My father was especially fond of painting scenes from the past. The unveiling of a new painting in our home was always magical, but it was the naming of the piece that I enjoyed most. We gathered for the task in the living room, where Dad sat in his recliner like a laird in a great hall.
All of us offered suggestions. Despite my youth, mine often made the cut. I had a gift for lyrical phrases, and I shared my dad’s dreamy view of history.
If we are to be honest, though, history was less than romantic. As a writer, I “clean up” yesteryear. When my hero rips my heroine’s shift open in a fit of passion, you don’t want me to describe the grimy skin he exposes, do you? Or the sooty hands with manure under the nails? How about the stench of their unwashed, hard-used bodies? The lice crawling away as he plunges his fingers into her golden tresses?
Because I write historical fiction, people often tell me they long to go back in time. The idea crosses my mind, too. I mean, you’ve seen my tomahawk collection, right?
So, what do you think? Given your skills and knowledge, how do you think you’d fare if the modern world disappeared and left you stranded in the past?
This question came up recently in a forum I frequent. Matthew F piped up about his own three-year exercise in experiential history. Naturally, I was fascinated, and I asked him if he’d submit to an interview. He agreed, and I am delighted to share his experiences with you.
Matthew was 20 years old when he decided to leave modern living for the woods, and 23 when he returned to semi-regular life. During those three years, he lived in the rough, mostly in Missouri, although he and his girlfriend (Now wife. Yes, you marry a woman who follows you into the wilderness!) moved around a lot, spending some time in Wyoming, Utah, California, Arizona, and even Hawaii.
JD: Thank you so much for being here, Matthew. What led you to want to abandon civilization in the first place?
Matthew: That’s a tough question I’m not really sure I have a good answer to. I grew up fascinated with Native Americana, primitive skills, and history. Also, books about folks going off and doing it such as My Side of the Mountain were a huge influence on my childhood. When I was 16, I ran away from home with two friends to go live off the beach. We didn’t quite make it and got picked up in New Mexico by a police officer. After high school, I went to college, and the realization struck me that there was no better time to do it than then. So, I dropped out and managed to talk my girlfriend into doing it with me. None of that is really the why I guess, hopefully it gives a little insight as to why though.
JD: What was the longest stretch of time you spent away from civilization?
Matthew: 4 months was probably the longest spell away from any real “civilization.” The idea wasn’t really to shun all civilization but more to see what life would be like living out in the woods full time and trying to live off the land. I was also really intrigued by the idea of living a nomadic lifestyle and trying to live in different areas of the country.
We moved around fairly frequently. Even when on the same chunk of land we’d move camp with regularity.
JD: What did you take with you?
Matthew: Way too much stuff at first! We quickly learned that a lot of the things we brought were useless and nothing but extra weight. I remember ditching about 100 lbs. of gear the first day on foot. Not too sure what in the world we were thinking. Anyways, back to the original question – a backpack, bed roll, tarp, a rifle and ammo, some rope, a belt knife, extra shirt, small cooking pot, sewing kit, some fishing gear, a water filter, a beat-to-heck copy of the book Naked Into the Wilderness, and some various knick knacks (cool rocks we’d find, a Chinese coin I found on the beach, etc.) were essentially what I carried after ditching the junk.
JD: Did it feel odd at all when you came back to civilization?
Matthew: The oddest thing I can think of is looking in a mirror after about a year of not having done that. I’d seen my reflection in water obviously, but I do remember having the oddest feeling seeing my reflection clearly in a mirror.
JD: What did you use for shelter?
Matthew: We had a tarp and rigged up various shelters with that as well as building different primitive shelters. It sort of changed pretty regularly with moving camp and just experimenting with what worked the best. A simple lean-to was sort of the go-to shelter we used the most. A lot of nights we’d just sleep out on the ground and pull the tarp over us if it started to rain. The last shelter we were living in was a wigwam. Then we found out Maggie was pregnant. That was pretty high living, lots of room and pretty warm and dry. Smoky at times, though, when the wind wasn’t drafting the smoke out of the top.
