Desert Emergency Survival Basics

Jack wrote this in November, 2005:

Afternoon Blogsters:

All the talk about chickens, cabins and Y2K got me thinking about the differences between people in various geographies and residential environments.  It came to me that a lot of blogsters are probably townies and don’t know much about people where the bonds of civilization run a bit thin.

A few years ago I wrote a book called Desert Emergency Survival Basics.  One chapter was dedicated to getting along with the locals in backwater areas.  It probably applies a lot of places besides deserts:

Ranchers, rainbow people, desert rats, and outfitters

Although it won’t be obvious to you, most land in the continental United States, both public and private, has someone watching it, trying to scratch out a living on it, and feeling ownership for it. When you turn off the pavement, you are an intruder into a socio-economic system you are probably unfamiliar with. Respect it.

The people you meet who live in remote areas don’t see a lot of strangers. They tend to have strong opinions about most things, and don’t get many opportunities to express them. Listen politely, nod, and smile a lot. These monologues aren’t an invitation for you to share your own opposing views.

You won’t convert a remote desert dweller to your pet opinions, and he won’t sway you to his. Your entire body of experience is unlike that of the person you are talking to. The observations about reality you base your opinions on are different.

Keep your eye on the ball. Your investment in this person involves finding your way somewhere, or finding your way back. You aren’t looking for a new best friend. You don’t care what he thinks about Japanese-made automobiles. Keep it tight.

Talking about religion, sex, and politics used to be a breach of manners. There were solid reasons for this. The potential for someone being offended was too great, and the returns, too small.

In remote areas today, those prohibitions should probably extend to other issues such as environmentalism, abortion, welfare, wolves, and almost everything besides the heat, the dry, and whether that dirt road goes all the way out to the pavement.

If he talks ugly about the government and welfare programs, you won’t win his heart by telling him you think grazing leases on public lands are just another kind of welfare. If he tells you the land you are on is “his”, and you know it’s actually public, he probably means he has the grazing lease.

You can use that as an opportunity to apologize and tell him you thought it was public, and drag out the map to show him where you thought you were. Turn on the GPS and plop it on one corner of the map to keep the wind from blowing it away. And let him show you where you actually are. If the map shows it’s public, you’ll both know without anything more needing to be said. Sometimes technology has advantages.

If a gate is closed when you get to it, close it behind you. Stay on the two-track and don’t drive on grass. Grass you drive over in June is still bent over and brown in August. Respect “No Trespassing” signs.

If you find you’ve driven into someone’s yard and you want to stop and chat, honk the horn and wait a few minutes before you get out of the vehicle. Give the dogs a chance to come out of hiding and stand on their hind legs snarling at you through the window, if they’re going to. Give the resident a chance to slip on a pair of bib overalls and clamp a kitchen match between his teeth before he comes out to greet you.

If you have a portable microphone and an oblique sense of humor you can point the megaphone at the front of the house and announce, “WE KNOW YOU ARE IN THERE! NOW COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!” But I don’t recommend that, or carrying your guitar to the front porch and trying to practice Dueling Banjoes with the rancher’s kid.

One of the unanticipated by-products of the War on Drugs is that people who used to depend on beef prices and drive 20 year old trucks are now driving new $30K 4x4s with extended cabs and are a lot less tolerant of strangers. If you hear the drone of a $5000 4-wheeler in the distance it will probably be a rancher out tending his cows. There are also a lot of bush-vets scattered around, and a few unreconstructed hippies.

For you, this calls for some specific attitude adjustments translated into your behavior. If you see something unusual, something that shouldn’t be where it is, something that indicates there’s been a lot of activity or gardening going on a long way from anywhere, don’t investigate or linger. If you try to do a little harvesting on your own, someone is likely to be offended. While you pat yourself on the back for your good luck, an emergency situation will probably develop.

Last, if you whiff the faint odor of acetone or iodine you are in the wrong place.  Go somewhere else. Whatever trouble you are in can’t compete with the trouble you are in.

Similarly, there are a few hard-core prospectors out there working established mining claims. They usually have a lot of pride of ownership. If you come across one of these, the law allows you to walk across it, because it’s public, multi-use land. However, the person who filed the claim owns the mineral rights. You don’t want to pick anything up or crank up your dry-washer to see how much color he’s getting. Bad form. The boundaries of the claim are marked at the corners. Go outside those boundaries if you want to do any rock collecting.

If you get out much, someday you’ll encounter a guy with an in-your-face, glaring stand-offishness and an air of knowing every possible thing about everything.  He’ll usually be in a cowboy uniform, but sometimes he’ll opt for BDUs. If he spits on the ground and glares when you greet him, there’s a fair-to-middling chance he’s an outfitter.

I don’t know whether the profession just draws men of that sort, or if they sit down and ponder the desired image and deliberately cultivate it. An outfitter depends on affluent flatlanders spending a few grand to be led to a giant bull elk or some other prey, usually. I assume they believe to be successful they have to be the kind of character the flatlanders can go home and shake their heads about to their wealthy friends so they’re dying to spend a few grand to meet this guy, too, and tell their friends.

These fellows don’t suffer fools joyfully, and they project the wisdom that every man, save one, is a fool. They save their purplest scorn for other outfitters, but you can figure on deep maroon for yourself at the very least. In any case, Hollywood discovered the type a few years ago and enshrined it in a movie, but they added an authenticity and charm that’s usually absent in the real item.

I’m telling you this so you are forewarned. Don’t bother asking the guy any questions or conversing with him unless you happen to be on the upswing end of your manic-depressive cycle and need a little something to get you back down a little. If you get any answers from him, they probably won’t be true, and the cost will be that you’ve had to communicate with him. The circumstance will have you replaying the conversation in your mind a week or so later, thinking what you wish you’d said.


Leave your politics at home. A banner on your car announcing that “Whitey Will Pay”, or your opinion of cows, whales, ranchers, guns, abortion, or the president, invites hostile attention on an unattended vehicle. If you need help you won’t improve the odds by rubbing the nose of your rescuer in your biases. You might find yourself at the mercy of a person who is violently opposed to your viewpoints a long way from the nearest lawyer or cop.

This could go on and on, and it begins to resemble a camp meeting sermon.

From Desert Emergency Survival Basics

Copyright 2003, Jack Purcell

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