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On Survival School

Last week I did a seven day survival school course in the Utah desert. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m a better person for having completed it.

Me after survival school

Me after seven days in the desert, though I did shower before this was taken

Among some of the things our 10-person group did:

  • Went more than 30 hours without food (and afterwards only got a single banana)
  • Went four additional days with limited food – it’s amazing how far you can go on a handful of oats, lentils, quinoa and GORP
  • Drank water from a nasty looking (and smelling) watering hole for livestock
  • Hiked with a forty-pound pack – not a backpack, but a wool blanket tied up into one
  • Hiked
  • Did not change clothes for seven days and six nights
  • Learned that “dirty” is a very relative term
  • Hiked some more
  • Learned about basic navigation via the stars
  • Learned about navigation with a topographic map
  • Hiked some more
  • Sat alone in nature for a night and a day
  • Again with the hiking
  • Learned to build a fire with only sage brush, a rock and some parachute cord (I really sucked at this)
  • Learned about different types of plants. This was the worst for me because it took me back to high school biology, which was my worst subject. All those random-sounding names for organisms…
  • Our group hiked approximately ten miles without the instructor, finding our way with a topographic map
  • Hiked ten miles alone, in the dark with no light, not even moonlight
  • Finished it up with sessions in a sweat lodge alternating with plunges into a cold pond

It was an incredibly challenging experience. So much so that on day three I cracked and told the instructor that I wanted to drop out. At that moment we were in the middle of nowhere, so he informed me I would have to make it to the end of the day before they could get me out. He encouraged me to stick with it. That night we did our “solo,” where they take you to a spot to spend the evening and the next day alone. (Truthfully, the solo is about 50% of the reason I signed up for the course.) Being alone allowed me to recharge and re-ground myself in the moment, and I was fine from then on.

What Did I Learn?

In all honesty, I was pretty bad at most of the skills. I joked that in a true survival situation, such as on a life raft,  I would be the first person to be cannibalized by the others.

But there was something about being in a situation in which All. That. Matters… is staying hydrated and putting one foot in front of the other. In that context, everyday things such as email and deadlines and vacuuming the bedroom seem infinitesimally trivial.

And while I did get something from that feeling of being close to nature, the main thing it gave me was an appreciation for civilization.

The area we were in was made up of beautiful, breathtaking sandstone mountains. You know the kind – layers of rock that make you realize just how old this planet is.

Sandstone Mountains in Utah

Can you believe that these were once underwater?

But the thing I thought about was the unseen layer – the layer of human culture that has accumulated over the last 150,000 years and which separates us from the truly brutal aspects of being an animal in the wild.

Now as I walk or drive around town, or even my townhome, I try to cultivate a feeling of gratitude for just how easy life is compared to a thousand years ago. This ease is a tremendous gift bestowed on us by countless generations of innovators.

Awe and Knowledge

Another realization I had is that what separates humans from animals is the sense of awe we get when looking at a beautiful landscape, or a starry sky. While I believe this is a fundamental aspect of the human condition, I also believe it is dramatically enhanced by knowledge.

It’s one thing to look at pretty lights in the sky. It’s another to know that those lights come from stars that are millions of light years away.

In the distant past, humans had practically no knowledge about the stars, or exercise, or nutrition or germs. But we wanted to know, so we made up stories to explain things. Gods, spirits, UFOs, “the ether” – all of these are attempts to explain the unknown. Most hypotheses have been discredited, and many more will be. Nonetheless, there is something beautiful about the desire to know and how knowledge impacts our ability to feel a sense of awe about the universe.

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