My Trek Into The Utah Desert For Two Weeks With Only The Clothes On My Back
“I haven’t felt like this since I had malaria,” Doug mutters. Doug extends a hand toward an archaic sight: A figure wearing a buckskin skirt perches motionless on a rock.
The figure takes a stick from the weary grasp of Doug’s hand and suggests a diagnosis. “Your energy drop is not due to less food but fewer carbohydrates. It is like the four-day vision fast of the natives who call it ‘a little death’ — the body gets weak but the spirit soars.”
Physical rebellion, a feeling of weakness and low energy lingers in us all; it’s reminiscent of debilitating illnesses. For Doug, a world traveler, it is symptomatic of malaria. The uncomfortable sensation and the enervation are side effects of our hunter-gatherer diet.
The buckskin fashioned figure hands the stick to me.
Stick in hand, I can speak. “While trying to fall asleep last night, something took two nibbles on my big toe. Whatever it was — likely a rodent — jumped.” Having slept the preceding nights in a sandstone cave blanketed in oak leaves and pine needles, nothing seems beyond possibility anymore. I surrender the stick to my right.
Banded together seven of us have embarked on the Boulder Outdoor Survival School’s (BOSS) Hunter Gatherer Course; it is BOSS’s least equipped course, which includes nine days with only the food and water you can find and gear you’ve made yourself from natural and local materials.
Shaded by a cave in the sandstone canyon country of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, we sit in a talking circle. Possession of the stick allows one to voice any concerns, thoughts, insights, ideas or nonsense rattling around in their head.
We are an unusual tribe. In what may seem like madness, we all voluntarily signed up to test ourselves and gain insight into primitive skills and ancient lifestyles. All that is needed on the course is a bathing suit. Though, an instructor adds, “I guarantee you won’t die, but I don’t guarantee that you won’t get cold.”
Our health and comfort depend entirely on the skills and knowledge imparted to us by our three instructors. To survive we learn skills of extinct southwestern desert cultures such as the Anasazi and the Fremont.
Matt, the buckskinned figure, our head instructor and guide was born in Southern California. As a teenager he began to teach himself bush craft. He may have been an average North American child, but through his own efforts he transformed himself into a genuine native of the deserts of the Southwest. Our lives count on his expert knowledge of the land and adept nature based skills.
He once held the speed record for running across the Sierra Nevada mountain range. His knowledge of the land allows him to accomplish other incredible feats like walking across the pathless desert from Phoenix, Arizona, to Boulder, Utah, without map, water or food.
One night I said, “Sometimes nature’s a bastard and doesn’t give you any food.” I meant it humorously, but no one laughed. Matt retorted, in earnest, “No, when nature gives you no food it’s a blessing.” Another night, while eating squirrel, someone said, “This tastes like real food.” Matt replied, “It is real food.”
Matt is not a survivor: He thrives in the natural environment. Through Matt a realization emerges — if you suffer in the wilderness that means your skills suck. He truly is feral.
Matt nonchalantly grabs a fish with his hands. Taking it out of the water he says, “People think there is a lot of mystique when it comes to fishing with your hands.” He then imparts how it is done, and immediately we all give it a try. Within seconds three fish are caught. The mystique is unraveled. Our next meal will be filling.
Every day, food-wise, it is a grab bag. You never know what someone will find: lots of fish, a mouse, a squirrel, prickly pear cactus, violet, cattail rhizomes, water lily, acorns, wild onion — you’re always hoping for a pizza, but it never comes. Throughout the day you graze. There are no actual meals. A leaf found here and a bone found there; then here’s a root or a bulb found sometime else. This type of eating — and constant hunger — forces you to be hyper-attentive to nuances in the environment.
What type of flower is blooming over there? Are the cones on that tree harvestable? Is that a fish or a shadow flickering it the water? Water, I haven’t found any in over a day, maybe those tracks will lead me to water? That is a good overhang to sleep under. Is there any duff, fallen pine needles or leaves nearby to make a bed and keep warm? How much longer will the sun be up?
