Living outside and eating roadkill
A walk in the woods with wildman Joe Blevis
Did you grow up around here?
I grew up in New Jersey very close to the Newark Airport.
And where did you get into wild things?
The Tracker School in New Jersey, down in the Pine Barrens.
Is that a college?
The Tracker School is a wilderness survival school, classes are usually one week at a time. When I say “school” I mean you are sitting in the woods under a tarp as a classroom and eating outside and living in a tent. It’s not like – not like college at all.
Nowadays you teach wilderness skills. From the sound of it your classes are getting increasingly popular.
I think yes. I think a big influence on that is that it’s all over television these days.
Like Bear Grylls? I’m sure there’s something more recent. I don’t have a television.
I don’t have a television either, but I just hear people: Oh have you seen this show? And I’m like I don’t have a television. I have not seen that show. From what very little I’ve seen, it seems to be a bit of a curse and a blessing. Because one, it’s why people are interested in this stuff, but it’s kind of not great because it’s not really my approach I guess, is kind of the nicest way to put it.
Can you explain the difference?
I’m not badmouthing Bear Grylls, but his style and the other styles I’ve seen is very much like man against nature. You’re not going to win that battle ever. So I guess my style, my philosophy and the way I was taught is to kind of work, you know, with nature, not fighting it or trying to conquer it but just kind of blending into your environment. That’s the curse side of all these shows, people come like I want to learn how to do this and you know, fight that. I’m like, no. We’re not doing anything like that. I’m sorry.
Do people come unprepared in other ways? Maybe with unrealistic expectations of how hard it’s going to be?
It’s totally hit or miss. Some classes you have kids or adults I’ve worked with a lot that are really into it and really committed and focused and you know that they’re going home and practicing stuff that I’ve taught them about, and the other side of that is people that that don’t do anything and then they come to class and then it’s you know a day like today and they’re like, oh are we gonna go inside?
And I’m like, no, that’s not even an option. We don’t even have an indoor space to go. So it’s a little bit of everything. Some people are really into it and definitely studying and putting in their dirt time and other people, it’s more just curiosity, I think.
You used the phrase “dirt time.” I’ve never heard that.
Yeah, that comes from the Tracker School. Dirt time is basically experience, getting down into the dirt and studying tracks, going out and building your own shelter and sleeping in them on cold rainy nights. Not just reading books about it or watching YouTube videos. There’s a world of difference between reading about something and actually going out and experiencing it.
Talk about some of the skills you teach.
I’d say everything could probably go into one of the categories of shelter, water, fire or food. So for example at Nature Place [in Rockland County] this we’re doing weekend shelter classes with a group of kids, and then few different groups of families. I’ve recently been doing a lot of basket weaving, hide tanning, animal processing.
What do you make out of the hides?
I usually process it down to leather or furs, and I just make clothing that I don’t wear in public [laughs]. I don’t hunt. I pick up roadkill or I talk to other hunters that are in it for the meat or antlers and say I’ll take whatever you don’t want. So I always get a nice hide out of it. Sometimes they’re just like, I don’t want the meat and I’ll get, 10, 20, 30 pounds of meat off it for my dog.
Do you see yourself doing this for a long time? This could be your career?
This is my quote-unquote career. Playing in the woods.
What do you think people come to you for? Are they survivalists, or are they just looking for some exercise?
A little bit of everything. With it becoming increasingly popular that draws a lot of kids and adults in, that want to be survivalists. I think with the families in particular -- that’s the biggest group people I work with currently -- I would say with families it’s mostly just a really good excuse to get the whole family together outside working together on something that everybody is at least curious or excited about. So it’s kind of therapeutic I’ve noticed in some ways. But unfortunately, I think that most of the time people in my class, that’s the only time they go outside, I feel like. I feel like in the span of a week, that two- or four-hour class with me, that might literally be their only time that they spend in the woods, which, you know, if they have to come to one of my classes just to be outside that’s great, but it’s kind of sad.
