When the Sh*t Hits the Fan
Check out our pictures of moderate preppers living life off-the-grid in the Texas desert.
In 2007, John Wells quit the rat race. The former fashion photographer and set designer had been living in an old farmhouse in the country outside New York City, working 15-hour days just to eke out his mortgage (at 29 percent interest) and cough up a further $1,000 a month in property taxes.
"It was just killing me," he says. "I worked on a lot of really bad music videos, just to make ends meet." So he got rid of half of what he owned and bought some land in the high desert outside Terlingua, near Big Bend. There, amid some of Texas's most desolate beauty, he embarked on a new life of self-reliance. He bought some cheap land and decided to build a shipping-container house from scratch and by hand, two miles from the nearest paved road. And then he did just that, living in his truck while his creation took shape.
SLIDESHOW:Preppers: Life Off The Grid
BLOG POST: Preppers Ready Themselves for When the Shit Hits the Fan
Now debt-free, Wells is trying to see how much food he can grow on his own in the greenhouse he's building out of four more shipping containers. He collects his own rainwater, and his eventual goal is to live on less than $10,000 a year, which he plans to raise through merchandise sales on his blog, The Field Lab.
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 5, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulane University Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 12, 11:00am
Wells is a self-described moderate prepper, one of a growing group of self-reliance enthusiasts who face the uncertainty of modern times by learning to garden, build, hunt, sew, hoard food and precious metals, and manage livestock. (Especially fertile rabbits, advises one prepping guru. The fecund little creatures can reproduce 1,000 percent of their body weight each year.)
It is no little irony that preppers — striving for a low-tech life — gather largely on blogs and in online forums and toss around prepper jargon while they show off their work ("preps"), discuss what the end of the world as we know it ("EOTWAWKI") might look like and form alliances for when the shit hits the fan ("SHTF"). And it's not all canning tips.
Some, like Wells, are motivated by economic uncertainty and a need for self-sufficiency. Weather catastrophes such as wildfires and the televised anarchy that followed in Hurricane Katrina's wake spurred some into action. Others see the approaching election and Barack Obama's presidency as a harbinger of worsening tension between the races and other opposing groups in the United States, as illustrated by both the Tea Party on one extreme and the Occupy movement on the other.
For every stay-at-home, Internet-savvy mom, for every aesthetic, Thoreau-like solitude-seeker in the Texas desert, there is also a darker, more fearful and, some would say, nuttier side to prepping. Some of John Wells's neighbors in the middle of nowhere have safe rooms. One is building a Faraday cage to protect his possessions from an electromagnetic pulse, either natural or manmade.
Mark Potok edits the Southern Poverty Law Center's quarterly Intelligence Report and is an expert on extremism and radicalism. When the Houston Press asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a comment on the rise of militant prepper groups, they declined and directed us to Potok.
Lately, much of his focus has fixed on "Patriot" groups, which in some but not all cases constitute the militant fringe of the prepper movement. "There is a huge overlap between those people who think the world is coming to an end for secular or religious reasons and the political radical right," Potok says. "And that's been true for a very long time."
Many, he says, have fixated on Barack Hussein Obama, "the secret Muslim," "the Kenyan," "the Indonesian," the "crypto-socialist bent on bringing about the one-world government." Potok believes that a great many of the members in these groups think that Obama wants to take their guns, and that the National Rifle Association has fanned the flames of their paranoia.
"The NRA has played a really noxious role in all this," says Potok, with real ire in his voice. "They have ginned up out of thin air fears that Obama has a secret plan to seize all our guns. It is the most ludicrous thing. The reality is that Obama has done nothing but relax gun control. He's given no indication at all that he would in any way tighten gun control, but the NRA is still out there selling the conspiracy theory that Obama has a secret plan to strip our guns away from us once he gets his second term. This is not some arcane thing. This is [NRA Executive Vice President] Wayne LaPierre running around the country and sending millions of pieces of mail, trying to raise money on this."
Where passions swirl, commerce is not far behind. Charley Hogwood, who lives in Palm Beach County, Florida, owns a company called Ready Go Prep that aims to teach prepping skills to beginners.
"Prepping is really just being less dependent on someone else," he says. "We help you learn strategic shopping, extreme couponing. We teach you to shop at a restaurant-supply store instead of a grocery store. We help you develop a tiered food strategy...We teach you to prepare for five days, 30 days and longer disasters. None of these are new techniques. A lot of them are Depression-era techniques."
