40 Days of solitude and danger in the Mendocino National Forest
In late 2016 I was in a tough spot; having cycled almost 4,500 miles across the United States life seemed almost dull. When I was cycling, everything seemed to make sense, all that mattered were the basics; and living off $15 a day meant a wicked simple existence. People had called me during the journey telling me how they were inspired; I had felt on top of the world and coming down from that natural high left me feeling blue.
I didn’t know what to do next. I had no money, had developed an ability to sleep in almost any public green space without being noticed (the goal is to keep yourself camouflaged and in the trees or shrubs,) and didn’t know if I could continue to live a truly inspiring life. When on my purpose everything was so clear but failed to find a career that fit into that purpose.
Years before I was in finance, and learned the art of manipulating others in order to sell them financial instruments. I had attended a Master’s program at CUNY Baruch, and two weeks after the program began, Lehman Brothers collapsed, leading me to question everything about our modern, extractive, and degenerative financial system and economy at large. I tried for years to pretend as though I believed in our shared economic fallacy (also known as the degenerative economy) but to no avail. Part of the drive for cycling cross country was to reinvent myself, and there I was, in San Francisco, working as a TaskRabbit, homeless, and practically penniless. I needed to do something to change my psychological state, so I turned to two sources I trusted deeply; Tony Robbins coaching materials and the Bible.
Many in the coaching community use 40-day exercises as a way to retrain the mind, to recreate ourselves. In the Bible, Moses spent 40 days alone on top of Mount Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandment stone tablets from the above. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness alone after being baptized by John the Baptist, where he was tempted by the ultimate arch enemy. Since I read the Bible more as a metaphor and less of a dogmatic text, I thought it would be good to transform myself in a similar way, not out of a sense of grandeur or comparison of myself to these Biblical characters, but instead to face my own arch enemy; my internal bitterness, self-loathing, rage, and apathy. I wanted to regenerate myself and restore my spirit within, and I met a friend named Amelia in a San Francisco Airbnb bunkhouse and convinced her to come into the woods with me.
Amelia and I took a bus to Ukiah, slept a night in a fleabag motel. We didn’t know each other well, but we continued to talk of our commitment to this journey, of each of our individual goals. The next day, a yellow cab arrived at our hotel, we jumped in and traveled to the Trout Creek Campground at the edge of the forest. Amelia had a cool camo tent, and I enjoyed sleeping outside under the stars, in a green, waterproof tarp with a bug net that kept the mosquitoes out. After hitchhiking into the park and hiking about 5 miles, we camped by Lake Pillsbury’s edge, the lake bursting with water and fish, surrounded by green hills. Amelia returned to the country store on Day 5, and decided 40 days in the woods was not for her. I packed my camp and turned deeper into the wilderness, with a commitment to not turn back; little did I know how hard that would be.
When spending time alone in the woods, water is a serious consideration, and in the late spring, Mendocino National Forest is overflowing with it. In life as well as in the woods alone, taking well-trodden path is not an option, and soon I realized how hard it was to hike through the thick brush that enveloped the woods off the main trails without a machete. That lead to an easy fix; follow the rivers and water features, in search of places to rest and restore. The sounds of the creek helped lull me to sleep, and occasionally an unsuspecting coyote or another animal would cross and scurry off bewildered.
While cycling across the US, riparian buffers, where water and land meet, were the routes traveled most. The US is covered in former railroads that have been converted into bicycle trails, and many times they are the flattest routes on a landscape. After reaching the northeastern lakeshore, just behind Sunset campground, I jumped down into the small flowing creek to find solitude and restoration. After hiking 5 miles north toward Hull Mountain peak, I set up camp at a river bend with lots of shade. I was getting used to the ecosystem; the mixed conifer forests, and the oak woodlands while adapting to a 600 calorie a day diet. The orange moon lingered above and kissed the landscape gently at night. During the day, there were faraway sounds of dirtbikes and Enduro motorcyclists speeding along the dirt trails, kicking soot into the air, and a few gunshots with yells of enjoyment afterward, also small planes occasionally flew overhead. Besides that, it was silent and serene. Birds chirped throughout the day, golden eagles soared above circling for their prey. At dusk, frogs croaked, leading to the darkness filled with coyotes howling and owls hooting.
These days were spent walking the creek beds and circumnavigating the lake, encountering many dark tan Tule Elk with brown fur around their necks, who let humans get very close when drinking the waters of Pillsbury. The elk, who were hunted almost to extinction during the Gold Rush, were reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore from the stock in Mendocino National Forest, and a 2007 study showed they ‘appear(ed) to play a critical role in preventing succession of open grasslands to less diverse, shrub-dominated ecosystems. Elk grazing had a positive impact on native grassland species abundance and diversity.’ A lesson for regenerating ecosystems; four-legged ruminants can have a very positive impact on a landscape when managed properly.