I trap a mouse. Anything you trap you have to eat. It is of indistinguishable taste because I cooked it to a char to avoid any possibility of disease. You can actually feel your body gain energy from the calories. I give some to Doug. He feels the energy boost and remarks, “I hate to say it, but I’m looking forward to the next mouse.”
With depleted energy, the hardest part of anything is just getting up and doing; we each struggle to push ourselves through the torpor. Every action takes a concentrated effort of will. Yet, once will manifests into action and inertia is defeated, there is no problem. A determined energy oddly arises. It’s as if you’re getting spirited away by your own resolve, and the bona fide hunter-gatherer needs resolve because to do anything requires a hike.
To find water is a hike. To collect leaves and pine needles for bedding is a hike. To gather food is a hike. To go to the bathroom is a hike. Basic needs are not what one would call conveniently located.
It is like one is in a colossal supermarket. The market is sized in square miles. Shelves are city blocks apart. Related items are scattered throughout the store. The hunter-gatherer’s sense of distance must be extremely different than that of the modern couch potato. But, this is how hunter-gatherers subsist: They know the land and the location of things on that land; if they want something, they trek to get it. A hunter-gatherer’s ATM is the familiar understanding they possess of the landscape, the seasons and what grows where during different seasons.
I love the Escalante landscape. The rolling to precipitous mountain canyons of white-hued sandstone painted with iron splashes — a land sparsely vegetated and pathless. In the high country, sand pits support juniper trees where Clark’s Nutcracker birds are found caw kr-a-a-ing in the branches. In the canyon depths, willows and invasive tamarisks crowd each other out for space on the stream banks as the staccato trill of a canyon wren’s song echoes off the rocky walls. Scattered patches of wild onions bloom purple, and, because of recent rain, clear water puddles — refreshing and barely bugged — keep dehydration at bay. Some pinion pines, a squirrel, the claustrophobic canyon floors don’t hint at the striking open vistas of the highlands.
A storm hits: an Arizona monsoon, its rain focuses into a flashflood. Cut off from technology and its forecasts, I’m ready to run. Ricocheting off the canyon walls, enormous and exhilarating and everywhere, is the clamor of thunder. Nude noodling of fish; erotic nature blessed a rebirth into Eden. Nomadic knowledge guards the freedom that Progress longs to experience.
The desert downpour subsides. We sit in a cave as longer and longer moments pass between reluctant drops of water — a dreary rhythm soon exhausted by the evaporative heat of the relentless sun. We are in the talking circle again.
The stick begins its rounds. An irresistible question leaks. “What impact is our group having on this small canyon?”
“Less impact than if you were at home,” Matt answers.
Erik, another instructor, gets the stick. “I don’t know if everything we know is true to the past but it’s true to the present and it works. It’s the best process we know to connect us to our Stone Age brethren and gain a glimmer of insight into the experience of humanity’s common ancestral past.”
We have traveled back in time, or, at least, our best imagination of a time past.
I entered the Hunter Gatherer course for mixed reasons, to tangibly — though who knows how authentically? — connect with ancestral ways and sample a lifestyle in which homo sapiens were thought to have evolved.
What new senses would be turned on that had grown dim in the security and comfort provided by the modern world? It was a personal search for an experiential understanding of human history. I wanted to better grasp our species place in the present and its historical relationship to the natural world.
Experiencing a fully natural, yet primitive, way of being, one thing became unavoidably clear. Life beyond the primitive is all fluff. It’s plush. It’s nice. But, it’s not necessary.
By Christopher Moore
About the Author
Christopher Moore has lived and worked on six continents. He’s worked at a Refugee Camp in Ghana and lived in Beijing, China, for two years with various jobs including UNESCO. He’s also lived in various cities in Spain, Mexico, and Australia. In the U.S. he’s lived and worked in Los Angeles, CA, Telluride, CO, San Diego, CA, Reno, NV, San Francisco, CA.
Chris has a dual major in International Affairs and Spanish from the University of Nevada, Reno. He earned a Masters of International Studies in the fields of Peace and Conflict Resolution from the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia, where he was a Rotary World Peace Fellow. Video of some of his travels are available here.