Many preppers prefer to remain anonymous, Hogwood says, not just because they don't want to be bothered by big government now but because they don't want a future government coming in after a disaster and taking their stuff.
"Preppers don't want the people that ignored what they feel is one's personal responsibility to become somewhat self-reliant to come knocking on their door or taking their hard-earned preps by force," he says. "Many are also keenly aware of the ways that they can be found by government. Not that they are doing anything wrong whatsoever. But with the recent (and not so recent) executive orders that they feel are stripping away their privacy, the fear is that during a serious event, the authorities will come take their preps and redistribute to the masses for the better good."
In spite of what some in the modern-day prepping movement might believe, the practice is as venerably American as cherry pie.
Followers of Mormonism, America's most prominent homegrown religion, are encouraged to keep at least three months of food and an ample supply of drinking water in storage. (That's according to their own public literature. Ex-adherents say that they are in fact told to hoard a year's supply of food, and that much of it goes to waste when older Mormons forget or neglect to rotate their canned goods and bags of flour.)
Prepping has come out of cover enough that it's now the subject of a reality show on the National Geographic Channel, Doomsday Preppers. Gun shows have become havens for prepping consultants, and in February of this year, Dallas hosted an expo dedicated to self-reliance.
On Pinterest.com, the visual bookmarking service that's popular with Web-savvy women, entire boards are dedicated to things like canning, disaster planning, raising hardy heirloom vegetables, and building seed kits and survival kits that can be traded after doomsday comes. A woman who goes by the name SurvivalMom has more than 600 followers, and has boards such as "Homeschooling," "Ideas for preppers," "Food Storage" and "In My Garden."
The movement has even landed on the shelves of Big Box America: Costco peddles ready-made emergency food kits composed of 4,866 servings of freeze-dried and dehydrated mixed proteins, grains, greens, fruit and dairy for $999.99. (The company declares that this is enough for one person for one year, so if you have a family of four, you'll need to quadruple your order.) And if a food hoard isn't enough, Costco also offers a more rounded survivalist kit that includes not just nourishment but other prepper must-haves including hand-cranked radios, tents, safety masks and, of course, duct tape.
Why this sudden resurgence in disaster prep? The nuclear threat seems to have diminished since the Cold War days, and there has not been a significant terrorist outrage on American soil for 11 years. When asked what kind of disaster people should prepare for, Hogwood gives a litany of scenarios, from the rising cost of beef to the kind of drought much of the United States faced last year.
And then there is globalization and its discontents. Hogwood says that Lloyd's of London has declined to insure tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz, showing how ephemeral the world's oil supply is. The same goes for food: Hogwood says that the world has only a 47-day supply of corn on hand.
"Once we globalize, something happens overseas and it affects us," says Hogwood. "Look at the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. With mass transit, in two weeks it could be across the world."
On prepper sites and forums, one of the most often cited reference books is Possum Living. It was written in 1978 by a 17-year-old girl named Dolly Freed, who lived somewhat off-the-grid with her unemployed father in Pennsylvania. Freed said sales of Possum Living, which she had reprinted and updated in 2010, jumped significantly last year, though she and her publishers could never figure out why.
She advises a mixed approach and a gentle spirit. "It was not about survivalists at all," says Freed, now in her 50s. "It was about living comfortably by doing the minimal amount of work. And one of the reasons we were able to do that was that we didn't depend on ourselves."
Freed decries the us-versus-them mentality a lot of preppers and survivalists have. She says the best defense against a disaster or societal breakdown is "having good neighbors." As an example, she talks about Native American tribes and how they survived for centuries by virtue of a group mentality. Freed believes modern Americans are atomized in their nuclear families and cliques.
"Nowadays, I think a lot of people are genetically missing that. When you have a good sense of community, you lower some of that anxiety."
Perhaps that's why the Internet is such a popular gathering place for preppers. Forums like the American Preppers Network, where members share how-tos and tips and make alliances for when the endtimes come, illustrate the off-the-grid-but-still-online nature of 21st-century preppers, one of the things that distinguish them from survivalists and other fringe groups. In fact, many preppers don't consider themselves fringe at all.
"The Internet has become a vehicle to help people who thought they're alone in this," says Hogwood. "It's becoming a strong enough movement that we can have these meet-ups."
