A Yankee Notebook

September 5, 2016


RED HILL, NEW HAMPSHIRE – I got an e-mail a few weeks ago from a producer at New Hampshire Public Television, and answered it like this, as near as I can remember: “Without knowing exactly what you’re proposing, I can assure you that I won’t be the slightest bit afraid, and no matter what others may or may not wear that day, I will definitely not be naked.”

I’m never quite sure where some of the ideas for episodes of our outdoor show come from. A few I can identify as having originated in the offices of folks at pay grades well above mine; others I can tell come from producers with a strong social consciousness; and a lot come from viewers with interesting ideas. Most turn out to be pretty good. But this one didn’t seem to make any sense. I was to be climbing Red Hill, near Center Harbor, New Hampshire, with a “survivalist” who’d been a participant on the Discovery Channel’s popular show Naked and Afraid.

There’s apparently a whole other world out there on cable television just beyond my old-timey range of interests. CNN does it for me for news, Jeopardy (NBC) for stimulation, and Public Television for entertainment. I’m only dimly aware of, and utterly uninterested in, “reality” shows that seem to captivate the imagination of many fellow Americans – Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Ice-Road Truckers, Most Dangerous Catch, and the like. Naked and Afraid is definitely among them. The obvious prurient appeal of the title is to me a turnoff, and the notion of a camera crew – producer, director, videographers – filming every move of a pair of naked young people attempting to survive for weeks in a wilderness setting seemed ludicrous to me.

Still, the experience fit with my one-new-thing-a-week goal, and further e-mails elicited that I didn’t have to don fig leaves and hike barefoot, but would instead be chatting with a young woman who’s done a wide variety of offbeat things and would be a guide to edible and medicinal plants along the trail in New Hampshire and could also describe the trials of her survival experience.

There are several kinds of survivalists. One type is religious: the Mormons, for example, who stock a year’s supply of nonperishable supplies in case of a widespread calamity. Another is political: disgruntled characters in camouflage clothing stocking up weapons, gear, and skills to deal with a governmental apocalypse. The kind we’re talking about here are folks who can start fires without matches, spear fish or trap game, and build shelters effective against the elements. I got on Google and looked up the subject of our coming shoot. You can, too; her name is Laura Zerra.

Naturally, she’s best known as an outstanding cast member on Naked and Afraid. So I went there first, and watched some two-minute clips of her and her partner on the show: Cliff, a country singer/survivalist from Illinois (If he’d been my partner, I’d’ve quit or strangled him on Day Two because of his accent). They’re supposed to survive for 21 days on a small island off Panama. Sure enough, they’re naked, but a blur machine follows their private parts around like a chaperone, preventing a confrontation with the FCC. They’re also barefoot, and after the first night are covered head to toe with fiercely itching bites from uncounted zillions of sand flies. Nothing deters the flies – not mud or shelter or, when they finally get a fire going in the wet jungle, smoke. But they manage to make it through, with Laura providing the skills, initiative, and gumption when the chips are down. She was rehired later, for a forty-day survival gig in Colombia.

Red Hill is pretty interesting, too. It’s part of a “plutonic swarm” of magma that bubbled to the surface, or near it, in New Hampshire and Quebec perhaps a quarter of a billion years ago. Red Hill was formed by one such dome that, when it later drained, collapsed and left a so-called “ring dike” around its perimeter. Its composition is a fairly rare syenite rock , a granite that weathers into bits about the size of popcorn. It’s been quarried for road-building material, and provides excellent traction underfoot on the 1.7-mile trail to the summit fire tower.

A childhood and youth increasingly fascinated by the outdoors and its denizens led Laura to Conn College. But she dropped out just before graduation and headed south, eventually working her way up the west coast of Mexico doing odd jobs and learning more survival skills – both natural and social. One little bit in her autobiography gave me hope: She said she’d gone from being a “self-righteous vegan” to a more natural omnivorous diet; I wasn’t about to get a sermon. During the fall, she sometimes works as a butcher of deer and bear; she’s learned taxidermy and horseshoeing; she can tan hides with brain tissue; she leads an occasional “survival” outing for schoolchildren; and we’ve both worked for Outward Bound, though fifty years apart.

I left home at five on the morning of our hike in order to get to the trailhead by eight. The rest of the crew showed up on time, we introduced ourselves, and then it was off up the hill. The climb averages eight hundred feet per mile, so it’s steep enough to get your attention, but it’s also very popular with the locals of all ages, who made up most of the folks we met on the trail. Along the oak-shaded way, Laura – an attractive, delightful person with a gift for easy give-and-take – talked about how to prepare acorns to render them edible, and pointed out a patch of sweet fern that the Iroquois used to cure diarrhea. I filed that tidbit away for future reference.

The conversation seemed inevitably to loop back to her experience in Panama with the flies, snakes, sharks, and caymans (they killed and ate one). The theme that ran through every experience was that of attitude: the sense that “I (or we) can do this.” She doesn’t seek discomfort, but accepts it as part of a quest to live life to its fullest – even when naked.

Photo by Willem lange