Do you have a favorite outdoor spot?
My yard is very special to me, that’s where I spend most of my time.
Yeah I don’t live in town though. I live out in the farmland, on two acres of land and it’s surrounded by hundreds of acres of abandoned farmland. So it really really has the vibe of being in the middle of nowhere. I spend a lot of time there collecting food. I built like a wigwam type shelter out there last year and lived in it.
How long did you live in it?
I lived in it from Thanksgiving until like April 1, more or less non-stop last winter.
Wow, Joe, that was a hard winter too.
It was great. It was the best winter of my life.
How did you stay warm?
I had a fire. I mean, it was a big enough shelter that I think at one point I slept three people and two dogs in there and it was by no means crowded. It was big enough for me to stand up in. There was a fire pit in there, there was a small little frame bed in there.
Yeah, I lived out there for the winter because it was something I’d wanted to do for a while. I was needing a vacation in my opinion and then that couple-week vacation just turned into me falling in love with living out there.
Most people would not consider that a vacation.
It was definitely a vacation.
What’s vacation-like about living outside all winter?
Just that I had no agenda and no schedule other than make a fire at some point in the day to stay warm and wander around looking for food and go tracking a lot. There was snow on the ground all year which made tracking, you know, fairly easy.
Were you tracking in order to look for food?
No, just curiosity, just to follow these animals and see what they’re into, what they’re doing. The last winter, for example, on the other side of the road there, up the mountain, I spent a lot of time tracking the same individual bear for most of the winter.
What did you learn about the bear?
I learned its foraging routes pretty well. I found where it made like a little bear’s nest and that’s where it was sleeping every night which was pretty cool.
You think of bears as hibernating in the winter.
That’s what you think. But that bear was 100 percent out and active up through February last year, even when it was, I mean, it was well below zero, especially at night. He was not hibernating at all. He was climbing all the hickory trees and eating massive amounts of nuts every night.
And then because of that, I ended up finding where this bobcat was denning. It’s all interwoven, all the stories connect to each other and so through tracking them and having the really nice substrate of fresh snow like every three days, it really made my studying easier and my learning curve much quicker.
I’m just following the bear and then literally the bobcat had stepped in the bear’s track as it crossed over. I was like, oh what’s this guy doing now? So instead of tracking the bear I made a left turn and ended up following the bobcat for a few weeks. Yeah, and then the bobcat would lead me to some fox tracks and then I would find out where the fox was that denning and so on and so forth. It never ended.
Dirt time is obviously the best way to learn. But do you have a book you’d recommend?
Tom Brown Jr.’s [the founder of the Tracking School] first book, called The Tracker. I would definitely read his books in the order in which they were written. They all tie together into one nice large story and I didn’t know that; I was reading them randomly. I read them all. I was like wait, and I had to go back through and do it again.
What’s your favorite outdoor skill. Is there something that really lights you up?
I would say tracking, and in particular probably studying bird language.
Because the birds will tell you what’s going on the ground?
The birds will tell you everything. It’s just a matter of training yourself to be tuned in enough and being empathetic enough to kind of see through their eyes and read their body language and hear their voices.
Can you tell anything right now from what the birds are saying?
They’re not happy that we’re here. They’re just giving us some space. They’re very used to people on here. They know we’re not hunting or anything. You can see there’s like a tunnel of silence around us, but beyond there’s little birds chirping and feeding in the brush.
I’m trying to not talk.
It requires spending a lot of time in the woods alone, just listening and watching.
Not hunting… is that a philosophical thing?
I have nothing really against hunting, as long as you’re going to totally use that whole animal. I don’t like trophy hunting but if you’re going to kill something and eat it and process the hide and use the bones for tools and make cordage from the sinew and pouches from the organs – that’s awesome. I support that 100 percent. I don’t hunt because you know, I could give you a million excuses, but really I never grew up hunting. I wish I had somebody that could kind of transition me in, that’s a really big leap to take, to go do that.
