The Bluebird's Report:
A Wilderness Trip Gone Goofy.
by Byron Kerns
I was pleasantly minding my own business one day when I received a phone call from a guy in New York City - a cubicle-type, office tie-wearing guy, seventy stories high. He was requesting that I take him and five co-workers on a week-long survival trip into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. Their choice of personal gear, the only equipment that each would carry, would be a water bottle and a knife.
“Sir, fire, sir,” I said to the caller. “How are you going to make fire?”
“Well, by using fire-by-friction, of course” he answered. “I saw a video on how to do it. It didn’t look that hard.”
I said, “Sir, how are you going to disinfect water?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Not sure if you know it or not,” I said. “But, if you’re planning to stay healthy, you really should purify any water that you procure from a pond, lake, or stream.
“You got to be kidding me,” he replied, as if I was pulling his leg.
I explained Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and waterborne diseases and their effect on the human body.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “You got me on this one.”
I said, “Sir, what are you and the others going to eat for a week in the woods?”
“We’ll forage like our ancestors,” he answered, with new-found confidence. “For plants, fish, and wild game. Nothing big, though. Mainly squirrels, rabbits, and racoons.”
“Wow, sounds like you have it all figured out,” I replied.
“You betcha,” he bragged. “Me and the guys have put a lot of thought into this adventure. We just need you to keep an eye on us and make sure we get back safe.”
I said, “Sir, you don’t need me. Just go do your thing and let me know how it goes.”
“Really?” he asked. “We’ll be glad to pay you quite well for your time.”
I said, “Sir, keep your money. Maybe one day you’ll run across a sale on common sense.”
I hung up and stood there shaking my head. Maybe shook it too hard and too much. Started hearing the voice of Tonto saying to the Lone Ranger, “Kemo Sabe, phone caller watch heap too much reality TV."
Never in forty years have I entered a wilderness area with only a water bottle and a knife. Not even during my training to become an Air Force SERE Instructor. To think such a thing … well, it goes against my grain. Kinda tweeks my trigger. Makes me hear the voice of Jay Silverheels. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it can’t be done. Just ain’t very practical. Maybe they had something to prove. Mettle-wise that is.
I did eventually learn that these gentlemen undertook such a survival adventure. An email arrived a couple of months after the dude’s call and a report of their day-by-day activities was attached. It was sent by a fowl friend of mine - a CIA-trained, top secret bluebird, who specializes in survival happiness.
His report follows.
From: f_ _ email@example.com
(start of report) *** SORTA SECRET ***
Day One. At 0915, the six men parked their vehicle near a trailhead in the George Washington National Forest, east of Natural Bridge, Virginia. Armed with water bottles, pocket knives, and the clothes on their backs, they entered the wilderness. After walking approximately one-hundred yards by trail, the men stopped. One of the men tried to persuade the group to go off-trail, another argued the merits of staying on the trail, two wanted to return to the car, the littlest guy in the group told them that they had forgotten to fill their water bottles, and one huge dude with curly, black hair walked away from the group, leaned against a tree, and puked his guts out. The smell of rancid beer permeated the wilderness.
Arguments, complaints, multiple puking attempts, and heated discussions - for and against and just for the hell-of-it - continued among the group for forty minutes. This unplanned break provided an opportunity to deduce names. The fellow who wants to go off-trail is Bobby. He’s the ring leader, the phone caller. The guy puking is Phil. The small man … his name is Gabe. And, the guy who argues for staying on-trail is Tim. The two fellows who want to go back to the car are Ryan and Alvin. Ryan’s having second thoughts about not bringing along a survival instructor. Alvin appears to be the oldest in the group, maybe in his mid 50’s. He’s not happy about the steep terrain, maybe because of his belly, equal in size to a pregnant woman in her 9th month.
“Get it together, Phil,” Bobby hollered. “One last puke, then we’re moving out.” By this time, the best Phil could do was a dry heave. The group, with Bobby in the lead, headed off-trail into thick woods, with Gabe bringing up the rear. Within a few steps Gabe spotted a pink roll of surveying tape, almost hidden in the dry leaves. He stooped and retrieved it. Twenty feet ahead, he pulled off a piece of tape and tied it to a tree branch. He continued doing so, unobserved, every one hundred feet or so. At 1315, a couple of miles from the starting point, there was no tape left on the roll.
The group rested mid-afternoon on a steep hillside. “Hey, does anyone know where we’re at?” Tim asked. Bobby laughed a crazy laugh, then answered, “Virginia, in the woods, you stupid shit.”
“What about water?” Gabe asked. “Where’s water? And, didn’t you say that the survival instructor recommended purifying it? How we supposed to do that?”
“I’m starved,” Alvin chimed in. “Those two biscuits at McDonalds didn’t go very far. Should have had three.”
“Suck it up, you bunch of pussies. Let’s move out!” Bobby commanded.
