In the Wilds of Utah, For Research
Alexandra Oliva on Killing the Meat You Eat, and Taking Comfort for Granted
In the summer of 2013, I went on an intensive two-week-long wilderness survival course with a renowned survival school in southern Utah. My reasons were manifold but can be simplified to two. One, the course description simultaneously terrified and intrigued me, and I wanted to see if I could do it. Two, I was working on a manuscript that involved survival skills, and in order to imbue the story with the detail and realism I wanted, I felt I had to get some serious hands-on experience. That manuscript would become my debut novel, The Last One.
* * * *
I step into my boiler room and freeze, seeing the garter snake that bisects the flat, rectangular glue trap I left there a few days earlier. Even as guilt twists through me, I wonder how the snake made it so far across the trap. Shouldn’t just its head be stuck along the perimeter? Perhaps that’s how it started, but then the snake fought and flipped its way into greater danger and—judging from its stillness—death.
I feel terrible. The garter snake is harmless. Cute even. I didn’t mean to kill him. I’d dispersed the glue traps to catch camelback crickets, which are a menace in the beautiful but poorly sealed cabin my husband and I are renting for the year. But how foolish of me, to think the traps would catch only the creatures I wanted to catch. Telling myself it’s too late—I made a mistake but there’s nothing I can do about it now—I crouch to pick up the trap. The snake twitches, its dry skin stretching, its bottom jaw plastered in place, extended. I stand, startled, then watch as the snake struggles with renewed vigor. It’s irrevocably stuck; the glue trap thrashes with it. I’m not sure what to do. Toss it in the outside trash bin, like I’d originally planned? So the snake can suffer between bags of kitchen refuse until I wheel the bin down the driveway and it gets dumped into a truck and then a landfill—or whatever happens to garbage in Westchester? The snake is so small it probably won’t even get crushed. It’ll probably live through it all, and when it finally does die, it’ll be of dehydration—with the spilled contents of a torn bag of medical waste stuck in the glue beside it.
That doesn’t seem right. And yet I’m tempted. There’s a part of me that wants to just throw the snake into the bin and try to forget this ever happened. Or I could leave it here, act like I never came to check the trap, wait until my husband, Andrew, gets home and pretend to discover it then. Ask him to take care of it. But, no; subterfuge is not my forte. More importantly, I did notice, and the animal is suffering.
I leave the snake and walk out of the boiler room through the kitchen, heading into my living room. Here built-in shelves line an entire wall, framing a fireplace. Chest height and far to the left, spines announce concepts like “tracking” and “bushcraft.” Variations on “survival.” Lengthwise before these books is a knife in a scuffed black sheath.
I pick it up.
* * * *
Earlier that summer, Andrew and I ventured deep into the wilds of Utah as part of a 14-day wilderness survival course. Mid-morning on our fifth day, we sat in a circle with our ten fellow students and our head instructor, Cat. Cat told us about how most people today never see the animals that make up much of their meals, they only ever see packaged meat. I wished she would illustrate her point by handing me a steak—packaged or otherwise—because this information wasn’t news, or new, and my stomach was achingly empty. Sitting there, my mind was stuck in hyperbole: I’d kill for something to eat; I’ve never been this hungry before.
But there was truth in my internal griping; I probably never had been that hungry before. At the very least, I’d never experienced the kind of hunger I was experiencing then.
The beginning of the trip had been difficult. We’d spent most of the first day at the school’s field office in the remote town of Boulder, Utah, where we students sat in a circle with our three instructors for the first of many times and discussed our reasons for taking the course. Andrew and I were the only couple there; the only people who had arrived as a we. Then our instructors showed us how to turn blankets into backpacks, and I was overwhelmed already, unable to keep track of the different knots we were supposed to tie. When I finally got it right, it felt like an accident. Sandwiches for lunch, then we got into a van.
Leaving our blanket-packs behind, we were dropped off in the desert. For this stage of the course, we each carried a knife, a few extra layers of clothing, a water bottle, water purification drops, and little else. The first night we had no shelter, no blankets. Andrew and I tried sleeping back to back, but the desert earth sucked the heat out of any part our bodies touching the ground. I spent most of the night huddled against a pinyon pine staring at moon-cast shadows, horrifically cold, while Andrew paced nearby. The absurdity of the situation offset a measure of my misery—was I really doing this? Had I really paid money to come here and huddle in a near-frozen ball at the base of a twisted tree? When the sun finally rose, I scuttled to the first patch of light I saw and basked like a lizard.
