Yes, I know I said I would have Day 7 done yesterday. Unfortunately, when I made this optimistic prediction I failed to take school into account. I will publish that hopefully soon (meaning probably Saturday). Thanks for your support in coming back to read. You people rock.
Now is the winter of our discontent.
“My car broke down. I need help.” I gazed at the text blearily for a moment, sounding out the syllables slowly.
My-car-broke-down-I-need-help. I think this is some kind of call for help, said my mind in an effort to be helpful. Oh. OH! I GET IT! Throwing on two coats, I crawled out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the tent door and shivered. It was 3°F (-16° C). Ugh. It was like Siberia—or worse, Wisconsin. I struggled to lace my snowboots as my fingers lost dexterity and sensation in the cold. How did a double knot go? Was it—no, it was—There! I headed off in the general direction of my car as dawn threatened to bleach the indigo sky.
This is the seventh installment of the Urban Forager Project. To start from the beginning and learn why I’m going a week in the winter wild eating only food I’ve foraged, click here.
In order to keep its location as unavailable as Benedict Cumberbatch’s heart, there’s a very specific way to leave Cloudreach. First, duck and step carefully through the exposed area to the untraceable zone. Crawl on hands and knees before sinking gloved fists into snow to get standing and stable without faceplanting in the snow. Walk carefully, being sure to step where you have previously stepped to give the appearance you were only ever there once. Angle left. Now right. Left again. A casual observer may mistake you for a drunken cat at this point, but don’t take it personally. That’s probably enough. pause at a tree. Listen for deer, cars, or people. Is it clear? Then angle right, dash through the bushes, through another untraceable zone and to the relative safety of the street.
Now in the clear, I began walking as quickly as I could. Despite the frigid temperatures, I was feeling great. This might have been because I was moving, but it’s more likely it came as a result of the clothes I was wearing:
- Black polyester running pants
- Blue Jordanian kaffiyah (used as a scarf)
- Knit technicolor hat with earflaps
- Blue jeans with belt and Leatherman
- Two pair of socks: one synthetic, one woolen, both moisture wicking
- Two pair gloves: weird maroon thin gloves beneath big black ski gloves
- Snowboots: size 14 Columbia Bugaboot
- Slim red running jacket
- Black merino wool dress suit sweate
- Puffy, black Euro-coat
- Size XXL tan-puffy coat inherited from a deceased great-uncle with great clothes over it all.
The effect made me feel a little bit like Randy in A Christmas Story, but at the same time it granted me enormous power. Far larger and more armored than normal, I had completed my transformation into the sworn enemy of winter: Marshmallow Kodiak Destructo-Man.
Furious energy pulsed through my arteries with each heartbeat. I backhanded a shrub covered in snow as I passed; the powdery whiteness fell helplessly to the ground. A full-bore roundhouse kick to a snowbank left it in weeping ruins. Going out of my way to crush errant pieces of ice underfoot, I felt no sympathy for my victims.
“I’m just a civilian,” objected a small land-stranded berg. “I have no part in your—”
“Please, milord! I’ll bring the sheep to the manor on Thor’s Day!” cried a fallen icicle.
“Ay, Señor! Los niños estan in the casa, all alone! Por favor, for their cause please espare my life!”
I was invincible. Cackling pitilessly, I pulverized my enemy with each thundering step until I came at last to my car encased in a chrysalis eight inches thick of ice and snow. The door was frozen shut.
Is this all you’ve got, Winter?!? I threw my head back and roared. Grabbing hold of the car door, my ursine muscles pulled taut. I strained for a long, quiet moment before the door burst free with a groaning skkkrrrrikk! My windshield scraper now in hand, the ice on my car fled from my presence like a herd of baby raindeer before a flamethrower-wielding Russian.
Some minutes later, I found MacGyver in a parking lot.
“What took you so long?”
“Oh, you know… stuff.”
After we jumped his car and took it to the mechanic, I drove him to work and returned to my territory. My sister and her family wanted to visit me during my self-imposed torment, so I agreed to meet them at the local museum of art.
How To Laundry Like A Boss
Before that happened, I needed to wash some clothes. My thermal long johns were smellin’ pretty rank, as was the running jacket I was wearing beneath my Kodiak coats. I headed over to the locker room of the athletic building. After a quick shower and a shave to eliminate my patchy scruff and unseemly odor, I grabbed the things in need of cleansing and carried them over to one of the cleaner-looking sinks. Soaking them first in hot water, I applied a liberal amount of coconut-scented hand soap from the abundant dispensers. I washed my clothes by hand last year in Ecuador (out of stinginess rather than need) so this didn’t take long. Drying would take far longer than washing under normal circumstances, but desperation was a valuable teacher: some months ago before a lunch date with a friend, I’d learned a reeking, sopping-wet orange North Face jacket could be placed in the nearby swimsuit spinners for a couple cycles and emerge almost completely dry. The same trick worked today. Total time elapsed from dirty jacket to dry coat: seven minutes. What’s more, my clothes smelled fantastic. Industrial coconut scent for the win.
My scraper now in hand, the ice on my car fled from my presence like a herd of baby reindeer before a flamethrower-wielding Russian.
I spent some time with my sister and her family. Before we parted, she handed me a carefully wrapped gift. “I was going to give this to you on Saturday,” she began, “but I think you could probably use it right now. Go ahead, open it.”
I found one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received:
“I got it for you weeks ago, before you’d ever said anything about your project. Sorry I couldn’t give it to you sooner, but I think it might still be helpful.”
Within minutes of opening the book I chanced upon Skill #136, the art of turning acorns into food. I’d spent part of Day 4 and most of Day 5 trying to understand why my acorns weren’t becoming edible, and here it was, explained. The most effective way to rid acorns of inedible tannins is to soak the nutmeats in alternating baths of warm and cold water in hourlong intervals, the book explained. Allowing the water to boil actually prevents the tannic acid from leaving effectively. Well, who’da thunk. My acorns had just been transformed from inedible frustrations to an easy source of carbohydrates.
