Anton uses the food dehydrator he bought on Amazon to augment his stores of fruit rollups and assorted jerky. Plastic five-gallon water jugs line the back wall of his garage in central Pennsylvania, but he always tries to nab another whenever he goes to Walmart or Home Depot. His most recent Amazon acquisition was in support of his latest hobby: The Prepper’s Canning Guide offers instruction on how to “affordably stockpile” in the event that “the disaster drags on for days, weeks, months or even years.”
Apart from food, Anton has a first aid kit he packed himself with guidance from the survival medicine website, Doom and Bloom. He has a cache of LifeStraws, a few tactical flashlights, a folding shovel, fifty feet of nylon rope, a tent, a poncho, and a coverall that he calls a pandemic suit.
Anton and I spoke in January, about a week before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global emergency. He told me then that he was “keeping [his] eye on the virus,” which he regarded as a serious hazard. But originally, when Anton began preparing for disaster nearly a decade ago, he was most troubled by the prospect of an EMP—that is, an electromagnetic pulse, or high-intensity energy surge that takes down the grid. In the introduction to the 2009 sci-fi novel, One Second After, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that an EMP attack is a “very real threat” that would “throw all of our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages.” To Anton, the terrorist angle is overblown. The more likely EMP scenario is that a solar storm, a naturally occurring phenomenon, fries the fragile circuitry of our interconnected systems, resulting in “Hurricane Katrina chaos, on the scale of the whole nation.”
When I first contacted Anton through an online prepper forum, I was not looking into outbreak awareness, or any other facet of public health readiness. I never—even in the most free-roaming regions of my imagination—fathomed how close I was to regarding the everyday with precipitous nostalgia, let alone to running an ad hoc homeschool for my children or designing a Victory Garden for the front stoop. But if I dwelled in the presumptions flanking the new year, you could say that Anton and the other preppers I spoke to for this article anticipated the new world order. Whereas I approached the subject of collapse as an intellectual exercise, like parsing the exact timeline of the fall of Rome, they treated it as an inevitability. I was researching how survivalism appeared to encourage a certain kind of masculinity and offered an uneasy place of refuge for men who felt stripped of agency, entitlement, and security in our rapidly changing society. I was especially interested in how these men go about finding love for the end of the world.
Anton, like others interviewed for this article, agreed to speak on the condition that I not share his full name. In his view, there was nothing extreme about his visions of the future—his “preps are practical.” There’s not much you can do to be prepared for an EMP-level catastrophe, he says, unless “you go all in with a bug-out retreat and are ready to survive on your own for however long.” There are more immediate and probable emergencies, he says, like extreme weather, mass contagion, or as he experienced last year, sudden job loss.
The crisis of being unexpectedly unemployed was an encounter with both his vulnerability as a worker and his isolation as a single man. “I never want to be caught off balance like that again,” Anton says. Hence the well-stocked larder, which he guesses would hold him for just about a month. Doubling his resources was a goal for this year, along with running a six-minute mile, adding to his ammo stash, and, crucially, meeting someone who will stand by him when shit hits the fan, or SHTF in prepper parlance.
For the time being, the spread of the pandemic complicates the prepper’s search for love. Yet the way this subculture of disaster-minded Americans has tried to imagine the future—alone and away from people, or away from people with someone—is weirdly resonant in our new norm of “social distancing.” Anton says the prepper community is enamored of the solitary and self-reliant man. But this “lone wolf getting by on the outskirts of society” is a myth. “There’s no such thing as a solitary prepper,” he tells me. In fact, he elaborates, community and, more specifically, love are “the best prep[s] you can have.” But doomsday romance is not strictly pragmatic. It is also a vehicle for revisionism, allowing the once lonely, laid-off man the chance to flaunt his fortitude and foresight. “I want to find someone worthy of my protection,” Anton says. Gazing toward the end, he can recast himself as savior.
