I want to eat grubs.
No. Not grub.
It’s an odd component of my personality. But I find the thought of doing things, enduring conditions, that most human beings would find unacceptable, thrilling. Nothing appeals to me more than the thought of shedding the conveniences and comforts of modern life, and just living in a primitive setting.
As a young kid, I spent huge chunks of daylight in the woods. Our suburban Northern Virginia home backed up against a vast, overgrown section of woods. Sweet paradise it was. I would trek down the barely visible path to the creek and follow it’s meandering mysterious path until I was so far from the sights and sounds of suburbia, my imagination could really flex its muscles. The woods were full of mystical mile-markers: ‘The Cussword Tree’, a massive elm tree upon which countless other fellow travelers had, with expletive creativity, gouged their final words; ‘Frankenstein’s Tomb’, an above ground crypt, literally standing alone in an abandoned clearing, final resting place of God knows whom, and then there was ‘The Barbed Wire Fence’ cutting right across the creek, a boundary beyond which all of the kids in my neighborhood were instructed not to travel. The freedom we possessed, even as little kids, to explore our world in those days was amazing, and something simply not possible these days. Sadly.
In the lush thick green of the woods of 1970’s Franconia, I imagined myself a young Neanderthal, scouring the Paleolithic forests for roots, berries, and small game. I could be deep in the Amazon, eluding a vicious band of pursuers whose poison arrows might any second penetrate the bush and bring my demise, or a Native American boy, sneaking off into the woods to practice the skills that would make me a successful brave warrior. As it was, I was an 8 year old American boy, traveling alone and unsupervised through a strange, alien place: turning over logs to marvel at wood salamanders, stag beetles, millipedes, a garter snake or blue-tailed skink – one never knew what might lie there. Jumping into deep pockets of water to capture one of God’s most beautiful creatures, the common bullfrog; I marvelled at Nature’s construction, the wings of a pair of dragonflies as they mated in mid-flight, the sight and sounds of a gigantic hornet’s nest hanging perilously and threateningly from the branch of maple tree, or the beautiful craftsmanship of a crawdad’s hole in the muddy creek bank.
I was most at home in the woods. Born a hundred years earlier, I might never have left them. Born in a modern century, real adventure is elusive, more a fleeting memory than an opportunity.
I joined the Marine Corps at age 21, no doubt in part to some vague sense of missing self. I didn’t fit in at college. Unlike the trails I followed in my youth, none of the paths available there made sense. They felt artificial and wrong. I had no desire to kill or be killed in the Marine Corps. But I loved the Corps as it led me back to the woods again. Whether trudging through the swamps of Camp Lejeune, NC, or the jungles of Panama, Okinawa, Japan, or the Philippines, I thrived on long treks through nasty terrain, having only a minimum of food and water and knowing I might have to use my wits to secure the rest. The more difficult the environment, the more I loved it. The brutal and dangerous Desert Warfare School at 29 Palms, California, Survive/Evade/Resist/Escape (SERE) training in the High Sierra, Mountain Warfare training at Pickel Meadows at 11,000 ft in the Sierra Nevada mountains, these were the places I loved most. Even experiencing a combat environment in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the most compelling memories came from living for 6 months in a stark, alien, and brutally desolate desert.
Don’t get me wrong, much of my experience as a Marine Infantry enlisted and commissioned man involved pain, suffering, and what can only be described as misery. Living outdoors, in the rain, snow, at 20 below zero, or 120 above, staying awake for days at a time, with little to eat or drink, is difficult to fit within the confines of the definition of ‘fun’. But it was fun. Knowing that I was doing things most people simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t do, filled me with pride. Enduring, hell even thriving, in those conditions, surpassing the limits of even those around me, was my ‘forte’. I’d found something I was better at than almost anyone else. I never told my peers that it wasn’t a fair competition, that I’d spent most of my childhood perfecting those skills. In the Marine Corps, I walked 50 miles without rest, I ate things I found under logs, I caught and killed animals to survive, and I discovered where my limits were.
Recently, I re-read one of favorite books, Undaunted Courage, the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, written by Stephen Ambrose. Reveling in the tale of the 2 explorers, who with only a small platoon of tough, resourceful troops accompanying them traversed a virtually unexplored United States, I fantasized what it must have been like to be among them. Facing the unknown, with minimal resources, literally living off the land, with nothing but their wits, toughness, and courage to protect them, it must have been one hell of a trip. While recognizing and enjoying the benefits of modern life (I won’t die from a simple infection, be mauled to death by a grizzly, or freeze to death), I sometimes feel I was born in the wrong era.
I think there are others like me out there. Given the popularity of survival shows on TV, I know I’m not alone. These shows tap into deeply rooted instincts I think most of us have, to be prepared for and survive any challenge the natural world might throw at us. Some of us might groan, whine, and complain our way through them, like Les Stroud in the popular ‘Survivorman’ series. Personally, I’d like to think I’m a lot more like Bear Grylls in ‘Man Vs. Wild’ – who doesn’t just survive, but thrives happily in the most challenging of environments (camera crew nearby or not). So, faced with the prospect of a handful of grubs, and hunger – I’m a grub guy, through and through. I’d probably even lie, and tell you they had a pleasing aftertaste.
Someday, I may even prove it. That little kid, totally immersed in the beauty, solitude, and natural wonder of the woods, is still in there somewhere. I’d love to reconnect with the little guy, who is and always has been the better part of me. I’ve been thinking hard about taking a year or two off of ‘real life’ and following the wilderness path that Lewis and Clark traversed from 1805-1806. When my kids are grown, if I can convince my brother to come along for the adventure, I may well just do it. If I do get eaten by that grizzly, I won’t have the burden of knowing I left my kids unraised, and my brother will have an incredible story to tell.