A shot rings out in the Orchard Lake Campground. The crack ricochets off of evergreens and elms and oaks. No one hits the ground, screams, or ducks for cover. None of the 600 campers even seems fazed by the blast piercing through the stagnant humidity. After all, it’s just target practice.
For four days last month, this “prepper camp”—nestled in a remote part of the foggy Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina—hosted a crash course in survival. Organized by “Prepper Rick” Austin and his wife, a blogger who goes by “Survivor Jane,” the weekend attracted participants from Tennessee, California, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, and Georgia. When the sole Yankee outs herself, one person jokingly threatens to lynch her with a paracord.
Preppers have their own language. They carry “BOBs,” or “bug-out bags,” knapsacks stuffed with provisions necessary to “get out of dodge” when “TSHTF” (the shit hits the fan). “TEOTWAWKI” is instantly recognizable as shorthand for “the end of the world as we know it.” But that “end” means something different to everyone. They’re not all anticipating a rapture. Preoccupations range from super-viruses like Ebola to natural disasters (solar flares, hurricanes) to man-made catastrophes (an ISIS attack, socioeconomic collapse leading to utter mayhem).
Ultimately, preppers are united by the goal of not going down without a fight. Some, like Rick and Jane, fled self-described “cushy, corporate lives” after a traumatic incident—in their case, getting roughed up in a parking garage. They left Florida for a 53-acre homestead in North Carolina, where they’ve planted “gardens of survival” designed to look like overgrown underbrush. Others come from a long line of live-off-the-land folk who want to continue the lineage and become less dependent on store-bought, prepackaged foods. Most distrust the political climate here and abroad.
If a disaster happens, they fear that neighbors will turn on each other. For most preppers, densely populated areas are nightmare scenarios. “Get you a paintball gun with pepper-spray balls, then get to New Jersey, steal a car, and head for the mountains,” suggests Doug, a potbellied, disheveled man staffing the Carolina Readiness Supply tent, peddling how-to manuals and dehydrated foods. There’s a sense of righteousness, of arrogance, of smug pity for people who don’t share the same certainty about the impending descent into anarchy. Many people are proudly wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I’ll Miss You When You’re Gone.” One presenter sums up the preppers’ rallying cry: “If someone from the city tries to come to the rural areas we’ve settled, we’ll stand on the county line with our shotguns and tell them no.”
But the people at prepper camp are rational, reasoned, and eager to share their knowledge and skills, swapping tips about purchasing things like German surplus military phones—untraceable by the NSA—or night-vision goggles for spotting a sentry standing guard in a tree. They trade tips for stockpiling antibiotics without tipping off doctors or law-enforcement officials. These preppers are impassioned, but not hysterical or anxiously raving about the end of days—very different from the sensationalized caricatures portrayed on National Geographic’s hit TV show Doomsday Preppers. And they’re not so rare as you might think: In a 2012 nationally representative survey by Kelton Research, 41 percent of respondents said they believed stocking up on resources or building a bomb shelter was a more worthwhile investment than saving for retirement.
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Six white tents are lined with folding chairs set up for rapt lecture audiences. In one, the lecturer keeps his dark sunglasses on. He’s not trying to conjure an air of mystery: Dale Stewart recently burned his retinas while kayaking in South Africa and shooting footage for an upcoming IMAX movie. It’s hard to imagine this calm man with a congenial Southern drawl, beatnik white beard, black tunic, and neckerchief grappling with hippos in the Nile or tagging vicious polar bears on ice floes. Although he has a homestead in Asheville, the former rodeo clown—who also happens to have a master’s in physics—spends much of his time on solo kayaking expeditions or teaching fear-inoculation tactics to the military.
Here, Stewart is lecturing about emergency conditioning. “You can have all the great gear, but if you don’t have the right mindset, you’re not gonna make it,” he says. He poses a question that preppers reiterate again and again: How far would you go to keep your family safe? The key is figuring out what will motivate you to fight, imagining every possible horrific scenario, and fantasizing about it in lurid detail until you’ve overridden your flight-or-fight response and replaced it with a carefully choreographed plan. This method of visualizing the worst altercation is called “battle-proofing.” Stewart’s rationale: If you play the scenario out in your head, it becomes part of your retinue of experiences, and you can practice reacting.
It’s not about tuning fear out. "I hope I never lose fear," he says. "Fear is a warning that something is about to happen." Instead, Stewart wants to teach people how to harness fear as a catalyst for action. Stewart wants to teach people how to combine physical prowess with thoughtful rationality. “You can drop me pretty much anywhere on the planet, and I’d be fine,” he says. “My wife would get lost in a parking lot.”
One observer’s cell phone keeps ringing. In an ironic ode to self-reliance and resilience, the sound is the Mockingjay’s song from The Hunger Games films, which imagine what it would be like to flourish in a post-apocalyptic world.
Thunder rolls gently in the distance as two dozen attendees walk through the rain to meet Richard Cleveland at the edge of the pond. Unsurprisingly, preppers aren’t fazed by a little drizzle. Most continue to stroll the knolls as though it’s 80 degrees and sunny. Cleveland has angry, red wounds on his knees—probably a result of enthusiastic off-road foraging. The founder of the Earth School in Asheville, North Carolina, has been teaching programs about wild edibles for more than two decades. His slate-blue eyes blaze when he complains that Big Pharma won’t subsidize studies about herbal medicines—he claims that he has a number of friends who have cured their prostate cancers by infusing their diet with dandelion leaves, something the University of Windsor is looking into. The group follows his lead, scanning the ground for trampled herbs. He stoops every few feet to scoop and chomp on a plant like jewelweed, after which he elicits a jovial whoop. “Luscious!” he exclaims.
The foragers tromp past the pond, where kids in bright bathing suits splash in the shallow water or drift in kayaks, their yellow paddles and orange life vests popping against a sea of khaki, army fatigues, and black t-shirts bearing the phrase, “It Wasn’t Raining When Noah Built The Ark.” Richard points to an evergreen, encouraging people to guess its medicinal use. Turns out the tree is tsuga canadensis, or eastern hemlock: The needles can be steeped in boiled water for an emergency dose of vitamin C as a way of preventing scurvy.
At its core, prepping is about wanting to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. The preppers aren’t all brawny men whose quick-twitch muscles appear ready to activate at a moment’s notice. Some are elderly, like a well-coiffed woman in her eighties with manicured nails and wrinkled fingers stacked with onyx-and-gold costume jewelry. It’s hard to envision her swinging a gun, but she carries one in her tasteful leather purse. Others are wheelchair bound, unable to navigate the grounds’ hilly terrain on their own.
On the final evening, people bundle up in heavy sweaters and coats and pack into the main tent for the keynote lecture by Dr. William R. Forstchen, a 63-year-old novelist and professor of history at Montreat College. His novel One Second After tracks the hypothetical aftermath of a fictional electromagnetic-pulse event in a sleepy American town. The gathering has the feeling of a sermon, with an impassioned question-and-answer session conjuring an evangelical call and response. There’s a sense of solemnity, responsibility, and chosen-ness hanging in the air. There’s also a feeling of painful loneliness—ostracism from other family members, the awkwardness of explaining your cache of semi-automatic weapons to a prospective lover—temporarily assuaged by this community, where everyone understands, and agrees. “Forget about political correctness,” Dr. Forstchen begs. “You are the future of America, and America is worth fighting for.”
As the fog rolls in again and lightning crackles higher up in the mountain, the crowd retreats to tents, trailers, and cars. Suddenly, the parking lot is empty and dark, the beam of a flashlight revealing just a swath of grass at the end of a dirt road in a small Southern town.