Flint and Tinder
While looking into survivalism for another reporting project, Google kept offering me baited prompts: meet single preppers; off-grid dating; preppers without partners. Here was evidence that the preparedness phenomenon was not only booming in America but had swelled to such proportions that it was generating new social needs and corollary codes of conduct. What better spur to your inner romantic than the prospect of riding out the end of the world as we know it, or TEOTWAWKI, with the one you love? What might that look like? Whimsy conjures visions of intrepid couples charting a dystopian Eden. Perhaps they are striding across some blighted, charred, or otherwise disfigured landscape. Perhaps they are harvesting tubers as civilization smolders in the background. Or perhaps, I wonder from the vantage of our jarring present, they are simply trying to rise above the leaderless panic and free-falling uncertainty that now define reality.
What better spur to your inner romantic than the prospect of riding out “the end of the world as we know it,” or TEOTWAWKI, with the one you love?
I assured my husband that it was for research reasons that I was joining sites like Survivalist Singles. (“You are prepared minded and crave a partner that can keep up.”) Together we envisioned love-struck eschatologists who could trap fowl in a pinch, elicit flames from sodden logs, and who, for leisure, shopped for hazmat gear and body armor. We took turns trying to come up with names for a related app. Quite the Cache. Scrappily Ever After. My husband’s suggestion, Flint and Tinder, was the clear winner.
Survivalist Dating billed itself as the meeting place for “folks with sharp mind[s] and acute awareness” who are “ready to bug out at a moment’s notice!” I joined with the expectation of contacting some informed, rough and ready types. But its patrons were a sad, I’d even say unhealthful, lot who persisted in sending missives to my inbox, despite the fact that my profile’s sole enticement was an automatically generated user handle. I perused selfies of pallid, sallow, and shockingly hirsute faces. A few I catalogued as aggressively equestrian (staring sidelong at the camera as they forcibly kissed their mares), a few as borderline illiterate (“I am marry,” “workalot,” “looking for lvu”). One of the site’s primary highlights was that its members’ captions were interlarded with wholesome-looking ads for an affiliate matchmaking service connecting you to Caring Farmer Guys.
This exercise was clearly not going to yield the rich ethnography I’d hoped for. But even if these designated dating sites contained only the sort of unabashed longings that are standard to the internet, it was still apparent that deeper questions of human intimacy preoccupy the larger prepper community. Dozens of posts on related blogs and forums address the subject of prepper dating, prepper love, and the importance of forging unions during dire times. An even greater number ponder the touchy but apparently prevalent problem of reluctant partners who don’t necessarily want to run drills or contemplate collapse, let alone liquidate portfolios to underwrite guns and bullion. Robust debates surround topics like, is my spouse a liability, and how do I convince my girlfriend to prepare? Meanwhile, vast numbers send forlorn calls out into the ether: Looking for fellow preppers in Kansas, Nebraska, Florida, Ohio. Looking to join a community. Looking for love. Looking for those who deserve protection.
Competing with questions of who and how is the troublesome matter of whether to come out as a prepper at all. Who can you trust to let in on your preps? Who should you draw into your circle of confidence? Who will you feed, shelter, and defend when breakdown leaves us without rule of law, or, as they say, WROL?
There are two competing schools of thought when it comes to alliance building in catastrophic times. The first recommends keeping one’s prepping hidden so as to minimize ridicule, scorn, and accusations of paranoia. Moreover, when collapse occurs, secrecy deters the hordes who would otherwise raid your stores. As one widely read prepper put it: “You don’t want to be known as the guy who has three-to-four years’ supply of food in the basement. Because one day you could see it confiscated by the government or stolen by neighbors like hungry locusts.” Documenting this class of anxiety among preppers, one researcher observed, “The potential threat of nefarious people descending upon one’s domicile was very real.”
As a result, preppers, by reputation, are socially cautious, if not outright suspicious. The use of visual avatars and pen names is common in the ever-sprawling genre of survival blogs and related advice dispensaries. Even though they espouse the virtues of family and social networks, as one set of ethnographers put it, preppers comprise a “a distinctly non-communitarian community” that inclines toward individualism and competition.
Cherished myths of self-reliance aside, it behooves the forward-looking to band together.