I feel like I would like to do it, and every summer I’m like this fall, I’m getting my license, I’m going to go do it. Then it’s fall and I don’t have my hunting license. Right now I’m saying going to do it next year. It’ll eventually happen. But also, there are so many people that are hunting and throwing stuff out and there’s so much roadkill. I just feel like I don’t need to kill anything else. There’s enough stuff dying out here.
Do you eat roadkill?
Yep. This time of year I’ll pick it up and eat it. When it’s summer I don’t even mess with it, but November through April? Yeah, I mean, it’s colder than my refrigerator out here right now. On the side of the road it’s not gonna go to waste: the vultures will eat it, coyotes will eat it. But if I could process it and get a good skin off of it, some good bones and some good meat, I’ll take what I can get.
What do you make from the bones?
Arrowheads, knife blades, needles. Give them to my dog to eat.
Are you able to make a living doing this?
Um, yeah? More or less. I’m self-employed. A few friends and I started an organization called Earth Living Skills – it’s me up here in Orange County, my friend Nancye down in Brooklyn, and my friend Zach who lives in Putnam County. And so the three of us all kind of just dove down this rabbit hole together. We just want to teach these skills as much as we can, so we just share work with each other whenever we can. Somebody calls me says Hey, I want to do a class. I live in Manhattan. I say hey, I’m not driving to Manhattan, but call Nancye. And that’s been pretty good. I do some other stuff on the side whenever I can. Because it’s expensive to live.
I’m a carpenter. I like to make lot of stuff in my garage. Recently I got a little portable sawmill for my chainsaw, I mill a lot of lumber and make benches, boxes, shelves. Like that. Most of those I turn into gifts, so that’s actually not paying any bills. I do carpentry stuff, just generic trim work, painting, landscaping, drywall.
Where’d you go to college, or did you?
I did not go to college. I went to the Tracker School instead.
A week versus four years.
Exactly -- way cheaper and I learned way more.
Do you have a sense of what you wanted to be when you grow up when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a professional skateboarder. That was definitely my teenage dream. But that reality hit and I’m like well that’s not actually going to happen. So I start traveling around a lot.
What’s your relationship with technology? Do you have a Smartphone?
Well my computer is broken. So I don’t have a computer, not interested in replacing that at this moment. But I do have a smartphone. That’s kind of like a necessary tool in this day and age. And it’s great, I love it. I learn on that. I’m not sitting there, you know cruising, through Instagram.
No, I’m using it: Oh, what is this plant? Taking a picture of it. And within an hour I will have a positive identification on what this plant is what its edible uses, what its medicinal uses are, is it poisonous is it toxic. They’re great tools if you have self-control.
You’ll post it on a discussion group or something?
I post mushrooms on a discussion group, yes. You know, I’m still very hesitant before I eat a new mushroom. So I’ll do my own research and say I think it’s this and send it to a couple friends and they’ll confirm or deny. Then I’ll post it on the New York Mycological Society Facebook and they are pretty awesome and they’ll confirm or deny. I’ll get like three solid confirmations, then I’ll eat something. If there’s ever any like contradiction, I’m like no, not worth it.
So it’s great for that. If I’m out in the field collecting mushrooms, taking pictures of stuff and writing notes in my phone it’s a great tool – because I’m not playing Minecraft on it, I’m using it to learn.
It seems like despite our best intentions for our kids, modern life makes it difficult to be outside as much as you’d like to be.
Yeah, I don’t know. I’m 30 and I feel I was really on the very tail end of the kids that grew up outside. When I was a teenager it was when internet was coming around and cell phones. I didn’t grow up with any of that so I was like whatever, I’m going to be outside and skateboard or go hiking or something. Now I see kids that are like 12 and 13. Wow, when I was 13 I was taking the train into New York City and skateboarding all day, and it’s like, you don’t have friends outside of your like gaming community.
