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Jillian and Sam Liebl Trek Back in Time Before Starting Stone-Age School

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Jillian and Sam Liebl have headed into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho, leaving their gadgets in their car and society at the trailhead; they plan to stay in the wilderness for a month with four other primitive-skills practitioners. For the Liebls, this trek is part of an unofficial continuing-education course before they start their own skills school in Salida.

Also in the group are an herbalist, a butcher (who knows what to do with every part of an animal), a hide tanner, and a flint napper or stone- tools manufacturer who also excels in tracking and hunting. Sam and Jillian, who were featured in an article on millennials learning primitive skills that accompanied our "Defending the (Modern) Caveman" cover story, are well versed in plant identification and gathering, fishing and hide-tanning. The troupe will spend its days wandering through a fraction of the nearly 2.3 million acres of wilderness area — the largest in America — with just things they brought on their backs and the survival skills they’ve gained.

The trek isn’t a full-on trip to the Stone Age, Jillian says; they will have some civilized items like water-purification devices, sun-dried venison, sleeping bags, tents, couscous and peanut butter. However, they will need to rely on the land to build shelters and will have to forage and fish to supplement their food supply.

Earlier this year, the Liebls had been working with Earth Knack Stone-Age Living Skills School, based in Crestone in the San Luis Valley, where they started as interns and became instructors. But now they're branching out with their own program: Rift Valley Earth Skills School. Before leaving for Idaho, the couple filed the proper paperwork for the business, started working with a graphic designer on a logo, and launched their website — only to go offline themselves and into the woods for a month.

“It’ll be okay,” says Jillian. “Maybe it’s not great for business, but it's really great for us professionally and personally as well.”

Sam differentiates this trek from the thirty or so more formal primitive-skills gatherings held across the country every year. "Those are kind of an artificial setup — a big camp, sort of like a big party," he says. "You can't really get what you need from the land." At those gatherings, dozens to hundreds of primitive-skills instructors come together to teach and learn skills from each other — skills like building fire by friction, bow-carving, plant identification and shelter-building. But those meetings often have strict rules on foraging or using materials from the land, limiting the experience.

“If everyone rolled up to a spot and you got 300 people like us, we’d clean out an area pretty quick. We take foraging ethics pretty seriously, but still, we’d knock out the resources in an area pretty quick,” says Sam, who was taking modern antibiotics to recover from a black widow bite he'd gotten only three days before going into the middle of nowhere for a month. This trek is more intimate and casual, with only six people, no set itinerary and plenty of time, so the Liebls and their companions can take advantage of each other’s knowledge and immediately apply it. “We’re going to learn in a really intense way and a really informal way,” Sam says.

And when they return to civilization, they'll get serious about Rift Valley. Although they don't have any company classes scheduled yet, Jillian says they'll be working with the Salida Recreation Department, teaching at its Friday Enrichment activities for students, since school is in session only four days a week in that town. The couple may also be teaching at Crest, Salida's alternative middle school. At the same time, they are open to traveling the country for teaching opportunities; they're planning to be at the Saskatoon Circle, a gathering in north-central Washington, and they may teach classes in Texas. “We eventually want to be teaching in Colorado,” says Jillian. But in the meantime, she adds, “we really want to focus on becoming students again and learning more.... This wilderness trek is kind of the first step on our graduate-school primitive-skills route.”

Their career choice may not be a stable one. The Liebls see many of their millennial friends working in fields like oil and gas, making $80,000 or more a year, with a 401k and other benefits. But Jillian questions whether sacrificing her time outdoors for those things would really make her happy.

She grew up thinking that she was going to drive around in a Prius. Now she’s in an old farm truck, hauling gear around four-wheel-drive roads, going hunting and plotting experiments with her husband, such as ditching the truck and only walking for a year. “For us, we’ve kind of chosen a little more freedom and to be able to wake up every morning excited. Not that our friends who are working aren’t, of course, but we’re excited that we get to wake up every day and go outside,” says Jillian. “Every day is different, and every day we pretty much get to do what we want to do, which is part of how we make money. So that’s pretty fun.” 

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