On emergency homesteads, survivalist slang, and the questionable ethics undergirding the prepper movement

Survivor Jane is not what I expected. Her auburn hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and her lips are painted tomato red. She wears a khaki button-down shirt, fitted cargo pants, and sturdy leather work boots snug on her petite frame. Survivor Jane steps out from the podium to hype us. She has the swagger of a woman still glowing in her fifteen minutes of fame from being featured on a 2015 episode of the National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers” along side her husband, Rick “The Survivalist Gardener” Austin. 

In her perky rural drawl, Survivor Jane cheers, “You’re ready, right? For when the SHTF (shit hits the fan)?” This is the first session of Prepper Camp, founded by Jane and Rick who are hoping to save the world one ill prepared soul at a time. Their website promises that Prepper Camp “is a total immersion event in preparedness, survival, camp craft, off-grid living, and homesteading skills.”

A burly man dressed head-to-toe in camouflage sits in the tent’s front row and yells ‘yes!’ Jane high fives him. The rest of us, twenty would-be preppers on folding chairs sinking into the mud, halfheartedly nod. “Now,” Jane challenges, “You turn off all your electricity and electronics and spend a weekend holed up in your homestead.” No one cheers at this. “You’ll learn a lot. About yourself. About what you need and don’t. About what you’re willing to do.” 

My parents are seated two rows in front of me. Mom is taking notes. Dad has his arms crossed over his chest and hides behind his sunglasses. I’m attending Prepper Camp as research for my next novel; Mom and Dad are actual preppers. I don’t yet know how seriously they are taking their stockpiling but Dad told me how easy it is to build a false bottom in his truck with cases of beer and enough food, water, and tools to shelter in place for months. Mom catalogs their food stores and regularly rotates canned goods. She wishes I would do the same and worries I won’t be ready.

Jane and Rick talk in tandem. The next figure on Rick’s slide presentation looks like Rambo. A muscled man with ammunition rounds crisscrossing his chest and loaded AK47s on each hip. “This isn’t a survivalist,” Rick says and there are a few whispers in the tent. “This is stupid. This guy gets robbed first. He’s basically inviting the marauders in for dinner.” This time I’m the one nodding. Rick’s picture reminds me of what I’ve seen at other prepper gatherings: mass consumerism of gear and guns, political extremism, and macho posturing. Jane and Rick promise reality rather than propaganda in their brochure, “Unlike attending an event inside a crowded and germ-infested convention center, Prepper Camp is national event, held in the open-air foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and located in a campground venue that allows you to experience preparedness information, survival skills, and camp-craft activities like no other preparedness conference.” I expected Prepper Camp participants to look like Rambo, boys with their toys who want to shoot and to kill for sport and beat their chest, but these attendees would rather live off the land and protect their liberties.

Rick paces at the front of the tent, but Jane isn’t done. “Are you emotionally strong enough to survive?” I shake my head ‘no’ and Dad turns around to agree with my self-assessment. Jane continues, “Most of us probably aren’t so we focus on stockpiling. It’s something we can control, but it’s your mental health that will save you or sink you.” 

Last night, as I sat on the tarmac in a ten-seat plane at the Baltimore-Washington airport, Dad texted me about the tornadoes. Be safe he wrote, as if either of us could control the severe storms in Asheville, North Carolina, where he and Mom were waiting. The overly optimistic pilot yelled back from the cockpit that he knew how to fly around “all that swirling stuff.” Dad followed up with Mom’s worried, which is its own kind of weather warning. 

I texted back, Worry is not a prepper skill. Preparedness is. I added a smiley face emoji. 

When I told my parents I’d signed up for a weekend of survival training in the woods in North Carolina, they asked if they could come too. “Sure,” I said. “But we may have different agendas.” I was expecting a crowd of folks who played civil war for fun so they could wear uniforms, carry guns, and relive glory days that were never glorious. I wasn’t expecting to agree with Survivor Jane’s distinction between ‘hobby preppers’ and true homesteaders. Her focus on mental health and community building surprises me. There is more conversation about self-reliance than about political unrest. 

In my fiction, I write about the thin line between preparedness and fear. I’m trying to parse when fear becomes delusional and turns dangerous. But during the opening session, Jane doesn’t sound scared. She seems invigorated by the challenge of making something out of nothing, which seems much like wrestling the pages of a novel into place. Her values of hard work sound like my own upbringing in the country where we grew our own food, cut woods for fire, and raised chickens. My parents are working-class folks I am proud to call them my own. They live between rural Missouri and a fish camp on the St. John’s River in Florida and have two stocked bunkers. My stock shelf in my D.C. basement contains one jar of peanut butter, burnt candle nubs, three mostly evaporated gallons of water, and a bottle of Jim Bean. Mom wants me to keep the whiskey for barter. 

