Shayne, the time-traveling survival guide
We loaded up, 8 or 10 boys and several adults into a couple of vans and we began the long drive down to Boulder Mountain. Most of the kids and adults who were going on this irrational outing, I knew from church and from the neighborhood. However when we arrived at our launch point that afternoon, there was a young man waiting for us that I didn't know.
It turns out that he was to be our wilderness survival guide sent up from a wilderness program for troubled youth based out of Mesa Arizona. His name was Shayne, and he was dressed in buckskins and seemed to have way more gear than any of us had, except it looked like he had made all of it himself including his backpack which was just a large handmade basket with some leather strips tied on for shoulder straps.
He carried a bow and a quiver of arrows and a large leather bag at his side. On the other side he had a large knife strapped to his hip and he appeared to be wearing actual moccasins. I was immediately intimidated by Shayne as he was clearly a time traveler sent from the past to torture us. But as we unloaded all of our gear from the vans, I began to resent him.
He handed each of us a large black rock and told us to hang on to it as we would be learning to make spearheads or knife blades out of it, and he passed out several sticks of varying lengths and types of wood. He said that we also needed to carry with us because they would be required for several different types of skills we would be learning.
Trying to get sent home
We started walking, or stumbling rather because there was no trail to follow, and it seemed to me that Shayne was purposefully selecting the thickest brush to march through. As soon as we began to walk I instantly fell behind and began to lose sticks "accidentally." At one point as we trudged onward and downward I even considered chucking the rock at somebody so that they would send me home.
I was miserable. It was exactly as bad as I had imagined. It was even worse in some ways because everyone else seemed to be having a great time, like it was completely normal or even fun to go wander into the desert carrying a bunch of sticks and rocks given to you by a mountain man you just met.
We hiked straight down the mountain that first night. At one point we threw our packs off of a cliff and then slid down an old rockslide on our butts to get to the bottom of the canyon that was to be our home for the next week. As we hiked the sun began to set and when we did finally stop that night I was exhausted.
We had probably only gone about four miles, but it might as well have been fifty for all I could tell. We had no flashlights, no matches and no lighters and I thought we had no means of cooking any of the food that we brought with us so I was just going to eat my apple and try to go to sleep in the sand because, predictably, we also had no tents.
A small inferno erupted out of the nest
I paused though when I saw Shayne pull a long thin stick out of his pack and sit down and start spinning it like a drill with his hands into another piece of wood on the ground. Was this guy for real? Amazingly the board on the ground started to smoke. And then it started to really smoke, and in a few seconds, Shayne stopped spinning the stick, and he picked up a little glowing ember off of the ground with the tip of his black stone knife and placed it into what looked like a bird's nest made out of stringy bark. He blew in the bark for a few moments and to my surprise a small inferno erupted out of the nest in his hands.
That memory remains to this day fixed in my psyche as the beginning of a pivotal turning point in my attitude towards life. It was simply one of the coolest things I had ever seen anybody do. Seriously. Who can just rub sticks together and make a fire? Apparently Shayne could, and though I didn't quite know it yet, right then I began to want to be able to do that too.
If someone had asked me, I would have said that nothing any person could do or say would have made me voluntarily change my attitude about being in that horrible place. But in that instant when light and flame leapt out of his hands where there had been nothing but old dry bark, I shifted inside.
I subconsciously and unintentionally rearranged my thoughts and feelings and attitudes and beliefs and internally I began to accommodate in a small way, the desire to learn to do this awesome thing. Without ever saying a word directly to me, or even knowing or acknowledging that I was resistant and resentful towards the whole experience, Shayne invited me to be open to learn something from him, and something connected inside me.
I began to contemplate how big the world really was
Sleeping wrapped up in a scratchy woolen blanket on the sand was exactly as comfortable as it sounds. I was so tired however that I didn't wake up until it became bitterly cold in the hour or so right before dawn. By bitterly cold I mean that it probably got down to the mid 60s. Unable to fall back asleep, in the predawn light of the stars I began to contemplate how big the world really was, and then how small it really was in the vast context of the universe.
