For many years, my dad’s phone background featured a picture of me — age 11 — hunched over a small pile of dry leaves and sticks, trying to start a fire. It was my first time camping. In the snapshot, you can’t really tell what’s happening; you can’t see the magnesium rod and the chunk of steel in my hands, nor the sparks created by rubbing them together. I always found it curious that he chose this picture rather than, say, the one of me presiding over the flames with thumbs-up.
My dad is the smartest person I’ve ever known. He’s open and compassionate. He’ll listen to what anyone has to say about anything. I’ve never been able to think as clearly as he does, and I’ve always envied him for that. But more so, I’ve always been afraid of him losing it.
My grandpa had Alzheimer’s. His dementia appeared when I was very young. For years, I watched my dad agonize — trying to help his dad by doing all the things my grandpa could no longer do: driving, bathing, cutting his hair. Now, every time my 69-year-old dad repeats something or forgets something or has an otherwise insignificant “senior moment,” a suppressed voice inside me wonders if it’s starting. Nothing scares me more than dad forgetting everything, right down to my name. I’m sure nothing scares him more, either.
But that picture of me rubbing magnesium and steel together offers a reminder to my dad that I’m determined, persistent, appreciative of the simple things in the natural world. In other words, I’m like him in some ways. I suspect he saw a bit of himself living outside of himself, safe from what may be to come.
I’d been thinking about that picture a lot during Day 3 of my weeklong stay in late August at Boulder Outdoor Survival School (also known as BOSS), one of Utah’s and America’s many wilderness expedition programs, as we continued our backcountry slog. We’d followed a sandy ditch before taking refuge under a sandstone overhang. I recognized this place as soon as we arrived. It was the cave from another of my dad’s photos. A photo he took when he was here 37 years ago.
I look around again. The cave — with the open, sandy bottom and the cliff towering above — is without question the same. That’s why, during a much-needed break, I start hunting for footprints. Not the kind stomped so literally into the dust; the kind, rather, found in the imagination. I dip my bandana and fill my bottle in a nearby stream and wonder if dad did, too. But my imagination is interrupted as Steve, our course instructor, announces that it’s time to learn how to make fire. For me, this lesson is 15 years in the making.
Creating fire in the wilderness was the first thing my dad and I bonded over, back when that picture was taken all those years ago. I still feel closest to him in the outdoors, and especially around a campfire. I came here to find out why. To venture into the wilderness for seven days, hoping to better understand what our shared fascination with the outdoors can teach me about him, about myself and about the American literary tradition that’s long promised outdoor living as a cure to modern ailments.
We appear in the early morning darkness. All 11 of us shake hands and joke about our bucket hats and flannel button-downs in a parking lot while motorists thunder past on the nearby parkway. We’ve come to escape such noise, and eight-cylinder roars or not, our escape begins now.
We range in age from 18 to mid-50s. We’ve come from Hawaii and New York and in between. We’re Irish, Native American, Uruguayan; Brooklyn beat cops and an aspiring fitness trainer; people who will soon be united in suffering and, hopefully, deliverance. We board two white vans outside the Provo Days Inn and shuttle down Interstate 15, bound for the town of Boulder, Utah.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School boasts a reputation as one of America’s toughest outdoor education programs. There are many such programs, designed to teach both primitive and practical survival skills, but BOSS often tops the list. I’ve known about it for as long as I can remember, dating back to my dad wearing his alumni shirt when I was a kid.
In 1985, 11 years before my birth, he attended a two-week field course. He was slim and fit back then, with a full, short, dark head of hair. I never really knew that version of him; nowadays he shaves his head and his gut pushes out his shirt. We share the same blue eyes, the same incomplete sets of facial hair and the same aversion to conflict of any kind. We’re the same height — 5-foot-7 — but I’m already a bit heavier than he was during his course. And my hair is long and blonde and (though I’m six years younger than he was in 1985) already thinning. Nevertheless, I’m about to do what he did, though with the more affordable (and possible, for a novice like me) one-week course. The idea is to enter the wilderness with minimal equipment, food and water and come out having learned something about survival and self. Or so I’m told.
