28 Days in the Utah Backcountry

I got back to Redmond from Utah a week ago (October 25th) from the BOSS 28-day Field Course. I had the opportunity to take a month off from work and family obligations, and I wanted to spend time away from technology, close to nature, and in a physically and mentally challenging environment where I can also learn new skills.  The course was difficult but very fulfilling. This is a brief write-up with some pictures. This is not a day-by-day account of the course. Instead I focus on what I got out of the course.

I am very grateful to my wife and many friends and family who helped out at home when I was gone (my wife was also going through post-Achilles-heel surgery recuperation), as well as really touched to the point of being emotional over how folk were concerned about how I was doing day to day during the course (there was really no opportunity to keep people updated). One of the things I got out of the course was a fresh and keener appreciation for my friends and family and the importance of community.

The course was physically and emotionally tough – 28 days out in the open, frequently on the move, with limited rations and equipment. It wasn’t some kind of extreme “man vs. wild” experience (and I wasn’t expecting it to be). But it was tough, especially given the duration of it. 7 days into the course, the remaining 21 days seem so daunting. It is certainly very satisfying to know that I made it through course. There were even moments of unadulterated enjoyment, such as long conversations over the fire, and coming up on a strand of silverleaf buffaloberries after a long hike and just standing there, picking the fruit and eating with no thoughts outside the immediate moment.

I have some new base lines…

  • We had practically no food during the first 3.5 days, while being constantly on the move – I wouldn’t have thought that could be possible and now I know it is. For most of the remainder of the course we did not eat much – typical rations for a day was a handful of gorp (peanuts and raisins), a handful each of oats, flour, lentils and quinoa , 1/6th (!) each of a potato, carrot and onion. Sometimes we would find wild onions or other plants, which were always welcome.
  • I’ve drunk from a water source, an almost empty cattle trough, that … well let me say that I hope you never have to drink that kind of water (my best attempt at describing it is to liken it to stale urine; one of my team mates couldn’t keep it in his stomach – he kept throwing it up, poor chap) – but after that, every other water source, muddy or not, tasted great (we would say, “compared with that cattle trough, it’s really not bad”).
  • I’ve slept several days with little or no shelter. Our first night will always stick in our minds of one of the hardest nights we’ve ever spent – but later we learnt how to do better. Again, in comparison with that first night, we did quite well; my baseline for what I consider a reasonably comfortable night has forever changed.

I learnt a fair amount of minimalist backcountry hiking skills and about the natural history of the lovely Utah desert. I feel closer to (a part of, almost) that kind of environment than ever before, and that’s a great feeling.

But some of the most valuable things I got out of the course was unanticipated. I had a lot of time during the course to think. The nights were long – probably around 12 hours of darkness and there is not much you can do once it gets dark, as we had no flashlights. So I got to think a lot, without the baggage of day-to-day tasks and distractions that normally consume our waking lives….

  • I was surprised by how strongly I missed my family.
  • I have a fresh appreciation for food! Basic staple food made from scratch with “first order” ingredients. Let’s see if this sustains itself, but I plan to get into cooking a few staple, traditional recipes and will enjoy sharing as much as consuming it myself.
  • I have  new respect for the strength and diversity of others – in particular our instructors, Steve, Susan and Brooks and my 8 fellow course members. They are wonderful people. Independent and with diverse backgrounds, with high levels of integrity and respect for nature and other human beings. In our usual day-to-day lives (at least speaking for myself), we seldom get the chance to become close to people with different backgrounds; the opportunity to do so in this course is one of the unexpected treats. We became good friends who will stay in touch (most of us anyways) for the rest of our lives. I also cannot speak highly enough of the value of going through an experience with good guides / instructors. I will strive to seek out flesh-and-blood people I can learn from in future excursions vs. the usual practice of researching using the Internet and then doing the travelling remaining within a kind of isolated bubble along with close friends and/or family travelling with you.
  • I have new respect for Pioneers of every flavor – the ones who simultaneously endured hardship and uncertainty while breaking significant new ground. Heck, I had my hands full dealing with the “enduring hardship and uncertainty” part, that too for a bounded amount of time. I feel that by-and-large modern human beings are bunch of softies and whiners compared to those who have gone before us.

