Category Archives: Outdoors

Camping, survival training, etc

Survival Training 3: Scout Pits

The pits. Everyone always wants to know about the mud pits. They want to know how it felt to search through the dark for a hidden location and then climb down into a muddy hole in the earth, the size and shape of a grave, and go to sleep for the night. Patience. First I had to dig it.

My little german shovel, ready to dig

The first step was to find a good location. One of my teammates picked a spot surrounded by fallen trees. My first thought when I saw it was, “that’s the perfect place to hide a scout pit.” My second thought was, “wait, if that was my first thought, it’d be the first thought of someone searching for it.” I then realized that I had to dig my secret den of sleeping in plain sight. That was, until I realized that I’d thought of that idea second, and so would someone hunting me. In fact, maybe someone looking for me would be so sure I’d never fall for hiding my pit in the obvious place that the obvious place was exactly where I should dig. Soon this lead to the inevitable game of, “clearly I cannot chose the glass in front of me.” At last I split the difference by finding a spot in a fairly open clearing with enough saplings protruding from the ground that there was just barely enough room for a person to fit between them. More importantly, it would be hard to imagine that someone could fit between them.

I started by carefully clearing away and saving the top layer of decaying leaves and twigs. They were going to be the camouflage I would use to rebuild the forest floor as it was. Then I started enthusiastically carving out the dirt beneath with my small shovel. I had known we’d be traveling some distance to the site of our hidden camps and so I opted for a collapsing german army shovel. I think it cost me about $25 at a military surplus shop. The little green tri-folding tool took some serious abuse without complaint. One edge was serrated, which was perfect for cutting through the tough layers of roots near the surface. The front came to a point, and I could use that to hack at the thick clay to loosen it up before shoveling it out. Unfortunately, despite all of it’s great features, the shovel could not escape its tiny size.

After six hours of furious digging, pauses to pant and stare blankly at the ground, mad, aimless stabbing at dirt, ceaseless sweating in the rain, and general psychological mayhem as I forced myself time and again to keep digging, I still wasn’t done. I just couldn’t move enough earth with that tiny shovel. It didn’t help that I’d also come across a number of massive rocks. I’d had to use a whole slew of levering and digging and tugging tactics before I could heave them out, their resistance stubborn and unrelenting until the last. It was like trying to get my housemate Dhruv Bansal out of bed for a morning game of squash. Actually, in both cases pouring water on them helped to some extent. So did yelling.

Graham emerges from one of our scout pits
Graham emerges from one of our scout pits

The class had to continue, so in the end we compromised. Our team of four joined forces the next morning to finish two scout pits and we rotated nights sleeping in them. I was really disappointed in myself for not having been able to finish one completely solo, but the massive blisters on my thumbs and palms (in rock climbing we call them “bloody flappers” when they reach that point) were enough badges of honor to justify moving on to the next challenge.

My view in the scout pit of my feet
As it turns out, the scout pits were really comfortable. The walls weren’t wet and muddy, but solid and cool to the touch. The thick layer of dirt on top was enough to stop water from getting in and acted as insulation. There was plenty of room and maybe it was because I live with six housemates already, but the guests didn’t bother me. There were only a couple of large spiders, crickets, and beetles that decided to wander through my crude door to join me and none of them had any intention of harming me. I actually enjoyed having them around. It made everything feel more authentic somehow.

In the morning I climbed up out into the early morning light, the dewey ground and the smell of the damp leaves all around me, feeling very woven into the woods. I felt refreshed and exhilarated. I wasn’t a stranger wrapped in plastic, I was alive and a part of it all.

Survival Training 2

I wasn’t walking particularly carefully but my awareness was turned up high when, suddenly, the smallest movement to my right exploded like fireworks in my brain. I froze immediately and snapped my focus from a wide, expansive view to a narrow tube, zooming in on the barely visible fawn. Her colors, a complex blend of camouflage patterns, would have made her nearly invisible if not for her slight movement. Only days ago I would have missed her entirely, but now my brain was turned up to a level of awareness innate to all humans, but trained to disuse by environments like cities, thick with background noise. I was perceiving the world in a way that was essential to the survival of our ancestors.

Awareness. Throughout my experience, my understanding of what that word meant expanded as rapidly as the thing itself. Awareness is like reading. Awareness is like feeling. Awareness is a way of being.

