I Will Survive, by Darren Keast
Metro Santa Cruz
April 16-23, 2003
One of Metro Santa Cruz's own goes commando at
survivalist-icon-gone-Hollywood-consultant Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival
School in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Track and Field: Survival
expert Tom Brown checks out the greenery and schools some greenies.
So how exactly does one get a nice strip of long, useable rawhide from such a
small creature as a squirrel? From whiskers to tush, they aren't more than 10
inches long--where are you going to extract a foot-and-a-half piece of leather
Well, after just one day of instruction at Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival
School--the largest such school in existence--I knew the answer to that exact
question. And how to do it myself. (FYI: You dry out its hide and cut a spiral,
twisting the knife to get one continuous fiber.)
But even more amazingly, I actually understand why I need to know this little
morsel of mountain man ingenuity. This is, after all, the kind of thing that can
save your life in certain circumstances--if you need to make fire and you're
fresh out of Zippo fluid, you can make yourself a bow drill with just wood, your
piece of squirrel-hide cordage, and lots of elbow grease.
By day two, I also knew how to do that--make fire, that is. And by the end of
the weeklong course, I had the kind of basic knowledge I need to walk into the
wilderness buck naked and survive comfortably for as long as I'd like. And this
is only the Standard Course, sort of a boot camp for nature-lovers. Tom Brown
teaches over 30 classes, culminating in classes so advanced that students are
only selected by secret invitation.
Brown is quite the mythic figure--a master tracker, survivalist,
wilderness-protection advocate and bestselling author of a Carlos Castaneda-like
series of books--who operates his school from the Pine Barrens wild area of
southern New Jersey. Twice a year, though, he takes it on the road--to Florida
in January and Boulder Creek in March.
That's all I knew about the man when I decided to enroll in his Boulder Creek
"tracker school." I hadn't read any of the books, hadn't heard too many of the
legends--I was pretty much a babe in the woods. And I wasn't expecting
much--maybe a few confidence-building jaunts on the ropes course and some canned
deep-ecology groupthink. Santa Cruz County practically hemorrhages seminars,
prefab alternative experiences, and pearls of wisdom for a buck--how much could
you really get for a fee (and a fairly hefty one at that ... the week course is
So I went in a jaded postmodern "seen-it-all." I walked out a hunter-gatherer
with the beginnings of a totally new relationship to the Earth. Seriously. A
week after the class, I was tanning my first raccoon pelt, making dandelion wine
and tracking mountain lions in the hills above Highway 9.
The Making of a Tracker
Upon arrival at the Camp Lindblad Boy Scout facility on King's Creek Road
outside of Boulder Creek, I found myself among 90 other students. Mostly
run-of-the-mill-looking outdoor types--more of the REI school than the Army
Surplus one--although there was a fair amount of camo in the group, and two guys
were sporting very large cowboy hats and rodeo belt buckles. The group skewed
about two to one male and mostly white, although there was a smattering of
black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students, as well.
The class began with an introduction and crash course on Tom Brown lore
delivered by head instructor Kevin, a former Boy Scoutmaster and spitting image
of John Goodman. He gave the thumbnail bio that Brown has laid out in his early
books like 1978's The Tracker: Brown grew up in the Pine Barrens, and at age 7
he met a boy named Rick who was half Mexican, half Lipan Apache. Rick's great
uncle was a full-blooded Lipan named Stalking Wolf who took young Brown under
his tutelage. For 11 years, Rick and Brown spent their weekends and summers
learning sacred secrets about survival, awareness, meditation and tracking, an
art and science that became Brown's particular passion.
