REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PRIMITIVECODY LUNDIN CAN SHOW YOU WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO BE ABLE TO CATCH A FISH BAREHANDED
Cody Lundin, Primitive Guy, is ready to go. He is wearing no shoes in the parking lot of a Safeway store outside Prescott. This is a common thing for him, this not wearing shoes. He does not wear them at home, he does not wear them when he drives, he does not wear them in frenetic classroom lectures about traveling survival kits. He does not wear them now, on a warm Saturday morning in June, in the parking lot where backpacking gear for a few hikers lays in a jumble next to his Jeep.
Three people--a 22-year-old Prescott College student, two tekkies from TRW in Mesa--have signed up for a weekend course Lundin (pronounced lun-DEEN) teaches called "The Provident Primitive." They cram themselves and their gear into the Jeep. It is a 20-minute drive to the site where they will begin hiking into a canyon overlooking the upper Verde River.
According to Lundin's brochure, "The Provident Primitive" picks up a few thousand years from where another of his courses, "The Essential Abo," leaves off. This adventure includes, for example, advanced fire making and trap setting for small animals, such as pack rats.
Five years ago, in a resourceful--one might say desperate--bid at self-support, Lundin started his own business, teaching what he calls aboriginal ("abo") living skills, "stuff we need to exist that people have totally forgot." He himself had not forgotten a whole lot of it, having been through hard times ever since his early teens. He has lived on the streets, in a commune, in a VW bus. He has lived in California.
Lundin started on the road to abo-teaching by literally starting on the road. He collected road kill, using bones and feathers to make pretty stuff he could sell. He was barely getting by. Then it dawned on him that he could possibly make a living by teaching others the fundamentals of doing the same, but in a more anthropological context.
That focus separates his from more well-known outdoors courses such as the camping-skills-oriented National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming, or the self-realization-based endurance fests of Outward Bound.
At the same time, it puts his in the company of an increasing number of other, lesser-known wilderness courses that embrace the concept of primitive living. The most established of the bunch is the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, or BOSS, which operates out of Flagstaff and has been leading cave-based forays in southern Utah since 1979. Other primitive hopefuls head for Reevis Mountain School, in the Superstitions east of Phoenix, or to the mountains of Vermont, where the Hardt School of Wilderness and Survival has been teaching skills like shelter construction, water purification and cordage weaving since 1988.
The great outdoors calls to people in various ways, and turning into a temporary wild thing can run you more than a few clams, depending on how long you're willing to go without a hot shower.
But Lundin may be the only aboriginal skills guru who can actually speak from real-life primitive experience. The underlying sincerity he conveys is surpassed only by his unabashed moments as a wacky primitive guy. He splits his time with duty as an adjunct instructor at Yavapai College and at his alma mater, Prescott College, where some have said, to his pigtailed face, that they consider his teachings to be out there on the fringes. At Prescott College! This is the same school where, as a student, Lundin double-majored in holistic health and Jungian-depth psychology.
Now, he offers several workshops on survival kits, but that stuff is Frontier Living Lite, the watered-down version of everything he knows. If the info comes in handy someday, maybe saves a life or something, then all the better. He uses those opportunities to make a point, though: It is one thing to have a few items to tide you over until the cavalry arrives and yet another to be able to actually live out there in the wild.
He knows, because he's done it. Much of it was not fun. He comes across not as someone with an excellent seat on the primitive bandwagon but as someone who feels extremely lucky to be where he is, as if past misfortunes could return at any moment. This is, despite his general wackiness and penchant for slogans, what gives him credibility. It is the impenetrable enthusiasm you sometimes see in a person who has been given a second chance at life.
Lundin hears a lot of these wilderness types romanticize this "living off the land" crap, the lifestyle of the noble American Indian, and he'll tell you one reason elders were so respected in those cultures--because there were so darn few of them. He gets passionate about this sort of thing, as if it were a personal matter. Do you get it? Primitive living is not survival. Primitive peoples had it rough, but they didn't survive. They lived out there.
