For years, the doomsayers had been waiting for a pandemic to arrive, and they knew things could get ugly. Sure enough, along came COVID-19, and the spiral quickly began. People started panic-buying. The economy skidded to a halt. The numbers of the sick and the dying soared.
Drew Miller was ready. He had a couple of places set up in the mountains, away from the masses and ready for a potential collapse of society into lawlessness. He had stockpiles of food -- and weapons, too, if it came to that. And he wouldn't be alone: Scores of people were ready to assemble at his say-so and form a community of survivors.
But no, as ominous as it looked, the novel coronavirus wasn't the big one. The lethality rate was relatively modest, Miller assured members of Fortitude Ranch, the business he'd created to establish those mountain retreats. No need to head for the hills as the early months of 2020 unfolded. People wouldn't be out scavenging and scrapping for food, water, gas or ammo.
For the moment.
See, it's not just the coronavirus. The world can go to hell in many different ways, and quicker than you may think. That's what drives Miller and countless others known as preppers. They know a disaster could be right around the corner, and they want to be ready for it. Having a bug-out bag for yourself is all well and good. Better still to have a group of like-minded souls -- when the collapse comes, Miller knows there'll be strength in numbers.
"If you're on your own, like most folks are going to be," he says, "I just don't think you'll survive.
Turns out that a lot of people are thinking about survival. And it started before the pandemic and before widespread protests in the US turned 2020 into a jagged dividing line between the way things were and whatever comes next.
The last few years have given us plenty to worry about, and not a lot of reassuring answers.
"What's driving preppers more than anything is fear of the unknown," says Bradley Garrett, an ethnographer who's been studying preppers. "It's the speed of technology, it's the speed of change, it's the climate crisis, it's the possibility of these very fragile and interconnected societies that we've built crumbling in the face of a catastrophe."
In a survey of US adults in January by financial comparison site Finder, 20% of respondents said they'd spent money on "preparing" or on survival materials, with either natural disasters or political events in mind. An additional 35% said they didn't need to because they already had survival items in their homes, at the ready for an emergency.
It can be hard, though, to pin down exactly who's a prepper, versus someone who's just got, say, lots of canned beans, a generator and some water purification tablets. A survey by financial news site 24/7 Wall St. in 2013 found there were 3.7 million Americans who described themselves as preppers or survivalists. (The terms are roughly equivalent.) That could be on the low side: Many preppers don't like to identify themselves as such because they worry about stigma over hoarding, eccentric ideas or perceived anti-social attitudes -- or perhaps revealing who's got the resources everyone's going to be wanting.
Fortitude Ranch is a place for preppers to rendezvous in the event of an utter collapse of civil society, says Miller. But you don't have to be hard-core to go there. Part of the pitch to potential members is that Miller and his team have done a lot of the heavy prepping already. You just need to be ready to follow the rules and pull your weight keeping the community intact.
Another part of the pitch: You can do it without putting a big hurt on your budget.
Miller, 61, started formulating plans for Fortitude Ranch about a decade ago. Now retired after 30 years of military service as an intelligence officer in the active-duty Air Force, the Air National Guard and the reserves, from which he retired as a colonel, he's spent decades thinking about how life as we know it could completely unravel, whether through a pandemic, political instability, a nuclear attack or even an asteroid strike.
He cites the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, describing panic, police desertions and the challenges of getting supplies into New Orleans. It was a grim time for residents as floodwaters washed through the city. Pressed into service as a giant shelter for thousands of evacuees, the Louisiana Superdome -- with overwhelmed electrical systems, failed toilets, insufficient drinking water and spoiling food -- became an ugly symbol of what it means to be unprepared.
Miller knew there had to be a better way, and that led him to create what he hopes will be a nationwide network of survival retreats for the day the US descends into chaos. But there's a silver lining ahead of those grim end times: Fortitude Ranch, the pitch goes, is a "combination survival community and recreational facility."
It's up and running already in Colorado and in West Virginia. (Because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, I wasn't able to get there to see them in person.) Coming next are properties in Nevada and Wisconsin. The goal is to set up a dozen spots around the US.
The sites are rustic and remote. "We like rural areas," Miller tells me via phone from Colorado Springs. That state's two ranch sites are in the mountains west of there. "We stay away from cities, suburbs and big government."
