STRADDLING TWO WORLDS - 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 Two




There was a lateral drift to my life from my late teens leading into the precipice of adulthood at age twenty-one. I felt that the flexibility of moving to different areas and exploring them would lead to an education of the wild, and ultimately to a grounding. It was my version of backpacking through Europe to discover myself and decide what kind of life I would lead.

I lived one winter in Mammoth Lakes. I found a job at a ski shop and spent my spare time hiking in the backcountry. I entertained the thought of touring all the national parks and working for several months in each one. I even called around to the parks to see which jobs were available. I was offered a job as a tour boat guide in the Everglades National Park in South Florida. I almost accepted the job, but I ended up turning it down because in my mind I hadn’t seen enough of the Sierras yet. The Sierras felt like my home, and I wanted to explore them.


I had arrived in Yosemite with preconceived judgments on people’s relationship to the environment. I thought that people who didn’t use paper bags, and instead brought reusable ones, when they went to the market were pretentious. In Yosemite, there was a lot of acting “green.” It was the first time I was exposed to that mind-set.

But the land kicked me in the butt. It seemed to be saying that whether or not this behavior was fake, to that person they were taking a step to be a better steward of the land. It also taught me that I needed to find a way to practice the ideals of a more natural lifestyle in my own way.

At the moment I made that commitment, I felt a change inside me taking hold. As soon as I started studying primitive skills, I looked for everyday ways to stop destroying the earth. At the time, I was living in the Sequoia National Park. My diet was conducive to healthy living. I ate mostly rice, lentils, and wild greens. I never ate processed food of any kind, or anything with sugar in it.

I took a pledge not to set foot in a motor vehicle for eight months. I had always been rebellious toward automobiles and supported the view that many of our environmental problems would not exist without cars. Without motor vehicles, people would be forced to have a greater respect for the place they live, as there would be no quick escapes. Most people love their cars and all the voice-commanded gadgets in them, but how many people are interested in an interaction with their car’s exhaust?

I still strongly believe that cars and motorized transportation, in addition to causing environmental harm, are responsible for a universal loss of health and fitness, as well as our society’s overall sanity. Anytime we fight against the grain of nature, there is a price to be paid. As we balance the needs of our lives, we need to be wary of how much compromise we are willing to accept. Going back to nature is an attempt to reestablish ourselves, and people who don’t do that end up unhappy with their lives. When people search and find that balance, it provides a certain amount of peace and sanity.

I actually tried to do something about the overuse of motor vehicles. When Bill Clinton was president, I wrote him a letter to advocate building more bike and running trails that actually go places. I proposed that these trails parallel roads and interstates and run through cities. To me, it seemed that we built these tight highways with no shoulder and no place for a person to ride a bike or want to walk, let alone even safely walk. If we could just lay woodchips along the roads, we would start creating more happiness in our lives. To add an element, we could make those trails cut off the highway so that bikers and pedestrians could pick up a bit of scenery.

Part of the problem is that in order to make everything practical and fast, society has sacrificed our artistry and our connection with nature. To me, those words go hand in hand. Nature, without even trying, is an artistic masterpiece, but when we interrupt that flow with skyscrapers and freeways, it disconnects us. If we can figure out how to interject things in our life that make us feel happy and connected, like walking through a beautiful spot, there will be a way to maintain that artistry in our life that breeds feelings of passion. Working within the confines of nature and not mowing down every tree acknowledges that we want to be part of that artistry.

As soon as I made my pledge to stay out of cars, I went on a three-day run. But instead of covering my typical twenty-five miles a day, I ran sixty-five miles a day. It was intense. I had never run that far before, or even close to that far. When I finally stopped, I actually sat down and prayed. I thanked God for giving me the strength and the body to cover such a distance. I thought that maybe he had given me such power because of the commitment I had made to improve the earth.

That thought resonated. Right after I had committed to not riding in a vehicle, I was given the stamina and strength to do something that most people could not, even if they were extremely fit. There had to be a connection, though I couldn’t quantify it at the time. The one thing I did begin to feel was that running heightened my instincts for the terrain.