After saying goodbye to my family, I went to the place where I had stashed my soaking acorns and pulled the containers out of the fake plants where they were hidden. I microwaved them in new water until they were warm, but not boiling. Once an hour I would return, change the water, and begin the process anew. In the meantime, I blogged and snacked on a new food source: frozen crabapples I’d found on a tree near the Museum of Art. Something about the freezing-thawing-refreezing process had changed these normally disgusting fruits into something that to me tasted like popsicles made of sweet, frozen apple butter complete with notes of clove and cinnamon. They were so intensely flavored that I could only eat a few at a time before my brain threatened to fry under the sensory overload.
The lights began to shut off in the hallways of the building where I slowly coaxed my acorns to edibility, a not-so-subtle message for all denizens of the cavernous edifice to Get The Heck Out. I pulled my possessions out of the building in several trips, hoping I hadn’t left anything inside. The building would be closed for the next two days, and forgetting something critical like my mortar and pestle could end my urban adventure very quickly. Walking along a darkened hallway, I encountered a powerful carpet fan airing out a wet spot of carpet. Ever the opportunist, I pulled off a boot and placed it downwind of the humming device I promptly tilted on its side.
“Excuse me?” I looked up in alarm. One of the building caretakers was looking at me an odd expression apparently baked with two cups impatience, one cup suspicion and waaaay too much salt.
“Who, uh, what?”
“What are you doing?”
“Oh. Wait, me? Oh, I was just, uh… ” We both looked down at the boot drying by the fan, laces flapping in the breeze. “I was just curious what would happen if you put a boot… by a fan… turned on its side.”
“Sorry, I guess that’s kind of weird. I’ll just… take that now.” She stared at me disgustedly as I glomped hurriedly down the hall, boot in hand. A question was forming on her lips and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be around when it was spoken.
The rest of New Years’ Eve was pleasantly uneventful. I watched The Giver with some friends, stopped to see a good friend visiting from Texas, and ate a delicious acorn porridge. I should probably specify that “delicious” used in this context means “a quavering, microwaved acorn mash mixed with FishFood, sumac, pounded crabapples and—inexplicably—sea salt that you will force yourself to eat, periodically suppressing your gag reflex because it could probably be used as a psychological weapon were it to fall into the wrong hands.” It was almost as bad as eating a raw tomato.
The lights began to shut off in the hallways of the building… a not-so-subtle message for all denizens of the cavernous edifice to Get The Heck Out.
As the year concluded, I took the time to compile a few New Years’ Resolutions. I’m not really into the whole Resolutions idea (my resolution for most years being simply to not make any new resolutions the next year) but this time around I felt my goals were within reach:
- Buy Strawberry Cheetos off the internet. They have them in Japan! I knew the Japanese could do it.
- Make my own version of Strawberry Cheetos. The measly internet bag will hardly satisfy me; I anticipate I will be needing at least 3 to five buckets myself. Each individual corn snack will not be those stupid big puffy cheeto things, but the small, satisfying crunchy ones. The snack pieces will be made with a sweeter-style batter and have a hint of vanilla. The powder will be made of dehydrated strawberry jelly and confectioners sugar, or wait! I will use Strawberry Nesquik powder.
- Eat a very large serving of fries
- Eat butter, straight from the tub. (I do not admit to actually doing this. My roommates have tried to intervene, but I insist I don’t have a problem.)
- Sleep in a bed.
- Cook more food on the stove.
- Actually use the two pounds of spices I have in my cupboard and learn how to make Indian food.
- Alternatively, just eat the spices to see what happens.
- Also, I guess I should probably graduate from college.
One general theme exists for the new year: I hope it is full of delicious things. Particularly if “delicious” is Japanese slang for “strawberry cheetos.”
I considered this glorious future as I silently approached Cloudreach. As the first moon of the new year rose sluggishly in the cloudless sky, I managed to think of something else:
Day 6 was complete.
Do you think Strawberry Cheetos should be brought to America? Like and share!
The eight and final installment of the Urban Forager series can be found here. Come on back if you want to know what machetes, snowmen, and the Silver Musketeer have to do with it. Also, if I survived. What if I were dead and had written a fake final post in case I didn’t make it? That’s not the case, but if it were it would be pretty messed up.
Just an FYI announcement of sorts. I’m behind with posting. I haven’t had internet for a bit so I apologize to all of you who have been so loyal in following me through this adventure. I hope to post Day 6 soon and Day 7 not long thereafter. Please come back soon and see if I survived ( a ghost is writing this, possibly. or a computer hacking ferret.)
Sleep is the poor man’s dinner.
—Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
Glowing screens and interfaces surrounded me in the darkened. How did I never notice before that vending machines contained food? Bizzare concoctions that had never before interested me now had my full attention: sloppy joes in miniature bread bowls (microwaveable!), chocolate tacos (now with dairy-based filling!), and triple-layered mystery meat (being mysterious is considered an attractive quality, right?) sandwiches could only represent the apex of human civilization.
I had come to this cursed room to prepare my breakfast in the tiny microwave: pine needle tea in a saltwater infusion. I found it on Pinterest!
No, not really.
I refilled the Pyrex liquid measuring cup that had become my best friend up again and replaced the pine needles I’d chomped savagely for a bit (to release the flavor/nutrients) and decided I needed to get more calories than the microscopic amount present in my drink. I whipped out my container of FishFood. This mealy substance is not actually fish food, but the ground-up, dried berries of the scarlet firethorn bush. Despite the shrub’s sweet name, the berries are pretty bland in fall and plain awful in winter. I’d discovered the dehydrated berries lying around my apartment months ago and used my metate y mano I conveniently have lying around to grind them into a coarse flour. The resulting mix smelled vaguely like the golden standard for aquariums everywhere, so FishFood it became.