My dad is so confident I’ll complete the course that he sent me his alumni shirt ahead of time, on the condition that I only wear it once it’s done. I’m less certain. The course website warns about the physical rigors of hiking a dozen miles or more per day. My suburban lifestyle involves running a mile or two on a treadmill a handful of times per week. I don’t know whether that’ll be good enough. Until now, my dad’s advice has consisted of how he thought about Coca-Cola amid the most trying moments of hunger and thirst. But, recognizing my apprehension, he offers some hard-earned wisdom via text, as he often does during consequential moments. “Have a good time,” he writes. “Keep a positive attitude, pay attention, be careful, and try to experience everything fully. And if you don’t like something, just remember: This too shall pass.”
As we traverse Capitol Reef country and begin our climb over Boulder Mountain, smoke from wildfires clouds the valley views and lends a dreamlike fugue to the road. The van’s tires hum along over the smooth asphalt, and its potent air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror masks my nervous sweat. All of us are here for different reasons. A fit, wispy-lipped teenager in search of a rite of passage into adulthood. A tall, gray-haired, wisecracking New Yorker looking for novelty post-divorce. A chatty blond named Ashley with a Bible verse tattooed on the side of her hand flat out says she’s in search of a “transformative experience.”
I’m looking to learn what I can about my dad, about what our similar interests tell me about myself, and perspective. The kind that — to my knowledge and experience, at least — can’t be found in what desert bard Edward Abbey called “the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus.” For those privileged enough to pay $1,895 plus transportation, BOSS offers to take you into the desert for a week, hose off that filth and replace it with the more literal kind. Thus bestowing a sort of serenity that, as prose tells, can be found only when man and nature become one.
That’s the thinking, anyway. BOSS executive director Eli Loomis, bearded and bushy-browed like so many of his colleagues, told me that what the school offers — when all the challenges and skills lessons are stripped away — is “the opportunity to get back to the bedrock experience of being a human.” He echoes Abbey. In “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey’s opus on living in the wilderness of Arches National Park, he sought “to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.” And in so doing, to live in communion with “a great and unbounded world.”
The world has changed since “Desert Solitaire” was published in 1968. Better technology has allowed steel skyscrapers and suburban sprawl to sprout like weeds, fueled by globalized communications and insatiable markets. Which is to say the forces that called Abbey to the desert are stronger than ever and continue to sing their siren song for the folks who find themselves here, cramped in a dingy white van. Once we arrive at the campus — a handful of scuffed white yurts and some huts crudely assembled with twigs and logs amid an otherwise wild landscape —the staff collects our phones, laptops and watches. They inspect our gear, from nonserrated knives to wool blankets. And they instruct us to go grab a small rock, no explanation given.
With everything packed and ready, we gather in a circle, seated atop tree stumps, to meet our guides. Steve, 51, has been here since 2001. He’s bearded and thin, with a pair of leather sandals he made himself. He’s more comfortable sleeping outdoors than in a bed, he tells us, and has eaten far more mice than the average person. Mike, 51, is larger, built like a linebacker, but with a patient smile. “A gentle giant,” one group member observes. He sort of has to be, given his unenviable job of making sure no one gets left behind.
With the basic ground rules established — no nudity, no cussing and no pop-culture references, for starters — it’s time to begin. We load up and head south in the van on one of the most scenic stretches of highway on Earth, overlooking the rose and ruby-colored canyons of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We unload at the Escalante River Trailhead and head east (I think), past an ancient indigenous granary built into the cliffs, past the pink walls of a canyon sunset. We hike through shallow river water and, eventually, in darkness, single file, using “hoots” — like owls — to communicate. Finally, just outside a stand of cottonwood trees, Steve stops. “I think they’ve had enough for today,” he announces, and tells us to find a spot to sleep. We’ve hiked, by my estimate, about two miles.
