Skip to comments.Big Sur Survivalist Tyson Curtis Will Be Ready
Posted on 05/16/2013 11:05:43 AM PDT by nickcarraway
Big Sur survivalist Tyson Curtis will be ready. By Kera AbrahamThursday, May 9, 2013 To prevent zombies from devouring his flesh, Tyson Curtis eats things that cant taste much better, like fox meat, foraged thistle and acorn flour.
To survive in a world where the undead can smell humans a mile away, hes holed up just like in a classic zombie movie in a cabin in the woods. The hunger and social isolation made for a depressing Christmas season.
He has gotten good at following rules, though, like any wise zombie-attack survivor. Like, never eat meat unless you slayed it personally. Never drink milk unless youve traded it for something youve grown. No seeking help for a decaying tooth, as thats basically handing your ass to a hungry zombie.
For Curtis, the apocalypse is now.
Pausing outside his greenhouse, Curtis slips a .22 rifle out of its buckskin sling, points it into the branches of a stout oak and pulls the trigger. A bluejay drops and scuttles away. Curtis catches up in a few long strides and fires a pellet into its head.
He flips the bird on its back, waits for its legs to stop shuddering and swiftly plucks its belly. Within minutes hes carved out two sushi-sized breast pieces and the gizzard, heart and liver.
Like two bites, he says, showing me the bloody harvest in a glass bowl, which he covers and stashes on his porch. Hell plop it into squash soup later.
Howard, his girlfriends pet bunny, watches impassively from a cage.
When ZAP started, I imagined chipping arrowheads and shooting deer with a feather in my hair, Curtis says. The reality is, Im shooting bluejays.
In the space of seven months, Curtis, 31, has transformed from a hard-partying, clean-shaven bartender into a scraggly, unemployed scavenger in tattered clothes. He no longer follows the news, only hearing about Obamas re-election and the Boston Marathon bombing through friends.
Despite his good-faith efforts with a solar shower and wood-fired bathtub, his girlfriend says hes a lot dirtier. I definitely hate his hair, Alison McElwee says. He looks like a crazy person.
For that she blames Zombie Apocalypse Preparation (ZAP), the year-long survival experiment Curtis designed for himself because, as he puts it on his blog zombiesinbigsur.blogspot.com Life was getting too easy.
WHEN ZAP STARTED, I IMAGINED CHIPPING ARROWHEADS AND SHOOTING DEER WITH A FEATHER IN MY HAIR; THE REALITY IS, IM SHOOTING BLUEJAYS.
He and his stepbrother cooked up the challenge as the Year of Sustainability, but Curtis soured on that title because sustainability is just too hip and groovy. So he focused on survival after a disaster that disables society and its systems: an epidemic, a financial meltdown, nuclear war.
Then he had a dream about zombies with blue lasers invading Apple Pie Ranch, his familys 52-acre farm in Big Sur.
The zombies, thats just an excuse, he explains in his blogs intro video. It could be aliens, it could be an atom bomb attack, anything Its about survival.
The Rules 1. Zombies wont roam the world forever. ZAP began on the fall equinox Sept. 22, 2012 and ends one year later.
2. Word will get out when the undead start rising. Curtis can prepare for the end of the world by building up limited food stores and survival tools in advance.
3. Zombies feel no pain and show no mercy. Curtis must murder his own meat and forage or grow his own produce.
4. The apocalypse will end capitalism. No spending money other than on a landline phone, fishing/hunting licenses and the $100-per-month dues he owes as an Apple Pie resident.
5. Zombie juice is contagious, so precautions must be taken. No accepting food, clothes or goods outside the parameters of ZAP. Gifts are only allowed if they do not affect his physical or mental well-being. (He wont take clean sheets from his girlfriend.)
6. The living dead are after blood, not oil. That means no electricity, except for two notebook-sized solar panels to charge his headlamps and iPod, and a single outlet for his computer and cameras. No refrigerator or freezer. Fuel is limited to the propane and gasoline he had on hand at the start of ZAP. Since his car battery is dead, he cant drive. He can only take rides or hitchhike, even if it runs the risk of being picked up by a zombie.