For leisure, days were spent sifting through Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Bible and the Gnostic texts. It was great digesting the wisdom of the ages against a backdrop of nature as if I rediscovered the original Cathedral; the abundant natural world. As a mystic, I sat in meditation most days at sundown, during the mosquito witching hour, tucked under the green, mesh net keeping them at bay. To this day, when sitting in meditation, I can sometimes hear the buzzing of mosquitoes in my ear; a faint memory of that feral time.
On Day 10 the journey unfolded north toward Hull Mountain, a 7k foot elevation peak that was not easily accessible due to trail/ road construction. Eating little kept me focused on using energy sparingly, so I decided to stay within 15 miles of the Soda Creek Store, the place where I could hitchhike out of the forest when the journey was over. It was a quaint and pricey little spot, as getting supplies into the forest was expensive. The owner told me of a hunter a few years back who got lost in the woods for 18 days, and asked me to check in with her before I left, to make sure I was safe; it was nice to feel looked after.
The 600 calorie diet was supplemented with nature’s bounty; wild onions, some edible foraged wild lettuce, and a few frogs caught by the creeks and rivers. Frog preparation included peeling the skin, removing the gills, and cooking them in avocado oil with sea salt; a slight twist on meals learned from the days at Culinary Institute of America so many years before.
Many days later, on Day 38, the maximum amount of sun was to burst across the sky for the summer solstice, so I searched for southern exposed hillside close to water. Though my body is pale and freckled that pays a tax for heavy sun exposure, ancient shamans and native wisdom seekers say that solstices are days when our intuition can be heightened by cosmic forces. Since it was set to be the eighth day of a 10-day water fast, water had to be close by for optimal safety.
After days of searching, and crawling up creeks to hilltops, I stumbled upon what looked like the perfect spot, just north of rattlesnake creek, with a perfect view. Upon climbing around, I lost my footing on a rocky spot near the hilltop, falling to the ground with a thud and five feet from a rattle shaking snake. Sssssss. Sssssss. Sssssss. It stood up, perched, I thought briefly ‘maybe I should kill it and eat it?’ Then fear set in and I backed away slowly to safety. Having grown up in the suburbs of MA with no hunting experience, there was no way a rattlesnake would be as easy to kill as the frogs had been. On the way up to that perch a felled tree had fallen into the creek, taking a waterproof blue barrel with it. It was covered in tattered camouflage tarps, and my small knife barely pierced through the thick plastic, my mouth salivating at the thought of canned fish, but inside there were a few cooking utensils and lighter fluid and some kitchen utensils. Little did I know who hid that barrel.
Mendocino National Forest, an inland forest located near many other CA beautiful outdoor spaces, is the least visited national forest in the state. After my journey, I found out it is a well-known fact that weed growing squatters post up in the forest, and they eliminate any threats to their crops; whether animal, hunter, or hippie looking for a place to meditate. Marijuana loves southern exposed hilltops close to water, the exact landscape I was looking for to meditate during the solstice. Along the streams, every few miles lay illegal irrigation plastic PVC pipes sucking water up to grow operations in the forest.
JC found his nemesis after 40 Days in the wilderness and after 24 days in the woods, I am pretty certain the Mexican drug cartel found me. That day was spent hiking miles around the park for a safer perch with no rattlesnakes, returning to my stashed black, backpack just before sundown for meditation.
After a few minutes of envisioning the energy of the Earth flow through my body and into the center of the Sun, a hunter began pacing in the distance, gun in hand, noisily emitting ‘Caaaw Caaaw Caaaw Caaaw.’ I was startled, and thought, ‘I doubt he knows I am here,’ and mid June is not hunting season. The mysterious hunter kept pacing and making that noise until the sun went down, and the forest began to fill with the noises of crawling and softly walking hunters. For what felt like hours, the sounds became closer, the cracking of sticks behind me, around me, possibly seven crawling bodies. I heard a dog collar jingle slightly, and an electric vehicle in the distance as quiet as a golf cart.
