Catch up on the Boulder Outdoor Survival school portion of the adventure! PART 1 HERE. PART 2 HERE.
Our week at Survival Camp made way into one of the hardest aspects of the BOSS experience — Primitive Camp. Hard because there we were, a full two and a half weeks into our month-long adventure and we were living on nothing more than a few bites of lamb jerky mixed into a spoonful of ground corn. This twice daily ration felt miserably light given we were coming off days upon days of no food at all. Have you ever split a barbecued chipmunk with ten other hungry people after an unsuccessful day of foraging? I have.
It was hard also because the temperature was regularly dropping back below freezing and convulsive shivering had replaced any sleep we’d enjoyed in the days before. It was a week where we lost one teammate after he decided he’d simply had enough of the misery and left the course, as well as one teammate who had an old knee injury flare up and was medically deemed unable to continue. Team Fukawi had taken its lumps and was now down to nine weary travelers.
The misery of Primitive Camp culminated in a full-day hike up a mountain taking us from sun up to sundown, all without food. This was the only time during the course when I truly questioned whether I wanted to continue. I had lost a considerable amount of weight, evidenced by having already dropped four of the six belt notches I would work through by the end of the month, and I was struggling to find the lesson in further starvation.
I knew I could go without food — we all knew we could — so what was the point in relearning the lesson? I had made the decision not to quit under any circumstance, but “staying in the experience” was a battle I was losing to minute-by-minute fantasies of the hamburger I was going to decimate on Day 1 back in the world of food choices.
Like a fever, the misery broke the next morning when we awoke and joined the instructor core at their camp. We were all surprised to see our rations unusually split. Normally, each team was given one large bag of food to carry. This time the supplies were all segregated into what appeared to be individual packs. Unbeknownst to our instructors, a fire had also torn through our camping destination a few months earlier. Since camp was set up in the pitch dark, crawling out of our shelters we found ourselves in a moon-like landscape as orange earth and black tree trunks littered the horizon.
The M’s were kind enough to cook us dinner since we had gotten in so late and were beyond exhaustion after setting up our shelters. Dinner was the standard ration — “BOSS Soup” as we called it. BOSS Soup was the nightly diner we made from our rations when we had them:
- 1/4 cup of lentils
- 1/2 cup of quinoa
- 1 carrot
- 1/2 of a potato
- 1/2 of an onion
- 1/2 a clove of garlic
- A few spoons of vegetable bullion
All of the above was split by four people for dinner, yielding a cup of soup each. Let me also add that lentils give humans extraordinary amounts of gas, and our treks were a cacophony of “expressions” and laughter. Loudly exclaiming “LENTILS” excused the most putrid of smells and inhuman of sounds.
“As ya’ll can tell,” one of the M’s drawled, “something’s different today. For the next five days, we’re not going to be with you. You won’t be with each other either. You’re going to be alone and will have to rely upon yourselves to make shelter, to make fire, to cook your own food, and to take care of any and all needs. Welcome to Solo.” The excitement of spending five days alone again made me antsy and giddy. I wanted to get into this, to set myself up and see what solitude in the wilderness would bring me.
Each of us was assigned a plot of land that would be our own for the upcoming week. For safety purposes, we were required to perform a morning and evening “I’m still alive signal” consisting of stacking and unstacking a shared pile of rocks at the edge of our property. Each morning I would stack my rock pile, every night my neighbor would come by and unstack it. If I came to our pile in the morning expecting to find it broken down, and it was still standing, I had permission to break the silence and give a holler. If no one hollered back it was time to enter the the next property and find out what was amiss.
Although I made all my rock pile check-ins, I also had the scary yet entertaining experience of “coming to” twice after passing out from a combination of low blood sugar, hyperventilating after blowing repetitively onto the beginnings of the fire, and/or standing up too fast. As someone who’s been choked unconscious numerous times in the pursuit of jiu jitsu excellence, it was not all that unsettling — minus the fact that the first time I clearly remember falling forward while thinking, “Oh good, I’m not going to land in the fire,” and then woke up on my back right next to the roaring blaze with the trees staring down at me from above. Good times.
Arriving to my space in the early evening on day 1, I quickly set to making shelter as the survival priority list was now part of my DNA:
- Keep a positive attitude above all else.
- Make shelter. The more effort that goes into making this part, the warmer I will be. Warmth trumps everything, including being in pain or having to pee, or being in pain because I have to pee.
- Find water.
- Make fire.
- Cook food.
- Try to stay warm.
Since we were each set up alongside a river, finding water wouldn’t be a challenge. What was going to be a challenge was not freezing my ass off, so I got busy.
Using a large tree for overhead coverage, I made a bed frame out of fallen logs and sticks and then filled the frame with as many pine needles as I could find. My goal was to have two feet of needles underneath me, then to lay my blanket on top and fold it in half lengthwise. Then, I would cover said blanket with another two feet of needles. This would allow me to slide into it all and make myself into a burrito of sorts — hopefully a non-shivering burrito. Then I would rig my poncho in an A-frame on top of it all in case it started raining.
Balancing the need to make shelter, make fire, and get things done with the fatigue of rapid weight loss and a caloric deficit was far from easy. I would gather a load or two of needles, putting handfuls of them in the 5 x 5 cloth I carried, dump them into my bed frame, and then have to sit down for a few minutes until I could stand again. Rinse and repeat. The faster I worked, the faster my shelter got built and the sooner I could rest. However, the faster I worked, the faster I got tired and the more rest I needed, thus the slower my shelter got built and the longer it was before I finished and could really rest. But finish I did, and I exhaled knowing no matter what weather showed up, I would have coverage.
