With the state of humanity in chaotic disarray, I have often found myself wondering how well I would survive in the event of a total global apocalypse. Would I be able to hold my own if I was forced to seek shelter in a woodland sanctuary? How long would I last in Mother Nature without the luxuries of tequila, Instagram, and Amazon Prime? To test my mental and physical prowess, I contacted the legendary Laura Zerra to set up an adventure in the remote wilderness.
If you don’t know who Laura Zerra is, allow me to elaborate: her life is survival. She regularly escapes civilization to disappear into the woods for months at a time; she even has a particular tree that she lives under. Discovery Channel snatched her up for several seasons of their hit show, Naked and Afraid, where she was shuffled to locations all across the globe and showed the world how to suffer gracefully.
After diving into a few of her episodes, to say she’s awe-inspiring is the largest understatement. One only has to watch her get dumped naked into the icy tundra of Alaska to be convinced of her all-around badassery — or maybe I was more impressed with the episode where she was bit multiple times on the head by a deadly centipede in the Philippines. (Spoiler alert: she survived.) Laura is the kind of person to smile in the face of adversity and laugh while merrily skipping through hell. My only hope on my trip with her was that I didn’t require medical attention while trying to keep up.
After a series of chats, we decide to venture out to one of Laura’s favorite spots, a secluded area in Montana, free of humans and all things civilized. She informs me that the weather in early May is still too chilly to encounter any rattlesnakes; however, we might happen upon bears, wolves, or mountain lions. No big deal.
Laura passes along a packing list, which includes layers of clothing, knives, binos, a fishing pole, a tent, gloves, etc. After meticulously refining my inventory, I add a few essentials of my own: bear mace, a pistol (in case of murderous Deliverance-type people), and of course, coffee, so the madness doesn’t overtake me in bouts of caffeine withdrawals. As I continue to add items to my growing list, I can’t help but wonder what mystical relics I should pack to ward off skinwalkers, wendigos, or aliens. Don’t all horror movies take place in the woods? I have much time to ponder all of this on my flight from Texas to Montana.
Laura greets me at the airport with her Malinois, Nerron, and a welcoming embrace. She informs me that the isolated spot we will be traveling to can only be accessed by a small plane, a raft, or by hiking a grueling number of miles. After some discussion, we decide the best option is for her pilot friend to fly us in. The only pending issue is the turbulent weather, which only gives us a small window of time to make it to our landing zone safely. Neat.
After arriving at the modest airplane hangar, our pilot carefully monitors the low ceiling (cloud coverage), which is obscuring visibility on the mountains. We wait in anticipation until our window of opportunity finally arises. Laura and I load up with Nerron, our pilot and co-pilot (a rather candid old man), and we begin our hasty flight into the great unknown. We pass over many houses, roads, and fields before the scenery turns to endless trees and mountain tops. About 15 minutes into our flight, we start experiencing some questionable turbulence, and my phobia of heights kicks into gear.
Our co-pilot takes this opportunity to delight us with tales of plane crashes, faulty parachutes not deploying, and people dying “right over there” (he points to a location on our right). Nerron puts his head in my lap as he stares out the window at the passing terrain. He doesn’t know it, but he will become my emotional support animal for the remainder of our journey.
We touch down smoothly in a small field quite literally in the middle of nowhere and quickly get our gear out of the plane. The weather continues to worsen, and our pilots have to “turn and burn” so they don’t end up stuck in the wilderness with us. They immediately take off, leaving Laura, Nerron, and I utterly alone. We may not be Naked, but I can’t help feeling a little Afraid (I hate myself for making that joke, but it was low-hanging fruit).
Looking around the property, which contains a few scattered solar-powered cabins, we decide our first order of business is caffeine: coffee before anything else. A small creek runs through the property, so I promptly gather some water to boil in my MSR stove. As we sip our coffee, Laura tells me our next course of action is to hike up into the mountains, searching for elk sheds or antlers that have dropped around this time of year. Laura and I have found that we share an affinity for collecting old animal bones, so we will also be on the lookout for anything decaying, rotten, and grotesque. Normal girl things.
