Thursday, September 30, 2010

How It All Started

I thought it might be time for an explanation — a personal glimpse, as it were. 

Something happened to me when I was going through Special Forces training, and it changed the rest of my life. Not only my life, but the life of my wife Becky and our entire family. What happened was that I became a cave dweller at heart.

They didn’t teach cave dwelling in Special Forces, but they did teach survival techniques that sort of morphed in my brain and became an intense interest in living off the land. It may have been the concept of parachuting into hostile territory and knowing how to survive without outside assistance that spawned this interest of mine. Whatever it was, it moved into my head and stuck.

After returning to civilian life, I took to the libraries, reading everything I could get my hands on about non-military survival subjects such as how to identify and use wild edible and medicinal plants, the ethnobotany (the study of how botanical resources are used by indigenous people) of various regions of the world. I went into the field with a botanist friend who showed me how to read the plants’ identifying marks. Weeds started showing up in the refrigerator, and guests were sometimes surprised at what they saw being served for dinner. Added to all this was an in-depth study of primitive techniques involving shelter, tools, clothing, fire making, trapping, and food preparation methods. Such is the life of a budding cave dweller.

The trouble was that I was still working for a living, and being a weekend cave dweller just wasn’t totally satisfying. I needed (or at least wanted) more time, lots of time, uninterrupted time to practice my primitive arts and develop into a full-blown cave dweller. And I came up with a plan. I sat down with Becky one day and proposed an idea. “Honey, I think we should sell the house, get rid of everything we own, take the kids and move into a cave.”

I’m not kidding. Those were my exact words. Her exact words (once she regained her ability to speak) were lost in the distance as she ran down the hall to the bedroom and slammed the door. I’m not entirely sure what she said, but I thought I detected a hint of resistance to my great plan. My next thought was, “Hmmm, that didn’t go too well.” So I decided to drop the whole subject.

A few weeks later, a miracle happened. Married men everywhere fall down with envy when I tell them that Becky walked up to me, planted a kiss and told me that she would support me in whatever decision I made about moving into a cave. “You’re the breadwinner in this family,” she said, “and any way you want to earn the bread is okay with me.” In my opinion, those were the most heroic words I've ever heard. She has always been the brightest star in my universe, and at that moment she went supernova.

After I hugged and kissed her and thanked her from the bottom of my heart, I went outside and planted a For Sale sign on the front lawn. Must have been the right thing to do, because the house was sold in less than a month. We sold almost everything we owned, and put the few things we wanted to hand onto in storage. We moved into a 4-plex while we made final preparations, among which was finding a suitable cave.

Lest anyone misunderstand, the purpose of the whole project was to give me time and opportunity to hone my skills to the point that I could be a good teacher of outdoor survival and primitive living techniques. That was the plan. We never intended to shuck society and live for the rest of our lives in a hole in a rock. The strategy was to spend an entire year living in the wilderness, during which time I would be practicing survival skills until I became proficient enough to be a confident instructor. Kind of like O.J.T.

But I already had years of Special Forces survival training, and a wealth of non-military survival education under my belt. So it wasn’t like we were going out there to see IF we could survive. We had a very high level of confidence that we would survive. I would never intentionally place my wife and children in a risky situation if I thought it might turn out badly. Of course, things happen. We could have all perished. But we might all perish in a freeway accident, too. In fact, there’s a much higher probability of dying on the freeway than in the wilderness, if you know something about outdoor survival.

In our search for a suitable cave in an appropriate location (ie: not in the city park), I consulted an old friend, Larry Dean Olsen, who taught the outdoor survival course at BYU and authored the best selling book Outdoor Survival Skills. He pulled out a couple of maps and laid his finger on two spots in southern Utah. Both of those locations had been hot spots for Anasazi dwellings a thousand years ago. After much discussion, I decided on our new home.

In the middle of winter, Becky and I drove into the exotic slickrock country that flanks Capitol Reef National Park. Before actually moving into the cave, we wanted to recon the area. Caves are generally not indicated on topographic maps, unless they are important caves like Carlsbad Caverns. Our cave was not one of those, so we needed to put our boots on the ground and go search for what Larry had described.

On a frosty morning, we parked our ’64 T-bird among a stand of cottonwood trees where the Burr Trail road through Rattlesnake Canyon intersected The Gulch. Figuring that we would be back at the car by mid-afternoon, we left all of our camping gear in the trunk and headed south into The Gulch wearing only our regular outdoor clothes — mid-weight jackets, blue jeans, and lightweight hiking boots.

I’ll pause here just long enough to say that this is exactly how many real survival incidents begin. People think they’re just going for a short day hike, so they take no survival equipment with them, intending to be back in camp before nightfall. Then something happens and they don’t make it back. That’s what happened to us.

We knew that the cave we wanted to recon was about five miles down the canyon. Unfortunately, Becky was wearing new boots, and by about mile 4.5 her feet were starting to blister. By the time we reached the cave, she felt like she was walking on hot coals. Our hike had been slow and methodical, giving us a chance to explore side canyons and take in the atmosphere of the place, and that pretty well ate up the day. Winter at that latitude means short days and long nights, and as Becky took her last painful steps toward the cave, we had about an hour of sunlight left. We pulled off her boots and talked about the condition of her feet. It was clear that she was not going to be able to hike back to the car that day.

The good news was that the cave was high enough up the slope from the stream bed that it was out of the cold zone at the bottom of the canyon. The bad news was that no matter how far up the slope the cave was, the night was going to be sub-freezing and we had nothing but our clothes to keep us warm. No tent, no sleeping bag, nothing. As the last daylight left the canyon floor, ice was already starting to form along the edges of the stream. Before morning, the entire stream would be frozen over.

I could almost imagine the headlines; “Would-be survival instructor and his wife found dead of hypothermia.” This was not the way I wanted to start my career. There was only one thing to do — I had to use the last minutes of sunlight to get a fire going and turn the cave into a suitable survival shelter. 

Well back from the mouth of the cavern, we picked a spot for a hot rock bed. While Becky scooped sand out of an area of the floor measuring about 6 feet long by 4 feet wide, I collected firewood. Then I gathered up a bunch of stones and placed them in the hollowed out depression that Becky had finished. The firewood went in next, and soon we had a blaze going. 

We let it burn for about an hour, then made sure all the coals were dead before scraping the sand back over the bed of hot rocks. We slept on that warm spot of ground, and it kept us comfortable all night. Well, maybe comfortable is too nice a word, but even though we had to roll over constantly all night long, at least we were warm, which beats the heck out of making the headlines.

That was our introduction to the cave in The Gulch. We’ve come to think of it as our cave, although I’m sure many other people have taken shelter there over the centuries. We found no evidence of Anasazi presence there, but who knows.

After that trip, we returned home to make final preparations for our year in the wilderness. It was a year of immense adventure for us. Not an adventure the size of Mt. Everest, or the depth of the Amazon jungle. But for our small family, living totally alone in the wilderness with a one-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter, chasing lizards for lunch, it was the greatest adventure possible. It changed our lives forever. 

If you really want to know what the wilderness can do to your heart and your spirit and your mind, you must go yourself.

1 comment:

  1. You certainly know a lot more about living in nature and what to eat out there than I do.

    I know how to do a lot of things in nature to be comfortable but living off the fruits of nature is a weak point with me.

    I had this stupid delusion that the proper mate for me that knew all that stuff would show up and she would take care of that while I provided other needed things, a teamwork thing if you know what I mean.

    She's never showed up, oh well, I'll have to make it on my own or die if things in this country go to hell, that is the way of it.

    I can make decent shelters out there but I may starve to death, after I run out of bullets.