Ever since I met András, he’s been training me for something.
“If you run out of clean water, you can fill a clear glass jar full of creek water and set it in the sun for 6 hours. The UV rays will kill any bacteria, making it safe to drink.”
That is an example of something he might say to me in passing, during a lull in an otherwise quiet, rainy afternoon at home.
Good to know.
So, when we decided to go for a hike today, I wasn’t surprised to find him in the bathroom, packing a first-aid kit that included sterile gauze, eye drops, bandages, tea tree oil and antibiotic ointment.
What did surprise me was what else he considered survival basics for an afternoon hike.
In the parking lot at Tallman State Park in Piermont, NY, András replaced his flip-flops with wool socks and hiking boots. I slipped on my running shoes and sunglasses.
“Should I bring the water bottle?” he asked.
“I think it’s a good idea," I said. "It’s 91 degrees out.”
He tripled tied his laces, and reached for his backpack.
“You know what, I’ll bring the whole backpack. I have a little food, the water, and my knife.”
I turned to find him unshielding a 5 1/2-inch titanium knife.
“Whoah Rambo, how long to do you plan to be gone?”
“An hour or so, but you never know.”
True. You never know.
We set out on the marked trail, past a picnicking family reunion and toward the wilderness that hugs the Hudson River about 30 miles north of New York City. About 1/4 a mile in, we came across a rotting tree trunk. András reached for his knife and plunged all 5 1/2 inches into the tree.He rocked the knife back and forth, peeling away rotting layers of wood.
“Perfect. This tree is at least 150 years old.” He said. “If you’re stuck in the woods, you can use your knife like this to dig for food in an old tree.”
“What kind of food?” I asked.
“You know, anything that’s crawling and high in protein.”
We pressed on, past bushes of wild raspberries and blackberries that assured me we wouldn’t be eating slugs anytime soon. We ate a handful each, and left the rest for other hikers.
“Another thing you can do if you run out of water is take a t-shirt and wrap it around your leg and walk through a field in the morning after the dew. Then squeeze your t-shirt out into your mouth.”
As far as I knew, we still had a whole bottle full of water in the backpack, but this was also good to know.
There are hundreds of rules for survival. András knows many of them. He has camped from Belgium to Croatia on foot, biked across Transylvania and skateboarded 70 miles in 7 hours without stopping. His buddies have seen the inside of an avalanche and lived to tell about it. In his world, these skills are relevant.
When it comes to survival, I have only one rule. When the man in your life (dad, brother, boyfriend, husband) is trying to teach you something, do not laugh.
“It’s not enough to have survival skills, you have to use them.” He said.
He’s right. I bit my lip to keep from smiling and vowed to listen more carefully.
Meanwhile, I was distracted by the dozens of wild mushrooms that popped up between piles of wet leaves, under tree trunks and lining the creeks that weaved in and out of our path. It becomes my own survival sport, gauging which ones would be worth eating, and which would put our feasting days to rest forever. Bright gold-yellow the shape of chanterelles that seemed almost aglow, tiny luminous red-capped ones, subtle pear green ones with bulbous caps—they were everywhere, and turned the forest into an endless game of Where’s Waldo.
András has tips for this too.
“You can rub a mushroom on your skin to see if it changes color. If it doesn’t, you can move to the next step. Touch it to your lips but don’t eat it until you give your body time to react. Take it one step at a time. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not poisonous. ”
This was one survival skill András isn’t willing to test. He would sooner eat a bowl full of live slugs than mushroom he can’t identify. Since I think poisonous mushrooms sound like candy compared to slippery slugs, we decide to look for (or invent) an iphone ap that identifies wild mushrooms.
Soon, our hike turned into a climb, and we were scaling a 100-foot incline on all fours.
“Always keep three points connected to something secure.” András shouted from above me. “And don’t climb directly behind me in case of an avalanche.”
Just then my foot slipped on a large, loose rock releasing a slithering cascade of…
“Snakes!” I screamed. But they were only earthworms, fat, juicy and silver. Dinner, if it came to that.
At the top of the hill, we start to circle back toward the car.
András held his arm out perpendicular to the horizon. “See the sun?” he asked. “Take your hand and point it above the horizon with four fingers spread out about an inch apart. Each finger represents 15 minutes. Stack on top of each other until you reach the height of the sun. That’s how much time we have left before sundown.”
I did this. Three stacks of fingers.
“Three hours.” I said. I felt proud of myself. This one seemed very useful, and like something I could remember.
“That’s right. When there’s two hours left, you want to start looking for a good spot to make camp. But pay attention to waterways, especially in the summer. Never make camp in a valley, even if you are far from a river, because sudden rains can cause serious flooding.”
About this time, the mosquitoes began to attack. We were less than a half-hour from the car, so we quickened our pace to a jog, escaping deluges and poisonous mushrooms and slug soup for dinner and the West Nile virus.
In our car, we raced toward home, and our cozy kitchen, where I showed András my idea of survival skills. I foraged our near-bare pantry and refrigerator for ways to turn our market apricots into something delightful, like an olive-oil cake with Beames des Venise poached apricots. Finding no extra virgin olive oil, all-purpose flour, or sweet wine, I made the cake with almond oil and semolina flour instead, and poached the apricots in a simple syrup made with chamomile flowers from our garden. Since we had no crème fraiche or heavy cream for whipping, I sent my survivalist back into the wild to gather some vanilla ice cream at the local deli. He made it back, just before the rain, where we feasted, safe and secure in our little life together. I think we’ll survive.