I have never truly been dirty. Ask a few of the men in my past and they may raise a brow at this statement, but I’m talking here about dirt under the nails, twigs in my bra, grit in my ears, and even smoke-blackened boogers.
I’m not the kind of woman who’ll cop a squat on anything but the most manicured grass without a blanket, towel, or jacket between the earth and my bum. I don’t bait fish hooks with squiggly worms, or dream of bivouacking under the stars. Hell, before I took myself out on Cody Lundin’s “The Nothing Course” to learn primitive survival skills, I had never even been camping, except that one time in third grade with my friend’s family in upstate New York, and the time my best friend and I went “car camping” in what amounted to a parking lot in Washington State, complete with coin-op showers and firewood on demand.
I’d never filled my water bottle from a stagnant stream, or seen skeeters and snails in the bottle, shrugged, and dumped in drops of iodine, hoping for the best. I’d never made a tinder bundle, or knapped stone knives, or stripped currant bushes for their barely-ripe berries. I’d never wiped with leaves after a bare-assed piss in the woods. I hadn’t learned to tell time by counting fingers off against the sky, or thought about the rise and set of the moon. I hadn’t been without watch or smart phone since… well, since their invention.
Now I have.
On the Nothing Course, held somewhere in the wilderness near Prescott, AZ, I slept on a litter of leaves, with straw I’d yanked from a meadow stuffed between my shirt and my trusty old LL Bean windbreaker for warmth. A garbage bag filled with more straw and leaves was my only blanket.
It got down to 49 degrees long before the dawn.
I listened to owls and ringtails on that endless, freezing cold night, pressing as close as I dared to the backs of the polite, mostly married men who’d signed up for the course along with me. I would have climbed inside their skins had I not thought it would shock their tender sensibilities. (Aside from Cody, I never heard a single one of them utter profanity. I, on the other hand, was cursing up a storm.) Believe me, by three AM, had a Tauntaun strolled by, I’d have slit that shit wide open with one of the stone knives I’d knapped, and made a nice toasty home inside its guts.
I was at a place where I desperately needed to do something “I’ve never.” I needed newness, and challenge, and to meet people with whom I had nothing in common. (Two of our tribe, including the only other woman, were Doomsday Preppers, decked out in full hunting camo.) I needed to be away from Facebook, and the phone, the stock market, my own obsessive ruminations. On this course I certainly got that, and I didn’t miss those things for a moment. I had more immediate concerns, a clear purpose – learn the skills I need to get me through the next thirty-six hours, and work with my fellow humans to achieve success – ie, basic survival.
In this, I had a fabulous instructor.
Cody Lundin is just like he seems on TV on Dual Survival (except that final “behind the scenes” episode, which was a total, feeble hatchet job.) I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen him wearing the exact same outfit on the show, down to braids, bandana, and ankle cuff bracelet (how does that not chafe when you walk?). And yeah, his feet are as gnarly as they’d need to be to take him all over the world unshod.
Cody has such a dearth of bullshit he is, effectively, a bullshit vacuum, sucking the crap from everyone around him. He tells it like it is, tells you what you need to know, and boy, does he know what he’s talking about. Before we left he went over everything from our greatest enemies (hypo-and-hyperthermia) to where and how to poop in the woods. (Thank god our trip was less than two days so I didn’t have to put that knowledge to the test.) He and his fellow instructor Mark, an immensely kind and competent man, taught us everything from tinder bundle techniques to selecting the right switch of willow for our hand-drill fire kits.
I went in with the knowledge that I would be physically uncomfortable and mentally way out of my element. Both of these were accurate. And honestly, up until the last couple hours when my body started to give out in earnest, I didn’t mind at all. I lay in the dirt cheerfully. I let ants and beetles crawl on me and didn’t cringe at every rustle in the brush. (I was, however, grateful to the guy next to me who plucked away a caterpillar that had encroached upon my sleeping area overnight.) I didn’t cavil or complain about what I was asked to do, and I pitched in enthusiastically (or at least as enthusiastically as one can when running on a two-day sleep and calorie deficit, plus dehydration). After all, I was paying for this experience. But it wasn’t just that. I simply didn’t give a flying fuck about all the little discomforts. Dirt under the nails? Eh, whatever. I’ll get a wash soon enough. Nothing to eat? I’m sure there’s a Denny’s back in Prescott, and I can hold out a while longer. No Diet Coke?
Okay, that was a little tough.
I gravitated to the more traditionally feminine tasks (crafting a tinder bundle, making the “ash cake” patties for breakfast), and that bothered me not at all. It did bother me that by the end I was so enervated that I couldn’t stay alert for some of the skills training Cody and Mark offered, no matter how willing my spirit was. I started drifting off during a demonstration of making cordage, which, as a person with a strong interest in the fiber arts, is actually really up my alley. I also couldn’t muster the energy to go on the final activity, a botanical walk where Cody demonstrated the native plants and their uses. I really would have loved to learn that, considering this adventure was for book research, but by then the 95-degree heat, the lack of sleep and food, my tired muscles and the raging headache I’d developed made that inadvisable. (I was, by the way, by no means the only one passing out, or opting out of these last activities.) I mean, I was telling my body to get up, pay attention, go that last mile, but my body simply said “nope!”
I learned that in the zombie apocalypse, I would probably be among the first to go. But then, I knew that already. I’ve accepted that, and it’s really A-okay with me. I wasn’t expecting to be the next Jane in a Tarzan movie. I took the course to learn some things I needed to know for my new novel, but also to feel so far from my element I couldn’t even see it on the horizon.
Was I happy to wash my hands (six times) when I got back to the world? Oh yes. Was I delighted the shower at my cruddy motel was practically a water cannon? Oh hell yes. But I did okay when I had to suck it up. Yes, I was pretty glad when the experience was over, and I could finally have my Diet Coke. But I was even more glad I’d come.
After enduring so much that was hard this past six months, I needed to do something that was hard. I didn’t want to dwell anymore on the horrors of hospice and watching my father lying in the bed groaning for morphine and Valium as the cancer killed him; didn’t want to remember the sheepish but resolved expression in my husband’s kind blue eyes as he asked me for the divorce. The empty house, the mistakes I’ve made in the months since – they all went away for a small space in time. In their place, there was only me, learning to be self-reliant.