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September 2005

What Would Davy Crockett Do?

He'd toss the titanium stove and build a big fire. Our man enrolls in a traditional guide school and learns how to survive - and think - like an American original.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH HAS ARRIVED. AFTER A MORNING of instruction in wilderness-survival techniques, Jeff has divided us into two teams. Each has 20 minutes to start a fire and to build a rainproof emergency shelter, sufficient for the entire group, from whatever is handy. While Danny and Sam build our shelter, I am on fire duty. But it is raining buckets, and the Vaseline-soaked cotton balls I brought along, clever me, will not light.

“Here, use this,” says Danny. I hold out my hand, and he deposits a significant lump of dried horse dung. “It’ll burn great.”

And so it does. Who knew? By the time Jeff arrives to judge our handiwork, the fire is crackling and our grubby little shelter is watertight. But Jeff is less impressed than I expected, and soon I see why. Just out of sight, Becky, the web designer, and Billy, the law student, have built a fabulous country retreat of saplings and tarps. Before its cavernous entrance roars a fire so large and hot you can’t even feel the rain.

While I was gathering fallen branches and finding just the right spot for an environmentally appropriate fire, Billy was mowing down pines and Becky was igniting a conflagration. And so they should have: Had this been a real emergency, their shelter would have kept us all safe and warm. Leave no trace, my frozen wet butt.

I may be able to signal a plane and survive a freak snowstorm now, but as I linger by Becky’s bonfire, I begin doubting that I will ever be as adapted to the outdoors as my classmates are. But I now know it’s not because I’m unable to acquire the right skillset – it’s more that I lack the mindset. Maybe hikers have a pathological need to apologize to nature for their intrusions, to tiptoe through the places where sportsmen make themselves at home. Everyone takes a different trail into the wild, I suppose. But we are alike in this: We all fear losing the path we’ve chosen. Hunters dread a vast frontier walled off into governmental fiefdoms and ensnared in impossible regulations. Hikers panic as solitude slips away amidst an onslaught of ATVs and gun-toting can-tossers. If we don’t find a way to share something so important, all of our lives will be irrevocably diminished.

On our last day, Jeff shows us how to raise an outfitter’s tent, essentially a canvas cottage furnished with a stove, cots, and chairs. The front and rear are each supported by two lodge poles, which must be lifted simultaneously underneath the ridgepole supporting the roof. It’s no easy task, and it takes us the better part of an hour, calling back and forth from opposite sides, to make it work. Afterward, exhausted, we sit inside and shoot the breeze. On Jeff’s recommendation, it turns out, Billy has just gotten a job as an elk-hunting guide in southwestern Colorado. There are huge bucks down there this year, just waiting for a guy who knows the right calls.

Looking around, I’m surprised the tent is big enough to hold us all. But it is.

California-based freelance writer Michael Mason says that from now on he intends to pack for trouble.

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