Al's 6-Day Experience at Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School September 30th through August 5th, 2006
Sunday, July 30th, 12pm
Man, was I psyched! I left weighing 180 lbs and carrying a 40-lb backpack. (In case you're wondering, the night before, a hurricane passed through my apartment... honestly.)
So there I am at Port Authority in New York waiting for my bus to Tom's River, when this dirty pigeon was just hanging out there, like he owned the place. Apparently the pigeon is no longer bothered by some human sitting on his platform.
I arrived 6pm. At 7pm, the legendary Tom Brown, Jr. introduced us to the Tracker School personally. 17 books, 2 motion pictures, and he still doesn't own a shirt or shoes.
By 10pm, we were learning all about knives. This Texan here is Eddie Starnater, a grade-A professor.
Monday, July 31 2006
By 7am the following morning, after breakfast, T3 or Tom Brown, III (the third), aka Tommy, was already dripping in sweat teaching us how to start fire by rubbing two sticks together. (Yes, you can actually do it).
Tara, an intern at the school, demonstrates, too. Proper form, sturdy parts, and prayer are all required to get your fire lit.
Meanwhile, Tommy and another intern Dylan, prep the tipi fire structure. This part is also crucial for a good fire.
You can almost hear what Tommy's thinking, can'tcha?
And voila, fire! Fascinating how blowing on anything turns it on.
Pop the lit-up tinder and coal into the tipi structure and...
...close it up and get the hell outta there.
"...we don't need no water, let the m*tha f****r burn..." This fire was at least 7 feet high and very, very hot. Amazing... rubbing two sticks and a blow...
By 10am, Eddie was showing us how to filter sketchy water through dirt, grass, and yes, charcoal. Mmmm, survival kool-aid.
After lunch, at around 2pm, Tommy, the "shirt-less wonder", was teaching us how to make "cordage" or rope. Prior to this discussion, I was at a complete loss for what cord could be useful for other than climbing things. Despite his shortcomings as a serious instructor, Tommy certainly gave us quite the laundry list for cord use.
After a break to work on "skills", and dinner, Eddie then taught us how to make traps.
Tuesday, August 1 2006
After breakfast, I decided to get some widdling in. Here, I'm widdling what's called a fire board to produce wood "coal" which magically lights up into fire. Don't I look manly?
By 9 or 10am, Eddie taught us how to "flintknap" or make sharp edges out of rocks. If he wasn't so articulate most of the time, Eddie would certainly qualify as a bonafide redneck.
As it happens, modern society doesn't know how to walk properly. We're stupid and deserve the back problems that result from our stupid inventions like paved streets and shoes. Thus, in the Tracker School's attempt to keep it "old school" (literally), the next lecture taught us how primitive society used to walk. There's the fox walk and this...
The "stalk". Uga-uga.
We apparently don't know how to crawl on our bellies, either. No, these are not push-ups; if you're not crawling like an inch-worm, you're not crawling right.
After lunch and in 100-degree weather, Eddie then showed us how to build primitive shelters. "Cozy" was a term used often in an effort to make us forget the ants, ticks, mice, spiders, and snakes that we'd inevitably sleep with.
That evening, we were told a fawn was hit by a car the night before. Consequently, we were being given the "rare" opportunity to learn about skinning animals with fresh kill. Note Eddie's Texan glee.
Skeet, a new instructor from the Canadian boonies, was equally ecstatic with the notion of such a fresh buckskin added to his collection.
Mutilation complete, it was time to "harvest" the animal. Of course, a moment of silence was given. Eddie looked like he was happier'n'a fly in sh!t. (Note that one should never refer to these sort of things as anything but "harvesting".)
