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On the Trail of Tom Brown
JOHN CAREY in Asbury, N.J.
Newsweek April 8, 1985

One Friday night seven years ago, a suspected rapist eluded police and vanished into a marshy New Jersey wood. For two days a search team of men and dogs failed to find any sign of him. Then on Monday morning an unusual man joined the police. His name was Tom Brown Jr., he said, and he knew how to track. Within minutes, Brown, then 27, picked up the trail. He followed the footprints 1 1/2 miles through the woods, ending up at a house which police assumed the suspect had visited and which led them to an arrest. "Brown was just like an old Indian scout," said one local police chief.

Brown had already successfully tracked dozens of missing persons, but this particular exploit * made the front page of The New York Times and turned him into a minor celebrity. Brown appeared on talk shows and in People magazine, and published a book about his life, called "The Tracker." The publicity prompted a flood of letters from people wanting to learn how to track and survive in the wilderness. But Brown resisted the idea of becoming a teacher until one day when he brought his infant son to a cherished spot in New Jersey's Pine Barrens, where he had learned his outdoor skills from an old Apache named Stalking Wolf. "I'd promised Stalking Wolf that I'd bring my kid to that place," he explains. "But it was gone, bulldozed. I swore right then that as long as I could walk and talk and teach, I'd be driven by a vision that my son would run free in the same wilderness that I had."

* The man arrested by police was later released when the victims failed to pick him out of a lineup.

Exaggeration: And so in 1978 he opened a school in New Jersey where last month 22 people followed in the footsteps of more than 14,000 others who have learned Tom Brown's ways. The new arrivals came from as far away as Alaska and rural Maine. "I've always wanted to find someone who could teach me to live off the land," said Walter Hesse, 31, a Wisconsin cobbler. Many were curious to find out if the long-haired, chainsmoking mountain man was for real. "It's hard to tell where the truth ends and the exaggeration begins," explained Boston-area computer teacher Michael Long, 30.

After a week of rising at 6 in the morning and staying up late with lectures and workshops, few doubted Brown's abilities. Unlike leaders of other outdoor schools, Brown doesn't teach with compass and map; there are no backpacks or freeze-dried foods, no grueling tests of endurance. Instead, the training is more basic: how to understand the rhythms and signs of nature well enough to survive -- and thrive -- in the wilderness without any equipment at all. The students learn to start fires by twirling wooden drills, build animal traps and warm shelters, forage for edible plants and stalk without making a sound.

'Matches': But perhaps the most exciting part of the instruction was tracking. With Brown's guidance, the landscape suddenly came alive with the marks of wildlife -- and animal prints became visible even on lawns and barn floors. In the school's most advanced course, students get to use all of these skills, venturing out into the winter wilderness for a month with nothing but the clothes on their backs. "How can you be comfortable in the woods if you are afraid that a bear will piss on your matches?" reasons Brown. "If you need more than a blanket and a knife, you might as well take a camper."

Brown's improbable saga began at the age of seven when he met Stalking Wolf, the grandfather of a friend. From the old man he learned the ancient arts of knapping arrowheads and starting fires by rubbing wood together. He practiced stalking until he could creep close enough to touch deer. He also learned to track, spending thousands of hours with his nose in the dirt until he could read the drama of a deer's flight -- along with its age, sex and general health -- by characteristic marks in a pair of hoof prints. Finally, he put it all to the test, disappearing naked into New Jersey's Pine Barrens one April morning at the age of 20, determined to stay for a year.

Eating small game and wild plants, fashioning clothes from animal hides and sleeping in a warm, leafy shelter, Brown prospered. "I came out of the Pine Barrens fully clothed, 20 pounds heavier, twice as strong and totally relaxed," he recalls. He spent the next decade wandering, a strange misfit in buckskins and waist-length braids, and eventually wound up back in New Jersey, where he married and settled down.

If Tom Brown had only one admonition for modern man, it would be to reawaken long-dormant senses. "All that people seem to want today are comfort and security -- other words for death," he says. "But I'm not satisfied to be a spectator. I can't even pass up a swamp. I've got to be in it, to feel its mud, to touch a frog or tickle the belly of a heron." Small wonder then that when Brown passes through the veil that he believes separates this world from the next, he wants his epitaph to be: "Tom Brown was a screwy son of a bitch, but he had a hell of a blast."

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