So you’re the tail end of the kids who grew up outside? That’s interesting.
That’s my thought. I feel like 25 and below, they missed out. They grew up with computers and cable and the internet and smartphone, and it’s a whole different reality that I don’t really understand.
But you’re doing your part.
I’m doing what I can to help counteract... In my class there’s an unspoken policy that you should not be on your phone here.
Are people cool with that?
I have to reinforce it now and again but for the most part people know. I do a little pep talk: leave your phones behind, behind a bottle of water and an extra jacket because it’s gonna be cold, kind of thing.
Yeah so now something’s going on with the birds. The raven’s up here screaming, there’s a squirrel over here freaking out. It’s probably a hawk. There are so many of them around here because it’s all farmland.
Have you seen any unusual animals?
I saw a mountain lion. There are 100 percent mountain lions in Warwick and Vernon, multiples individuals.
No pictures, right?
I have pictures of their tracks. No pictures, no. In that moment, I’m just in awe, like oh look at this 200-pound cat stealthily moving through this forest.
Where did you see it?
The most recent mountain lion sighting I had was actually across the street from my house in the old farm field. I thought it was a deer walking across the field and I’m watching it and I’m like no, it’s moving more like a dog. I’m like oh it’s a coyote that’s cool, I see them from time to time. Then it got closer and I saw its tail and I was like that is a gigantic cat. That is a mountain lion. And up on the other side of the trail here, up the hill [AT trailhead off Route 94 in Vernon NJ] I’ve seen two different individuals’ tracks up there last winter when I was tracking the bear, probably a male and female or mom and her baby, because one was significantly bigger than the other.
So there’s at least three mountain lions that live within, you know, five miles of where we’re standing right now, or at least travel through this area. They have huge ranges.
Have you been frightened when you were outside?
No, I never felt threatened. I mean it’s startling, like every time I see a bear. Even though I have no bad intentions and the bear doesn’t either. It’s just that heart-stopping: oh my God it’s something massive right here. A bear just eating acorns and he doesn’t want to bother me and I don’t want to bother him. We literally walk past each other. I just try to stay calm and relaxed.
About a month ago I was collecting a bunch of acorns in the forest not too far from here and I was literally crawling on my knees filling my basket with acorns in a thick forest not really paying as much attention as I should have been and I heard some like [huffs]: snorting, hoofing, loud breathing. And there was this massive black bear like 20 feet away from me doing the same thing, just shoveling them into his mouth and I was like, Oh. We kind of made eye contact and I just, you know, veered around him, but still crawling, still just like, you’re here doing your thing, I’m doing my thing.
You didn’t stop?
No, I just diverted my route of travel to put lots of space in between us. He was just shoveling acorns in his mouth and I was shoveling them in my basket. You know, he needs them more than I did so I consciously started collecting less in that area once I realized that you know, I’m doing this recreationally. I’m eating them and processing them yes, but…
What do you do with acorns? I tried them once and they’re so bitter.
Yeah, you gotta process them a lot. I’ve pretty much processed them into flour to make bread.
But how do you get the bitterness out?
You have to leach them. They have a lot of tannic acid in them so by grinding them up, putting them in water, the water will pull some of -- I mean, they’re going to be bitter forever. You can leach them for a month and they’re still going to have a bitter taste to them.
So do you combine it with other flour?
Ehhh. It definitely tastes better when you do that [laughs]. But you can eat ‘em straight. It’s very heavy. There’s a lot of protein and a lot of fat in them. Which is why that bear probably ate like 30 pounds of acorns that day. Just walking through [whomp, whomp], shoveling his mouth full of ‘em. Fascinating. I found a pile of his scat, I kind of started backtracking him to keep that distance. I found a massive pile of his scat. I looked at it and it was just acorns. Entirely acorns and I was like, wow. How many acorns a day are you eating?