Up the steep hill they went, following their fearless leader. At 1630, they made their way over and down a high ridge and stumbled upon a bold mountain stream. A grassy meadow, fifty-yards downstream, reflected the day’s remaining sunlight.
“You all can keep going,” Alvin exclaimed quite vehemently. “I’m staying for the night right there at that meadow.” With no undue fanfare, the others tiredly agreed. The meadow will be their camp for the evening. The sun slowly disappeared behind a mountain; the temperature is in the low 60’s and dropping. The group’s clothes are soaked with sweat and all in the party dehydrated. Phil and Alvin look a might ragged as they lead the way to the meadow, scrambling over rocks of all sizes to get there.
Any ordinary group of hikers would have pitched tents, started gathering firewood for the cool night ahead, built a fire, cooked a meal, and gathered water. This group seemed at a loss for what to do – maybe because there wasn’t much to do anything with. Spirits are low, with the exception of Gabe. He had climbed to the top of a huge boulder and was sitting cross-legged, high above the others - a definite Kodak moment as his eyeglasses sparkled the day’s last light. With a huge grin, he hollered, “Let’s order pizzas! New York-style! I’ll buy!”
Alvin, sitting on the ground below, reached over and picked-up a two-foot long chunk of fallen limb and hurled it at Gabe. The chunk of wood hit him squarely in the chest and knocked him off the boulder. On his way down, bouncing off of several smaller boulders below, Gabe gashed his head above his right eye. Blood poured out, running across his face. His glasses are shattered and are not glasses anymore. His right arm is bent at an unnatural angle, as he hangs head-below-feet. His crying echoed eerily through the woods.
Tim and Ryan immediately scrambled haphazardly to Gabe’s rescue. As they maneuvered him to a better position, a blood-curdling scream riveted the woods, standing my feathers up like soldiers ordered to attention - oral evidence that the group had been presented with a broken arm on Day One.
“We need to call 911! Now!” Ryan shouted, with a hint of panic.
“Forget calling 911,” declared Alvin. “Bobby, our asshole, know-it-all leader, made us leave our phones back at the car … wherever that is. We don’t even have a first aid kit.”
“Piss off, fat boy!” Bobby curtly responded. “If you wouldn’t have clobbered small fry, Alvin, he wouldn’t be over there all busted up and bleeding. You guys get him fixed up. I’ll make a fire.”
Darkness. A steady rain began falling at 2010. Thunder and flashes of lightning are toying with their heads. Temperatures are in the low 50’s, with a 10-20 mph wind from the north. The fire never happened. Bobby’s odds at making fire-by-friction are the same as winning the Mega Millions lottery. For the group, there is no source of heat or source of light. Their clothes will remain wet - their morale lower than whale shit.
The group huddled under a pine tree, its sparsely-needled limbs unable to shed the rain. It is the best shelter that their combined knowledge could devise. They are soaked and shivering. Arguments are replaced with silence. Gabe’s forehead wound leaks blood. An ER doctor would have recommended sutures. Gabe’s right arm dangles at his side, with nary a splint. The men endured a long night. But, if they did anything right that night, they stayed together.
Day Two. The light of a rain-free, new day brought amicable discussions focused on two important questions: 1) Which direction is the car?; and, 2) Should they drink the stream water?
Five men point with their index fingers and arrive at five different directions to the car. Gabe doesn’t point. He has trouble seeing, let alone finding direction, without functioning eyewear. Lacking conciseness as to direction, they then decided to drink the stream dry. There was a suggestion last evening of drinking rain water, but they decided rain water was contaminated due to nuclear radiation. Seems they preferred the pukes and runny shits to glowing in the dark.
Their thirst sated, all now agreed and understood that the intended week-long adventure is over and that Gabe needs serious medical help. A group decision was made to walk out, staying together at all times. Their plan: to try their best to follow Day One’s footprints.
Gathering their soggy bodies, the men departed the meadow and headed back up the ravine. It was slow-going, especially for Gabe. Injured and barely able to see, he held onto Ryan as they navigated the wet and slippery rocks. One didn’t have to be Kit Carson to find the place where the men had earlier entered the ravine. A wide path void of leaves riddled the hillside, from bottom to top. Climbing with a brief pause here and there, using supple trees as hand-holds, they finally emerged at the top. The men turned and spun and looked at the leaf-littered ground in all directions. Yesterday’s footprints were nowhere to be seen. A lone doe stood cautiously and watched the men, not more than fifty-feet away.
“Hey, there’s breakfast, Bobby!” smirked Alvin. “Go run it down and stab it with your knife, tough guy!” Bobby shook his head and offered no reply. He stood distant from the group, head down, his thoughts his alone.
“It’s that way!” Tim hollered, pointing in the direction of a small rise. “I’m sure of it!” Hearing Tim’s revelation, the deer raised its tail and bolted into the thick brush. Alvin watched the deer go, probably imagining hundreds of fur-covered burgers vanishing into the woods.
