We'd been walking all day with nothing to eat, in the same clothes we'd been wearing since the day before. The sun was almost gone: two hands of light left, three at the most. We were hot, tired, and extremely thirsty. Morale was dropping fast. Eleven of us had set off into the desert the day before, carrying two quarts of water each and not much else. We'd spent the night shivering under a juniper tree and woken up before dawn – those of us who'd slept at all. Twelve hours of hiking later, we were no closer to our destination than when we'd started – that destination being water, anywhere we could find it.
It was day two of the Desert Drifter – a weeklong survival course in the high desert of northwest Arizona. Under the watchful eye of our wilderness survival guide, Cody Lundin, we would spend the next six days living off the land, and learning how not to lose our shit in the process. Besides a Ziploc of trail mix, the only food we had was what the desert would provide. Assuming she provided anything at all.
Right now our best hope for water was Poplar Tank, an old watering hole carved into the landscape by some Depression-era cowboys looking to hydrate their stock. We had a map, and Poplar Tank was on it, but we weren't sure where we were, and the map was probably 40 years old. It looked like there was a corral nearby, and maybe a barn. But when we got there, the corral was on the wrong side of the trail and the pile of rotting boards didn't look like any barn we'd ever seen. We kept walking.
After about a half hour, Aaron – a mild-mannered toy distributor from Atlanta who was currently leading our single-file line – thought maybe we should check the map again. Was it possible we'd missed the watering hole? As the rest of us huddled around, trying to follow the faded contour lines, Cody shook his head, exasperated. "You saw the corral," he said, "and you didn't stop. You saw the old barn; you didn't stop. You saw the electric-green vegetation; you didn't stop. Strike one, strike two, strike three: You're dead."
Chastened, we made a U-turn and trudged back to the tank. It was the fifth such tank we'd checked that day, and it was as empty as the others. In the shade of a salt cedar tree, we reviewed our options: Sleep there and look for water in the morning; try to find the next closest tank, a mile and a half away over rocky ground; or aim for a different tank, three miles away over flat terrain. After we'd spent 12 hours baking in the summer sun, three miles seemed pretty far away, but nobody wanted another night without water. We pressed on.
As we plodded across the darkening land, we saw a desert hare hop by and fresh cow tracks – promising signs that water was near. Then we spotted it: a bright-green berm surrounding a grove of verdant cottonwood trees. This was what a tank with water looked like. We practically sprinted to it, giddy as we crested the ridge, and dropped inside. It was bone-dry. It was getting colder now. The sun had almost set. We had no water, and no idea when or where we might find some. We had five days left.
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."
After about an hour's drive down a long dirt road, we came to a dead end at the edge of a cliff. Outside, everyone put on sunscreen and chugged two quarts of water (Cody chugged a gallon), and Mark and Matt checked us again for contraband. "OK," Cody said as we gathered around, "it's about to get real. Be present in your body. Be aware of your surroundings. Don't fiddle-fuck around on the side of a cliff. Once we drop off this, we're in a whole other country. This is not a drill."
We made our way down into the slot canyon, through a narrow corridor the color of rust. On the way, I chatted with Zach, a bookish computer programmer from Charlottesville, Virginia. Zach was a fan of Cody's TV show; his sister had given him the course as a Christmas present. "I've never really even been backpacking before," he said. He'd brought a spiral notebook to write down everything he could.
Most of the other tribe members were more experienced. Robin was a musician who'd grown up camping and backpacking in the Pacific Northwest but now lived in New York and missed the outdoors. Susan was a healer and folk-medicine specialist who lived in a remote cabin in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Kevin was a former Navy diver who'd worked as a reactor technician on a nuclear sub, and Sam was a retired Navy mechanic who now taught at SERE, the elite military survival school. He didn't make a show of his expertise, but as the trip wore on we all found ourselves looking to him for leadership: the tribe naturally sorting itself out.
Eventually the canyon spit us out into a dry, rocky riverbed. The sun was about to set, so we found a juniper tree with a low canopy – the better to retain heat – and Cody showed us where to get grass to make a bed. He went off to sleep by himself, as he did every night, and the rest of us huddled together for warmth, one big snoring mass. (As Cody explained later: "That first night is about thermoregulation, but it's also profoundly about, 'Hi, my name is Steve, what's yours – because I'm fucking sleeping next to you.' ")
In the morning, we woke with the sun. We filled our Nalgenes at a small, scummy pond with two dead lizards floating on top that would turn out to be the cleanest water we'd see for a while. Also floating in the water was a dead bat – or at least we assumed it was dead, until Cody fished it out and set it on a sunny rock, and a few minutes later it flew away. "Goodbye, bat," Zach said. Cody taught us how to disinfect water with iodine and led us to an old campfire where we used burned charcoal for sunscreen. And then we began the mission that would take up the next several days: the hunt for water. We walked for miles – over basin-and-range flatlands, past towering sandstone stacks. At one point I bumped into a prickly pear bush; I was pulling whiskery needles out of my skin for days, pain shooting through my leg every time my pants brushed against them. By midmorning, it was 90 degrees, and although we hadn't eaten in almost a day, weirdly, no one was hungry. Around lunchtime, we stopped to nap under a sycamore tree and Cody gave us our first gift: a Xerox of an old topographic map, damp with his sweat. He also bestowed the first of several Indian names; henceforth, I would be known as Cactus Shins.