For the next two days we’d hiked water source to water source, following our instructors’ lead. During our breaks we learned how to carve and assemble bow-drill kits from wild resources. We also talked about those sandwiches—how we should have eaten more—and the warmth awaiting us somewhere ahead, whenever we were reunited with our wool blankets. Throughout these days water was a priority; food was not. All we had to eat was what we could find. On the second day I ate a single semi-rancid pine nut from the tree I’d huddled under. On the third, nothing—but trekking in the sunbaked tracks of cattle raised clouds of manure-dust that coated my mouth and sparked digestive juices; I spent the afternoon vomiting up foam and grass-green bile. That night when we built a group shelter—we’d gained elevation and our instructors said this would be the coldest night yet, and the second had been worse than the first—I was so shaky and weak I could barely grab each handful of pine needles, but I did my best, desperate to contribute.
If anyone resented my weakness, they didn’t show it. I would have understood; I’d resented the previous day’s weakest link: a man who’d drunk coffee and smoked cigarettes on the four-and-a-half-hour van ride from Provo to the school’s field office, and who’d lagged behind from pretty much the moment we set foot into the desert. He’d clearly done nothing to prepare for what was billed as one of the toughest and most authentic educational survival experiences in the world. This annoyed me; I’d trained and given up caffeine, and I’d been surprised by how good I was feeling 24 hours in. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to leave him behind. But we were a team and could go only as fast as our slowest member. I remember wishing Smokes-and-Coffee would quit so we could go faster. Despite our remote location, quitting was an option—an expensive option because of the resources it’d take to leave, but an option. But Smokes-and-Coffee hadn’t quit, and when it was my turn as the weakest link, I knew I wouldn’t either, no matter how my throat burned and my stomach clenched, no matter how thick my blood felt pounding beneath my skin. I’d come here to learn how much I could take, how far I could push myself, and as long as I could keep going, I would. No matter how slowly.
The night had been frigid, our duff too shallow, and in our slowness to settle, Andrew and I were forced to sleep apart. I wanted to curl up against him, share body heat, but I also didn’t want to make a fuss or disturb the others. So I lay next to a stranger and atop a rock. It’s impossible to know how much sleep I got; it felt like I shivered and shifted until the sun came up.
The next afternoon we’d walked into this camp, where a bunch of bananas hung out of place and most welcome in a tree beside a hut we soon learned contained our blanket-packs. I’d felt a swell of pride and relief: I’d made it. Also: That wasn’t so bad. My stomach had settled overnight, and a piece of fruit and the prospect of sleeping in a semi-permanent shelter—with a blanket!—was all it took for me to begin to forget my misery. We were each also given an apple to eat while we rested. My gums were so sore from the heat and dryness and all my vomiting the day before that each bite burned like battery acid. For dinner: a stew of foraged dandelion greens, bitter and delicious.
A night had then passed in which I actually slept, and then a morning in which we made tea from wild rose petals while waiting to be fed. After the previous day’s reintroduction to food, our metabolisms were shifting out of starvation-conservation mode and into FEED-ME—but our instructors hadn’t given us breakfast. They hadn’t even mentioned breakfast. Instead Cat had sat us in this circle and started talking about packaged meat.
I was too hungry to listen, too hungry to care—but then Cat’s line of speaking shifted slightly. She began talking about respecting our food sources. It’s a big deal to take a life, she told us. Your bodies need protein, she told us. My hunger slipped into the background. Knowing glances traversed our circle. We all knew what this meant, except for maybe Smokes-and-Coffee, who it seemed hadn’t read the course description before signing up.
This day we were going to kill a sheep.
Cat asked for volunteers. I decided that if I was willing to eat it, I should be willing to kill it, and raised my hand. So did four men.
Cat took five pine needles and pinched off the end of one to make our short straw. As she presented her fist to each of us volunteers, she spoke of the importance of staying calm. Of making the cut clean. I was already shaking. The thought of taking a knife to a living animal’s throat; not a clichéd expression of hunger but an act. Could I do it?
Once, long ago when I was little, my friend David and I had followed some older kids into the woods behind our rural K-12 school. I was the only girl around, but there was nothing unusual in this. David and I had stood behind the cluster of older boys at the edge of the school beaver pond. “I dare you,” said one. “No way,” said another. Someone was holding a pocketknife. At the center of the circle: a dead frog. The boys had gone around the circle, daring one another to cut off the frog’s head, while David and I stood in the shadows, listening. No one was willing to make the cut, but they wouldn’t be content until someone else did. Deadlock.
I was seven years old, maybe eight, and eager to impress. “I’ll do it,” I said.
