Editor’s note: Mary Calder is one of our most dedicated readers and member of our small community here on Askaprepper.com. This is her 10-month struggle to survive off the land in a life-threatening situation, from which we can all learn something valuable.
My ten-month, off-the-grid adventure started with me being unprepared in the sense I’d not planned a trip. I didn’t really pack to leave. I was in a life-threatening marriage. I was watched most of the time, and there was a serious threat on my life if I ever left.
One March afternoon in 1968, I realized I was alone and that it would be about 20 minutes until someone arrived to watch me. I knew I couldn’t go to friends or family without endangering someone else. In one quick, panicked moment, I decided this wasn’t living, so I grabbed a shirt, a pair of jeans, and a change of socks and underwear and stuffed them in a paper grocery bag.
Hitting the Road
I tried to walk calmly to not draw attention as I locked the door and walked away. We lived in a residential neighborhood in a medium-sized town. I didn’t want to be particularly remembered. Wearing jeans, a black western shirt with big pink cabbage roses on it, and my 18″ engineer boots, there was no way to just disappear, but I did it.
I walked through town to reach the more rural of the two roads traversing the length of our county. I tried to stay calm, but I guarantee I wasn’t calm at all. I needed to look like I’d just been grocery shopping and was walking home. I walked through the downtown area where confrontation was only slightly less likely. I kept going till I was out of town.
I listened for cars and motorcycles and hid in ditches and thick brush till they passed around a curve and were out of sight. I had no idea how long it would take to get where I thought I might be safe. I walked till dark then decided dark was better.
With just a bit of moonlight, I could just make out the road and walk on the shoulder. I walked all night. About dawn, I was near another country road. That meant I wasn’t too far from a stream graciously called “River” that flowed the length of the county. I headed for the stream and crawled around obvious poison oak that was climbing old oak trees. I walked around a bend so I couldn’t be seen from the lovely old stone bridge and winding country road.
I drank my fill from the flowing water and fell asleep on warm sand beyond the rocks in the main flow area. It was afternoon when I woke up. I could hear a tractor working in a nearby vineyard. I crawled up to the bank and stayed quiet for a while. When the tractor left, I walked back to the bridge and found a trail up to the pavement.
Hiding in Plain Sight
There was a stand of wild oats on the shoulder of the road, so I chewed on the early spring growth. I found an old rose hip on a thorny thicket and chewed on the thin skin. I was hungry enough that every bite was memorable.
I walked back to the road I’d followed the day before. It wasn’t dark yet, so every vehicle was a terror to hide from. I saw wild salsify, but I’d never tried to eat it raw. Munching on dandelions along the shoulder of the road just made me hungrier, but I ate some anyway.
The inventory in my pockets was the sum total of a dull pocketknife and half a book of paper matches. My driver’s license was nestled in a very empty wallet with a couple of pictures of my two little boys. Thankfully they were with my parents.
I started walking again. I passed a tiny country town. One more to get through that night. I had to walk through the town, so I did it as quickly as possible. Once a car drove through town, and I walked up to an empty home and pretended to open the door.
I chewed on a few weeds and drank from pools in the riverbed, where I slept during the day. I hid in overhangs when possible. People worked the fields and vineyards all along the “river,” so I worked to stay out of sight.
The third night I was on the far side of the valley from the town where I’d gone to high school. Many people there would know me, so I was being even more careful. A friend did see me. I made the excuse I’d been visiting friends and was out walking to see if the area had changed much. “About dark, so time to hurry back.”
I was too afraid to spend another night by the river or near the road, so I walked on for several more miles to an area I knew very well. I took off up the hills toward the area we had moved to when I was eleven. There was an old, small cattle ranch nearby that hadn’t been used in years. I’d run around the whole area from sunup to after sundown for several years.
I didn’t know any other place where I could stay out of sight in the hills. Privacy solved.
Starvation, My Archnemesis
My hunger was getting urgent. I ate most of a patch of miner’s lettuce and curled up under an evergreen tree with low-hanging branches. At last my stomach wasn’t trying to eat my spine anymore. I didn’t know hunger could feel like that.
At dawn, I walked down to the small stream that flowed across the fields and through the woods. I saw tiny minnows in the water, but when I tried to catch them with my hands, they mostly escaped through my fingers. I swallowed the three larger ones I’d managed to trap in my hands. No help. I found yarrow in the rocks near the stream. I chewed on that and more miner’s lettuce. Better than nothing but not enough.
