ROXBURY — Last May Harrison native Ryan Holt spent 21 days filming for an episode of Naked and Afraid: Alone. On Sunday, Jan. 26, Mainers can tune into the Discovery Channel network series and see for themselves how he was able to survive and thrive.

Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School graduate Ryan Holt stars in Discover Channel’s ‘Naked and Alone’ on Jan. 26. Contributed photo

They strip you of everything you have and give you three survivalist items,” Holt explained last Friday, comfortably resting at his Human-Nature Hostel in Roxbury. “They don’t feed you or provide water. I was given a hunting knife, a pot for boiling water and cooking and a primitive wooden long bow. No compound bow, no sights. But I had to hunt big game. I can’t tell what I hunted, you have to watch the show.”

Holt has already participated in three previous ‘Naked and Afraid’ challenges. In the first, which aired in 2015, he spent 21 days paired with a female partner in the Everglades. The next year he took part in a 40-day challenge in South Africa that aired over a 10-episode season (Holt had to step out after the 29th day when he contracted food poisoning).  The third, Naked and Afraid of Sharks, was shot over 14 days on a remote Bahamas Island for a July 18, 2018 companion episode to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming.

The most recent Naked and Afraid: Alone is just that, Holt out in the South African Bush – alone. The only other human present is the camera man/producer. They are contractually forbidden from any type of communication, excepting a medical need. Always up for a survival adventure, Holt seized on the offer for ‘Alone’ as atonement for having to drop out of his first South Africa challenge.

This was the first time I was allowed a decent weapon,” Holt said. “I was able to go after big game [to survive], which was my ultimate goal. I’d caught plenty of snakes, catfish, I’d eaten other stuff, but not big game. It was my personal challenge. The universe made me work for it, but I thrived.

For the first seven days I didn’t have a bite to eat of anything. I had my pot to boil water. Every single water source in Africa is used by warthogs, giraffes, elephants, me – bathing. I had to dip my pot for that coffee-looking water and boil it.”

Ryan Holt shows off examples of his “bush crafting” pieces, created while starring on Discovery Channel’s ‘Naked and Alone’ series. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

Holt gained the attention of the producers of the Naked and Alone franchise through Tim Smith of Masardis, Maine’s Jack Mountain Bush Craft School where he attended Maine Guide and survivalist training.

Tim works for Naked and Afraid as their survivalist expert,” Holt said. “He saw how much I put into my training and survival skills and how passionate I was about it. At first I was like, ‘what’s television coming to?’ But then I realized it was a way to test what I had just learned at his school. There are no grades in guide training. I could test myself.”

Until he got sick during his first go-round in South Africa, Holt did well enough in the first four weeks that he found time to pursue what he calls bush crafting, fashioning necklaces, loin clothes, head pieces and additional equipment.

For many of the survivalists, they had their eye on the end date and were counting the days they had to make it,” Holt said. “My mentality is to thrive out there, to live sustainably, abundantly and within the balance of my natural environment. If I’ve got food, fire, water and shelter, and sitting around? I’m losing my mind. So I keep my head and my hands busy. I pick a project, not necessary for survival but giving me something to do and benefiting my mental state.”

Holt theorizes that he may have filmed his last installment of Naked and Afraid but he’s satisfied with his challenge accomplishments, especially his recent one. He would welcome any fresh survival/entertainment opportunities.

If there’s an adventure and I can go on it I’m there, whether it’s on TV or not. It’s free, I go halfway around the world. They put me up, pay for my flights and I get to go and survive and thrive out in the woods. I love it. I’ve had four opportunities of the lifetime in one, so far. It’s amazing.”

But his gig as a globe-hopping cable TV star aside, Holt is firmly grounded to his Roxbury abode. From June through October, his Human-Nature Hostel operates exclusively as a rest-stop for Appalachian Trail through-hikers. As he credits the AT with healing his mind and soul after an eight-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, Holt finds joy in being a part of others’ journeys as they arrive in the final state of the 2,190-mile hike.

