badlands

GEAR | 2000

Willis Canyon, Southern Utah. somewhere east of Zion Park. One of our two guides, Breck scoops out a cup of muddy water from the creek. He drinks deeply and goes for another. "Your first lesson," he says as he wipes his beard and shoves his two-foot-long machete into his belt, "is your stomach is the best canteen you got. Drink up." It has only been 10 minutes since the van that brought us here vanished in a cloud of dust, leaving our group of seven men, three women and guides Breck and Greg 300 miles from our final destination, somewhere on the other side of the Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah's Great Basin desert. We have 27 days to walk the distance and learn the basic skills of living off the land. There are no people, no stores, no help between here and the end. The guides no way to contact anyone in emergency, we're told. For the first four or five days, the "impact" phase, we will have no water bottles, food or maps. This is to acclimate us to the desert. If anyone quits, they must find their own way out. And just a word or two about dying: we signed contracts stating that if we are killed by snake bite, scorpion bite, lightening, disease, bear or lion attack, starvation, dehydration or anything else, our guides, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), can't be sued. Someone asks, "Tell me again why we're doing this?" A ripple of nervous laughter passes through the group. I can't think of any place I'd rather be than right here. Here's what we can take. Each of us has a fanny pack full of the basics: baking soda for brushing our teeth, long underwear, a light-weight fleece, a wool cap, a pair of long pants, an extra pair of wool socks, a long-sleeve shirt, a compass, a journal, a first-aid kit, water purification drops, a small enamel drinking cup and a 4-inch blade knife. Later we will get maps, a blanket and rain poncho. Breck, our guide, is outfitted in sandals, shorts and a white straw hat that never comes off. He carries three bags on his back, including a full trauma kit. He has a scraggly red beard that goes well with his clear blue eyes and high energy. The trail rules: no sex, it will get in the way of the group dynamics. Wipe your ass with sand and sage, it will keep away rashes. If you become blocked, find a stick and pull the feces from your ass, otherwise you can go into shack and die. If you kill something, you must eat it, and most importantly, never leave someone behind. The signaling system on the trail is simple: one loud hoot is a locator - when you hear it, hoot back until the missing party is found. Two hoots is a full stop. There's an emergency. Breck points a finger at us. "If you hoot three times, I expect to find a rattlesnake hanging off your jugular vein. Anything short of this and I'll kill you myself." So begins our journey. We walk down a slot canyon, no wider than my arm span, that leads into the heart of the Basin desert. Soon it is night, moonless and completely black. We get to know one another as we walk. One man is a corporate lawyer. One woman a physical therapist. Another a gardener. Another a masseuse. There are a handful of college students. I slip to the back of the line, away from the giddy chatter. I feel far from my life of phones and faxes.

Day 2 Red dawn.
There's a rumble in my stomach, the first pangs of hunger. I've hiked the Andes and the Himalayas, survived a war, stumbled across the deserts in Israel and Egypt, but I've never purposely walked into a desert with no supplies for 27 days. I'm also unsure about our random assembly of 53 A coward to the heat, I now shiver against the chill. Crying isn't an option - it takes body fluid. people - I wonder about each of their breaking points. A friend in Tucson told me about this trip. By the end I will know how to trap animals, make a fire from sticks, identify plants to eat. I trained for more than a month, running six miles a day on mountain trails. I fasted and then bulked up on protein. I put maps of the Southwest on my wall. I want to experience surviving on the merit of my own skills and instincts. The sun is rising above the canyon walls. No time to think. Time to move. Ahead of us lies the 1.5 million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante park. By mid-day, the heat is overwhelming. To survive, a person needs a gallon of water a day. We haven't had any water in some 18 hours, when we climbed out of the river canyon to the pine-covered sandstone mesas. Everyone is keeping up except Eric, a 21-year-old lumbering type from New Jersey who can't stop asking questions like: "Are we almost to water? When do we get food? How many more miles?" For most of the trip he will be heard somewhere around the last bend desperately hooting three times. Without missing a stride, Breck will invariably yell, "We are not breaking Eric." The day passes with no sign of water and we camp under a canopy of juniper trees. Already I feel subtle changes in my body. The hunger is gnawing at my gut, my throat is parched. All I want is to sleep and forget the dehydration. As I lay down, two scorpions squirm their way from underneath a pile of brush I gather for a pillow. I move to another tree and lie in a state of desert paranoia. Every squiggly on my leg becomes a poisonous critter out to inject me with deadly toxin. The temperature has dropped 40 degrees. Sleeping on the ground with my scant protection becomes a tired routine of shifting positions to get blood flowing to my arm while my hip falls asleep and so on. For consolation I listen to the others as they also spend the night shifting positions.