It was cooler here under the thick trees than lower in the valley. I put on the second shirt like a jacket. I decided to follow the little stream and see what had changed there since I was thirteen and had last run free in these woods and fields.
First, I explored back toward the valley. A dirt road had been built, and a dam was beginning to fill. I’d crossed the road but didn’t recognize it in the dark. The little stream was now corralled into a culvert under the access road to the dam. My favorite spot on the creek was now at the edge of the road: a three-foot waterfall into a bowl worn into the rock where it fell. Maidenhair ferns banked the sides. It was as pretty as any picture. As night approached, I hid in the woods and waited.
Learning to Appreciate the Small Things
When it was dark and a chain across the road was locked, I quickly stripped down, sat in the bowl of cold water, and let the water splash down over me. There was no soap, but I scrubbed with the sand then rinsed off while I laughed out loud. I was picturing Grandma scrubbing her old cast iron pot with a bit of sand from the stream when we went camping. I made up my mind that I was going to survive and come out of this stronger than ever before. Call me cast iron!
Then I remembered I was cold, wet, and hungry, but I was clean! I dressed, walked back into the woods, and rolled up in a ball under a thicket of bushes with lots of tiny spring leaves. I didn’t even have a comb for my now very tangled, waist-length hair. Still, clean felt good, and it gave me hope.
A tiny breeze stirred with the early dawn. I awoke and knew I needed to find food. I broke off a downed branch with a short fork at the top. It became my walking stick, but it was rough on my hand. Still, I knew from past years there may still be lots of rattlesnakes living in this green, lush area.
The woods were thick with underbrush that hadn’t been cleared by fire in many years. There were quite a few packrat nests. Big knots of dry twigs held the treasures and young rats. There was sometimes a cache of seeds too. I left the family chamber intact while I robbed the stash of seeds gathered last fall. It was an odd mix of wild oats, grasses, and who knows what. I took a double handful at a time and walked to the stream to rinse them off in the flow of cool water. I ate them just as they were. I chewed and chewed, savoring every mouthful. Now my belly felt better, but I still needed other sources.
Doing What I Didn’t Want Just to Survive
I climbed back up through the woods to an open area where the last cows chewed their lazy cud the year I was eleven. Now even the remains of cow pies were almost gone. There were some large boulders in an open half circle. Granite. I pulled out my dull knife. I grew up using a whetstone, so I decided to try sharpening my knife on a boulder. A miracle. It worked!
I saw a salamander by the tiny stream. Catching it went okay, but once its head was off, I couldn’t chew it. I don’t mean I was squeamish. I mean my teeth weren’t accomplishing mastication. Okay. I’d try cooking one someday. Maybe that would help. I found acorns along the edge of the woods, mostly small ones from a live oak but a handful of acorns from a big white oak. They were turning pink inside the shell and getting ready to sprout. I peeled one and took a tiny nibble. It was almost sweet and rather pleasant. I ate the handful I found half buried in the leaves. Tall oak trees were now on my radar. Lots of green leaves were coming up, so I started eating those.
I was grazing, but my belly felt better. Two days later, my head was hurting, but I was getting the hang of hunting the plants Mom had taught me were edible. I headed back across the woods. The peeled walking stick was much better on my hands, and I felt more confident with it in my hand.
I watched a family clean up their picnic. Everything went in the little-used trash receptacle by the dam that obviously would someday be a small lake. After the chain was again locked, I waited a while then walked over to see what edibles were there. I ate crusts from the kids’ sandwiches and a half sandwich and chips. I took a glass Coke bottle so I could carry water with me.
After another bath in the tiny waterfall, I headed back into the shelter of the trees.
Then I started making real plans for life out there. I set stones for a fire at the edge of the large open pasture. I cleaned around it so I wouldn’t start a wildfire. I hunted for a flat rock to cook on in the fire pit. Then fear about settling into any one spot tried to overtake me.
I was finding a better variety of things to eat, but my size 12 jeans definitely needed the belt to keep them up, and the belt needed more holes. I lit the fire I’d laid and enjoyed the light and warmth. My boots with a folded shirt became a useable pillow.
While I was foraging, my fire went out. I was appalled. One fire, one match was great. But I only had nine more matches, and who knew when I’d live like a civilized person again?
Clinging to Hope
I found a small stand of an odd-looking ghost plant. Memory was kicking in. I could burn ghost plant and use the ashes like salt to season food. That would help.
