By Jake Abrahamson
I'm with 14 athletic people in Palo Alto, California, in a park that has the rubbery shine of a fairway. We are crouched, waddling forward like a brood of baby chickens, while Clifton, our guru, shouts prompts.
"You're entering a cave! The ceiling is getting lower and lower! You're bending over as far as you can! Now you're dragging yourself across the floor!" He demonstrates proper dragging technique: Push with a hand near the hip and pull with the opposite forearm.
Moms with strollers stare from across the grass.
For the rest of the morning, Clifton leads us through strafes, backward crab walks, curb traverses, bench jumps, and somersaults in an open field. "We evolved to move like this," he says, speaking from his comfy seat at the apex of human evolution. His limbs are pistons. His torso is one of those fake Superman torsos. He hates shirts and thinks everyone stands to gain from being more badass. We nod in assent.
Clifton's advice comes from a company called MovNat. What it preaches is half fitness philosophy, half cult of the caveman. According to the creed, my body evolved to hunt, gather, and flee, but I was born into captivity, and my daily pattern of eight hours in an office chair followed by two pints of Guinness and some NBA TV puts me in the high-risk bracket for something called zoo human syndrome. I diagnosed my sickness a year ago, when I noticed MovNat creator Erwan Le Corre silkily swimming across YouTube. In a video called "The Workout the World Forgot," he runs around forests, climbs trees, and pushes logs through water with robotic efficiency. He is immaculate and flushed—with a kind of haute sweaty look, like Bono on the savanna.
Since then, I've attempted to slice through landscapes Erwan-style. I've free-soloed sea cliffs, swung from an oak tree,Â and lifted a dead log overhead and, in a fit of adrenaline rage, hurled it into the Pacific. And now I am here in the hope that Clifton will shape me from zoo human into human animal.
Soon it's lunchtime, and I mingle with my fellow pupils. It turns out they're into Earthing, CrossFit, and the Paleo lifestyle—not your standard zoo humans. Some do "ultra" and "RKC." Some make a living training people like me. Everyone but me is either barefoot or in those shoes that have toes. After 10 minutes, they all seem to be best friends.
"What do you do?" asks a muscle-packed woman who is built like an ottoman.
"I work at Sierra magazine," I say. "Mostly blogging." We are walking toward the shady lunch spot, which has a vantage on the playground. We hope to hijack the swing set for climbing drills. "What about you?" I ask.
She stares up at me, a worried furrow in her brow. "I own a CrossFit gym. I do a lot of O-lifting. But what do you do physically?"
Later, as the sun wanes, the park assumes that fuzzy late-day glow, and Clifton gathers us in for the finale. He lifts some huge rocks from the trunk of his car (our first natural props!) and introduces us to "manipulation" with an anecdote: "I used this technique to smash logs when I went camping and like an idiot didn't bring an ax or firewood."
He teaches us the proper form for lifting a boulder overhead and slamming it to the ground. I keep my feet flat and use power from my legs to bring it up to my face. Then I push up and throw down. Clifton screams motivational phrases like "This! Will! Make! You! More! Bad! Ass!" and "Remember to yell!" I feel guilty about the flattened circle of grass, but proud of my execution.
It's late, and the moms with strollers are gone, so I bray in Paleo triumph. I can make fire, wash in a puddle, slip into fresh loincloth, char goat, and sleep full-bellied under stars. I am zoo human no more.
Jake Abrahamson is the editorial assistant at Sierra.