Day 3 
Tips for finding water in the desert: follow the butterflies, follow the birds, always look for Navajo white sandstone. By midday we find a group of swallows circling at the base of a formation of white sandstone. There's a spring here - the only water for 20 miles. It is of desperate consequence: without it most of us would pass out by nightfall. The second water lesson: if there is nothing alive in the water, no matter how clear it is, don't drink it. Most likely it's arsenic and poisonous. Breck gives us the nod and we fall to it. I give up trying to dip my cup around the swimming mosquito larvae and green algae and gulp down my second cup of water. To my right sits Brandon, a 21-year-old from San Luis Obispo, California, who is the group jester. Pouring water over his head, he says, "I think I read the wrong god-damn brochure. I'm supposed to be on the trip that isn't trying to kill me. Where's the fucking food?" I ask him how he can afford this trip. "Got a trust fund," he says. "Go to Vegas sometimes, drink expensive tequila, you know, have a good time." I nod my head. I wonder if he will make it.

Day 4
Hunger is a strange thing. At times the need is paralyzing. At other times you forget you ever needed food. The only food I've had in four days is a bite of prickly pear cactus. We reach a round water trough for cattle just before noon. We dash to it and dip our cups into the clear, cold water. "Wait," says Johnny, the lawyer. A dead mouse floats on top of the algae water. We look to Breck. "Drowned. Couldn't find a way out after jumping in," he says. I drink greedily. A small shelter of sticks and bark sits next to the tank. Inside are blankets, water bottles and ponchos and food, all compliments of BOSS. We eat our first meal. The first taste is like the first exploration of a woman. Supple potatoes, dark lentils, succulent carrots, ripe onions and juicy bullion. After dinner we divvy up the supplies for the next six days. Lentils, carrots, potatoes, corn meal, millet, onion, garlic, rock salt, powdered milk, pepper and a small bag of peanuts and raisins. We decide we have enough for 900 to 1,000 calories per day.

