28 Days In The Desert - Surviving Survival School

I was 19 when I got my first taste of solo travel. I graduated from high school the year before and watched friends take the money they got for graduation and use it to buy things like cars and stereo systems. Some were smart and saved it or used it for college, but not me — I took the small amount of money I saved and decided I wanted to travel. I wanted to go somewhere and do something new and different. At the time I was reading a book on wilderness survival, and at the end of the book the author talked about different wilderness survival schools that give you the chance to learn to survive in the woods. There was one course that stood out above the others, the book said it was the most difficult and extreme survival school out there, but not for the faint hearted: The Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). They would bring you in the desert of Utah for 28 days and teach you to survive with only what you could carry, and that meant no tent, sleeping bag, or stove. That also meant no TV, phone, computer, email, school or work for 28 days. I was all in.

I signed up and booked my flight. I remember telling my family and friends what I was doing and them being confused as to why anyone would want live in the desert for a month without food or a bed, and pay for it. One friend asked why I didn’t spend the money on something useful that I could keep. I tried telling him that in 10 years I probably wouldn’t have whatever thing I bought, but I would always have the experience of the trip. I’m pretty sure he had no idea what I was talking about.

I flew into Salt Lake City and met with the rest of the group and guides in Provo, Utah. From there they brought us to Boulder, Utah where we would get introduced to everyone and find out what we were in for over the next 28 days. We went through all of our gear and found out why we were instructed to bring a wool blanket, seat buckle straps and parachute chord; they would become our new backpack. We were also told to bring a poncho, knife, first aid kit, compass, 2 water bottles, an enamel cup, a wool hat, bandana, extra shoes, socks, and a change of clothes.

After completing a required physical fitness test, they brought us to a local diner for our last meal. I had a hamburger and fries, but got too full to finish. At this point we were all starting to get nervous; the idea of this being our last meal was different.

We all piled into the passenger van and drove for a little over an hour on a dirt road to the middle of nowhere. One person in the group was a woman named Trisha from Florida; she took the course 7 years ago and decided to do it again. “I don’t know why I signed up for this again” she told me at one point during the ride. It wasn’t reassuring.

The van finally stopped at the top of a ridge overlooking a steep drop off down into a lowland forest. The first part of the course was called Impact, which is fast lightweight travel through the desert without gear to slow us down. We had to leave our backpacks ponchos and wool blankets behind and could only bring a waist pack with the 2 water bottles, first aid kit, and knife.

The sun was starting to set as we walked down the ridge into the valley with longtime BOSS guides (and husband and wife) Breck and Cathy. The sun was down by the time we made it to the valley floor and we kept walking until sometime after midnight. Breck and Cathy suddenly stopped and said that we were camping there for the night. They disappeared in the woods over a hill. Everyone found a separate spot to sleep for the night, but the cold made it impossible — the desert is apparently cold at night, even in June. I didn’t sleep at all, and neither did anyone else. As I lay on a cold rock, shivering all night, all I could think was: Why did I sign up for this?

Morning came and Breck and Cathy were there to greet us. They looked rested, but we suffered the night and I wasn’t looking forward to the next 27 days. Breck and Cathy talked about the flora and fauna in the desert and showed us what we could eat. Unfortunately that wasn’t much. Later that day they taught us how to stay warm at night without a tent or sleeping bag, which involves cooperation — in this case, spooning with each other to exchange body heat. Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t want to spoon with complete strangers, but I couldn’t have cared less by the end of the day and finally got to sleep for the first time in almost 40 hours. I was absolutely exhausted and hungry by the end of the first full day.

We walked for days in and out of slot canyons.

We walked for days in and out of slot canyons.

We spent the next 4 days walking through narrow canyons in the desert. At points we would walk through sections that were filled with water up to our chest. We walked through deserts with low brush and over slick rocks down into valleys. In the middle of the day we would usually stop and rest for an hour or two. Eventually all I thought about was food and for some reason I craved ice cream more than anything.

Finding water wasn’t a problem since we were usually walking through rivers and streams. We didn’t have a pump or a fancy water purification system, we put drops of Aerobic Oxygen into our water bottles. Aerobic Oxygen doesn’t actually clean the water, it improves your immune system and makes it difficult for bacteria and parasites to grow. It essentially helps your system flush out anything bad. We were warned about giardia, a parasite found in water that can wreak havoc on your digestion system and essentially ruin your trip.