7. Individual zombies are kind of feeble. Their strength is in hordes, and ZAP would be easier if Curtis had his own crew, too. He figures a community of 20 would allow for more specialized labor and bartering. Since hes going it alone, though, trade is allowed according to what Curtis dubs the tiers of sustainable production. He can trade his labor or goods for blackberries someone grows (first tier) and milk from a goat given store-bought feed (second), but he cant trade for homemade pie made with store-bought ingredients (third). And certainly not for store-bought pie (fourth).
8. Since zombies are not actually roaming the earth yet, Curtis observes some basic morals. No looting, as long as people arent stealing from him. No raiding dumpsters, either they wouldnt be full in the apocalypse.
9. Studying is important. He can watch movies and TV shows related to zombies, survival and apocalypse themes, and use the Internet at other peoples houses for ZAP-related research. No porn, unless its zombie porn.
10. When in doubt, ask three questions: Is it free? Would it be available in the apocalypse? Can he learn from it? Yes means ZAP approval.
11. Once a zombie tears into your flesh, there are no second chances. If Curtis fails to follow the guidelines, gives up or seeks medical help, he will have died in the apocalypse, and ZAP will end.
If youre going to go feral, Big Sur is the place. Many of its residents are already quasi-survivalists, prepared for not just the prospect but the probability of wildfires, landslides and chunks of highway sliding into the sea. Most get their water from springs or wells, and many are off the electric grid.
Curtis mentor, Rancho Rico resident Wayne Hyland, says hes always ready to subsist a month or two. You have to have a couple buckets with screw-on lids full of rice, oatmeal, dried beans. Just in case. And I have had to break them out over the years, he says. In Big Sur, if things go down and the trucks stop rolling, I know I could eke out some kind of living. Not like in Modesto, where theres nothing. Here at least theres something and theres a lot of something. You just have to know where it is.
The provisions are flush at Apple Pie Ranch, where Curtis grew up and where, after seven years in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, hes lived for three years.
His grandfather, Jack Curtis, bought the property in 1962 with money he made writing Western screenplays: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke. His family has since built Apple Pie into a 20-person community with about 130 citrus and avocado trees, chickens, bees and gravity-fed water from Pheneger Creek.
Its a compound that needs protecting at times. Like in summer 2008, when the Basin Complex Fire roared through almost 163,000 acres of Big Sur.
Authorities had issued evacuation orders around July 4, but the Curtises werent going anywhere. Tyson, his dad Micah and their volunteer crew lit a backfire on the edge of the wild blaze to turn its path away from the ranch.
Fire and law-enforcement officials bristled, arresting Tysons uncle and threatening the others with fines and jail time. But the folks of Apple Pie learned to be dodgy: A strategic lookout helped the Curtises spot cop cars coming up the 1-mile dirt road from Highway 1.
The faceoff caught headlines not only in the Weekly, but also in the L.A. Times and National Geographic. Ultimately the Curtises were vindicated, their ranch unscathed, all charges dropped.
HE FIGURES HIS FAMILY MIGHT TAKE IN ONE REFUGEE PER APPLE PIE RESIDENT; UNWELCOME VISITORS COULD FACE THE MAGNUM.
Security would resurface as an issue in the zombie uprising. So before ZAP started, Tyson procured a .357 Magnum and a couple thousand rounds of ammo. He figures his family might take in one refugee per Apple Pie resident; unwelcome visitors could face the Magnum.
ZAP is kind of a four-year degree, not one. Curtis saved up money tending bar for two years, then took another to set himself up at Apple Pie. That includes the 800-square-foot greenhouse it took him a full year and $12,500 to build, using mostly salvaged materials. He also rigged a cold-smoker, solar shower, solar dehydrator and wood-fired bathtub; stocked up on non-perishables (enough to account for about 15 percent of his ZAP calories); and bought a pot still so he could make rum and fruit brandy. A little booze helps alleviate the fear of fighting zombies.
Curtis cabin is less than 300 square feet total, built from two repurposed wooden water tanks, with the toilet and shower on an open-air porch looking east toward the wild green base of Post Summit. He says hes cleaned up for my visit, but the place is dank and cluttered.
Hes got survival tools like surfboards and medicinal-plant books, and, of course, weapons: Bow and arrows for deer, homemade lead bolas for small game, a speargun for fish. He counts 11 guns critical for both hunting and putting well-placed bullets in zombie heads.