However, the counter position holds that when disaster strikes, the solitary soul is at a disadvantage. Cherished myths of self-reliance aside, it behooves the forward-looking to band together. “It’s the proverbial catch-22,” states a prepper under the nom de plume Sarge. “Let’s face it, you can’t hunt, work your garden, sleep and keep watch over what you have if you don’t have help.” Sarge, who believes that “in the near future, the thin veneer that holds our Society together will fail,” urges discretion in outreach, and suggests that lonesome preppers hang out at gun ranges and ham radio clubs to meet their kindred. The popular resource SurvivalBlog, which averages some two hundred thousand monthly visitors, similarly advises selective disclosure. To that end it sells T-shirts printed with the 1776 Battle of Bennington flag, a symbol championed by constitutionalists, InfoWarriors, Second Amendment defenders, and those who wish to communicate their preparedness by code.
But these guarded attitudes are increasingly seen as old school. An excess of caution may befit the wooly fringe but has lost its relevance for those more motivated by rational fears like job loss and climate change. The Prepared, a popular website (that saw surging traffic in the late winter of this year) offering a common-sense approach to readiness, counsels strength in numbers. Even if you “are thinking purely selfishly (which is OK!), you benefit from bringing more people into your inner circle.” Not only can you share skills and resources but also: “Maybe you find yourself squatting in an urban building, worried about roving bandits. How can you protect yourself when you’re alone and sleeping?”
Send Lovers, Guns, and Money
Last year EJ began rehearsing for catastrophe. For a three-day stretch, he’ll switch off the power to his house in suburban Oregon. Turn off his phone. Disconnect the internet. He’ll forego showers and flushing toilets. He tends to get the jitters in the lead up to these “lights out” experiments, but once underway, he finds them quite enjoyable—apart from the boredom and the lack of fresh brewed coffee—if not downright comforting. “There’s some relief, like okay, I got this,” he says when we speak by phone. “There’s some power there too. I don’t know what life is going to throw my way, but I can manage it.”
Above all he describes his practice runs as identity-affirming. There are not many occasions in our modern era for proving one’s mettle; our commerce-soaked interactions are scrubbed clean of bravery, valor, even expressions of basic ingenuity. Despite the constant blaring of panic coming from the media—EJ says apocalypse feels like it’s always “one headline away”—most of us are hobbled by the cushy expanse of consumer circumstance. To EJ, these limits most acutely affect men. “Men can barely be men anymore,” he says, explaining that masculinity to him means being strong and self-sufficient, a leader and protector. In EJ’s telling, disaster strikes me as both consequence and precipitant. It is the anticipated collapse of law, order, currency, and supply chains, as well as the ongoing decline of American manhood. Therein, prepping becomes a form of salvation.
There was no single alarm that trained EJ’s thoughts on the future. There was the divorce from his wife a few years ago that led him to more seriously consider how best to parent and safeguard his boys. Weather events appeared to be getting worse, evolving from “something that was more occasional to a constant state of climate emergency.” But perhaps the biggest factor in his starting to think about survival was the suicide of his best friend. “A lot of life is real shit. Life doesn’t feel good, it’s hard,” he says in reference to his friend’s death, but “prepping can be a way to get through that and to remind yourself that you have the skills and the strength that you need to survive.” He tells me that part of why he enjoys the drills is that they help him rewrite the narrative of his own existence, which for most mortals not blessed with inordinate wealth or power just means being “bashed” around. Prepping, says EJ, restores him to “the center of [his] life again.”
At heart, EJ notes, he’s an optimist. “That sounds funny because my good friends joke that I’m always planning for the end of the world. But I find something really hopeful in thinking about what’s coming next. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re seeing a breakdown of the current system.” EJ emphasizes that he’s not, “you know, one of those guys who’s like chomping at the bit for the end of the world to come.” However, he still says, “Yeah bring it on, bring it on, because what we have right now sure ain’t working.” And does he want to share that newfound self-determination with someone? “Absolutely,” he says. “I want to help create a new world with someone else. I think that’s the ultimate love story.”
