The irony of this didn’t escape me: While I’d been drawn to freeze-dried food as a convenient way of preparing for a cataclysm that may never come, there I was, toiling away for hours in the kitchen to prepare a dish I’d be eating that night and the next day. It was the most fortifying meal I’d eaten all week, and a minor achievement: Thanks to the premeasured portions and easy-to-follow instructions, I’d learned how to make a chicken pot pie from scratch.
Since then, the direction has been inauspicious. In January, 2016, after increasing military tensions between Russia and NATO, and the Earth’s warmest year on record, the Bulletin set the clock at three minutes to midnight, the same level it held at the height of the Cold War. In November, after Trump’s election, the panel convened once more to conduct its annual confidential discussion. If it chooses to move the clock forward by one minute, that will signal a level of alarm not witnessed since 1953, after America’s first test of the hydrogen bomb. (The result will be released January 26th.)
The stories of alcoholic beverages historically being safer to drink than unfermented ones are apocryphal at best; however, as any 17th-century sailor would tell you, the addition of some spirits to potable water that's been sitting around for too long will make it much more palatable. Liquor distillation was originally invented in part for medical purposes, and alcohol can be used as a solvent to dissolve medicinal herbs -- and also to knock out patients during good old-fashioned fallout-shelter surgery. High-proof alcohol can be used as an antiseptic, and it does a great job of cleaning wounds and preventing infection.
And what better place to prepare than the Ozarks? Strafford got 47 inches of rain last year; the mean temperature was a mild 59 degrees. The Springfield Plateau has a 200-foot-deep aquifer for when rainwater gets scarce. The region is largely insulated from natural disasters—save the odd tornado or benign rumbling from the Bootheel’s New Madrid Fault Line—and the low population density of like-minded folks means preppers, survivalists and homesteaders get left alone. A Lebanon real estate agent tells me remote acreage is an increasingly hot commodity for city dwellers eager to go native. Conversations with locals and time spent on survivalism forums reveal a religious cohort who believe the Ozarks are God’s country—sacred ground upon which one can wage a last stand against the sins of a rapidly globalizing world.
Shields said that the company noticed an uptick in sales in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and, again last year, amid fears of nuclear escalation with North Korea. Like Wise Company's former CEO Aaron Jackson, whom Bloomberg previously dubbed “America’s Survival Food King,” Shields said he likes to think of Wise’s products as “an insurance policy.”
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Like any emergency kit, the Pocket Survival Pak — which was developed by Doug Ritter, founder of the survivalist website Equipped To Survive — can help lost or injured explorers signal helicopters and planes, start fires, boil water, melt snow for water, catch fish, navigate through the woods, trap small animals, perform rudimentary first aid, and repair damaged gear.
Hall got the idea for the project about a decade ago, when he read that the federal government was reinvesting in catastrophe planning, which had languished after the Cold War. During the September 11th attacks, the Bush Administration activated a “continuity of government” plan, transporting selected federal workers by helicopter and bus to fortified locations, but, after years of disuse, computers and other equipment in the bunkers were out of date. Bush ordered a renewed focus on continuity plans, and FEMA launched annual government-wide exercises. (The most recent, Eagle Horizon, in 2015, simulated hurricanes, improvised nuclear devices, earthquakes, and cyberattacks.)
The increased inflation rate in the 1960s, the US monetary devaluation, the continued concern over a possible nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, and perceived increasing vulnerability of urban centers to supply shortages and other systems failures caused a number of primarily conservative and libertarian thinkers to promote individual preparations. Harry Browne began offering seminars on how to survive a monetary collapse in 1967, with Don Stephens (an architect) providing input on how to build and equip a remote survival retreat. He gave a copy of his original Retreater's Bibliography to each seminar participant.
Others featured on Doomsday Preppers are more out there — literally. Robert and Debbie Earl, retired Florida chicken farmers, worry about the seas rising. So they are building a home constructed of old tires and sand-filled bottles near Alpine, Texas. Robert Earl describes himself as "Mad Max meets Rube Goldberg with a little bit of Al Gore thrown in."
