It was most certainly anti-climactic to emerge from the woods on a cool Sunday morning and walk into a well-appointed campground bustling with car campers making breakfast over Coleman grills and disheveled children wrapped in Disney character blankets, quietly playing with IPads. In that moment of familiarity and habit I almost forgot what I had been doing for the past few days as I picked at the continental breakfast laid out by our instructor to welcome us back to civilization. I wanted a shower, a change of clothes and much more than a grocery store muffin (which I ate anyway). I wanted my foods: the nut butters and trendy high protein "superfoods" I am so used to and have come to expect.
Three days before, I was skinning a garter snake, awkwardly and squeamishly removing its guts, cutting it into one bite-sized piece for each of my classmates and adding it as the main part of a stew made up of pond water, wild garlic, a handful of tadpoles, a slug, a cricket, multiple chunks of palm heart and a fist-sized bunch of wood sorrel, a heart shaped green we had picked earlier. I had to be reminded to remove as much of the dirt as possible from the garlic bulbs, I was in such a hurry to boil that pond water and get some lunch, the first food I had had in about a day and a half. I then added the secret ingredient: two tiny packets of salt like you get in those wrapped bags of utensils that come with takeout food. I had not brought the salt as seasoning, but as a means of keeping up energy in the heat and limited caloric intake by adding a packet to my canteen water. The snake was universally disappointing to all reviewers: its taste alien and unsatisfying, its texture gummy but punctuated by tiny bones that crunched as they were thoroughly chewed for both additional nutrition and to keep them from lodging in your throat. One person said they burped up snake for an entire day following.
No one ate the cricket or the slug and only myself and one other sampled the tadpole (which was disappointing). But the broth was a wonder. To my starved palate, it was like a consommé, both nourishing and hydrating. Hydration was of particular interest to us. There was virtually no mid-day shade, the work of building shelters was sweaty as well as frustrating and since our only water source from the stagnant pond had to be thoroughly boiled and then cooled enough to drink, any bonus liquids, especially those with added nutrition were very welcome. We drank straight from the pot we cooked in, the only cooking utensil that accompanied us on our trip.
If you know me, you probably are aware that I like to do things that take me out of my comfort zone: improv, Krav Maga, adventure travel like spending the weekend with Zapatista rebels in the Mexican wilderness and what I would call extreme academics like Acton and so forth. Besides challenging my comfort, failure is very real and palpable: I was a highly inconsistent performer in improv, I failed my first belt test in Krav Maga, had my passport confiscated by well armed and clearly drug addled paramilitary soldiers on a deserted road and had to seriously rewire my highly qualitative brain to survive in the often highly quantitative and competitive world of MBAs.
So, enrolling in a nine month survival program capped by a five day stint in the woods with only a knife, the clothes on your back, a primitive tool or implement you have made and a canteen seems like just another one in a list of the sort of experiences I like to spend my money on. But most importantly, each of these experiences has changed my life profoundly as I overcame not only my own very real mental and physical limitations, but also others' expectations of me as well. In a world where many people believe that all talents are gifts dispensed by the genetic lottery, I can be a slow learner, relatively uncoordinated physically and likely of average intelligence. My age can be unsettling to younger peers, especially in improv and Krav Maga. My political leanings don't fall into neat categories either, which some people find exasperating. How many hard-core lefties do you know that think you should also know how to fight and shoot a gun?
I'm going to try to unpack some of this, through the lens of survival. I'm doing this for me more than for anyone else, but I'll publish more of these these on my usual sporadic schedule.