It was the end of Day 5 and Breck stopped in front of a small olive tree. He said that the roots were special and told us to dig them up. Buried in the ground we found a dozen bananas. After 5 days without food, we were confused and didn’t understand what was happening. Apparently someone buried the bananas there for us earlier that day. Breck told us that the Impact part of the trip was over and our packs were around the corner. A banana had never tasted so good before or since — I could have easily eaten about 30 or so more. We were happy to get our packs; it felt like winning the lottery to have a change of clothes. We also got rations of food: lentils, potatoes, onions, carrots, and quinoa.

The next part of the course was called Group Expedition, where we would learn more skills, like making a fire without a match, lighter or gasoline. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as rubbing two sticks together. You have to create a lot of friction between two sticks and it takes time and patience. We learned how to navigate using a map and compass, and by using the stars at night, we practiced doing both. They taught us the Anasazi Native American method of walking in the dark, which is basically to be careful and use your feet to feel what you’re stepping on. We learned more about the desert life and the Anasazi Indians who lived there thousands of years ago. It gave us all an appreciation of the desert and a respect for the people.

We were learning a lot, but I was tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty almost all the time. My skin turned a darker shade than it had ever been and I thought I was getting a good tan. Then I jumped in a river for a swim and realized it was caked on dirt.

Slowly we all started to get more comfortable with everything and stopped worrying about being dirty all the time, having bugs crawl on us, and using leaves instead of toilet paper. We got more comfortable with each other too and were getting to know each other a lot better.

We were all noticeably losing weight. Even though we had food, we only ate twice a day and the rations were small. By the ninth day I was exhausted and didn’t think I could last. I was hungrier than I had ever been and everything hurt. Most of us had one point in the trip when we considered quitting; Day nine was my low point. I thought about calling it quits, but decided to give it two days to see if I changed my mind. Surprisingly two days passed and I wasn’t thinking about it at all anymore.

Actually, I wasn’t thinking about much of anything anymore. The longer we were out there, the more I got present in the moment and the inner chatter slowed down. The chatter that had been there all the time in my life, but I never noticed before.

By the 10th day a woman named Melanie from Oklahoma started getting sick. She vomited almost every time she ate, and couldn’t hold much of anything down, and anything she could hold down ran right through her to the other side. The guides asked if she wanted to quit and go to the doctor, but the problem was that if you left the course, you couldn’t come back, so she kept going and hoped it was just a bug that would go away.

It was Day 14 in the mid-morning when we reached a wooded area by a small stream. Breck talked about how most people go through their entire lives never seeing where their food comes from. We talked about how in order to survive sometimes it’s necessary for an animal to give their life so we can continue ours, the cycle of life. That’s when he brought out Dolly, the sheep we would slaughter and process into food over the next 2 days. Dolly was actually a male, but that’s just what we called him.

The experience of killing my own food is something I’ll never forget. It gave me a new appreciation for the food I had eaten and how easy it is to go to the grocery store and pick out a packaged piece of meat and go home and cook it. There’s no mess and you don’t ever see the animal alive or see it die.

After killing him we started to process the meat and use everything, and I mean everything. We emptied the intestines and made sausage filled with liver, heart, brains, and testicles. It sounds gross, and it probably was, but when you’re starving, eating testicle sausage doesn’t seem so bad. We used the large stomach to bake bread over the fire and dried strips of meat on a rack in the sun to make sheep jerky. We dug a hole in the ground, made fire inside and got a nice bed of coals, and then we smothered the fire with wet moss and grass, wrapped the legs in cloth, put them in and then buried it all. It stayed underground for about seven hours and when it came out it was slow cooked meat. It was surprisingly good.

Sheep Jerky drying rack. It sat and dried in the sun for two days.

Sheep Jerky drying rack. It sat and dried in the sun for two days.

We spent two days at the camp and processed all the other parts of the sheep. We tanned the hide and someone kept it for a blanket. Brad from Idaho took the scrotum and said he was going to use it as a pouch when he got home. I never  found out if that actually happened, but hopefully someone talked him out of it. Tommy decided to keep some of the fat, and said that he would use it to make French Fries with one of his potato rations. He was hungry and it seemed reasonable at the time, but the fat got rancid after 3 days, so he would have to wait on the fries.

When we finally broke camp, we took rations of sheep jerky to eat along the way. I was completely re-energized after our two days of eating meat and lounging in the woods; all of us were. Except Trisha and Lisa from Georgia; they were the two vegetarians in the group and unfortunately weren’t able to recover the same amount as the rest of us and struggled with fatigue for the rest of the trip.

Melanie was struggling too. She wasn’t getting better and still couldn’t keep much down. Breck and Cathy thought she contracted giardia and wanted to get her on antibiotics. They convinced her to go to the doctor, and agreed that she could meet up with us the next day, so they called up BOSS headquarters and they sent a 4-wheeler to pick her up in the desert. She met up with us a day later and already looked better. The doctor also thought she had giardia and gave her antibiotics.

