Lunch, if you could call it that, was on Mother Nature: a handful of waxy sweet milkweed blossoms, three tasteless wild rose petals and a few cupfuls of water that had been purified with aerobic oxygen to protect against parasites. Rob, one of our instructors, characterized this odyssey as a "paleolithic lifestyle"; at that point I might have described it as the hike from hell. "We're being nomadic, en route to the next kill," he said dramatically. "Then we'll feast." And when would the next milkweed banquet be held? "It could be tonight. It could be tomorrow. I don't know."
One thing was certain: I sure hadn't known what I was getting into when I signed up for a seven-day walkabout with Boulder Outdoor Survival School, a.k.a. BOSS. And now, after a meal that only a mountain goat would have enjoyed and an unknown number of miles bush-whacked through high-altitude Utah wilderness, it was too late to sign out.
The BOSS program specializes in primitive living skills, using an approach that maximizes natural resources and minimizes dependence on modern technology. That was what appealed to me and the seven others who enrolled. Although we came from different parts of the country, had backgrounds ranging from financial analyst to dental hygienist and our ages ranged from 15 to 47, we all had the same reason for taking the course: We had spent enough time in the wilderness to fear the effects of Murphy's Law. We wanted to learn what to do when the matches get soaked, a bear shreds the tent or the car won't start.
The first phase of any walkabout course is known as "impact," an artificially created situation designed to test your physical and mental endurance by throwing you into a constantly changing environment with minimal instruction and even less sympathy. It started under a copiously shedding cottonwood tree, which rained sticky white fibers on us as we rolled our belongings into a blanket, tied up the pack and then bid it goodbye. Gimlet-eyed instructors wandered around ferreting out contraband- Milky Way bars, toilet paper, matches, flashlights, watches, sunglasses. Our impact allowables consisted only of what could be tied around the waist. Forget about making an informed choice- information, it seemed, was as taboo as toilet paper. "We've had 110 degree Fahrenheit temperatures during the day and had canteens freeze on us at night," warned Scott, one of the three instructors. "You can take a journal if you think you want to remember," added Rob. Thanks, guys, for all your help.
Amid the exasperating refrain, "We can't make that decision for you," I spread out my down-filled ski jacket, stuffed the sleeves with a pair of long johns, capilene top and fleece pullover, jammed the pockets with an extra pair of wool socks, knit hat and kerchief, put sunscreen and lipsaver in a pants pocket and attached a tin mug to my belt. I wore a T-shirt, jogging shorts, loose-fitting jeans, two pairs of socks and beautiful new chocolate-and-green Raichle boots. Two hours later, they were a uniform dirt brown.
A van dumped us at the end of a dirt road in the Dixie National Forest, where a sign ominously proclaimed, "Road closed ahead." The dust from the disappearing van was gradually replaced by the vanilla scent of sunwarmed ponderosa pines. A dry wind flickered through the rabbitbrush, a thigh-high gorse-like shrub. No one said a word. Then we walked past the road sign and left civilization behind.
Just how far behind was soon made wrenchingly clear. Rob called us into a circle near a clump of sagebrush and announced, "There are no Charmin bushes out here. Use a handful of dust. Either pat it on the spot or toss it up, then whisk it away with rabbitbrush or sage. You can use a stick or pine needles, but if they're used incorrectly, you'll find yourself in a sensitive situation." I compared the soft, aromatic sage leaves to the scrawny stalks of rabbitbrush and quickly decided that sagebrush would be this girl's best friend.
With the basic hygiene lecture taken care of, it was time to introduce ourselves. "Give the name you'd like to be known by," said Scott, making the ordinary ritual seem like some tribal ceremony fraught with portent. To my relief, no one asked to be called Wind Rider or New Moon or anything other than Dick and Evy and Bernie and Tom. I usually go by Catherine, but when my turn came, I gave the nickname my family uses. If something happened and I was rendered unconscious, I reasoned, I might respond more quickly to "Cathy," than to my formal name.
Not that anyone felt like talking. Because in addition to the secrets of sagebrush, we'd also just learned another BOSS lesson: Even if you don't like it, live with it. If you wanted to bail out, the instructors would point you in the right direction, describe landmarks to watch for...and wish you luck. You'd be on your own. No one volunteered.
And then we got lost. I think. The instructors weren't saying. At any rate, night fell and we decided to make camp on top of a sagebrush-covered hillock. Making a camp consisted of stumbling down the slope in the moonlight to the creek, drinking lots of water, then stumbling back up. The temperature was plummeting, so I sidled up to Keith, a bulky, sweetmannered Texan, and offered to share my fleece pullover as a pillow if he'd share his body heat. I chose well: Keith was a radiator, and I needed one, in spite of donning every stitch of clothing and using my extra socks for mittens. The rapidly cooling earth leached away my body heat. After what seemed like hours of silent shivering and trying to burrow out of the wind, I gave in to my need for human companionship. "Keith, are you awake?" I whispered. He was. (Who wouldn't be?) "I've never been so uncomfortable in my entire life," I confessed. "Me, either," he said. And with that admission, we forged a warm, human bond in the lonely landscape of "impact."
"So, what brought you here?" I asked, chattily. The answer was a little startling. It turned out that Keith had read an interview with the founder of BOSS, an article that, in fact, I had written. The coincidence- and the incongruity- soon had us both giggling. So it seemed utterly natural for me to ask Keith to put his arms around me to shield me from the wind, and for him to warm his hands in my jacket pockets. Curled up together, we finally dozed off. I'd also chosen the camp's loudest snorer, but that, too, proved useful; after making a post-moonset trip into the sagebrush, I found my way back by listening for Keith.