Learning to read

When I first started to learn Chinese characters, they were beautiful scribbles, little bits and pieces of art neatly woven together. As I learned the radicals (simple bits of characters that form larger characters) I started to see them pop out of the background until the whole written Chinese language started to break apart and form simple, repeated shapes I could recognize. I think the experience is something like standing up close to a painting entirely of dots and, as you step back, seeing the dots suddenly form into people having a picnic.

As I learned about the various plants that surrounded us, just as with Chinese characters they began to emerge from the green mush before me that my brain called, “woods”. Suddenly I could spot the medicinal plantain and then the tulip poplar, with its catlike leaves and easy to peel bark, ready material for tinder or cordage. Quickly my brain used this head start to begin breaking down and separating a whole variety of plants I couldn’t even name, but could recognize instantly.

Where is the moon

Awareness is about keeping track of things. Like the moon. Every time I was overly focused on moving I lost track of the moon and went in the wrong direction. I don’t have a child, but I imagine that the way a parent maintains a constant background connection to where their child is in the room is how I learned to love the moon. It was another center, ever present, but also moving over time. By being constantly aware of its shift as it moved across the southern sky I could make continuous adjustments for how I was moving in relation to my glowing friend.


I’ve been asked if we did anything “spiritual” during our week. I think the best answer is yes, we did: we set tripwires for each other linked to small, very loud firecrackers. Most importantly, awareness is about learning to sense. The secret to learning to be very aware is repeatedly catching yourself when you are not aware and turning your awareness back on. I am particularly prone to walking while looking at the ground, completely lost in my head as I play out a story or song idea or problem that is thousands of miles away from the present moment. There is nothing like an explosion next to my head to bring me quickly into the present. After your first explosion, you suddenly feel every very slight tug against your leg or arm. Feeling for each little sensation of unnatural resistance means you are also feeling out everything else around you. Sounds. Smells.

Awareness is about taking in a lot of information simultaneously, without focusing overly much on any one piece, and allowing the subconscious to learn to process that information. I remember the first time I was instantly aware of a temperature drop. When I began repeatedly noticing hawks overhead.

This wide open, full awareness I’ve been describing comes from a whole variety of seemingly unconnected practices. Walking blindfolded in the dark. Stalking other humans. Being stalked by other humans. Knowing there are tripwires somewhere between you and the glow stick you are trying to steal. All these things produce a state that is difficult to describe but beautiful to experience. Everything feels expansive and also like a thick space, or material, stretching out in all directions where I am at the center. Things are continually in motion through that material, interacting in an ordered and coherent way over time.

Even with the brief time I spent in this state, I was able to feel the connected nature of everything around me. I glimpsed the integral way that things play out, and how one movement leads to another. It is abundantly clear that, living in this state for a longer period of time, even more attuned to the movement and shifts of nature, seasons, and the millions of cycles that repeat time and again, I would want to find a name for this ever present essence. Maybe I, too, would call it, “The spirit that moves through all things”.

It’s an incredible way of being, and at our last fire together many grown men were overwhelmed and even cried. Wallace put it best. “I don’t ever want to forget… this”, he said, yanking out a wad of mud and leaves from the ground before him and holding it up in a fist. I knew exactly what he meant.

That feeling, that connection to that fistful of earth, came not just from spending time on trails in the woods or the awareness we built. It was shaped by living in the earth, quite literally as the week progressed. The many physical challenges I would face over the week forced me to time and again learn to take on my single greatest opponent and obstacle: my own brain.

Stay tuned for more tales from the underbrush!

Survival Training

I paused mid step, my right foot frozen just above the ground, my breath, slow and even. Then I heard it again, the distant bung of the drum, echoing through the trees on the hill high above me. The blindfold was tight and cool across my face. The lively nerves across the bottom of my bare foot sang of a dry twig and I adjusted slightly, shifting my hips smoothly, and placed the foot carefully into the leaves before rolling my weight forward. The sounds of crickets and the feel of soft breezes across my bare skin shaped the space through which I passed. I wove my way slowly through thick tangles of vines and piles of logs, navigating through and over complex terrain that unraveled and simplified as I focused on the immediate and moving through flow instead of resistance. At times I gently thumped into larger objects, and was careful to move my head back slightly and feel out with my senses what I had somehow missed. Always around me the crickets lay a thick background that made subtle shifts when trees or thickets came near. Always came the interruption of the drum, every half minute, providing a brief glimpse of my destination.

