A 21st Century Guide to Survival in the Wilderness.

9 11 2012

Trees, ferns, and woods–we go way back.

But how I navigate the wilderness now has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.

I spent a large portion of my childhood living in the woods of Central Illinois, where most of my free time was spent wandering around in undisturbed acres of forest with my massive dog, Bomber.

I would venture off with a book in one hand (and sometimes some marshmallow Peeps that I would split with my furry guardian) and, after blissfully dipping my feet in a small creek or picking a bouquet of sweetly scented wildflowers, I’d sit down on a mossy log and read for hours.

I carefully researched plants and bugs, and listened with rapt attention to my grandmother–who had also grown up in the woods–as she pointed out edible plants and flowers and explained various uses for them. I also read books about explorers and adventurers, filing away useful information about how to build fires, forts, and skin animals. I even went through a phase where I carried around a knife everywhere with me, carving messages into trees for miles.

I’ve since traded in my muddy tennis shoes for more urban living environments, but I’ve always loved getting out into nature as much as possible. A few weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to return to a hallowed nature preserve that’s been a part of my life since I was a child and flex my wilderness survival skills once more.

We made a trek to The Cabin.

No, it’s not the name of a creepy novel, though that may be valid when you consider that The Cabin has no electricity or running water, so the only place you can use for a restroom is a neglected outhouse that’s been sinking slowly into the same spot for nearly 80 years.

The Cabin is a log home my great-grandparents built by themselves in the 1930s in northern Minnesota, sitting on a beautiful lake in what’s now a protected national forest. My great-grandparents lived at The Cabin for years, and our family has many happy memories of it. My brother and I used to visit often in the summer, and we’d wander through trails in the woods that my great-grandpa set up with little plastic critters lurking in trees and under logs, pick blueberries and make pancakes with my grandma, dig up clay from the lakebed and make statues, and learn how to whittle walking sticks.

The idyllic picture of The Cabin you just conjured up, though, is not entirely accurate.

The Cabin, in its full splendor.

The Cabin also a place of raw terror–the place where we laid in our bug-infested beds, wide-eyed and scared over the animals thrashing around in the woods behind us. It’s where we got lost in the woods at night, had to clean fish while combating thousands of buzzing horseflies, and ended up with aggressive leeches all over our legs every time we went swimming. We once spent an afternoon cleaning out a beaver dam, and ended up walking through a tick colony. You think you know horror? No, you don’t.

And, we had to drink warm cream soda every time we were at the cabin, to boot.

While at The Cabin a few weeks ago, however, our experience was remarkably different–probably because my cousins and brother and sister-in-law and I are all of the Millennial generation and tackle survival in the remote wilderness a bit differently than our parents and grandparents.

Here’s how a 21st century twenty-something survives a trip to the woods:

1) We always have an iPhone on hand.

Need a flashlight? Two clicks, and the flashlight app’s open. Grandma is trying to give complicated directions to the church fish fry? Record it as a video and play it back as you’re driving. Spot an interesting tree behind the cabin? Snap a picture and look it up online. Fact-checking someone’s tall tales? Search Wikipedia to find out the truth. Bored on the desolate ride out to The Cabin? That’s why they invented “Angry Birds”. Making a note on your next family vacation? It’s a cinch with your iPhone’s notepad feature.

2) No electricity? No problem.

Our vehicles are all equipped with electrical outlets. And just in case we happen to end up in an older model car, we have adapters that plug into the cigarette lighter. So we play our iPhone jams recklessly. And we can even plug in a crock pot full of wild rice soup, if we need to…and double-check the reheating instructions on Pinterest.

3) Forget living off the land–we have a supply of vacuum-sealed snacks.

Forget scavenging for berries and roots, or trying to shoot our own game. We may have grown up learning how to catch and prepare our own fish, but now we have coolers and containers full of delicious drinks, organic granola bars, and peach rings ready to tickle our tummies.

4) Hand sanitizer is our best friend.

