A transformative experience: At the age of 37, I suffered a heart attack and decided to retreat to a cave.
I experienced a heart attack in February 2017, just two days after returning from leading an expedition in Alaska. Upon returning home to Colorado, I initially attributed my chest pains to the change in altitude. Despite being 37 years old and physically active, having served in the Marine Corps until 2011 and worked as a wilderness and survival skills guide, I was training for a 245km ultramarathon through the Peruvian jungle. Despite my disbelief, I was rushed into the operating room and a stent was inserted to treat the heart attack.
After my discharge from the hospital after three days, I had difficulty walking and was enrolled in cardiac rehabilitation with a group of individuals in their 80s. However, I felt that I required something more to aid in my recovery. Being someone who enjoys the outdoors and possesses the skills to create tools from stones and survive off the land, I was convinced that was where I needed to be. So, after attending a few rehab sessions, I made the decision to leave and reside in a nearby cave, where I could hunt for food and drink from natural water sources.
For approximately half a year, I switched between my normal routine and living in the wilderness of Colorado. While my partner and I were going through a separation, I didn’t want to be away from our two sons for an extended period of time. Therefore, I would frequently return to spend time with them. The longest period I spent in the wild was just under two months.
I owned a variety of caves, each with its own unique features such as proximity to springs or better opportunities for fishing, hunting, and gathering. The “main cave” was equipped with a makeshift bed made of grass and leaves, providing a comfortable resting spot. It also had a skylight for ventilation and stargazing while allowing smoke from the fire to escape. I would use a stick wedged between the cave walls to hang and dry my clothes, and kept a soup can for boiling water. This cave had the most resources, but I would frequently rotate between caves. I would store animal hides in one and occasionally treat myself to dried mangoes by leaving them in another, which required a two-day journey to retrieve.
I did not bring many possessions from modern society. However, I always carried a notebook with a picture of my sons and a writing utensil. Depending on my activity or mood, I would occasionally bring a stainless steel bottle to the caves, which helped with boiling water.
The majority of my diet consisted of wild food, such as plants, berries, tubers, and roots. I also caught fish, squirrels, and rabbits. I developed a deep appreciation for food, even if it was just a small amount: “I have a fish and five berries! Today is great.” Although I missed my sons, I recognized that this was a crucial time for me to heal and contemplate. There was always something to occupy my time, whether it was making stone tools, constructing traps, weaving baskets, or crafting clay pots. These tasks were simple yet fulfilling. Additionally, I was constantly gathering firewood.
While I was sleeping in my main cave, the fire had extinguished and I suddenly felt a warm, wet feeling on my foot. Upon waking up, I discovered a young black bear licking my toes. I screamed, causing the bear to flee. To ensure my safety, I built a large fire and stayed awake the entire night, anticipating the bear’s return.
I was assimilating into the natural rhythm of life in the wilderness, attuning myself to the various sounds and scents. You have the option to resist it or attempt to manage it, but when you embrace it, you gain a profound understanding of your identity and purpose in that environment. The day I suffered a heart attack altered my life, as it served as a wake-up call. Realizing that our time on earth is finite, it is crucial to live the life we desire and discover its worth.
Currently, I reside in two different worlds. I am a tenant, a truck driver, and a TV owner. When my sons are with me, we enjoy watching educational documentaries, although being teenage boys, they also have their own individual interests. Despite my affinity for wilderness, social media has become a significant aspect of my daily life. Prior to my heart attack, I was not active on social media, but after receiving encouragement from others, I started a YouTube channel where I share my skills. Since then, I have written books, appeared on reality shows, and provided consultation for films. I have fully embraced this modern aspect of life and aim to ignite people’s fascination with the natural world.
Some individuals embrace the idea that life is unchangeable, but there are also those who seek something new. I do not criticize anyone for their decisions, but I believe some individuals are swayed by irrelevant beliefs. My interest lies in achieving more with less, in the most straightforward manner. Our ancestors prioritized family, community, and nature, and I believe we can gain valuable insights from their way of life.
Donny Dust’s podcast “Rescue” is currently accessible.