I only have one container of it, and while it’s generally used for emergencies I decided a handful in my pine-needle tea might make a fine breakfast porridge. I put a few spoonfuls into my measuring cup, added some needles for flavor, and nuked it for a few minutes. As I waited, my eyes fell once again upon the shiny, entrancing vending machines. No. I won’t do it! Wait, what on earth is THAT?
said the white lettering simply.
That… that sounds amazing.
I stared closer, and then began to cry quietly as I saw it: No strawberry cheetos were these. A closer inspection of the red plastic package entombed behind a glass force field revealed it to be the pathetic
So disappointing. But why was I crying? As I wiped the tears from my face with my sleeve, it occurred to me. Even if the mythical snack was here right now, I would not be able to eat it. It was useless to me.
Trying to move on, I sampled my hot firethorn porridge. It was watery and nothing like the processed deep-fried corn strawberry dusted goodness I craved. Whatever. I left the building and made it to a place where I could use the internet to blog. More time passed than I expected, and it was quickly 2 PM. I was tired, and very hungry. So much for FishFood.
Fortunately, I had tons and tons of walnuts. I had found these one day in the city when I was helping film some extra shots for a Vidangel commercial. You know the one where they blast a family with 3,192 paintballs in five and a half seconds? Yep, that one. Fun fact: my left hand is insufferably pretentious and you can see it getting its long-awaited comeuppance at 0:53 in the commercial. Unfortunately, the left hand also got the upper hand and is now exponentially more famous than the rest of me. Truly, the right hand knoweth not what the left doeth.
Even if the mythical snack was here right now, I would not be able to eat it. It was useless to me.
But I digress. Walnuts, walnuts, walnuts. I must have gathered fifty pound of them in the dusty lot where my hand got its claim to fame.
I brought a bag of this with me on my adventure, chose a nice spot for a picnic, and decided to eat walnuts for the next four hours. While this was happening, I was busy heating up acorn meal with water in nearby microwaves in an attempt to get rid of the pesky chemicals that make raw acorns inedible/have the ability to tan leather.
When I finally stopped eating walnuts, I was tired. Also, despite my constant shelling and chowing it didn’t feel as if I’d eaten anything at all. My stomach punched my diaphragm repeatedly, as if trying to say Hey you up there! Whenever you want you can start sending food down. Don’t hold off on my account, amirite?
Ungrateful loser.Trying to stay positive, I went to go check on the acorns’ progress.
They were still bitter. Hopelessly astringent, consuming them now would only block the nutrient uptake of the things I’d eaten. I tried to drink more water to take the edge off the hunger, so much I felt nauseous and almost gagged.
No. No no no no no no no. I am NOT losing my entire day’s calories for this.
I walked over to a couch and lay down, staring at the ceiling. I had pounds of acorns, but I didn’t know how to make them edible in time. I had walnuts, but they seemed to be costing me more energy than they stubbornly yielded. I had glue berries, but—eurgh, no way. I was surrounded by food but didn’t see how I could get it to sustain me for three more days. There was no abundance here, just the hollow illusion of plenty.
Just then, a lady walked to the microwaves with cups in hand.
“Oh!” I said. “So sorry, I have something in those.”
“In both of them?”
“Yes, sorry, let me move that.” I pulled out the bowl of submerged acorn meal, the water colored brown by the bitter tannic acids. She asked me what I was doing, she looked at me suspiciously, and informed me she was writing a book regarding an LDS perspective on autism. Here it was, in fact. Just proofreading the finished copy over the holidays, you know?
“I take it you know someone with autism personally?”
“Oh no, no. Nothing like that. But I have a system!”
That she did. Also, many pages and a flowchart. Flowcharts are science, right? I hope she accomplishes what she desires with her book.
Bidding her farewell, I added one last round of hot liquid to my acorn meal and glumly walked through the dark to Ashanandra’s house where yesterday’s kefir was culturing. I learned how to make a new batch and decided the result of the previous day looked delicious. But useless, at least until Friday.
The temperature was rapidly dropping into the single digits, and I was hungry and cold. The weather was forecasted to drop down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.7 C) and I was not nutritionally prepared for the experience. I returned to my apartment and ate two slabs of glue berry jelly with mugs of steaming salt water. I microwaved the jelly in the hope that hot glue jelly would be better than cold. It wasn’t.
My roommates MacGyver and Aang were there, though. Aang informed me tonight was his last night in the apartment before he moved his stuff in preparation for basic training. He has been a kind, considerate, and altogether awesome roommate for the last eight months, so we’re definitely going to miss him. Speaking with Aang and MacGyver rallied my spirits. It might be cold, but—no, it would still be cold, but I probably wouldn’t die. Probably. Trying to avoid this outcome, I plunked myself down at the kitchen table and ate walnuts for almost two more hours.
I exited the apartment and headed off to Cloudreach. On the way, I encountered a herd of walking sausages. The deer looked up at me.
Um, excuse me, we don’t know if you noticed but—
Well, the place you call Cloudreach, it’s sort of the place we sleep so we don’t freeze and die.
“Well, you should have sort of thought about that before you became stinking deer!”
Pity. Hmm. Since you feel that way about it—
Movement, in the trees and shrubs all around me. It was fixin’ to become an ambush. They say deer are herbivorous, but since I’ve never seen Them I wasn’t about to start taking their word for it now. This had to end, and fast. Brandishing the third coat I was carrying as a weapon, I whipped the air and stalked forward.
“This mah place now, BOIIIII!” Startled, their pitiful uprising scattered into the bushes from whence it had arisen.
Tonight, at least, Cloudreach would be safe.
Day Five was complete.
Do you agree deer are bent on annihilating humanity? Like and share!
