During the dinner rush, the Pizza Hut on Glenstone Avenue is a kinetic juxtaposition: fast-moving people behind the counter, slow-moving people in front of it. Carbohydrate osmosis, I assumed. Earlier that afternoon in the Starbucks down the road, Randall told me Andrew:’s meetup group might be here. He’d been hosting meetups in the gymnasium of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Belview Avenue, but the church disinvited the preppers after clergy leader and RN Janis Hall witnessed Andrew: deliver a scathing diatribe against modern medicine. But here, judging by the veterans’ hats, overalls and waistband cell phone holsters crowding the salad bar, I knew I was in the right place.
He thinks that mainstream news organizations are biased, and he subscribes to theories that he knows some find implausible. He surmised that “there is a deliberate move by the people in Congress to dumb America down.” Why would Congress do that? I asked. “They don’t want people to be smart to see what’s going on in politics,” he said. He told me he had read a prediction that forty per cent of Congress will be arrested, because of a scheme involving the Panama Papers, the Catholic Church, and the Clinton Foundation. “They’ve been working on this investigation for twenty years,” he said. I asked him if he really believed that. “At first, you hear this stuff and go, Yeah, right,” he said. But he wasn’t ruling it out.
These days, when North Korea tests a bomb, Hall can expect an uptick of phone inquiries about space in the Survival Condo Project. But he points to a deeper source of demand. “Seventy per cent of the country doesn’t like the direction that things are going,” he said. After dinner, Hall and Menosky gave me a tour. The complex is a tall cylinder that resembles a corncob. Some levels are dedicated to private apartments and others offer shared amenities: a seventy-five-foot-long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of Mac desktops, a gym, a movie theatre, and a library. It felt compact but not claustrophobic. We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.
Young’s observations rang true: Though the Wise Company meals would keep me alive in the event of an emergency, they were simply a lot more carbheavy, with a lot less animal protein and a lot fewer vegetables, than what I eat on a typical day (many of the Wise meals I bought substituted small globules of vegetable protein for actual meat). For the next two days, I supplemented my diet with freeze-dried vegetables, fruit, and yogurt I’d bought from another company, called Thrive Life, and felt the low-bloodsugar sensation dissipate. (Wise Company also sells individual ingredients, in addition to full meals, but I thought I’d diversify my sources.)
We get that creature comforts will be ever more important as the things that used to make us happy slowly break and crumble around us. But do you really want to put a ton of effort into opening a bakery when everything is going to shit? And we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but no amount of odor elimination is going to stop the uncivilized world from smelling really, really bad.
“I started saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, what does the government know that we don’t know?’ ” Hall said. In 2008, he paid three hundred thousand dollars for the silo and finished construction in December, 2012, at a cost of nearly twenty million dollars. He created twelve private apartments: full-floor units were advertised at three million dollars; a half-floor was half the price. He has sold every unit, except one for himself, he said.
“I was a computer jockey,” he says. “So for example, when you think of press 1, press 2, press 3 on the phone: I built one of the first systems in banking on the East Coast, and I apologize for that.” Finelli’s company began securitizing debt portfolios, a process that began in the ’80s and fed into the mid-2000s financial crisis. Finelli didn’t like that. “That’s when I had that moment of, ‘This is a house of cards,’” he says. So in the late 1980s, he quit and became a farmer, first out East, then in Grovespring by 2005.
"I had a dream not long ago that was sort of like God said, ‘I will show you these things,’ and that we’d lost both grids on the East and West Coasts, and I saw trains coming in, packed, standing-room only, from both coasts, and they were just releasing them into Mark Twain and everywhere. Those people were then forming little camps—15, 20 people per camp. And I saw a colored boy and a white boy, youngsters, and they were talking. And the white boy is talking, and he says if you steal wood from any of those people, only take one piece, because if you take more than that they’ll miss it.
The survivalist hard-on (yep, and I'll do it again, too) for prophylactics untouched by chemical pleasure-enhancers is the result of drilling deep (told you) into the magical properties of our latex friends. According to our research, these flexible, durable, waterproof wonders will be as much of a deciding factor in your dystopian longevity as fire and can openers.