Then I gathered the smaller acorns and peeled about a quart of them. They were cracked between rocks then buried in the wet dirt along the tiny stream. This time while out foraging, I found a fairly freshly killed rabbit’s remains. Someone had a nice meal.
Then it was my turn. I’m guessing it was a cat’s meal. The rabbit was covered in leaves and twigs. I built another fire and cooked rabbit remains on the flat rock. It was so good l wished I could lick the rock. Too bad there wasn’t a cook pot that could magically appear when a stew would be lovely.
Then a digging stick was finding wild carrots in sunny corners of the pasture and nubby roots under sunflowers. I remembered my dad telling how he and my aunts and uncle lived the first years after their mom took sick and their dad left—hunting and cooking frogs, gathering small wild peaches and plums in summer and persimmons in fall, noodling for catfish in deep pockets along streams flowing into the Arkansas River. There was not so much of that where I was.
Frogs, yes, and rabbits. His uncle taught him to find rabbits in the clumps of grass hanging over the riverbank and to stab with a sharp stick. If it comes out bloody, you’ll have rabbit for dinner. I didn’t have the Arkansas River, but I did have a tiny unnamed stream that ran down from the higher hills year round. If one rabbit was here, there must be more.
I sharpened a slender branch about five feet long. I tried stabbing into clumps where sneaky rabbits might be hiding. I got a few but not enough for surviving. It did help keep me going. The weak mornings and headaches were fewer now. Frog legs skinned and cooking on the flat rock jumped to strange internal rhythms.
Remembering Skills From Long Ago
I grew up mostly vegetarian. One summer Dad had taken me to a lake. He dug out his fishing gear and showed me how to put a wiggly worm on the hook. I’d caught a nice little bass. Dad’s rule. You catch it, you clean it, and you cook it and eat it. So he talked me through cleaning that fish and cooking it. There were no fish to catch on that tiny stream, but when I finally cleaned and cooked a rabbit, I applied what I’d learned and added skinning to my skillset.
I found a soup can down by the dam. It was okay for a bit of soup and awesome for teas. Suddenly pine needles or yarrow were on my beverage list, along with lots of water. I even drank creek water with tadpoles or minnows in it.
Ground acorns that had soaked in wet mud where water flowed started becoming little cakes cooked on the flat rock or soup cooked in the soup can in the hot coals of my campfire.
I finally was beginning to apply what I’d learned in campcraft classes. Boy, was I dumb to come out here with so little and act like I had never learned a thing. I learned applying is different than earning an honor or studying something. I had to apply it when no one was there to help or remind me. I had to dig deeper. I’d learned as a kid when it was more like a game. Now there was no team to help, just me.
I started talking to myself. I started thinking of more things to do to make life comfortable. I now had six different camps, just to keep on the move, let green leaves regrow some, and to have different kinds of shelters: under tall, thick evergreens; against the boulders at the edge of the pasture; in the thick woods by an ancient apple tree and a cistern by the stream where food stayed cool even in summer; at the thicket where I bathed at twilight; and in a little cleft in the rocks near the base of a rugged rockface where the rattlesnake bit my wrist when I was twelve and I went climbing, reaching blind above me.
Each met a different need for weather situations: deep woods when it was hot, and the tall evergreens with low branches were warm places on foggy, damp nights and mornings. The shallow cleft low on the rockface kept me out of the rain and let water drain away from me. It was dry, but I couldn’t sit up under the low ceiling. Any fire built there was in the open, and if it wasn’t raining, I could see the glow on the rocks if I lit a fire. It was just a dry bed.
I solved the problem of keeping and moving a fire with me. To keep it: bank well with ashes and keep some oak burning. To move it: soak a pair of panties and layer thick with white ashes from the fire. Always lay as many really hot coals as can be wrapped up and covered in the middle. Then encase in damp mud. When you leave camp, always leave dry branches, pinecones and twigs, and enough wood for at least a few hours of hot fire with some oak in the mix. The oak made great coals. When I reached the next camp, dry grass, bits of bark, and twigs would soon have a flame coaxed from the coals already starting the next campfire.
My Mind’s Survival
I’d unraveled the elastic threads from the waistband of my underwear. It was all the cordage I had. It was past being stretchy anymore anyway, but it had surprising strength when braided in three strands. It became a crude noose to snare small critters. Young, springy saplings became the power of the trap on game trails. After gently brushing the noose, the sapling sprang upright, drawing the noose closed and leaving the game hanging. Wow! That was simple.