If you don’t know what the heck Urban Forager is about, I recommend you start here.
Hunger is the best seasoning.
—Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth
I need to depart from my usual writing style. At the time I am writing this it is Day 6 and I am behind on things. How does one get behind when you have basically nothing to do except live? One acorn at a time. How do you get on track again? STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS, I CHOOSE YOU!
So last night (beginning of day 4) my roommate MacGyver visited me at Cloudreach. He approved of the location and the tent’s nigh invisibility. It’s like Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows all over again. It’s because I cast a mean Disillusionment charm. Also, Cloudreach, youda best. Before he left my humble abode, MacGyver left me a blanket. This, plus the warmer temperatures and the cold weather bag a friend lent me meant I slept EIGHT HOURS BOOYAH.
It was snowing. There was snow everywhere. There was so much snow that the grounds crew went crazy after pushing snow for hours and decided to bulldoze this poor lady.
I don’t recall eating anything earlier in the day except salty, warm water. You will probs never believe me, but this refreshing, warming beverage is like a one-two punch against hunger. I spent too much time blogging and then I realized it, saying to meself: Oh Noooooes! I need food! Lots! So I dragged out my eighteen pound mortar and pestle I had been lugging around in an old scooter bag, found a deserted seeming place outside, and set to pounding acorns out of their shells. I collected these acorns a year and a half ago, learned to make bread with them—delicious bread—but decided it was too much trouble to make the flour. It routinely takes more than a week. After yesterday’s acorn gruel, I was ready to try a faster process. Alls I had to do was shell the things, which took hours. That, plus pounding the hardened seeds into a coarse meal. I am planning on cooking them to expedite the detoxifying process you need to do before you can eat them.
By then, it was time for family home evening. If you don’t know what this is, it’s a thing we do in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where a family will meet up Monday night, talk about a gospel subject, and then maybe have food or an activity. Since I am not at home, this meant all the people from my ward (congregation) of twenty-something peeps act as a de facto family and argh this is taking forevers to type. FAST FORWARD we are sitting in a room, everyone who was home for the holidays. Everyone was eating sloppy joes, but me? I was eating GLUE BERRY JELLY WHAT NOW WORLD?!? And you know what? It was actually pretty good. Guess I’ve finally acquired dat Taste for da Paste.
I shared some of the glue berry jelly with a friend. Maybe an hour later, she was in the hospital. Deep down, I hope the two aren’t correlated, you know? How awkward would it be on the first day of class to say “Hey, I’m Neil and I indiscriminately poison my friends. Cookie?” Anyways, she didn’t die, I didn’t die, and another friend—Ashanandra—didn’t get sick from the jelly, so it was probably fine. Probably.
After that, I found a new species of glue berry outside the church. Guess what it tasted like?
Glue. It tasted like glue. What did you expect, pumpkin juice?!?
Subsequently I learned how to make kefir from Ashanandra, whose father had generously given me kefir grains to begin making the yogurt-like drink. I didn’t eat any of the kefir we made, though. YOU KNOW WHY.
It’s because I’m doing this thing— no, seriously, if you don’t know by now–sorry, don’t pass Go or collect two hundred dollar menu items. Or thirty-two grilled steak fajitas…
My milk fermenting skills now at an all-time high, I accepted an invitation to play cards with some friends. It was nice to get out of the cold and just hang out.
It was late then, so you know what I did?
I WENT TO SLEEP AT CLOUDREACH.
What did you expect, pumpkin juice?!?
Day Four was complete.
When will the self-imposed masochism end? Like and share!
Don’t know what all this is about? Start from the beginning of the Urban Forager saga here. Also, despite what I said earlier, go eat thirty-two steak fajitas. Do it for yourself. Do it for science. But most importantly, do it for me.
Nothing wears one down quicker or jeopardizes [the camper’s] resistance more than inadequate sleep.
–Bernard S. Mason
The first sensation I became aware of was one of suffocating. Why can’t I breathe? What was on my face?!? Get it off! Get it—there. No, still trapped. I pulled myself out of whatever horrible thing I was stuck in and drew a breath of cold, oxygenated air. Calming down, I tried to figure out what just happened.
Congratulations, said Sarcastic Neil. You just learned how to get out of a sleeping bag.
What the heck, man! I was just panicking because my Jordanian scarf thing I’d tied around my head slipped over my mouth. Also, it wasn’t my fault I was stuck in the mummy bag. I pulled the drawstring tight and couldn’t figure out how to escape because I was confused and disoriented.
Oh sure, sure.
I didn’t respond, and blearily checked the time instead. 2:05 AM.
That means I slept for… two hours. Ugh. No wonder I feel exhausted. And hungry.
So hungry. Since beginning Urban Forager, I had kept track of approximately how many calories I was eating. It was absurdly easy to remember.
Day 1: A handful of berries. 100 calories. Maybe.
Day 2: 350 g of glue berries, 40 g beech nuts, 150 grams of some yet unidentified crabapple thing that apparently isn’t poisonous because I’m not dead. That, my friends, is science.
Accounting for the water weight of the berries, I calculated my two days’ consumption at 1400 calories. To keep a stable weight, I knew I should actually be eating somewhere in the vicinity of 3500 calories every day. More, with the cold. My last meal before beginning Urban Forager was intentionally calorie-rich, but it didn’t take a lifestyle coach to tell me I was very, very behind.
I left Cloudreach to use the bathroom, and when I returned I crouched on the ground outside the tent in a tired haze. I didn’t move for maybe twenty minutes. I was toying with a possibility, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
I was going to quit.
Why should I be out here? I’m famished. Mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. I’m at the brink.
No, no, not yet. Maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly. I needed to rest. I crawled back into the tent and pulled the extra sleeping bag out of the bag I already had. It was too constrictive, cutting off airflow without supplying warmth. Slightly more comfortable, I crawled in to my original bag and tried to sleep.
