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“Yes,” Squirrel Heart is . . . Edible

By: Camey VanSant

By Ellie

Today marks my 54th – and last – day in Paonia, Colorado, the home base of my High Desert Center (HDC) Program. Tomorrow the group – me and 11 others – venture off on the road for the 2nd portion of the program.

This next part is road tripping in an old, small, crazy-painted mini school bus for five weeks down into Mexico. Specifically, we first head down to Utah (Goblin Valley slot canyons, Cedar Mesa ruins), then into Arizona (Navajo Reservation, Grand Canyon, Apache Reservation, Arizona Trail, and explore border Issues), and finally down to Ejido, Mexico, where we will be immersing ourselves in Mexican culture, as we try to live authentically with native villagers.

I feel bittersweet: excited to embark on a new adventure, but sad to leave Paonia, a place that has fostered so much community, curiosity, learning, and self growth.

Over the last month so much has happened – too many outstanding memories to be able to share all. However, I will share one key memory. Late September our group went on what we call a “Minimalist Trip” somewhere in the West Elk Mountains of CO. The 12 of us split into two groups, each of which would try to survive 2 days and 1 night on VERY minimal supplies. By this I mean one pot (for boiling water/cooking), three matches for lighting fire, and one knife (for cutting and butchering). Forget sleeping bags, this meant not even a blanket to keep us warm at night, no water (we’d have to find some), and no food (we’d have to forage or hunt). Our group was ambitious and wanted to see how we’d do by purposefully setting ourselves up for lots of discomfort, especially during the long cold night.

While we were driving up before being dropped off in Nowheresville, we passed by a dead squirrel on the side of the road. All of a sudden Dev (one of the counselors) stopped the bus and went out to fetch the squirrel. He told our group that we should take it with us in case we are not able to catch any critters. We put it in a garbage bag and resentfully took it with us, hoping we wouldn’t be having roadkill for dinner.

After parking the bus we all hoped out, said our goodbyes and best wishes to the other group (which was living in relative luxury compared to us: warm clothes, three blankets, and water) and headed off to find a sleep able spot. While hiking up through the brush our eyes were peeled for any edible plants, bugs, and critters. The first thing we spotted were grasshoppers, which I did not partake, as I was not desperately hungry . . . yet. However, I did find some clover flowers, which I ate. Next thing we spotted were chipmunks. Our tactic was to encircle them and for someone to throw their throwing sticks at it.  Bad plan: the chipmunks were way too fast and there was too much brush for them to hide.  So, we decided we would be better off finding a campsite first so that half of the group could set up camp while the other half tried to hunt for food. On the way we passed a stream of water and filled up the pot in case there was no water near camp.

We hiked uphill for about an hour and a half and finally passed by an open prairie which seemed to be a grazing spot for cows or sheep. Half our team of six (plus 2 counselors) grabbed their throwing sticks and went on the hunt for critters, while I and the other three walked into the woods surrounding the prairie and started to set up camp. This entailed clearing sticks and brush off a flat ground area where we’d be sleeping. We collected pine leaves for the bottom and top layer of our forest “bed.” The middle layer was duff which added some cushion to the bed. It was super important for us to make sure the bed was at least a foot off the ground: the farther off the forest floor the warmer we’d stay at night. Remember, we had no warm clothes, tents, or sleeping bags – nothing. The “bed” was just wide and tall enough for all 8 of us to fit. Along the entire base of the bed, we dug a rectangular ditch in the ground for a fire pit. We then stacked a ton of huge rocks along the back of the fire so the warmth would only blow towards us.

By the time we were done setting up camp, the “hunting team” came back empty handed. They’d come across a couple squirrels, but they were just too darn fast. So, we collected enough firewood to last the night and were able to start the fire with just one match – we never ended up using the other two. Once we got the fire going, we put the pot of water on it to boil.

Meanwhile, the roadkill squirrel was all we had for dinner, and at this point of the day, having had no water or food since 8 am, I was actually grateful we had taken it with us. Back at homebase in Paonia, I – a city girl from Chicago who previously had maybe, at most, roasted a hot dog – learned how to kill and butcher meat rabbits (which we ate for dinner). So with that knowledge and hands-on experience, I was semi-confident I’d be able to take on a squirrel. My counselor and I butchered it together. Of course, you can’t eat any animal before inspecting closely for disease.

From the outside the squirrel did not look too injured; however, it did have a lot of internal bleeding, which made it harder and smellier to prepare. In addition to the meat, we kept its heart and liver, as they are both edible.

To state the obvious: never in my life did I think I’d be butchering and eating roadkill squirrel for dinner, but when you’re hungry and without any other source of food, you have to make the most of what ya got. You know, adapt or die, as the saying goes.

Honestly, it didn’t taste bad. If I was blindfolded, I’d think it was . . . chicken.

After dinner, the sun set, and the cold started to come in – fast. After all, this is the mountains, more than 6000 feet elevation, something this Midwesterner was not used to. Thank goodness for the fire – a literal lifesaver – because if we didn’t have it, we would have gotten hypothermia. I was tired and laid down on the bed with the hopes of getting some sleep. Unfortunately, I got all of about 30 minutes of sleep the whole night; the same went for everyone else.

When you laid down, the warmth of the fire was not strong enough, so you couldn’t sleep without freezing your whole body off. Apart from the coldness of laying down, we were surrounded by a hundred or so baa-ing sheep – apparently, we were on their grazing land. Listening to the sounds of the sheep in the dark forest reminded me of a scene from a horror movie. As you can imagine, sleep quickly became less of a priority. Instead, my number one priority changed to staying warm. During the entire night into dawn – as I huddled near the fire – I daydreamed about how comfortable the other group must be with their three blankets. Once the sun finally emerged, however, a huge joy rushed over us. We had survived the night!

No question about it, and no way to sugarcoat it, the trip was miserable at night. But at the same time, it was also crazy exciting. Building our own “bed” and fire ditch, butchering a squirrel, listening to the sheep and their sheep dogs fight off coyotes all night long, and most importantly being surrounded by people who did not complain and instead comforted one another and soaked in all of the experience together was – fortunately – hopefully just a once in a lifetime-type adventure.

A trip that tested my boundaries and limits. A trip I will never forget . . .

Categories: Ellie