The map showed cow tanks to the southwest, so we set out in that general direction. But as the day wore on and the sun beat down, we grew increasingly exhausted and irritable. Cody told us that on days like this, "drifting" was very literal. "Just let your mind just go," he said. "Keep it running in the background. The main goal – the only goal – is water." We may have taken his advice too literally, as we walked right back to the corral, and missed the cow tank, in a quick succession of one, two, three strikes you're dead. But just as we were resigning ourselves to a night without water, Steve, the Apple guy, spotted a burlap sack near a fence, under which were two large jerry cans full of water.
The group hikes through the desert, in search of water.
"They must belong to some local cowboys," said Cody, not quite believably. "Let's hurry up before they come back." We were all too busy guzzling water to call him on it. Happy and hydrated, we bedded down for the night, this time with the foresight to separate into snorers and non-snorers. The tribe was learning.
The next morning we resumed the water hunt. According to the map, the closest tank was several miles south, so we began a long day of uphill hiking and brush-busting through the scree and scrub. For a while, it was actually fun: Cody pointed out interesting sights and Steve kept us chuckling with Simpsons quotes. Occasionally someone would joke about wanting a cheeseburger or a cold beer or a shower. But usually the joke died there, a brief moment of vulnerability that no one wanted to encourage.
We kept climbing. A couple of the tribe started having knee problems, so we stopped more often, frequently in direct sunlight. I felt simultaneously annoyed and ashamed of my annoyance. For the first time in the trip, I felt hungry. At one break, a plane flew overhead; I thought about how they probably had ice water and air-conditioning and peanuts, and I found myself hating them. I decided we never should have let that bat go.
When we finally reached the top of the ridge, what seemed like many days later, we stopped to rest under a juniper tree. No one looked happy. "Status check," Cody said. "Let's go around the circle. How's everybody feeling? And don't say fine. Because fine means fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional." He smiled mischievously. "I learned that in drug rehab."
Cody likes to say he grew up in the wilderness. As a teenager in Wyoming, he would shove a 12-pack of beer into his backpack and head into the mountains for a weekend to get drunk and catch brook trout. After high school, he packed a duffel bag and his acoustic guitar and hopped a Greyhound to the west coast, where he lived in a Volkswagen on the streets of San Diego and in a trailer in the Northern California woods. For a while he fell in with a black-magic commune and spent a few months doing "a bunch of weird shit," but he eventually escaped and hitchhiked back to Wyoming.
At the time, Cody says, "my goal in life was to do as many drugs as I possibly could: PCP, dope, coke, weed, of course, booze. Mushrooms, ecstasy, crystal meth. I liked hallucinogens. Acid was my drug of choice." By the time he got back to Wyoming, Cody was doing a lot of acid. He was also selling it. "As far as I was concerned, I was providing a community service," he says.
The Wyoming law-enforcement agencies didn't see it that way. One day he sold to an old friend from junior high, who was an informant wearing a wire. That friend later brought over another friend, who was actually an undercover cop. "And that's when the guns came out," Cody says.
He was charged with three felony counts, which he plea-bargained down to a suspended sentence. He spent six months in county jail and was supposed to serve several more in court-mandated rehab, but the rehab was at a state mental institution, or as Cody says, "a fucking crazy house."
"Guys would smear shit on the walls," he says. "So my mom and dad made a deal to send me to rehab in Arizona."
Cody's facility was in Sedona, home of the famous red rock canyons. "Part of your therapy was to go on these day hikes," he recalls. "At that point, I'd spent the last half a year in a gray cell and an orange jumpsuit. So to go on this day hike in Sedona, I was just blown away. I distinctly remember going to Boynton Canyon and realizing I wanted to dedicate my life to nature. I had this really intense experience of just wanting to never leave nature again."
