A Lick of Common Sense

You want to live? Have a cup of tea, know your plant life, and yield to snakes

Oct 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

I swear I don't know where the match came from. But when David Alloway, the nation's leading desert survival expert, found it in the charred remains of our fire, he was less than pleased. "Class," he grumbled, "when I said we'd be making fire by rubbing sticks together, I did not mean one of the sticks could be a match." Fortunately Alloway, a Big Bend Ranch State Park naturalist who has imparted his water-finding, fire-starting, shelter-making, weather-predicting, desert-cooking, and plant-edibility-testing techniques to U.S. Air Force pilots, customs officers, and Outward Bound instructors, didn't hold the cheating against me or the 11 other civilians who had signed on for his desert survival workshop ($350; 915-229-3416).

For three days out in the Chihuahua furnace and two nights spent in a rustic ranch bunkhouse, the lanky El Paso native—a former hiking and horsepacking guide in Mexico's Copper Canyon and in Yellowstone and Big Bend National Parks—instructed us on such life lessons as signaling planes with shaving mirrors, trapping desert fowl and baking them underground, and coaxing water from wells beneath broken windmills. We dutifully trooped across the flats behind Alloway as he cataloged the medicinal value of the entire landscape. "This leatherstem?" he barked, grabbing the rubbery shrub. "Sap's great for hemorrhoids. That creosote bush? Make a tea of the leaves and you've got your antifungal." He also divulged his most challenging desert walkabout—a ten-day, 120-mile jaunt across Western Australia's severe Pilbara territory—and a memorable lesson he learned from it: To remove a grain of sand from someone's eye, just stick out your tongue and lick.

Common sense, you may have gathered, is the basic tenet of Alloway's teachings. "Take poisonous snakes," he advised one simmering afternoon on the trail. "Your best bet with them is the Alloway 12-Step Snake Bite Prevention Program. You take four steps off the trail, four steps around the snake, and then four steps back onto the trail. Simple."


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