Taking up most of the space, though, are his edibles. Unshelled chestnuts and walnuts hang in framed screens from the rafters; milled acorns leach in a brown bowl of water by the sink. His dried stores include sea lettuce from the tidepools, foraged chanterelles, garden peppers and 25 pounds of apples and pears. Hes been pressure-canning, too, stocking glass jars of deer and goose meat, chicken stew, Buddhas-hand marmalade, tomato and apple sauces. He offers me a taste of smoked deer jerky: It tastes like an ashtray. No one likes it, including myself.
HE OFFERS ME A TASTE OF SMOKED DEER JERKY: IT TASTES LIKE AN ASHTRAY. NO ONE LIKES IT, INCLUDING MYSELF.
Hes just finished the last of his store-bought coffee, but hes got buckets of home-cured olives, two quarts of bartered honey and a couple gallons of wheat flour for baking bread. Hell keep fresh meat unrefrigerated for up to four days, re-boiling it before eating. Im not saying it wont make you sick, he says, Im just saying it didnt make me sick.
Zombies prefer young human flesh, but they dont discriminate in a pinch, and neither did Curtis when a neighbor brought him a roadkilled fox. It was disgusting. Carnivorey, sweaty, he says.
He barbecued and ate all of it, then bucked and tanned the hide, using the foxs brains to make it supple. Because if hes going to be fighting zombies, hes got to get comfortable destroying brains.
Curtis mom says he was always a little survivorman. She remembers when Tyson was 9 and set out with friends into the Ventana backcountry in the winter, as a huge storm rolled in purposely avoiding the trails.
We didnt know if he would come back, Gail Bengard says.
They did, the next morning, soaking wet and very hungry. But instead of licking their wounds, Tyson and one pal regrouped and hiked back out. They made a fire as snow soaked their sleeping bags, keeping them up all night.
That was typical of Bengards only son, whom she describes as a defiant and independent kid. He did what he wanted, she says, and she usually let him.
Soon after college, Curtis hitchhiked and bussed from San Luis Obispo to Costa Rica. He eventually flew home, but he returned the next year with his stepbrother. The two hitched and sailed from Costa Rica to Tierra del Fuego, Curtis on crutches.
IVE TOLD TYSON THAT IF HE WASNT DOING SOMETHING TO CREATE MEMORIES EVERY DAY, HE WAS PROBABLY WASTING HIS TIME.
Bengard says she hadnt been so different as a kid, hitchhiking all over the U.S. at 13 and running away to Mexico in high school. Tysons dad, Micah Curtis, was wild too growing up eating venison, without electricity, deep in the Big Sur sticks. When Tysons parents were in their 20s, they built a sailboat and sailed home from Australia to California because Bengard was spooked by planes.
Ive told Tyson that if he wasnt doing something to create memories every day, he was probably wasting his time, she says.
Hyland, another of Curtis main influences, remembers taking a kindergarten-aged Tyson out fishing for sharks on a 12-foot skiff and leading him on chanterelle hunts in the Big Sur redwoods. I train young guys in the magic of Big Sur nature, he says. Tyson was one of my early students.
Hyland, now 64, says hed fare better than his protégé in an apocalypse: Hed build up more stores, do a lot more fishing (zombies cant swim), and man up in wet weather. We had a really mellow winter, he says. Nothing happened.
But Curtis, depressed and cowed by the rain, still went hungry.
Curtis solar headlamps were dead, his firewood wet, and he was resisting the urge to tear into his stores. It was Christmas season. He was tired, unmotivated and lonely.
Weather and a bum knee had kept him inside more than he could afford to be. He was down to 147 pounds, 15 shy of his starting weight. The hunger made his sense of smell as sharp as a zombies, especially if someone was eating nearby.
So he turned to the food most abundant on Apple Pie: tree fruit. Hed often eat 25 tangerines in one day, which he blames for a hemorrhoid flare-up.
Im getting pretty sick of avocados. And persimmons and apples and pears, and tangerines and oranges and pretty much anything thats become a staple of my diet, he says in a video three months in.
I underestimated my need for social activity Its not the same sitting around eating apples when everybody else is eating cheeseburgers.
Curtis has always been a tightwad; ZAP just changed the currency from money to calories. Now hes reluctant to exercise unless its going to result in a net caloric gain.
I was so worried about running out, I basically didnt eat anything for two months, he says. Food, to me, is like money: I save more than I spend. I have all this food here, but today I wont eat lunch. Ive become a hoarder.
