Yesterday I got back from Squad School; today I’m a lot cleaner and covered in calamine lotion. Tomorrow I go back to work. I think Squad School was transformative, but I haven’t quite figured out how. I just know that I see things differently now.
I thought a lot about death while I was out in the woods last week, but then I always think a lot about death. (I wrote a book about it, so …) Of course, the human body is what it is, so the underlying causes of death are the same wherever you are, in the city or in the middle of the woods in a lightning storm huddling under a pile of sticks with a couple of strangers. Some of the main things that can kill you are trauma, wounds, heat, cold, dehydration, starvation, or disease, and those are basically the same wherever you are. But when you’re out in the woods, there’s another possible cause of your death, and that’s bewilderment.
Bewilder, meaning to wilder; wilder, an old word meaning to take someone out in the woods and get them thoroughly lost. Why? Because when you’re lost, and the world is strange, and it stops coinciding with the world you know and the reality you’ve constructed in your head to get through your day-to-day existence, then you see things differently. Literally. Being wildered can cause hallucinations, to the point where some cultures use it ceremonially: You’re taken out of your reality, and you come back different, you’re reborn.
In the book Deep Survival (which I’ve written about before), Laurence Gonzales tells the story of Fireman Ken, a well-equipped, experienced wilderness camper who starts off on a hike to a lake with a friend, and becomes bewildered, and is reduced to a lost, cold, hungry, dehydrated, seriously injured mess in about 48 hours. Scientists and Experts have found that 75% of the people who die when they get lost are dead within the first 48 hours, usually from hypothermia. (You can live weeks without food, days without water, but only hours without heat.) It was kind of a miracle that Fireman Ken did not die by then, but he did not; eventually, he passed through the Five Stages of Lost Person Behavior, which are very similar to the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief except that you don’t die at the end, you live. After five days of bewilderment, Fireman Ken was found alive and rescued, beating the odds: After four days, only 49% of bewildered people are found alive.
Although I was not bewildered by Squad School, there was never a single moment when I was not outside my comfort zone. Everything about it was hard for me. Even so, I believed that nothing very bad could happen: I trusted my friend KDan and the Squad School staff to keep me safe, or at least safe-ish. Plus, as an Old, I had checked in with my doctor before heading off to the woods, and he had said it should be okay. I still don’t think he actually understood what I was going to be doing, but if he had, he might not have let me do it, so really everything worked out fine.
Also, in my capacity as a Famous Death Expert Comic Book DJ, I know that statistically the most likely people to survive being lost in the woods are children less than 6 years old and inexperienced female hikers—and I am female and about as inexperienced as you can get, so therefore: Safer! Maybe. Also, Squad School is a going concern, an actual school (next session Oct. 10–14), and they weren’t trying to harm me, they were trying to teach me how to survive. They did that, and they did it very well. The instructors were among the best teachers I’ve ever had anywhere (including the fancy college I went to), and I learned a whole lot of new skills. I also learned that “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” is no longer just a punchline for me. Survival is all about accepting the reality you find yourself in, and I’m learning to accept my physical limitations. I’ve also learned that I have a giant, iron-clad will to survive, no matter what. I trust my determination, and the skills I learned at Squad School, will be enough to keep me going when the Bad Thing happens.