This is not a how-to.
It’s not a recipe guide.
Even John Mionczynski, the ethno-botanist about to tell you these stories, doesn’t recommend you follow in his footsteps.
But it can be perhaps a loose outline, an inspiration even, like reading John Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” about Everest and then trying to summit Gannet Peak.
What it proves is that land, even land seemingly void of much life at all like the Red Desert, can, in fact, offer plenty of food. Before reality shows like Naked and Afraid and Survivor commercialized living off the land, Mionczynski had started leaving home without food simply because it was easier than carrying cans and packages with him.
Mionczynski is a motorcycle-riding, saloon-piano-playing wildlife consultant from Atlantic City known across the state and some parts of the country for his encyclopedic memory and research into Bigfoot. Those stories are for another time though. The focus right now is on his time – often up to two and a half months – living in the Red Desert with nothing but a pot, flint, steel, cup and spoon brought from home.
“Since I was a kid, I had an obsession with going out into the woods, and I was lazy and didn’t want to carry a pack, so I started winging it,” he said.
He started with wild onions, blueberries and huckleberries when he was 10 years old. It was the forests of New York state in the late ‘50s, so finding food wasn’t really much of a challenge.
By 20 years old, he could go for weeks at a time without food. Then, among various trips around the country foraging with a friend that included eating rattlesnakes in Texas, cottonmouths in Pennsylvania and one badger in Arizona, he reached Wyoming’s Red Desert. And there he stayed.
No books offered guidance on foraging native plants in areas like the Red Desert. So Mionczynski judged a plant’s edibility by its leaf shape and taste. No bad aftertaste? Probably edible. Emphasis on probably.
“I was very careful, and I never had a bad experience. I ate some plants I knew I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t eat very much of it,” he said. “I don’t recommend what I did at all, though. There’s no excuse for not buying a good edible plant book these days.”
He spent two months in the Red Desert without food the first time. The second time was another two, and the third was for two and a half months. It was always summer – at the time he wouldn’t try surviving off the land in the winter, though now he would.
So what does a day eating what you find – outside of any legal hunting seasons – look like?
It probably starts with spring parsley root or wild carrot roots pounded down and boiled into a gruel that has the consistency of oatmeal. If you’re feeling adventurous, toss in some salt bush and pigweed, orach is a particularly tasty one, for more flavor.
For snacks, you could have some wild carrots dug up in the early spring or grass seeds placed in a hot, dry pan and parched until they pop. Limber pine nuts were also a go-to. Pick some mature scurf peas in the sand dunes, squash them between rocks, mix them with water and enjoy something akin to lemonade.
Dinner, depending on the time of the summer, can be downright fancy.
Kill a jackrabbit – they can be hunted without a license in the desert. Skin it out and place it on a spit.
“Start with a greasewood fire and get it really hot and throw a bunch of horse droppings on it that are really dry, like from the year before, the gray ones,” he said. “They make really good, hot coals.”
They’re a common fuel and give the meat cooked over them a peppery flavor.
Boil stems and roots from sedges with wild onion as a side. Make a salad of greens from plants in the goosefoot family, the tops of wild carrots, wild onions and leaves of geraniums, pigweed, paintbrush or lambs quarter.
Now for the tricky part. Scoop up about 30 or so black and red harvester ants – be careful, they bite – and throw them in a jar with a bit of water. The shock of landing in water will make them expel formic acid. It smells – and tastes – like vinegar. Strain the ants out through a clean sock or part of your shirt and you have salad dressing.
Is using acid from the back ends of ants as a salad dressing safe?
“Apparently,” he said. “I’m still alive.”
So how realistic is it to wander into the Red Desert without food?
It depends entirely on timing and level of preparation, said Brian Elliott, author of “Handbook of Edible and Poisonous Plants of Western North America.”
His book, often considered the Bible of what you can and can’t eat in states like Wyoming, starts by offering cautions to would-be foragers.
First off, yes, you can die if you eat the wrong thing. Water hemlock is the most “violently poisonous” plant to humans in North America. And it’s often mistaken for wild parsnips.
“It’s four very fleshy white tuberous roots, and when you’re hungry that starchy stuff is important,” Elliott said. “The plant knows you’re after it and it protects itself very, very well with all the toxins.”
Secondly, just because animals eat a plant doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Birds eat berries of poison ivy, and if humans consumed the same berries they could develop an internal poison ivy rash.
If you’re interested in trying to forage for wild foods, start with plant identification and start simple, he said. Carry a plant identification book to help identify what is around you. Once you are sure you know what the plant is, you can look it up in Elliott’s book to check its edibility.
Start local with plants around you, then expand outward. For your first attempt, try surviving for a day with what you find.
With enough time and dedication, you can work your way up to days at a time or even a week or two.
Ironically, landscapes like the Red Desert, which appear to offer so little, may actually be some of the best because they have changed the least over the past few centuries.
Be ecologically conscious, though. Don’t dig up bulbs of wildflowers, Elliott said, and don’t eat rare or uncommon plants.
And one last tip: On your first trips without food, be sure to pack a granola bar or two, just in case.