The blind drum stalk was a crucial turning point in the nine day survival course I took this last week. As at last I sat blindfolded among the growing group of silent men emerging from the forest, the drum pounding mere feet from us, I absorbed and reveled in the sense of fearlessness that came with having moved through what would have, during the daylight, appeared nearly impassible. I no longer needed trails. I no longer needed light. I no longer hesitated to join the earth, mud, leaves and vines. I had begun my transformation into becoming them.

We were a group of fifteen men: twelve students and two instructors. Karen, who owned the land where we trained, joined us for most of our adventures in the first half of the week as an enthusiastic observer. Many of the students’ wives had attended previous classes, but something about this particular course, that required us to dig and live in mud pits, convinced them to sit this one out.

From the very beginning the driveway spoke of the group’s diversity, with tiny fuel efficient cars parked next to massive trucks covered with gun stickers. Dave was a cop that taught firearms. Matt ran a green building consulting company. Chuck, ever good humored under his bright red mop of hair, was on his way to Kuwait as a soldier. Craig, with his quiet presence and strong center, was a redneck turned Aikido master. Phil did autopsies at the morgue before becoming a copy repair man. David was a preschool teacher and amazing at Tai Chi. Wallace was a former wrestler we referred to as the, “Primate” who painted abstract art.

While we may not have shared the same political views, we relished the opportunity to spend time with other men who shared our passion for both ancient and modern skills and the natural world. We were forever taking moments to discuss or try out new equipment or ideas. If you make an alcohol stove out of a cat food can, don’t forget to add a drop of food coloring to the alcohol… so you can see it. Leaving your tent behind and using a poncho or tarp to build a shelter is great, but adding a hammock to raise you off the ground and allow you to sleep on steep hillsides is even better. Hatchet handles inevitably break. Why not forge your own hatched head with a tapered hole so that you can replace it with a sapling?

The instructors, Richard Cleveland and Tom Laskowski, also set the tone by setting their egos aside from the very beginning and pointing out that despite their years of experience, they still had plenty to learn. They even expected us, as our skills improved, to sometimes catch them during stalking exercises. It was a dark night several days later when it became a good thing that Richard, in particular, had said something up front.

Tune in for more thrilling tales as my adventure continues!

Survival School

YABAW! Yet Another Big, Amazing Weekend.

Right when you need it, boomp. There it is. The survival training I went to this weekend was based on Tom Brown’s Tracker School and was exactly what I needed right now.

So much has been happening to me of late. It’s been a lot to take in and it’s consumed most of my brain space and energy either thinking or doing research. After the first night on the preserve… I wasn’t thinking about it at all and didn’t even want to. The only place I was willing to spend my attention was on the continually unfolding adventure around me which, in the end, led to a whole new state of consciousness.

As soon as we arrived we went down to a dock reaching out over a small lake. A giant blue heron watched us as one of the caretakers tossed in a few shovelfuls of fish food pellets the size of corn puffs. Fish began popping up out of the water and pulling the food off of the surface. I bent a little closer to get a good look at them when, in the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a long, dark form weaving towards us like a shark. It accelerated quickly towards the surface and, suddenly, pierced it with a massive head the size of a watermelon. Catfish, up to five feet long, swarmed in from all over the lake. In the end there were fifteen of them, feeding, diving, leaping up above the surface and crashing down into the water again. Across the lake, a giant snake began slowly swimming its way around the edge. I was mesmerized.

While they were often intermingled, the weekend focused on two primary areas of learning: physical skills and awareness skills. The morning began with a short meditation to practice opening up our awareness to the subtle sounds, smells, tastes of the woods. We then proceeded to construct what is known as a “debris hut” shelter. One of the instructors had apparently been living in one for the last eight months. It is basically a massive sleeping bag sized cone into a ribbed structure covered with a network of leaves and twigs. It should keep you warm well below freezing if packed high enough, and is completely waterproof.