And Hogwood loves to tout the friendlier face of today's preppers, contrasting them with the survivalist/Patriot/militia fringe of the (relatively) old days." Preppers do not want to be associated with that," he says. "Survivalists are more likely to have a conspiracy theory. Preppers are soccer moms and grandmas."
Unlike many of her more rural counterparts in the prepping movement, Jeanene Van Zandt lives in the suburbs outside of Nashville. The former wife of famed late songwriter Townes Van Zandt is a newly minted grandmother and believes America has been on a downhill slide since prayer was taken out of public schools.
She has been actively preparing for the end since Obama's election.
When she was a girl in South Texas, and kids still said the Lord's Prayer to start each school day, life was so much better, she says in an e-mail interview. "I pumped my bike pedals as fast as I could after school in order to catch the next episode of Leave It to Beaver, and then, afterwards, we went 'out to play.' No one knew where we kids were or what we were doing. The grownups didn't care, as long as we were 'out of their hair.' They were happy, the kids were happy."
Today, she believes "evil" lurks around every corner in America, and never has there been more than since Obama took office. (She has little if any more esteem for Mitt Romney.) Since that time, she says she has been preparing for what she believes should be obvious to everyone. "A total takeover by the Federal Government Inc., the Banksters robbing us blind and the UN's imposing Agenda 21, and the Backlash from the American People that is sure to come." (Some believe that Agenda 21 is an international socialist plot to bring about the one world government.)
Van Zandt adheres to the Mormon ideal: She advises people to keep a stockpile of at least three months', and better still a year's, worth of "rice, beans, pasta, flour, oatmeal, sealed in Tupperware," and plenty of the canned goods that you regularly eat. She adds that you should buy more when they are on sale, and advises that you should get a Hurricane-style cooker since you might not have electricity to prepare your food with.
Don't forget to hoard soap and other hygiene products, and to remember your pets' needs, she continues. "Have at least a shotgun to protect your family and plenty of shells," she adds. "Any extra cash convert into silver coins. Not collector coins, junk silver, dimes and quarters from your local coin shop."
(Hogwood thinks hoarding coins is a mistake: "You got a chunk of gold laying around and you're hungry? What are you going to do with that?")
And she says that people need to get back on the land. "Plant a vegetable garden and learn to can and dry herbs and food. I canned for the first time last year and it was quite satisfying." Then you will be ready to face what comes, no matter how foul. "If each and every one of us takes care of our own and we reach out to those who really can't, we should be fine until the Criminals are marched off to the FEMA Camps they built for us and we regain our Freedom," she says.
And then she turns the screws on the president.
"I still have Hope," she writes.
And to prove it, she has purchased all three of her infant grandchildren the complete works of Leave It to Beaver on DVD.
Obama isn't the first president to deal with preppers or their predecessors, survivalists.
There were a great many such groups under President Clinton, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to statistics compiled by the SPLC, there were a peak of 858 Patriot-style militia/survivalist groups in 1996.
Potok believes that this wave of militant prepping collapsed under the weight of its incorrect predictions that Y2K meant the end of the world or something close to it: a hellish race war nightmare scenario. "They thought that when the computers ground to a halt, the welfare checks wouldn't go out, and angry, scary black people would storm out of the cities to attack white farmers...Steal their food, rape their daughters and so on," Potok says. "That was the secular version of Y2K, but there were also many who saw it in purely biblical terms: that it was in fact the eve of the battle of Armageddon."
And, of course, nothing of the sort happened. "In many ways, the first day of the new millennium, was the last day of the first wave of the Patriot movement," Potok says. "They had pretty much universally predicted that the whole world was going to come crashing down, and when the sun rose as usual on January 1, it pretty much put the kibosh on the whole militia movement. The leaders had been very much urging their people to go out and buy generators, so all their basements were full of 100-pound sacks of lentil beans and very expensive generators, so there ended up being a lot of anger in the militia movement toward their leaders."
By 2002, there were only 143 such groups for Potok to track, and as the Bush years rolled on, and many on the political right felt they had a sympathetic group of people clutching the reins of power, the numbers would fall to 131.
But with the subprime economic collapse and the arrival of Obama as president, there was a resurgence of such organizations. From 149 groups in 2008, the number shot in one year to 512. In 2010, there were 824. Last year's 1,274 was the all-time high, a number Potok calls "mind-blowing."
