High & Dry in the Arizona Desert

I'd first heard about the Desert Drifter four years earlier. At the time, Cody was cohosting a show on the Discovery Channel called Dual Survival. Each week he and a partner were stranded in the wilderness and forced to find their way out. From the moment I met him, I was fascinated. He was six feet tall and built like a grain silo, with long blond hair he wore in Indian-style braids. ("I'm part Scandinavian," he said. "My Viking ancestors looked like this.") He told me he lived on a 72-acre homestead he'd designed himself, in a passive-solar house where he collected rainwater in 3,000-gallon tanks. ("The entire Arizona grid could go down, and I wouldn't even know it.") He said he didn't know how old he was ("I look at time based, frankly, on ex-girlfriends") and claimed to be the only person in Arizona who had a license to catch fish with his hands. And everywhere he went – whether it was the mountains of Romania or the local Safeway – he went barefoot. "There are three reasons I'll put on a pair of flip-flops," he told me, "and that's excessive ground temperature, fucking prickly pear cactus, and dinner with my honey."

The Discovery Channel paid Cody's bills, but his real passion was the Aboriginal Living Skills School, the wilderness academy he founded in 1991. He told me about a few of his classes, but the one that caught my eye was the Drifter, which Cody called the most extreme. "I'll whip your ass in the field," he promised.

The author learns to make fire.

The ALSS world headquarters is a red house on a quiet side street in Prescott, Arizona. The other nine students were already there; in an outdoor shed he used as a classroom, Cody delivered a welcome speech. "On this course, you'll be learning some of the most important survival skills there are," he said. "How to walk a long way through harsh conditions with a lot of people you just met." We would learn to make fire, to set animal traps, to find shelter in the wild. But our real goal was surprisingly simple: "We're walking across the country to find water."

We had all arrived in Prescott with a very specific set of gear, exactingly detailed by Cody himself: a "military type" rain poncho; a "quality" wool blanket; an eight- to 11-ounce metal Sierra cup; a four-foot-by-four-foot piece of fabric. After 45 minutes, he took it all away. We'd be living by Cody's personal motto: The more you know, the less you need. "You think I'm going to let you change underwear every day?" he said, laughing. "I haven't worn underwear in 20 years. Shit, I'm not wearing underwear now!"

We then listened to Cody give a quick lesson on thermoregulation. According to him, the most dangerous things in the desert aren't coyotes or rattlesnakes, but hypothermia and hyperthermia. Get too hot or too cold, and you'll be dead in a matter of hours. Cody especially warned us to be less concerned with our extremities than our cores, which he called "the cookie jar." "You screw with the cookie jar," he said, "and life sucks."

Afterward, in the backyard, his two assistants, Matt and Mark, combed through our gear looking for contraband. We'd be taking a knife and two Nalgene bottles of water, but no compass, no flashlight, no watch, and definitely no phones. We weren't even allowed to bring toilet paper or Chapstick. "What about sunglasses?" asked Tim, a ponytailed, 40-something landscape designer from Fort Worth.

"No sunglasses," Cody said. As he finished packing, I sat down in the grass next to a gregarious guy named Steve, who showed me how to rig up a water-bottle carrier using parachute cords. Steve lived in the Bay Area and worked in sales for Apple; with his fair skin and healthy-looking belly, he reminded me of a friendly polar bear. "We made these on the Arizona Combo Special," he said, referring to another Cody course that he'd been on the year before. "You want me to show you?" Eventually the van pulled up and we all piled in. Cody slid the door shut. "All right, here we go," he said. "Into the time machine."