching fish with my hands, without being able to see them, that wasn’t an option.
In fact, the only food I was getting was trapped mice and rats. I would stop every night and make traps. That was my skill level at that point. I was carrying a bow and arrow, but I wasn’t a skilled hunter by any means. Part of the journey for me was to develop those skills. So I was living off that little bit of meat and a few rations, such as pinole, that I had brought.
The country was very dry and barren. From the vague map I had, I determined that I would have about forty miles of dangerously dry travel. I was walking through a very shallow canyon that was about thirty feet deep and cut through the clay beds, which made me conscious that I needed to be aware of my water sources.
After several miles, I found a pocket of water containing a few gallons. Water had gathered in a depression in the rock from rain and also from meltwater that had flowed down from higher elevations. There was a cave next to it. I sat in the cave and hydrated.
I began to carefully consider how much farther I had to go without the ability to carry water. Given the heat and the lack of any consistent water, the journey would be a rough one. Instead of moving on, I decided to use my ability to be patient. Though I was avoiding a survival situation, I was also putting myself in one. But my experience was telling me that staying was less risky than moving.
I needed to listen to the land. I had to have the patience to stop and wait for the land to tell me when it was time to move. That was a hugely valuable—and intuitively difficult to grasp—tool. Generally, only a hunter-gatherer has the patience and ability to execute this strategy. Basically, I was risking starving to death, because I felt my heightened relationship with the land would deliver me what I needed to survive.
This was a major step for me. The impatience of youth was being conquered. The inaction I was taking was the polar opposite of what the kid who ran everywhere would have done. He would not have been able to sit in a cave for an undetermined number of days and wait for rain. But I could.
There was an inherent risk. Every hour I sat in the cave, the water supply in front of me dwindled, as I drank it and watched it seep into the ground and evaporate into the dry air. When I first hunkered down in the cave, there was no sign of weather, no clouds or noticeable dew in the air.
I had water for the time being, but not much food. I had cornmeal to make ash cakes, which are cooked directly over the heat of a fire. With cornmeal, I cook it on a rock at a forty-five-degree angle until it hardens, and then I finish cooking it directly on the hot ash. I used the leftover corn niblets to trap mice. I ate mice every day. Though I was consuming less than five hundred calories a day, it was enough to sustain me. Despite the lack of food, I was much more concerned about getting enough hydration to make the forty-mile crossing through the barren flats of the Navajo reservation.
The landscape was relatively flat. The reddish clay surface was intermixed with shallow washes of sandstone. Those washes were where I would get water after it rained. Actually, the moisture that fell in the area was more a slushy half-rain, half-snow mixture. The temperatures were reasonable, fifty degrees in the day and around thirty degrees at night, but once the sun rose, any of that slushy mixture that fell into the wash would melt fairly quickly.
The issue was that the deepest washes were no more than a couple inches. In harder stone, there would be slick rock pools as deep as ten feet. These can hold water for two months, whereas the small pools dry up in a matter of hours. Immediately after a slushy rain, the small pools would hold water just long enough for me to move across the land.
While waiting for rain, I stayed in the cave all day. I worked on a few crafts and condensed my load. But for the most part, I sat and meditated. After a day and a half of being in the cave, I started seeing a little cloud buildup. It wasn’t dense enough to release any moisture, but I felt that it would in another day or so.
I had been living with the land so much that at home in Utah I was actually able to predict the weather. As incredible as that sounds, I could tell people weeks in advance when it would rain, how many days it was going to rain, and how hard. I hoped I had connected with the Arizona land closely enough that my premonitions of rain would be correct.
On my third night in the cave, the clouds opened up and dumped a significant amount of rain on the land. It rained hard, filling the pockets with water. I set out the next morning. The rain allowed me to stay hydrated as I traversed the thirty-plus miles across the flats.
I followed the Little Colorado River down into the Grand Canyon. The river is magical in the wintertime because the water is still a comfortable seventy-five degrees. I passed an old salt mine and grabbed some salt for the journey. I knew that a white man wasn’t supposed to take salt, but in many ways I felt closer to the Navajo and Hopi so I took a small amount and continued on my journey.
By the time I reached the Grand Canyon, I was pretty spent. I had no reserves. I was cold. I didn’t know it, but I would soon be in grave danger.