No luck. After what felt like three hours, I checked the time again. 3:07 AM. Seriously?!? I continued to stare at the flimsy tent wall.
I had expected the hunger. I had expected the cold. I had expected I might not sleep well. What I didn’t expect, however, was the soul-crushing boredom. Normally, if I can’t sleep I will go eat something, read a book, get tired, and go back to bed. No option like that now. Unless I quit. Challenging the wall to yet another staring contest, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” began to play over and over again in my head on repeat. With each successive repetition, the lyrics morphed until T-Swift was the icy embodiment of Winter personified; I was just going to be another tally mark on her list of doomed lovers—another winter-seeking gung-ho adventurer who bit off waaaaay more than he could chew.
So it’s gonna be a week long
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
Seriously, the last two days had been fun, but the gig was up. Besides, what did I have to lose? I could get out of bed and walk home in ten minutes. No one would really care. They might be disappointed for a minute, but then they’d reassure me in soft voices telling me what I had attempted was too hard, too dangerous, and that it would be OK. I considered this, and “Blank Space” began playing again in my head.
You were young, you were reckless
You took this way too far
It’ll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
But I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name.
Seriously, though. Just then, I heard something off in the distance. A cry for help? Eventually deciding I would forever guilt myself if I didn’t go investigate, I grumpily pulled on my warm clothes and resigned myself to the December chill. I trudged along the sidewalk weakly. I called out.
The sound of my voice startled me as it echoed across the silent campus.
“Does someone need help?”
Still no answer.
Then, dark shapes moved in a bush near me. I gasped in surprise.
False alarm. Just deer.
“What the heck! Stupid animals! I hate your faces!”
They stared back, taunting me. Hate us? You wouldn’t if you ate us.
Maybe I could kill them with unbridled rage and malice? Nah, not worth it. Stupid walking sausages.
For nearly an hour I moseyed around, long after I was satisfied no one was in danger. I was just so bored. I considered walking to Utah Lake. It was only six miles. I was just lucid enough to identify this as a stupid idea as I came upon Cloudreach again. I decided to give sleep another shot; I might as well see if I could stick it out until morning.
I awoke at 8:30 AM. Placing coats and the extra sleeping bag in delicious, buttery baklava-like layers over my bag, (Who? me? Hungry?) I had finally felt warm enough to sleep. Just then, nature called. And when nature calls, you PICK UP THE PHONE. I rushed to a nearby building as fast as I dared and tried the door.
One other building nearby, this one open. Thank goodness. Safe.
Crisis averted, I walked back to my apartment. It was Sunday, and that meant church. Today one of my favourite cousins was speaking in church prior to his becoming a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Bogota, Colombia in two days. It was an hour and a half drive away, but I had decided some time ago I would be attending this. I pulled on a rumpled pair of dress pants and a white shirt.
Before I left, I needed food. So badly. Too bad I didn’t have venison. The ghastly animals were my bitter enemies, having consumed nearly half my harvest of acorns—wait!
Acorns. I had acorns. More importantly, I had acorn flour ready to be eaten. It was left over from an acorn-rhubarb crumble I made for a friend a few months ago. Yes, here it was, forgotten in the freezer. Mixing it with some water, I microwaved it until it turned into a hot, lumpy porridge. It was a little nutty, a little greasy, rather bland and one of the best things I have eaten in the last year.
A Miserable Feast
Church was good, except for the part where I drove to the wrong part of the city and missed most of what I had gone to hear. But better late than never, right? Not long after, arrived at my cousin’s house. In honor of the occasion, they had invited some friends and family over to the house to share a delicious meal. I had to take food, to refuse would be impolite. I stood at the table and marveled. Entire trays of beef, ham, and turkey cold cuts lay next to rows of sliced Cheddar, Provolone, Emmental, Havarti. Bags of chips and plates of vegetables abutted a basket of warm pretzel rolls and a bowl of chicken salad. A pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Cookies: oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, double chocolate, and on of my favorite things, white chocolate with macadamia nuts. Over it all loomed a majestic bone-in ham, thick slices of rich meat still steaming from the oven.
Are you hungry yet? Please multiply that times desperation, exhaustion, intense hunger and no sleep.
I almost gave in. It would have been so, so good. I probably would have just called it off then and there had I not taken the time beforehand to pry some walnuts I’d collected out of their shells while sitting in my car. I heaped two plates high with food, wrapped them in plastic, and promised myself I would eat them in a week. On the way out, I encountered forty Lloyds perched in the trees. (Confused? Check out my blog post about egomaniacal ravens here). I crushed some walnuts for them with my car and took it as a good omen.
Two hours later, I walked into my apartment again. I had taken a new road on the way home in the mistaken hope of finding some cattail plants (edible roots, yo.) I was tired and exhausted again, and was looking for some way to honorably bow out of my self-imposed torment. At the very least, I needed to rest. I was drowsy and in no condition to make decisions about my survival. Three of my roommates were home. Seeing their friendly faces was a comfort I cannot overstate. My buddy MacGyver took one glance at me and said “You don’t look so good.” He was right. Hair messy, eyes red, I sunk onto the couch and complained to him for a long, long time. We talked things over a bit and we considered together what was at stake with Urban Forager. It’s amazing what getting out of your own head can do for your sanity. That’s part of the reason we call old friends to call and catch up, I think. Sometimes we just need to look at a different perspective for a bit until we know how better to look at our own.
I didn’t know if I could make the rest of the week, but I decided to try another day. I mashed half of the glue berries I had,mixed them with water, strained out the toxic seeds, and waited.
The internet told me it would turn into a jelly-like substance, and fortunately it wasn’t lying. The resulting paste tasted much better than the berries themselves. It was not unlike thick applesauce. After shelling and eating more foraged walnuts, I was about ready to go when a mountaineering friend came in and offered me his -20 degree sleeping bag. I accepted.