As soon as my shelter was built, I set up a stone hearth of sorts and gathered wood until darkness started taking over. I’d made fire in the dark before and knew I could do it again, so I didn’t stress. Fire was not only the key to a warm evening, but also to cooking food. A steaming cup of BOSS stew sounded far more appetizing than crunching my way through raw lentils and vegetables, so I was hell bent on making a fire that first night.
But I failed.
The only time during the entire month that my burning ember refused to light the nest of dry bark and the pine needles surrounding it was on my first night alone. After three attempts, I took a deep breath and told myself, “It’s not to be tonight. Relax, get in bed, and try again tomorrow.”
The rest of the night I repeatedly talked myself our of listening to the voice that said I was going to spend the next four days and nights without fire, without cooked food, and having to deal with myself emotionally after failing at this necessary skill. Breathe in, breathe out, surrender, compare down, and light that shit up the next day.
The next morning, after a solid self-pep talk and a fortification of the less-than-ideal “tinder nest” that had led to my failure the night before, I made a coal and with a litany of “oh fuck yes, yes, ok, don’t go out, please light, it’s lighting! I have fire!!!” I had fire. In fact, it was the only fire I lit that week, waking up each morning and digging through the ash of the night before in search of the faintest glow of orange I could breathe life into to create more flames.
Five Days Alone
“What the hell did you do for five days alone?” people always ask me. First, after a month alone in the complete darkness, four days was a walk in the park. That being said, there was also a lot to do. There was a shelter that needed daily maintenance, an endless stream of firewood to gather, journaling, journal reading, high level thinking, bird watching, and the best part of the entire experience — a shit ton of meditating.
I sat in silence in a grassy patch beside the flowing river for hours at a time, soaking up the sunlight, the silence, and the deep feeling of peace that comes from cumulative stillness in the wilderness. Up until this point in my meditation history, my sitting experiences had been rather benign — frustratingly so considering I’d heard of people having hallucinations, messages, voices, and visions during their time on the cushion. I had not had the same experience. Yes, there was peace, incredible peace, from the act, and that in itself was priceless. Here in the woods though, sitting next to the river, this would all change.
For reasons I cannot explain, meditating deep in those woods, next to that flowing river was akin to being on drugs — quality ones. As soon as my eyes closed, a kaleidoscope of colors ignited in my mind’s eye, images of kings and queens wove their way through my consciousness and downloads streamed in. I had been pondering where in the world (literally) to call “home” come January 1st of 2017 when my Year To Live Project would come to a conclusion. This question weighed heavily on my mind for the weeks leading up to the solo portion, yet it wasn’t until I sat and closed my eyes that the message came through:
“Relax, my friend, you’re not going to live anywhere next year — you will be home free. The world will continue to be your home as you travel and speak, travel and teach, travel and learn. Go back to Santa Barbara and get your life to the point where you can go anywhere anytime. Do this.”
For a two-day period my meditations were also filled with battle scenes, Terra Cotta warriors, and fight scenes. At the conclusion, I was told with clarity:
“It’s time to begin training again. Every day. Without fail. This is the beginning of your work with men. Men are at a critical juncture and are desperate for true leadership, leadership that both honors their inherent strength as well as the inner landscapes they are longing to explore. This starts today. Stand up right now and train.”
At the conclusion of that message, I received what I can only describe as “an infusion energy.” As if someone or something had control of my body, I started doing push-ups right there in the dirt. Hundreds of them. Then squats. Hundreds of them. Then sit-ups. Then shoulder exercises using rocks as weights. Then Turkish get-ups.
For the remainder of the solo period and for all the remaining days of the course, despite the continued weight loss and mile upon mile of daily trekking, I woke up in the morning and felt the absolute need to work out. It made no sense to my mind, but the feeling was undeniable.
The concept of surrender was a familiar one by this point in my year. This sense was added to by the release of the weight I had been carrying about determining my 2017 geographic home. I believed in the messages given to me out there in the woods.
Surrender came again during this solo time, when contemplating the direction of my future work I “found myself” suddenly standing from the meditating position and speaking to large audiences of men. I had no idea where the words I spoke came from or who they were directed to, but I was clearly running rehearsals for future speaking engagements.
I spoke my story of going from a life that on paper was perfect — married to an ex-model, living in an ocean-side vacation town, owning a successful business where I could show up in board shorts and say “fuck” whenever I wanted — to having it all disappear overnight. Having it all disappear only to come to the conclusion that its disappearance was the greatest thing I could have asked for, but never would have.
Surrender is the only option in the wilderness since you can’t change the weather by wishing it sunny. You have to surrender because hating how hungry you are won’t make you full. You surrender to the darkness when the tinder just won’t light.
Surrender is the only option a thousand times a day for all of us, those doing ludicrous wilderness courses and those who are must muster all their strength just to put their feet on the floor to start their Tuesday. Surrender doesn’t mean we have to like what we’re going through, nor that we’re not working to change it. All it means is that for the moment we make the decision not to waste any time wishing, hoping, or wanting things to be different.
We accept. We breathe in. We breathe out. We move onward.
Surrender embraces Team Fukawi next week as we complete our final challenge and begin a four-day hike out of the woods, sans instructors. Completely on our own, we navigate our course, set up our camp, make our own fires, and deal with any adversity that comes our way. We know at the end of the four days we will have made it, and we will become nine of the twenty people who survived the 2016 BOSS 28-Day Field course — or will we?
Cheers from Esalen,