Emory Report

January 24, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 18

Emory Profile

Mahlon DeLong,getting back to the very basics

by Eric Rangus

He is one of the world's most renowned neurosurgeons. He has performed groundbreaking work in finding the causes of and possible cures for Parkinson's Disease.

Lighting a fire is a completely different story.

Not just any fire, mind you. One in the middle of the rocks and scrub of southern Utah--with the closest book of matches somewhere on the outskirts of Provo.

"The joke is you pay a thousand or so dollars to go out and sleep on the ground and gather your own food," said Mahlon DeLong, chair of the neurology department.

In search of a way to re-establish contact with his 25-year-old son John, who lives in Baltimore, the DeLongs came across BOSS, an acronym for the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. BOSS' literature states that the 32-year-old organization is "dedicated to the instruction and preservation of traditional living skills and to the development of people through experiences within the natural world."

And they do mean traditional and natural.

BOSS' curriculum features various types of field and skills courses--some as long as 28 days--that teach students to live off the land without modern implements like sleeping bags, water bottles or Power Bars.

After a review of the offerings, the DeLongs chose perhaps the most primitive option: the Hunter-Gatherer Course.

DeLong, 61, was no stranger to the outdoors; he'd camped and hiked frequently with his family and even took part in an Air Force wilderness test during an Alaska winter while in college. Nothing, though, had prepared him for this.

Quite a bit more than just extreme camping, the course dumps students in the middle of the wilderness of the Escalante National Monument in remote Southern Utah--some of the most unforgiving land in the country--and leaves them to fend for themselves.

The group's equipment? Nothing. Only what they could make during a crash four-day training course at base camp. That consisted of some baskets, clay pots, hollowed-out gourds to carry water and crude sleeping materials made of reeds.

"It's all basically Stone Age technology," DeLong said. "Hunter/gatherer, Stone Age, aboriginal, all of those words apply to it."

Particularly hunter/gatherer, emphasis on the gatherer.

"The idea of hunting was really not something that panned out," DeLong said. The only weapons the group had were crudely made of stone, and their traps netted only one unlucky mouse.

"I've come to appreciate and respect the tenacity and strength of our ancestors who did this," DeLong said. "It's given me a sense of awe about primitive man."

Fishing wasn't any more successful than hunting. The group tried spears, as well as grabbing fish by hand, and came up empty. With traditional game out of the question, the DeLongs and the rest of the group subsisted primarily on nuts from pinion trees, cactus flowers and prickly pears.

They ate grasshoppers, too.

"Grasshoppers are really easy to catch if you get them early in the morning before the sun hits them. When they're hanging in the bushes and trees you can pick them off," DeLong said. "They taste a little bit like shrimp. You have to roast them by the fire. They actually are not bad at all if you cook them right."

Certain leaves, when mixed with the grasshoppers, also improve the taste, DeLong said.

Side salads or not, food was a constant problem. DeLong lost 10-12 pounds over the two-week sabbatical and suffered frequently from fatigue. Dealing with dehydration was a struggle as well. The group found just one cascading area of water and often drank from pools that formed in crevasses after rainfalls. Most of the water had to be boiled before drinking, too.

Perhaps the main waking activity was searching for food--primal life at its most extreme. Things didn't get any easier at nighttime, as sleep was at a premium and almost never comfortable.

Although the late August-early September desert temperatures reached the 90s during the day, they dropped into the 40s at night. The group huddled as they slept since their crude sleeping materials provided little insulation.

Although they didn't camp out in the open, they weren't completely covered either. Camps were made underneath eroded rocks that provided shelter overhead but were open on the sides.

The unpredictability of the wild made for some tense moments. At one point, John and one of the guides were cut off from the rest of the group by a flash flood. They returned safely after several hours. Later, that same guide, a bearded, hippie-looking fellow named Dave, was found unresponsive and without a pulse next to the campfire. Mahlon DeLong revived him, and miraculously, by the next day he was fine.

DeLong had his own bout with unconsciousness that he said one was brought on by a combination of fatigue, dehydration and hyperventilation. He blacked out and had what he des-cribed as an out-of-body experience, being bathed in white light and having the feeling of being outside himself.

"I knew what had happened, and thought, 'God, this is the most amazing thing.'" DeLong said. "I'd never experienced something like that."

The group started with 11 campers and two guides. Only five campers stuck it out for the entire 10-day wilderness trek. Two of them were DeLongs.

"I think I've come to really appreciate very simple things," DeLong said. "I've come to realize that happiness and satisfaction can come about from doing things that are very basic. The amazing thing to all of us was that we were happy doing very basic things, hunting and gathering, and just enjoying the environment and each other."

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