His overnight aboriginal workshops teach skills that, he says, derive from all cultures. He purposely uses no Native American symbolism, to avoid the stereotype. His workshops have hip names like "Staying Alive" and, of course, "The Ultimate Abo," the seminar that, as his flier puts it, separates the Neanderthals from the yuppies for the modern-day bargain price of $105. For the hard-core, he does a monthlong course through Prescott College that has driven the occasional primitive wanna-be to tears.
The students he takes out into the wilderness learn, in various sessions, to make their own gourd canteens, fiber sleeping mats and stone knives. They learn to recognize edible plants and create fire. Beyond the practical skills involved, though, Lundin wants them to learn a couple of other things in their short time away from the comforts of home--that they shouldn't take those comforts for granted, and that the world around them can be a generous but fragile thing.
Lundin is 28, an Air Force brat who grew up in houses from Oklahoma to Germany. His family finally settled down in Laramie, Wyoming, as he headed into his junior high and high school years, but by then he was already on a rocky road to trouble.
Rough times followed. Unfortunately, he was forced to scrounge. Fortunately, he mastered the craft. Now, other than having the strong-bellied gut of a reformed keg partyer, he is fit and healthy, with the toned, thin legs of a Roman consul. Most important, he is at peace with himself and his life, a man of stark economy who courted his girlfriend of four years with a slightly tattered bouquet harvested from a Dumpster.
He is broad-chested, a soft-eyed Generation Xer, spunky and mischievous, a guy who counts Wayne's World among his favorite films. He wears a baby-blue cap set backward, a tiny nose ring in his left nostril. Long braids dangle to his waist on either side.
Lundin's parents divorced and he doesn't keep much in touch with his father, who's in northern California. "I've really screwed up with my dad," he says. His mom, a Yavapai County Sheriff's Department search-and-rescue team member in Prescott, is just happy to see him doing something he enjoys. "She says if more people knew these skills, they wouldn't be calling her team out for help," Lundin says.
"Having lived out of my car and on the streets, I have a completely honed personality for survival skills," he says. "I lived in a wickiup for two years of college. I did all this stuff. I've eaten out of Dumpsters. I know I have an edge over some people. You can see that edge in some homeless people. They can't phone Dad."
He has gone from certified Dumpster Diver to funky Primitive Guy. He lives simply, on a diet of mostly bagels and water, with an occasional can of tuna thrown in for low-fat protein.
"I think Cody is pretty much no-nonsense," says Dave Ganci, who has written a book on desert survival and now teaches those skills at Yavapai College. Lundin was his student three years ago and considers Ganci his mentor. They think of each other as father and son.
"He's not into all this Indian, back-to-nature BS," Ganci says. "We all have that ability to adapt to the environment because all our ancestors did."
And talk about irony: The Yavapai Tribe in Prescott is among Lundin's clients. The tribe pays him to take Yavapai kids out into the wild and teach them where they came from.
Lundin catches a lot of flak, mostly indirectly, from people who consider his classes to be way out in orbit, from others who think he's out there plundering natural habitats.
"They haven't been exposed to my class," he says. The ridicule is funny to him, but also a little sad. "They don't understand. We're so divorced from the little things in life that keep us alive that we take them for granted. People should at least be trained in these skills."
His style is raw, outrageous, up close and personal. In his $10 classroom lectures on survival kits, he is, naturally, shoeless, and he makes no secret of his fascination with fire. He preaches the virtues of utility and will not hesitate to demonstrate the usefulness of his knife, which hangs in a sheath around his neck, by shaving his leg in front of the class.
Quips drop from his lips in a steady rain:
"On the eighth day, God created Baggies."
"If you do not think about the situation you're in, see ya."
"Survival situations are like a box of chocolates."
"Now that I have a girlfriend, I no longer live in the woods."
Which is true. He and Katherine Minott, an English instructor at both Yavapai and Prescott colleges, now live in a house in tiny Granite Dells, a Prescott offshoot. She's gotten used to finding road kill in the freezer.
"I was intrigued and disgusted," Minott says of her first impressions of Lundin, who had been conducting fire-starting workshops in the Prescott College gymnasium. "I thought, 'Who is this weird guy, going barefoot in the gym?' But he seemed real grounded, earthbound. He had this grace about him."
