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Flagstaff resident braves 21 days in wilderness

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Naked? Yes. Afraid? Not so much.

Flagstaff resident Eva Rupert, a petite 33-year-old tattoo artist, braved 21 days in the wilderness with no food or water to start with and no clothes. The experience was chronicled on a recent episode of the Discovery Channel's "Naked and Afraid" that features experienced survivalists.

Rupert's work in outdoor education drew the attention of casting agents who called and asked if she was interested in appearing in the show. A flurry of phone and Skype calls, then personal interviews and auditions were followed by silence. Months passed before she got another call. Six days later, she was on a plane headed to Madagascar.

To prepare for the trip, Rupert stopped eating junk food to avoid caffeine withdrawals and sugar cravings, spun a hand drill that she uses to build fires in order to build up calluses and sunbathed so she wouldn't burn, she said.

But the real preparation, she said, has been a lifelong process of learning and practicing survival techniques.

"The preparation process isn't something you can put together in a week or a month," she said.

Her wilderness adventure began in October when was driven in a pick-up truck to the desert of Madagascar, soaking up information about the environment on the way.

"Then the truck stops," she said. "The camera guy says, 'OK, it's time,' so you take your clothes off and go meet your partner."

Her survival partner, Jeff Zausch, was a 27-year-old from Pocatello, Idaho.

The nudity was awkward for less than five minutes, said Rupert, who grew up in Connecticut. After that, she and Zausch were too busy surviving to worry about it. In fact, Rupert said the nudity was just another element of exposure, an added challenge. The extreme heat of Madagascar's desert environment was countered with extreme cold at night that had Rupert longing for a blanket.

She said Zausch was a great partner with a strong work ethic, and their only mission was to reach day 21.

While the team had no clothes, the show does allow each participant to bring one personal item. For Rupert, it was a knife. Zausch brought a fire starter.

The first thing they did was find shelter, then secure water.

"It takes a long time to starve, so food is way down the list," she said.

While driving to the drop-off point, Rupert had spotted a cave in nearby cliffs that proved crucial to their survival. The cave offered shelter and had water seeping out of the walls.

With shelter and water accounted for, their focus turned to food. What did they eat?

"Not much," Rupert said. The desert provided them with minimal nutrition. Their diet of small berries was occasionally augmented with lizard.

The lowest moment of the trip for Rupert happened one day when she and Zausch were far from camp, hunting and gathering. Starving and dehydrated, Rupert bent over to pick a berry and suddenly found herself fighting not to faint. She sat down and took some time to regain the strength to carry on.

"You are reminded time and time again that you are mortal," she said of the experience. "You very much are at the mercy of your environment."

A high point of the experience came when a truck picked up Rupert and Zausch at the end of the 21 days, and the two realized all they had accomplished.

A smaller, but no less wonderful moment came about two weeks into the wilderness trip, Rupert said. She was tending the fire outside the cave, alone under the vast night sky while Zausch was asleep.

"The sky was full of shooting stars . and the world was at peace," she said.

Back in the land of clothing, she is enjoying easy access to food, listening to music, and being with her dogs and friends. She received no prize for making it through "Naked and Afraid." But she did not return from her 21 days in the desert of Madagascar with nothing.

"It was one of those experiences that remind you who you are and what's most important," she said. "At the end of the day it's not all the stuff. What's really essential is who we are at the core of our being."

In addition to insight, she came home with confidence.

"You come out of it feeling pretty badass," she said.

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