The bag was incredible. Besides being warm, it was long enough for my body. No more constricted head! As I drifted off, it was as if an angelic choir were slowly singing me to sleep. Just then, a chilly gust of air tousled the tent.
I’ve got a blank space, baby. And I’ll write your name.
Is Blank Space your jam? Have you ever been in a bad relationship with a hobby of yours? Like and share!
Not sure what the heck is going on? Start from the beginning of Urban Forager here.
After a night of fitful sleep I eventually crawled out of my tent at 9:30 AM, seeing no real reason to leave it before that. After a quick bathroom trip–the “real reason” for my eventual exit–I headed off in search of food. On my way, I walked by the Marriott Center and found tents set up by people who had spent the night outside to get good seats for the night’s basketball game. Seriously? Sleeping outside in the winter?
My stomach growled. The only thing I had eaten since the beginning of Day 1 was a small handful of berries. Wasting no more time, I headed off to the best source of food of which I was aware: hawthorn trees. The berries were plentiful, so I anticipated they would be my primary food source for the next few days. Collecting the dratted things took longer than I expected, two hours or so. Even my technique of knocking them down and stopping them from rolling with a line of snow was not terribly effective, since I still had to pick them up one by one. I eventually had the idea to use a Tupperware lid to scrape them together–but by then I’d almost finished anyways.
As I picked the berries, I tried to figure out what exactly I was wanted out of this adventure. A friend I spoke to felt that if I were to be doing this “correctly”, I should probably be collecting my own water from a river, never setting foot in buildings, and tending a fire somewhere. Certainly, this purist mentality appealed to me, but was it what I actually wanted? If I were in the mountains somewhere, I could make an Official Camp, build a lean-to, and have a sweet fire always going. As I am on university land, though, I feel this approach to self-sufficiency in a quad somewhere would be actively discouraged by The Man.
I considered my motives prior to beginning Urban Forager. Was this crazy idea of mine a feat of just surviving in the wild? No, not really. I mean, it is urban foraging. I know enough about myself to know I’m no Survivorman, nor do I aspire to be on the next season of Naked And Afraid. I’ve already said I don’t fancy myself as a bona fide hunter gatherer.
On that note, what is it that makes a hunter gatherer successful in their chosen environment? After thinking about it for a while, I’ve decided it’s a combination of knowing their surroundings intimately, recognizing available resources, and making effective use of those resources–whether they be food, water, or shelter.
Urban Forager, then, is not about surviving independently of all humanity. It’s about figuring out what I’ve got here on campus and using it to my advantage. If I find an open building in the daytime, I’ll use it. If I find water, I’ll use it. And if I need to cook something, that most valuable discovery of the nuclear age–the microwave–is something I have always been planning on using.
Thus, I am seeking to live an odd hybridization of forager, student, and hobo philosophies.
My original two rules remain unchanged: Eat only food I have personally foraged, and don’t die. I have also decided I will only spend my sleepless nights at Cloudreach.
If you find this clarified vision of Urban Forager disappointing, I’m sorry, you can stop reading now. If you would like to hear about Glue Berries, though, keep reading and PARTY ON, DUDES!
After gathering a few pounds of berries I trudged to a nearby athletic building. I didn’t know if it was open. I really hoped it was: I could no longer feel my toes. The glass door was darkened. I tried the door–success! I filled up on some water and located a microwave near some vending machines. The warm liquid restored heat to my body and gave me hope that I Would Probably Not Die.
I found a sunny spot in the building and sprawled out. I bit into a hawthorn berry. The taste was pleasant, almost like a strawberry. The texture was less enjoyable. It was dry, stickyish, and sort of gluey. In fact, it was nearly the same texture and consistency of school paste. You know what I’m talking about. In second grade, you would see great tubs of it in the art supply closet, labels yellowed with age. Close your eyes and remember for a moment.
“How long have those been there?”
“Well, ever since… ever since I can remember. And I’ve been teaching here since 1952.”
“Are they food?”
“Good heavens, no! Child, what on earth would give you that idea?”
“Well, Amanda’s eating some and she won’t share.”
“Silly, we can both see doesn’t have any. She’s just working on her math assignment. Don’t tease your peers, dear.”
“She keeps it in her desk.”
(Teacher walks slowly over to the desk)
“Why, I never– AMANDA!!!”
Yessir, what I now had in my possession was a copious amount of nature’s finest glue. Unfortunately, it was also all I had to eat. I’m rather proud of my ability to override my gag reflex, but I managed to choke down a mere 350 grams of the stuff before my brain and stomach cried for mercy. If only I’d developed a greater appetite for paste as a child.
I slowly gathered my possessions and wandered off to a spot in a different building where I could recharge my phone and camera, as well as write about Day One. On the way there, I ran into a friend who I’d met in Ecuador. I talked to she and her husband for a bit and they tried some of the glue berries (“Definitely like paste”) and then her husband offered to lend me his Leatherman for the week. A definite upgrade from the kitchen knife I’d been cramming in my backpack, I immediately accepted. It’s been really useful so far.
The building closed not long after, and I returned to the athletic building to shower in preparation for Sunday.
Locker rooms disgust me, but I smelled like a yak that had just wrestled with a tauntaun. There was no socially acceptable alternative. The shower booth I wanted to use stayed frigid, so I had to shower at one of the disgusting and weird pillar things in the main shower area. I hate those so much. Probably the thing I dislike most about locker rooms is the whole “hey, let’s stop wearing clothes!” aesthetic. Really, people? No, I can’t just get over it. Yes, I will wear my swimsuit until the bitter end. I didn’t have mine with me today. Anyways, all of this is probably TMI, so suffice it to say even though the building was mostly abandoned I felt as though I were showering in the middle of Trafalgar Square.