We hiked for the next two days and eventually got to a field surrounded by woods and hills, with a stream running through it. The next part of the course was the Solo Expedition, the part I was looking forward to the most — five days alone in the desert. I was told that this was the best part of the trip by people who took the course before. We gathered in the field and were met by another guide named Greg. He was waiting for us with food rations and already had a fire going and was cooking. He even had a guitar and played some songs. I didn’t realize how much I missed music.

When we were done eating and enjoying our social time, we started walking down the stream. As we walked our guides pointed areas for each of us to stay for the week. We were all spread out by at least half a mile so we each had a large section of stream and woods to ourselves. Melanie, Tommy and I had become good friends at this point and Melanie was nervous about being alone for a week since she still didn’t have much strength. At Melanie's request, the guides put her site between Tommy and mine so we could help her if something happened.

Enjoying time by the fire after 3 of weeks living in the desert.

Enjoying time by the fire after 3 of weeks living in the desert.

When I got to my site, I made a shelter and set up camp. Tommy was the best at making fire out of the three of us, so he got a fire going at his site and brought a hot coal to Melanie’s site to get a fire going for her. Then one of them came and got me. The three of us cooked and hung out by the fire on Melanie’s site all night — so much for the solo time. Melanie still couldn’t eat much, so she gave me and Tommy whatever she couldn’t finish. I was in a food coma and I fell asleep on the ground by the fire, I woke up as the sun was coming out.

I went to my site and got back to being solo for a week. A strange thing started happening when I was alone in the woods without anything to do; my inner monologue/dialogue/ voice was almost completely gone. I didn’t worry or think about what other people were doing or what was happening back home. I didn’t need or want anything, I was just happy and content being there.

Five days later we were instructed to meet back in the field where we last ate as a group. We showed up one by one and everyone was pretty quiet after not talking to anyone for a week. I didn’t say anything either, but it was good to be around people again. Eventually we got back into the flow and started talking about what it was like hanging out in the woods without anywhere to go or anything to do. For most of us, it was our favorite part of the trip so far, myself included.

Melanie had lost more weight, but was somehow hanging in. The antibiotics weren’t helping, but there were only five days left of the course and it looked like she was going to make it. We were starting the final part of the trip, the Team Expedition. We were separated into groups of four, and would travel as small groups without the guides. We were given a map with instructions of the route we should take and where to meet in four days. I was on a team with Melanie, Tommy, and Lisa. We had a tough route ahead of us with mountains to climb, and canyons and ridges to get around.

Our route didn’t have any streams or rivers for two full days. There was only one water trough for desert cattle, and that was a full day away. We had to get there by the end of the first day to resupply on water. Navigating in the desert takes skill, practice and experience, and even then it’s hard to tell what the terrain is like on a map. We decided that the best route was over a mountain because it was the most direct way to the water trough.

At one point we were walking through a forest and came through a logging camp, but it was empty and no one was there. Eddie noticed a porta-potty at the bottom of the hill and decided to take advantage of it. He came back and announced that he was tired of using leaves and stole the roll of toilet paper.

We hiked for most of the day and were having a hard time navigating; we realized that we weren’t even close to the water trough and were moving a lot slower than we expected. Eventually we made it to the top of the mountain we planned to go over, but there was a problem: The side of the mountain was a sheer edge with a 20-50 foot drop off in different places. We couldn’t’ find any way down. Unfortunately it wasn’t as simple as just going around, we would have to walk in the other direction for half a day to get around. We were starting to panic, our water rations were low, we were tired, and Melanie had used up all her strength for the day. We decided to spend the night on the mountain and look for safe a way down in the morning.

The morning came and then afternoon, we still couldn’t find a way down the ridge. We were starting to give up hope when finally we found a rope tied to a rock on the edge of the cliff. The rope was dangling off the edge and looked like people used it to get down before us. Melanie wasn’t sure that she had enough strength to scale the rope down. We weren’t even sure if the rope was strong enough to hold us, but we were out of water and out of options, we had to take the chance.

It was a success. We all made it down safe and were on our way to the water trough. It took a couple of hours, but we finally found it hidden in the middle of desert brush. What we didn’t know is the water trough was decommissioned and bone dry. At this point we had absolutely no water and Melanie was so weak that it was hard for her to walk without help. It was officially time to use the survival skills we had been learning for the past three weeks. We had to find water and get Melanie out of the desert and to a doctor.

The nearest road was over a two-day hike from us. We looked for low-lying areas that might have a stream or puddle, anything would do. Luck was on our side: We found a rock formation in the desert with two puddles where water had collected and was still there from the last rain. The water was thick and looked like chocolate milk; it even had tadpoles swimming in it. It smelled and tasted awful, and every sip left me with a mouth full of sand.