Dig around in the woods, and then try to clean our hands before eating? No problem. Most people our age carry around at least one small bottle of hand sanitizer at all times–sometimes even clipped to our purses or man-bags. And it comes in such mouth-watering flavors, like sun-kissed raspberry and vanilla cupcake. You almost want to get dirty just to smell the heavenly scent of cleanliness on your palms. Almost. We don’t really like to get dirty, anyway.

5) Skip the “Kumbaya” and get to the s’mores.

We’re not like those darn hippy parents we have–we don’t like to sing by the campfire. Just give us some roasting sticks, a bag of marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. That’s our feel-good bonding time together. And don’t worry, we know how to build a solid campfire…we’ve seen it done on shows like “Survivorman” and “Man Vs. Wild” plenty of times.

5) Cleaning up’s a breeze.

Collecting trash isn’t a problem for our generation. Since we all carry our own personal (and usually expensive) water bottles, made of hardy repurposed plastic, we don’t have to collect soda cans or clip plastic rings to save the eagles or turtles or whatever gets caught up in discarded waste. And we usually have a stash of large reusable grocery bags in our cars, which means we don’t have to chase down flimsy plastic bags that are flying around because we neatly carry all of our junk. Besides, we secretly like carrying around a stylin’ trash bag on our shoulder.

6) We share the experience in real time.

We’re the generation that overshares everything, and has absolutely no boundaries on our personal lives–as a labor and delivery nurse I was chatting with grotesquely reminded me on the last flight I took. On our visits to the wilderness, we carry our smart phones with us on canoes, into tree tops, and into caves…and our 700 Facebook and Twitter friends can keep up with our adventures as they’re happening. Not sure if that’s a grizzly bear chasing you through the woods? Tweet a description of that dark mass howling behind you and let your friends google the information for you as you sprint through the forest. And then post a picture (edited through a fancy filter in Instagram) of your lacerated torso and no doubt a few dozen people will comment on how you can dress your wounds properly.

7) We’ll either blog about the experience or get a tattoo to commemorate it.

I think you know what my choice was, friends.


Biggest Time Wasters of All Time.

24 02 2012

I wandered into my closet this morning in a sleepy haze. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I did a double-take as I gazed at my husband’s side of the closet:

It was tidier than mine. Stacks of crisply folded shirts were laid in neat rows, while every shirt was impeccably hung and facing the same direction.

I quickly glanced out the window to make sure pigs weren’t fluttering by,  nor asteroids falling from the heavens and signaling that the Apocalypse had indeed started. Then the realization hit me: my husband’s on break right now from his graduate school. He truly is that bored–bored enough to organize his closet while I’m at work all day.

As I gazed at his perfect stacks of clothes, I was reminded of how short-lived this burst of organization will be. You see, I’ve neatly folded his immense stacks of pants and shirts multiple times over the last few years we’ve been married. Once, in a regretful bout of energetic OCD, I even decided to organize his clothes in a color-coded pattern.

Guess how long that lasted? Yeah, about a week.

This naturally led me to ponder an interesting question: what things do we do on a regular basis that are actually a ridiculous waste of time?

I can think of several, right off the bat:

#1. Folding underwear.

Come on–no one will see creases in your undies. You’re probably the only one who really opens that drawer, anyway. Other than the occasional burglar who systematically checks under your mattress, in your jewelry box, and in your underwear drawer for valuables. Incidentally, I’ve come up with the absolute best hiding spot in the house for hiding my valuables. Not that I want to invite trouble, but I’d be happy to let a thief poke around and leave my place perplexed and penniless.

#2. Reasoning with the blitzed friends of your regularly too-intoxicated-to-walk neighbors.

Why do we attempt to reason with people who stumble down our apartment steps with only one shoe on, and try to talk them out of urinating from the second story onto the public walkway below? People who can’t even recite the alphabet or touch their fingers to their nose steadily simply won’t listen to our best arguments, as stellar as they may be. As the saying goes, “Don’t throw pearls to pigs”.