What they shared was an environmental philosophy common to many of the school's students.
But moving from a wickiup to a house in Granite Dells wasn't easy for a guy who'd learned to go without for so long.
Minott had to badger him into using a pillow, something he believed would put his body on the road to wimpdom. "I didn't want to miss it if I didn't have it later," Lundin says. It is the way he lives. It is why, for example, he wears no shoes.
The raggedy Jeep shudders on rocky back roads, low gear jolts through clumps of shaggy bush juniper. "They're edible, just like the books say," Lundin tells the backpackers, "but I think they suck." A lone cow stares dumbly from the shade of one of the squat trees.
"There's the native slow elk," he says.
"Check out that rack," says Sheldon Oien, a 35-year-old TRW engineer, referring to the munching beast's stumpy horns. Oien, who used to do a lot of backpacking before life gave him a wife and kids, saw Lundin's brochure at a Tempe outdoor-goods store not long ago and said to himself, "That's for me."
"Yeah, mount that sucker," says TRW buddy Dan Bush, who is 28 and Oien's subordinate at TRW.
Lundin curls the Jeep into a clearing off the road, which has virtually disappeared into brush. Heat has begun to set in, on the way to 90 degrees. Lundin gets serious, slipping his feet into rickety sandals for the hike, laying out the accessories he has brought along for all--large, single-edged bolo knives, foot-long files, minihacksaws, gourds grown by a guy in Utah.
On this weekender, Lundin lets participants bring their own gorp, cheese 'n' crackers, sleeping bags, whatever. The point is to learn a few basic skills. Other trips are more harsh, allowing only gear made in previous sessions like this one.
Far away from anything, the breezes blow freely, and there is no sound but bird-chirping, the rustling and jostling of backpacks, the crunch of rocks underfoot.
The path starts to slope down into the canyon. Lundin stops and picks at a short, bushy shrub bearing red berries the size of pearls--squawberries, he says. Here, have a few. They're tangy, pleasant jolts of sweetness--Lundin calls them nature's SweeTarts--with a marble of a seed inside. The bushes grow straight like a willow and were used by native peoples because "they make really killer basketry material."
"That's one of the reasons they call it squawbush," Lundin says. "It was a derogatory term, because the native women used them a lot to make baskets. But it's a pretty neat plant, kind of a little pick-me-up. You don't often find something in the woods like that, that everlasting gobstopper type of candy."
Down, down. The trail thins out along rocky ledges, urges the group through stubborn, prickly bushes and finally spills out onto a verdant riparian creek bed. The creek is a belt of green winding along the bland desert terrain of the canyon; nearby marshes teem with bullfrogs and dragonflies.
Further downstream, the creek is a light breakfast buffet. The weekend includes a 90-minute sampling of various edible plants, a knee-deep salad of veronica, watercress, mint and the king of the edibles, the reedy cattail. Oien will take meticulous notes.
Also on the agenda: Cody Lundin, Primitive Guy, will attempt to catch a fish using nothing but his bare hands.
But all that is still off in the future. Feet pound through the dust in a silent trek toward a destination known only to Lundin. Far removed from the groping fingers of civilization.
Apparently not far enough: Down a sloping trail run, an Icee cup lies thrashed in the dirt.
Nobody's signing up for Lundin's courses to advance the species. Making fire without matches isn't going to get you that assistant manager's position at the office or pay the cable bill. Lundin's students generally want to become more self-sufficient, to be able to pack lighter.
But along with the skills, he advocates a way of thinking, both primitive and future-minded, a leave-no-trace philosophy that espouses responsibility to one's environment. That focus is unlike the sometimes militaristic mentality taught in some of these "survival" courses, which emphasize getting out of the situation at all costs--and if you have to eat the last blue-beaked heron on Earth, so be it.
Lundin looks at the cup for a second. "See the BB holes?" he asks. He sounds like a parent who's gotten one too many calls from the principal's office about a troublesome kid.
"Very classy. I'll take care of that on the way back."
