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Track and Field: Survival expert Tom Brown checks out the greenery and schools some greenies.

I Will Survive

One of Metro Santa Cruz's own goes commando at survivalist-icon-gone-Hollywood-consultant Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival School in the Santa Cruz Mountains

By Darren Keast

So how exactly does one get a nice strip of long, useable rawhide from such a small creature as a squirrel? From whiskers to tush, they aren't more than 10 inches long--where are you going to extract a foot-and-a-half piece of leather from that?

Well, after just one day of instruction at Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival School--the largest such school in existence--I knew the answer to that exact question. And how to do it myself. (FYI: You dry out its hide and cut a spiral, twisting the knife to get one continuous fiber.)

But even more amazingly, I actually understand why I need to know this little morsel of mountain man ingenuity. This is, after all, the kind of thing that can save your life in certain circumstances--if you need to make fire and you're fresh out of Zippo fluid, you can make yourself a bow drill with just wood, your piece of squirrel-hide cordage, and lots of elbow grease.

By day two, I also knew how to do that--make fire, that is. And by the end of the weeklong course, I had the kind of basic knowledge I need to walk into the wilderness buck naked and survive comfortably for as long as I'd like. And this is only the Standard Course, sort of a boot camp for nature-lovers. Tom Brown teaches over 30 classes, culminating in classes so advanced that students are only selected by secret invitation.

Brown is quite the mythic figure--a master tracker, survivalist, wilderness-protection advocate and bestselling author of a Carlos Castaneda-like series of books--who operates his school from the Pine Barrens wild area of southern New Jersey. Twice a year, though, he takes it on the road--to Florida in January and Boulder Creek in March.

That's all I knew about the man when I decided to enroll in his Boulder Creek "tracker school." I hadn't read any of the books, hadn't heard too many of the legends--I was pretty much a babe in the woods. And I wasn't expecting much--maybe a few confidence-building jaunts on the ropes course and some canned deep-ecology groupthink. Santa Cruz County practically hemorrhages seminars, prefab alternative experiences, and pearls of wisdom for a buck--how much could you really get for a fee (and a fairly hefty one at that ... the week course is $800).

So I went in a jaded postmodern "seen-it-all." I walked out a hunter-gatherer with the beginnings of a totally new relationship to the Earth. Seriously. A week after the class, I was tanning my first raccoon pelt, making dandelion wine and tracking mountain lions in the hills above Highway 9.

The Making of a Tracker

Upon arrival at the Camp Lindblad Boy Scout facility on King's Creek Road outside of Boulder Creek, I found myself among 90 other students. Mostly run-of-the-mill-looking outdoor types--more of the REI school than the Army Surplus one--although there was a fair amount of camo in the group, and two guys were sporting very large cowboy hats and rodeo belt buckles. The group skewed about two to one male and mostly white, although there was a smattering of black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students, as well.

The class began with an introduction and crash course on Tom Brown lore delivered by head instructor Kevin, a former Boy Scoutmaster and spitting image of John Goodman. He gave the thumbnail bio that Brown has laid out in his early books like 1978's The Tracker: Brown grew up in the Pine Barrens, and at age 7 he met a boy named Rick who was half Mexican, half Lipan Apache. Rick's great uncle was a full-blooded Lipan named Stalking Wolf who took young Brown under his tutelage. For 11 years, Rick and Brown spent their weekends and summers learning sacred secrets about survival, awareness, meditation and tracking, an art and science that became Brown's particular passion.

Stalking Wolf wasn't just any Lipan elder--he was born at the transitional time in North American history when he could grow up living the primitive ways of his people and also have access to modern conveniences like transportation. So as a young man, he had traveled throughout the Americas comparing techniques and philosophies with many different indigenous groups. The skills he taught Brown then were actually a composite of the best of the best of Native American wisdom.

This is where my skepticism was initially piqued--whenever anyone says they've received training handed down from on high, my ears stand up. And Brown just so happened to meet the insider anthropologist of native peoples? It seemed a bit much to swallow. Plus, the cover of The Tracker boasts, "The most powerful and magical high spiritual adventure since The Teachings of Don Juan." Castaneda's anthropologist colleagues widely question the veracity of his research, and whether the shaman Don Juan even existed.

These doubts dried up, though, as the class got under way. For one thing, I became convinced that we were learning something very old and very real. Additionally, there are some interesting bits from anthropological literature that confirm Brown's account of Stalking Wolf's way of life. The resistant Apache have been underdocumented in the field, so it was a great find when the son of the late, respected Apache expert Greenville Goodwin discovered his father's 1930 diary of his experiences with the Apaches of the Sierra Madre. He published it in 2000 as The Apache Diaries, and much of the description of the hitherto obscure Apache matches up with what Brown's been writing for over 20 years.

Tom Brown Has Left the Building

In his intro speech, Kevin mentioned that Brown had a wicked sinus infection and would come later in the week. Normally, he throws the opening pitch and teaches a class here and there, but as the week crept along, we saw neither hide nor hair of the man himself. But he supposedly has a habit of sort of wafting into a room without anyone noticing him, which kept a sort of chronic anticipation hovering over the class for the week.