When asked on the Texas message board of the American Prepper Web site how the shit might hit the fan, "Desert Dweller" looked into his/her rearview mirror and said that "the doo doo hit the air conditioner in 2008." Citing a "steady decline ever since" for consumers in food and gas prices and everywhere else, Desert Dweller turned toward a crystal ball and declared that things would soon get still worse. "We are just awaiting the 'main event,' i.e., the stock crash and other countries in the EU collapsing, as they are well on their way. Not to mention, a possible WW3 scenario."
In response to the WTSHTF question on the American Prepper site, "Carborendum" laid out four scenarios, all implicating leftist agitation. One had it that Occupy would go into a frenzy when and if they came to believe that Obama might lose the election. Another posited that "similar uprisings" would somehow manage to scupper the election. A third predicted leftist riots in the wake of a Romney win, and a fourth, and perhaps the most ominous one in Carborendum's view, had Obama winning. In that scenario, "his 'fundamental transformation' that has already begun will go into overdrive."
In a counterintuitive development in light of the color of the president's skin, one recently disgraced former neo-Nazi leader has come to believe that income inequality is an even bigger problem than an impending race war, long the predicted end of American life as we know it for groups like his.
August Kreis, formerly the leader of an Aryan Nations faction until his conviction for fraud relating to his veterans' benefits, recently told the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report journal that militia and "Patriot" groups, many of which overlap somewhat in philosophy with some preppers, will grow larger the longer the economy stays sour. "White people are arming themselves — and black people, too," Kreis said. "I believe it's eventually going to come down to civil war. It's going to be an economic war, the rich versus the poor. We're being divided along economic lines."
To Potok, prepping is a uniquely American phenomenon. First, he says, America is "a society based on the idea of rugged individualism, and especially rugged individualism married to a rifle." Second, Potok says that America's very origins are in a massive rebellion against central authority. "King George, get away from us. So right from the beginning there's this strain of antigovernment feeling in our culture." Among western nations, America is also the most religious, Potok says. "You just don't hear these end-times religious scenarios in European life, at all."
What's more, Potok says, as Van Zandt exemplifies and as Hogwood obliquely acknowledges, Americans are a conspiracy-minded people. "There are conspiracy theorists everywhere, but I doubt very much that there is any country whose culture is so closely associated with conspiracy as this one," he says. And conspiracy theory, any conspiracy theory, is high-octane fuel for the militant preppers.
For Charley Hogwood, prepping's growing popularity since 2008 has been an opportunity. The Florida native says he's always been an outdoorsman and survival-skill aficionado, and later military adventures amplified those interests. Hogwood served as an armored cavalry scout along the fortified border between East and West Germany in the 1980s. After the Chernobyl disaster, he was assigned to monitor radiation dispersement on both sides of the Iron Curtain. "We saw a lot of East German life and it was a whole different world," he said. "When you get into other people's lives, you see how spoiled we are."
A few years later, he returned home and joined the National Guard, just in time for the devastation that followed Hurricane Andrew. He became an infantry squad leader and was deployed to Cutler Ridge, Florida, the neighborhood hardest hit by the hurricane.
"As soon as the sun went down, there'd be firefights," he said. "You don't want to find yourself in a sunny relief line waiting for a bottle of water and an MRE when that happens."
He says the differences between how the Americans and Europeans handled disaster were drawn in bold relief during Andrew. "Americans are so spoiled. If we had a serious situation in this country, we wouldn't be as quick to recover."
After working as a consultant and then working through the latest Florida real-estate boom as a general contractor, Hogwood turned the lemons of the housing bust into the lemonade of a new career as a prepper-supplier. So he started his own business, Ready Go Prep, which offers customized emergency plans, prepping workshops for large and small groups, prepping equipment, and supplies and news updates on topics of concern to preppers.
Hogwood calls prepping "quality of life" insurance. "You know during a hurricane, when people start to panic they go to the store and strip the shelves? Why not plan ahead of time? What I always say is, you have a smoke detector, but do you plan on burning your house down?"
Dolly Freed believes one of the biggest draws of prepping is the sense of control it gives the prepper, especially in uncertain times. Though learning how to raise animals and crops might foster pride and a sense of security, she advises against attempting total food self-sufficiency.