About two and a half miles into the canyon, whose walls now rise 300 feet on either side, Lundin has the backpackers throw down their stuff on a lumpy patch of dirt and sand under a big velvet ash. This is home for the next day and a half. Clumps of wayward brush housing a snake or two embrace the ash's trunk, brought there by winter waters that have sprinkled giant wood croutons all over the place. The creek breathes just behind an adjacent stretch of trees and weeds.
The group sits campfire-style on the dirt, legs crossed, fingers kneading random blades of stray grass. The Primitive Guy explains what is to come.
We'll be cutting branches, he says once introductions are complete. We'll be using wood, maybe eating fish or whatever. But remember, he says, there's a hole in the Earth somewhere because of those backpacks you carried in. Out here, you'll be directly responsible for your impact on the environment.
Oien, the bespectacled TRW engineer who spends most of his days working with air bags inanimate and otherwise, is just happy to be out of the office. He's read books, but, of course, there's nothing like being out in the field. "I always wanted to go on something like this," he says in a voice as deep as the canyon.
His camouflage-pantsed co-worker, Dan Bush, says, "I'm the gopher. Sheldon tells me what to do. He talked me into going on this trip." Bush has the all-American looks of Steve Garvey and a tee shirt reading "No Fear." He figures he'll teach whatever he learns to his kid.
Kathy Bartholemew, on the other hand, is checking out career choices. She's studying psychology at Prescott College and says desks and offices aren't her scene, so she's considering mixing outdoor skills with youth counseling.
Lundin nods. "I sure didn't plan this," he says. "Like, 'Mommy, when I grow up, I want to teach primitive skills.' But I think it's valuable. It allows people to get back in time a little bit and find out who their ancestors were. It's still a common denominator."
And so, no Indian symbolism. The illustrations on his fliers come from ancient cultures in France and Italy. Lundin really dug the recent discovery of Iceman, the 5,000-year-old frozen body in the Alps.
"He was our heritage," he says, obviously forgetting the Flintstones. "And I'm glad. Usually, you know, it's the Native American, or the black. Now we have a white abo.
"A lot of common sense we've totally forgotten because we can run to town and just get a sandwich or have a little man in a blue truck deliver our water. All these things are held together by threads, and they can be cut. And if they're not cut, at least you'll have the peace of mind of knowing that, 'Well, I can do these things.'"
The projects start with crafting water containers out of the gourds he's distributed. The process involves sawing through the gourd at the neck, cleaning out the papery pith inside and then the slimy, meatier stuff deeper in. After swirling the insides first with gravel and then sandy creek water to smooth out the interior walls, it's time to look for a chunk of wood to chisel out a cork, then spin some jute cord around the whole thing for utility and ornamentation.
It takes maybe a couple of hours. That's one thing primitive people had in abundance--time. They could have waited in line at the post office all day long. They had no Day Runners full of appointments to keep, no ringing phones or beeping pagers, no film at 11. Of course, they had no air conditioning, electric stoves or $200,000 homes, either.
Midday passes into afternoon with the scratch of saw blades slicing through gourds, the scrape of knives prying away pith, the swish of gravel swirling inside. The 90-degree heat brings an onslaught of gnats and mosquitoes capable of raising welts that won't vanish for weeks.
"Primitive technology," Lundin proclaims as Bush negotiates twine around his budding canteen. When you work with natural materials, you learn their properties. A plant's potential for cordage, whatever. Check out this horsetail--it's great for scouring. Try some on your thumbnail.
But the students have begun to wonder how primitive this process is. What if they hadn't packed in gourds and water-purifying iodine? What if they were actually living somewhere in the wilderness? What then, Primitive Guy?
Basically, Lundin says, the backpackers would be about where they are now--which is up a creek--but they would not have even a proverbial paddle. Without gourds, they would probably have to burn out a wooden vessel for carrying water.
Of course, animal bladders could become canteens--but first they would have to catch an animal. And they'd probably want to cook it.
For that, they'd need fire.
If they didn't have iodine, they'd have to boil water. For that, though, they'd need a container.
And then they'd need fire.