I’m sure it didn’t happen this way, but I remember the circle of boys parting down the center as they stepped aside to stare, awed by my gumption. I do know that the pocketknife was soon in my hand. Animal mutilation was far out of character for me; I loved animals, especially frogs and turtles—but I’d told myself the frog was already dead, so it didn’t matter. I wasn’t hurting it. Plus, my dad was a fly-fishing guide and when he brought home a day’s catch I’d often used the heads as finger-puppets while the bodies fried in a pan. I hadn’t understood why the boys were being so squeamish. So with everyone watching, I’d pressed the knife to the frog’s neck. It was tougher than I expected. I’d expected to touch the neck and—bink, the head would roll away. But no, I had to saw at the rubbery skin until dirt and grass peeked out in a line between body and head. Were the older kids impressed? I don’t think so. Surprised, maybe, but even that hadn’t lasted long. They reclaimed the knife and left.
But I’d stayed, and David with me. Looking at the decapitated frog, regret had welled in my chest. There’d been fear too. I’d grown up on my mother’s stories of ghosts and guardian angels. All the spirits she’d seen, the signs from God saving and directing her, giving her the strength through the years. At that age, I knew ghosts were real, as real as God. So I knew this frog was going to haunt me for what I’d done: a hoppy ghost reminding me of my evil, forever. I was a little girl—a tomboy, yes, but also soft and shy—and while I had my share of hardship ahead of me, I didn’t have very much behind. I began to cry.
Now, more than 20 years later, I was drawing a pine-needle straw to see if I’d be the one to slice open a living sheep’s throat. I’ll do it. But my reasons were different; the situation was different. I didn’t care about impressing anyone else. It was for myself that I needed to be willing to be the one to make the cut. Because someone had to, and I wanted to be the kind of person who could.
I chose a pine needle and slipped it out of Cat’s fist. The needle was long. Relief came, pure and engulfing. I would have done it—because I’m tough, I’m strong, stronger than I look or sound, stronger than I used to be—but I didn’t have to.
The anointed? Smokes-and-Coffee, whose volunteering surprised me once I stopped to think about it. Cat took him aside for further instruction, and to give him a knife she’d spent the morning sharpening. The rest of us walked silent and single-file over a small footbridge and away from camp to where our two other instructors were kneeling beside an old brown ram, their hands in his wool, holding him down on his side. We circled the ram without talking, but I was crying already, shivering in my attempt to stay quiet and calm, barely able to breathe with snot dripping down my face. It’s impossible for me to articulate the why of my tears, but I hated it: how my body betrayed me—contradicted me. I was willing to be there, I wanted to be there. It was the contrasting and intertwined selves inside of me, perhaps: the softie who’d wept the first time she ran over a toad driving in the rain versus the pragmatist who will never go vegan, whose body needed protein.
My husband was beside me, his hand—which he hadn’t raised; he’s squeamish with nothing to prove—next to mine deep in the sheep’s dark wool. On my other side was one of our instructors—a writer, like me; during our endless walking she’d distracted me from my exhaustion and hunger by talking about books and asking if my MFA was worth it. She put her hand over mine and squeezed.
Back when I was a child who’d just made the mistake of needlessly cutting off a dead frog’s head, it had been my friend David who comforted me. In that case by offering a solution: We would build a raft for the frog corpse and send it out on the pond like a Viking felled in battle. Part of me wants to say we set fire to the raft, which isn’t impossible but I doubt it’s true. We probably just talked about how we wished we were archers with flaming arrows as we watched it float away. Either way, we agreed that sending the dead frog out on the water gave its ghost the peace and closure it needed. I had made a mistake, but it wouldn’t haunt me.
Kneeling at the ram’s side, I didn’t see the knife touch its throat, but I felt the animal convulse. I helped hold him down as he kicked and spasmed, at first a lot and then less. My snot and tears were dripping into his wool and I was disgusted with myself, mostly because I realized I probably couldn’t have slit his throat after all. Not out of fear or misgiving but because of the way I was shaking. I couldn’t have been sure of a clean cut. There were others there better suited for the job, and—as much as I hated to admit it, even to just myself—bowing out to one of them would have been the right thing to do. But even now I fear that if it had come down to it, I might have been stubborn enough to go through with the cut despite my shaking—that I might have slipped and caused unnecessary suffering. That Cat would have had to step in to finish what I’d flubbed.
I was glad I hadn’t picked the short straw, so glad.
Cat leaned close to the sheep’s face. “He’s dead,” she told us. Or maybe she used the word “gone.” She explained: The telltale sign of lingering life wasn’t the convulsions—which continued sporadically for minutes more—but whether or not the animal blinked when you confronted its eyes. When blinking ceased, so did life. Kneeling there, I wondered if the same was true for humans. I suspected that it was.