The first thing that became clear was how quickly this group worked together. There were fifteen people, and all were eager to help pick up whatever needed to be done. I also re-learned a lesson about age that I picked up years ago. When I was younger I felt very little connection to much older people (grandparents). I always assumed this was a generational issue, and something that everyone not living with their older relations experienced. Now I see it very differently. I am a strange little bug, and I surround myself with interesting and strange people who make up a tiny subset of the population. Any generation has this small subset of people, including older generations. There were sixty year old people at this event that felt as fresh, spastic, exciting and excited as me at my freakiest.

One of my favorite characters from the weekend was not that much older than me. He was, however, more spastic, less self conscious, and even more full of endless stories, facts, and fascinating observations. He would tell some story about the time he lived in a wigwam. When I asked him where that was, he would explain that it was on some private land a little ways from where he worked, at an Ashram. An Ashram where, apparently, he was happily living as a vegan and picking up roadkill just for skinning until he found a fox and, as he held it in his hands, realized he could eat it. He then ended up with a roadkill deer which he sliced open, spread over a bamboo structure and smoked. At the time he would dream of it, savoring slicing up the meat, the feel of the knife in his hands… so he moved out of the all vegan Ashram and build himself a wigwam, covered with discarded tarps, which had holes that attracted, and allowed him to observe, shrews. “They were so cute, and mostly blind, and so fun to watch. Man, that’s the one creature that you’d never want to have grow huge… they’d just burrow up out of the ground all venomous and terrifying… that’d be the worst.” He was also a medic at the first Desert Storm, spent random times living in the woods, and makes stone tools with rocks he finds in downtown Austin where he lives, and is about to have his first kid. Lucky kid.

Next we learned to make fire, something I was most excited about initially. I didn’t quite get it out of my bow drill in the time we had, but I got close and I definitely know what I need to do at this point. I’m really stoked about making that happen and I’ve already started looking out for the right woods and yuccas for twine making (which we also learned).

We touched on a whole spread of other skills, including bird language (learning to understand what’s happening around you by how the birds react) and tracking. A track has an insane amount of information contained in it when read correctly, including fullness of bowels, sex, mood etc. But all of these skills were nowhere near as cool as the awareness training.

Every culture ultimately discovers some way of reaching a mental state of quietness, and develops their own interpretation for that state and uses for it. The Apache realized that this state provided a variety of tools, both practical and spiritual. From a practical standpoint it allows a human to not register “intent” with animals, which would make them appear to be a danger. It also produces “wide angle vision”. When I was a kid I realized that if I slightly unfocused my eyes while playing video games, and took in everything that was happening at once, I was far more effective at dealing with a wide variety of moving elements simultaneously. As a sound recordist for films I learned a similar technique for listening “holistically” and registering every sound that might be a problem.

Fundamentally opening up your perception in this way allows you to take in a huge number of factors, so many that you conscious brain cannot process it all at once and you simply “surrender to” or “feel” the information you need. (Malcom Gladwell talks about this in his book “Blink”.) This was important in our next exercise, where we walked off into the woods and blindfolded ourselves. We had to follow, and locate, a moving drum that sounded once every 20 seconds. Apache trackers, at age eight, had to locate a moving camp over a distance of 100 miles blindfolded in the same way. So that is what we did next: same exercise, no drum, carrying a full glass of water we couldn’t spill. Several minutes into the second exercise I ended up turned around and could tell that something wasn’t right. I stopped, stood up straight, and “felt” for the right direction. I started turning and got it immediately. I think it was primarily the feel and sound of the wind, some of many environmental factors my brain was taking in. Several people stopped in front of trees and walked around them while blindfolded, never touching the tree. The difference between being among trees and being in a clearing was huge. I could feel it the second I stepped out into a clear space.

The awareness exercises had quite an impact. A few hours after returning home, I am still in some altered state of awareness. My senses are hyper attuned. I felt a little strange when I first arrived, but the minute I stepped out the door and tried to walk to Wheatsville… it was a whole different experience. Everything was brighter, and moving, and I could hear and feels sounds and movement all around me. It was like everything was amplified. I tried to have a conversation with someone in the store and it was hard to communicate I was so overwhelmed. It was like moving through a richer, fuller version of the world. It was very surreal. I’m not sure how long it will last; I’m certain my brain will start filtering and shutting down again now that I’m being saturated with stimulus. Perhaps by tomorrow. But I’d really like to be able to keep the ability to turn on this level of awareness. Might be time to begin a regular practice of it…