by John Darling for the Mail Tribune

It’s night in the Cascade foothills and they’re blindfolding me and telling me to walk a mile uphill through the woods, telling me to get to where I hear a drum beat once every 30 seconds.

It’s a challenge to the self-confidence and a lot of other inner qualities, such as plain old courage. Do I have any? We’ll soon find out.


I stumble through the uneven grassland and then come to the bushes, trees and rock outcroppings. After giving up on the idea of being graceful or skillful, I drop to all fours and find it a lot easier traveling.

My ears become a lot more attuned. I hear others off on the right and left and they sound like a bunch of empty boxes being pushed up the hill. Before long, the humor of the situation surfaces – along with the realization of how they, the teachers of Coyote Trails School of Nature, are trying to get us to train and trust our intuition, increasing our awareness of the natural world.

Are there trees in front of me? Well, do I hear and feel leaves or needles on the ground? That would be a sure clue. When I pull on the branches, does the tree give? That would mean a small tree. Limbs that don’t give mean a big tree. After a while I started to figure out how the forest works when you don’t have that predominating sense – sight.

We didn’t expect this exercise. We didn’t expect any of them. They never tell you what’s about to happen. Knowing makes you get in your head. You start strategizing.

Finally, I get to the drummer and they lead me to sit on the ground, still blindfolded and, to my surprise, I have all these feelings of having accomplished one of the weirdest and hardest things of my life.

I feel ” what? I feel proud and happy and like I can do anything! It’s a crazy, good feeling.

It comes again later, learning how to make fire with bow and drill, making rope out of plant fibers, making a deadfall trap out of three simple sticks, learning to silently stalk and track (and notice when you are being stalked).

The feeling surfaces when you go to your special Sit Spot every dawn to journal, watch the sun steal over the meadows, open your senses to nature and realize what a vast, mysterious and beautiful temple this is.

As the days go by in this refuge up Dead Indian Memorial Road above Ashland, it’s clear that we 50 people are going through something unusual, not just a summer camp or getaway. It may be disorienting and you may even lose sleep, says chief instructor Joe, because this might be the first time in your life you’ve ever been really relaxed.

I soon notice that we have established that elusive thing called community.

It feels like ancient echoes of tribal life, with everyone busy, smiling, content and leaving behind the stresses, agendas, fears, worries and ego trips of daily life.

It’s remarkable – and, to me, the most amazing part of the weeklong experience – that a random group of people, given survival tasks to accomplish in a state of nature, get along marvelously and happily, “sinking down,” as Joe calls it, out of the personal ego into a group identity where the needs of all are the same as the needs of the individual.

Out from under this phenomenon of tribe-in-nature creeps a beautiful sense of the sacred – all the animals and plants having their own ways, nature and purpose, which they carry out all around you as they get to know your ways, nature and purpose. And all of this without any instructors spelling it out for you.

Nature and tribe explain themselves, and with each day, you notice and understand them more.

Learning survival skills is a fun way of making you understand you evolved in and belong to nature. But the real schooling comes from learning that, away from phones, computers, TV, cars and civilization, there’s a place where we belong and are, in ways we can never know in the city, at home.