This is dry scraping. After letting the buck skin dry out, stretch it out on a rack and scrape the furry stuff out. It's a lot like a combing a weave out. This is just one in a 11-or-so-step process. There's another step called "brain tanning" or "braining". Little did I realize that the term "brain" is actually a noun, not an adverb or something. And yes, it's literal. Crack open the skull and the brain turns out to be a wonderful lube for the hairs on the skin. This lube makes it breathable, stronger, and of course, maintains its softness. When you're done, save it for next time! Your deer ain't got a brain? Go to the butcher and ask for one. (Hehe, no, seriously.) Any brain works great! Who knew?
(I'm still not sure if we were fed roadkill most of the week. Sigh...)
Wednesday, August 2nd 2006
By the 4th day, Tom had his people train us well. No one, no matter where they camped in the square mile of the school, arrived a minute late for Tom's lectures. In a two-part morning lecture, Tom finally taught us what many of us came to learn - how to track.
Tom is a master story teller, probably due to years of living like a bum... err, a "full surivalist" in the wilderness and nothing else to do but talk to himself. Although his exploits are near legend (he could apparently decipher every event by every person and creature that occurred during the past 24 hours simply by looking at the ground), they're all based on his stories, so the audience has no choice but to take him at his word.
Skeet wrapped up the tracking lecture. This was his first lecture and as result, Tommy "initiated" him by running up on stage and throwing a mud ball on him. It hit the entire front row and even a couple of guys in the back. Lucky us. This is how suvivalists pass the time.
To Skeet's credit, during the portion of his lecture in which he describes using feces as a great tracking sign, he pulls out a racoon "scat" he found earlier and suggested we taste it to truly "know" the animal. Sure enough, he breaks off a chunk and tosses it in his mouth and no one bats an eye (3 days of 100-degree weather, sketchy menus, and sleep deprevation, coupled with fun deer mutilations and survival kool-aid will do that to an audience). I think the audience was more shocked when Skeet revealed that it was actually a chocolate-covered granola bar.
That evening, Tommy reviewed "long-term" shelters for us. We'd get tours of actual shelters the next day. The fascinating thing about Tommy is that he doesn't actually teach more than he points out the obvious - what he's doing or what we're looking at. He interjects with jockular witticisms and an inconsiderate immaturity that at times had the audience expecting him to scratch his scrotum intermittedly throughout his lectures. Fortunately, he didn't.
Thursday, August 3rd, 2006
By Thursday, almost everyone was shirtless and/or shoeless. I'm not sure if it was the weather or the "style". At 7am (sharp!) Tom showed us the finer details of tracking footprints in this specially made tracking box.
Naturally, Tom's footprints were worth close scrutiny. Genuflection, even.
Think of a cross between GE's Jack Welch, WWE's Hulk Hogan, and Sgt. Slaughter and you have a good idea of what Tom's like. He even has an enormous verdent Hummer. His biggest piece of advice: "Always be paranoid."
We all forked over nearly $1000, not including travel costs (and many students flew in from all parts of the world), to stare at Tom's footprints. This was the highlight of the week and nothing could beat it.
Except maybe this emerald beetle. There I am, getting ready to sit, when this monster beetle erupts out of the ground and makes a dash at me. (Well, not me, but the trees behind me). I rocketed off my butt into the air and nearly tripped over myself to get out of its way.
But that's not the only colorful friend I made this week. Look what was living with me at my tent. This is one of a pair of what I've been calling Daddy and Mommy Long Legs. They were at my tent the entire first half of the week, hiding from the heat. Mommy Long Legs here probably spanned across my entire hand. I think I stepped on Junior (intentionally and hard) on my first night, so I felt bad and didn't kill...err, I mean "harvest" these two. Besides, they color-coordinated with my gear, and my inner metro-sexual couldn't resist keeping them around.
