'I wouldn't call myself a survivalist, just a realist," says "Craig," a financial analyst in Cincinnati. In his 30s, with a wife and baby, Craig keeps a cache of supplies in his basement: magnesium flint sticks for fire-starting, lightweight water filters, rechargeable flashlights, a portable 12-volt solar panel and three months' worth of freeze-dried food.
Others might call him a prepper, part of a growing movement that advocates self-reliance against potential disasters that could destabilize civilization for years. Craig, who asked that his real name not be used, just says he's prepared.
The prepper movement, while not mainstream, is no longer just the province of outliers holed up in doomsday bunkers.
"It's become less out of the ordinary, less extreme," says Arthur Markman, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. "At first, 10 years ago, it was a real spectacle. Now there are more websites on it. Even people who don't think of themselves as preppers are thinking, 'Is there something I could do to be prepared in case I have to do things for myself?'
"The undercurrent of mistrust in society has gotten bigger," Markman says. "Look at the current election climate. You have a lot of angry voters." News stories such as the Flint, Mich., water supply, or banks too big to fail, prompt citizens to distrust large-scale institutions traditionally seen as safe.
Preppers are ready. It is widely believed that .22-caliber ammunition will become currency in a disaster scenario. Prep-blog.com advises preppers to buy 1,000 rounds for practice at the range now and another 1,000, minimum, to be stored for an apocalypse. If you buy the ammo over time, in advance of need, "you can build a formidable supply for a modest sum," Prep-blog continues.
That is, if you can find it. Wal-Mart, a go-to spot for ammo, in early 2013 restricted customers to no more than three boxes per person, per day. The retail giant lifted that restriction on most calibers in 2014 but left it in place for .22 firearms.
"It's rarely in stock," says Tyler, a clerk in the gun department at the Walmart in Bellingham, Wash. That store receives 20 to 25 cases (one case holds 100 rounds of .22 ammunition and costs under $10) every two weeks. It sells out within the day. "People drop by all day long just to see if we have .22 ammo. If we do, they buy it," says Tyler, who asked that his last name not be used.
Food, water and .22 ammo are the essentials for apocalypse, agrees "Loren," a sporting goods store clerk who asked that his real name not be used. "Over years, (preppers) collect guns and ammunition. They're a tight-lipped group. Some have regular jobs; you wouldn't know they have an arsenal under their house."
Prepping can be as simple as keeping an emergency evacuation kit, called a "go bag" or "bug out bag," or as elaborate as outfitting a remote cabin. At one end of the spectrum, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends keeping three days' worth of supplies at the ready. On the other end are the most dedicated preppers, who move to areas such as the American Redoubt, a sparsely populated region of the Inland Northwest.
Among this hugely diverse population, two things are constant: Preppers don't consider themselves preppers, and they don't go public.
"No one would call me a prepper," says Brian, in central Indiana, who asked that his last name not be used. "I took up hunting to become an excellent hunter in case of food shortages. I'm learning to tend to crops. I see myself as a hunter/gatherer in such a situation."
"I don't consider myself a prepper," says Elton, in western Washington, "though I do spend substantial time preparing for contingencies." Elton, who also asked that his last name not be used, said he enjoys "solving technical problems that would accompany whatever doomsday scenario."
On the website PrepperGroups.com, the media page opens with: "If you are from the press and want to join this site to interview members -- DON'T! Respect their privacy!"
Acquaintances offered to help me with this story. From New Jersey: "One of my fellow teachers is a survivalist. She and her husband will talk to you." But later: "They won't talk. They don't want anyone to know what they have."
From Washington: "One of my employees buried a shipping container in his backyard. That's where he keeps emergency supplies. I've known him 11 years, and it took 10 to find out even that much."
"Whoever has stuff is going to have to fend off others," says Markman, the University of Texas psychologist who studies how people think. "No one invests time and effort into something they think won't happen. You'd better be prepared, and that includes protecting the investment you've made."
How does a nagging little "what if" turn into survivalism?
"We grow up with the complexities of life hidden," Markman says. "We get water from a tap, electricity from a plug. It's like the house elves in 'Harry Potter.' Over time, we learn that systems of people grow and distribute food, deal with wastewater, or provide medical care, roads and fuel. We start to pay attention to publicized failure of those systems."
As media outlets proliferate, people can choose to listen only to those that buttress their beliefs. "Over time, reinforcement of that narrative makes it feel our core institutions are rotten and likely to fall apart," Markman says. "They start small, with a backup generator behind the house. They share information on websites. They think it wouldn't hurt to have supplies. That can become a way to think."
Anxiety is a reflection of fear, Markman says. "One way to deal with fear is to take action that will solve the problem you see. Becoming a prepper is a concrete action."
As Craig, the financial analyst in Cincinnati puts it, "It seems silly not to plan because anything could happen."
Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy is a freelancer.
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