In the bare-bones warehouse space of CrossFit West Santa Cruz, rock and rap music thrums over the clamor of some very fit people lifting big weights. Cliff Hodges, the 30-year-old MIT grad who co-owns the new gym, starts his day here around 8 a.m. But a few hours later in the parking lot outside, he’ll meet up with customers seeking a different kind of experience from the workout junkies inside. Dressed for the outdoors, these folks are more interested in reconnecting with nature in the nearby forest. After loading into a company van, they’ll wind upward into the Santa Cruz Mountains above the Pacific Ocean, park, and enter a stand of redwoods and oak on foot. There, the hum of traffic disappears; the aromas of evergreen boughs and dry grass fill the air.
Having grown up two miles away, Hodges understands these woods the way most people know their hometowns: this bush or tree shelters this type of bird or rodent; that animal uses the main trails, while others tread a fainter path. Rounding a corner, he kneels by the hoof prints of a deer, observing that the animal darted off the trail here onto a barely noticeable path that vanishes into the trees. He grins. “In class we’ll spend a lot of time staring at the ground,” he says. “It’s what we call dirt time.”
When he left MIT in 2004, Hodges thought he might spend much of the rest of his life working inside shiny-clean rooms as an electrical engineer, confining his dirt time to weekends and evenings. Equipped with bachelor’s and master of engineering degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, he joined a company that developed flash memory for computers. But within three months, he decided the job wasn’t for him. He missed the outdoors and realized that a college hobby–teaching wilderness survival–was something he wanted to do full time. By the end of the year, he’d left the engineering world and launched an outdoor school and guide service he called Adventure Out. “I was working on the business end and attempting to secure funding for about a month before I quit the job so I could hit the ground running,” he says. The company was offering programs by the spring of 2005.
The leap from electrical engineering to launching a business didn’t seem like much of a stretch to Hodges. “My business sense comes from the analytical education that I received as a student of engineering,” he says. “MIT produces the best problem solvers in the world. Applying those scientific and methodical approaches to small business is easy in comparison to something as complex as device physics.”
Hodges approaches wilderness training a bit differently from many established survival schools. While they may require students to abandon their normal routines for months, he offers shorter workshops, making the outdoors more accessible and less intimidating to deskbound city dwellers. Introducing a broad audience to primitive ways is one of Hodges’s goals. “We need more people who understand that there is more to the world than cars and televisions,” he says. “In the wilderness, our bodies get into a different pace. The body moves in sync with the wilderness. It’s no longer about instant gratification; it’s about ebb and flow.”
In a five-hour introductory course, students learn how to build shelters, start fires, purify water, identify edible plants, and build animal traps. Advanced two- and three-day workshops cover tanning hides, tracking animals, and making arrowheads using a stone-against-stone technique called flint knapping. One-week courses in desert and winter survival give students a chance to delve deeper. Adventure Out also offers classes in surfing, mountain biking, backpacking, and rock climbing. Hodges’s gym, which he opened last spring, is a natural extension for him; CrossFit, a high-intensity strength and conditioning program pioneered in Santa Cruz, aims to prepare the body for unpredictable real-life situations. “We do functional fitness–sprinting, rowing, weight lifting, moving the body through three-dimensional space–so people are better fit for their outdoor activities and outdoor sports,” he says.