Speaking of fire, it's about that time. Lundin is going to demonstrate the drill-hearth method, which he calls the master's program of natural fire making. (The bachelor's degree is the Boy Scout trick of rubbing two sticks together.) The drill-hearth method involves twisting the tip of a thin, carved wood rod, a sort of miniature pool cue, furiously into a second, thicker piece of wood, cut longways into a wafer.
The friction creates a hot powder, like the embers of a cigarette, that collects in a little notch cut into the wafer. Lundin's got it down to where he can produce smoldering dust in about 30 seconds. Think of fire as heat, he says, and not flame. See, the powder is heat, which you can then dump into a nest of tinder scavenged from the bark of surrounding trees. If you've done it right, and added some well-timed blowing, you've got your primitive self a blaze.
"Let's burn something," Primitive Guy says. "I don't feel like a man unless I'm burning something."
He's got some yucca-wood drills and hearths already made that would do the trick, but whaddaya think, we're in a K mart parking lot here or something? He waits behind while the others scurry off in a quest for fire implements.
The muggy afternoon wears on past five o'clock. Oien returns with a couple of potential drills. Lundin takes a look at one of them. As Wayne and Garth might say, it schwings. Lundin asks Bartholemew, who is whittling away under the tree, how her drill is coming. "Well," she says, "it's not a schwinger."
Lundin disagrees, upon closer examination. "It's pretty much Schwing City," he says. "There's just this section over here where it's sort of gnarly. You've done a good job."
He rises, animated. Fire excites him.
Gotta make a fire before we can fish, he says. Ain't no fish if there ain't no fire. And ain't no fire if there ain't no pit to put it in.
"So," he says, "where're we gonna put it? Where're we gonna put it?"
The students are silent in uncertainty, but Primitive Guy is having fun. He is in his element. "How're we gonna make it? What are we doing? How did I get here?"
He says: How about right here where I'm standing, this looks like a good spot for a fire.
Moments later, with the pit dug and Bush's drill-hearth fire stoked, Lundin and Bartholemew head upstream to a livelier section of river to see if they can catch themselves a fish. Unlike a leaf of mint or a root of cattail, a fish will not cooperate in this venture.
To accomplish this, then, Primitive Guy will be using the ultimate in primitive tools--his hands.
Lundin figures, using the width of his fingers, that there is maybe another 45 minutes of sunlight riding up the walls of the canyon, and after that he and Bartholemew will be dealing with dusk.
Carp are the river's primary tenants, but they're tricky to capture because their gill slots have this membrane you can't get your fingers into. Every once in a while, though, Lundin has been able to slow-motion right up to one of these huge finned cows and nab it while it was sleeping.
The more sensible way is to hang out at busy underwater thoroughfares, places the fishes go and keep coming back to no matter how many times you go poking around in there.
This primitive living, he'll repeat so often students tire of it, isn't easy stuff--everything has to be measured in terms of how much energy you're expending to get it. If you're living wild and get a hankering for grasshoppers, for example, it's best to hunt them in high season when you've got a better chance. Spending an hour and a half chasing down a meal of a single grasshopper isn't too smart.
But this, he says--stripping off his shirt and sinking waist-deep into a rocky inlet where he has seen carp collecting--this is perfect hand-fishing area.
He hunkers down and noses along the surface of the water, low enough to reach his outstretched hand into the pocket where the fishes are, focused as a commando. Bartholemew removes her top shirt and climbs into the water in a tank top, thick hiker's legs with tiny ankle tattoos.
Twenty feet away, carp congregate in animated clusters like co-workers having a beer after work, oblivious to the forming hunt. The water is murky and green, rays of light striking the depths in shafts, like cracks in a barn. Lundin is unsure whether the pocket he's reaching into might just lead to an escape crevice deeper inside. He drags a mat of moss into the area, trying to create a sense of fish security, then tells Bartholemew to go upstream and cause general havoc.
"All we can do is hope," he says. After all, everyone has brought enough food for the weekend anyway.
The trick is to wait them out until they're swimming through your fingers. Then, with precision timing, to clamp down hard at the gills, where you can get a firm grip, and to yank one from the water and finish it off before it can slip away. All for a single fish.