Lean, short-haired and sporting a no-nonsense khaki shirt, he's earnest, energetic and deeply committed to the topics of disaster and survival, wrapped in a sort of upbeat fatalism. The motto emblazoned on the company's website is "prepare for the worst... enjoy the present." Fortitude Ranch is a mindset and a destination, a stronghold with what Miller describes as a country club model. Buy in, and here are your membership benefits.
A key selling point in that model: You don't need to wait for the world to turn upside down to get some use out of the accommodations.
For a long-term "spartan" membership, the lowest level, you'll pay an average of about $1,000 a year per person. That'll get you a bunk in close quarters you'll share with others, and a locker for your possessions. Pricier tiers get you a private room, or at least a more spacious one. Whatever you pay, you can stay at any of the facilities at any time -- no societal collapse required -- for up to 10 days a year.
It's a getaway up in the mountains, far from the hustle and bustle: The lodge buildings have the cozy look and feel of a bed-and-breakfast. You can hike, go horseback riding, take lessons on survival skills or use the shooting range, Miller says. (Some activities have fees attached to them.) Just hang out. Clear your mind. Be reassured that you have someplace to go to when catastrophe strikes.
Garrett has visited the West Virginia location, tucked away near the George Washington National Forest, several hours' drive from Washington, DC.
"When you initially come into it, it doesn't feel in any way menacing or off-putting," he says. "It feels like a kind of summer camp."
That's a distinctly different vibe from some other survival real estate businesses that emphasize the "bunker" in "bunker mentality." In Kansas, for instance, there's the Survival Condo, an underground facility that used to be an Atlas missile silo. It's a luxury destination, with units starting at $1 million. In South Dakota, there's xPoint, a former Army site for bomb storage, a collection of 575 bunkers for "like-minded shelterists."
At Fortitude Ranch, says Garrett, the idea is more that the community itself provides the defense, rather than the architecture. This is a subject he knows well: He's got a book coming out in early August called Bunker: Building for the End Times, about prepper communities around the world. (Disclosure: It's being published by Simon & Schuster, which like CNET is owned by ViacomCBS.)
The Fortitude Ranch website makes note that many doomsday shelters are out of reach for average folks. It points in particular to the US government's Mount Weather installation in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, said to have underground facilities like those of the deactivated Cold War-era Greenbrier facility (now a tourist destination) designed to hold all 535 members of Congress. The wealthy, meanwhile, can buy or build multimillion-dollar safe spaces to flee to. The ranch is meant to provide an affordable alternative for you and your family.
Miller says he's got about 100 people signed up for each of his two locations, with a couple thousand on a waiting list for when new locations open up and the current ones expand, to a maximum of 500 at any given ranch. To get on the waiting list, you can purchase membership tokens, currently priced at $160 each, and Miller recommends buying at least five per person. Investors are welcome, too. The business is looking for backers who've got at least $300,000 in annual income or $1 million in net worth, not counting their primary residence.
If Miller ever activates Fortitude Ranch into survival mode, calling in members in the event of a national security-level disaster, the locations would be self-sufficient. They've got more than just stockpiles of canned goods. They'll have chickens and cattle and gardens. Members -- survivors -- would be able to hunt, fish and forage in the surrounding wilderness, he says.
And they'll have weapons. Not all preppers have guns, or even like them, but it is part of the culture. Ranch members will be asked to pull guard duty, on the lookout for "marauders," the people who didn't prep and now want to take advantage of those who did. They'll be taking care of one another, contributing their individual "best efforts to collective efforts to survive and maintain best possible quality of life," according to the member agreement.
"When the shit hits the fan, you're now a survival community," Miller says. "We keep our members alive."
Preppers are people who, to varying degrees, assume that disaster is likely to strike at some point, and they want to be ready: no scrambling for shelter, food, safety. They want to know how to deal with a world in which some or all modern amenities -- electricity, internet, hospitals, grocery stores -- aren't functioning. When they have to fend for themselves.
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we could all learn a little something from them.
"People think you've got to be crazy to be a prepper, but that's not at all the case," says Kiki Bandilla, a Castle Rock, Colorado, resident who runs the National Self-Reliance Project. It aims to guide people toward a more intentional, sustainable lifestyle -- "the way our grandparents lived, without the modern luxuries and the technology."
She signed up with Fortitude Ranch in late 2018. Her husband joined, too.