#3. Saving and organizing old magazines.

I’m sure most people I know commonly refer back to the 1984 issue of National Geographic on a regular basis, and are justified in holding onto old magazines. Interestingly, old magazines are the most frequently sighted and oft-ignored item at the local Goodwill Outlet I frequent. However, if you want to end up on an episode of Hoarders and have the entire cable world sigh in disgust at your filthy home, collecting magazines is probably a good way to start.

#4. Planning weddings on Pinterest.

I hate to break it to you, all of my single friends–wedding planning is actually pretty awful. The only truly enjoyable part is cake-tasting–and that’s paramount to getting your ear iced before you get a needle jabbed through (yeah, it pretty much feels exactly like getting a painful piercing when you realize how much you’ll be paying per slice for your “dream cake”). All those perfect pictures, gowns, and decorations you see online are beyond your budget and probably unavailable to you, unless perhaps you plan on marrying a royal (act fast, that’s a small market).

#5. Filling up toothpick and Q-Tip dispensers.

Call me guilty of participating in this addicting habit, even though I’ll readily admit what a waste of time it is. All those cute little dispensers are apparently made for humans the size of dolls (who, incidentally, don’t use Q-Tips). Would you rather have 15 Q-Tips displayed nicely in a glass jar and have to refill it every 8 days, or have all 750 Q-Tips in a handy container and restock it every 3 years ? I think we both know what the obvious choice is.

#6. Listening to your automated message system announce each new message.

Is there anything more frustrating than hearing that robot voice say, “You have 9 new messages. First message, left at 10:34 A.M. on Friday, March 19. Phone number, 314.555.9874…Message end. To replay message, press 1. To skip message, press 2. To listen to the next message, press 3. To hear more options, press 4.”

Hm. “To hear more options”–like perhaps a step-by-step guide to blowing up this confounded machine? I’m dialing right now.

#7. Waiting for people to finish pulling out in front of you when you have a green light.

I’m a big proponent for allowing the top 25% of drivers to carry around a set of  blow darts in their cars, just in case they need to pop the tires of the bad driver in front of them. How much time has been wasted waiting for those people who pull out halfway in your lane, give you the doe eyes in hopes that you’ll let them go in front of you, even though you clearly have the right of way and now traffic has halted behind you because you can’t get around this bloke? Lots.  

#8. Cleaning the junk drawer.

I don’t need to explain this one, because we’ve all done it and realized how futile it is. Those “organization experts” who advise that even your junk drawer be cleaned because “everything has its place” clearly don’t have to deal with real life and the complex issues of figuring out where to store Silly Putty, spare rubber bands, and batteries that may or may not be dead.

#9. Attempting to save old ribbons.

I think my mother and grandmother are probably due for an intervention, as they are the main perpetrators of this crime. They’ll argue and point out how much money they save; I’ll tell them that I’ve been secretly wanting to put my Christmas presents in decorative bags for years and haven’t been able to do so because their perfectly wrapped, beribboned packages make me ashamed to wimp out. How can I be the one that ends the family tradition of sitting on the floor under the Christmas tree, rolling up used ribbons for hours?

#10. Surfing Facebook.

Call me hard-hearted, but I really don’t care what the kid who sat next to me in 9th grade French is eating for dinner every night, or how his vacation to Aspen was, or even what he’s doing with his life. Aren’t we supposed to save that small talk for when we bump into those people we vaguely knew in high school and we run out of things to talk about besides the weather? It seems that Facebook has suspended high school into a strange, infinitely preserved specimen that we all study every day. I’d probably delete quite a few of my Facebook friends, if I wasn’t so paranoid about someone coming after me with a shotgun someday. Hey, it’s a stressful world–you don’t want to give anyone a reason, you know?

(Hopefully, that did not give you a reason…because you’re actually my friend. Gulp.)

That’s my list of things that waste time–what’s yours?