The hairs on my body started to raise up; all within my body I felt fear and cold. For a brief moment, a picture of my body parts strewn across the forest flashed in my mind; and then in the pitch black, a human’s arm, covered in moss or the camouflage strings of a ghillie suit, crossed over my sleeping bag inches from my body. I stood up and told them my whole life’s story; how I arrived there via hitchhiking 24 days earlier, how I eat frogs and wild onions, that I have very few fiat dollars to my name, and that I was searching for the perfect spot to meditate on the summer solstice. I spoke of my politics, how I’d love to end the drug war, how I helped a SPARC, a marijuana dispensary in SF with an IRS audit to make money to go into the forest, that I spent time with Occupy Weed Street doing marijuana activism in NYC, and if I were in charge of these federal forests, how I would plant fruit, nut trees and edible brush plants interspersed with the native trees, so that other spiritual seekers and nature lovers could come into the forest to meditate and find themselves and be nourished.
The noises all around continued, except the person inches away, who felt like the Angel of Death breathing into my soul. I knelt down and began to recite-
Psalm 23- The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.6 Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
They began to back away. The sounds of the dog leash and the crawling receded from the woods into the trail just behind us. The electric vehicle began to pull away; I began to weep.
Day 25 I barely ate, didn’t start a fire, and didn’t move from the place on Earth where I thought was going to be where this life was to end. Day 26 I packed my things, kissed the ground I hadn’t moved from in 36 hours, and began to walk away. I considered the thoughts racing through my mind as I walked; where they marijuana growers? Am I still in danger? If I head far away from here and continue this, is that ok? My intuition told me it should be, and it was dead wrong.
Day 27 I was bathing in the Snake River at sunset, about a mile from Bloody Rock; a monument to the indigenous people killed years before and considered my own almost demise a few nights before. For years I had refused to participate, to the greatest of my ability, in the destructive and degenerative economy we live as a part of. Having cycled here, I put myself in a small amount of danger, but nothing like this wilderness trip. I imagined how the Native Americans, like the Wampanoags, felt when the same people they took in and saved from starvation grew over years to kill and displace them. I considered how the natives of almost all nations, who didn’t look at the world, forests, land, or wildlife as things to exploit or extract from, how they were raped and murdered. I then wept into the river, and washed in the tears of grief.
At sunset, I heard the noise again, the electric vehicle and the silent dog’s leash. I thought, ‘how on Earth do I survive this- if they come back I am a dead man?’ I thought back to the movies I used to watch with my uncle Toby; my uncle took us to the movies almost every week as a kid, and many of the stories I loved most included people being chased by dogs; the chased always ran into the water to hide their scent. So as it got dark, I hoisted my 60 pound backpack onto my body, snuck quietly into Snake River, and floated downstream, slamming at times up against the rocks from the weight of the bag and speed of the flowing river. Later that evening I found a rock formation next to the river, where I hid and slept for a whole day, shivering and drinking water, hiding my pee and poo so as to not alert their dog of where I was.
Day 29 I came across a split in the river, and this area was an area where no firearms were permitted, so ducks and other wildlife allowed me to get really close. I was still scared for my life, and had only a day left of food before I began my fast, and questioned, should I head back now or hide for another ten days, so when I do leave to hitchhike they aren't waiting for me? Since I had told the crawling visitors that I had hitchhiked in and what route I took, it seemed right to stay in the woods the full 40 days. As I was considering it, I startled a duck who dropped out of its mouth a squawfish; so the last meal I ate, and the last fire I lit, was to cook that bony fish; and I felt nourished and gathered my courage to stay.
I doubled back a little way, heading back up the Snake River toward Bloody Rock, knowing that the last ten days of no food were going to be a challenge. At night, mountain lions and bobcats would howl, flexing their apex predator muscles. I found another creek, waded up ensuring not to be tracked, and found a little natural crypt in an oak savannah on the hillside with plenty of shade and grassland to keep my interest. As the days of fasting progressed I barely moved, had a daily ritual of journaling and meditation, and felt nature in my bones, watching the sun rise and set, keeping track of the days that passed by carving Roman numerals into a felled tree branch in camp. After 8 days, having absorbed the solstice energy, I broke for Soda Creek Store, and the two day, 12 mi hike back to safety was tense.
Ragged, with a long beard, and deep hunger, I walked into the store and ate my first meal- beef jerky, pickled eggs and a bottle of Negro Modelo that was warm from the faulty refrigerator; it tasted like pure bliss. I caught a ride with a young couple on their way down toward Ukiah, and they both exclaimed how lucky I was to be alive, ‘they kill you if they find you in the bush,’ the man said. In a way, I thought, these hunters shook me to the core. When hunted, I felt so alive, so aware of every step, breath, and action, I was grateful to both be alive, and for having lived to my fullest.
I returned to SF to start a new chapter in life, landing a job at a tech startup under the tutelage of an entrepreneur and spiritual teacher. I’ll never forget those days of solitude in the wilderness; every month since I sleep out alone in nature to reset my nervous system.