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Spy Games

Writer William Wheeler joins a new breed of daring adventure tourists who are paying top dollar to be the prey in a simulated citywide manhunt

Photography Ryan Schude

survival

In a flash, one of my captors whipped a sack over my head. I heard the sucking sound of duct tape. He looped a strand around my neck, and then another several times over and around my wrists. It happened so fast that I barely had time to panic.

Then my unseen assailant tilted my head back. I felt water running down the hood, and when I inhaled I sucked in wet cloth. Some primal switch inside me flipped. My heart rate skyrocketed, adrenaline surged. Through the hood I saw a flash of blue and heard what must be the last sound an insect hears when it flies into a bug zapper. I felt the stun gun on my shoulder, followed by a bolt of pain. It was then that I screamed.

“Journalist, huh?” It was a second man’s voice. “You here to write bad things about our coup?”

He zapped me again. And again. I was starting to hyperventilate. I had to stop the spiraling panic, to get control of my breathing: four counts in; hold four counts; four counts out; repeat. It was startling how quickly it worked. Within minutes, the stun gun hardly bothered me at all, eliciting only a brief shudder.
“Doesn’t look like he’s gonna talk,” said the second man. “Let’s go.”

A moment later I heard the door open and close. Hoping to gauge whether anyone was still in the room, I offered to show my press credentials. Silence. I needed to get away. In a kidnapping scenario, if you don’t escape quickly, things are likely to get worse.

I lost a minute or so fumbling with the tape around my neck, which was too strong to tear with my hands bound. So I stood and shuffled forward until I felt the wall, then followed it with my fingertips until I found a corner edge. I put the corner between my wrists and began rubbing up and down, trying to create enough friction to burn through seven layers of tape. It took about 10 seconds. I removed the sack from my head and took an extra-deep breath.

I was in a hotel room. I opened the door, looked left and right, then bolted down a pathway that cut through a courtyard. I burst into the main lobby, past a crowd of startled onlookers and into the bright light of a Los Angeles morning. A commercial airliner roared low overhead. I took a few teetering steps, then dropped to my knees until I gained some semblance of composure.
 
HARD TO believe, perhaps, but people pay good money to experience this sort of thing.

My kidnapping ordeal was part of a so-called Urban Escape and Evasion course, a training program run by the New Jersey–based outfit onPoint Tactical, whose clients have included Navy SEALS and special ops forces from various federal agencies, as well as regular folks like me. I’d spent the previous two days in a hotel conference room, studying everything from how to pick locks to “social engineering” (persuading strangers to do stuff for you). For the simulation on the last day of the three-day course—which runs roughly $800—I put my newfound skills to the test as the object of a simulated manhunt that had me making my way on foot across L.A.

It sounds crazy, like the 1997 Michael Douglas film The Game, but to some thrill seekers, the course offers a rare opportunity to tap into their dormant survival instinct—not to mention their teenage fantasies. “There’s something about being a guy where you want to be a superhero,” said Neil Strauss, who took the course as part of the research for his 2009 best-seller Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life. With onPoint’s courses, he added, “you get to be Jason Bourne. You get to be James Bond.”

That said, many of the people who sign up for the classes do not fit the James Bond mold. As 32-year-old engineer and newly trained survivalist Heath Smalley put it, “I don’t move in a circle where people are running around picking handcuffs.” But then the company’s founder, Kevin Reeve, doesn’t come across as an international man of mystery either. He is a bearish figure—six-foot-two, 240 pounds—more Fred Flintstone than Jason Bourne. Which is why, if he needs to blend into the background, Reeve will don a hard hat and a clipboard for his go-to pose as a construction worker or building inspector.

A former Eagle Scout from Pasadena, Reeve spent 15 years in Silicon Valley (including five years at Apple) before burning out on “the cubicle world.” During a sabbatical, he enrolled in a tracking school run by a veteran tracker and survivalist named Tom Brown Jr. He enjoyed it so much he quit his job to stay on as an instructor. Brown claims to have been trained by an Apache named Stalking Wolf, and Reeve quickly became fascinated by the ancient warrior tribe. Of particular interest, he told me, was the Apache’s ability to avoid fights he couldn’t win by knowing where the enemy was and how to evade him.