As I mentioned, I had a lot of time to think. After many frustrating hours waiting minute-by-minute for dawn I began to structure my thinking (few things are as frustrating as being tricked by a dream into thinking that dawn has arrived, only to actually wake up and see the starlight (yes the stars are beautiful in Utah at 6000+ ft, but, that was not foremost on my mind when I just want to get going in the morning). Anyway, I started using that time deliberately and constructively and here’s a sampling of what I turned over in my mind…

  • My priorities in life were. Nothing dramatic here, just clarification and re-establishment of priorities. Broadly speaking, I am interested in helping comprehend and communicate the “state of the Earth”, past present and future. There were other priorities too that bubbled up, such as being better connected and a better contributor to my community.
  • Believe it or not, I spent quite some time fleshing out some aspects of my work (yes, work work!) on Rich Interactive Narratives. I was quite comfortable with doing that during that structured time for thinking. In general, at other times, I made it a point not to think about work and technology, except when ruminating over the larger landscape of what role technology plays in life (increased efficiency/enabler/convenience/entertainment) and how that has changed over the years. But I did make some satisfying progress on Rich Interactive Narratives during several of those long nights and I will always get a kick out of that!

It’s great to be back, to connect again with friends and family.  I’ve been eating like a pig – ah, I enjoy food so much. I’d lost about 10 pounds during training for the course and another 10 pounds during the course itself. I’d better watch myself or I’ll gain it all back :-).

I’ll write more details in bits and pieces in subsequent posts. Meanwhile I’ve included a few pictures with captions below. [Click on each picture to view a larger version.]

My wife took this picture of me shortly after I got back – this was taken in our backyard. Haven’t been this spindly-looking in a while :-).

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Here’s how I was outfitted during the bulk of the course. A “blanket pack” to carry stuff needed only at camp and a “Versacloth” carrying misc. stuff needed during the day.

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The 9 of us that took the course. Back (left to right): Joseph, Aaron, Rob, Nick, Jay, Howard. Front (left to right): Daniel, Nicole, Justin. Strangers when we met. Lifelong friends now.

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Our lead instructor, Steve. A wonderful human being. Deep and broad in his range of knowledge. Amazingly articulate, well read and completely at home in these places. A pilot to boot. His footwear (when he wore them) was a pair of rudimentary handmade sandals (made from tire walls and leather). I don’t know how he managed to cover the often harsh terrain and all those long walks, especially given he carried a heavier load than the rest of us (including a trauma kit and other emergency supplies).

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Our second instructor, Susan. Another wonderful human being. A huge storehouse of traditional lore and natural history, as well as modern navigation techniques. One of my most satisfying moments was making fire using a bow-drill. Susan has experienced what is clearly even more satisfying – teaching us all to make fire.

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Apprentice instructor Brooks. Quietly helpful. He’s also an experienced white water kayaking and swift water rescue instructor from Tennessee.

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The infamous cattle trough water source. Believe me, the cows did not stay out of it. There was … evidence.

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Much of the day was spent on the go… reminded us of the journeys by the Fellowship in the Lord of the Rings.

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The best time of the day, chiefly because food and a warm fire was involved…

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Nick, Daniel and I were sleeping buddies. We became quite adept at snuggling together to conserve warmth. The “tent” in the back is rigged by snapping together two of our ponchos and using some chord. In the foreground are pine needles, or more generically, “duff” – something we became very fond off because it serves as a great insulator and mattress.

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Drying sheep jerky during “survival camp”. I cannot do justice to survival camp here. It was a valuable experience I will write more about later.

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One of our final days was through the “Little Death Hollow” slot canyon. It was lovely and frustrating and some parts were really icky…

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Our final day….

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Later that day, after a final dinner,  we walked late into the night, under the faint starlight, walking individually – we had spread out — not knowing exactly how far we needed to travel to get to our destination – it was quite surreal and there was lots of time for reflection. At one point I felt rather tired and sleepy so pulled over and dozed off for a bit under a juniper tree wrapped up in my poncho. It was pretty cold and very dark, but I felt quiet at home. Woke up and kept going. Was wonderful to be greeted by a firelight flickering in the distance – some of my buddies were still up at the fire; the others had gone to sleep at the destination. The next morning a van drove up to pick us up – we were done! We spent the morning at the BOSS campground, having a delicious breakfast (fruit salad, zucchini bread, orange juice, Spanish omelet, ahh pure heaven!) and reflecting over the course while sitting in a sweat lodge – that was a wonderful way to end the course.

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3 Responses to 28 Days in the Utah Backcountry

  1. mosh says:

    AWESOME trip.

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