A Home after the End of the World
In Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence, an oil fire spreads over the surface of the Bosphorus strait and burns for days. Referencing the actual 1979 collision of a Romanian tanker, the Independenta, with a small Greek ship, Pamuk depicts the resulting conflagration as a crucible for the disasters playing out in the life of his narrator, Kemal. The whole of Istanbul, in fact, becomes “abuzz with talk” of the blaze, which infuses routine with marvel and deepens the value of daily life. The light from the fire, he writes, made “the large, restless crowd of onlookers seem happier and more peaceful than they really were. Or else the pleasure of watching a spectacle had lifted their spirits.” Taking in the calamity, Kemal basks in sudden happiness. Chaos has displaced his own despondency. He asks, “Could this fire mark the beginning of a new life for me?”
Pamuk’s book published just as the Great Recession swept the United States, eliminating roughly one in six jobs and making hash of the social contract. The premise that work yields reward and relative security gave way and Americans by the millions slipped into precarity. Hardest hit were blue-collar men, who were left out of the economic recovery. Unrest in the Middle East and skyrocketing gas prices added to the anxious climate. A Pew Research poll from 2010 indicated that nearly 60 percent of Americans believed another world war would happen by 2050—which was a bit less than the number who believed an energy crisis was on its way (70 percent) and a bit more than those who placed their faith in the second coming (40 percent).
While 9/11 was a boon for the emergency preparedness market, the 2008-2009 recession, coupled with the conservative anxieties stoked by the Obama administration, ushered disaster anticipation into the mainstream. Suddenly prepping reemerged as a multidimensional industry. Survival realty was declared a “booming” market. Americans were buying bunkers and, wary of Obama-era reforms, were racing to get their hands on guns. Freeze-dried food companies catered to consumers concerned about really laying in. “We are all fucked,” led an academic paper analyzing the growth of the period’s “existential dread.” The S had HTF and exposed that many fears were founded: big business trumped the interests of the everyman and government did little more than shrug from the sidelines. Those very same spurned workers would, in 2016, head angrily to the polls in support of a candidate who claimed to love the “poorly educated.” To a growing number, the end is looming on the horizon. But maybe, for some, that’s not such bad thing. Bring it on.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of prepping is imagining life after the demise of a system that had filleted Americans’ sense of place, purpose, and security in the world.
Though edged in fear, many preppers talk about their activities in terms of pleasure and recreation. They often describe themselves as obsessed, relishing the details of speculative scenarios. But the thrill isn’t confined to running drills and amassing skills. It’s not limited to the intricate determinations of what gear should go into which bug-out bag, or which route provides the surest escape to somewhere high, dry, sparsely peopled, and plague-free. The surfeit of sites and congested message boards makes plain that all manner of plotting is a cherished pastime, but perhaps the most rewarding aspect of prepping is imagining life after the demise of a system that had filleted Americans’ sense of place, purpose, and security in the world.
Here, visions of farming, barter, and flickering electricity abound. In place of big government, politics become hyper-local. The family rises triumphant as the organizing social unit, set free from corporatism, interest rates, utility bills, and student debt. Some preppers see a restoration of mythic virtues, a return to a hearth around which gather strong men and submissive women, a world in which physical labor has value once more, and the good life unspools without interference.
One of the most elaborate visions is an experiment in the offing. For the past several years, a political migration has been underway in the northwestern United States, specifically in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern reaches of Washington and Oregon, an area christened the American Redoubt. This separatist movement evolved from a fantasy spun by an army intelligence officer turned bestselling author named James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is a deliberate affectation). In 2009 Rawles published Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse, a work of speculative fiction about hyperinflation and its ruinous consequences, which he swiftly followed up with four sequels that track socioeconomic collapse around the globe. Writing of the second sequel, Founders, the New York Times book critic Gregory Cowles drily observed, Rawles is “surely the only writer on this [bestseller] list whose fans frequently ask him how best to stockpile food (it depends on which food) or whether to favor bullets over gold during the total collapse of civilization (‘You can’t defend yourself near as well with a Krugerrand’).”