Day 5
It's 125 degrees on the rocks - a record heat in Utah. The landscape has become an endless stretch of sand, gullies, sage brush and more sand, gullies and sage brush. Johnny, the 38-year-old corporate lawyer, was laid off from his six-figure-salary job a couple of weeks before the trip. He lives in a five-bedroom house back East. He has a wife and a son, vacations in France, owns a Porsche and a Harley and runs a marathon once a year. I like him. He speaks his mind and has little patience for whiners. Today he and Lizette, a 26-year-old landscaper from Colorado, are our designated leaders. Neither of them have had any trouble with the physical demands. In fact, they seem under-challenged. Their job is to lead us to a spring 15 miles northeast of here. We huddle under shade on the side of a hill. Eric sidles up to me. His lips have turned a light shade of black. His pupils are twitching from lack of water. 54 "So you've done this a few times," he says, inching closer to my water bottles. He's out of water and it's not even noon. "You probably don't need all that water do you?" "Sorry, you never know what's ahead," I say while crawling on my hands and knees to another shady spot, afraid to catch another glimpse of his large desperate eyes. Back on the hike, Lucy a 25-year-old sports therapist at Georgia college, begins to lose pace. She's been vomiting - it turned out to be dry heaves an hour ago - yet she never complains. Walking with her is Arnold, a stout 21-year-old from Colorado with a big smile, big hands and big tattoos. He's been on academic probation for a year and has spent his time kayaking and learning about outdoor living. Something is happening to our bodies. My urine is the color of a blood orange. My shoulders ache, my feet hurt, I have no spit or sweat. The moisture in my eye sockets has dried up. Our brains, cooked by the sun, have started to make rash decisions. Our tempers are short. There is no more talking. The only option is to walk. The only life out here is water. In a barely audible voice, Lucy asks me for a sip of water. I have two, maybe three sips left in my bottle. Thinking Eric has disappeared over the hill, I hand her my bottle, and raise my finger. One sip only. Eric turns around and sees Lucy wipe her cracked lips as she hands it back. The sun went down 30 minutes ago but we are running up the mountain, trying to get over the pass. There is a spring on the other side. The guides stop us: the ridge is too dangerous to navigate in the dark. Eric and Lucy are vomiting. Laying prostrate in the creek bed, Sally sobs quietly. She's had a piece of cottonwood bark stuck between her legs for the last two days because of her untimely period. She's a 40-year-old massage therapist who did this same trip 15 years ago. "I signed up with my boyfriend," she told me earlier. "And?" "He quit three days in and I finished." "And how did that turn out?" "We broke up two years later. One of the issues was that he never live down that he never finished and I did." We hunker into our blankets and wrap the ponchos around us. On cue, the crickets begin their mighty chorus, the owls hoot and the bats divebomb my head. A coward to the heat, I now shiver against the chill. I am broken. Crying is not an option - it would take body fluid.

Day 6 
We climb out of the desert through a hailstorm, to 8,000 feet. Here we learn how to trap squirrels, rabbits and deer. We build primitive shelters from pine needles and broken branches. We stay two nights, telling stories, laughing and filling our shrinking stomachs with a cupful of rationed potatoes, lentils, carrots and onions seasoned with pepper and vegetable bullion. Late in the afternoon of the first day, the guide instructs us to sit in a circle. They pick out a "talking stick." Whoever has the stick can say anything they want and everyone else must listen, no interruptions, no exceptions. One by one the others tell how they are learning to get along. It all seems a little too predictable, a little too much like a group hug. Besides, I really don't want to show any of these people who I am, not yet anyhow.

