FINDING MY PLACE - 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 Nine




The inescapable grandeur of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument hit me harder than any sight I had ever seen. Its beauty is absolute at every turn.

Situated between the small town of Escalante, Utah, and the even smaller town of Boulder, Utah, the Monument, as locals refer to it, is splayed out over 1.7 million acres, making it larger than Delaware. The Monument has three main areas: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante. The ever-changing geology is the triumphant result of ancient glaciers and flowing natural waters. A maze of canyons carved out over thousands of years is lined with streams and vegetation. The canyons are hemmed in by dark orange cliffs that transition to reddish-orange plateaus.

Distances are hard to gauge. From the peak of Boulder Mountain at eleven thousand feet, it’s difficult to tell if you’re looking out a mile or ten.

The mountains have horizontal stripes that look like they were drawn with hundreds of colored pencils. The flats are layered in shades of gray and green that appear to have been mixed together and applied with a paintbrush. The tones and hues of the landscape change constantly with the movement of the sun and placement of the clouds.

Highway 12 passes through the Monument and connects Boulder and Escalante. This section was dubbed the “Million Dollar Road” for the cost of building it in 1935—back when that was a lot of money for a blacktop road. Looking out in the distance from the higher ridges, there is certainly a million-dollar view. The winding road looks like a dark ribbon running along the silhouette of the plateau. In one section of S-curves with no guardrails, called the Hogsback, the ridge is about three feet wider than the roadway.

People often talk about the real world. To me, a place as natural as this is the real world, and the cities we live in are the artificial world. When I first saw the area, I knew I was home.


I moved to the Boulder area in March 1996. I first read about it in a magazine. I was living in the Sierra mountains studying primitive skills when I came across a tiny ad in Backpacker magazine for a survival school. The ad had a small arrow with a stone point and read “primitive skills and survival school.” There were no pictures. I immediately thought, That’s the kind of place I am looking for.

I dialed the number of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) and reached the owner, David Wescott. After we spoke for a while, I asked him if he would hire me. He chuckled and explained that I had to take a course before I could work for him. I told him about my lifestyle, and he encouraged me to come to Boulder.

Wescott was in his mid-forties and had worked as an instructor himself. In addition to owning BOSS and another survival school in Idaho, he also hosted the two largest annual gatherings for survival enthusiasts, Rabbitstick in Idaho and Winter Count in Arizona. He was also the cofounder of the Bulletin of Primitive Technology, a forum for people who want to share and learn primitive-living skills. I decided that working for him was ideal for me.

I didn’t own much. I loaded everything I owned into saddlebags and strapped them on my mountain bike. My parents dropped me at the California-Nevada border on their way to a vacation, and I started pedaling for Boulder, Utah.

The journey was over five hundred miles, across the entire state of Nevada. I was so anxious to get to Boulder that I rode about 130 miles a day, which was the maximum I could do at that time with all the hills.

I rolled into Boulder in mid-March, before the hiking season began, and rode straight to the BOSS office. The only guy there was an instructor named Rob Withrow. He informed me that Wescott would be back in a few weeks. Rob was living in the office during the winter. He was a craftsman who built tools. He told me he was preparing to head up the mountain and live off the land for a while. I asked if I could join him, and he told me to be ready to go the following morning.

I set up camp near the survival school. When I arrived at the office the next morning to see if Rob was ready to leave, he told me he needed more time to get ready. He told me to check back in three days. In the interim, I decided I needed to orient myself with the land.

I climbed to the top of a nearby mesa to a large rock formation called Schoolhouse Ledge. I built a ten-foot circle of stone, where I planned to stay for four days and four nights. I went into the circle wearing nothing but a cotton sheet. I didn’t bring any food or water. Like the Indians who went on vision quests, I was seeking clarity for my path forward.

Though I didn’t experience any significant visions, I did succeed in readjusting my body to the land. I ended up staying only three days, but those days forced me to slow down, listen to the land, and allow it to open up to me. When I was sitting in the circle, I also found my new home.

In the distance, I could see a dark spot on an otherwise luminous rock formation. I was intrigued. Upon leaving the stone circle, I hiked across the canyon and up the mountain to examine the spot. It turned out to be a hole in the rock the size of a large door. I entered and crawled through a passageway. I went about ten yards and the passageway angled up slightly. Suddenly, it opened into a spacious cave. I decided to make the cave my home.

