A SCHOOL ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Sports Illustrated (March 27, 1989)
It is 10 o'clock on a frosty, clear night in the hills
of western New Jersey. On a flat patch of land near a cornfield,
a floodlight throws into sharp relief the figures of 37 men and
women, who appear to be imitating the halting but graceful walk
of the heron. They are learning the traditional Indian skill of
stalking, which, when mastered, enables the stalker to get close
enough to a wild animal to stroke it. The only sounds are the
whine of tractor-trailer tires on nearby Route 78, which links
New York and Pennsylvania.
This is survival school, New Jersey style.
A survival school in New Jersey? What do they teach? Defensive
driving on the Turnpike? How to hold your breath while driving
past the refineries near Carteret? How to avoid medical waste
at the Jersey Shore? Master tracker Tom Brown Jr., who has heard
all the jokes, wouldn't dream of moving his school to another
"Having a school in Montana would be too easy," says
Brown, the author of seven wilderness field guides and three autobiographies.
"You could sit back and say, 'Wow, look at all this unspoiled
land.' New Jersey, with more Superfund sites [hazardous waste]
than any other state, is the cutting edge of what will happen
to this country environmentally. This is the front line."
True enough. But the 10,000 graduates of Tom Brown's Tracking,
Nature and Wilderness Survival School, just outside of Asbury,
were more likely to have been drawn by Brown's reputation as a
tracker and outdoorsman than by the prospect of camping out in
a state with 108 Superfund sites.
"I came here because I read his books and wanted to see if
he was for real," said Al Raabe of Dallas. "And, pretty
much, he is."
Brown's love affair with the wilderness began while he was growing
up near Toms River, N.J., a small town that has the Jersey Shore
on one side and the Pine Barrens, 1.2 million acres of largely
desolate wilderness, on the other. A boyhood friend, Rick, whose
father was stationed at nearby Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering
Center, shared Brown's interest in fossils, bones and the animals
in the woods.
When Tom was seven years old, Rick's grandfather, an Apache named
Stalking Wolf, came East to visit the family. He stayed for 10
years, during which time he taught the boys the generally forgotten
skills and philosophies of a Native American scout.
As a teenager Brown used his ability as a tracker to help the
local police. By the time he graduated from Toms River high school
in 1968, he had helped find dozens of people who had become lost
in the Pine Barrens. Soon the police were utilizing Brown's help
in solving criminal cases as well.
In 1969, Rick's father was transferred to another base and Stalking
Wolf, whom Brown had come to call Grandfather, returned to the
West. Brown left home and wandered around the country for a decade,
working at odd jobs and often living off the land as he searched,
unsuccessfully, for another mentor. Meanwhile, his reputation
for tracking criminals and lost children grew.
In 1977, having returned to New Jersey, he offered to help track
a retarded man who had been lost in the Pine Barrens for four
days. A SWAT team, two helicopters, two packs of dogs and hundreds
of volunteers had produced no leads, but Brown was able to find
the man in a few hours.
"There's no one better," says William Donohue, a former
Stone Harbor police chief now with the Cape May County Sheriff's
Department. "He can not only follow a set of tracks, but
he can tell you more about the person or animal than you could
see if you looked right at the person yourself."
Brown estimates he has worked on more than 600 tracking cases
around the country. Half of them involved lost people; the other
half were criminal cases, including more than 40 murders.
Now 39, he has semiretired from tracking criminals. "I used
to have a fire for tracking," Brown says. "Now I have
a fire for writing and teaching." Today Brown refers authorities
looking for trackers to the graduates of his school. Even those
who have attended only his basic class, dubbed Survival 101 by
the students, can track with confidence, says Brown. The school,
which offers 13 different courses, is situated on a leased five-acre
farm, adjoining another 35 acres or so, near the Musconetcong
River. Classes are held in an old red barn, which is heated in
winter by a wood-burning stove. The 20 to 50 students, who stay
on the farm for as long as a week, sleep upstairs in the hayloft.
Outside, a stew pot sits on the cooking fire, which also heats
water for washing.
In the world of survival schools, this place is like the Taj Mahal,
a contradiction Brown is fond of pointing out. Then again, Brown
is no stranger to contradictions. How else would you describe
a man who looks like a cop (O.K., the earring makes him look like
an undercover cop), dresses like comedian George Carlin, and writes
like a cross between John Muir and Carlos Castaneda? Or, as one
reviewer put it, Davy Crockett meets Don Juan?
"I like him," says New Jersey's governor, Tom Kean.
"My son attended his class and got a great deal from it.
Brown is very sensitive to the environment."
Brown insists that survival in the wilderness shouldn't be a struggle,
because nature provides everything a human being needs to thrive.
"Pure survival shouldn't be a debilitating experience,"
he tells his first-time students. "The public thinks of survivalists
in two ways: One, the guy hunkered down in some cabin with 20,000
rounds of ammunition, waiting for the world to end; or, two, some
poor debilitated soul sitting on an iceberg with a frayed blanket.
