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Anatomy of a Grub-Eater
I want to eat wheat.
No. not heaps.
It’s a weird component of my personality. But I find it unacceptable, exciting the thought of doing things, stable conditions, that most human beings would find unacceptable. Nothing appeals to me more than the thought of giving up the comforts and conveniences of modern life, and just living in a primitive environment.
As a small child, I spent large parts of the daylight in the woods. Our Northern Virginia suburban home backed up against a large section of woods. It was sweet heaven. I would walk along the barely visible path to the stream and follow the mysterious winding path until I was so far from the sights and sounds of suburbia that my imagination could really flex its muscles. The woods were full of mystical millennial markers: the ‘Word Tree’, a massive elm tree on which countless other fellow travelers had carved their last words, with incredible creativity; ‘Frankenstein’s Tomb’, an above-ground crypt, literally stands alone in an abandoned place, the final resting place of God knows who, and then there was the ‘Barbed Wire Fence’ that cut across the stream, a border beyond which all the children in my neighborhood were instructed not to travel. The freedom we had, even as small children, to explore our world in those days was amazing and something simply impossible these days. Alas.
In the dense green of the Franconia forest of the 1970s, I imagined myself a young Neanderthal, scavenging Paleolithic forests for roots, berries and small game. I could be deep in the Amazon, escaping a vicious group of stalkers whose poison arrows could pierce the bush any second and bring about my death, or a Native American boy sneaking off into the forest to practice skills that would make me a successful brave warrior. As it was, I was an 8-year-old American boy, traveling alone and unsupervised through a strange, alien land: I was turning logs to marvel at wood salamanders, stag beetles, centipedes, a garter snake, or blue tail skin – no one ever knew. what can stay there. Jumping into deep pockets of water to catch one of God’s most beautiful creatures, the common frog; I marveled at the construction of Nature, the wings of a pair of dragonflies as they mate in mid-flight, the sight and sound of a giant hornet’s nest hanging dangerously and menacingly from the branch of a maple tree, or the beautiful craftsmanship of a bay hole on the shore the muddy streams.
I was mostly at home in the woods. Born a hundred years ago, I might never have left them. Born into a modern century, true adventure is elusive, more of a fleeting memory than a possibility.
I joined the Marine Corps at age 21, no doubt in part out of a vague sense of selflessness. I didn’t fit in at college. Unlike the paths I followed in my youth, none of the paths available there made sense. They felt artificial and wrong. I had no desire to kill or be killed in the Marine Corps. But I loved the Corps as it took me back to the woods. Whether hiking through the swamps of Camp Lejeune, NC, or the jungles of Panama, Okinawa, Japan, or the Philippines, I thrived on long treks through rough terrain, carrying only a minimum of food and water and knowing that I might have to use ingenuity to provide the rest. The harder the environment, the more I loved it. The brutal and dangerous Desert Warfare School at 29 Palms, California, Survival/Evidence/Resist/Escape (SERE) training in the High Sierra, mountain warfare training at Pickel Meadows at 11,000 ft in the Sierra Nevada mountains, these were the locations which I liked. the majority. Even experiencing a combat environment in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the most compelling memories came from living for 6 months in a bleak, alien and brutally desolate desert.
Don’t get me wrong, much of my experience as an enlisted and commissioned Marine involved pain, suffering, and what can only be described as misery. Living outside, in rain, snow, 20 below zero or 120 above, staying awake for days with little to eat or drink, is hard to fit within the confines of the definition of ‘fun’. But it was fun. Knowing that I was doing things that most people simply wouldn’t or couldn’t do filled me with pride. Standing, hell even flourishing, in those conditions, exceeding the limits of those around me, was my ‘forte’. I had found something I was better at than almost anyone else. I never told my peers that it wasn’t a fair race, that I had spent most of my childhood perfecting those skills. In the Marine Corps, I hiked 50 miles non-stop, ate things I found under logs, caught and killed animals to survive, and discovered where my limits were.
Recently, I re-read one of my favorite books, Fearless couragehistory of the Lewis and Clark expedition, written by Stephen Ambrose. Indulging in the tale of 2 explorers who, with only a small platoon of tough and nimble troops to accompany them, traversed a virtually unexplored United States, I fantasized about what it must have been like to be among them. Facing the unknown, with minimal resources, literally living off the land, with nothing but wits, grit and courage to protect them, it must have been one hell of a ride. While I recognize and enjoy the benefits of modern life (I won’t die of a simple infection, get mauled to death by a grizzly, or freeze to death), I sometimes feel like I was born in the wrong era.
I think there are others like me out there. Given the popularity of survival shows on TV, I know I’m not alone. These shows tap into deep-seated instincts, I think most of us have, to prepare for and survive any challenge the natural world can throw at us. Some of us can moan, groan and complain through them, like Les Stroud on the hit series “Survivorman”. Personally, I’d like to think I’m a lot more like Bear Grylls in ‘Man Vs. Wild – which not only survives, but happily thrives in the most challenging environments (camera crew nearby or not). So, faced with the prospect of a handful of piles and starvation – I’m a bare-knuckle guy, forever. I would probably lie and tell you they had a nice aftertaste.
One day, I may even prove it. That little kid, completely absorbed in the beauty, solitude and natural wonder of the forest, is still out there somewhere. I would like to reconnect with the little boy who is and always has been the best part of me. I’ve been thinking a lot about taking a year or two off of ‘real life’ and following the wilderness route that Lewis and Clark traveled from 1805-1806. When my kids are older, if I can convince my brother to come on this adventure, I might. If that grizzly eats me, I won’t have the burden of knowing I left my children uneducated and my brother will have an incredible story to tell.
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