In 2003, after eight years working with Brown, Reeve went out on his own, founding onPoint to train mostly military and law enforcement clients in outdoor tracking and survival skills. As Reeve’s business expanded, he started to attract journalists, relief doctors and international businesspeople whose work brought them to conflict areas around the globe. After Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing chaos, Reeve recognized there was a market in training civilians who had no plans to ever leave the U.S., and he designed an urban survival class that, in addition to appealing to “preppers” (city dwellers wanting to prepare for potential urban upheaval), attracted a surprising number of adventure tourists—people who like to surf, rock climb and go skydiving. Soon thereafter, Reeve started to tweak the simulation, so he could market it as a sort of “thrill ride, an adult version of hide and seek,” he said, “that appeals to people who sit in a cubicle 10 hours a day. It’s a great escape.” He now offers the class in a number of cities across the U.S., including Seattle,  Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

The first two days of the course I attended—the run-up to that harrowing interrogation—were structured in the style of a bizarre high school class. In between the practical exercises, Reeve gave PowerPoint presentations on how to hide a survival cache, how to create disguises, how to move undetected through an urban area at night and how to fend off an attack dog.

Often, Reeve’s lectures were spiced with anecdotes from his military buddies. Co-instructor Jerry Cobb—a former Green Beret whom Reeve introduced as “a scary guy”—sat in the back of the room, occasionally tossing in an off-color comment or a brief story that hinted at others too frightening for public consumption. “It is really creepy,” he said at one point, “when you’re being pursued by someone whose intent is to kill you.”

AS I STOOD panting in the hotel parking lot, I received a text message outlining the day’s premise. My partner for the simulation—an unnervingly charming television producer by the name of Christian Everhard—and I had escaped from the custody of militiamen who had just successfully completed a coup against the government of “Losbekistan.” Americans, we were told, were no longer welcome.

We were to make our way to a cache of disguises that we had previously stashed in the city and work together on tasks that would facilitate our extraction. “Hunters” would be looking for us over a ten-mile swath of L.A.; if someone tapped either of us on the shoulder and said “buffalo,” we’d be taken to a remote location and the whole process would begin again—including the interrogation. Neither of us wanted that.

I was aware that this was little more than an elaborate game, but my survival instinct had apparently missed the memo. We had to evade capture. We had to.  

We practiced evasion tactics, staggering our positions as we walked, ducking into shops and going out the back, using reflective surfaces and smartphone cameras to scan for anyone following us. We changed disguises in backyards and public restrooms.

Frequently, we relied upon the kindness of strangers: the bus driver who let us ride for free after Everhard flashed a $20 bill and said he had no small change; the desk manager at a cheap motel who gave me his own razor so I could lose my beard; the guy with the full-sleeve tattoos unloading a moving truck who offered to let us use his charger (I’d told him my cell was dead), then took five minutes to find us directions on his own phone.

For many, the most difficult part of these simulations is asking for stuff, especially money—a shock to the ego, but a liberating one. One alumnus, a movie prop guy named Donnie who declined to give his last name, recalled the first time he tried to panhandle and watched a stranger’s attitude toward him shift from the presumption of mutual respect to a mixture of pity and suspicion. “You can think about it intellectually and go, ‘It’s just an exercise,’” he said. “But you feel it. It’s real.”

In advanced sessions, students are required to live for several nights on the streets, competing with the homeless for the best hiding spots for caches and alcoves for sleeping. “A lot of people self-identify with the fact that, ‘Oh I’m a successful businessman, I’m a student, I’m a this, I’m a that,’” said Donnie. “But when you put your head down at the bottom of a stairwell and it’s raining outside and it’s two in the morning and your head’s on concrete, all of a sudden you’re not any of those things.”

Finding yourself in such a situation can feel like an assault on your sense of self, which may explain why students are so eager to retreat into their disguises. At one point, I wore magenta slacks, a blond wig and a bandanna that gave me the look of a 1970s tennis pro. During a course in Atlanta, a female student donned a prosthetic tummy, pretending to be pregnant. Two other guys masqueraded as skate punks, persuading a hotel concierge to store their cache of grungy clothes and skateboards, saying they were there to shoot a documentary.