It did take some practice getting it set so it could work as planned. The same noose but made smaller caught birds at the apple tree. Tie a rock to the end away from the noose. Lay the cord through a Y in the branches. Lay seeds on the branch, or set it by an apple. Lay the rock around back by the noose on the branch.
When a bird lands or starts pecking the seeds or the apple, the rock falls, and the bird’s feet are tied up in the noose. There’s not much food on a tiny bird but meat and bone-seasoned broth to drink or for a bit of soup. Some of that broth made cooked greens taste less bland. It was worth the trouble.
My bed became soft and warm as the piles of washed and dried rabbit skins on crude branch beds grew deeper.
Instead of making each camp invisible as a camp, I made each more homelike. I lived almost invisible to the outside world, but my heart needed home to make life worth living. Survival is more than how to keep a fire or practicing going in circles till you find the track you’re following. It’s more than learning salamanders aren’t edible. It’s more than multiple ways to prepare your many foods.
It’s the head game that stays busy, prays a lot, quotes memorized scriptures, and relives stories. It’s telling family again how much you love them even if it’s just in your head for right now. It’s planning. It’s figuring out how to do things. It’s more than a pack of handy tools and available foods, but God knows those things would have been welcomed. It’s coming out with your head and body intact on the other end of the SHTF situation.
Family is Family
After several months, judging by moon phases, I needed to know my parents and boys were okay. I hit on one compromise to my loner life. Moss or dried, green, slimy stuff from standing water worked okay for feminine needs, but it gave me an excuse to walk the ridges across the hills to my parents’ home. In the wee hours of the morning, I’d sneak in, kiss each boy lightly on a cheek, head for the guest bathroom, and take the monthly supplies Mom kept there.
When they disappeared, she knew it was me. That way she knew I was alive, but no one saw me. That could have cost them their lives if anyone said they’d seen me. Several times I found canned vegetables and condensed soups in the bathroom cabinet. I know she wanted me to take them, but I was still sticking to a small, nearly untraceable footprint. I couldn’t make myself take them. What I did take was burned and left no trace but ashes in a campfire. The camps could have been anyone’s.
A couple of times I burned my hand deep enough to blister badly. Once I cooled the burn in running water then chewed old seeds and put the paste on the burns. It helped. It healed quickly with no scarring. At home, I’d always just used vitamin E oil or a nut oil on burns. It was the best I could think up as a replacement.
I knew the area. That was a plus. It didn’t take long to learn the paths I wanted, even at night. I carried a couple of rabbit legs when I knew I needed to go near homes or on roads at night—something to keep dogs quiet once I’d made friends with them. I tried to befriend most dogs that would be out at night. I didn’t watch my fire on the evening I was going out after dark. I would just keep it going but save my night vision.
One night I saw two bright eyes reflecting the light from my fire. I sat very still and tried hard not to stare. In the morning, I could see where I’d been checked out by a cat somewhat larger than the house cats I’d grown up with. He’d walked around but avoided getting too close to me. His pad print was nearly the size of the palm of my hand.
Getting food and keeping the fire going was a nonstop job. I took patches of pine inner bark, cooked it on the flat rock, then pounded it till it looked like flour. Mixed with soaked cracked acorns and cooked like a tortilla, it was edible. The cracked soaked acorns cooked as a soup tasted like unseasoned pinto beans, edible but pretty bland. Oak ashes and burned ghost plant helped just slightly. Oak ashes in acorn meal cakes acted a bit as a leavening.
Related: How to Make Acorn Flour
Nettles cooked in a bit of hot water were pretty flat too. Rabbit roasted over a bed of hot coals was really quite tasty. Berries in season were a wonderful break from my bland cooking. Teas from rose and blackberry leaves and root were good. Yarrow tea was a bit more palatable when cooled. Summer and fall, rose hips made a fine tea. Pine growing tips could be carried in a pocket and chewed, on but they were better as a hot tea. I ate my first rattlesnake. I just threw it whole on my fire and picked it clean later. Skinning would come first when there was a next time.
Late that summer, someone left a one-pound coffee can by the dam. It became my stew pot. A rock dropped in while it was boiling kept it stirred while I gathered more food or wood. I was going out farther, now looking for new sources as one thing would end and as something else was becoming edible. It was wonderful to leave the can near the coals and come back later to something I could eat.