Day 8 
I wake up at dawn in the middle of a mint-green sea of sage brush. It smells like rain. I sit up, mud in my hair. The sun sneaks up over a 1,000 foot mesa called Death Ridge. The pioneer poets must have had a hoot naming this area with descriptive phrases such as Short Neck, Devil's Garden, Sadie's Nipple, Rod's Crotch, Mollie's Nipple, Stink Flat, and Box-Death Hollow. We'd been on a sunset-to-sunrise hike, but I'd begun hallucinating about coyotes and rattlers barring my way. At some point, I'd collapsed and fallen asleep here. I pick myself up, still stumbling and dizzy, and walk another two hours until I find the others asleep under an overhang protected from the approaching monsoon rains. I walk off to an area shrouded in sage brush and squat to take a shit, the first in eight days. I hunker over and sweat out water I can't spare. I drift back to the beginning of the trip, at the creek, when our spirits were high and we were full of good feeling and confidence. I remember Breck's words: "Look around for a stick with a hook on the end. Take it and gently shove it in the rectum and pull it out again." I can't find a stick with a hook. I can't see. I want to scream. I am panting now; the pain is intense. The thought of the others finding me on my back with a turtle head sticking out of my ass is too much. For the next hour I use my fingers to undo the plug. Leaving a small stack of dry crumbling briquettes behind, I stagger out of the bushes bleeding. I'm grateful for the smallest of things. I lay on my side and fall asleep. Upon waking, we are blindfolded and led hand in hand down a gully. Breck says, "We must take the life of a brother in order for the rest of us to survive. Please take off your blindfolds." Standing before us is a large male sheep tied to a tree. It squirms, trying to shake free. I see confusion on the faces of my colleagues. Johnny shakes his head and walks away. Brandon, the trust-fund kid, joins him, ignoring Breck's shouts to come back. Breck hands us straws to see who will cut the sheep's throat. We hesitate. "I was a vegetarian before I started leading for BOSS and still am when not on trips," he says, "but this is a way to understand that what you eat in Safeway wrapped in plastic also had a life." He hands us a jagged black rock of obsidian. Chuck, a 22-year-old kid who claims to be a naturalist and Indian spiritualist from Red Bank, New Jersey, draws the short straw. As I hold the sheep down, Chuck cuts, and the steaming blood pumps into the earth. Brandon walks out of camp- deserting us and the trip. (It turns out he'd been talking of quitting for some time. The guides point him in a direction, and he ends up walking some 40 miles by himself before hitting a ranch road.) For the next three days, as monsoons soak our camp, we gnaw on barbecued meat and jerk the rest over the fire. We make knives from the bones and sausages from the innards. We soak the brains to tan the hide. Some of us make knife sheaths out of the soft pelt. As for Johnny, he stays, but stops talking to the group and refuses to eat any of the sheep.

 

Day 15 
At times this trip seems pointless. It's hard to imagine we paid $3,000 to walk in the desert for four weeks. Most of us have developed horrendous blisters, and any extra meat on our bodies is disappearing. The mood is tense. People have started to yell at each other and break into micro groups. I hang with Andrew, Lucy and Sally. The younger guys hang together. The solo stage couldn't have come at a better time. Each of us will be left alone in a canyon with no food and no human contact for five nights and six days. The first thing I do as the others disappear down the banks of the Escalante River is get naked. The area I choose is bordered by the river. I build a shelter of fallen limbs between two trees and cover it with bushes and cottonwood bark. This takes most of the first day. It is time to make a fire. There are three instruments needed to create a fire: a bow, a spindle, and a fireboard. I make these out of cut down branches. I start spinning the spindle on the fireboard - trying to make friction to create a burning ember. There is smoke. This is the pivotal moment. I want this coal more than anything on earth. I look down and see a small piece of red coal. Carefully, I move it onto a leaf and lay it in the kindling I've prepared. The fire starts. Day 18 The only person who died on one of these survival trips trapped a squirrel for dinner. The squirrel's fleas bit him, giving him the bubonic plague. The plague and the fatal Hantavirus are alive in these canyons. A man can live without food for two months as long as he has water, so I decide not to trap or eat the local critters. I can't stop thinking about a thick steak and a cold beer.

 

Day 19
I spend my days watching birds, swimming in the river, and covering myself in mud to keep away the biting horse flies. Life has become a simple exercise of basics. I am here, I am in the living.

 

Day 20
I crave the company of people, of the others in the group. I thrive on their differences, their imperfections, their laughter and secrets. All I want is an ice-cream cone.

 

Day 21 
After we complete our solo days, the guides leave us. We have to travel the last 75 miles in six days alone. We have the compass, the topo maps, some food. The men and women are split into two separate groups. Without the women and guides around to smooth out the edges, it doesn't take long for things to fall apart. The younger guys revert to asking inane questions. The only surprise is Eric. It happens near Mokie Canyon on a disturbingly hot day. I had gotten us lost. Expecting Eric to be out of water and too tired to make up the lost time, I try to explain how I screwed up. "No problem. We turn around and get back on track," Eric says. Johnny and I stare at him in amazement."You okay?" "Fine. Let's just do it together for once." Later he tells us how a life of Ritalin and therapy has screwed him up. He is tired of trying to please his parents, and that's why he took the trip. "I know I can be an asshole sometimes, but I think I learned something out here." "What's that?" I ask. "I can make it on my own if I have to."