In terms of blending in, it’s less about what you wear than about how you act. Reeve calls the principle “baseline,” which means mirroring the attitudes, gestures and even the walking pace of the local population. Darrell Walton, an Air Force pilot and member of the 2009 U.S. skydiving team, struggled with the concept. He didn’t do enough recon to gauge the baseline of downtown Atlanta and stuck out dressed as a preppy college kid in blighted neighborhoods. Another student told Walton he’d spotted him from a distance because he was “walking like a military guy.”

The flip side of blending in is spotting others trying to do the same—clocking the hunters before the hunters clock you. One method Reeve uses to help his students do this is “the insult game.” The idea is to look for the most distinctive feature on every face you come across—say, an abnormally large nose—so that you can recognize strangers who continue to pop up in your orbit and detect when you’re being followed. The problem with looking for potential foes, however, is that you tend to see them everywhere. I was sure the guy outside a Starbucks scrutinizing his cell phone was a hunter (not true). And the old guy in sunglasses walking his dog in the park was absolutely following us (nope).

But this too is part of the plan. Reeve’s simulations aim to elicit the panic and paranoia you’d need to overcome in a real-life scenario, which is a challenge even for the pros. Reeve recalled a simulation he ran with “hardened, experienced and intelligent operators” from the Special Forces community. By the end of the exercise, they told Reeve they had identified at least 25 of his hunters in pursuit. There were only 11.

I tried to remember all of these lessons as Everhard and I made our way across Los Angeles. We traveled on side streets, talked with people on stoops, drank from a garden hose. By the time we cut through a park and down a back alley, I was sure we were in the clear. It was 72 degrees and gorgeous. Our next designated stop was the beach. We were looking good.

“BUFFALO.”

I turned around to see Everhard standing with his mouth open, pointing to a tall stranger who had just stepped out of nowhere and tapped him on the shoulder. Apparently, we’d not been as blendy as we’d thought. Everhard had been spotted asking directions to the beach. I’d been seen peeking from around a hedge. Fortunately, it was too late to start the simulation over, so it would be catch-and-release for the rest of the afternoon.

Twenty minutes later, in a restaurant, Everhard and I were sitting back to back at different tables, diligently ignoring each other, when two more hunters materialized and caught us. One had spotted me from a distance (the beanie I was wearing drew the eye). Finally, the concept clicked. As an alumnus named Josh would later tell me, “It’s all about the mindset. A total change in the way you look at the world.” We changed again and disappeared, melting into the throng of consumers around Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.

Our final assignment included finding and photographing a dozen items. It was a laundry list of what we’d need to survive a night on the streets. We identified sources of water and food (Me: fishing; Reeve, later: pigeons). We found a store to buy cosmetics for our disguises, cardboard for makeshift mattresses, string and cans for creating a tripwire that would rattle if anyone tried to approach as we slept. This time, we felt as though we were getting the hang of it, and then … “Buffalo.”

William Wheeler is a contributor to The New York Times. Try as he might, he cannot shake the feeling that he’s being followed.

5 Responses to “Spy Games”

  1. Scott Vincent Says:
    April 1st, 2014 at 1:36 am

    Great story! Once you start you can’t stop!
    Buffalo every time you turn around. I know people are following me I just need to prove it.
    Thanks William Wheeler

  2. Joe Ganci Says:
    April 5th, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    I really enjoyed this. It’s unlike any story I’ve ever read in an airline magazine. Keep up the great writing!

  3. Auddis Says:
    May 17th, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Great story, read it inflight on the way to Houston. I took the course in March in Salt
    Lake City but I did not get caught, I changed my clothing 4 times…had a great time.

  4. Auddis Says:
    May 17th, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    recommend it to anyone going in harm’s way.

  5. Matt Says:
    May 19th, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Awesome story, having taken the class a few years back myself, it helped relive some great memories and people training that I still use to this day! thank you for sharing.

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