Out of all the instructors at the Tracker School, none were as cool as Jorge (last name, unknown). An Argentinian who became an expert chef and ended up cooking on dirt and rocks here at the school, he gave us our cooking lecture. But it wasn't just Jorge's personality that made him cool; up to this point throughout the entire week, we had been fed nothing but veggie and meat stew for lunch and dinner. It became downright disgusting by Thursday. Mutiny was imminent. When Jorge spoke, he told us the reason they only fed us stew was that the FDA or some pesky government agency prevented the school from feeding us anything else. So, as he's discussing how to prepare steak, shrimp, chicken, and all sorts of wonderful meals from the earth, he's gloating that it's all for the Tracker staff. The psychological attack worked: "Oh, and by the way, all this food is actually for you" whereupon, nearly every student shook his hand and through the rest of week became indebted to him and the school for saving our lives. And the food, despite being cooked on the ground here, was actually quite tasty. Go figure.
Later that afternoon, Skeet and Eddie showed us some more traps.
We can now strangle and crush living things in a variety of ways. Yee haw!
And that evening, we were given a lecture on medicinal plants by former head instructor, Ruth Ann Colby Martin, the perkiest lil thing this side of the Appalachians. I took to (affectionately) refering to her as "plant girl" because of her skills with plants. She was so knowledgeable, I'm sure "life" was just one of the many things she was on.
Friday, August 4th, 2006
On this day, we started tracking real animals in the ground (with a little "guidance" from Tom.). He calls this "dirt time". "LF" refers to "left front" hoof and so on.
If you squint juuuuuust right, you can almost see it... really.
This is a shrew scratch. A shrew weighs less than a quarter. Tom saw this standing up (he's 6'2") and claims we're blind for not seeing it. In my defense, I'm near-sighted and wear glasses.
Tom never really looks you in the eye when you're addressing him. He claims to be tracking all the time while using "wide angle vision". Next time I'm ignoring people, I'm going to say that, too. (By the way, Tom's also quite a master of marketing; by renaming peripheral vision as "wide-angle vision", he's got cool sounding lingo to sell us on.)
Here's an example of a long-term shelter. The caretaker of this wilderness actually lives here. It smells very, um, "earthy" and per her own words, is the most comfortable place she's ever lived in.
The Tracker School accepts internships. These internships actually yield credits towards degrees. As part of the program, you literally have to sell your soul to Tom and live in these type of shelters. Not quite something you'd see on "MTV Cribs", it's the toll exacted to be a disciple of Tom Brown, Jr.
The irony, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, is how this whitest of white guys, Tom, is teaching thousands of other white folks how to live like Native American Indians in any wilderness they want in the U.S., and enjoy it, while Native American Indians are still forced to live predominantly on land designated exclusively for them by the U.S. government.
Oh, and far be it from me to allow you to overlook the biggest "irony" of all: Tom is also a violently passionate and confirmed tree-hugging environmentalist who drives an SUV that probably gets 10 miles to the gallon. And Tommy? Well, he zips around in his Honda 4-wheel sport ATV, spitting dirt and smoke into everyone's faces without regard.
Plant girl came back the next day after lunch to talk to us about plants we can eat. But before she started, she showed us the wedding dress she got married in - made of buckskin. Now, it literally takes weeks to prep enough material for a hat or even shirt. She made this and a dress shirt for her fiancee from buck skin, which begs the question, what was she on when she made all this stuff?
Out of all of the wildly fascinating plants we learned about on this fine afternoon, this was by far the most important:
The mullen plant which yields the softest butt-wiping alternative to Charmin toilette paper. Harvest wisely.
The final lecture of the day was on harvesting fish.
No one washed their hands, their knives, their fish, nor their cutting boards, and yet, sanitary conditions didn't really seem to be an issue with this group.
Al's grip of death. So hard, my squishy victim exploded. Keeee-yah!!
And here's the coolest "chain" gang at the camp. We descaled, gutted, cleaned, spiced, and roasted our dirty fish to perfection. From left to right, Elizabeth, Marie, Mike, and yours truly, Al the Ninja Lumberjack.
After the meal, we cleaned up, I showered (it was bucket showers every other day), and miraculously, for the first time all week, it cooled down to below 80.