I UNDERESTIMATED MY NEED FOR SOCIAL ACTIVITY ITS NOT THE SAME SITTING AROUND EATING APPLES WHEN EVERYBODY ELSE IS EATING CHEESEBURGERS.
By mid-February the weather had turned around and Curtis had his groove back. Despite his moms warning no girlfriend would stick around for this weird experiment, McElwee still had his back.
Curtis hitchhikes to Santa Barbara about once a month to visit her. He brings canned meat and eggs, takes cold showers and cooks on a camping stove in her backyard.
His Santa Barbara staple has been mussels pried off boulders at the beach. Hes also gotten good at foraging tree fruit even exotic stuff like sapote, cherimoya, loquats, pomegranates, guava and coquito nuts often from peoples yards. Once, he stole and ate a goose from Balboa Park.
For the most part, ZAP means Curtis and McElwee keep their food to themselves. Ive been calling it The Year of Not Sharing, she says. I feel like were not having dinner together when we are. He makes me try some of the stuff keyword, makes me, cause most of it is really gross. I just do my own thing.
ZAP became even more alienating at barbecues with Santa Barbara friends, where the skinny, bedraggled Curtis would sit around either eating nothing or slurping at his personal stash of applesauce and mussels while everyone else noshed potato salad and turkey burgers. So their friends stopped inviting them.
He doesnt want to be excluded because he cant eat, but I understand where theyre coming from, McElwee says. I think people are confused about how to act with him.
One person who gets it: Curtis lifelong buddy, Marcos Ortega. The two of them, whod gone to Big Surs Captain Cooper Elementary together, shared a typically indulgent lifestyle in college (Curtis at Cal Poly, Ortega at UCSB) and in the years after eating tacos, getting shitfaced, surfing. Ortega wasnt about to give him a pity pass.
I made it real clear from the outset that if he was going to do this, I was going to enjoy watching him suffer because I thought it was such a silly idea, he says. I was going to be drinking cold beers and eating juicy steaks.
He pauses. I think its a silly idea, but I dont think its a stupid idea. As much as I give him a hard time about it, I think its kind of cool. Unlike Survivormans Les Stroud or Man Vs. Wilds Bear Grylls, who brave the elements for just a few days at a stretch, Curtis is in it for a full year. These guys, to me, arent even doing anything close to what Tyson is doing, Ortega says. Hes so gnarly about the way he holds himself to the rules. Its not in his personality to cheat, even when no one is looking.
McElwee, whod hated the ZAP idea at first, eventually came around. Shes the one who insisted he blog so friends could keep up and strangers could learn. It would be nice for everyone to know what was going on so he wouldnt feel so isolated, she says. I thought the blog would give him more purpose.
HES SO GNARLY ABOUT THE WAY HE HOLDS HIMSELF TO THE RULES. ITS NOT IN HIS PERSONALITY TO CHEAT, EVEN WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING.
Curtis puts it more bluntly: She said she would dump my ass if I didnt document the whole thing.
And so, he blogs.
The one outlet in his house charges his cameras and laptop, which doesnt have Internet but does have iMovie. He puts in about eight hours a week, sometimes longer, to make up to three roughly 10-minute videos. Its hell, Curtis says.
Getting them online is equally tedious. Hell pop maybe eight bits of blog fodder mostly journal entries, photos of his food, how-tos, monthly reflection videos, notes on survival-themed books and zombie-movie reviews onto a thumb drive, and deliver it to McElwee every few weeks. She uploads new posts every few days; theres usually a one-month lag from real time.
The videos are fairly self-indulgent Curtis getting a physical before ZAP (hes in perfect shape), eating the rattlesnake he caught while bartending Anne Hathaways Big Sur wedding, making prickly-pear brandy, doing monthly weigh-ins. He sometimes assumes a Grylls-esque badassness in the videos, duding them out with time-lapses and indie-rock soundtracks.
But he insists hed keep his ZAP experience to himself if McElwee hadnt made him go public with it. The blog means next to nothing to me, he says.
Later, he asks that the URL be included in this article.
While his girlfriend cheerleads it, Curtis mentor doesnt get the blog thing. I cant really appreciate his need to be so public about what hes doing, Hyland says. Theres the ego trip.