However, a few unintentional similarities to the Quiverfull movement doesn't mean that preppers can't still care about safe sex. Hunting, canning, and digging your own latrines does nothing to make the threat of an STD less real. After all, gonorrhea and genital warts are going to be a whole lot harder to treat without reliable access to medical care. And there must be at least a few survivalists out there rational enough not to want to endure the horrors of premodern pregnancy and birth unless absolutely necessary.
When Marvin Liao, a former Yahoo executive who is now a partner at 500 Startups, a venture-capital firm, considered his preparations, he decided that his caches of water and food were not enough. “What if someone comes and takes this?” he asked me. To protect his wife and daughter, he said, “I don’t have guns, but I have a lot of other weaponry. I took classes in archery.”
Your run-of-the-mill shoe stank might not pose much of a survival threat, but trench foot certainly will; baking soda is great at absorbing the moisture that might otherwise literally cause your feet to rot off your legs. As for the health of your teeth -- it will be pretty hard to get through your day's rations of homemade jerky and hardtack without some high-quality chompers. And you certainly don't want to rely on that pesky fluoride that will "kill your brain over time" (um, what?).
To answer that question, I found myself in the Siloam Cafe in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, seated across from Martin Fletchall, a disabled veteran who says God called him and his family to the Ozarks from Montana. He prefers to be called Fletch. Fletch is in his 40s, wears a white beard, a camouflage hoodie and matching hat and orders toast, eggs and steak, which costs less than $4. He agreed to meet me after a few weeks of exchanging emails and vetting that I wasn’t actually a “social justice warrior.”
Business for Hardened Structures, an engineering firm based in Virginia Beach, is up roughly 40% since 2005, co-owner Brian Camden says. Some of his clients buy gold and silver and other precious metals as a hedge against a possible collapse of the currency, and they want to be able to protect it and their families, he says. So his company designs ways to build underground bunkers, strengthen walls and improve security systems on homes.
Doug owns a rock hauling business in Tennessee and plans to bug-in with his family in his underground bunker. Doug, whose line of work has earned him the nickname "Rockman", also plans to use a hillside full of boulders as a defense to ward off potential threats. He is also stockpiling coins minted before the 1970s because of their higher silver content, which makes them useful for bartering. Jeff Flaningham is a single, Wisconsin native, who is looking for woman who will live with him in his decommissioned SM-65 Atlas missile silo located in rural central Kansas in the event of a catastrophic event. During the program, Jeff goes on dates with three women he has met through an online dating service. He then arranges a second date with one of them, Stephanie, to go visit his missile silo.
Some preppers have considered ramping up efforts since President Obama's re-election last week, convinced it means the economy will soon collapse in a cascade of debt. Some are convinced Iran or another enemy is developing an electromagnetic pulse weapon that would wipe out the power, communication and transportation grids, rendering useless any device with a microchip.
They are part of a burgeoning "prepper" movement that believes preparing for the end of civilization is more rational than ridiculing those who do. Once viewed largely as a practice by survivalists on the fringe, prepping has achieved cohesion and community in the Internet age through best-selling writers, bloggers, risk assessors, conspiracy theorists and companies that cater to preppers' needs.
And now, there are Democrats. Fear of the Trump administration is largely responsible for an urban and liberal renaissance within prepping; left-leaning Facebook groups and urban survivalism YouTube channels brim with freshly paranoid Americans who attend the same expos, talk the same shop and wipe with the same bulk supply of toilet paper as the conservatives who voted the other way. That said, I met no openly liberal preppers in Springfield.
In his 2016 book, Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Foods, Gary Allen, a food writer and adjunct professor at SUNY Empire State College, traces the evolution of food preservation as a source of culinary innovation. “The original food-preservation methods—like salting and drying and all that—actually turned the food into something else,” he told me over the phone. “Cabbage sauerkraut is not the same thing as cabbage. Wine is not the same thing as grape juice.”
When bands of marauders start roaming the streets, how are you going to keep them out? Tear down a few walls, says Timothy Ferraro, a twenty-five-year construction veteran who's thought about this situation plenty while watching The Walking Dead. "Assuming the attackers don't have a battering ram, you should be able to keep them out using the lumber and drywall already in your home," he says.