Not surprisingly, breakfast was spartan: water and milkweed, where we could find it. And one extra treat. Scott called us into a circle surrounding a small, spiky plant. " There have been instances when people have survived mainly on thistles," Rob intoned as Scott whipped a wicked-looking knife out of his neck sheath and knelt down. "Thank you, brother," he said to the thistle, and gave it the coup of grace. After scraping off the fibrous outer layer, he sliced the stalk into two-inch sections, one for each of us. It tasted...green. "I thought we were promised 1,500 calories a day," Dick, the financial analyst, said plaintively. "You were," someone else cracked. "You just weren't told which day."
"Today's lesson is getting hot and dry," Rob announced. With water scarce and no canteens, he was right. At a breath-robbing pace, we clambered up through sage and juniper scrub, shuffled through sand so bright I could barely look up, and swatted our way among willows that promised water but didn't deliver. As the sun pinned us in its relentless glare, I learned that putting pebbles into your mouth helps you salivate, that as long as the shadow of the person in front of you kept moving so did you and that there wasn't any point in suggesting lunch. "We eat when we find it," Rob said.
We halted at the bottom of a 1,000-foot slickrock cliff. We could save a couple of hours of scaling it, Scott said. Otherwise, we'd have to bushwhack around. It was our decision. We chose to go for it.
Slickrock isn't really slippery, but it sure is smooth. We could walk along wind- scored ledges in a modified crouch, but had nothing to grab if we lost our balance. Halfway up, I started a traverse across a bulge and made the mistake of looking down. The wind guts were tugging at my hat and slamming into my chest. I imagined them plucking me off the crumbling ledge and hurling me 500 feet below. I tried to begin, then removed my foot. Put it out, took it back. Once, twice, three times. I stared at the ledge and tried to visualize my moves. The screen was blank. I couldn't force myself forward, and I couldn't go back down.
Rob had talked about how, out in the wilderness, without the familiar trappings of civilization, we'd all encounter our personal bogeyman. I met mine on that slickrock ledge. "How are you doing?" Scott called from above. "I'm stuck," I yelled back. "Well, you'll just have to figure a way out of it," he replied.
I knew that BOSS was supposed to teach self-sufficiency. But I'd only needed one night to learn that self-sufficiency was cold comfort under an unsympathetic moon. Survival meant reaching out to others, admitting individual weaknesses and finding complementary strengths. Throughout that long day, every time I'd looked around, Keith had been right behind me. I'd drawn strength from his silent companionship. But, as he later told me, he'd drawn strength from me. As long as my boots kept shuffling through the ankle-high red sand, he figured he could take another step. As long as I kept going, so could he.
Now, on the cliff face, I again reached out. I knew I couldn't lead, but I was pretty sure I could follow. "Evy," I said to the woman behind me, "you go first." Luckily, her demons were different from mine. She inched out, I practically crawled into her back pocket, and we both made it to the top.
And, miracle or miracles, there were our blanket packs, a bunch of bananas, a couple of gallons of Gatorade and our food supplies. BOSS had trucked them in. Impact was over.
During the next five days, we continued to tramp through landscapes of monumental beauty. I learned to make a friction fire with a bow- drill and spindle- tools I fashioned from found wood and rock- like African bushmen, to catch a trout with my bare hands and gut it with a blade of obsidian stone, to brush my teeth with a cottonwood twig (its astringent qualities help fight plaque) and to attend to personal needs with sagebrush and sand. I ate cattails (pretty good) and munched "squawberries" (delicious).
At the end of the course I spent a day and night solo- and loved it. I'd been allotted an area along the Escalante River, spanning the full range of ecological zones from sagebrush desert to willow thickets. I chose my campsite, aired my blanket and gave myself a good scrubdown in the river. I'd had all sorts of plans for fervid activity- making cordage of milkweed fiber, working on primitive tools, practicing my knife craft. Instead, I spent the afternoon sitting under the shade of a cottonwood tree, watching the shadows shift on the redrock cliffs in utter peace and contentment.
I thought about all the lessons I'd learned during the course, and the one that resonated most deeply was my epiphany on the slickrock cliff. I had never conceived of anyone doing what we had done, especially under conditions of scant water and no food. Yet I had done it. I had been pushed beyond my known limits- and still had not reached my limits- and still had not reached my limits, physical or mental. I'll probably always prefer a Therm-a-Rest mattress pad to hard ground and toilet paper to sagebrush, but I now know that I can be quite comfortable in the wilderness without them. I felt I could handle almost anything.
The shadows lengthened. When the sun slid below the cliff rim, I started a fire with a nest of sagebrush fibers and my bow-drill, then crouched by the coals and ate my food ration: a soup of lentils and rice that I'd spiked with the sharp, mustard- tasting cresses I'd gathered earlier. I settled into my blanket roll and watched the stars prick through the velvet vault above. It was then that I heard the first harbinger of civilization -- the faint echo of a jet plane far overhead.
Catherine Fredman '80 is a freelance writer and editor in New York City, where she doesn't have much opportunity to renew her relationship with sagebrush -- to her great relief.
Portions of this article originally appeared in Fitness magazine.
Return to Spring 1997 highlights
Portions of this article originally appeared in Fitness magazine.