I dried out my socks and boots with the hand driers, heated up some water, and headed outside again. I was hungry again, but I couldn’t bear the thought of more raw glue berries. Trying to be resourceful, I wrapped two packages of berries in ALUMINUM FOOOOIILLL,
stuck one package on a light and wrapped the other one around a steaming pipe.
Maybe it would slow-cook them and they would magically not be gross anymore. Leaving those to stew, I dug through the contents of my backpack and to my delight found something I did want to eat: a bag of beech nuts I’d gathered sometime during fall semester and forgotten. Inexplicably, the bag also contained a broken yellow crayon.
For the next hour and a half I simply ate the nuts. They were small (two or three times larger than a sunflower seed) and a little difficult to separate from their triangular shells. The process sped up after I learned I could partially smash them with a Nalgene bottle. It still took a while, but it was worth it. Every seed tasted of sweet calories and I found myself looking for small fragments I’d missed of the pecan-like treat.
It was time to head back to Cloudreach. Bringing an additional coat and a sleeping bag my roommate forgot when he moved out (don’t worry, Roommate. I’ll return it to you… eventually) I crawled into my tent at midnight, placed my newly acquired bag inside the mummy bag I’d rented, struggled to get comfortable, and eventually fell asleep.
Day Two was complete.
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My day had not started as smoothly as I’d hoped. When I arrived at the outdoor gear rental for a university close to my parent’s house, I was already worried. People were open the day after Christmas, right? I’d called the night before, but there was nothing to indicate they wouldn’t be open today on December 26th. They hadn’t answered the phones, however, and as I walked up to the red brick structure and saw the darkened windows, I knew something was wrong. I read the paper sign taped to the inside of the glass door.
“We will be CLOSED from December 25th to December 28th!” it proclaimed cheerfully.
Dagnabit. What am I going to sleep in now!?! No four-season tent. No bivy sack. No sleeping bag designed to make life survivable in freakishly cold (read: below room temperature) conditions.
Further digging on the internet yielded basically no other rental options, except for a mountaineering supply company in Utah Valley. The tent rentals there were expensive but it seemed like a great way to make sure I adhered to Rule 1: Don’t die.
I cooked a huge meal to kick off the week. I didn’t know what food I could find before the night set in, so my last Civilised Meal consisted of two enormous breakfast burritos and a clamshell package of raspberries. I finished with the dishes, took out the trash, grabbed a bunch of helpful-looking things from the house, jumped into my car, and headed south.
So it begins.
An hour later, a stop at Cabelas informed me they didn’t rent gear, but I disovered they did have huge tanks of trout and salmon I already wished I was eating instead of ogling. A few more minutes down the road was the mountaineering shop. The lights were off, but the door was open. In the dim twilight conditions a dark-haired man slowly adjusted an ice axe. “Hey, so you guys rent tents, right?”
“Nope,” he said gruffly.
“But it says on your website…”
His only response was to shrug indifferently.
“But sleeping bags–you do rent those, don’t you?”
A visit to another winter gear store down the way discovered they did in fact have rentals.
“So, you don’t have anything?”
“Not right now, sorry. Come back in April!”
“I’ll be dead by then…” I muttered to myself as I strolled towards the doors.
A kindly guy with a sweet beard approached me before I had a chance to leave.
“Dude, you’re trying to rent a sleeping bag? Try Out N Back, down the way.”
Not knowing what else to do, I listened to his advice and rolled on over. I found plenty of cold weather bags and tents, but no indication they rented everyone. Resigned to basically die of hypothermia, I approached the desk half-heartedly.
“You don’t… do you rent tents and sleeping bags?”
“Yes, we do! What would you like?”
The sun had already set when I found the place I was going to sleep. A quick stop by my apartment to grab a few crucial pieces of equipment (like the GoPro I was using to document this misadventure), and I was attempting to set up a tent in the dark. Struggling to set up the infernal device, I became uneasy about my location. Sure, it had seemed ideal, but I felt the risk of discovery was too high. I dragged my things to an alternative spot I’d discovered at the very end of my earlier scouting expedition. Satisfied, I crawled inside into the warmth of my mummy bag in the shelter of the place I named Cloudreach.
At 5: 39 AM, I awoke shivering. A check on the weather forecast would later reveal the temperature outside had sunken to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. My tent blocked a little wind, but as a three season tent there was only so much it could do. I was also hungry. In my urgency to get my shelter up the night before, I had only eaten a handful of berries.
I complained to my GoPro and noticed the inside of the tent was covered in frost. My sleeping bag was decently warm, but apparently I fit the Too Tall for Manufactured Goods category, because I couldn’t tighten the face area of the bag without it constricting my head instead. My two-person tent, I concluded, was probably made for one person, who happened to be a child. A short child. I almost filled the thing when I stretched out head to toe. Curling up, however, didn’t do much good. when I curled up, it stretched the bag tight and the compressed featherdown fill insulated much less effectively. Fortunately I’d brought an extra coat and a Jordanian kaffiyah. Putting these on, I eventually sank back into a fitful sleep.
Some time later, I heard the chiming of the campus belltower off in the distance. Nine chimes. Nine o’clock. I opened my eyes, and light streamed into the tent.
I had survived Day One.
Don’t know why I’m doing this? Check out my rationale in my first Urban Forager post here.
During the next seven days, I will be attempting to survive in the wilds in and around my college campus by eating exclusively whatever I can gather and forage. I don’t mean dumpster-diving. I mean roots, berries, fruit, very small rocks—you name it. Want to know if I make it or not? I will be posting daily updates of my adventures here on Wilderness of the Mind.
I’ve come up with some basic rules for myself:
- Don’t die. If I’m not up to the task and it appears my health may be at risk, I will cease my experiment.