Do you practice any different kind of diet?
I’m mostly vegetarian, except for animals that I process or somebody I know processes, and I’ve been consciously eating more and more wild edibles every year. That’s one of my goals. This fall in particular I felt like I was pretty good about that. I’ve been trying to incorporate at least one wild edible a day into my diet, and usually that’s pretty easy. Now that I have so much of it, it usually ends up being like one a meal if I’m real lucky.
For lunch I’ll have like rice and mushrooms, and I’ll make acorn bread or acorn pancakes for later. I’ve been digging up a lot of roots lately: cattail roots and burdock roots and processing those down. I collected a ton, like a bucketful of Jerusalem artichoke. You spend the day collecting it and you got it, you got a week’s worth of food. It’s a really good turnover for the amount of time you put into versus the amount of calories and nutrition you get out of it.
This is the time of the year when it’s meat and nuts and roots. So I’ve collected about 75 pounds of acorns this year and maybe have 10 pounds left to process. I got a freezer full of deer and buckets full of Jerusalem artichokes and jars full of mushrooms. So I’m good to go for quite a while here.
How often do you go to the grocery store?
Like once a week, I’ll go there, try to keep things under budget. Just buy what I need. Okay I have a bunch of this and that at home, what can I enhance it with? Like I’ll buy some rice and beans and broth or something, make a giant dish of mushrooms and I’ll just eat that for four days straight. Then like a giant pot of deer chili and just eat that for four or five days straight.
Do you ever think about starting a family?
That’s not going to happen. It’s not on the agenda whatsoever. I think it’d be awesome but it’s difficult enough for me to support myself and my dog as is. Throwing another human into the picture would not be fair to me or them. We would both suffer from that. I work with kids all the time. That’s how I pay that forward. I’ll work with kids for 20 to 30 hours a week. We don’t need any more people anymore. I have a dog. That’s what she’s taught me: that I’m not ready to have a kid.
I’d be a great uncle or something like that, but I have never had interest in having kids. I’m 30, I’m still standing behind that statement. I love kids, I love working with kids, but I feel like I get my dose of kids.
Do you have a favorite age range?
I think teenagers. If I get a group of teenagers – 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds that are really into what we’re doing and they have physical ability to do what we’re doing and they have the mental capacity to digest it, sometimes we take stuff really really far. There’s that sweet spot where they haven’t shifted into the real world and thinking about mortgages and families and car payments and they’re older than the younger kids that are like still coming into their bodies and figuring out who they are. So there’s like that sweet spot of like 14 to 17. And they need it the most I would say, because they’re gonna transition from probably being in high school to probably going to college. It’s like wait, hold on, there’s another route here. Let me at least present this to you to study or to research. For me personally studying all these skills, it’s a lot of self-discovery going on. You spend a lot of time in the woods by yourself like failing at making a fire or freezing in a shelter or just sitting and listening to the birds when it’s five degrees. You really get to know yourself extremely extremely extremely well. It helps you to think for yourself and figure out what you want to do as opposed to what everybody else tells you to do, that at that age is crucial.
I wish when I was 14 to 17, I wish I had me in my life to be like hey, check this out. Because I didn’t even know that I was hungry for it until I tasted it. I was like wow, for 20 years I’ve been missing this. Yeah, so I try to pay it forward by showing people.
It doesn’t resonate with everybody. Not everybody’s into being outside because there’s ticks or mosquitoes or it’s cold, but most people are. Whether it’s making fire or stretching a hide or just something as simple as carving using a knife and using your hands, it resonates with people.
Nice shoes. [They are ripping at the sides with mismatches laces]. Sambas?
The skateboarding version. These shoes are on their last legs.
I like that you’re wearing them until you can’t wear them anymore.
I wear them until that entire side will rip out, which has gotta be at least until the springtime.
Really? That sounds ambitious.
I’m going for it.