Thankfully, it was a mild climate. Some nights were indeed just at freezing or slightly below. I could hear the roar of fans in the valley below protecting the vineyards. Two western shirts weren’t much protection on those nights. The piled-up dried rabbit skins helped. After ten months, the heels of my socks were wearing paper thin. I was beginning to eye my other underwear as possible shields for my heels. Protecting my feet was a priority.
That November, as I walked down the ridges wearing two shirts and two pairs of jeans with my last two intact socks, I was questioning my ability to survive, but for ten months, I’d been getting better and better at it. Now I was worried about socks. What do you do? Stuff moss in the boots? Take a pair from home? Sure, that was available, but mostly I ignored that. I was leaving the smallest footprint possible to stay invisible or unidentifiable to outsiders.
I walked into the house as quietly as ever. Dad whispered, “Hi, kid.” I almost turned and walked out. I hadn’t heard a human voice for most of ten months.
He’d been waiting up for two nights to tell me my husband was dead, killed by a drunk driver. I was free. I had nothing to go back for, but I’d gained something I’d never had before: confidence. And I was alive!
I knew I could face anything and find a way to survive or overcome. There would be something that could meet any need. I’d just need to identify it.
Today I live simply as that has stuck with me. I still cook outside a lot out of a preference for simple meals cooked on a real wood fire. I’ve faced hard times and survived. I’ve been widowed twice now and married three times. I’d said I’d never remarry, but a patient man who loved my little boys showed me not everyone was a murderous enemy. We spent most of our 33 years together pastoring Native American churches and helping build churches on reservations. For 22 years, we operated a K–12 school aimed at college prep for our students.
In spite of injuries and surgeries, I’m still growing my garden, but my greenhouses haven’t had the attention they need right now. They will have to wait.
I still can and dry a lot. I plan to can seasoned rabbit, ready to add to stews with chicken and duck. Rabbit is good with other meats. A few birds and rabbits were the bulk of my wild meats.
Four years after this experience, I was the owner of my own restaurant and making a go of it. Sixteen- to 18-hour days six days a week seemed like nothing. I loved working with the public.
I know couldn’t do it alone today. Today I’d have to go with a family or group working together or find a way to quietly stay home in my tiny, unincorporated community. Being where meds, food, and a good bed are seems pretty inviting these days.
There were years of simple foraging with Mom. I’d passed classes in direction finding, tracking and reading signs, blazing or concealing a trail, camp cooking, knot tying, and making and setting up a camp—that all helped. Every summer we spent a few weeks traveling to visit family or see national parks. We heated canned beans on the manifold and ate cold sandwiches. We three slept in the car with army surplus green wool blankets and air mattresses we blew up at bedtime. I climbed Mount Whitney when I was thirteen.
When I was three, Dad and I climbed the inside of the Statue of Liberty all the way to the torch. One year, Dad made a little 4’x 8′ trailer with plywood sides and covered it with a tarp. Camping gear, food, and my bed were in the trailer. It gave me a bit more privacy. I loved it. I called it my ugly house, but it meant I’d see more places, and I loved that. I loved the sense of adventure. We were gypsies for those few short weeks each summer. One year Dad tied on two bicycles, and wherever we stopped, we’d ride for about an hour exploring.
It’s funny how ten months could so completely reshape my life. I still look back on what I learned and accomplished, and it shapes my approach to life today. It felt like I had been preparing all my life for that moment in time, and it changed me forever.
I read prepper sites, and glib survivalists have no concept of how hard it really is. It isn’t like a planned camping trip. No disrespect to the military guys who work hard learning and practicing survival for a few days or weeks, but they have a foreseeable end date. A store of guns, ammo, food, tents, and sleeping bags would be wonderful, but it’s keeping your sanity and ability to think things through that will help the most.
A snare that keeps hunting while you’re sleeping or gathering food or wood is worth its weight in gold. You can’t hunt or fish 24/7. A snare or fish trap can. A really simple bow and sharpened stick arrow was my apple picker for the ones up high. Who wants to wait for mushy, over-ripe apples to fall? The heated rabbit tendons could be glued into a longer bow string. I learned that by accident while I was cooking. Another gem gleaned from experience.
Anything in a teepee shape will shed water naturally. Most flowers are edible or make okay tea. Learn the poisonous plants of your area, and consider the rest of the flowers as yours. Mostly, I pick light-colored, single, non-daisy flowers for tea. Just personal preference.
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