 

Day 22 
Johnny and I take over the duties of leadership. We start the fires, navigate, cook and make camp. I realize how age can work to one's advantage. Johnny and I are older - I'm 32, he is 38. Old enough to have been through various tests in life. The younger guys, ranging from 18 to 22, are physically stronger than us, but have been showing signs of cracking emotionally.

 

Day 26 
We chance into the women at Steep Creek. I'm scouting a place to cross the creek when I spot them. My first instinct is to run - and I do - but it is too late. They've seen me. The reunion is awkward. Us: we are haggard, divided and bitter toward one another. Them: they are glowing with joy to have done it together. It is clear all of us males have become small bubbles of ego - every day was a competition, each one trying to prove we could make it, and do it alone if we had to. As we walk together again as a group, the tribe starts to heal. The women make small talk and we tell our stories of adversity. Not much changes, even in the wild.

 

Day 27
We arrive at Bear Creek - the final destination. The guides are there with a pot of venison stew. We devour it. To end our journey, we sit in a circle and pass the talking stick. "I have to say Eric grew on this trip, but the other three young guys, you are the biggest wimps I've ever met," says Johnny. I vent and say the same thing. The anger and resentment pours through the stick and into the circle. I am called too controlling and then thanked for taking control. The younger guys regret having bitched for most of the trip. "If we were the last ten people on earth I wouldn't sleep with any one of you. You are all pathetic," says Lucy. Breck seems to relish the idea of people being pushed to the edge. To him success means everyone got their buttons pushed. And everyone here has been pushed to the edge in some way. The stick goes around four or five times. Everyone speaks their peace and a truce is declared. Lucy retracts her statement, saying maybe, maybe, she'd do one of us, for the sake of the tribe. People hug and shake hands and joke about the hardships. The guides give us each an apple and point down the trail. It's 13 miles to Boulder. (I discover later that Breck had a cellular phone in his pack in case of emergency: he could have phoned in a helicopter.) Opting not to walk, I run. I have lost 21 pounds in 27 days, yet I feel stronger than I ever have. I keep running, occasionally raising my arms in triumph. No one died and no one killed another. We survived a month in the outback of America where most people, if left out here alone, would die in a few days. I'm going to get ice cream. Wake up in the middle of the night to see moonlight streak through the branches. To my right, a faint glow, maybe a star. I stare into the darkness trying to make out my campground. Near the tree, not too far from my head, rests a wood plank with four wood legs to support it. On top sits a large black box with red lit numbers. Then a new noise. It's a motor. I look again at my surroundings. I'm back in Provo, Utah, at a Travelodge motel. The room is strewn with red dirt and reeks of body odor. I have been sleeping on the floor at the foot of the bed. Later, I spend several hours on the toilet paying the price of eating ice cream. The next day, I sip beer while waiting for the bus to Salt Lake. I try and remember why I came on this trip. Some say they go out to the desert to find God. I didn't see a god out there. I saw the naked earth. It is raw and unforgiving, and it doesn't care if I live or die or that I ever existed. Epilogue Lucy quit her job and is now a guide intern at BOSS. Johnny went home, got divorced and moved out to San Francisco. Brandon went back home after deserting the trip. He has lunch with his parents and from time to time flies to Vegas and the Caribbean to gamble. Eric got out of therapy. Last I heard Chuck was still on a road trip. Sally decided she wouldn't be doing the trip again. Arnold is back in school and looking for more extreme adventures. Breck is planning a two-year walk through Mongolia and Siberia, and Greg is guiding kayak trips near the San Juan islands. I'm still living in the desert and carving my own talking stick.

 

How to sign up: BOSS runs trips all year, but the majority are in the summer and sell out in advance. Call (800) 335-7404 or fax (303) 442-7425.