Our march upward starts out difficult and becomes increasingly arduous with the rising elevation and changing topography. We attempt to stick to game trails as we go deeper into the brush and higher up the mountainside. Nerron prances alongside us effortlessly, happier than a pig in shit. I, however, am struggling. My labored breathing begins to annoy me as my body adjusts to the altitude, and I involuntarily suck in large gulps of air. Laura’s tip to bring layers of clothing becomes immediately convenient. We strip off our clothes that are now soaked in sweat from our exertion and promptly put them back on when the cold wind hits us again — a relentless cycle.
We use our binoculars to glass or scan the mountains around us for elk sheds as we climb. The issue with hunting for these antlers is that they tend to look exactly like sticks, and sticks are fucking everywhere, so the binos become a necessary tool for spotting them from a distance. After a few hours of glassing, Laura spots our first shed on the adjacent mountain top! We found our proverbial needle in a haystack.
We make our descent down a steep incline and maneuver our way sideways across the next mountain until we reach the fresh, brown shed. It’s small by elk standards, which still seems massive to me, but we are both so elated to have found anything at all. Laura straps the shed into her pack and starts scanning the landscape once more. From our new vantage point, we can see down into the draw below us, and Laura immediately picks up on something large and white peeking through the vibrant greens and earthy browns. We must investigate!
As we make our way down the draw, we approach a tiny, mossy creek, and Laura suddenly lets out a shriek of excitement and shouts:
“I AM FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW! I AM SHAKING! I HAVE LITERALLY DREAMED OF FINDING THIS!”
Before us lies an enormous elk skull complete with two fully intact, gnarled, asymmetrical antlers. An anomaly of nature. The remnant of a beautiful, mutated beast. Laura makes no effort to mask her excitement as she assures me that this is a once-in-a-lifetime find. The antlers are twisted into the mossy earth on either side of the running water, creating a scene out of a dream.
Laura attempts to balance the cumbersome skull on her pack, and we both laugh wholeheartedly as we stumble back to base camp, eager to nurse our aching feet. We decide that tomorrow we will move deeper into the woodland and set up our tents in an even more remote location. With dark drawing near, we welcome the comfort of the minimalist cabin on our first night in this seemingly otherworldly forest.
The next morning we make our coffee with more river water and talk about our fragile lives and inevitable deaths. We agree that we have both lived so savagely and unapologetically free in an attempt to experience as much as we can in our fleeting lives — so that we can be at peace when death calls us home.
Morbid, yet not unpleasant. We call our morning coffee talks “Memento Mori Mornings” (memento mori being Latin for “remember you must die”), and it becomes our daily ritual.
Before heading out to our secondary campsite, we decided to try our hand at fishing in one of the creeks. As much as I’ve fished to catch and release, I’ve never gone through the entire killing and eating experience. More than anything, I want Laura to be able to teach me how to clean a fish and cook it. We make our way down the river, searching for spots that have not been blown out by snowmelt, and eventually find an area where the water runs calmer. Laura and I fiddle with our collapsible fishing rods and begin casting lines.
Almost immediately, I feel a tug on my line, and when I reel it in, I see a small, shimmering rainbow trout! I shout with joy as Laura runs over to share in my enthusiasm. I remove the small hook from its mouth and place the tiny fish on a flat rock by the creek. Laura instructs me to strike it and make its death as swift and painless as possible. I cringe as I bring a rock down on its head, as I do not relish in taking life.
“Thank you, fish,” Laura says.
“Thank you, little fish,” I repeat.
She walks me through the process of slicing up its belly, keeping my knife facing outwards, away from me. The fish is full of vibrant, amber eggs, which can be consumed raw, but we opt out of eating these. It’s risky, and neither one of us wants to suffer dysentery before noon. I remove the eggs and begin to scoop out its innards and organs. I use my fingernail to scrape out the bloodline that runs along the length of the body before rinsing the fish in the river and setting it on a flat stone next to a fire that Laura has quickly built. This stone is our makeshift stove, and I watch as she meticulously flips and turns the trout to cook it evenly.