Bobby, the wind gone from his sails, conceded his role as point man. Tim, taking the lead, guided the group up a slight hill and through a stand of small oak trees. After a full morning of travel, they took a well-earned rest, and plopped their bodies down near the edge of a small clearing.
“We’re never going to make it back!” Ryan exclaimed. “We’re freaking lost in the middle of nowhere!”
“Chill, dude,” Tim said calmly. “Everything will be alright. We’d better get up and get going, though, before we get stiff and get all locked-up.” The men stood brushing debris from their still-soggy clothing, all except Gabe. Tim and Ryan helped Gabe to his stand; Gabe’s moaning making them all cringe. Fifty-yards away, behind them, a piece of pink tape fluttered in the slight breeze.
“Hey guys,” exclaimed Alvin. “I feel really bad for clobbering Gabe. Honest. It was me that ruined our trip. I’m sorry, really sorry. Okay? But I got a feeling we’re getting closer to the car. Maybe that deer back there was an omen of good luck. You know, like some kind of Indian spirit. Besides, there’s got to be civilization near ‘cause of that pink piece of tape.”
“Pink tape! Where?” asked Gabe.
“Back there a ways, hanging from a branch,” Alvin answered. “Didn’t you see it?”
“Funny, jerk face,” Gabe replied. “You trashed my glasses. Remember? Right after you gashed my head and just before you broke my arm. We need to go to the tape. Now! It’s our ticket out of here.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” inquired Bobby. “You sure you don’t have some brain damage, too?”
“C’mon guys. Seriously, we need to backtrack. Get us to the tape, Alvin!” commanded Gabe, using his best, soldier-like leader voice. His once-white Jockey briefs, cut and wrapped tight around his head and stained with seeping blood, added combat realism. Alvin quickly headed in the direction of the tape. The others ran to keep up.
“There it is!” Alvin yelled excitedly. “Twenty-feet ahead! Holy shit! For sure! Look!” For a minute, one would have thought he’d sighted Bigfoot. Alvin stood next to the hanging tape, grinning ear-to-ear.
Last but not least, Gabe caught up to the others. Pausing a tad, he then provided explanation and evidence that he was indeed of his right mind and not suffering any brain damage: “Proud gentlemen gathered before me, lend me your ears as I pay homage to this pink piece of dangling tape running across my fingers. It is of my own glorious concoction. But, more importantly, I must give credit where credit is due. My dear thanks to the Brothers Grimm and in particular I would like to …”
“Gabe, enough already,” chided Bobby. “What in the Sam Hill does that pink tape got to do with us?”
“It’s our ticket out of here!” Gabe hollered. “C’mon, give me a break. I was fresh out of breadcrumbs. Guys, look around ‘cause I can’t see shit. Not sure which direction, but there’s a trail of hanging tape leading from this one. You find that trail and we’ll be celebrating civilization. But, please guys, you got to get me to a hospital.” Looking off to his left, Ryan spotted the trail of tape. “Bobby, you want to lead?” “No way. You take the point, Ryan, and get us on out of here,” Bobby declared, without any hesitation.
Two hours later they were at the car. Pandemonium reigned. They whooped and hollered and danced, cutting a rug on the grass near the vehicle - happy as hell to be out of the woods.
Gabe didn’t do any dancing. He didn’t even do any shouting. He stood silent in the middle of the road; his left arm held high, fingers spread. A triumphant smile was across his blood-smeared face. He appeared to be feeling no pain. Maybe his injuries were numbed somewhat in that he had done something to help others.
(End of report) *** SORTA SECRET ***
I sat in my office utterly amazed after reading this report - definitely glad to have a top-secret bluebird for a friend. Picking up my notebook, I scanned the pages looking for Bobby’s phone number. Punched in his number and after three rings Bobby answered.
“Dude, this is Byron, the survival guy down in Georgia. You called me a couple of months ago.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember,” Bobby said. “You’re the guy who told me to buy some common sense.” We both laughed a tad at that comment.
“Exactly,” I said. “Good memory. Hopefully you haven’t bought any yet because now the common sense is free. Soon as Gabe’s right arm heals, I’d like to invite you and your friends to join me for a four-day survival course. My equipment list this time, not yours, and the list will include a roll of pink surveyor’s tape.”
“Really, Byron? That would be terrific!” Bobby exclaimed. “By the way, what are you, some kind of wilderness spook? How’d you know about Gabe’s arm? And, the pink tape?”
“Well, dude. Let’s just say a little bird told me,” I answered with a smile.
If you study this story a tad in your head, you’ll soon realize that wilderness survival isn’t all about fire making and shelter building and camp craft and all that stuff. It’s about people. Goofy-ass people, smart people, mean people, scared people, ego-crazy people and all kinds of people fitting many kinds of descriptions - all having their own feelings and all looking different from one another. Some with book-smarts and some dumber than a rock. Some so kind they’ll give you the shirt off their backs. Some so stingy that they make Scrooge seem like a philanthropist. Until you start deep-looking at people, you will never completely understand wilderness survival.