JD: How did the two of you handle the isolation?
Matthew: My girlfriend Maggie and now wife was with me pretty well the whole time. The longest I’ve spent by myself in the woods was about two weeks when she went to visit family. I was really ok with the isolation during that time. There were certainly periods of loneliness though, even when the two of us were together. I think this is a condition that sort of transcends all situations and is part of the human condition.
JD: What did you eat/drink?
Matthew: Anything we could! Clover, dandelions, cattail, mulberries, fish, squirrel, deer, roadkill, rabbit. When we’d go through a town, we’d often get a bag of rice to help supplement. Not having much to eat was pretty common and something we got used to. I’ve got a pretty hilarious story involving no meat for about two months while living on the Gasconade River and Maggie trying to kill a duck with a stick. For water, we had a filter and would filter whatever water we could find. Still managed to get sick from bad water in the Sierra Nevadas once, though. Spent about a week pretty well convinced I was going to die.
JD: Did you experience any effects from detoxing from a modern diet?
Matthew: The change was tough. The worst part really for me was the cravings for a soda or candy or some sort of sugar more than the actual physical detoxing. It was a sort of mental game I had to deal with for pretty well the first year on a daily basis. There were a lot of times I just wanted to give up so I could go get a candy bar, which I know sounds silly but at the time it was a huge obstacle for me to overcome.
JD: I don’t think that sounds silly at all. I am a bit surprised the cravings lasted so long! Gives you a good sense of how addicted we are to sugar, doesn’t it?
What else did you miss?
Matthew: A hot shower, readily available food, meat, water that could be drank with no effort, a full night’s sleep with no bugs biting.
JD: Did you ever feel like you were in danger?
Matthew: I wouldn’t say I ever felt in danger. The experience of bad water in the mountains of California was probably the scariest for me. I was sure I was dying and there was no way to get any kind of help as remote as we were. We hitchhiked some to get around, and I do remember one ride that I felt was a little sketchy. We just asked to be let out at the next exit and all was fine, though.
JD: How did you manage hygiene, laundering clothes, etc?
Matthew: We were pretty dirty most of the time. We bathed in creeks every chance we had and tried to camp by them when possible. Our clothes didn’t get washed at all. I just had one pair plus an extra long sleeved shirt the whole time so you can imagine how dirty they were.
JD: Everyone is going to want to know how you managed to survive without things we now consider essential, such as . . . toilet paper.
Matthew: Haha, no toilet paper was really not an issue at all. Moss, leaves, grass, even a handful of sand and gravel work pretty good and it’s something I got used to pretty quick. One thing that was hard for us and a lot of folks take for granted is the lack of bugs living in a house vs. living in the woods in summer without a tent. It can be maddening trying to sleep while being swarmed by mosquitoes. Ticks were pretty bad too.
JD: Having lived as you did, do you think marriage would have been much different than it is today? It seems like a man and woman in the 18th century would have to rely upon each other, have defined roles, etc. in order to survive.
Matthew: I do think marriage would have been different in the 18th century. Living hand to mouth makes a system of what is expected of each other in a relationship vital to success. On a whole other level is the fact that societal norms were different then and gender roles were more defined.
JD: Civilization is about to disappear. What should we grab in order to survive?
Matthew: A method of getting drinking water is paramount, I think. It’s one of those things most of us take for granted, but if society suddenly crumpled, it is the most essential thing to life, and really, in this day of polluted streams and water, one of the harder things to come by. A strong mind and the ability to adapt and deal with stress is also something probably not too many think about in a survival situation, but every bit as important as some of the more physical challenges faced. Knowledge of what can be eaten and how to catch critters. Those three things I feel like are more important to survival than some sort of basement stockpiled with food and ammo or a back pack full of gear.
JD: Thank you very much for being here and for sharing your story. My blog is visited by many writers. Maybe your wilderness love story will prompt one of them to write an “off the grid” romance.
What do you think, readers? Could you live in the past? If civilization disappeared, could you survive?