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Few can hide from expert guide
Mercury News, March 9, 2003
By Bruce Newman

Jim, a dentist from Los Angeles who would rather not give his last name, is kneeling over a clump of wet grass and twigs, as if in prayer. Dressed in a hooded camouflage parka, Jim genuflects before a cluster of Popsicle sticks. His classmates at the Tom Brown Tracker School proceed in pairs past the sticks -- the tracker's equivalent of yellow crime scene tape -- solemnly visiting a set of bobcat tracks as if advancing through the stations of the cross.

In his camo cover, it is difficult to distinguish Jim from the terrain, and each has a story to tell. The bobcat tracks are nothing more than some compressed leaves and bent blades of grass in a forest full of them, but to Jim they are ablaze with a kind of radiance. It's as if he were gazing into the Shroud of Turin and finding the face of Jesus, outlined in Popsicle sticks.

The bobcat ``was wanting to go that way initially,'' Jim says, pointing into some brush, ``then it stopped and looked at something and changed its mind.''

``How do you know it changed its mind?'' someone inquires.

``Because she told me,'' he replies, apparently referring to the bobcat, whose gender he has now mysteriously divined.

Even bigger game than bobcat will be the quarry when Paramount Pictures opens ``The Hunted'' on Friday, pursuing big box-office results with a suspense-thriller about a tracker named Bonham, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The real tracker whose skills served as the model for Bonham is Tom Brown Jr., who spent the past three weeks in the Santa Cruz mountains teaching dentists and duck hunters how to read the ground like the manuscript of a novel.

Brown convenes his tracker school in California for three weeks every year, the rest of the time conducting classes at his headquarters in New Jersey.

``Tom can come into a room, get down and look at the carpet, and tell you how many people had been there in the last few hours,'' says William Friedkin, who directed ``The Hunted'' and employed Brown as a technical consultant. ``He could tell you whether they were men or women, what size shoes they wore and what emotional anxiety they might have been harboring just by the way they stood or walked.''

Brown is the Eminem of tracking, a white superstar in a red man's world. Growing up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, he was mentored by an Apache elder named Stalking Wolf, the grandfather of a close friend, for 11 years. ``He was like a god to me,'' Brown says. ``When he eventually went back to his people, I wandered the country, never lost, but hunting something that had become spiritual.

``In my world, it's hard to separate the mystical from the real, they're so closely related,'' Brown says, not referring specifically to Jim the dentist's bobcat story but to tracking generally. ``A good tracker tries to become the animals he's tracking, feel what they're feeling.''

In ``The Hunted,'' Jones' Bonham has to get inside the skin of a trained assassin played by Benicio Del Toro. (Jones and Del Toro both have won best-supporting-actor Oscars playing cops -- Jones as a tracker in ``The Fugitive'' and Del Toro for ``Traffic'' -- and Friedkin won his as director of another cop film, ``The French Connection.'') Bonham and an FBI agent (played by Connie Nielsen) track the killer out of the woods and into an even bigger jungle -- the city.

``Man is the easiest animal to track because of the size of the feet,'' says Brown, who has hunted killers and convicts and trains law enforcement to do the same. ``People walk like they're destroying the earth with each footstep.''

According to one of Brown's students, he describes the movie, which he has seen, as ``crap.'' He was a bit more guarded during an interview at the school's temporary headquarters near Boulder Creek.

``I was satisfied with the way they depict the skills,'' Brown said. ``Some of the other things I'm not satisfied with. I put my pound of flesh into it because I wanted what I did to be authentic. The story line is Hollywood. That's not me. I create the paint and the director is the artist. He puts it together the way he wants.''

Brown's canvas of choice is the ground, from which tracks float up like a song he can't get out of his head. They're everywhere. ``Once you see them, everything shifts,'' says Kevin Reeve, who worked at Apple Computer in Silicon Valley for seven years before fleeing to become Brown's right-hand man. ``Just because you can't see tracks doesn't mean they're not there. You've got to rewire the neural pathways in your brain so you can see tracks.''

Jonathan Furst took the basic tracker class last year and when it was over, moved into a cooperative settlement in Boulder Creek, where he lives off the land. He returned to the school this year as a volunteer. ``It's quite intense,'' he says of Brown's curriculum. ``It's like they screw the top of your head off, pour the information in and bolt it back on.''

Surprisingly, one group that has turned frequently to Brown for tracking skills is American Indians. ``We had 11 or 12 Navajos who came through last year, and they wanted to teach a lot of the old skills to their people, but they realized they'd been suburbanized and had no access to them,'' Reeve says. ``We work with a lot of groups now that are trying to reclaim some of their heritage.''

The Tracker School has 35 levels of instruction, including training Navy SEALs in reverse-tracking, which is the art of moving across the landscape undetected. A New Jersey police detective who graduated from the school was assigned to a murder case, and when he arrived at the crime scene in the Pine Barrens, he began studying the tracks in the sand around the victim's body. He noticed what is called an indicator pressure release and ordered a patrolman to have the crowd that had gathered walk through the sand to a different location. When he found a pressure release that matched, a suspect was arrested.

During the ensuing interrogation, the detective described the crime in minute detail to the suspect, who assumed there must have been an eyewitness and confessed. ``In reality, it was just the tracks,'' Reeve says.

Jim the dentist won't be doing any man-tracking. He wanted to immerse himself in something more elemental than a spit-sink. ``I grew up in the city and I'm not a hunter or an outdoor person,'' he says. ``There's a whole natural side to us, but that side remains undeveloped, and you go through life feeling not completed.''

But he has seen the bobcat track, and it opened his eyes. ``It just stuns you,'' he says, ``how asleep you've been your whole life.''


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