After the fish is cooked thoroughly, we tear off tiny chunks of meat to taste the fruits of our labor, and might I say that this particular fish is exceptionally delicious. Perhaps it is more succulent because it’s fresh out of the river; perhaps it’s the effort put forth that gives it the extra zest. Regardless, I have gratitude for this food that I have never experienced before. What a simple thing to be thankful for.
We dispose of the remaining fish bones and begin hiking farther into the mountains to seek a more sequestered camping spot. After several miles of hauling our heavy packs, we come to a place where Laura has posted up many times before: a cozy space next to a stream tucked underneath sheltering trees.
We pitch our tents, and with darkness approaching once more, it’s time to build another fire, only this time Laura will be teaching me how to make “primitive friction fire.” We are using the bow-drill method, which requires you to grind two pieces of wood together to create friction and heat. Dust is gathered in a notch carved into the bottommost wooden block as you twist a wooden spindle into it. The temperature continues to rise, and a coal forms among the dust, which you then use to ignite kindling.
Laura hands me a stick with a string attached to either end of it (it looks exactly like a makeshift bow) and a spindle, which looks like a vampire stake. I wrap the string of the bow around the spindle and position it into a groove in the wooden block, which is pinned firmly to the earth with my left foot. I apply my bodyweight to the spindle with a flat rock held tightly in my left hand. With my right hand, I begin to work the bow back and forth like a violin. Five minutes pass, and I cannot seem to apply the correct amount of pressure, stability, and speed to create enough friction.
Over and over again, I lose control of the spindle, and it flies out of my bow. I keep a steady stream of profanities flowing as I sweat and my hands begin to tire. My increasing frustration does not leave me optimistic. About 25 minutes later, I finally see smoke starting to build. The spindle flies out from underneath my hand a final time as I relinquish one last, “FUCK!” I sit back on my heels with a furrowed brow as Laura leans forward to fan at the modest amount of smoke.
“Congratulations! You got your first coal!” She shouts.
We place the glowing coal in a bundle of tinder, and I begin to gently blow on it. Laura instructs me to steadily blow on the coal while holding the bundle firmly and slowly lifting it higher. Within a minute, the bundle bursts into flames! I HAVE OFFICIALLY MADE FIRE WITH MY BARE HANDS! And I will never take a Bic lighter for granted ever again.
I’m still basking in my sense of accomplishment as we sprawl out in front of the fire, continuing our philosophical talks and collapsing into nonsensical fits of laughter. The simplicity of this kind of existence feeds my soul. I am neither lamenting over the past nor concerned about the future; I am living in the present for the first time in my adult life. Nerron snuggles up to me as darkness begins to spill in once more, bringing freezing-cold temperatures. My one layer of clothing quickly becomes four before we retire to our tents for the night.
As I step out of my tent in the morning, I am greeted by a wagging Nerron, who is now wearing one of Laura’s sweaters. Apparently, everyone froze last night. Even though my toes and fingers are numb, I can’t help but think I enjoy a bit of this suffering. It’s almost as if I’m trying to prove to the wilderness that I desperately want to be here, learning how to live outside of a world of neon lights.
Laura and I have our routine “Memento Mori Morning” and decide to head up a new mountain. The one Laura picks is straight up and down: an almost impossible incline. I’m not saying that I felt like I was in mortal peril the entire time, but one wrong move could send us tumbling to (at the very least) a serious injury. We are forced to pause for a break every five or 10 steps.
I have never in my life pushed myself this far beyond the limits of my comfort, and some twisted part of me loves it. My lungs are screaming, my breathing has become deep and labored, a metallic taste begins to build in my mouth. I start to sweat from the strain, so I take off a layer of clothing. I take a few more steps and pause, the wind has picked up, and now I’m freezing again. The layer I just took off goes back on. This cycle continues endlessly, but it brings me comfort seeing Laura go through the same motions. She smiles at me from 20 yards away.
“This is so fucked up!” she howls.
“It’s SO fucked up,” I yell, vigorously nodding in agreement.
“I’d rather die of thirst than drink from the cup of mediocrity!” she shouts back.
We both laugh and continue the journey skyward.
We finally make it to the top of the ridgeline, and the view is breathtaking. Mountains and evergreen trees stretch as far as we can see in every direction, with a glimmering river cutting through it all. Snow falls in fine dust, like glitter descending over the landscape. We stand in awe of what is before us. Such beauty could never be captured through a lens.