After the convulsions stopped, we hung the sheep from a tree. Processing it took the rest of the day: a blur of blood and wool and meat. My whole hand between hide and muscle. A bright green explosion of the ram’s last meal draining out through its mouth. Walking through the woods to bury the head—this task I could do at least. The head was heavy and I still hadn’t eaten; I was sick and hungry and weak, holding the wool between the ears, straining my arm, trying and failing to keep the dead face from bouncing against my leg. Slicing jerky back at camp, stuffing sausage, my first bite of “blood taco” after all that work, ambrosial.
As the sun set we moved our rack of drying jerky from a field to the fire pit to smoke the meat, and we coated the ram’s ribs in salt and pepper and tossed them on the coals. We gorged that night, eating more than we needed, more than we wanted—because we’d be on the move again soon and anything that wasn’t currently smoking couldn’t come with us.
The next day, we took turns at a handful of stations: roasting corn and barley, grinding it to flour; working the sheep’s hide, scraping the fat away, cutting off strips to use as padding for the straps of our blanket-packs; tending the fire and minding our boiling “stomach bread”; chopping vegetables for that night’s stew; and hygiene. Hygiene. Walking away from the group to a quiet spot of woods and scrubbing my hair and body with Dr. Bronner’s. The smell of peppermint after all that gristle. Rushing a little, knowing we’d have to rotate stations soon, not wanting to deprive anyone else the sensation of this. A poor attempt at washing my undergarments, returning to the group in damp clothes, smiling and making a joke.
That night we left the camp and entered the next phase of our trip: learning to navigate the wild with a map and compass, to lead ourselves instead of following blindly. This was my favorite part of the course: co-leading with the most experienced outdoorsman among us students, a careful, quiet teacher-sort who answered questions and allowed mistakes; hooting a special call as sweeper when I noticed the morning’s leader succumbing to trail blindness instead of turning right at a cairn. During the day we snacked on sheep jerky, and each night we broke into small cooking groups and prepared pots of lentil stew. One morning I sat with Smokes-and-Coffee beside a fire pit, and he told me about the woman he loved and the disapproval of their families. About his struggles with depression, how he’d signed up last minute for this trip because he needed a change and a challenge. I realized the man I’d wanted to leave behind was perhaps the bravest person there. It was true that he hadn’t known what to expect, how hard this would be—but he wasn’t giving up and there was strength in this.
Then it was the last day of that phase and I was leading again, bringing us to a Y-shaped brook where we were all separated into individual camps. For the first time I was truly alone. For the first time I didn’t have Andrew’s ear to gripe into privately while smiling for everyone else. A terrifying and lonely first night and then: time with my journal. Scribbling memories I wanted to keep, details I knew would fade. A timeline, a record. Ideas. In between entries, I really scrubbed my clothing. The day was nearly perfect except for the horseflies.
Soon: a final challenge and returning to our start. Hearing music, the distant rhythm as unsettling in its way as the calls of coyotes used to be. Lights through a window, a truck driving by: how could the mundane seem so alien after just two weeks? I didn’t know, but it did.
Certificates and t-shirts. We learned we were the first group that season to not have anyone quit; there was pride in this—I felt it too. Then, a van ride back to Provo, a real shower, one that clogged the drain and left a ring of mud and stubble around the tub. My legs were smooth and my stomach had never been so close to flat; my hands had aged a decade. An airport; phone calls to family—We did it; I saw a mountain lion!
Then Andrew and I were home. I stepped on a scale and weighed less than I had in fifth grade. We spent three hundred dollars at the grocery store and everything tasted too sweet. As good as it felt to be home, it was also strange. I understood from the trip what a luxury it was to have leisure time—minutes in the day that weren’t spent grinding flour or tanning hide or seeking water—and when I’d been in my solo camp I’d pledged to use this time more wisely. But as the weeks passed the mundane became just that again, and I fell into my old ways. I was watching too much TV and scrolling mindlessly through Facebook when I should have been working. I was drinking coffee again, sleeping in. The scale crept upward and the space under my fingernails came clean. The camelback crickets still startled me every time.
I’d hoped to feel more changed.
* * * *
Walking away from my bookshelves, I unsheathe the knife with which I sliced a ram’s muscles to jerky, with which I carved my bow drill. I leave the sheath on the kitchen counter and return to the boiler room with the knife in my hand. Its metal is dull and spotted, the handle dusty-looking despite my washing it upon our return. I don’t know enough about maintaining knives for it to look anything but worn.
The snake has stopped struggling. I kneel. It must have exhausted itself because this time it doesn’t move. I set the edge of the blade just below the snake’s jaw. There is no one here to impress, no ghosts or gods to appease. There is no one around who can better handle the short straw. There is only me, and this animal who is suffering. I don’t know how I would have felt about killing the sheep, if I could have really gone through with it or what would have happened if I had tried. But I know this: I’ve made another mistake and there’s something I can do about it. There is no room for regret in necessity.
I press the knife down.