By the time survival expert Shane Hobel was 12 years old, he could hike for 24 hours without even stopping for food. He’s telling us this as I sit comfortably in his makeshift outdoor classroom and begin to panic. It’s a beautiful late summer midafternoon and I’m famished, which is to say that under normal circumstances I’d suggest breaking out the prosciutto, melon and a nice Pinot gris. But these are not normal circumstances. I’m at the Mountain Scout Survival School in rural Hopewell Junction, New York, and, as this is survival school, everyone is responsible for their own food. I failed to pick up any provisions this morning—all the shops at Grand Central were closed when I caught the early train up to Dutchess County. (Yes, I’d already failed to live up to the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared.”) I’ll also admit to spending an embarrassing amount of time during quarantine binge-watching survival shows like Alone to try to bone up. Today I intend to move from theory to praxis.
Basically, I’m in search of what Hobel calls “dirt time”—hands-on experience in the forest building debris huts and animal traps and campfires—alongside 16 other students. But before we can get to that, Hobel sits us down on some handmade benches and lectures us on the spiritual imperative of “unplugging from the matrix” and regaining access to the primitive skills that constitute our “human right.” The diagnosis stings. I was voted Most Likely to Appear on Survivor as my senior superlative in high school, but city life has made me soft: I’m vaguely afraid of the gas stove in my Brooklyn apartment and I’ve been letting a mouse live in my kitchen for almost a year because I would rather cede the apartment than see it get hurt.
The screaming in my stomach has me whipping out my phone as if trained by Pavlov, but before I tap the screen, I remember the fact that no one will be delivering pad thai way out here in the woods. Thankfully, I won’t go thirsty, as Hobel has just taught me how to pull down water vines and drink out of them if the liquid inside runs clear rather than speckled. But I need calories.
We’re slated to build animal traps later in the day, but that’s several hours off, and it isn’t likely I am going to score a meal, due to both my aptitude and some legal technicalities. (Apparently, in New York State, it’s illegal to trap small game animals, and I don’t imagine I could argue that I was in mortal danger in front of a judge.)
Eventually I can’t take it anymore and decide to add two of my own lessons to the class: foraging and stealth. While pretending to pee, I swipe a granola bar from the back of a Mountain Scout van. “There are tricks,” Hobel says of tapping into unfathomable levels of human endurance. “You just kind of nibble along the way.” I definitely don’t do that—the whole bar goes in my mouth in a single bite so as to minimize the possibility of detection. It dawns on me that my high school classmates were probably picking up less on my resourcefulness and more on my shamelessness.
Although I’m nervous about Hobel busting me in front of the whole class, I’m able to relax after my snack. I kick off my boots, dig my feet into the cool earth and completely zone out during the trapping demonstration. I jolt back to attention when I hear Hobel exclaim, “If you get hurt, it’s your fault,” then launch into a frightening demonstration about the radius he calls “the blood bubble.” “Kidney! Liver! Gallbladder!” he yells while flicking his fixed blade around wildly in a circle, in a demonstration about blade safety and potentially vulnerable areas of the body.
To catch up in class, I enlist the help of Dave, an unpaid volunteer who found the school through Google a few years ago.
The quarantine has prevented him from teaching guitar lessons, so he’s been driving out here from his mom’s house in North Jersey practically every day. I don’t blame him; Hobel seems like a great person to ride out a pandemic with.
Dave repeats the trapping lesson for my benefit, explaining how to make some notches in a stick that look like screwdriver ends and others like 90-degree angles. The ultimate idea is to fit these parts together into a trap shaped like the number 4. I press down on the stick as hard as possible with my knife but no bark shaves off. My cheeks burn with shame as the other students—everyone from senior citizens in shockingly recent Bonnaroo shirts to precocious preteens—seem to have no problem.
Finally, Dave intervenes and tests my blade. “This is like a butter knife,” he says. “Maybe worse.” I assume he’s humoring me, but I see what he means when he hands me a sharpened knife. The wood peels off—not unlike butter!—and eventually I’ve put together a rudimentary trap that could capture the world’s stupidest squirrel.
As we head into early evening, Dave asks if I’m spending the night—all graduates are given the opportunity to camp on the property after class. I’m proud that he thinks I’d actually be able to hack it, but unlike a 12-year-old Hobel, I still don’t think I can make it a full 24 hours in the woods with nothing more than a nibble. After all, I’ve only just learned how to build a fire structure (though not light it), cobble together an animal trap (though not use it), construct a debris hut for clandestine shelter (though not sleep in it), and wield my Leatherman (for something other than opening Amazon Prime packages). The Wilderness 1 course I’ve just completed is clearly a prerequisite to a lifetime of training. Though I may not ever be cast on Survivor, I vow to come back to Mountain Scout. For the first time, I feel that I’m on the way to being able to survive in the wilderness—or at least closer to making it through a day outdoors without resorting to petty larceny, and that’s good enough for me.