'The Art of Nothing'
Pony man hones survival skills with Stone Age techniques
By Laura Lundquist of The Montana Standard. 08/22//2009
Tom Elpel could be considered a Renaissance man. But the Renaissance is about 20,000 years too late for Elpel. He prefers the Stone Age.
Elpel left his family in Silver Star on Aug. 1 to go camping in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. It's no ordinary camping trip. Elpel and eight other people will exist for a month, limiting themselves to possessions that would have been available to Stone Age man. The participants are each bringing 10 pounds of food they dried themselves, earthen pots and buckskin clothing.
It may sound like the premise for a reality show, and Elpel is not blind to that fact. He intends to film the group's experience, so the one modern device he is taking is a video camera that he will charge with solar energy.
This will not be Elpel's first video. He's produced three videos on survival trips, beginning in 2002. The series, called The Art of Nothing, caught the interest of Adam Starr of Zone 5 Pictures, an Emmy-winning film company from New Hampshire. Starr produced the fourth video of the series and has plans for a documentary with Elpel.
Elpel has honed his survival skills for many years. When he was 12, following the death of his father, he spent a lot of time with his grandmother in Pony. She taught him about plants and sparked his interest in survival skills, taking him to his first survival skills class. Then he took those skills and did a 26-day walkabout when he was 16. He hasn't stopped.
Two years after graduating from Bozeman High School in 1986, he took his girlfriend, Renee, on a walk across Montana. They survived for two months walking from Pony to Fort Union, just north of Sidney, on the North Dakota border.
"We walked 14 miles on one day that was 110 degrees out in Eastern Montana," Elpel said.
That aside, they married in Pony in 1989.
Elpel said he spent a lot of time being cold, wet and hungry until he learned a few things. He continues to practice his skills in the Tobacco Root Mountains.
"I'm definitely still learning," Elpel said. "That's why I'm doing this trip in Washington. I feel like I've stalled out on my survival skills."
Writing has led to the stall. This mountain man can transition to eloquent philosopher and has written six books on topics ranging from botany to economics to the analysis of consciousness. But Elpel said they all revolve around the idea that sustainable choices are environmentally friendly and profitable.
Elpel lives the ideas he presents in his books, and his books help him live his ideas. His home in Pony uses green building materials and processes, such as solar energy and radiant heat. He has few bills, thus he said he doesn't have to have a job.
"I wouldn't have been able to be a writer if I was working," Elpel said.
But he jokes that he and Renee did buy themselves a job in 2003. They bought the general store and post office in Silver Star. They also began building an environmentally friendly house nearby, improving upon the knowledge gained from their first house.
Now living along the Jefferson River, Elpel founded the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association, a group that's trying to conserve land along the river to preserve the Lewis and Clark experience. He has donated money from his book sales to the group.
"Tom is an amazing guy," member Warren Swager said. "When we first started, we had meetings out in his teepee. And look at what he's done with this house. He makes things happen."
Elpel brushes away such praise. "I just want to make a difference, to make the world a better place."
For information on Elpel's projects, go to www.GrannysStore.com.