Curtis bends at the waist, T-shirt riding up over his lean, tanned back, and pries cattails out of the mouth of the Big Sur River. Hes going for the rhizomes, so he digs into the sandy mud with a metal leaf spring. A chill wind blows toward the sea in Andrew Molera State Park.
His harvest of pale, slimy roots looks unpalatable to me, but Curtis says its fortifying starch. On our walk back to my car he points out edible and useful plants, stopping to stuff stinging nettle, peppermint and wild onions into his backpack. The first thing he learned about wild plants, he says, was which ones like hemlock and death comma to avoid. Then he pops a sprig of poison oak into his mouth.
I eat a lot of bugs, too, he says.
I mention its probably illegal to collect wild plants from a state park.
To be honest, I find laws to be interpretive, he says. I dont even know what laws Im breaking. Can I shoot and eat a pigeon? I keep waiting for a knock on my door from Fish and Game, saying I cant be shooting bluejays.
I EAT A LOT OF BUGS, TOO,
Its late April, seven months into ZAP. Curtis is living mostly off what he hunts and forages. Hes learning the Greek constellations, reading The Ohlone Way, getting better at tanning hides. His weights stabilized around 157 pounds and he feels pretty good, thanks to a windfall of cow butter and goat milk from a recent trade.
But his self-imposed diet is still a drag most of the time, like during a recent four-day backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness. His five buddies loaded their packs with eggs, sausage, steaks and whiskey; Curtis only brought camping gear and his .22. After long days of hiking, hed hunker down with whatever he could hunt three rabbits, two snakes, grasshoppers while his friends drank and feasted. He lost six pounds on the trip.
I tried to convince him to bring his provisions, but he refused to do that because he wanted to survive in the backcountry with nothing, Ortega says. He said, ZAP is not about having fun.
Curtis most profound realization: The apocalypse would suck.
Hes tired of the failures: seedlings eaten by rats, rotten date harvests, a deer hide gone stiff. Hes sick of the food. He fantasizes about taking his girlfriend out to dinner at Nepenthe: Hed get a ribeye, a bottle of wine and a slice of triple-berry pie à la mode.
THE APOCALYPSE WOULD SUCK.
As much as hed romanticized the end of the world, he now hopes to never see the apocalypse in his lifetime. Maybe McElwee was right, he says, and his blog will actually inspire other people to make changes. To live more simply so the strain on limited resources is less likely to bring society crashing down.
His gut, though, says the shit is going to hit.
Maybe the undead are rising from their graves right now and shuffling down Highway 1, blue laser beams aimed at Big Sur. Maybe Kim Jong-un really does have missiles aimed at California, or an earthquake will take down San Luis Obispos Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in a chilling Fukushima reprise. More likely, Big Sur will face a natural disaster like the ones its survived in the past another catastrophic wildfire, flood or landslide.
Whatever it is, Hyland shares the sense of foreboding. He cant explain it, but something inside is telling him to get ready.
If the zombie things gonna unfold, and I think it will, its best to have some of Tysons knowledge to at least attempt to take care of yourself, he says.
Were in for it.
“His families 52 acre ranch”? Anything else need to be said?
Sorry, should have been “...family’s 52 acre farm.”
I was ready to ping Kartographer myself. I haven’t read the last part of this yet, but his planning was the pits.
He didn't know how to prepare what he shot or caught - he spoke of how bad the taste was. That would mean he didn't eat as much as he could - back to starvation again.
An abscessed tooth and he does nothing. That tells me he has no antibiotics.
He evidently stays dirty. He is set up for infection.
Frankly, in a total collapse, he is going to die and it won't be the zombies fault.
>> Tyson Curtis eats things that cant taste much better, like fox
I wonder if he eats beaver, too.
I ate good meals and had folks go out of their way (they had to, to get to me) to visit during dinnertime.
I was comfortable and clean. My hair is long, and I do have to wash it. I managed to do that well enough to keep a nice, neat ponytail. The only thing I let go was my beard, and that made me look like Marvin (Popcorn) Sutton.
Acorn flour makes for nice cornbread, mixed in, especially with maple syrup.
Somebody needs to tell homeboy there ain’t no such thing as zombies.
At first, I thought the zombie culture thing was cute, but people have bought wayyyyyyy to far into it.
I’m more worried about rap “artists” and “dj whoevers” than zombies.