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I Will Survive

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?

“We didn’t catch any food because you wouldn’t let me build a death pit,” he says, then pauses. “Sahib.”

“I hate the thought of killing anything,” I say. “It’s the last thing I’d advise.” (Les said that in Costa Rica.) “Besides, where’d you learn about death pits? Bear and Les never built death pits.”

Eddie pulls a book from his pack called How to Survive in the Woods. It’s where he read about death pits. Eddie’s mother bought the book and gave it to him when she heard he was going camping with Uncle Steve. I have tried to explain to her and other relatives that when I got lost in the Missouri parking lot, it was because I was weak from heatstroke, and that the time I thought a pack of marmots was stalking me deep in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness, they really were stalking me. But she didn’t want to take any chances.

“It’s not the snakes or scorpions that scare me, but running into a pack of wild peccaries,” I tell my nephew. “They’ll attack you in groups.” (Les said the same thing in the desert.)

“What’s a peccary?” Eddie asks.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, what’s a peccary, sahib?”

“They look like little wild boars, but they are vicious and nasty and dangerous.”

“That’s cool.”

“If you think that’s cool,” I say, “check this out. According to Les, they can’t look up. So you just stand on some rocks, and they can’t see you. And you can pick ’em off, one by one.”

“Can we build a death pit tomorrow, sahib?” Eddie asks. “You can make them with or without the sharp killing spikes on the bottom. But we have to put it on a game trail.”

I tell Eddie I’ll think about it.

Day two, virtually alone, I wake chilly, hungry, and tired. I can feel my body feeding on itself, cannibalizing its own nutrients. I need to orient myself. I must construct a wilderness compass.

“What about looking where the sun’s rising, sahib?” Eddie says. “That’s east.”

“Number one, as support staff, you’re supposed to follow my directives, not make strategic suggestions,” I say. “And number two, what if the sun were directly overhead, and what if we were in the Scottish Highlands, like Bear was in that episode when he got sucked into the bog pit, or in the Arctic, where the sun hardly ever moves, surrounded by polar bears, like Les was that time he had to get by on just a few bites of raw seal meat a day? What if you were being hunted by a corrupt, hopelessly doomed cop who couldn’t understand your psychic pain and all you’d been through in ‘Nam, and you spent most of your time killing dogs and eating moose and hanging out in caves, like Johnny Rambo did? Then what would you do? Huh? Then what would you do?”

“I dunno,” Eddie says.

“I dunno, what?”

“I dunno, sahib.”

“It may look beautiful,” I mutter darkly, “but this is a place where even the most experienced mountain-goer can get into trouble.” (Bear, in the Sierra.)

I jab a stick into the ground, and mark the end of its shadow with a rock. In 20 minutes, I will take another reading, mark the end of the stick shadow again with another rock. Then I will trace a line between the two rocks, which should give me an east-west reading. In the meantime, because I have temporarily ruled against the death pit, and because I don’t want stomach cramps to interfere with my day’s planned survival activities, which involve hunting for food, building a shelter, and starting a fire without matches, I tell Eddie that now might be an opportune time to break out a little bit of granola. Also, that he should hunt for some pine needles while I assess our situation.

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