I stumble through the brush searching for a flat surface. For now, our only sleeping equipment is long underwear, a wool sweater, a wool jacket and a five-by-five-foot tablecloth used to wrap and carry everything — we won’t get wool blankets until later. But the ground is still warm, so tonight, I settle in the dirt and cover myself with the tablecloth. I gaze up at a night sky like I’ve never seen. The only sign of civilization comes from the roar of passing planes. I fall asleep counting obedient satellites gliding through their orbits and shooting stars ripping across the sky, my mind as far from Coca-Cola as can be. A pleasant breeze tickles the sagebrush. I don’t even bother with a jacket, my mind buzzing with the possibilities of what I might discover about nature and self.
That is, until it gets cold.
BOSS has been around since 1968, when a Brigham Young University professor named Larry Dean Olsen convinced the school to let him take a group of struggling students into the wilderness for 30 days to “test them physically and mentally and to give them the opportunity to reconnect, renew and recommit to their life’s path.” The course was a success, and from it, a class called “Youth Leadership 480” — aka the BYU survival course — was born. It continued under BYU’s umbrella until 1977, when it became an independent operation based in the hamlet of fewer than 300 known as Boulder. It’s since splintered further, with courses ranging from hunter-gatherer to wilderness navigation and ownership changing hands every few years until, in 2018, my instructor Steve became the last owner by making BOSS a nonprofit. But the core program is still the field course, offered in seven-, 14- and 28-day increments. It hasn’t changed much since Olsen first started it, the school says, with a simulated survival experience still central.
Though some parts of it have had to change. In 2005, a woman named Lisa Tabb fell while descending a slot canyon and broke her hip, leg and three ribs and dislocated her shoulder; she sued the school. (It has since updated its practices to avoid such mishaps.) A year later, in July 2006, a 29-year-old field course participant from New Jersey named Dave Buschow started complaining of thirst just a few hours into a 28-day field course. His guides had water they could’ve given him, but about 24 hours in, they were mere feet from a water source, and they wanted him to reach it. Buschow didn’t make it. He collapsed and died. His family sued the school and reached a settlement. Once again, the school updated its practices to make water more central. During my field course, we drank from the Escalante River on the morning of Day 1 and were never in danger of running out of water. Our guides urged us to fill up at every opportunity. We even purified it with chlorine dioxide drops — another update from my dad’s days, when they drank straight from mossy puddles.
We find one such puddle in the early evening of Day 2. We haven’t had a refill since we left the riverside this morning, and we’ve since traversed miles of dry canyon country. It’s rainwater, collected in a bowl of rock, full of green muck and some tadpoles. We fill our bottles — perhaps with a bit more particulate matter than before — and set off.
Finally, long after darkness falls, Steve stops us at a little flat patch of dirt and brush just high enough out of a floodplain. We’ve spent the day among cacti, so I ask him if we might accidentally lay down in some needles. “I’m not sure,” he says. I’m so relieved that I tumble into the clay regardless. I squeeze into my long underwear and military surplus jackets, and once more I drift to sleep looking to the stars. I see far fewer moving objects tonight. My mind dwells on Coca-Cola and on the fools who have written about these moments as if they were poetry.
Laying in the small cave I recognize from my dad’s photos of his time here and thinking about that version of me from his phone background, I wonder if I’ll feel even closer to him after all this is over.
But I need wonder no more when Steve tells us to gather in a circle. He passes out a bounty of food — peanuts and raisins for snacks; oats, sugar and powdered milk for breakfast; lentils, quinoa, carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic, flour and vegetable bouillon for dinner — and announces it’s time to learn how to make fire.
Rather than flint and steel, we’ll be learning to make fire with a bow drill. The idea is to use friction to create heat and, eventually, a coal. You dump the coal into a tinder bundle and blow on it until it ignites. It looks really simple when Steve does it. But it’s not simple, nor is it perfectly safe. “Someone started a forest fire that burned 1,400 acres and that we all had to run away from,” Steve says.