Socially, I must admit, living on foot was a challenge. When friends invited me to a party that was eight miles from my house, I jogged there. It also presented problems when I asked a girl out on a date. Even the most adventuresome women weren’t willing to walk five miles to dinner. Though my friends admired me, they didn’t fully understand why anyone would purposefully make their lives harder. I felt I was making it better.


I gained a reputation among the year-rounders in Sequoia as a distance runner. The Park Service became aware of my ability to cover long distances of terrain very quickly. After I worked a short stint in the reservations office, the Park Service asked me to join the search-and-rescue team. They used me for urgent distress calls that required an immediate reconnaissance on foot.

One afternoon, there was an extensive search-and-rescue mission for a lost teenager. He and a group of friends had been out for a day hike. He had left the group early, but he never made it back to town. The search was concentrated in the area where he had last been seen. Day one ended with no clues.

After the second day ended with no sign of his whereabouts, I studied maps of the area. I asked the ranger in charge if they had covered a certain area that was several miles from their primary search radius. He told me that the young man couldn’t have made it that far in two days. I told him that I believed he could have made it much farther.

Generally, people who are lost first walk in circles trying to find their way out. But it was clear to me after the search team had spent two days covering the circle route that he had chosen a different path.

The route I had projected was downhill. Given a choice, most people will walk downhill rather than uphill when they are lost. As he traveled, the terrain would have become lusher and moister, meaning he would have thought water was nearby. Though this was logical, part of my instinct about his location came from my time running in the area, spending time covering that land, and understanding where he could naturally wander.

Four and a half days later, the teenager popped out on a road and was picked up by a passerby in the area where I had suggested they search.

The head ranger was impressed that I had pinpointed the missing teenager’s location. My knowledge of the terrain, combined with my ability to run and my interest in tracking, resulted in him putting me on a “hasty crew.” They are the first responders in a search, and they generally hike or run to the site. I was teamed with another physically fit ranger.

Weeks later, a report of another missing teenager came in. The teenager had been backpacking with a friend who had left the hike to return to work. The teenager was supposed to stay another two nights in the backcountry. Three days had passed with no word from him.

My colleague and I took off running up the trail. We zigzagged, covering the valley floor on our way to his last known location. En route, we came upon a waterfall that was about six miles away. I felt something as we passed through the area. I felt that the teenager was nearby. Part of my sense of his location came from reading the land, but just as much of it was a strong gut feeling.

The ranger was understandably skeptical. The location I pinpointed was far from the kid’s last known location. He agreed to stop and let me have a few minutes to explore my hunch.

I didn’t find any foot tracks, so I stopped reading the dirt and started reading the water. I stared at the nearby waterfall. In my head I began to form a picture of what felt like actual events.

Okay … if somebody came down that waterfall a quarter mile upstream and they were unconscious, where would they end up? Downstream somewhere. Perhaps caught under that large rock.

I walked downstream and stood on the rock. Instantly, I had a sharp pain in my gut that felt like my appendix had burst. I made my way across the boulders to the other side to try to look under the rock. The other ranger was watching me, somewhat bewildered.

I was trying to establish a position to look under the rock. There was a strong current flowing downstream that obstructed my ability to see below the surface of the water. I looked from several different angles, but I couldn’t make out anything that looked like a body. Then I started to take off my shirt.

“Can I go in?” I yelled up to my colleague.

“That’s not your job,” he said. “If you see something, we need to call in the dive crew.”

“I don’t see anything,” I said. “I just feel like something is under there.”

We exchanged a few more words, and he insisted that we call in the divers.

I again cautioned him that it was just a hunch. I was twenty-one. I wasn’t an expert tracker by any means. I had been on the job for only a few weeks, and I didn’t want to be responsible for wasting resources on a hunch.

Even if he doubted me, the ranger had watched me closely enough to know there was a possibility, remote as it might have been, that I might be right. We also had nothing else to go on. He called for the dive crew.

Hours later, the divers found the young man’s body under the rock I had pinpointed.

The debrief was a solemn affair, but the head ranger was very firm about his belief in my abilities. “I’ve been on a lot of searches,” he told the group. “I’m a trained tracker. I have no idea what led Matt to think there was a body under there. The only possible way is that he has a psychic ability. Without Matt, we never would have found this body. For that we are grateful. We would have spent two weeks with no results and probably a million dollars on the search.”