To this day, it was unlike any cave I’ve found in the area. It was very heat efficient. In fact, one time I was in the cave sleeping on a cotton sheet. I woke up and there was a bunch of snow on the ground surrounding me, but I was hot and toasty in there.

In just a few weeks’ time, I knew that Monument offered me everything I wanted. There were areas where somebody without a lot of experience in survival, provided they knew a few basic things, could live well off the land for a period of time. That was what I hoped to teach others.


Becoming a survival school instructor was more difficult than I realized. When David Wescott finally returned, he explained to me that he had ten people applying to be instructors, but before any of us were hired, we had to pass a rigorous, fourteen-day survival training course.

I felt confident I would do fine. In addition to studying primitive skills on my own, in the month that I was waiting to meet Wescott, I met a local named David Holladay. He was an aficionado of the area, and he taught me about its riches and peculiarities. But I became a little concerned when everyone was packing for the trip.

The other guys were bringing far more supplies than me. I had my traditional five-foot piece of cloth rolled up and tied around my waist. I was wearing a breechcloth and a cotton shirt and sandals. The other guys were all in nylon pants, carrying fully loaded backpacks. They were also packing a second bundle that would be dropped off to us midway through the course. The idea was that after you endured the first part, the second bundle arrived to make you more comfortable. The second bundle contained food rations of nuts and lentils, a poncho, and a blanket.

Breck Crystal, an instructor I had met a few days earlier, asked me where all my gear was. I told him that my rolled-up cloth was all I had. He offered me his extra poncho and blanket.

The course, I soon learned, had phases. I hadn’t read the brochure, so I didn’t know how it worked. It started with the most challenging part, Impact. In this phase, we walked through the Monument for six days and ate very little. The only water we drank was what we found. We also only ate food we found, like spiderwort, wild onions, mustard greens, and yucca flowers. The idea behind Impact is to force the body into starvation mode. It also readjusts your metabolism. Because we consumed so few calories for those days, during the rest of the course, when we ate eight hundred or more calories a day, it felt like more than enough.

I handled Impact with relative ease. I felt a little light-headed at times. Some of the participants had mini-blackouts when they stood up. As the days progressed, everyone moved slower. Oftentimes when people sat down, it took them a while to get to their feet.

The second phase was Group Expedition. The primary focus of this phase was to teach students how to work with a map and compass, and how to cook. I told the instructors that these were all skills I knew inside and out already and that I was there mostly for the land connection. They only half believed me, but they did allow me to run off and do my own thing during that phase. They became somewhat convinced I knew what I was doing. I would glance at the map in the morning and then run off and meet up with them at the end of the day in a designated spot miles away. I was able to find them by reading the land features and gauging the twists and turns of the canyons.

In the next phase, called Sheep Processing, we processed a sheep that was brought to us. The premise was that students are removed from the meat they buy in the market and grill. A sheep was supposed to more closely represent what they might buy in a market, as opposed to wild animals like squirrels or raccoons. It also showed them how in the processing of a large animal you can use the skin for blankets and the bones to make knives, awls, or tools.

The instructors made an overly elaborate ceremony out of the slaughter. The sheep was placed on its side, and everyone was told to put their hands on the sheep. One person was designated to kill the sheep with a knife. Not only was this unnatural, the person with the knife was so nervous that he barely made the kill without the sheep suffering.

The process made me uncomfortable. I had been on a Navajo reservation and seen sheep sacrificed. The Navajo held a much different ceremony for the animal. One person would lead the sheep. As soon as everyone was distracted celebrating the life of the sheep, the guy leading the sheep would kill it in an instant.

Does the lesson have value for students? Yes, it does help them connect to what they eat. But at the time, I was 100 percent a hunter-gatherer. I never bought meat from a market. Any meat I ate, I hunted, so I had a hard time participating in the killing of a farm animal.

After the sheep was dismantled, no one wanted the fat so I kept it. The fat proved to be a great benefit for the next phase, the Solo. They dropped us off for a couple nights. We each were given a one-quarter-mile section of the canyon and told to stay in that vicinity and build a camp. For food, I picked cactus and fried it in the sheep fat, giving me far more tasty meals than the others had.

The final phase was called Student Expedition. We were given an eighteen-mile route to navigate. The lead instructor’s confidence in my skills had grown so he designated me to lead to the starting point. After we all returned, there was one final challenge: a seven-mile run to finish off the course.