We gather dead branches and whittle “spatulas” — long, flat, tongue-shaped utensils — that remind me of the wooden spoon my dad still has from his course. Mine isn’t nearly as utensil-looking, but it’s good enough to stir and eat with. We chop our veggies, throw them into well-worn black pots and hang them over the fire Steve has made. For the first time in three nights we eat dinner. Steve even mixes up some flour, water and salt to make “ash cakes,” which look like little pancakes and cook right on the hissing coals. They’re a favorite of dad’s.
Before getting some sleep, I fall back to my wandering wonderings. Maybe, with that photo, dad also wanted to memorialize the hard part; the moment of doing rather than the afterglow of having done; the part of me — and him — that wants to partake in this world. That, after all, is what this course is all about — or so I tell myself while bundling up. A light drizzle pops against the leaves.
Today we’re learning navigation. Steve delivers a brief lesson about reading maps, then hands them over to us in well-worn plastic bags. As if on cue, the drizzle morphs into a spitting, whirling downpour.
Pretty much all of us have green or camouflage military surplus ponchos, which we drape over our wet bodies and blanket packs, giving all of us a hunchbacked soldier look. Mine is the same poncho my dad used in 1985. That’s a mistake. It hadn’t been tested under such miserable conditions, and the rain seeps through, soaking my chest and thighs and blanket pack. The dry sand bed has turned to mud, but it’s still passable — until we hear a rumble from up ahead.
A stream of frothy orange liquid — like a wave of thick Tang — barrels toward us. Steve, in his characteristically calm voice, directs us to assemble on the left side of the coming river. It’s not a flash flood; it’s not sweeping away branches and trees. But Mike calls it a “mini-flood,” and it’s not something you want to get caught in.
Soon, every clear path through the canyon gushes with muddy water. Renowned chronicler of the West Wallace Stegner once observed that when standing next to a mountain river, “it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old.” This had the opposite effect. I wonder whether I’ll ever feel young and happy again.
We plod through stand after stand of willow, pushing the thin trunks out of our way, smacking each other with the backswing of wayward branches. Every time we think we’ve found a way to keep going, we hit another impassable orange river. The ground begins to give. Shoes and sandals start slipping and sliding into ankle-deep muck. Even a lone rattlesnake is no match for the atmospheric forces at work. It slithers helplessly past our group, swept up by the surging currents of a canyon alive with water.
We finally reach a spot to rest — a slab of gray stone that looks out of place against the surrounding orange, red and white. The rain has finally stopped, after — by my estimate — six hours or so. A patch of blue sky appears, with the sun not far away. For the next 20 minutes, we wait, hoping, praying, that the sun will break through. Just as Steve announces that it’s time to get moving, it does, blasting our oasis of solid ground with welcome warmth. A few folks cheer. I hold my arms up and close my eyes, savoring every photon. As we depart, I grab a piece of the gray rock to remember this place by. It crumbles in my hand.
Though the rain has ceased, the runoff continues to cut off route after route. So we hop a downed barbed-wire fence and follow something called the “Jeep Trail” toward our destination. The sun is beginning to set when Steve tells us we’ve made it. I just about collapse.
Then Steve informs us that because of our many detours and our soaked clothes, we can’t cook dinner; there’s not enough time. We need to set up shelters right away or risk hypothermia.
I scribble a short rant in my notebook, my stomach too stunned and empty to muster a rumble.
The night unfolds as predicted: Miserable and cold. So the next morning, after finishing my “chores,” I do what I most wanted to do when I signed up for this excursion several months back: I find a boulder that’s sloped toward the sun, climb aboard, cross my legs and recline. An escape. The kind that the literary legends doted upon. There will be no buzz from a new text message or email; no call from my boss asking me to do a last-minute rewrite. The only sound here is the lone caw of some bird too far off to identify.