In a true survival situation, your only concern should be that
you don't gain weight." And he's only partly joking.
Brown's week-long basic class, which he teaches with four assistant
instructors, does not include survival situations but offers lecture-workshop
sessions that begin at 8 a.m. and often run until midnight. A
formidable array of skills is taught: how to find water and food;
how to start a fire with a bow drill; how to build shelters from
leaves and branches; how to change the focus of your vision to
spot movement; how to track a mouse across a gravel driveway;
how to make arrowheads from flint. In short, students learn how
to go into the wilderness without much of anything -- and have
a good time doing it.
According to Brown, two thirds of his basic-class students return
to take other courses, such as advanced tracking and nature observation,
philosophy, or the advanced standard course in which the student
spends seven days in the Pine Barrens, in February, with little
more than the clothes on his or her back.
"No belt," says Brown. "We don't want anyone hanging
His broad humor often disconcerts first-time students. They might
also be surprised to know that Brown lives in a comfortable converted
farmhouse complete with electricity, running water, television,
VCR and home computer. Brown lives there with his wife, the former
Judy Ford, and their son, Tommy, 10. Judy's two children from
a previous marriage occasionally stop by.
"I like to watch people's faces when I first walk into a
class," says Brown. "They expect this long-haired Indian
with buckskins and moccasins and a glazed look in his eyes. And
they get me. And my cigarettes." Brown usually wears running
shoes and jeans.
Judy is a self-described city girl who seems as much at home in
Manhattan as Brown, her husband of 11 years, does in the Pine
Barrens. "He continues to amaze me," she says. "He
sees things no one else does. There's no one else like him. Of
course, when I first told my mother about him, she wasn't too
pleased that I was marrying this unemployed man who spent a lot
of time in the woods."
Although Brown may not look like an Indian scout, his technique
is authentic. He uses the ancient Apache method of reading what
Brown calls "pressure releases," the series of ridges,
bumps and dents within each footprint or track. Some pressure
releases reveal which direction the person or animal is heading
and how fast he or it is traveling. Brown says he can also tell
from a single footprint how old a person is, what his height and
weight are, whether he is right- or left-handed, whether the person
is accustomed to walking in the wilderness, if he just ate, and
a hundred other details. Brown says that a person's footprint
is not only as individual as his or her fingerprint but also,
when read by an expert, an infinitely more precise form of identification.
"Of course, the criticism is: Who's going to prove him wrong?"
says Donohue, the former police chief. "Stalking Wolf is
dead, and there's no one else around here who knows the old ways.
I question him constantly, but he's never been wrong, in my experience."
In 1978, giving in to pressure from publishers who were fascinated
by his exploits, Brown and a co-author wrote a book called, simply,
The Tracker. It came out just before Tommy was born.
"I wanted to use the proceeds from the book to buy some land
and get back to the wilderness," says Brown. "It was
my dream, and my family's dream, to get back to reality.
"Reader's Digest had picked up the book, and they called
Judy, wanting to add a postscript to tell people what happened
to the tracker. Judy told them I was in the Barrens, teaching
a survival course to a few friends."
Soon after Reader's Digest came out with an excerpt, the postman
showed up at the Browns' house with sacks of mail, some addressed
simply to "The Tracker," all from people wanting to
attend a school that wasn't even in existence.
Brown wanted no part of that. Soon, however, he realized his dream
of going back to the wilderness was nothing more than an escape,
and that he would be leaving no legacy for his newborn son if
he didn't pass on what Stalking Wolf had taught him. So Brown
opened the school to "bring people back in touch with the
earth," as he puts it.
Ten years later, Tom Brown Tracker, Inc. is still pretty much
of a mom-and-pop operation, with Judy handling the business side
("There wouldn't be a school without Judy," says Tom)
and Tom the writing and lecturing.
His books do very well, according to his publisher, Berkley Books,
and he has undertaken another autobiographical series. The publishing
projects require Tom to make frequent trips into Manhattan, some
70 miles from the farm, much to Judy's delight and his distress.
While Judy uses the opportunity to do some shopping and have her
hair done, Tom is likely to amuse himself by tracking animals
through Central Park, which has led to more than one confrontation
with a disbelieving New York City cop.
"He just looks so odd, crawling along the ground like a crazy
toad, looking at things no one else could see," says Judy.
"He took his editor and [Berkley's] vice-president of sales
for a walk down Park Avenue one afternoon, pointing out things
they could eat in the planters in front of apartment houses and
showing them the tracks of the different birds. They were fascinated,
just as I have always been."
Brown's books reach a broad spectrum of people, from seasoned
outdoorsmen and environmentalists to those who are interested
in Indian lore. His writing also has an unexpected, but not unwelcome,
appeal to New Agers, who identify closely with the Native American
philosophies Brown teaches. They fancy him as something of a guru,
but it's not a role Brown wants.
"I don't want to be a guru," he insists. "I'm not
here to fulfill anyone's expectations. To me, it's uplifting to
see these skills live on."
Especially in New Jersey.