After being honorably discharged in 2011 Holt made plans to hike the AT but had several months to kill before he could set out the following spring. He spent about a month in Maine visiting his parents and catching up with friends. But he was struggling with the experiences of his deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Living in sandbag bunkers along the Pakistan border, never sure exactly who the enemy was, seeing brothers lose their lives while he physically escaped unscathed, Holt left the Marines Corps feeling lost. He reenlisted in 2007 and even though he remained stateside during his second enlistment, he lived in untreated turmoil.

I was home for about a month,” said Holt. “Going crazy in my head. I spent a couple weeks couch-surfing at some buddies’ house in Portland, partying every night. And I was stagnant. Not going anywhere or doing anything.

Ryan Holt, U.S. Marine veteran and survivalist, grew up in Harrison, Maine. Contributed photo

I had never been further than the east coast, just from Maine down to Florida. I spent eight years defending a country I had never even explored before, so I took off on a 12,000 mile loop of the U.S., visiting every national park and monument and oddity along the way.”

The following March, Holt took a bus to Georgia and started his trek of the Appalachian Trail towards Maine. And it was on the trail where he was able to heal himself from the traumas he’d seen as a Marine.

The AT gave me the opportunity to let go of a lot of the stuff I was holding onto from my time in war,” said Holt. “In a sense, the trail and being immersed in nature saved my life. I summited Mt. Kathadin on my 28th birthday. I had reached these levels of peace and happiness and freedom. And I didn’t just want to taste it, I wanted to hold it even though that journey was over.”

His answer was to buy a piece of land near the Andover trail head, build himself a geodesic dome, and operate a hostel and nature retreat. Holt held his grand opening on June 15, 2018. For four months out of the year it exclusively serves AT through-hikers. In his second year of business, the hostel was ranked second in thetrek.co’s annual Thru-Hiker Survey.

The dome, which features all the comforts of home, can hold up to 30 guests a night. Off-season (November through May) Holt lists it on Airbnb®; every weekend is booked into early spring.

Holt also envisions Human-Nature Hostel as a place for other veterans to heal. Last October he launched the Warriors’ Awakening Retreat (W.A.R.), a five-day retreat for veterans. It is Holt’s way of sharing how nature helped him recover from his emotional wounds.

I self-medicated,” Holt said. “Now I am sober and sobriety is great. But I went through my time. While I was stationed in DC and after I got out of the Marine Corps I had my troubles. Went through depression and anxiety, through substance and alcohol dependence. That’s what sent me to the AT and the trail allowed me to let go of that stuff. My PTSD, my guilt, my ‘what if’ questions all the time. All that stuff.”

W.A.R participants take part in activities like archery and horse-back riding, yoga and meditation, art therapy and a Native American sweat lodge. Holt also taps into his Maine Guide skills, leading hikes and canoe excursions.

It’s a week of camaraderie, experiences that veterans seek once they are out of the military,” Holt explained. “A way to get outside, get away from the chaos and find a reset in a natural environment.”

He is taking steps to make W.A.R. a non-profit program that will enable veterans to participate at no cost. He hopes to make W.A.R. a twice-yearly project.

Holt describes his 2011 discharge from the Marines as the most surreal moment of his entire life after spending eight years under a microscope and in environments where he could never truly be himself. But he is thankful that it gave him the means to provide supports to other veterans.

I was a financially very smart Marine, maybe the only smart thing I did then,” said Holt. “I listened to my lieutenant and put away all my money from my three deployments, my reenlistment bonus. I saved the maximum in IRAs. I had over six figures when I got out at 27. My war, my blood money, whatever you want to call it.”

The westerly view looking towards towards the Appalachian Trail from Human-Nature Hostel in Roxbury. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

Holt spent four years building the hostel with the help of family and friends from his hometown Harrison.

Harrison – it’s the friendly village, said Holt. “My mom Paula was the Recreational Director there for 24 years, my dad Douglas ran his plumbing business for 30 years. I knew everybody through my parents. Plumbing, electricity, foundation, excavation guys, it all came from my hometown. They helped me get this place off the ground.

Everything I’ve done in my life has led me here. The Marine Corps gave me my internal, my leadership qualities. Motivation, attention to detail and initiative. My ability to bring people together. And Jack Mountain Bush School provided me with my external, survival skills.”

It also brought a little reality-TV notoriety that he hopes will continue. Holt’s latest episode of Naked and Afraid: Alone airs 8 – 11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26 on the Discovery Channel.

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