The rock-star mystique only got more intense as marvelous tales flowed from the lips of the five instructors--Brown donating some medicines he's developed from acorns to science, Brown teaching the über-elite SEAL Team 6, Brown living in the woods for years with just a knife. A story about Brown walking on water would probably not raise an eyebrow among those close to the school.

Toward the end of the week, rumor got around that he'd be coming for the closing evening, which culminates in a pipe ceremony that Stalking Wolf gave to Brown to give in turn to his grandchildren (he considers his students something close to family). But he remained a will-o'-the-wisp; though whispered about, he never actually materialized.

After the class, I ran into a number of friends whom I zealously bombarded with Brown anecdotes and Hare Krishna-like pleas to take a class, too. I received some curious replies. Some repeated the reports of Brown's titanic ego; others had reservations about Brown selling something he was given for free. The former is a point that's sometimes debated on the various Tracker School-related chat rooms, and the conclusion that sits the best with me after taking a course is simply that the guy is the shit. After Stalking Wolf died, Brown took over 600 tracking cases with law enforcement, one of which required him to follow a wounded escaped zoo tiger into the woods. When you're a badass, why hide it?

Still, his vibe can be off-putting. His energy was so laser-intense at his book reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz after 9/11 that some people had to leave. (His brother-in-law was one of the pilots who died in the crashes.)

As to the second, more serious charge, the debate is more intriguing. It's the same issue that hangs around the national powwow scene--arrowhead-making, fur-tanning and peyote-consuming are all skills passed down in a tutelage system for free. Why should their products then be sold for top dollar on the market?

The easiest answer is that the inputs aren't free. Picking up obsidian to knap into spearheads is free, but there's gas to get there, and the stone collector needs to eat and pay rent. Brown has to rent the Boy Scout camp in Boulder Creek, pay insurance, pay five unbelievably qualified instructors, transport his staff from New Jersey, and feed his students (although Spartanly). He also retains a PR guy, keeps a website and flies guest lecturers in to fill specific gaps in the instruction--a woman came down from Washington for the edible plants lesson.

Still, there's some serious revenue generated. The average enrollment for a weeklong class is 120 students; at $800 a head, two classes a month, that's a monthly gross of $192,000 a month. Then there are the book deals, and he markets the Tracker Knife, his signature $300 all-purpose survival machine that almost builds a shelter for you. Volunteers at the Standard Course--graduates who come back to do things like surprise novices by jumping out from behind trees in natural camo--report that Brown rolls around in a Hummer.

Brent, a Standard Course student and a veteran of Santa Cruz spiritual seminars and the like, had a transformative experience as a result of taking the class. He moved his obligations around and decided to stay for another week--the meditation-heavy Philosophy 1 class. But he has similar questions too.

"I think a lot of people wonder where the money's going," he said after advanced shelter-making class. "But I think Tom has a greater plan that will become apparent soon."

What he's hinting at is the layers of prophecy surrounding Brown's project. Outlined in his book The Quest, Brown claims he received from Stalking Wolf an account of ecological meltdown that has played out eerily since he first heard it. Dubbed the Night of the Red Sky prophecy, it outlines four stages that mark the end of the world--a plague caused by man's addiction to drugs and sex (which some read as AIDS), holes developing in the sky (ozone depletion), the sky turning red and the stars bleeding (the jury's out on this one), and finally a mass extinction of humanity. Stalking Wolf said that even after the first two stages, salvation was not impossible.

That's why Brown talks a lot about sandpipers. These coastal birds seem to move with one consciousness--one tiny feather movement can cause the whole flock to turn. Brown says his goal is to affect this turning, to get humankind to shift consciousness before it's too late.

But Brown is facing a massive problem of scale--if he wants to cause a ripple effect in the popular consciousness, churning out 11 courses of 120 students a year seems barely able to break the surface. Why not turn this into an entire industry, opening a school in every state?

Indeed, Kevin told the class one day that people often ask why they don't franchise the school. The short answer is apparently that Brown's a stickler for detail and insists that everything be done exactly as he wants it, which is often the way he learned it from Stalking Wolf. Despite not showing up to any lectures, Brown was actually on premises during our class, and Billy, a fiery young instructor who knows how to whip a class into a whirlwind of nature lust, says that Brown stayed up half the night with him before the class on track identification, in which the footprints of raccoons, bobcats, weasels, field mice and mountain lions were pointed out on a soft dirt road. Billy has done the lesson numerous times, but still Brown felt the need to hammer it into him. Apparently, he simply couldn't bear to have his lessons compromised through mass production.

If the Movie Sucks, I Can Fade Into the Canopy: Brown on the set of 'The Hunted,' the film based loosely on one of his cases.

And Then There's the Movie

Exorcist director William Friedkin knew Brown from way back, and has wanted to make a movie about him for years. Sadly, he finally did. The Hunted, released the same month as our class, is based loosely on a tracking case Brown worked years ago. Tommy Lee Jones, playing a character inspired by Brown, bumbles his way through one plot-devoid charade of a movie, doggedly pursuing Benicio Del Toro, his wayward student who must be brought to justice.

