|Your humble correspondent, arriving at base camp.|
It was pretty cool to be off the grid for a week. I can't remember the last time I went that long without email, Internet, or phone access -- I think never. It was a little surreal for a day or so, and then it was wonderful. For a whole week, I didn't even think about (let alone discuss or write about) politics or publishing. The experience made me aware of just how omnipresent communication has become in our mobile networked world. The Information Age has its advantages, obviously, but my God, it was liberating and refreshing to get away from it for a while, too. I think we pay a price for refusing to periodically hang a "Gone Fishin'" sign from our phones and laptops and letting the world do its thing without us until we're back.
|Cody teaching in the "Ramada." It was 101 degrees two days running (but a dry heat!), and the open roof, which let heat dissipate, was critical. By comparison, the space under a nearby tarp, which trapped the rising hot air, was stifling.|
|Typical lesson plan.|
I took the course because I want to be more capable of handling a grid-down situation. If you're suddenly deprived of electricity, heat, food, running water, and shelter, what do you do? How do you prepare for such an eventuality, what decisions do you make, what actions do you take? How do you deal with sanitation, how do you disinfect water, how do you thermoregulate, how do you keep your family and tribe functioning? After a week of discussing, practicing, and living (albeit in a limited, controlled setting) all this and more, I feel much better prepared to deal with the real thing. To find out more, read on...
|My deluxe accommodations. Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 -- awesome tent. It was monsoon season, and in addition to the crushing heat, we also had torrential rain. The Agnes stayed completely dry.|
|Sunset, day 1.|
Cody has a knack for integrating theory and practice. When the fourteen of us (twelve students plus Cody and his excellent teaching assistant, Mark Dorsten) arrived at the spot where we would set up our base camp, he noted that pretty soon, someone was going to need to take a shit.
As the fourteen of us were going to be there for a week, there would likely be others. How should we handle that? We thought and discussed and Cody pressure-checked our thinking as we went. Now obviously, taking a shit in the woods is itself not rocket science. But the subtleties weren't immediately obvious, at least not to me. How do you design a spot that's comfortable, useable, and private? If it's not all these things, people will hold it in, they'll get constipated, and then they'll get impacted -- and now you have crippled and ill tribe members on your hand, and no hospitals to go to for help. And how do you keep the area sanitary and clean-smelling? You don't want flies landing on shit and then finding their way over to the area where you'll be preparing food later.
Anyway, this is what we decided on and made -- known as a slit trench. Ours was about a foot wide (wider than that and it becomes hard to squat over it); eighteen inches deep (deeper is fine, but at some point it becomes easier to dig a new one than to go deeper into the increasingly hard soil, and manual labor in the desert heat is something you want to be efficient about); and seven feet long (our estimate of how long it would need to be to last us all a week. As it turned out, we were a little off and had to create a mini-version next to it on the next-to-last day).
|Digging a slit trench. It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.|
To use the trench, you make a deposit, so to speak, and cover it up with just enough loose dirt to keep the flies off it and prevent odors. In this fashion, the trench is gradually (you might even say organically) filled in. You want to stop six inches from the top and, when the trench has been used end to end, you pack the last six inches end-to-end down with the remainder of the dirt you removed digging the trench to begin with.
Probably needless to say, we chose a spot behind some bushes so everyone could enjoy (if that's the right word for shitting in a trench) privacy, and we kept a roll of toilet paper in a coffee can in a location visible to everyone. If the coffee can was missing, you knew someone was using the trench. If it was in place, you picked it up and went off to take care of business. Simple but effective.
By the way, with fourteen people and seven days, we used just a tad over two rolls of paper. It's amazing how much less you can get by with when you need to. Rocks and juniper branches work well, too.
I know, I know… TMI, Barry! But the way I look at it, we're animals. We eat, we sleep, we shit. And if you don't have the normal infrastructure we take for granted to handle these things, they require some planning and practice. Better to be practical about it all than squeamish. But hey, if you were squeamish, you wouldn't be reading this blog anyway… :)
Okay, enough about shit... what about water?