Accordingly, in 2009 Rawles also authored a popular instruction manual, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. The biggest threat, in his assessment, is a solar flare, which would not only take out the power but potentially result in the death of 60 percent of the American population. But Rawles enumerates other “terrifying possibilities” as well, including: hyperinflationary depression, deflationary depression, nation-state chemical warfare, a third world war, a major volcanic event, and an asteroid strike, among others.
While his instruction manual was geared toward those contemplating strategic relocation, in 2011 Rawles published a manifesto on his widely read SurvivalBlog that called on fellow patriots to vote with their feet. “I’m now urging that folks Get Out of Dodge for political reasons . . . There comes a time, after a chain of abuses when good men must take action. We’ve reached that point, folks!” A redoubt in the military usage means a place that affords protection from attack, and Rawles has detailed a number of reasons behind why he selected this particular parcel of America to “to effect a demographic solidification” of Judeo-Christian conservatives. They include access to fresh water, low population density, liberal gun laws, far-right politics, widespread religious faith, and being at a safe remove from nuclear power plants.
The American Redoubt exists as both a place on the map and as a refuge in the mind whose contours have been sculpted by two imagined adversaries: The Left as Envisioned by the Far Right, a left enforcing seatbelts, vaccinations, and school curriculum standards—in other words a left depicted as a form of blind suffocation; and the Patriot, gasping for freedom, who, at the core, just wants to fish and hunt and defend his private property.
There’s no firm count of how many have relocated to citadels west of the Rockies, but numbers are generally estimated to be in the thousands. As a result, numerous real estate, defense, and strategic relocation service providers have cropped up to help Freedom Lovers “flee the sanctuary cities” and “the nanny state.” In rural America, the promise holds, one can homeschool one’s offspring without stigma, escape the “tyranny” of inoculations, and forego the indignity of registering one’s weapons. (Over the past decade, as this movement has unfolded, Idaho has quietly become the state most dependent on the arms and ammo industry.) Revolutionary Realty, which helps individuals purchase retreats, announces on its homepage that it does not “service Liberals.” It further notes that political ideology is not a protected class and thus this gleeful assurance of refusal is fully within its rights.
A promotional video for Black Rifle Real Estate, a relocation firm, features a tinny rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a lone man dressed in fatigues crosses a golden-hued field and raises his assault rifle in what could only be a stance of triumph. “In rural America we are free to be responsible citizens to safeguard and defend our land and loved ones from threats both foreign and domestic,” the voiceover tells us. “Your loved ones are counting on you to lead them to a new life in a safer and more sustainable region of the country.”
The message is aimed explicitly at men, who are posited as leaders, decision-makers, pioneers, and moreover, warriors, ready to do what it takes to defend their kin. If you’ve never experienced the “‘gravity of the moment’ when you’re looking at a threat through a rifle optic with your finger on the trigger,” the Redoubt is home to service providers to help you acquire those skills as well.
Love and family are what elevate the apocalypse, transforming paranoid pastimes into noble undertakings aimed at restoring an America that never was. The crisis-to-come becomes a vehicle for salvaging not just patriotic values but masculinity itself, which is seen as under siege. Elaborating on, cataloguing, and then ultimately overcoming the threat becomes the hero’s journey.
Love and family are what elevate the apocalypse, transforming paranoid pastimes into noble undertakings aimed at restoring an America that never was.
In this gendered fantasia, just as it’s the man’s charge to protect his family, it is the woman’s role to be “submissive and supportive.” Prepper forums like SurvivalBlog, which delves into domestic issues both in advance of and post-TEOTWAWKI, present these terms as part and parcel of being prepared. Hugh James Latimer (a pen name), who served as the blog’s managing editor from 2014 until stepping down in 2019 to focus on his family’s Bible rebinding business, put it thusly: “Call me a prepper or survivalist, if you will, but I just call it living up to my responsibility. With my wife standing behind me, I will charge hell with a bucket of water in defense of the family.” As one self-described “survival wife” put it, men need to protect their families from harm, while it’s up to the women to keep undue fears and anxieties at bay. “Yes, the sky is falling and the writing is on the wall. However, there are still sunsets, kid’s birthdays, laughter shared with friends and family, the beauty of rainfall, and the gift of golden rays of sun warming the skin. It’s our obligation to remind our spouse of the blessings that still abound.”
