by nick fierrophotos by ashley olander
Imagine this—you’re lost in the wilderness, miles from civilization and utterly alone. It’s dark, and you’ve run out of supplies. You’re cold, scared, and you feel like this might be the end, but then in the distance you hear something. As you follow its rhythm the sound gets increasingly louder. It’s repetitive, like two stones being banged together. Then, gazing into the woods, you see it—the telltale dull orange glow of a fire flickering from inside a small cave. Out of sheer desperation you dare to peek inside, and as your eyes adjust to the light you notice a man seated beside a dog, chipping away at what was once a rock, transforming it into a tomahawk blade. The carcass of a large rodent is suspended above the flame and, if you’re being honest with yourself, it smells delicious. You ask him if he can help you, his steely blue eyes lock with yours, and with a subtle nod he exhales a single word: “Yeah.”
Donny Dust isn’t just a tall tale. He’s real, and he’s a folk legend in his own right. Donny is a naturalist, a survivalist, an artisan, and a curator of the ancient ways that gave way to the birth of civilization. Most people might remember Donny from the TV show “Alone,” a self-recorded test of willpower and cunning that would make even the most experienced survivalists take a rain check. Donny is also an educator, and it’s through his PaleoTracks Survival school, where he teaches primitive skills and the ways of natural living to anyone in search of existing like a hunter-gatherer in the modern world. The basic tenets center on agricultural knowledge, carrying minimal gear and making traditional hunting tools. The cornerstone of his philosophy is “Know more, carry less.”
“I’ve butchered a bison up in Montana using three stone tools,” Donny says. “That’s a 900-pound animal with three stone tools in a couple hours. I was covered in blood head to toe, but it was an experience. I try to get people to see that they’ll be OK with very, very little.” His minimalist approach may seem extreme to those who prefer to err on the side of caution while off the grid, but Donny teaches that our very existence is proof that these ancient techniques are successful because, well, we’re still here.
“Everything already exists out in the bush,” he explains, “whether it’s bones or stone or wood or water or food, all of that already exists there. It’s up to us to go out there and employ that first skill, that creative skill.”
His teaching style focuses on creativity, asserting that with a firm foundational knowledge a person can become adaptable in any survival situation. “When it comes to getting people to understand their creative process,” he explains, “it really comes down to making a simple tool. You don’t have to create this elaborate stone blade. You just need an edge, and that simple edge will give you the ability to cut. Likewise, if you were to walk into your natural environment with the right kind of knowledge, and just go for a 30-minute walk, you’d be amazed by how many plants you can eat, but also what tooling aspects they have. They can be used for anything from glues and adhesives to narcotics. Some plants will drug fish that’ll allow you to scoop them right out of the water. Some plants will heal and some plants will kill bacteria. What people would deem weeds that they spray killers on are far more beneficial than some plants you get at a grocery store.”
Donny’s knowledge is built upon a lifetime of exploring the world around him. Growing up in Colorado, he spent his youth in the woods. “It progressed into something that I just felt very passionate about,” Donny says. “I’ve always trapped and hunted and fished as a kid. I never really wanted to wear a suit or a tie; I just wanted to be a guy who lives in a cave or enjoys the simple things in life.”
Donny has done just that. He’s curated a quiet, simple existence in the chaos and clatter of the modern world, disappearing into the bush for weeks at a time and traveling the world to share the knowledge he’s gathered over the course of his lifetime. The most amazing thing about his outlook is that it has remained unchanged despite his massive social media following.
Millions of people view, like and share Donny’s videos on a daily basis. His TikTok account focuses on camping, survival and his dog Finn as they go on adventures. But the most enthralling parts involve his ability to form stone, wood and animal hides into clothing, tools and survival gear, and watching Donny in his element is more relaxing than any ASMR video. The videos usually feature the man himself, seated comfortably in a shelter lined with pelts, calmly chipping away at pieces of stone, forging tools, weapons and jewelry at the request of his fans. His most popular videos illustrate the ancient art of flint knapping.
“Flint knapping is one of the oldest art forms ever to exist,” he says. “I think the oldest ones are about 3 million years old. A few years ago I got tired of all the stuff—the backpacks, tents, knives, axes and hatchets. I wondered, ‘How did we go from the early versions of us to now?’ I wound up taking one archaeology class, then I found a guy a few hours north who made me a set of stone tools.
“I used those stone tools until there was literally nothing left of them,” he continues. “I sharpened them again and again, put them to work, cut plants down, hunted. Once I knew how the tools worked, I figured I should learn how to make them. It’s one thing to maintain them, but another thing to create them.”
Donny’s tattoos might not be the first thing you notice when you view his content. You’ll be watching his hands flake away stone to form an arrowhead and you’ll notice a few dots and glyphs on his hands. His arms are covered in Japanese and Nordic designs, bold Polynesian symbols can be seen on his chest, and some designs you can’t tell apart from the scars, bruises and dirt on his body, and that’s the way he likes it.
“I’m a huge advocate for letting your tattoos bake in the sun,” he says. “Everything in tattoo culture says you have to protect them, but I don’t think that’s how any of my work should connect to the natural world. They should be observed by the sun, they should be in the open air. They shouldn’t be closed up and encased and hidden from things. I like mine to be worn and weathered, beat up and scarred and bruised with little nicks and chips taken out of them. It’s only a compliment to the story.”
Donny’s tattoos serve as reminders of where he’s been, keeping the knowledge of his travels and the lessons learned and serving as personal totems to his philosophy.
“Most of my designs are specific to me,” he explains. “The four dots on my right hand represent mental, physical, emotional and primal wellbeing, and the alignment of them. So I can look down at my hands—my creative tools—and it represents when those four things are aligned. You have to keep them aligned to keep moving forward. Some of my tattoos are reminders of those suggestions to me of, ‘Don’t forget who you are, what drives you.’”
Much like the way Donny took an ancient art form and applied it to the modern world with his own personal twists, he has also taken ancient tattoo designs with long-lost meaning and adapted them to tie his past to his present.
“I have these two crescents and arrows on my left and right hands,” he says. “That’s an ancient symbol found all over Scotland and Ireland and the true meaning is unknown. My family comes from Scotland and after spending some time over there, I kept seeing it pop up to me in these sort of random, natural ways. So I depicted it as a broken arrow and a crescent moon. It means two things to me, since the true meaning is unknown, I got to take it and modify it.
“The broken arrow represents the shots we don’t take,” he continues. “If you want to go and pursue something but you’re too afraid to, your arrow’s already broken before you draw it out of the quiver. The crescent gives direction. In the northern hemisphere, when the moon is out and it’s in its crescent shape, if you take the tip of the crescent, and draw a straight line to the other tip of the crescent, and continue that line all the way to the horizon, that will give you the cardinal direction of South.”
Even the simplest of Donny’s tattoos serve as potent reminders of his survival instinct and signify his determination to overcome and thrive. “I have five dots on my right ankle that represent the brushes with death that I’ve had,” he shares. “I’m standing above them and being on top of them and not letting them overtake me.”
At the root of it all, Donny is teaching people to let go. He urges people to get rid of the things that are weighing them down, letting people strip away the unnecessary parts of their lives and focus on harmony with their surroundings, even if making it out into the bush isn’t feasible.
“Just take your shoes off, take your shirt off, and let the sun hit you,” he says. “Walk through any natural landscape and feel the dirt on your feet. That time spent in a natural form is very raw and you’ll find a new energy in things. There’s no such thing as a bad day, just a bad outlook. Get out there and appreciate it.”