High & Dry in the Arizona Desert

The next morning I woke to the sound of two coyote pups, pipping back and forth. We had set up camp in a clearing near an old cow pasture, where we'd hung a poncho between two juniper trees. A nearby cattle trough still held water; it tasted like cow shit, probably because there was cow shit floating on top, but we were in no position to be picky. Today was a rest day. We spent the morning comparing blisters and trading trail mix. Aaron had beef jerky in his, which made everyone jealous, and Steve had some cocoa-dusted almonds that tasted just like chocolate. But Zach was the winner – his mix had actual chocolate, in the form of some M&M–like candies that some genius had engineered to be melt-proof. We each tasted one, savoring the flavor, and gave thanks to the men and women of science. Only Robin had caved and eaten all his trail mix on the second day. But everyone shared with him anyway.

Eventually it was time to learn how to make fire. Teaching people to make fire is one of the things Cody loves most: For him, it's what primitive skills are all about. "When you make a fire for the first time in some remote canyon, and you cook that fish you caught with your bare hands on that fire you made with sticks, you're tapping into something fucking primal," he said. "You're tapping into what it is to be a human." First we gathered the materials: seep-willow and cottonwood that we whittled into a bow-drill set. ("Not over your crotch!" Cody barked as we brandished our knives. "If you cut your femoral artery, you'll bleed to death out here.") Then he demonstrated how to make a tinder bundle and how to rub the sticks together to heat it up. Afterward we tried it ourselves, and when I struggled, an older, wiser tribe member – someone I'd been too impatient to want to wait for two days before – coached and encouraged me until I got the hang of it. "There are four elements," Cody told us when we'd finished, "and you just used two of them to make another. That's awesome."

The rest of the day felt like summer camp, as we sat around making caveman fires and learning various survival skills. Cody demonstrated how to set deadfall traps, to catch mice and other desert rodents, using just a rock and a stick. Chip, a member of the tribe who did massage and bodywork in Los Angeles, provided head and shoulder rubs. And then, warmed by a fire we'd made entirely with our hands, one by one we drifted off to sleep.

"It's time to get up. . . ."

I woke with Cody standing over me, whispering like you would to wake up a toddler. "It's time to get up," he said again. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. It was pitch-black and cold; there were five of us huddled together, but I was the only one who'd been woken up. "Go and get everyone else up," Cody told me. "Find the Jeep trail nearby. Keep walking west until you find me. If I see water, I'll mark it with a glow stick." And just like that, he was gone.

For a minute, I wondered if I'd dreamed the whole thing. I had no idea what time it was. One by one, I woke up everyone else (it took a while to find Tim, who had wandered into the bushes and turned off his hearing aids), and we circled up and made a plan. We had to find the Jeep trail, which was easy enough. (It was over by the cow-shit water.) But then we had to figure out which way was west, which was harder than it sounded.

The moon had already risen and set, and no one had thought to remember where the sun had set the day before. Luckily we had Sam, who showed us how to locate the North Star using the handle of the Big Dipper. We started walking west. It was an insanely beautiful night. The sky was cool as marble and crystal-clear, and with no moon out, the stars seemed to be infinite. Sam taught us another trick, this one for seeing better in the dark (basically, you dart your eyes back and forth toward your peripheral vision, because the rods that detect gray-scale colors are at the edges of your retinas), and we moved confidently single file down the rocky path with nothing but the light of the Milky Way. We walked in this silent, dreamlike haze for hours – so long, in fact, that I began to wonder if I'd gotten Cody's directions wrong. Gradually, I started to panic: Had I just sent us five hours the wrong way? Too scared to say anything yet, I held my breath and hoped.

Then, just after sunrise, I breathed a sigh of relief. There was Cody, standing at the top of a hill.

"Good morning!" he said, beaming. Together we all made our way to the next cow tank, which – surprise, surprise – was also dry. At this point, we decided to change tacks. There was a canyon a mile or so to the north, which, according to the map, looked like it might be a river drainage. We hiked down inside, hopping across boulders, and found what looked like a dry creek bed. We saw some hopeful signs – leafy walnut trees, clusters of wild grapes – but we'd been fooled before.

Then, around a bend, we saw what we'd been dreaming of for the past four days: a wide, dark river that bent and pooled into a perfect swimming hole. We peeled off our clothes and dived in, like kids on the first day of summer. "Holy shit – this feels amazing!" Robin whooped. The water was colder, more refreshing than we could have imagined. We splashed around, shivering happily, and Steve made a joke about his body hair keeping him warm. Cody bestowed another Indian name: Furry Shorts.

"Hey, Cody," I called out as we floated downstream. "When was the last time any of those cow tanks had water in them?" He smiled and laughed. "I have no idea!" Clean and reinvigorated, we got dressed and started working our way upriver. Still, by midafternoon we'd been on the move for more than 12 hours, on maybe an hour's worth of sleep. We were running on fumes.

We took a nap on the riverbank, and when we woke, Cody gathered us under a tree. "I'm leaving you tonight," he told us somberly. "I'm going to keep moving upriver, and you're going to stay here. You'll need to find a camp, find food, make a fire."

The group takes a well-earned nap by the riverbank.

He told us about some foods that were safe to eat: clams, crayfish, suckerfish, cattails. Then he left us with a parting gift: one bouillon cube each. He also told us to be extremely careful: "If something happens, you can try and find me. But there won't be anything I can do. If you have a life-threatening emergency out here, you probably won't make it." For a brief second I assumed this was some kind of scare tactic – that surely, for insurance reasons alone, he must have some kind of satellite phone or emergency escape plan. But just as he was saying this, I heard a rustling behind me, and turned to see a four-foot-long black-tailed rattlesnake slithering through the dirt. Cody calmly scooped it up with a stick and carried it off into the woods. "Like I was saying," he said, grinning. "Oh, and by the way – don't camp over there."