Cody stayed in Arizona, spending a couple of years living outside of Prescott, in a wickiup, a cone-shaped brush shelter made from ponderosa-pine needles. "Obviously, I was single," he says. "You don't take a chick back to the brush shelter." (When the wickiup burned down in a forest fire, investigators initially flagged the remains as an archaeological site, until they found Cody's tuna fish cans.)
Cody was studying psychology, holistic therapies, and expressive art at Prescott College, and after graduation he spent the next few years living in friends' backyards, scraping together enough money to get his wilderness school off the ground. He charged $35 a class and advertised with flyers taped to telephone poles; on two separate occasions, he went on food stamps. "After each course, I'd go to Taco Bell and get two seven-layer burritos – that was my reward," he says. "I'd spend three bucks on myself, and the rest would go to the school."
Cody, who has been sober for going on three decades, doesn't broadcast his past, but he doesn't hide it, either. The way he sees it, his struggles only make him a better teacher. "Living on the streets, living in the woods, the food stamps, the jail, the rehab – those are all survival experiences," he says. "I believe I went through them so I could be more effective in the field. Because I've done that – no one can scare me with it. Just like after this course, you will have done it. That's the difference between fear and no fear."
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."
The next morning, full of new calories from the crawfish-and-clam dinner we'd scavenged from the riverbed, we all slept in. Before he'd left, Cody had given us instructions: Wait until noon, then cut down two willow trees each and head upstream until we saw him. We found him half a mile upriver, waiting in a clearing.
As we sat, he gave a short talk about what we'd done so far. "Every one of your ancestors lived like this," he told us. "I wanted you to tap into that lineage." Robin pointed out that the Drifter mirrored the march of civilization: We'd started out wandering the desert, harnessed fire and built tools, and eventually found a nice place to settle with clean water and access to food. Cody nodded. "It also mirrors resources," he said. "The first night was about thermoregulation. Then water. Then eventually food. It's a hierarchy of need." Cody said that in the college classes he teaches, sometimes kids show up to get away from modern life. "They want to 'get back to the land,' " he said. "They want to make moccasins. They want to make a drum and dance." He shook his head pityingly. "You dance when the pot is empty. Or when it's just been filled."
Everyone said they'd be taking different things away from their experience on the Drifter. Susan, the healer from Peru, said she learned she had more perseverance than she thought – that she could push on for miles with rocks in her shoes, instead of stopping every five minutes to readjust her backpack. Zach, the programmer, said he realized how easy it is to be nice when you're comfortable: "But when you're hot, hungry, have a headache, and can still smile and be pleasant . . . wow. Amazing." And I felt humbled and grateful for people who had skills and knowledge that I didn't – particularly the ones I'd underestimated.
On the dinner menu: riverbed-scavenged crawfish.
My favorite reaction came from Sam, the ex-Navy mechanic. For much of the trip, he had quietly steered us toward the right thing to do without seeming like he was telling us what to do at all. That morning he opened up. Sam said he'd grown up camping and canoeing in Maine, but he was usually alone. "I was closed off," he said. "But what I've learned from being with you all week is, I should have been doing it this way all along. You're supposed to take friends. You're supposed to share it."
Cody said he devised the Drifter to punish us physically, but that most of the benefits were psychological. "It's designed to teach people the difference between what they want and what they need," he told me. "It's designed to teach people to be grateful for what they have. It's designed to remind people of what their ancestors did on a daily basis. But really," he said, "it's about shattering limitations. When someone successfully completes the Drifter, it's a huge confidence booster. If you're ever in a life-threatening situation, your adrenaline starts pumping – but now you know it's going to be OK. You've done this before. You've been in the backcountry for multiple days with limited gear, and you came out OK. How many other Americans can say that?"
Then Cody stood up and clapped his hands. "OK. So what's on the menu right now – and I mean that very much not literally" – he laughed – "is we're going to make a sweat." Sweat lodges, he explained, have been used by indigenous peoples for centuries, for reasons both physical and spiritual. Cody showed us how to bend the willow trunks in the shape of a dome, and how to lash the ends together with strips of bark. We dug a pit to fill with hot rocks, and then covered the whole thing with a tarp. Once night fell, we all crawled inside. Cody the shaman poured cold water on the rocks, and the dome filled with steam.
"A lot of people, whether they know it or not, come on the Drifter for purification," he said. "The desert is like a self-cleaning oven. It bakes the bullshit away. Everything's out there for you to see." Just when the heat got too much to bear, he led us out to the river, and we all plunged in. The water was so cold, we had trouble breathing, but as our bodies adjusted, we started to laugh – first out of relief, then pleasure, then joy. We lay in the mud for a while, our heads steaming, gazing at the stars. Above us, the handle of the Big Dipper pointed the way home.