A week away from the internet, phone, tv and indoor bathrooms. Living outdoors in record 100 degree heat for a week. Camping in the woods with 16 strangers (including 3 teenaged boys). Learning how to survive in the wilderness. To some people it sounds ludicrous, miserable, and unbearable. To me, it was one of the best weeks of my life. It was the week that I conquered my fears and successfully passed The Human Path’s Primitive Core Basic class. First of all, a bit of a description about the class. According to the official description, the class offered “a very thorough curriculum that is vital to master and understand in order to be able to fend for oneself, in a wilderness or rural setting, under a wide variety of circumstances.” The course curriculum covered fell under five categories (all of which will have more focused advanced courses later): primitive engineering, hunter-gatherer, scout, combat medic and leadership. In these classes we learned the basics of how to start a fire with a bow drill (in other words, nothing but wood and string); herbology, edible plants and first aid; self-defense (hand to hand, sticks, grappling and firearms); scouting, including camoflage with natural materials, scout awareness & intuition, reconnaissance, and traveling through the woods undetected; small unit tactics and ranger formation; figure 4 snares; shelter building; how to make a fishnet using 550 paracord; hunting with throwing sticks; a whole lotta knots; primitive cooking; land navigation; and likely other things that have escaped my mind.
I went into the course with a lot of excitement, and considerable trepidation as well. I would be spending six days with people I didn’t know (a couple I had met the weekend previously, but that was the extent to it), sleeping in a tent, and most of all, functioning in 100 degree weather. I also had very little to no experience in most of the topics and honestly had no idea if I could actually do them all. My friend Russ told me to leave my cell phone in the car, so I also had a week without the internet or contact with anyone in the “outside world” which for an internet junkie like me was a bit of torture. To make it happen for me, Russ had loaned me all the gear I’d need, but even more than that, he also gave me some advice that was key for the whole week. When trying to decide what to bring, he said that nothing else mattered as long as I brought a good attitude. Through the entire week, I tried my very best to live up to that advice. I brought as much positive energy and attitude to the week as I could possibly muster, and did my best to exceed my own expectations, as well as never disappoint Sam Coffman, our fantastic instructor, or the friends both near and afar who were cheering me on. As the week progressed, I was astonished to discover that not only could I do all of the exercises, there were few things I could not master, at least at the basic level presented to us. Although the bow drill kicked my ass the first time, I went back on a “siesta break” and worked at it until I could start a fire in under 15 seconds. The knots and scouting exercises seemed almost second nature, even though I didn’t know any of it beforehand. In fact, I am very proud of the fact that I hid myself 10 feet from the path behind a small bush, and Sam was unable to see me from behind or from down in the quarry where I was largely exposed other than for some dead grass. Despite a ten-year abstinence from eating poultry, not only did I eat chicken several times, but I was the one to volunteer to cut up the chicken for stew, effectively getting over my fears of eating animals that I consider pets. And even when the opportunity came to chill out in the A/C of our classroom, I toughed it out in the heat with nothing but a hose over my head to cool myself down. I also made some great new friends, most especially Sam’s wife Suchil, who was great company throughout the week and showed me enormous support and kindness along the way. When I look back on the week, more than any skills I learned or people I met, the most important things I took away from the week were the things I learned about myself. I discovered that a lot of things I thought I couldn’t do – everything from eating poultry, fighting off an attacker, carving wood with a sharp knife and not cutting myself, or crawling through the woods on my hands and stomach through deer scat and thorns – were things I could do if I just tried and, essentially, got over myself. A lot of fear is just insecurity or roadblocks I put up for myself. (And yes, I made it through the whole week without ever cutting myself!) One of the most difficult moments for me was our adrenaline exercise. The idea was to sprint through the camp with someone chasing us, and then fight off Sam (not a small man) who was wearing a padded suit and did his best to bring us down and make us work for it. Going into the week, it was the one thing I looked most forward to doing. When the time came, though, I was terrified, and wanted so much to “chicken out.” But like with everything else, I refused to quit. I stepped up to take my turn, making sure as hell not to wait until the end when Sam would be tired, so that the fight would be meaningful, even if not as easy as it could have been. I chose the intermediate distance as my mark for the sprint, refusing to take the “easy” mark, even though it meant a lot harder run, especially in front of other people. And when it came time to fight, I felt weak as hell against him but I gave it all I had and never gave up even for a second. And that’s kind of how the whole week was for me. I worked as hard as I could, never gave up, never took the easy way out. It wasn’t easy but I fought for every success. To be sure, I had those moments of personal insecurity, homesickness, and missing my friends, but I would just go to my tent for maybe 5 minutes to have my moment in private, and then sucked it up and headed back out with a smile on my face. I did my best never to complain or show weakness, or to give into a pity party, even when I was exhausted, dirty, grumpy and hot as hell, and for me that’s huge. In the end I’m not sure there really are words to explain what I took away from the week. I guess Russ put it best when he said that the greatest things I learned weren’t actually part of the curriculum. Now my task is to take those lessons and apply them to my “real life”, and let them guide me to becoming a better and stronger person. I also need to remember them all when I start the level 1 sequence of classes which, from the way Sam describes them, will kick my ass pretty damned hard. Thanks to everyone who shared this week with me, and hopefully now that this is on a blog, and not just Facebook, a few of them will now be able to see it (especially Georgia and Felicia!). Thanks especially to Sam for his instruction, his ability to push us all and not let us give up, and his kindness; to Suchil for all her efforts to make sure we had good, healthy food throughout the week and for her friendship and support (and the Diet Dr Pepper, which meant a hell of a lot more to me than she probably even realized); and to Russ for telling me about The Human Path, for his support all along the way, and helping to make it a reality for me.