It's not just that the film is unentertaining and really bad, it's that the Tom Brown character comes off like a crotchety wash-up who made his living training assholes to kill people. If the point of Brown's involvement--he acted as technical adviser--was to get the ideals of nature conservation and the love of wildlife into the minds of Middle America, it failed miserably. While Friedkin gets some cool points for including shots of hand-drill friction fires and Benicio in full natural camouflage, the flick is essentially an excuse to show bloody hand-to-hand combat and middle-aged men grunting in the forest.

Luckily, Brown had the foresight to keep his name far down in the credits, so it's not exactly Tom Brown Presents: The Hunted. Most moviegoers will surely have no idea who he is after seeing it. (Although they will have seen dozens of plugs for his Tracker Knife, which is used throughout the film.) One hopes that someone as inspiring as Tom Brown, with a message as relevant to humanity as the one he preaches, will be able to find less conflicting ways to enter the mass market. No one said that working within the system would come without compromise.

The Real Deal

Brown's teachings will always remain impervious to exigencies of modern American culture, though. How many classes have you taken where after seven hours of copious, hand-cramping note-taking, you feel that if you miss a sentence of what the instructor says, you could die in the wrong circumstance? When you've lost your backpack out in the woods and night's coming fast, you know what do first (build a shelter), how to do it (make a debris hut), and what to do next (procure clean water). You know how to trap animals, gather and prepare acorns, and whip up some cattail pollen crepes (recipe provided). You know that a lost person tends to walk in circles, and which way they will turn based on their footprints.

More than anything, you know what it means to be human in the biological sense, the beings we were before the discovery of metal. Through evolution, we're constructed to stalk deer and kill them with handmade arrows, sleep when it's dark, and zone out to trickling streams rather than bumping headphones. It simply feels good to do these things, and you realize that maybe some of the advancements of civilization haven't all been for the best. The fact that Tom Brown can impart this kind of confidence and wonder in the age of Prozac and weenies presenting themselves as Survivors on television, that's a pretty amazing thing.

Quest for Fire: Darren actually knows how to make one of these now. Ask him for a light sometime.

Seven Deadly Skins

In which the author reveals the top things he learned how to do at survival camp

By Darren Keast

Unlike retreats in the pound-drums/beat-your-chest men's movement, one leaves Tracker School with actual new skills. These skills will admittedly appeal to some more than to others, of course, being, as they are, based on Paleolithic technology and ancient knowledge. The author may or may not have actually done the following things as a result of the training he received (some are illegal in this and many other states).

1. Make a Coonskin Hat. Brown advocates using roadkill to tan unless you're in a full survival situation--no need to hunt when the highway provideth so well. The author might have found a fresh raccoon on Graham Hill Road after a reggae show one night and picked it up (harvesting roadkill is a no-no in California). After 12 hours of skinning, fleshing, and rubbing its brains on its pelt, he may or may not now have head-wear Mr. Crockett himself would covet. And the experience may or may not have been nearly as stomach-turning as he imagined, but either way the sneer of a dead coon without its fur on is a bit unsettling.

2. Carve and Set a Rabbit Trap. Also very illegal. Actually, if I did do this, I'd have to go check on it right now. So far, the wascally wabbit has made off with the bait and kept its neck intact (if I actually did this, that is).

3. Build and Sleep in a Debris Hut. Had some friends over from Tracker School, and like an Amish barn-raising party, we built me a shelter out of sticks and leaves. Almost have it dialed in--still a little cold. At the two-week Advanced Standard and Advanced Tracking course in May, I'll have to sleep in one the entire time. Also, if I haven't carved a wood spoon and bowl by day three, I don't eat.

4. Track a Mountain Lion. Found the 3-inch-by-3-inch paw prints in baby powder-fine sand above Loch Lomond (where, technically, it's illegal to hike, but who's counting at this point?). The prints couldn't be dog, since there were no claw marks (cats retract theirs).

5. Make a 100 Percent Wild Meal. Great first date--made her an acorn stew that contained other ingredients "collected" from one of the means above. First course--miner's lettuce and wildcrafted greens salad. Major cool points to offering a hunter-gatherer meal; didn't exactly go into the legal issues, though.

6. Ambush Neighbor in Natural Camouflage. Got into full Apache scout camo--buck naked, covered with a layer of wood ash, then blotched with mud and sprinkled with a healthy dose of dirt, bark and moss. Buried myself under four inches of debris and lay in wait. He came home, walked right past me, I called his name. He stopped and stared. I called again. He walked to within 10 feet and really stared. I sat up like a zombie from its grave. He lost control of his expletives.

7. Develop a Network of Other Future Primitives. The most jarring thing about leaving Tracker School is trying to find people who don't want to stuff you in a glass box like they did to Ishi, the last Indian, when they hear your stories. You meet other freaks to share knowledge with. I've had groups of students over, and they filled in the holes from the notes. One got a load of obsidian and has been flint-knapping, another has been stalking deer. I shared the ins and outs of gutting a coon, they showed me theirs.

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From the April 16-23, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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