Of the ten people, Wescott hired two for the coming season, a woman and me. However, I soon learned that we were not considered full instructors, but rather interns. That summer, I ended up working on seven courses. Each course had seven to ten students and lasted from a week to a month.

At the end of that summer, Wescott sold the school to Josh Bernstein, an Ivy League-educated New Yorker who was well known in the survival skills world. Most of the instructors left town and moved on with their lives, but I stayed. While I hoped to continue working at BOSS under its new owner, the primary reason I stayed was because Boulder was my home.


I had settled on a mesa about six miles outside of town. I built a primitive-living structure called a pit house. I dug a hole nine feet in diameter and about three feet deep, making the pit house deep enough to stand in. The ground was caliche, sedimentary rock that resembles white clay. The caliche was hard enough to enable the sides to stay up without any reinforcement. Most of the soil in the country is sand, which would have needed to be reinforced or turned into cement to achieve the same result.

I built a crib-style roof that spiraled around to a center point and had an opening at the top. I covered the roof with sticks and bark, and packed caliche on top. The pit house was big enough to sleep in with a tiny fire burning alongside me.

I regularly went on walkabouts to explore the land. Shelter was easy to find in the numerous caves. Some of the caves were bigger than small buildings. They measured as much as seventy yards across and had high ceilings, making them big enough to throw a dart the entire length. These were particularly helpful in monsoon season, because even if I had a group of a dozen students with me, it didn’t feel claustrophobic.

The caves were made by water. Every time water hits the bank, it carves deeper and deeper into the rock, and eventually you are left with a shelf that is protected. They all have sandy floors in the front near the overhang, but in the back they have non-broken-down oak leaves. These leaves are perfect for making a bed with very little work. They will also keep you warm, as the canyons do get cold at night, particularly in the winter.

Most of the caves are safe. But even if the caves have big boulders, then you can look up at the ceiling to gauge if there is a risk of falling rock. If you see cracks or loose rock, you avoid that spot. But even in caves with unstable parts, there is always a safe section. If there is a pile of rocks, typically the ceiling will have a fissure in that area, but if you proceed to a section where the ceiling is smooth sandstone with no fissure, that area will not fall apart.

The caves tend to sit twenty to fifty feet above the water line. There is a mixture of geology occurring. There are places where a river has cut through and created a cave, but the water is still flowing underneath. Even if a cave has a creek, it is not unusable. Over time, the water will change sides or shift, and a sandy floor will be created.

The land was full of surprises. I was constantly discovering something new. One day, I followed a creek up the mountainside to find the origin of the clear water. I hiked up the mountain about three miles and found a waterfall. The area was a world of its own. There were raccoons and squirrels roaming the land, an abundance of trout in streams, and a bounty of wild greens, such as watercress and mustard.

Because the area is so isolated and difficult to access, nobody ever goes up there. It became one of my retreats, and to this day, I have never seen another person there.


After spending the winter exploring the land, I was eager to begin teaching again. However, the following spring I wasn’t rehired at BOSS. Josh Bernstein, the new owner, made changes to BOSS. He replaced many of the guides and didn’t bring back any of the interns, myself included.

I ended up spending that summer guiding llama tours. The tours were luxurious by survival standards. Using llamas as pack animals, we would take people into the backcountry, set up camp, cook them meals, and basically wine and dine them. The company used llamas because they are not as temperamental as horses and they are more of a novelty. It wasn’t very challenging work, but the tips were generous.

Truthfully, money was never an issue for me. I was earning about two thousand dollars a year, which sounds like a paltry sum but was more than I needed. I broke down my expenses and figured out that I could’ve easily lived on six hundred dollars a year—not including commercial travel. Half my income went toward going to California to visit family over the holidays.

Eventually, in the summer of 1999, I did go back to work at BOSS. Josh asked me to guide a course with David Wescott, the former owner, who was now guiding. Josh had asked me the previous summer, but I was booked with llama tours. I have to say it felt good to return to showing the land to people who could make their own camp.

At the end of that course, Josh apologized for not keeping me on the previous summer. He even gave me several presents. More important, he hired me as a full instructor. Though I ended up working there for the next eight summers, I soon realized that as well as I knew and loved the land, I was also becoming too rigid and single-minded in my pursuit of connecting fully with the land to become a teacher of its gifts.