The morning after I arrived, I was picked up at my hotel by Graham Wall, a cheerful real-estate agent who specializes in what his profession describes as high-net-worth individuals, “H.N.W.I.” Wall, whose clients include Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, was surprised when Americans told him they were coming precisely because of the country’s remoteness. “Kiwis used to talk about the ‘tyranny of distance,’ ” Wall said, as we crossed town in his Mercedes convertible. “Now the tyranny of distance is our greatest asset.”
During the Cold War, Armageddon became a matter for government policymakers. The Federal Civil Defense Administration, created by Harry Truman, issued crisp instructions for surviving a nuclear strike, including “Jump in any handy ditch or gutter” and “Never lose your head.” In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower broke ground on Project Greek Island, a secret shelter, in the mountains of West Virginia, large enough for every member of Congress. Hidden beneath the Greenbrier Resort, in White Sulphur Springs, for more than thirty years, it maintained separate chambers-in-waiting for the House and the Senate. (Congress now plans to shelter at undisclosed locations.) There was also a secret plan to whisk away the Gettysburg Address, from the Library of Congress, and the Declaration of Independence, from the National Archives.
When I got into bed that night, I noticed I was feeling a little off. Though I’d technically consumed enough calories, my stomach was still gnawing with hunger, and when I woke up the next morning, I felt energyless. I phoned Dr. Lisa Young, a New York–based nutritionist and adjunct professor at NYU, with a question: Is it really possible to live off freeze-dried food?
Finelli’s not from around here; an adopted Midwestern politeness hardly masks direct, fast-thinking, faster-talking East Coast roots, although he won’t tell me where he’s from exactly. He’s guarded like that. He won’t say where he went to college, only that he graduated from a prestigious undergraduate program and then got an MBA; nor will he say where he worked after, only that he started a company on the West Coast to manufacture satellite communications receivers before a Japanese competitor threatened to kill him. He will say he knows the moon landing was faked. In 1982, he moved back east from California and began designing computer systems for a Fortune 100 credit card company.
What programs like Doomsday Preppers have accomplished, or at least contributed to, is turning sometimes well-informed, sometimes totally unwarranted paranoia into a booming prepper-industrial complex. Each year, swap meets pack hundreds of convention centers and fairgrounds across the nation—they’re like camping shows with a dose of military surplus and hands-on instructional sessions. The September 2017 Kansas City Survival Expo & Gun Show, for instance, had tips on seed saving, “Overcoming 900 Health Diseases” and “A Devastating Street Self-Defense System.” The latter was taught by Norman Cantwell, who inspired Patrick Swayze’s character in Roadhouse. You get the feeling that he and Steven Seagal would be friends.
By his own estimate, Pense says there are a few thousand people in the Springfield area who have listened and who are ready. The preppers. Most don’t like to be called preppers because of the connotation that they’re crazy; Chicken Little wasn’t well-received by his people, either. Most don’t even like to talk about it, but a few of them do. So for three months toward the end of 2017, I sought out the doomsday survivalists to find out: Is it really crazy to live like the sky is falling?
“And carnal nature said, ‘I’ve got eight shots, they’re not by their weapons, I’m going to kill every damn one of them.’ And then I saw the women. Hollow-faced, it looked like you had draped skeletons with cloth. Horrible, and the children were the same way. Far, far worse than anything I had ever imagined. I could see it, I could smell it, I could taste it, I could feel it. It was real. It’s going to be an experience you don’t want to go through.”—A dream Len Pense had, circa Fall 2017.
At the time, Americans were marvelling at engineering advances—attendees at the 1893 World’s Fair, in Chicago, beheld new uses for electric light—but were also protesting low wages, poor working conditions, and corporate greed. “It was very much like today,” White said. “It was a sense that the political system had spun out of control, and was no longer able to deal with society. There was a huge inequity in wealth, a stirring of working classes. Life spans were getting shorter. There was a feeling that America’s advance had stopped, and the whole thing was going to break.”