Stalking Wolf wasn't just any Lipan elder--he was born at the transitional time
in North American history when he could grow up living the primitive ways of his
people and also have access to modern conveniences like transportation. So as a
young man, he had traveled throughout the Americas comparing techniques and
philosophies with many different indigenous groups. The skills he taught Brown
then were actually a composite of the best of the best of Native American
This is where my skepticism was initially piqued--whenever anyone says they've
received training handed down from on high, my ears stand up. And Brown just so
happened to meet the insider anthropologist of native peoples? It seemed a bit
much to swallow. Plus, the cover of The Tracker boasts, "The most powerful and
magical high spiritual adventure since The Teachings of Don Juan." Castaneda's
anthropologist colleagues widely question the veracity of his research, and
whether the shaman Don Juan even existed.
These doubts dried up, though, as the class got under way. For one thing, I
became convinced that we were learning something very old and very real.
Additionally, there are some interesting bits from anthropological literature
that confirm Brown's account of Stalking Wolf's way of life. The resistant
Apache have been underdocumented in the field, so it was a great find when the
son of the late, respected Apache expert Greenville Goodwin discovered his
father's 1930 diary of his experiences with the Apaches of the Sierra Madre. He
published it in 2000 as The Apache Diaries, and much of the description of the
hitherto obscure Apache matches up with what Brown's been writing for over 20
Tom Brown Has Left the Building
In his intro speech, Kevin mentioned that Brown had a wicked sinus infection and
would come later in the week. Normally, he throws the opening pitch and teaches
a class here and there, but as the week crept along, we saw neither hide nor
hair of the man himself. But he supposedly has a habit of sort of wafting into a
room without anyone noticing him, which kept a sort of chronic anticipation
hovering over the class for the week.
The rock-star mystique only got more intense as marvelous tales flowed from the
lips of the five instructors--Brown donating some medicines he's developed from
acorns to science, Brown teaching the über-elite SEAL Team 6, Brown living in
the woods for years with just a knife. A story about Brown walking on water
would probably not raise an eyebrow among those close to the school.
Toward the end of the week, rumor got around that he'd be coming for the closing
evening, which culminates in a pipe ceremony that Stalking Wolf gave to Brown to
give in turn to his grandchildren (he considers his students something close to
family). But he remained a will-o'-the-wisp; though whispered about, he never
After the class, I ran into a number of friends whom I zealously bombarded with
Brown anecdotes and Hare Krishna-like pleas to take a class, too. I received
some curious replies. Some repeated the reports of Brown's titanic ego; others
had reservations about Brown selling something he was given for free. The former
is a point that's sometimes debated on the various Tracker School-related chat
rooms, and the conclusion that sits the best with me after taking a course is
simply that the guy is the shit. After Stalking Wolf died, Brown took over 600
tracking cases with law enforcement, one of which required him to follow a
wounded escaped zoo tiger into the woods. When you're a badass, why hide it?
Still, his vibe can be off-putting. His energy was so laser-intense at his book
reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz after 9/11 that some people had to leave. (His
brother-in-law was one of the pilots who died in the crashes.)
As to the second, more serious charge, the debate is more intriguing. It's the
same issue that hangs around the national powwow scene--arrowhead-making,
fur-tanning and peyote-consuming are all skills passed down in a tutelage system
for free. Why should their products then be sold for top dollar on the market?
The easiest answer is that the inputs aren't free. Picking up obsidian to knap
into spearheads is free, but there's gas to get there, and the stone collector
needs to eat and pay rent. Brown has to rent the Boy Scout camp in Boulder
Creek, pay insurance, pay five unbelievably qualified instructors, transport his
staff from New Jersey, and feed his students (although Spartanly). He also
retains a PR guy, keeps a website and flies guest lecturers in to fill specific
gaps in the instruction--a woman came down from Washington for the edible plants
Still, there's some serious revenue generated. The average enrollment for a
weeklong class is 120 students; at $800 a head, two classes a month, that's a
monthly gross of $192,000 a month. Then there are the book deals, and he markets
the Tracker Knife, his signature $300 all-purpose survival machine that almost
builds a shelter for you. Volunteers at the Standard Course--graduates who come
back to do things like surprise novices by jumping out from behind trees in
natural camo--report that Brown rolls around in a Hummer.