The fact is, they never would have found the body because they were searching six miles away. The land was untrackable. Where we started out, it was pine-needled forest with a little dirt here and there. But above the waterfall, it was 100 percent granite. It takes a highly skilled tracker to track on rock, and the ranger service didn’t have such a tracker.

I offered to speak to the teenager’s parents, but the head ranger told me it was best to handle things through formal channels. “You’ve helped bring closure for the family,” he said. “Remember that.”


The season ended in October without any further serious incidents. We had two more fairly basic rescues in the ensuing seven months, but nothing near a casualty. I finished out the season on the search-and-rescue team—on foot.

I felt like it was time to move on. I wanted to explore the backcountry. I owned only about twenty pounds of gear. I had a sleeping bag, a bivy sack, a couple changes of clothes, a few pairs of handmade sandals, and some maps. I modified a pair of running shoes into sandals to alternate wearing with my sandals, because they would provide more cover for my feet in the snow. I loaded everything into my backpack and took off running to the east toward the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

I didn’t have a destination in my mind.

The day I set out there was an early-season, blinding snowstorm. The visibility was less than ten feet. But when I reached the mountains, a path of blue sky emerged and seemed to guide me as I made my way over the pass.

I first stopped in Kern River Canyon, a wonderful valley that the naturalist John Muir loved. I ran into the north fork. This particular valley remains one of my favorite spots on earth. From there, I could see Mount Whitney, the largest peak in the lower States, which towers some 14,505 feet above the valley. The entire bowl surrounds the upper part of the valley and drains into it, so there are magical waterfalls bordering all sides.

One of Muir’s favorite spots was the hot springs. I had previously been there a couple times. For a hiker, it is reachable with a decent amount of endurance and some know-how. But because it’s a forty-mile walk from the closest drop-off point, you almost always have the place to yourself.

I stayed there for four days, recovering and regrouping. I relaxed in the hot springs, made teas, collected plants, and fished. I loved making tea out of the needles from the pine trees. I am convinced that it’s one of the healthiest teas there is. You take the pine needles and smash them up into a pulp and drop that into boiling water. If you drink it often, the antioxidants in this tea will add years to your life.

One day while walking through the area, I met a random guy. He said he was camping in the lower valley and had hiked to the hot springs. I asked him how long he had been in the area. When he told me he had been out for four weeks, I only half believed him. He didn’t look like the type who could stay out there long. He looked like an average city businessman.

It turned out he was a producer of Budweiser commercials—or at least that’s what he told me. He said the reason he was able to stay out so long was that he was having a helicopter bring him supplies. Where I was camped that wouldn’t have been possible, but based on where he was camped, the story seemed legitimate. He was on the border of the park and the forest, so a helicopter would be able to land there.

I spent a night there. We shared a campfire and talked a little bit. It was mostly small talk. He kept rambling on about the Bud commercials he had done and the different location shoots. He saw the land from a completely different point of view than me. We were both looking at the same water falling down the granite face of the mountain, but he was interpreting its value differently. I saw the small things the waterfall produced and fed, like the streams and the wildlife. To him, it was a backdrop for a beer commercial.

He told me I should be in a commercial because I had a “rough and worn look.” I gave him my parents’ phone number. Of course, after we parted company the following morning, I never heard from him or saw him again.

I stayed in the hot springs area for about a week. I then started hiking south, following the length of the range of the Sierras.

The Sierras are a monocline that runs north-south. The east side is steep, while the west side has a more gradual descent. On the east side, if you were to take a hiking trail up, it would be about fifteen miles to the ridge. If you were to take a hiking trail from the west side, you would be looking at more like fifty miles to that same ridge. I followed the north-south ridge for eighty miles, all the way until the Sierras tapered out at the foot of the Mojave Desert, which almost curls around them.

When I came down out of the mountains, I stopped in a small town called Tehachapi. In total, my journey had been about 130 miles. The walk over the Sierras was a nice way to cap off the months I had spent living on foot and not riding in a motorized vehicle.

There, I ended my goal of not setting foot in a car the old-fashioned way: I put out my thumb and hitchhiked back to my mom’s house in Huntington Beach.