Cody provided the water -- he captures rain water and has plenty, and you need plenty if you're going to live and work outside in 100+ degree heat. There are ways of capturing water, but we played with them mostly so we would understand that they don't work well, and that you'll use more water via sweat than you'll actually gather.
|A plant still. It works, but no one got more than about a teaspoon in a bag. Not very practical -- and that was the point of the exercise.|
I wouldn't say anyone much wanted a fire (at least during the initial 100+ degree days -- we had heavy rains the last couple days, and it was chilly), but fire's about as important a tool as there is (light, heat, cooking, disinfection... the list goes on), so we learned a variety of methods of building 'em and keeping 'em going.
|With the right tinder, you can get by with just half a match.|
|Mark, with typical good cheer, demonstrating the proper use of a magnesium fire starter on a homemade tinder bundle.|
|Typical tinder bundle, made with ground-up Juniper and Cottonwood bark|
|Cody demonstrating proper technique for getting a fire started using a bow drill -- basically, rubbing two sticks together. Don't think I could have managed this from the description alone; the hands-on instruction in making and using the tools was critical.|
|Bow drill hearth, multiple uses.|
|Getting my tinder bundle going after creating an ember with a bow drill, Cody alongside offering expert guidance and a helping hand. Pretty cool to make fire with nothing but a knife, a length of paracord, and some sticks!|
|I'm blowing on it, not smoking it. Really.|
|And... ignition! Your basic super-match. Blow it out and the embers stay hot and restartable for a long time.|
|A little woozy from blowing on that bad boy, teary eyed from the smoke, and with a few minor burns from flying sparks. But feeling great!|
Having successfully made a fire with no more than a knife, a length of paracord, and a few sticks I carved, I've concluded that if you don't include multiple modern means of fire-making in your bug-out kit (more on these below), you have seriously screwed up. Making a fire with sticks is tiring, energy- and time-consuming, and uncertain. It's good to know how as a form of absolute backup (all good defense is layered), but do yourself a favor and pack those lighters, wet-proof matches, and magnesium fire starters, too.
We also experimented with a variety of foods -- canned, freeze-dried, bulk (rice and beans, for example) -- discussing the relative merits and drawbacks of each (on this course, two meals a day are provided. Cody teaches other courses on how to get your own). We cooked using a propane stove, an open fire, and a solar oven (more on that below).
|Making a meal with professional poker player and travelin' man Joe -- canned food and a propane stove.|
|Cooking over an open fire, with one field-expedient pot.|
|Making ash cakes on coals. Some call them ass cakes, but if you're hungry enough, they taste great.|
|Just add hot sauce.|
Again, not all of this is rocket science, but it was useful to live it. And the details are important. For example, how do you manage a field kitchen? Do you let people serve themselves? If so, you risk sanitation problems from multiple people handling the serving utensils. You also risk fights over some people taking what are perceived as unfairly large portions. Much better on all counts to have the designated cooks also do the serving.
|Sunrise from my tent.|
The solar oven was extremely cool. Solar radiation is shortwave, while radiated heat is longwave. Shortwave radiation penetrates glass, longwave doesn't -- this is why your car can get so explosively hot in the sun. A solar oven operates on the same principle, with commercial models getting up to 400 degrees. We made our own using a cardboard box, a mylar emergency blanket, duct tape, and glue. Tragically, the day was mostly overcast, but we still got temperatures of about 150 degrees. A little more sun that day and we easily could have baked a cake (the commercial model baked the cake just fine despite the lack of sun).
|Building the oven.|
|Fruits of our labors.|
|Setting it up in the field. The other team's model only went to 10, but ours goes to 11.|
|Every great homemade solar oven needs a name -- this design courtesy of Brando, our resident awesome tattoo artist.|
The sun has uses beyond cooking a cake, of course. Did you know the sun alone can disinfect your water? (We also learned a variety of other disinfection techniques -- boiling, iodine, bleach, filters, UV sterilization. Obviously, potable water is critical to survival).
The sun also makes a great dishwasher.
|Setting our bowls out to be disinfected by solar radiation.|
Oh, and the sun is a great washing machine, too. We only had two sets of clothing with us, and it doesn't take long living and working outdoors in the desert for your clothes to start smelling pretty gamey. Here's how to get them clean: first, you shake out all the dead skins cells that have accumulated (which, in addition to making the clothes feel dirty, clogs the dead air spaces in the fabric and thereby reduces the clothes' ability to provide insulation). Next, you just set them out in the sunlight. I was amazed at how a shirt could stink of sweat in the morning and smell completely clean at night -- the sun just wipes out the bacteria that cause the odors. Now, this is important for obvious reasons of hygiene, of course, but anything that makes you more comfortable in a grid-down situation will also be good for your morale. As Cody is fond of pointing out, 90% of survival is psychological (and we spent a lot of time discussing and living psychology and group dynamics), and morale alone can be the difference between success or failure in the field. If you don't believe me, ask a soldier.