- Foraged foods only. Pretty self-explanatory. It is OK if I gathered these prior to commencement of the Week, as I figure any actual hunter-gatherer would not have just wandered into winter without preparing. That would be kind of dumb. This food, however, must be foraged. I’m making an allowance for some sea salt for electrolyte replenishment (See Rule 1).
That’s really it. As I am very interested in actually pulling this off, I am holding off on making too many rules at present since I’m oddly anxious to not break Rule #1. That being said, I hope to sleep outside. As I’ve never really been winter camping, I’m hoping the learning curve isn’t too steep.
I will be filming some of my exploits and vlogging it in a couple of weeks, but my initial record-keeping will be right here.
Want to visit, gather food, or do lunch? Please, come on over! Don’t worry, I won’t be offended if you bring your own food. Just don’t be disappointed when I keep to what I’ve gathered.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Why are you doing this?
Can I be resourceful enough to survive on my own in the city environment in which I spend almost all my time? Do I know enough about plants to feed myself? Is there actually ample leisure time in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Imma figure all this out, but what it boils down to is I’m doing this because I want to. Also, science. For science.
How long have you been planning this?
Since 2008. More on that later.
Why are you doing this in the winter?
I don’t have school right now, nor do I have work I’m obligated to perform. Admittedly, I am not thrilled about the beastly snowstorm that just rumbled through or the temperatures that are forecasted to drop down to 0 degrees by early next week. Yay.
Are you wearing clothes?
For warmth and for the good of humanity, yes.
Where will you sleep?
Necessity is the mother of invention, so you might say I’m feeling a little maternal right now.
A backyard somewhere? Your backyard? I mean, hopefully not—but make sure your dog is well-fed, just in case.
Do you need a place to sleep?
You aren’t spending time with us during the holidays. Do you hate us?
No, I do not hate you.
Are you leaving us?
No, Chancho. I would never leave you. I just need to borrow some sweats.
What will you eat?
I’m planning on making good use of previous research I’ve done to find the food I need.
Do you need me to bring you food?
No. That would defeat the entire purpose of the experiment.
Are you going to die?
Can I have your Tamagotchi when you are dead?
No, I’m not dead yet. Also, Leroy died years ago—too much candy. His little circuits just couldn’t take it. I’m sorry you had to find out like this.
Start reading Day 1 of Urban Forager here.
Note: This adventure is not meant to be confused with genuine homelessness, nor it is meant to trivialize, belittle, or mock any individual who has currently or historically fallen on hard times. Nor do I actually fancy myself a bona fide hunter-gatherer. They’re exponentially more legit. I’m just a kid from the ‘burbs trying to mix it up a bit.
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I nervously set down another piece of bread on the pedestrian overpass, trying to not look directly at the raven perched at eye level in the pine tree nearby.
“CAW! CAW! CAW!”
Another raven flitted down to join it and added its voice to the clamor.
I learned earlier this year ravens and crows have the ability to distinguish and remember human faces, even after months or even years have passed. It helps them differentiate friendly, dangerous, or unknown individuals. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
You’re smart, right? You learned the alphabet. You know what your favorite celebrity (Bill Nye) wore to work every day for the last thirty years (it’s a magnificent array of bowties, in case you forgot). You remembered to put your milk away after only a couple of hours. You’ve got this, right? Not so fast.
Here is a picture of a raven. Please answer the question about arguably the world’s most famous raven, freshly plucked from its perch on its Wikipedia page.
Curious to know the answer?
It is not Harold. It is not Larry. It sure as beans isn’t Shaniqua. That name was banned in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. This raven has a name, too.
You’re all wrong. Please don’t get upset–this is one of thems lurning opurrtunateez. You’re not a raven, and so I hardly could have expected you to know something every raven instinctively knows:
This raven is named Lloyd. In fact, all ravens are named Lloyd, regardless of gender. Every last one.
Each Lloyd grows up knowing this from the time she or he is a chick. They also notice pretty quickly that every other Lloyd looks and sounds almost exactly the same as them. Therefore, they learn to remember the little differences to help them keep track of who’s who–Lloyd dat got dem 90’s frosted feathertips, (friendly), Lloyd that speaks Spanish(neutral), Lloyd that ain’t got no bath since ’82 (menace to corvid society). With their impressive mind for details, telling the difference between
is no big deal.
I wanted to see where I stood with these jet-black beings, so when I spotted some on my way to school, I hurried and dug some bread out of my bag to get their attention, a classic tactic to get attention from ducks, seagulls, and babies in stores.
I placed a couple hunks out in front of me and waited for their avian adoration.
Nothing. Then, “Caw!”
Before long four or five ravens had gathered, making a cacaphonous racket. They didn’t sound happy to see me. In fact, they seemed to be growing more agitated by the second, hopping from branch to branch in anger. But why would they–
Then I remembered.
Someone once told me it’s important to find new pursuits as we get older. I interpreted this to mean chasing animals I find around campus. This usually means quail, ducks, or–on particularly exciting occasions–herds of stinkin’ deer. Deer smell awful. Why anyone would chase a deer given their considerable stench is an important conversation but best addressed another time.
On one of these occasions I encountered a raven. Without thinking about it I dropped my bag and sprinted after my jet-black quarry, chasing the protesting bird from tree to tree. I never caught up, but I chased the thing over at least one hill before it finally went all stratospheric on me and glided out of sight.
Months later, my past had caught up to me. Lloyd and I had apparently met again, face-to-face. He wasn’t happy about it. Lloyd imperiously regarded my pitiful offering of bread, the sun’s first amber rays revealing it for the heap of stale crumbs it really was.
“Caw. CAW! CAAAAAAAW!”
The chorus of assembled Lloyds filled my ears with harsh cries.
I’d wanted to get in to the Raven Club, inexplicably craving their approval, but it was too late. My confusion gave way as I looked at Lloyd directly in the eyes, in that moment I understood. “CAAAAAAAAW!”
Quoth the Raven,