Imagine, if you will, voluntarily spending a year in the woods, living only in the shelter you and a few others build, warming yourself with fire only you build with no matches and using only basic tools, such as an ax or knife. Imagine you are all under-25 women with no iPhones, outside friends, no parties, alcohol or any “distractions.” Now imagine doing this as a character-building project that you pay for. That’s exactly what’s happening with five young women from all over the country who are three-fourths of the way through this challenging adventure, called Caretaker, in the Cascade range, east of Ashland — a class put on by Coyote Trails School of Nature.
The participants pop into town weekly for supplies and vittles and, they admit, they sometimes look at the beer, but ask themselves, “Why would I want to do that?” Their job at Caretaker, where they receive occasional help from an experienced wilderness guide, is to confront that great unknown creature called “me,” look at her motives, tame her cravings for society’s diversions and experience, as Maddee Roseberry, 19, put it, “being yourself under all conditions.” Medford-based Coyote Trails has been running the yearlong program since 2010, usually for about five people, both genders, who have previously taken their much shorter trainings. Eighteen have graduated. The name of the training, Caretaker, means they are taught to take care of nature, the land and themselves in deeper ways, says Joe Kreuzman, director of Coyote Trails. Watching the five women literally disappear below the earth on a wooded embankment at Earth Teach Forest Park, Kreuzman tells how they harvested the poles with hand saws and debarked them with draw-knives, moving big rocks around with leverage to build the primitive shelter at the 4,500-foot elevation. The shelter is called a TRUG — Through the Roof Underground, a structure common in indigenous societies. “It’s warm in winter and cold in summer,” he says. “It’s insulated with clay, mud, grass and also bark, which drains off the rain. There’s no plastic. They build the fire to heat it and they do it without matches. It’s a very different mentality to not impose the egoic will on nature.”
Opening the hand-fashioned door and crawling inside the narrow, upslope tunnel is like stepping into a Paleolithic past of 10,000 years ago. The women cozy together in the upper portions of the underground hutch and, whipping a bow and tinder around, quickly get a fire going. Smoke trickles out of what appears to be a pile of sticks and dirt on the slope. In the midst of this year’s program, local filmmakers are shooting a documentary movie, paid for by Coyote Trails, on this most unusual venture into adulthood. It’s called “Five Women; Four Seasons” and producers hope it will be shown at the Ashland Independent Film Festival and other similar venues. “It’s fun and exciting learning what they learn,” says filmmaker Kelly Cassinerio of Ashland. “It’s amazing to see the progress they’ve made since they started in September.” The film seeks funding of $30,000 starting July 1 on Kickstarter.
Seeing such an extreme form of boot camp-style training, the question springs to mind why these five women would pay to do this — and what they seek from it. “I’m drawn because, here, all the distractions of society are taken away,” says Roseberry of Ohio. “You get the opportunity to know yourself. Watching TV or partying, no — here, you can’t do that. It’s a chance to really work on yourself and evolve, to be yourself under all the layers you find.” Tori Davis, 19, of Ohio, says she was drawn by her passion for the woods. “I completely fell in love with it in the Coyote Trails trainings. It’s such a magical experience. You get amazing lifelong skills that build you up. It’s an awesome place to be.” Davis says she plans to pursue environmental science in college and a life in that field, as well as outdoor photography. For Thea Smith, 23, of Colorado, it’s about getting to know herself better, mastering outdoor skills and learning to motivate herself. “I’ve always been shy, never hugely social and here I get to know my true thoughts and feelings and be happier with them,” she says. Hannah Schiestel, 21 of Truckee, Calif., notes the “very accepting environment” of Coyote Trails classes and wants to “create great memories here” and eventually become an instructor. The yearlong training, she adds, has a big spiritual dimension. “It speaks louder here and instead of half-full, you feel it overflowing sometimes,” she says. Emma Trucco, 19, of Portland, says she loved the primitive skills she picked up in earlier Coyote Trails classes, “helping me to find the connection back to nature and everything on the planet.” “That’s what really makes me overflowing with happiness.” If you think it would be hard to live in the mud, rain and sunshine with a small group for a year, you’d be right, they say. “It’s still a little rough around the edges,” says Roseberry. “If it bothers you, it’s most likely about you. If someone says something aggravating to me, I step back and look at what’s going on with me. The instructors set a good example of this and once you feel the power and try to go back to the old way, it’s hard. It’s about holding yourself accountable. It can be really tough.”
Dirk Minton, 27, a 2012 graduate of Caretaker, says, “It helped me ground more in my physical body and the natural landscape and myself. It inspired me to pursue my own connection to myself.” Another 2012 graduate, Amanda Smith, 26, of Colorado, now mentoring the young students, says, “It’s made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life and challenged me like nothing else. … I’m most afraid of social dynamics and was a pleaser but I’ve figured out now how to please others and myself, too. Happy? You choose to be happy.”