Just kidding... I was cold and miserable and my mind was only focused on my suffering and my world ended at my chilly fingertips and toes. Nothing beyond that mattered. I was not aware of anything beyond my own miserable condition and so the rest of the world may as well have not existed.
In the morning we cooked some oatmeal in our ridiculous little cups and then extinguished the fire and spread the ashes so that it looked like we had never been there. We filled our water bottles out of a little stream after carefully filtering the water with our 1980s water purification pump. It took forever for everyone to fill up, at least 20 minutes. And then we walked.
The world was alive and full of color
Even in my self centered frame of mind I could not help but be in awe of the beauty of the place. The canyon which had been obscured in shadow the night before was bright red rock against a deep blue sky. As dry and dusty and brown as the desert slopes of the mountain had been on our previous day's descent, today the world was alive and full of color.
The bottom of the canyon had water, and so there were small trees and willow and tamarisk bushes. The birds and the insects flitted about in the air and our little procession was clearly disturbing the daily routine for these creatures.
As we walked, Shayne would periodically pause and point out some aspect of the creek bed that had been worn over time by the water into a narrow slot indicating that the pattern the water followed over the years remained relatively constant. Or he would stop by a plant and show and have us taste the seeds which were had a strong peppery flavor.
We ate ants that tasted like lemon drops and we spent not a small amount of time watching ant trapping baby frogs in the mud puddles. I'd never been bitten by a horse fly before. I can only assume that they are called horse flies because when they bite you it feels like a horse is biting you.
We walked in and down the living corridor formed by the canyon walls and, tired and grouchy as I was, I began to absorb the experience. I'd been camping with my family several times before this. This was not camping. This was integration into the wilderness. To my complete surprise I found myself beginning to forget about my books and video games and food and air conditioning and comforts.
Learning to make peace inside ourselves
I started to feel like I belonged to the landscape and the willows and the horseflies. Especially the horseflies. For several days we hiked and made fire, and camped and talked. Shayne taught us to make spearheads and fires and bows and arrows and drums and flutes. More than anything though, at the invitation of his entire way of being, we learned to make peace inside ourselves despite our meager circumstances.
At the end of the week, 30 miles or so from where we started, Shayne's wife Sheri met us and brought us granola bars and oranges. It was probably the best granola bar and orange anyone has ever tasted in the history of the world. Sheri was my new best friend.
I can't pinpoint an exact moment where my attitude and my understanding shifted. Somewhere in that week I stopped living for myself and began to live outwardly. My reality expanded to include the rest of the world and the universe and I have never been able to go back.
I knew I had undergone a change
For a long time afterwards I described that week as the worst camping trip I've ever been on. I couldn't admit vocally that my parents and leaders had been right to make me go. But I knew they had been. I knew I had undergone a change. And specifically I knew that I would not have changed were I not invited to it by Shayne. That week became the measuring stick for every other week of my life. Was anything else ever going to be that intense or that real again?
I still loved to read, but suddenly simply reading about other people out having adventures was not as fulfilling as it had once been. I wanted to get out and do things too. I wanted to live and belong to life as we had that week in the canyon. And so I did. I have continued the process of change and growth I was introduced to that week until this very day.
I spent the better part of 15 years on the trail learning and showing others the things I began to learn then. Most of that time I spent working with and for Shayne Gallagher. I wanted to be for others the catalyst that a week with Shayne was for me. I transformed into a student of the wilderness and a mentor to anyone willing to walk down that path with me and became more than I ever would have without the wilderness.
I'm getting old now, and I've retired from the trail. I'm a Dentist in Texas. Dental school was hard, but hard things don't intimidate me anymore. I have my own kids. Kids are hard, but hard people don't intimidate me anymore either. One of them spent her first 10 weeks out in the wilderness this year, and she is starting to change too.
There are only a few things I know for certain in life. One of them is this. I would not be the person I am today without having spent time in the woods and in the desert with Shayne.