We also had some instruction in solar home design and other ways of making your home more energy- and self-sufficient.
|Cody's house. No heat or air conditioning. It was 100 degrees outside; the interior was a blessedly cool 75 degrees.|
|Pretty cozy, huh? And totally off the grid. Passive solar- and photovoltaic-powered, rain water collection system. Amazing how much can be done with so little.|
We spent a fair amount of time planning bug-out kits (AKA, go-kits). If you had to leave the house in a hurry and for an uncertain duration because of approaching hurricane, floods, fallout, and/or zombies, and could carry only ten items on your back, what would those items be (your pack can count as #11)?
|Brainstorming a limited bug-out kit.|
What items would you need in your house if the grid were to go down for a day? A week? A month? How about your office? Your car? And what do you want to have on your person at all times, to help you get from A to B if the shit hits the fan in-between?
On the last day, we visited Yavapai College, where they're doing amazing work on self-sustaining systems -- rain water collection, passive solar design, integrated hydroponics and fish farming. It was thought-provoking and inspirational. Our society wastes so much and it wouldn't be hard to make things more efficient -- and efficient is beautiful, too, no?
|The hydroponics lab at Yavapai.|
|Corridor at the college, which is a converted barn. Passive solar and photovoltaic. Delightfully cool and beautiful, too.|
|The school's fish farm. No sharks with lasers, alas. If I ever have a fish farm, I'm getting friggin' sharks with friggin' lasers.|
Some final thoughts.
Second, on teachers. Cody and Mark were superb, and I spent a little time considering what made them so. Yes, they know their material cold because they live it. But subject matter mastery is only necessary for being a great teacher; it isn't sufficient. Cody and Mark had at least three other qualities (besides the obvious ones like enthusiasm and an ability to explain complex subjects to beginners) that I think are common to great teachers. For people presuming to teach you a new skill -- particularly one that your life might depend on -- it might be worth asking whether they have these:
1. They don't claim to have invented everything they know. In fact, they freely share the sources of their knowledge -- "I learned this from Badass Bill, a mountain man from the Canadian Rockies...". But they also always let you know what they've personally experienced.
2. When they don't know something, they say so. This demonstrates both confidence (they know so much they don't have to pretend to know everything) and integrity (pretending, and being wrong, could pass along misinformation that could get you killed).
3. They don't just teach -- they seek to learn from their students. We had a pretty eclectic group of students in the course -- a former Navy nuclear technician; a dealer in wild grass seeds; a professional poker player adept at reading people; a former army guy who was one of the first on the ground in the second Iraq war; a wine wholesaler; and some other people quite knowledgeable in their fields -- and Mark and Cody took full advantage, going deeper on certain subjects, pressure checking their own knowledge on others, always seeing what the students could add to the discussion based on their own diverse life experience.
Third, on survival situations generally. It occurs to me that a common element among military/intelligence operations, criminal acts, and survival situations is the lack of do-overs (absent a lot of luck, anyway). If you screw something up in ordinary circumstances, you can have another go at it. Or call in backup. If I'm hungry, I check the fridge. Nothing to eat? No problem, go to the supermarket. Supermarket's closed? On to an all-night 7/11. If I get hurt, I can go to the doctor. Or the emergency room. If it's bad, I might get Medivaced to a specialty center. When the grid is down... not so much.
Forgot to pack sunscreen on your trip to Bora Bora? Buy some at the hotel. Forgot to pack it in your bug-out kit, and now you're in the desert and it's 101 degrees? That's a whole different level of problem. The difference is roughly the difference between rock-climing belayed and free climbing, or between a trapeze act with or without a safety net. The latter circumstances require a much less casual mindset and a much more squared-away attitude. The week I spent at the Self-Reliance Symposium went a long way to helping me improve both.
|A little graduation ceremony back at Cody's house in Prescott.|
Not that the grid could ever go down, mind you. Or, if it did, I'm sure the politicians would be all over it, like they were in New Orleans. I mean, if you can't rely on the government, who can you rely on?
|Two exceptional teachers -- it was a privilege to train with them.|
Next up? Maybe the Desert Drifter? Or the Ultimate Abo…?