Finding water was perfect timing because Melanie couldn’t make it any further. We decided that two of us would go ahead to the nearest road and hitch a ride to the BOSS headquarters for help and two would stay behind. It wasn’t an ideal decision to split up the group, but we decided that we had to do it. Melanie and Lisa would stay behind while Tommy and I would run to the nearest road for help.

We were getting ready to leave when we saw a trail of dust moving through the desert. We weren’t sure what it was at first, but then realized it was a car driving through the desert. Tommy and I sprinted towards it. Tommy was like a gazelle and caught up to them before they got out of sight. It was two friends driving in a Subaru Outback and they were planning to camp for the night out here. They were nice guys and offered us some of their clean ice water. In that moment, it was literally the best thing I'd ever had. Water had never tasted so good. We explained the situation to them and what we were doing out here. They agreed to drive us back to the BOSS headquarters in Boulder.

When we made it back they were shocked to see us, but happy that we were able to make it out. Melanie went to the doctor and was done with the course. Tommy, Lisa and I still had 3 days left, so they dropped us at a spot in the desert and told us where to meet in two days before dusk.

View of the Utah desert.

View of the Utah desert.

We spent the next two days going through canyons and walking along and in the Escalante River. We were told that there were ancient ruins and cave drawings from the Anasazi Indians in this area. It was absolutely amazing. I couldn’t believe the trip was almost over; I didn’t want to go home, I was going to miss it out here.

We hiked over 18 miles on the last day and it was after dark when we finally found the rest of the group waiting for us at the meeting spot. We were greeted with food, fire, and Gatorade. But the day wasn’t over yet; tonight was the final challenge to complete the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. We knew the final challenge was coming, but none of us were told what it was. Breck and Cathy brought us to a dirt road somewhere in the desert and told us that tonight is our chance to pay our respects to the desert and say goodbye. They encouraged us to walk alone and take this time to ourselves. They told us to walk and keep walking along the road until we see them, they would be waiting with the same passenger van we left 28 days ago.

I walked all night. My feet hurt like they’ve never hurt before or since. I could barely put pressure on my left foot and limped every step of the way. I finished as the sun was coming up the next day and had walked over 35 miles in the past 24 hours. Breck and Cathy were waiting for us with food, but all I wanted was sleep. The rest of the group trickled into camp over the next few hours and we were all in rough shape. I had blisters on my feet that were bigger than I thought possible. There was a blister on the bottom of my left foot that was puffed up bigger than a golf ball. Every step was brutal.

At this point I was happy to be done, my feet were going to need a lot of recovery time. We talked in the van about what we were going to eat when we got home. As we drove back to the BOSS headquarters it started to sink in that this was the end. I reflected on what an amazing experience it was. A Grateful Dead song played on the radio, I pulled my hat over my eyes and feel asleep.

I woke as we were pulling into the BOSS parking lot. They brought us our bags and we started to say our goodbyes. We all promised to keep in touch and exchanged contact information. I got a ride with Tommy back to my hotel in Provo. Finally it was time to wash a month’s worth of dirt off. I hadn’t seen a mirror since I left and was shocked by what I saw. I had lost around 20 pounds, my cheeks were sunken in and my clothes were hanging off me. I took a shower and saw brown water pouring down my legs. It was the best shower I ever had. My family and friends were shocked when they saw how much weight I lost too. I was hungry all the time when I got back. I made a list of all the food I craved when I was in the desert and eventually ate everything on the list, but it still took about four months to gain back all the weight.

Melanie made a full recovery. It turned out she never had giardia, she was actually allergic to the Aerobic Oxygen drops that we had been putting in our water the entire trip. The thing that was supposed to keep her safe was actually making her sick. That’s some cruel irony.

I got back home with a new sense of appreciation for everything and all the comforts I took for granted in my life. I promised to try and never take things for granted again. I slowly settled back into life and forgot the pain and hunger and the feel of sleeping on the cold ground, but the experience has never left me. I can still remember my last night in the desert with perfect clarity, the millions of stars in the sky, the moon lit path, the light glow of a town in the distance, those perfect moments as I walked blissfully in pain through the desert. It’s something I will remember for the rest of my life, and when I’m finally at the end of mine, I wouldn’t trade any possession or money in the bank for that moment. The money and things won’t matter, the only thing that will matter are the people in my life and the experiences that I had. I won’t regret that I didn't save that money or buy that car — and I definitely won’t regret going on one of the hardest, most mentally draining, most painful, and greatest adventure I could imagine.