It’s blissful — but also strange. Because the fact is, I have very little need — relatively, subjectively speaking — to escape from anything. As much as I complain about the drudgery and decadence of social media, the soulless growth of suburbia and the stupidest battlefront yet in the culture wars, these surely rank among the best “problems” to have in the history of mankind. Yet they’re the very same concerns — or at least new iterations of them — that have inspired centuries of Americans to wish for a tranquil, simple, self-reliant way of life free from all that noise. It’s true that the dreaded “cultural apparatus” can consume and depress in a way that makes a way of life that is unmoored by responsibility except to one’s survival and self seem desirable by comparison. It’s tempting indeed to get swept up by that wake — especially while lying out in the sun, without appointments or obligations or even a vague sense of time. But none of it is real. My ideas about finding the core of the human experience and shedding the distractions of modern life — the ones that my dad has held to so dearly — are starting to fray.
Steve, back at the campus, told us at the outset of this course that the archetypal trope of the Western mountain man is recently conjured nonsense; that primitive people never became “self-sufficient” alone, and that more recent depictions like those written by Abbey and Henry David Thoreau, or of characters like John Thornton and Jeremiah Johnson, are rarely worth considering without context. Abbey could do it because he was a notoriously poor and neglectful husband and father. Thoreau could do it because of his generous friend and benefactor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. But I still thought what I most wanted out of this experience was to simply unplug and search for the things my dad had found out here. It took me until this moment to realize my mistake.
My mind dwells not on solitude but on my wife, my parents, my friends. Community. This loneliness isn’t about confronting problems head-on and having courage, I now realize; it’s about running. From problems and people and all the rest of it. And while that exact temptation has galvanized generations, it no longer stirs anything positive within me.
We’re seated beside what Steve calls the beaver pond. It’s in an area very different from the red rock canyons — proof of how far we’ve traveled. Green grasses and yellow flowers surround us. Mountain peaks jut into the sky in every direction. We spent the day navigating here, by ourselves. We cooked dinner and are now awaiting Steve and Mike’s arrival. Tonight is supposed to be our last night, and our “final test” looms. A storm thunders nearby, blanketing the nearest ridge.
Finally, Steve hoots at us from up on a nearby hill. When we reach him, he tells us we’re going to be hiking just a few miles before settling down for the night. The hike inclines without end, every step bringing us higher and higher. The land here opens up behind us, revealing the pink-and-orange maze of the canyon below. Someone asks which route we took, but it’s impossible to explain; there are just too many passages, too much vastness.
We continue our climb and reach a yellow meadow near something we haven’t seen in a week: An asphalt road with cars. “Are we going home, Steve?” asks Greg, a young, knowledgeable middle school teacher from Denver. I’ll admit, I thought the same. Maybe the final test was the walk up here? But no — that’s too easy. “It can always get harder,” I tell myself, recalling the apocalyptic-feeling day of floods. I’m seated atop a boulder, staring at cows munching on grass. A rainbow scars the sky to the east, while the setting sun outlines Boulder Mountain in bright orange to the west.
We’ll be camping in a nearby aspen forest tonight, among the wet ground left behind by a rainstorm, at an elevation of about 11,000 feet. Even in what’s left of the light, it’s already frigid. But Steve tells us not to worry: We won’t be here long.
I don’t bother with lying down in the swampy leaves. Instead, I cover my shoulders with my wool blanket and sit atop a log, using an aspen trunk as a chair back. The shivering starts right away. For all of us, including my neighbor for the night, an Irishman who lives in Washington, D.C., named James Joyce (yes, really). He’s having trouble sleeping, too, as passing cars shine their high beams into the forest, unaware of the frozen campers. “It’s a beautiful metaphor,” James observes from behind chattering teeth. Indeed.