So where exactly is the line between prepper and nonprepper? If you've got a generator, some extra canned goods, some camping gear and a first aid kit, you're... prepared. Kinda. If you've got a hunting rifle or a handgun for self-defense, you're prepared. Kinda. If you've got a big home garden and know how to can vegetables, or you raise a few chickens, or you go ice-fishing -- well, you see that the lines can be blurry.
Miller says Fortitude Ranch members are from "all walks of life," with lots of busy professionals in the mix. "They pretty much realize it's expensive and hard to do on your own," he says. "Most of them are not typical preppers."
Whether you've been a prepper from way back, or you're just starting to dabble, you're surely looking to feel more certain in an uncertain world. Prepping is a way to throttle back some of the anxiety that lies beneath the modern comforts we all take for granted, to take affirmative steps toward getting through the rough patches that life isn't hesitant to deal out.
Self-sufficiency could even lead to a happier, potentially stress-free life.
"If you live like that in general, it's not going to come as a shock if something's disrupted too horribly bad," says Tom, a Fortitude Ranch member, along with several others in his family. He works in the real estate industry in the Baltimore area and asked that we not use his last name.
It's an adaptive and entirely reasonable attitude, says Chad Huddleston, an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University who's been studying a community of preppers for 10 years. If something happens, they're not going to be the ones rushing to Walmart to buy up all the toilet paper when it's probably already too late.
"Most preppers are just mundane, your neighbors, that aren't conspiratorially minded, aren't crazy, don't have tinfoil hats," says Huddleston. "They're like normal folks."
The fact is, the world can be a dangerous place, even if society never collapses. In recent years, we've seen lives and entire communities savagely disrupted by wildfires in California and Australia. The West Coast faces the constant threat of a devastating earthquake like the Loma Prieta quake that struck the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, closing critical bridges and flattening freeways. Tornadoes regularly rip apart towns in the central US, and hurricanes send devastating floods onto the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. For the northern tier of states, there's the certainty of paralyzing blizzards.
Losing power for several days can seem like an eternity at the time, what with no Netflix, no Facebook, and the ice cream and milk in the fridge going bad. Imagine that stretching on for weeks or months.
Now imagine if the coronavirus didn't mean just limited hours at the grocery store, higher meat prices and yeast shortages.
Organizations like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross have long recommended that everyone have some sort of plan for emergencies, and an emergency kit packed and ready to go with useful gear, from a flashlight and hand-crank radio to a first aid kit and duct tape. "Being prepared," FEMA says on its ready.gov website, "means having your own food, water and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours." The Red Cross also suggests having copies of the deed to your house, your insurance policies and birth certificate.
Preppers call it a bug-out bag or go bag -- maybe one for the house, one for the car and others as necessary. The Prepared, a website set up to provide advice to people looking to get started prepping, lists a number of variations on the theme, with what you're likely to spend assembling all the elements -- $400 to $1,000 for a "well-rounded kit" built for standard emergencies, or you can push toward $3,000 to be ready for a wider range of disasters.
"You're never prepared 100%, just 'cause there's so much you need," says Tom, the Fortitude Ranch member.
So yeah, there's a lot of stuff to worry about. Maybe you think those risks are all manageable without any extraordinary measures, that the institutions of modern society -- government, hospitals, the police, the electric company -- will keep functioning well enough, even with some rough patches.
Drew Miller isn't so reassured. He sees pandemonium as a very real possibility, and he's got a short list of how things could get very, very ugly: a super pandemic, perhaps bioengineered, well beyond the scope of the coronavirus; a nuclear attack, a threat that's haunted the world since the 1950s; an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, that knocks out the electrical grid for a year or more. He and other preppers also have bad feelings about the potential for serious unrest tied to the November 2020 presidential election.
"Avian flu is the No. 1 thing we worry about," says Miller. He talks a lot about lethality rates, saying some experts put the potential as high as 60% for an avian flu, though he thinks a 30% rate would be enough to cause a collapse. In January, he leaned on early estimates by institutions like the Harvard School of Public Health about how widely the novel coronavirus could spread, and how deadly it might be, and concluded there was less than a 1% chance the average American would be killed.
He's planning for the kind of nightmare scenario described by Emily St. John Mandel in her 2014 novel Station Eleven: "The flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the Earth and the shock of the collapse that followed."