"Sustenance farming — it's very hard," she says. "If you try to depend on yourself, you're gonna be in a tough way. It will get you by for a couple of years, but if civilization completely falls apart, that's a whole other story."
She advises a sort of beyond-the-food-and-gold way of thinking. She says part of the fun of prepping is trying to imagine how you would make yourself indispensable in a post-shit-fan scenario. "What I did for Y2K was buy a lot of sugar, because I knew I could always make moonshine and sell it. If that kind of disruption happens, it's going to come down to the skills you know."
You hear a lot of talk about skills from Sara and Casey Colando, 25-year-old newlyweds and "neighbors" of John Wells. (The term is used loosely out there in the West Texas desert. According to Sara Colando, anyone within 20 miles qualifies.) Casey Colando says it is his "personal philosophy" to see to it that "the skills" are not lost, and Sara finishes his thought. "If you can have three skills out here — any three skills — you can survive. If you can make it in the desert, you can make it anywhere."
Right now, their most lucrative skill is developing high-tech alternative-energy systems, and they have just made their biggest sale to date, a 1.8 kilowatt "sunstation," a trailer of solar panels eight feet long and six feet high. It was designed for the Airstream trailer home of a neighbor and friend of theirs, and the unit, which Casey built, sold for $13,000.
The desolate landscape is surrounded on almost all sides by mountains. Where there are no mountains, there's desert. Because of this, the land is cheap and plentiful, and even better for the preppers, there are precious few meddlesome building regulations. No codes, no inspectors. As a result, the area is filled with people aiming for some level of self-reliance. (Local lore has it that nearby, close to Nine Points Mesa, there is an off-the-grid retreat for some wealthy corporate landowners to take refuge in when the shit hits the fan.)
Some live in handmade adobe houses. Others live in trailers or metal sheds. And because of the high cost of running power lines to the area, the Colandos have a captive customer base for their business. Sara says about half their clientele are preppers, and now All Energies has grown enough that the couple are ready to hire a third employee."It's all been word of mouth," Casey says.
Like Wells, the Colandos consider themselves moderate preppers. Sara raises chickens for meat and eggs and hopes eventually to have a garden and goats, mainly because she is distrustful of corporate farming and genetically modified food. Casey has made his own concrete from scratch, using gravel from the dried-up creek bed on their property, and has developed an engine that runs on wood chunks.
The couple has been living off the grid since November 2009, and they've had a rough go. In April their entire flock of chickens, 35 in all, was killed by a fox that managed to burrow under the coop. They've also faced issues with their home, which is built of thin wood and already showing the ravages of desert weather.
"We probably weren't as prepared as we should have been," Sara says. But they're making inroads. Within the next couple of years, they hope to be living closer to self-sufficiency and dwelling in a super-energy-efficient underground "earth-berm" house and living off the sales of their alternative-energy systems.
As unprepared as the Colandos might have been in the beginning, they and neighbor Wells are probably more likely to survive a SHTF scenario than a suburban prepper with a spare bedroom full of canned food and gold bricks.
But as Dolly Freed laments, some preppers are so busy fretting about an unknown doomsday that they scarcely have time to enjoy life. She says she's flattered by the popularity of her book, but that "possum living" was about working less so she and her father could have more time to do the things they loved: fishing, gardening, reading.
For John Wells, prepping is more about a sense of self-reliance than impending doom. It's about living on his own terms.
"I like just thinking about and working on the things I want to do. Being able to say I did all this myself is an accomplishment. If you're not a pessimist, you just live off the land," he says. "Otherwise, you're a prepper."
IN CASE OF THE APOCALYPSE
Whether you’re planning for hurricane season or the demise of Western civilization as we know it, Charley Hogwood, owner of ReadyGoPrep, recommends a three-part plan for self-reliance and readiness. You’ll want to plan, he says, for five days, 30 days and 90 days or more without the creature comforts of modern society. Most prepping sites recommend keeping at least 90 days worth of supplies on hand. You’ll also want to be sure you rotate your supplies regularly, consuming the older stuff as you replace it with new purchases. Below is a list of items preppers recommend for your “bug-out” kit.
Water or a water-purification system
Knife or multi-tool
Important documents like passport,
birth certificates, marriage certificates
Flashlight or lantern
Rope or cord
Medications, including antidiarrhea medication and an analgesic
Cash and coins
Handgun and ammo
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.