On the Trail of Tom Brown
JOHN CAREY in Asbury, N.J.
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."