Catastrophe isn't the kind of thing you recover from quickly. That's why Fortitude Ranch is set up for the long haul.
First of all, there's shelter. Partly that's in the form of underground bunkers, but they're not super deep or reinforced like a missile site, because Miller -- who in the mid-1980s wrote a dissertation on fortifications and underground nuclear defense shelters for NATO troops -- doesn't expect a nuclear strike nearby, even if the bombs are falling. It's just enough protection to shield against fallout, should there be any. Above ground are the picturesque and well-appointed lodges.
The sites are also designed for self-defense. West Virginia's treehouse may be fine for hanging out and bird-watching in good times, but when the trouble comes, it's a lookout tower and firing point. Other parts of the compounds, which average about 500 feet by 500 feet, can also serve as guard posts. You see a gazebo; Miller sees a bastion. He's fond of castle design and castle terminology, and in our conversation he takes a moment to run through a hypothetical attack scenario.
Members are encouraged to bring their own firearms, but Fortitude Ranch has weapons of its own on hand for member use: AR-15 assault rifles, Winchester rifles, Stevens pump-action 12-gauge shotguns, .50-caliber sniper rifles, crossbows and compound bows. And there should be plenty of ammo. "We believe the best investment you can make (and need to make now)," Miller wrote in his December 2019 newsletter, "is bulk ammunition buys of standard calibers."
After all, having all the supplies in the world won't mean much if you can't protect what you've got.
For energy, there are solar panels and propane generators. Gear also includes kerosene lamps, though in good military fashion, the ranch sites would be exercising light discipline, meaning, essentially, no lights at night.
You shouldn't go hungry there. Fortitude Ranch promises it'll feed members for at least one year at 2,000 calories a day per person (which, it should be noted, skews toward a sedentary lifestyle rather than an active one). There's the stockpile of canned goods and other shelf-stable food, for sure, but that's the true backup. Miller expects the community will do just fine with cattle (right now just in West Virginia), goats, chickens, rabbits and gardens, plus hunting, fishing and foraging -- and crickets, even, if necessary. With all that, he says, "we can go on indefinitely."
The location near public forests isn't just for isolation. It's about available resources, including deer and wild turkey. If there's a breakdown in law and order, who's going to worry about hunting licenses? Forests offer all sorts of wilderness benefits, Miller says. "We like the firewood, we like the privacy, and hell yes, we will be doing a lot of poaching."
Communities don't just happen overnight, though, regardless of best intentions. What happens when you bring together 100 or more strangers, ripped from their normal lives, the world collapsing around them, adrenaline running high and patience running short? Will everyone actually get along?
Huddleston says that the preppers he's studied seem more inclined to hunker down at home. If disaster strikes, he says, "their plan was all to stay in place and help their neighbors."
Miller, though, is confident that Fortitude Ranch's more ad hoc communities can work out problems. The managers of the ranch sites will be in charge. All have military experience and, he says, they know how to handle people. Everyone will have assigned roles: guard duty, hunting, cooking, taking care of animals, providing medical care.
The ranches won't have a lot of problems with people who aren't getting along, Miller says, because members will understand they need everyone to keep things safe and secure. People who aren't happy there, he says, can just pack up and leave.
Bandilla finds reassurance in Miller's background and planning, along with the community aspect of Fortitude Ranch. "This gives me, quite frankly, a lot more peace of mind," she says.
The attraction of a pristine getaway is a powerful one. It's alluring under normal circumstances -- long workdays, stressful commutes, family tensions -- as well as in nightmare scenarios of a world gone mad.
Tom's been working toward ever greater self-sufficiency at his current home, which is heated with wood, supplied with well water and garden crops, and stockpiled with food he's canned himself. Next he'd like to add a solar-powered generator. Beyond that, he thinks about the day he might have a similar place up in the Tennessee hills, more of a true farm, as a place to retreat to. It wouldn't be quite Fortitude Ranch, but safe enough.
"The Ranch would be like the ultimate protection," he said.
That's the name of the game. Protection. Security. Peace of mind. Because it's a dangerous world out there, whether it's nature acting up, politics going off the rails or bad actors doing really bad things.
"COVID-19 was a wakeup call. This was not a real pandemic. The real pandemics are coming," says Miller. He invokes the specter of terrorists or a nation-state using weaponized biotech against the US. "Release a pandemic here, and we are totally screwed."