'Tracking' Teaches Skills For a Successful
By Rachel Emma Silverman
From The Wall Street Journal Online
CareerJournal.com (July 3, 2001)
MEDFORD, N.J. -- Dead-end job got you down?
Before doing anything rash, follow the footsteps of a committed group of
enthusiasts looking for career-enhancement and self-fulfillment in the art of
Software developers, engineers and even Hollywood movie stars are getting into
"tracking," a study of survival in the wild that emphasizes observation and
analysis of paw prints, blood droplets, stray feathers, tooth marks, matted
vegetation, hair traces, even animal dung ("scat"). For hard-core trackers, an
odd amalgam of camouflage-wearing hunters, tie-dyed vegetarians and
Spam-in-a-bomb-shelter survivalists, the tracking lifestyle exerts a powerful
Now, thanks to a far-reaching word-of-mouth network, lawyers, bankers and
managers have discovered the tracker movement. A major hub of it is Tom Brown's
Tracker School, based in Asbury, 45 miles west of New York City. The school's
owner is Tom Brown Jr., a 51-year-old "master tracker" and author of 16 tracking
books, including the field's 1978 classic text, "The Tracker."
Mr. Brown, a chain-smoking, Ted Turner look-alike, has taught thousands of
acolytes how to fend for themselves in the woods and on the job. The school
claims to have trained 50,000 students, including law-enforcement officers and
military personnel including Navy SEALs. In fact, the school offers a "search
and rescue" class, and many trackers volunteer to help law-enforcement officials
hunt down missing persons or fugitives. Some of his disciples have organized
their own schools and stay in touch via the Internet.
At week-long classes costing $700 to $750, students at Mr. Brown's school learn
to "fox-walk," so they create minimal disturbance. They are instructed how to
cover themselves with mud and vegetation, so they blend in. By analyzing tracks
and surroundings, top trackers can tell whether an animal or human is hungry or
full, scared or relaxed, feeble or strong.
Among tracking enthusiasts are Bill Hill, a Microsoft Corp. researcher who was
on the development team for ClearType, a software based in part on tracker
philosophy that makes computer text more legible. Others include Greg Buis, the
back-to-nature contestant on the original "Survivor" TV show. Donald Spates, a
homeless man from Omaha, Neb., has saved up money from odd jobs and then taken a
bus to New Jersey to take some classes at Mr. Brown's school, where he has
learned to build an urban hut out of debris and light a fire in all kinds of
In February, Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro came to a campground in
Medford, near New Jersey's Pine Barrens, to take lessons from Mr. Brown in
tossing tomahawks and sparring with knives. He also observed trackers smearing
themselves with mud and leaves. He was preparing for a role in an upcoming
tracking movie, "The Hunted," directed by William Friedkin and also starring
Tommy Lee Jones. (Mr. Brown is a technical adviser on the film.)
At a "healing" class at the Medford campsite, about 80 students recently foraged
outside for roots and rocks, then assembled at wooden picnic tables in a
gymnasium to practice various techniques on each other. A concession shop sold
Tom Brown's Tracker School T-shirts and New Age music tapes. Staffers' cell
phones sometimes rang, interrupting Mr. Brown as he invoked the spirit of his
deceased mentor, an Apache Indian.
One 10-year veteran of tracking is Jack Skoczek, a 44-year-old avionics engineer
at Priester Aviation Service, which maintains corporate and private jets in
Wheeling, Ill. Mr. Skoczek, who is responsible for quality control, says
tracking helps him concentrate on details. "I'm the guy who signs off on the
aircraft," he says. "I can pick up many of the problems or situations before
they become a safety issue. I would have to attribute that to simply to the
awareness that I've gotten through exposure to tracking: Sit down and look at
everything and take a bigger picture rather than tunnel vision."
Some classes at the Tracker School, such as "Way of the Coyote," are focused on
developing skills for use in the human realm. Such classes can help people read
colleagues and competitors better. In a business setting, a tracker would keep
mum about his employer's plans while gleaning as much information as possible
from outsiders. It means "you are far more aware of your competitors' activities
than they are of yours," says Kevin Reeve, the school's director.
Deciphering animal tracks assisted Mr. Hill at Microsoft with his development of
ClearType software. The 51-year-old researcher says he gained insight into the
way people read and recognize patterns while tracking coyotes and elk near his
home. Among the projects he's planning next: a waterproof electronic book loaded
with field guides, maps and a global-positioning system, which he figures he and
his co-workers could use while tracking coyotes and squirrels during breaks from
work at Microsoft's roughly 300-acre wooded campus in Redmond, Wash.
Back in the 1990s, when Mr. Reeve was an employee-relations trainer for Apple
Computer Inc., he used his tracking acumen to detect clues that portended job
cuts. "I began noticing that people were going into meetings together who
weren't normally meeting," he recalls. "Some were meeting more frequently. It's
like when a fox is walking along the treeline," he says. "Birds are going to
start calling, and their behavior indicates that a fox is there. Even if I can't
see the fox, by listening to the birds, I know it is there." He studied which
executives reserved conference rooms, and soon he compiled a list of departments
he thought were likely to be hit by job cuts.
Two weeks later, Mr. Reeve's list proved to be almost completely accurate: His
department was cut.
Not all students take to tracking, as Mr. Reeve found four years ago when he
tried offering training to corporations in week-long sessions. "People were
like, 'Are we done playing yet?'" Mr. Reeve recalls. "Some people had a
difficult time finding the applicability of the skills." He hopes to try again
soon. "I really believe there's a great opportunity there," he says.
For some students, a course at the Tracker School is a life-changing experience.
A surprisingly large number of students relocate, quit jobs or even leave
spouses after discovering tracking. Mr. Reeve actually warns students not to do
anything rash at the end of the school's Standard Class, the prerequisite in
basic skills that all students must take.
"It's not the school that changes them," Mr. Reeve says. "It's nature that
changes them. For the first time in many of their lives, they've had a very
powerful connection to the natural world."