Brent, a Standard Course student and a veteran of Santa Cruz spiritual seminars
and the like, had a transformative experience as a result of taking the class.
He moved his obligations around and decided to stay for another week--the
meditation-heavy Philosophy 1 class. But he has similar questions too.
"I think a lot of people wonder where the money's going," he said after advanced
shelter-making class. "But I think Tom has a greater plan that will become
What he's hinting at is the layers of prophecy surrounding Brown's project.
Outlined in his book The Quest, Brown claims he received from Stalking Wolf an
account of ecological meltdown that has played out eerily since he first heard
it. Dubbed the Night of the Red Sky prophecy, it outlines four stages that mark
the end of the world--a plague caused by man's addiction to drugs and sex (which
some read as AIDS), holes developing in the sky (ozone depletion), the sky
turning red and the stars bleeding (the jury's out on this one), and finally a
mass extinction of humanity. Stalking Wolf said that even after the first two
stages, salvation was not impossible.
That's why Brown talks a lot about sandpipers. These coastal birds seem to move
with one consciousness--one tiny feather movement can cause the whole flock to
turn. Brown says his goal is to affect this turning, to get humankind to shift
consciousness before it's too late.
But Brown is facing a massive problem of scale--if he wants to cause a ripple
effect in the popular consciousness, churning out 11 courses of 120 students a
year seems barely able to break the surface. Why not turn this into an entire
industry, opening a school in every state?
Indeed, Kevin told the class one day that people often ask why they don't
franchise the school. The short answer is apparently that Brown's a stickler for
detail and insists that everything be done exactly as he wants it, which is
often the way he learned it from Stalking Wolf. Despite not showing up to any
lectures, Brown was actually on premises during our class, and Billy, a fiery
young instructor who knows how to whip a class into a whirlwind of nature lust,
says that Brown stayed up half the night with him before the class on track
identification, in which the footprints of raccoons, bobcats, weasels, field
mice and mountain lions were pointed out on a soft dirt road. Billy has done the
lesson numerous times, but still Brown felt the need to hammer it into him.
Apparently, he simply couldn't bear to have his lessons compromised through mass
If the Movie Sucks, I Can
Fade Into the Canopy:
Brown on the set of 'The Hunted,' the film based loosely
on one of his cases.
And Then There's the Movie
Exorcist director William Friedkin knew Brown from way back, and has wanted to
make a movie about him for years. Sadly, he finally did. The Hunted, released
the same month as our class, is based loosely on a tracking case Brown worked
years ago. Tommy Lee Jones, playing a character inspired by Brown, bumbles his
way through one plot-devoid charade of a movie, doggedly pursuing Benicio Del
Toro, his wayward student who must be brought to justice.
It's not just that the film is unentertaining and really bad, it's that the Tom
Brown character comes off like a crotchety wash-up who made his living training
assholes to kill people. If the point of Brown's involvement--he acted as
technical adviser--was to get the ideals of nature conservation and the love of
wildlife into the minds of Middle America, it failed miserably. While Friedkin
gets some cool points for including shots of hand-drill friction fires and
Benicio in full natural camouflage, the flick is essentially an excuse to show
bloody hand-to-hand combat and middle-aged men grunting in the forest.