The sunset was spectacular.
And the full moon, orgasmic.
Saturday, August 5th, 2006
On Saturday morning, this fool remembered he had forgotten to teach us another one of those superior walks. This one he calls the weasel walk, "absolutely essential to stalking prey".
He subsequently teaches us an exercise to help us achieve the weasel walk effortlessly. He calls it the burning four and "it's not called burnin' for nuthin'".
Shortly after this session, Tom gave an impassioned tear-jerker about choosing to be aware of more of things around us with the new skills he's taught us, including your loved ones, your life, and in the process also choosing to save "Mother Earth" for "the children". He choked up and I even got a lump in my throat, too, I'll admit, but not because anything he said touched me (here's why), rather because he's such a damn fine performer, worthy of an Academy Award.
We packed up and raced outta that camp in record time. Not surprisingly, we all smelled like old, dirty bacon packed into the extra hot transport van. But god bless artificially-cooled air; it was a thrilling shock to be re-acquinated with modern technology. I can surely understand why the "old ways" were lost: satellite phones and fast food chains are way too convenient to give up for yelling and scorching piles of molten rock for cooking in the middle of a heat wave.
All during the week, I had this nagging feeling that "I knew this stuff" but couldn't quite figure out why. Until now. Being a New Yorker first and foremost, I've always gotten a kick out of people who leave their car and home doors unlocked; at their easy manner and general friendliness; and their utter lack of skepticism, believing everything at face value.
What I've come to realize is that Tom Brown Jr. is a New Yorker trapped in a "big, dumb, Jersey hick's" body. It took him 49 years to become a New Yorker and the programs he offers today are designed to turn these naive people into New Yorkers.
For example, he teaches us to have greater awareness of our surroundings, which is no different than a New Yorker constantly looking over her shoulders for muggers and rapists. (We're born paranoid, Tom.) He shows us how to walk more "efficiently", but in New York, that's called "jaywalking". (We've even got a great walk for hunting prey, too: "prowling".) He even teaches us to instinctively throw sticks at our prey, but New Yorkers throw middle fingers and even bottles instinctively and at random - at anyone, any time.
Survival situations are anti-social and lonely, but you're never really alone (because of all the living things surrounding you). That's exactly what it's like living in New York. Tom teaches us to operate in a sleep deprived state, but they don't call it "the city that never sleeps" for nothing. What better "concentric circle" of activity could their be than crazy New Yorkers wildly running towards you, away from some impending hazard, just like frightened forest creatures? (If it can scare a New Yorker, you better run!)
Tom teaches us what type of trees and plants are good to eat, but with New York's thousands of restaurants, food stands, and everything in between, one wrong choice and you're screwed. (Zagat's is our Peterson's Field Guide). Tom teaches us how to heal ourselves in the wilderness, but in New York, a strong coffee and a tylenol cures just about every ailment, (and you can find both anywhere and really cheap, sometimes free, too). And in New York, most apartments are really about the size of those holes-in-the-ground you call long-term shelters anyway, mice, roaches, and sometimes leeches (read: house guests) included.
"Nothing makes you more aware than not being at the top of the food chain" was their way of putting it. But in New York, no one's at the top of the food chain and everyone's distinctly aware of this fact. (Even the pigeons think they're "numero uno".)
You heard it here first folks: Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School teaches its students to be New Yorkers. And if you're a New Yorker, consider yourself an "expert" survivalist.
In the end, it was well worth the time, money, and effort to learn that if the world ended tomorrow, I'd survive just fine. Final weight: 175 lbs. Backpack: 45 lbs.
Hold on. Read what some Tom Brown groupie emailed me Dec 29, 2006 >>
And here's another emailed Feb 9, 2008 >>
And another (but not from a groupie) from Feb 15, 2008 >>
And another from April 10, 2008 >>
Here's one from another reader from October 6, 2008 >>
One more from a very enlightening reader from December 1, 2008 >>