On the opposite side of the country, similar awkward conversations have been unfolding in some financial circles. Robert H. Dugger worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry before he became a partner at the global hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation, in 1993. After seventeen years, he retired to focus on philanthropy and his investments. “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution,” he told me recently.
In the early ’80s on a job for the State Department to reinforce U.S. embassies and consulates following the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, Pense says he and other government contractors around the U.S. converged on CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. The consortium of engineers traded notes and decided that the U.S. power grid was vulnerable. Inadequate, Pense says, compared to everything that’s been hung on it, and that was three decades ago. Three high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) could take the whole thing down. Like New York City’s 1977 blackout, looting and pillaging would rule the streets, and that’s if they can get the lights back on quickly enough—if the power stays off for too long, order is lost forever.
On a cool evening in early November, I rented a car in Wichita, Kansas, and drove north from the city through slanting sunlight, across the suburbs and out beyond the last shopping center, where the horizon settles into farmland. After a couple of hours, just before the town of Concordia, I headed west, down a dirt track flanked by corn and soybean fields, winding through darkness until my lights settled on a large steel gate. A guard, dressed in camouflage, held a semiautomatic rifle.
Survivalists maintain their group identity by using specialized terminology not generally understood outside their circles. They often use military acronyms such as OPSEC and SOP, as well as terminology common among adherents to gun culture or the peak oil scenario. They also use terms that are unique to their own survivalist groups; common acronyms include:
While media coverage has often focused on a certain gun-toting, masculine segment of the subculture, both women described being drawn to prepping as a form of female self-empowerment. As Bedford sees it, finding yourself unprepared in the midst of a crisis can be a “terrible feeling of weakness” for a mother. “It makes sense to be empowered and trained and have the right supplies—and in this case, to have extra food on hand—because as a mom in particular, your family just relies on you,” she said.
If there was anything my freeze-dried food experiment taught me, it was how lucky I was to be able to walk down the street and buy a sandwich whenever I wanted to—but also how far I was from being self-reliant in the more quotidian sense. If freeze-dried meals are becoming increasingly popular in America, then maybe it’s because many of us realize that if something really bad happened, we wouldn’t know the first thing about surviving for a week on the ingredients lying around in our pantry. But as we continue to be bombarded by headlines foreshadowing epic floods, economic collapse, and nuclear escalation, there’s nothing wrong with finding a little peace of mind in a bag of dehydrated Chicken A La King.
For global catastrophic risks the costs of food storage become impractical for most of the population  and for some such catastrophes conventional agriculture would not function due to the loss of a large fraction of sunlight (e.g. during nuclear winter or a supervolcano). In such situations, alternative food is necessary, which is converting natural gas and wood fiber to human edible food.
“One misconception about prepping is that you’re always thinking there’s going to be some kind of epic disaster,” she told me over the phone from Virginia. “The most common disaster that we prep for, or that happens to us, is a financial problem.” A longtime single mother, Luther said her interest in food storage grew out of a period of “abject poverty” following the 2008 recession. Lisa Bedford, a Texas-based writer who runs the site The Survival Mom, told me she got into disaster preparedness around the same time, when she wasn’t sure if her husband’s construction business would survive the downturn. (Bedford also works as an independent consultant for Thrive Life, meaning that she promotes their products online, and receives a commission on purchases from customers she refers to the company, as well as a discount on products she buys herself.)
Still, as I sat at my desk one afternoon, eyeing the colorful salads my coworkers were having for lunch, I realized the absurdity of my experiment: I live in a city with 24/7 access to fresh food and work a job that affords me the privilege of eating healthfully most of the time. Even quibbling over the nutritional content of these freeze-dried meals was something of a luxury, because I wasn’t in a position where I actually needed to eat them. Then again, you never know what’s going to happen.
"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.
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.
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.”
The reëlection of Barack Obama was a boon for the prepping industry. Conservative devotees, who accused Obama of stoking racial tensions, restricting gun rights, and expanding the national debt, loaded up on the types of freeze-dried cottage cheese and beef stroganoff promoted by commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. A network of “readiness” trade shows attracted conventioneers with classes on suturing (practiced on a pig trotter) and photo opportunities with survivalist stars from the TV show “Naked and Afraid.”
Finelli sits across from me at the food court picnic table inside the Sam’s Club on Sunshine Street, where he requested we meet. The retired computer systems designer-turned–radio show host and homesteader has salt and pepper hair, wears a plaid shirt and jeans and carries a .45-caliber automatic firearm on his person (he won’t say where). Below his strong jawline hangs a leather bag full of crushed sapphire, meant to enhance his overall health.
You probably get it by now, but we're going to keep rubbing your face in the facts, nonbeliever. A bit of body odor might seem like a minor inconvenience, but it gets a whole lot more important when sneaking up on an animal that hasn't spent the last millennia losing its survival instincts means the difference between feasting and starving. Finally, an accidental fire near your ammo stores that could easily have been extinguished with a dose of nonflammable powder will certainly put a damper on your plan to make it through the end times in one piece.
To manage that fear, Dugger said, he has seen two very different responses. “People know the only real answer is, Fix the problem,” he said. “It’s a reason most of them give a lot of money to good causes.” At the same time, though, they invest in the mechanics of escape. He recalled a dinner in New York City after 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble: “A group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires were working through end-of-America scenarios and talking about what they’d do. Most said they’ll fire up their planes and take their families to Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One of the guests was skeptical, Dugger said. “He leaned forward and asked, ‘Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?’ The questioning continued. In the end, most agreed they couldn’t run.”
One major upside of freeze-dried food is its convenience. Since all its water content has been removed—via a process that involves exposing food to subzero temperatures, while removing the resulting water vapor with a vacuum—it’s easier than canned goods to transport on the fly. To “cook” Wise Company’s six-grain Apple Cinnamon Cereal, you just boil three and a half cups of water, dump in the powdery contents of the bag (minus the oxygen absorber), and cover the pot for 12 to 15 minutes.
Preparing for an emergency is different for every family. Naturally, buying nutrient-rich foods and having ways to store and purify water is the first step for everyone. After that first step, deciding what type of supplies and gear to focus on is a personal journey depending on your preparedness goals. Think of your emergency supply as an investment in the health and safety of your family during a crisis.
However, if some tales of survivalist stockpiling are to be believed, our nutty neighbors have enough of the social lubricant squirreled away to hold the most epic end-of-the-world-party of all time outside of Edgar Wright's social circle. It might not be practical, but who needs practical when you and everyone you know is doomed to die from radiation poisoning or cancer?
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