Sarah Latimer, wife of the aforementioned James, similarly warns against falling prey to feminism and its many fangled myths. Brainwashed by cockamamie statistics (“Abuse and neglect of women is not prevalent in the United States”) and entertainment, “they’ll do just about anything to keep from getting pregnant or having to stay at home.” Female liberation is presented as another disaster, and it is the combat-ready family man who comes out ahead. He is the patriot willing to do “what’s needed” to shepherd kin and kindred through civil unrest, refugee throngs, resource scarcity, and a generally militarized way of life. The very qualities that have of late been cast as toxic masculinity are what will guarantee survival: aggression, stoicism, self-reliance, and competitiveness. The apocalypse accordingly confirms the necessity of masculinity conceived as such, men as intrepid rebuilders of America.
For all the urgency and existential dread, the key feature to prepping is that these scenarios are survivable. And yet there is often an odd sort of zero-sum logic at work, as preppers critique one another’s survival strategies or visions for what form collapse might take. Commenting in a forum, one prepper chided another for being overly focused on pandemics when one should really be worried about natural disasters. They craft hero narratives in response to specific calamities, be it extreme weather or the breakdown of supply chains that leave stores without food and hospitals without medicine. But the prepper is not training to save the day: his—or hers—is a selective rescue, usually confined to those deemed closest or most worthy. There is a fundamental pitting of interest between the careful acts of readying and the rest of society, which is scorned for continuing in its blind faith in institutions and market power.
In his 2001 study, Dancing at Armageddon, sociologist Richard Mitchell offers a theory of survivalism as a response to the enervations of consumer comfort, wherein individuals are deprived of opportunities to prove themselves. The figures he investigates look forward to the troubles they’re certain lie ahead. “Survival discourse tailors widespread rancor and disorder to fit schemes for maximizing personal competence, actualization and relevance,” he writes. “Troubles draw near, but with them come opportunities to celebrate humanity’s full élan vital, to achieve a sense of belonging, not to the comfortable mass at the center of stability but among the novel few of the cutting edge of change on the new frontier.”
Avec Moi, le Déluge
Jonah finally found a partner who’s on the same page. He’d dated preppers in the past, but none that grasped with the same nuance and urgency the particulars of the present. His current girlfriend, however, sees, as he does, “the writing on the wall.” Or rather, Jonah says, “She’s willing to concede to [his] expertise here, which is certainly helpful for the relationship.” The result is that she focuses on the “home preps,” that is, food and water needs, while Jonah, a veteran and engineer, attends to the operations security (OPSEC) of their planned retreat. “She’s like me,” he says. “She hates seeing people crying all over the media because the rescue never came. She understands the importance of personal responsibility.”
Over the years, Jonah explored arenas supposedly cordoned off for prepper singles, sampling web services devoted to such matchmaking. But to no avail. More fruitful were specialized meetups and social groups for firearms enthusiasts, organic horticulturalists, and those looking to learn about livestock rearing. It was during a weekend workshop on wilderness medicine that Jonah met his current mate, who is also a nurse.
That was about two years ago. Recently they purchased a retreat in Wyoming a few hours north of their present Colorado home. They’re hoping to make it their full-time residence. It’s best, Jonah tells me, to be “settled and comfortable before the crisis happens.” The crisis, as he envisioned it this past winter, was most likely to be an impending cyber-attack—which is “not an if, it’s a when situation”—that essentially penalizes the West for becoming a digital economy. We’re vulnerable, Jonah believes, because we’ve moved away from markets defined by sweat and muscle. And so his idyll on the other side of the collapse serves as a corrective. There, his girlfriend, though a skilled nurse, will largely devote herself to “making the home as nice for us as possible,” while Jonah focuses on keeping the land “safe and productive.” And so, he says, they will not just survive but thrive, and their days will resemble “what our founding fathers thought life should look like.”