Atruck rumbles and revs up to our little piece of forest, and Steve hoots us over. I’ve been drifting in and out of sleep, and after a week of deprivation, I have no idea what time it is. Steve tells us to put all our gear in the truck bed, save for our sweaters and a cup, and clomp toward the road. Cows holler a few dozen feet from us, as if sensing an impending roundup.
Our final test is a ritual I agreed to keep a secret to maintain the mystery. All I’ll say is that it’s at once beautiful, trippy and exhausting, and it ends with us back at the campus, sitting on the same logs and stumps we started at. It’s still dark, but Steve and Mike have a campfire set up. We gather around as quickly as we arrive, all of us seated in silence, aside from the crackle of burning logs.
I wonder how dad felt when his course ended. I know he said it was difficult while it was happening, and that he often cursed himself for signing up — until it was over. And at that point, I imagine he felt relief. Personally, I’m not in a very uplifted mood. A middle-aged Hawaiian named Mike, who was the only person among us to successfully use the bow drill, labeled this place the “Boulder Outdoor School of Suffering,” and following the final challenge, I don’t disagree. The school’s reputation is well earned. Yet seated around the campfire, with our time almost at an end, I do recall dad’s advice: “If you don’t like something, just remember: This too shall pass.” And it has. For all my bellyaching over whether I’d be good enough, I finished — with or without some new skills.
But this place, I’m convinced, isn’t really about skills. I recall Eli Loomis, and his assertion that programs like this are about “the opportunity to get back to the bedrock experience of being a human.” There’s a certain irony to the fact that commodifying experiences in nature, as BOSS does, runs reverse to the ideas postulated by Abbey, who would surely recoil at the thought of paying someone to facilitate such an experience, certain that the only way to really reap the benefits offered by nature — to become fully human again — is to go entirely on your own.
But the key to understanding what Loomis means comes not from the part about “being a human,” which is where I first looked. Being a human isn’t about carrying blanket packs or carving wood or sleeping on the ground. Instead, I focus on the part that comes before — “the bedrock experience.” This place strips away all the ornaments of modernity. There’s no 3 p.m. meeting to discuss the acquisition of the new account, nor is there the need to pick up a bucket of KFC on the way home. There is, however, the need to work as a team to solve problems and cook food each night — just in a more elemental way, free from luxuries. That makes you more connected to each decision; more deliberate; more present. And, ultimately, more aware than ever that this program is a simulation.
This is not a more “real” or “human” way to live. I’m convinced that, in fact, this is the antithetical rendition of the human experience. I’m imagining eons-worth of generations striving to create comfort — warmth, the promise of enough nutrition, safe water, structures for living, communities, medicine, choices — so surviving could become easy enough for us to have the brain space to consider whether or not our new trappings were what catapulted us forward or held us back. Having the choice to go out and “strip away” to a desired (and safe) level of difficulty demonstrates the fickleness of the farce itself.
Now, I guess, comes the part where I don’t worry about the “bedrock experience” that Abbey trapped so many into grappling with. Instead, it seems more beneficial to focus on how I can stay decisive, deliberate and present in my human experience, when there are much more complex worries and much more distraction than whether it’ll rain this afternoon.
With my blistered feet propped up near the fire, I decide that when I’m back, I’ll put these thoughts to the test in a conversation with the smartest person I know. But I won’t ask him about the real definition of the human experience until after I get that Coca-Cola, put on his thread-bare alumni shirt and tell him I made it. After the conversation is over, hopefully, once more, he’ll see a bit of himself in me.
Our last task at camp is to take our small rock — the one we chose on Day 1 — and place it back among its brethren. I take mine down to a crystalline stream. It’s been with me through all of it, from sweaty midday slogs up mountainsides to cold nights contemplating my dad’s mortality. I’m tempted to save it as a keepsake; as another symbol of determination and memory. I want to remember this. But then I’m reminded of the gray rock where we took refuge from the canyon rivers, and the pieces of stone crumbling in my hands. This should be instructive rather than memorable; something that is rather than was.
I toss my pebble into the water.