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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008
Flesh-eating bears. Dive-bombing eagles. Can a regular guy escape certain death armed with only the clothes on his back and the skills he learned on TV from Les Stroud, Bear Grylls, and John Rambo?
From First Blood I learned that if you are a special forces military guy like Johnny Rambo, you know how to make booby traps with sharpened spikes to kill hunting dogs that are on your tail, and that even though you revere all creatures and mourn their passing into the great spirit world, sometimes you must accept killing as the cost of life. Johnny Rambo carries a foot-long knife, and lugs around a giant shank of what appears to be moose meat. It looks tasty. He is, according to his former commanding officer, "a man trained to ignore pain, to ignore weather, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke." Johnny Rambo doesn't talk much and when he does, he says only unbelievably manly things, like, "Don't push it or I'll give you a warning you won't believe." I, on the other hand, tend to say things like "On the other hand..." and "I can empathize, but..."
After watching First Blood, I spend a lot of time telling people about the trip. "Just me and a knife," I say, "and whatever food I can kill." I love saying that. I love it like I used to love saying, "But what about the gaping jaws of the mighty crocodile?" whenever my camp counselor in northern Wisconsin suggested I stop reading the Man Thing comic book and get in the lake for swimming lessons. I love saying "me and my knife" so much and say it so often that I have no time to watch the television shows from which I'm supposed to learn survival skills.
Finally, eight hours before departure, I sit down to watch 12 hours of television. (I fast-forward through the boring-looking spots). I learn that Bear Grylls, in addition to having trained as a British special forces soldier, brings with him a team of camera operators that films each "death-defying" encounter he has with the wilderness, which means they really aren't so death-defying at all. Also, that he receives the advice of various local experts regarding tasks like constructing rafts from jungle plants and making tents from deer hides. Still, he is the youngest Englishman ever to scale Everest, and he does jump out of small airplanes. I also learn that Les Stroud lugs his own camera equipment through the unforgiving wilderness and does everything himself, with no camera crew or local experts to help.
Basically, I learn that I'm hopelessly doomed.
"Up here, there's a saying," I murmur to the creeping darkness, and to the lurking bears that are due east. Or west. "Stop thinking and you'll stop trying. Stop trying and you'll die." It's what Les said once in the mountains.
I have been quoting from the shows for the past few hours. I haven't quite mastered Bear's or Les's means of extracting nourishment and protective cover from the wild, but I hope that by speaking like them, I might start thinking like them, which will lead to me actually acting like them. "Most fear is born of ignorance," I say (Les, Sonoran Desert), as the bears lumber closer. Then, "Raw grasshoppers can carry tapeworms." (Les again, same desert.)
I have grown from a boy who squeaked, "Puny earthlings!" in times of stress to a man who quotes television shows while bears with an appetite for man-flesh circle. Why can't I be more like the quiet, strong men I know who spend weekends installing drywall and ripping up floorboards? They aren't Rambo, but at least they do things with their hands and keep their mouths, for the most part, manfully shut. I first successfully operated a French press coffee machine a few months ago. I'm 52 years old. Why haven't I ever installed drywall? Why am I so gabby? Why hadn't I talked less about me and my knife in the past couple of weeks and spent more time studying the TV shows?
I'm so tired, and cold, and–I must admit, because I have learned the consequences of dishonesty from witnessing the sad and ugly fate of the corrupt cop who tried to corner Johnny Rambo–frightened.
"It's really hard to get motivated with nothing in your system," I whisper. Les whispered it in the Arctic. "A little bit of meat in my belly tonight would go a long way to making me warmer." He said that in Canada's boreal forest.
"We just had dinner, and you can stay in the tent if you're scared," says an eerie, disembodied voice from the blackness. It belongs to my 16-year-old nephew, Eddie, who I hired at the last minute to accompany me on my trip, as support staff and emergency help in case anything went drastically wrong. Eddie is the "virtually" in my "virtually alone."
Eddie has climbed Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and Mexico's 17,158-foot Iztaccihuatl. A week after our trip, he will be heading into Canada's Purcell Range, where, the permission slip from his school warns, he might encounter grizzly bears, lightning storms and deep, deadly ice crevasses. Eddie is an excellent student, a kung fu enthusiast, and a javelin-throwing champion. He is strapping, kind, preternaturally cheerful, and strong. Inviting Eddie had seemed, survival-wise, like a no-brainer.
"I only had dinner because I felt weak from hunger and because we failed to catch any food," I tell my young aide-de-camp. "And on a related note, how did I ask you to address me while you're on the clock?"