IT IS DIFFICULT in the extreme to construct either a Figure-Four or Paiute deadfall trap, to say nothing of having them work, in the dark, and in the rain, at 11 p.m., after 17 hours of lectures and demonstrations, during which one has already been taught (among other things) the Sacred Order of Survival—shelter, water, fire, food; how to make rope and cordage from plant and animal fibers; how to start a fire using a bowdrill; finding suitable materials for tinder (making sure to avoid the very fluffy and flammable mouse nest as it may contain hanta virus); how to recognize the signs of progressive dehydration; how to make a crude filter out of a matted clump of grass; how to distinguish between the common, water-rich grapevine and the very similar yet very poisonous Canadian moonseed; how to make a solar still out of a hole covered with a sheet of plastic (and how to continue the condensation process by urinating around the hole); and the Apache tradition of honoring those things one hunts, be they animal, vegetable, or mineral. All of this within the first day and a half of a Standard Class session at Tom Brown's Tracking, Nature, and Wilderness Survival School in the wilds of northwestern New Jersey.
The Standard is the first and most basic of 28 classes offered by the school, a Wilderness 101 of sorts—a weeklong, lecture-heavy, intensive introduction to primitive outdoor skills and nature awareness. The same skills and awareness found at the very heart of the bildungsroman that is the oft-told life story of Tom Brown Jr. Briefly, the story is as follows: Growing up in the Jersey Pine Barrens in the late 1950s, a young Tom spends almost every waking moment from the ages of seven to 18 in the woods under the tutelage of his best friend Rick's grandfather, Stalking Wolf, a Southern Lipan Apache from Texas. Brown's apprenticeship ends in 1967 upon his graduation from Toms River High School. He is designated 4-F by the draft board due to a chip of obsidian that had lodged in his right eye in his teens; years earlier, Stalking Wolf is said to have predicted that a "black rock" would keep the boy out of Vietnam. Over the next decade Brown takes odd jobs to make the money necessary to spend his summers testing his skills in unfamiliar environments across the country (the Tetons, the Dakota Badlands, Death Valley, and the Grand Canyon), living in debris huts and scout pits of his own devising, and subsisting on food he forages or kills himself. Eventually the young man re-emerges into society with a single-minded mission: to teach others and lead them back to the woods and a love of nature.
There have been digressions along the way. Brown has trained Navy SEALS in high-speed invisible survival and helped the FBI and state law enforcement agencies in tracking persons both missing and criminal. He solved his 600th case on his 27th birthday, a full year before the publication of his first book in 1978. The Tracker is a tale of an adventurous boyhood of limitless self-reliance in an unfathomably Arcadian wilderness. It makes for compelling, if not always easy to swallow, reading: part Richard Halliburton, part Carlos Castaneda, part Kung Fu. Grandfather, already an octogenarian in 1957 when Tom first meets him, appears as a man of almost Buddhalike wisdom with a penchant for posing oblique, seemingly insoluble riddles and laughing discreetly behind his hand as Rick and Tom, mired in narrow Western thought, fumble for answers.
It might not be Thoreau, but it is the key to the legend that Tom Brown may very well one day become, and certainly already is here at the Tracker School. Brown, 50, is a cultfigure of international stature. The best-selling author of 16 books, whatever tracking Brown does now, be it for the crooked or the merely lost, is more of the armchair variety. Having trained tens of thousands of people at his school, he can call upon a global network of former and current acolytes when his tracking wisdom is requested.
Many of us here for the Standard—some 90 people from the United States and Canada, four from Austria, and a young woman all the way from Japan—are aspirants, yearning to join those ranks of expert trackers. Everyone is acquainted with Stalking Wolf. All have read at least part of Brown's oeuvre, be it one of the field guides to wilderness survival or to wild edible and medicinal plants, or perhaps the more spiritually oriented titles, such as The Vision, The Quest, The Journey, or Grandfather. According to the school's statistics, roughly 90 percent of us will return to take a more advanced course, starting with the Advanced Standard and branching off thereafter, perhaps to learn Search and Rescue, the Way of the Coyote, Intensive Tracking, or How to Be a Shadow Scout.
We are diverse in age and gender, and we run the gamut from the pragmatic to the ethereal; from the unbelievably sweet 18-year-old vegan boy from Portland, Oregon, to the gun enthusiast who brought his own supply of hermetically sealed decommissioned military MREs ("Bought 'em on eBay for ten cents on the dollar after the whole Y2K thing didn't pan out. Best au gratin potatoes I ever ate"); from the congenial soi-disant "hillbilly from West Virginia" in his fifties to the twentysomething physics major looking to drop out for a while. Most are friendly, intelligent, and environmentally and socially committed. More than a few are involved in education, in particular working with troubled teens in the wilderness. And, I am relieved to see, most are refreshingly immune to the pornography of gear. They radiate good health as they unpack bags of gorp, apples, whole-wheat pitas, and huge water bottles. I, too, have come prepared—with a deli-size Poland Spring mineral water, assorted candy bars, and four packs of Marlboro Lights.
I ARRIVE ON APRIL 30, a beautiful, sunny, but very windy Sunday afternoon. We all spend the first few hours battling the strong breeze to pitch our tents, the placement of which is overseen by Indigo, one of the eight or so volunteers, alumni of previous Standard Classes, who help out for the week and in so doing refresh their skills and relive what was clearly for them a wonderful experience. Indigo, a rural New Jersey local, hovers somewhere between 50 and 70 years old. With her sun-burnished face, craggy features, and rather extreme take-charge demeanor, she is straight out of My Antonia. Still, she's not unfriendly, even as she tells one of the Austrians, his tent staked down and ready, "Uh-uh, mister. You gotta move it about four inches that way. We're making a lane right here." Indigo gesticulates like an urban planner dreaming of a freeway; she is the Robert Moses of Tent City.
It should be noted that we are not actually in the Pine Barrens, sacrosanct locus of Brown's childhood in and around the town of Toms River. The Standard Class is held on the Tracker farm in Asbury, New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border (not to be confused with Asbury Park, sacrosanct locus of the early career of that other South Jersey legend, Bruce Springsteen). Brown splits his time between here and the Barrens, but the farm at Asbury is better for teaching novices because of its rich biodiversity; the surrounding fields, meadows, and light forest, and the Musconetcong River, which flows a few hundred yards away, offer ample flora and fauna for this week of instruction. Aside from the barn, the central structure where the (hours upon hours of) lectures take place, the farm consists of Tom Brown's house, a dozen or so portable toilets, and a toolshed with an awning under which sits a row of chuck-wagon gas rings—our cafeteria. All activity is centered around the main yard, a scant acre of patchy lawn that lies between our nylon sleeping quarters and the barn. In the center of this is the all-important fire, which burns day and night, heating a large square iron tank with a tap, where we get hot water for our bucket showers.