Lundin lays flush along the water's surface, his arm way into the hole, head turned to breathe. He is reaching so deep his feet are sticking out of the water.
Minutes pass. He relaxes and lets out a deep breath.
"They're gone," he says. "Which makes me think they have an underground way out of there. We'll have to do it again."
"Okay," Bartholemew says. She has been to India and Nepal. Going back upstream is no big deal. She sloshes waist-high through the water again. "Oh wow," she says, looking in. "There's so many of them."
"I feel a few of 'em in there," Lundin says. "This time I'm not gonna monkey around."
Time goes slowly by. It's 6:45, and the sunlight is on its way out of the canyon, off into the sunset. Lundin's skin is pecked with goose bumps in the cold water, and he starts to shiver. He lets Bartholemew take a turn at the hole, and she casts her arm in for several long, uneventful moments. "Here, fishy, fishy," she says to herself.
She feels a few of them, but can't tell which body parts are sliding through her fingers. She had one around the tail, but it whisked away. Still, they keep coming back.
"We oughta be smarter than fish," Lundin says.
Five minutes to seven--fading light, ripples of water, a rising cacophony of crickets. Lundin is back at the target area, his nose just above the water. He can feel a whopper, but if he goes any deeper, he'll be without air, a necessary element of primitive living. He strains, dips below surface for a bit and then rises up gasping, spitting out water.
There was a time, he says, when he was cocky. He'd guarantee a fish every time out. He's since quit doing that.
Oh, well. Looks like canned chili beans tonight.
In an instant, Lundin flinches and springs from the water with what looks to be a flailing wet sock in his hand.
"Yeah," Bartholemew says.
Lundin grabs the carp by the tail, then whips it hard on the rocks, enough to stun it. Bartholemew gives him a boulder to finish off the job. It is ten minutes after seven o'clock.
"He got in an area where he couldn't get out," Lundin says, his breathing hard, "so I got in his way."
He holds his prize aloft. It's a chub, he says, a native fish of the Verde.
"I knew this one was food," he says, "so I basically showed it no mercy."
Lundin does not advocate that everyone go abo. If we did, he says, we'd eat the planet in a day.
The primitive skills he teaches probably wouldn't keep anyone going for more than a couple of months of wilderness living anyway, which is still a good deal longer than survival courses figure you're going to be out there. Today's human bodies are accustomed to meat and fat, items not easily obtained in the wild, at least not in proportion to the energy it takes to get them on a regular basis.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers managed all right, but they had a few thousand years to practice. That's what he wants people to realize.
"It's more than just learning skills," Bartholemew says later, after it is all over. "It was good for people to realize how hard it was."
Something happens to people out in the wild, Lundin says: They begin to consider it a less scary place. They become of the Earth, and not just on it, which is his touchy-feely way of saying that it really does make a difference when people learn to be responsible for their own heat, shelter and sustenance.
Those are things easy to take for granted in the fast-food, Beanie Weenie world of the 1990s. There's no reason not to take them for granted--no reason, really, even to think about keeping a "survival kit" in the car when your moving around takes place in a thriving metropolis. For a lot of people in the big city, a survival kit consists of a credit card, a gun and a cellular phone.
But Lundin hopes to inspire people to see the world around them in a new light--one cast by the Dawn of Man. He thinks seeing that light can be an empowering and humbling thing.
Sunday morning was spent taste-testing plant life. The afternoon hours were whittled away building animal traps that are illegal--but why wait until you're drowning to learn how to swim? Now, the campfire and fish are gone and disposed of. It's time to return to the world of appointments and cable TV.
The members of the group load up and head back up the trail. They profess to see the world through new lenses; they certainly consider the money they paid Lundin to be well-spent. Lundin lets the students set the course this time and follows close behind. Through the creek, along the rocky ledges.
On the way up, Bartholemew, who is in the lead position, comes to the Icee cup that lays thrashed in the dirt. She stops, barely long enough to pluck it from the ground and, without missing a step, erases it from the landscape.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.