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Going Primitive

Cliff Hodges ‘02, MEng ‘04, revels in early tech.
February 23, 2010

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.

MATCHLESS Hodges coaxes fire from an ember he made with a bow drill.

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.

Adventure Out programs have been featured in print media such as Fortune Small Business, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and San Diego Magazine, as well as on regional TV stations. Hodges estimates that 10,000 students have passed through his classes in five years–and more than a few claim he’s changed their lives. “He’s an incredibly talented individual,” says George Cagle, a technical program manager at Microsoft who’s taken three Adventure Out classes. “He teaches you how to become involved in the environment, to realize that you’re part of the wilderness.”

To people who know Hodges well, the switch from high tech to primitive tech is no surprise. Back in college, “he was capturing squirrels in the middle of the city, and taking roadkill and turning it into hide,” says his MIT roommate, Kai McDonald ‘03, SM ‘05, now a managing principal at a Southern California investment company. “I remember going into the freezer one day and seeing a strange item wrapped in plastic. It was a deer brain, which he was using to tan animal hides.”

As an undergrad, Hodges learned the tanning technique (rubbing hides with brain matter to preserve and soften them) on weekends at a survival school in New Jersey. By his senior year, he was eager to teach the skills himself. He had his chance during IAP. “It was the coldest cold snap that Boston had seen in a decade,” he recalls, “and we had to import all of our materials to our class location, which was right in front of the dome. We built a debris shelter from sticks and leaves we gathered near Walden Pond. We also created fire by friction and practiced water collection. We purified the water by dropping in rocks we’d heated over an open fire.”

Even today, some of the technological advances that excite him most are those that occurred more than 10,000 years ago. Take the bow drill, for instance. “It uses human power to generate a greater force than humans can generate on their own,” Hodges says. “When you look at two sticks rubbing together, it’s not that exciting; but these inventions laid the foundations for civilization.” The drill is made by securing a natural fiber to the two ends of a simple bow, then wrapping the fiber around a spindle. Moving the bow back and forth to rotate the spindle rapidly against another piece of wood creates friction, which generates heat and ignites the wood. The resulting ember is then wrapped in dried grass and blown into flame. Hodges can ignite a flame in 30 to 45 seconds; beginners usually practice for days before producing an ember.

Hodges also employs traditional techniques to hunt deer, wild pigs, and other animals that he uses for food and hides. “For me there are huge elements of sacredness and history to using these skills,” he says. “The thrill and pride I take in harvesting my own food is immense, and wholly incomparable to anything else. It is cultural preservation–maintaining skills that are vanishing.” He spends about 100 hours making the tools needed for one hunt–the bow, arrows, and stone arrowheads. In November 2007 he captured his first black bear, a 450-pound record-breaker. California Fish and Game wardens told him it is the only bear on record caught using a stone point.

Though he has no plans to go after any more bears, Hodges has no regrets about the path he’s on. “People ask me, ‘How do you feel about tossing away your engineering degree?’ I don’t feel that I’ve done that at all,” he says. “MIT taught me the sky is the limit. Everyone there is trying to create something that’s going to have a positive effect in the world.

“There are a lot of people fighting for the environment by preserving open space or working on clean energy. My way is to connect people with the outdoors one individual at a time.”

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