Luckily, Brown had the foresight to keep his name far down in the credits, so
it's not exactly Tom Brown Presents: The Hunted. Most moviegoers will surely
have no idea who he is after seeing it. (Although they will have seen dozens of
plugs for his Tracker Knife, which is used throughout the film.) One hopes that
someone as inspiring as Tom Brown, with a message as relevant to humanity as the
one he preaches, will be able to find less conflicting ways to enter the mass
market. No one said that working within the system would come without
The Real Deal
Brown's teachings will always remain impervious to exigencies of modern American
culture, though. How many classes have you taken where after seven hours of
copious, hand-cramping note-taking, you feel that if you miss a sentence of what
the instructor says, you could die in the wrong circumstance? When you've lost
your backpack out in the woods and night's coming fast, you know what do first
(build a shelter), how to do it (make a debris hut), and what to do next
(procure clean water). You know how to trap animals, gather and prepare acorns,
and whip up some cattail pollen crepes (recipe provided). You know that a lost
person tends to walk in circles, and which way they will turn based on their
More than anything, you know what it means to be human in the biological sense,
the beings we were before the discovery of metal. Through evolution, we're
constructed to stalk deer and kill them with handmade arrows, sleep when it's
dark, and zone out to trickling streams rather than bumping headphones. It
simply feels good to do these things, and you realize that maybe some of the
advancements of civilization haven't all been for the best. The fact that Tom
Brown can impart this kind of confidence and wonder in the age of Prozac and
weenies presenting themselves as Survivors on television, that's a pretty
Quest for Fire: Darren
actually knows how to make one of these now. Ask him for a light sometime.
Seven Deadly Skins
In which the author reveals the top things he learned how to do at survival
Unlike retreats in the pound-drums/beat-your-chest men's movement,
one leaves Tracker School with actual new skills. These skills will admittedly
appeal to some more than to others, of course, being, as they are, based on
Paleolithic technology and ancient knowledge. The author may or may not have
actually done the following things as a result of the training he received (some
are illegal in this and many other states).
1. Make a Coonskin Hat. Brown advocates using roadkill to tan unless you're in a
full survival situation--no need to hunt when the highway provideth so well. The
author might have found a fresh raccoon on Graham Hill Road after a reggae show
one night and picked it up (harvesting roadkill is a no-no in California). After
12 hours of skinning, fleshing, and rubbing its brains on its pelt, he may or
may not now have head-wear Mr. Crockett himself would covet. And the experience
may or may not have been nearly as stomach-turning as he imagined, but either
way the sneer of a dead coon without its fur on is a bit unsettling.
2. Carve and Set a Rabbit Trap. Also very illegal. Actually, if I did do this,
I'd have to go check on it right now. So far, the wascally wabbit has made off
with the bait and kept its neck intact (if I actually did this, that is).
3. Build and Sleep in a Debris Hut. Had some friends over from Tracker School,
and like an Amish barn-raising party, we built me a shelter out of sticks and
leaves. Almost have it dialed in--still a little cold. At the two-week Advanced
Standard and Advanced Tracking course in May, I'll have to sleep in one the
entire time. Also, if I haven't carved a wood spoon and bowl by day three, I
4. Track a Mountain Lion. Found the 3-inch-by-3-inch paw prints in baby
powder-fine sand above Loch Lomond (where, technically, it's illegal to hike,
but who's counting at this point?). The prints couldn't be dog, since there were
no claw marks (cats retract theirs).
5. Make a 100 Percent Wild Meal. Great first date--made her an acorn stew that
contained other ingredients "collected" from one of the means above. First
course--miner's lettuce and wildcrafted greens salad. Major cool points to
offering a hunter-gatherer meal; didn't exactly go into the legal issues,
6. Ambush Neighbor in Natural Camouflage. Got into full Apache scout camo--buck
naked, covered with a layer of wood ash, then blotched with mud and sprinkled
with a healthy dose of dirt, bark and moss. Buried myself under four inches of
debris and lay in wait. He came home, walked right past me, I called his name.
He stopped and stared. I called again. He walked to within 10 feet and really
stared. I sat up like a zombie from its grave. He lost control of his
7. Develop a Network of Other Future Primitives. The most jarring thing about
leaving Tracker School is trying to find people who don't want to stuff you in a
glass box like they did to Ishi, the last Indian, when they hear your stories.
You meet other freaks to share knowledge with. I've had groups of students over,
and they filled in the holes from the notes. One got a load of obsidian and has
been flint-knapping, another has been stalking deer. I shared the ins and outs
of gutting a coon, they showed me theirs.