Photo: David Goehring
Despite the common belief that New Yorkers can’t get closer to the wilderness than the reservoir in Central Park, a 24-hour adult survival course at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy taught me otherwise.
As a Southerner by birth but a New Yorker by choice, I worried I was no match for Bear’s intense, urine-drinking, larvae-eating wilderness survival course. Yet I was forced across a freezing river in the Catskills, where amenities and food were minimal, and my socks became cold little sponges from hell. I never felt I wouldn’t make it. Because as we become New Yorkers, the city instills in us a number of vital survival skills, better equipping us to live in the wild than many realize.
1. We’re used to extreme living conditions.
There are no tents at Survival School, so I built a shelter by crosshatching sticks and waterproofed them with pretty ferns. Our fort easily slept four, which is more than I can say for my bedroom in the East Village, where two can’t comfortably stand, even if the door’s open. Some of the more highly trained New Yorkers live in windowless rooms no bigger than jail cells, with rodents, bugs, and two other people.
2. We love farm-to-table cuisine.
I bet if Smorgasburg started selling mealworms wrapped in vitamin C-rich wood sorrel, doused with a little olive oil, New Yorkers would stand in line.
We’re always looking for hot new food trends, like cricket tacos, foie-gras ice cream, and the outrageous balut, which is basically a hard-boiled egg with a partially formed duck fetus inside (served at Maharlika in the East Village). I popped worms into my mouth for breakfast, feeling them tense up before I crunched them in half.
3. We already never sleep.
Nobody moves to New York looking for peace and quiet. How can I sleep when I work long hours and still want to make happy hour, Tinder dates, soul cycle, hot yoga, and brunch? So when I woke shivering in my very cute but very cold shelter in the forest, after about 12 minutes of sleep, to my survival mate claiming something the size of a cat crawled on me in the night, I actually felt refreshed.
4. We work with what we have.
In the forest, we built a fire out of a tampon, steel wool, and batteries. For many, these fire-making tools may seem obscure, but New York’s taught me to utilize everything in order to get by.
The city’s skillfully trained me to spend $34 on cocktails every night, $11 on freshly pressed juice in the morning, and $1,400 on rent every month. I’m not sure how I’m able to swing it all with my shamefully low salary, but I also couldn’t tell you how the hell I cooked a rabbit over a fire made from a AA battery.
5. We’re immune to gross things.
I once watched a guy in Washington Square Park burning his skin with a cigarette lighter. Two days before that, I almost stepped on a rat eating some puke in the subway. So sawing off the leg of a dead bunny and then skewering it over a fire for food wasn’t the worst experience. To catch the critter, we learned to make a simple snare near a burrow and a spring-loaded trap with wire, which I may mimic to catch the mouse in my apartment later.
6. We’re used to feeling lonely.
Despite buzzing with millions of people 24/7 and offering no real personal space, NYC feels so inexplicably lonely. Being solo in the wilderness, away from smelly people and noise, actually felt inviting. Although I’m sure I’d eventually miss the horns and the man living outside my apartment who hides his beer under a traffic cone and yells at me.
7. We’re pros at inclement weather.
The NYC winters had me trekking a painful and non-optional two-mile walk to my office in multiple blizzards, and summers are so hot the only real breeze is the one created by the subway when it whizzes by the platform, but New Yorkers always manage.
In the forest, I padded the ground with ferns to help insulate my body heat against the cold, wet dirt while I slept. It didn’t really work, but neither did the clanky heater in my apartment over the winter. So I’m used to sleeping in the cold.
8. We aren’t coddled.
After jumping into freezing rivers, rationing food, searching for edible plants, rappelling down the side of a mountain, and crawling across a rope bridge, my feet were zonked and pruney, and I was hungry as shit.
I’ve never felt exactly like this in NYC, but the time the subway broke down, I couldn’t get a taxi, and had to slog home in heavy rain through trash-filled puddles lugging four bags of Trader Joe’s groceries without an umbrella was pretty close. There are days when this city is so hard all I want to do is sail away from this toilet of an island and never return.
9. We’re determined.
In the wilderness, I zip-lined over waterfalls, built a shelter from hefty tree branches, and slept in a coyote-infested forest. I searched for water and ate worms, and, if left long enough, I’d maybe have drunk my own pee.
In the concrete jungle, I constantly feel pressure to climb the corporate ladder among some of the most talented and determined individuals fighting for similar goals. It’s survival of the fittest in the city, and only those who really want it will make it work.