My Garmin tells us that we are at an elevation of 5,028 feet. No wonder our breathing has become increasingly difficult. I inquisitively watch Laura as she scans the scenery with the binos that are permanently attached to her hand. She’s always on a mission. We walk the ridgeline for hours to no avail and decide to make the descent back down from a less perilous incline.
We choose a path with some mildly annoying brush, which slowly progresses into a full-blown shitshow of sticks gashing our legs, logs to climb over, and tree branches that tear at our flesh. The thicket continues to get denser, and every other minute I find myself letting out a “fuck,” “shit,” or “LAURA, YOU DO THIS FOR FUN?” We decide to officially dub this place “Stick Mountain,” 0/10, would not recommend a visit.
The silver lining is that I find a tiny, sun-bleached deer shed, and Laura finds a particularly old elk shed farther along the path. We finally free ourselves from the angry branches and make our way across a creek until we discover that we are on a game trail. As we make our way back to camp bloodied, bruised, and blistered, Laura notices something through her binos across the ravine. She drops her day pack and informs me she’s going to investigate. Ten minutes later, she returns with yet another old elk skull, only this one is decrepit and has been gnawed on by several animals. Still an epic find, we strap it into her pack and head back to our campsite.
As the darkness creeps in around us, we devour one of our freeze-dried meals and marvel at how good they taste after such a long day. While we eat, Laura tells me about the time she had to eat a tarantula for sustenance on Naked and Afraid and says it tasted like burnt hair and plastic goo. She did another stint on the show, where she was reduced to mostly consuming snails. Suddenly I am extremely appreciative of my freeze-dried meal. After such a draining day, we quite literally collapse into our tents. Even with the extreme exhaustion, I was not able to fall asleep until around 5 a.m. It was a combination of the cold and the throbbing pain in my legs from the physical exertion.
The next morning we have our pour-over coffee with more river water and continue our chats about life. I watch Laura in mock horror as she fries up a concoction of salami, cheese, and melted butter in a pot over the fire. She eats this like soup for “energy when I go out into the mountains.” With some mild persuasion, I try some and find myself pleasantly surprised.
Refueled for another day of outdoor escapades, I double down on my wool socks to cushion the blisters on my feet, and we are on our way. Embrace the suck; there is more discomfort to be had, and we somehow can’t get enough. Though we are both drained, we make it to the top of yet another mountain.
I find a bull elk head underneath a bush with a deliberate, almost surgical section of its skull missing. Laura informs me that someone shot this elk and didn’t want to pack the whole animal out, so they cut the antlers out of his head and left the rest. This is called a “skull cap,” she says. Did I mention that Laura used to be a taxidermist as well? Something about this makes me inconceivably sad, so I gently place his head back where I found it and take a moment to acknowledge his life and grieve his death.
As the rest of the day goes on, we find another old elk shed and many more random bones, identify different kinds of animal sign (trails, scat, etc.), and stumble upon several essential plants. Laura educates me on a yellow flower called a glacier lily, which can be eaten (it’s actually quite delicious), and a plant called yarrow, which can be chewed up and used as a salve on wounds to stop bleeding in an emergency.
The remaining days and nights were as equally challenging as they were gratifying. The fortitude I have gained through this experience is priceless, as I’ve undergone an ethereal transformation by pushing myself through pain and discomfort. All the while, I developed an irreplaceable and strange new friendship built on a love for all things living and dead.
Our very last night is spent huddled against the cold, staring at endless stars illuminated against a vast blanket of velvet sky. With no pollution from artificial light, I can honestly say I’ve never had the night sky make me feel so inexplicably small.
I can now see why Laura loves disappearing into the wilderness, detached from the drama of humanity and the blinding digital world. The trivial societal bullshit is forgotten, and you can find passion in merely being alive. You can appreciate your heart tirelessly pumping blood through your veins while acknowledging that one day it will cease to do so, and you will end up just like the woodland bones you have stumbled upon. This is a primitive place where you can escape the complacency found inside four walls, a place to appreciate life and respect death.
Memento Mori. Remember, you must die.