After Prepper Camp’s opening session, we sip foamy cappuccinos, purchased from the only food truck at the campground; it happens to have a full espresso bar. We plan our survivalist schedule. There are at least 50 classes every day but they repeat throughout the weekend. Dad circles “What Happens After Bang! – How to Protect Yourself After You Have Pulled the Trigger” and “Tomahawk Throwing.” Mom makes her own list: “Wild Food Gardening,” “Sunbaking Essentials,” and “Basic Beekeeping.” They each cross out classes that offer skills they’ve already mastered: “Canning for Beginners,” “Concealed Carry and Defensive Shooting,” “Get Off the Grid-Start Now!” and “Ammunition.” My plan is to pop between the tents and sessions, but Mom and Dad are doing a deeper dive into assessing the skills they’ve built from a hard-scrabble life and new tools that will give them a better chance to save their family. 

My parents were prepping and making do decades before it became a hashtag. One summer afternoon Mom and Dad took us to sort bricks in an abandoned lot of a torn down building. They wanted to build a barbecue for our backyard. There wasn’t money to buy new bricks, but there were five of us, which was plenty of labor. They saw potential everywhere and figured out how to do things on their own. Bricks in an abandoned lot were free. It was a Saturday afternoon. Weekdays were for working at our family exterminating business. Weekends were for working on your home. The moments between were for hustling, however possible, to make those ends meet. 

We picked through the rubble for good enough discards, a chipped corner or crack or split ones that could be mended. Dad said not to toss the bricks because it would break them more. We sorted through the piles and brought bricks to Mom for judgment. She’d shake her head and frown if the brick wasn’t worth saving. Then it didn’t matter if my brothers and I tossed it or not. The chink sound as the brick cracked was satisfying. If we found a salvageable brick, she’d take it from our hands and place it in the faux barbeque puzzle she was assembling. Mom moved the bricks around, ordering and reordering, correcting flaws, fitting broken pieces to make a whole. We’d have a place to cook food outside if the place to cook food inside didn’t work. It wasn’t prepping. It was practicality. 

At the next tent I learn I’m a “Pollyanna,” a person who denies that TEOTWAWKI (the end of the word as we know it) could happen and remains optimistic about civilization. Then they put up a map of the U.S. that shows the university where I teach, three miles from Capitol Hill, as ground zero for every disaster. The people around me cheer at the idea of D.C.’s obliteration. It’s clear that I have zero chance of survival so why prep? The speaker goads the gathered, “I mean, who would complain if RBG got hit by a bus, am I right?” Dad doesn’t laugh but he shoots me a warning look not to engage. My parents and I agree on values but rarely on politics, but they wouldn’t willfully wish harm on someone just because they disagree with them. I’m riveted and appalled that it seems acceptable in this crowd to joke about the demise of a Supreme Court justice; decency evaporates when fear crosses the line to delusion. The speaker is painting himself a victim and he will defend his existence when he perceives a threat. But embracing and fanning the fire of dangerous threats also justifies his agenda and my notebook is full of questions to be interrogated in fiction. 

Mom and I sign up for a plant identification class and walk the woods following a bearded man in a flannel jacket and jeans he’s hitched and tied with twine. He looks like one of my dozen of uncles back home.  Our teacher sticks every plant in his mouth, chews dramatically, and then says, “Could use some olive oil!” after each bite. He kicks at a plant on the ground, wipes it on his worn sleeve, and asks if anyone wants to try it. Mom is taking detailed notes and can’t stop me from grabbing the herb. Everyone else passes. It tastes like bitter dirt and reminds me of the evenings Mom would send us to the garden with a salt shaker and tell us to get our own dinner. We’d feast on homegrown tomatoes still warm from sunshine on a vine and eat cucumbers wiped clean on our hand-me-down jeans. 

At the end of our first day of Prepper Camp, I’m tired of talking about storing food and making my own and want to eat something fresh prepared by someone else. I want grilled fish, a green salad, and a glass of Pinot Noir in a courtyard with twinkling lights, things I definitely won’t be able to pack in my BOB (bug out bag). Mom and Dad haven’t attended everything on their schedule yet though. They send me to the car to wait with a bag of peanuts. When we finally make it to dinner in town, the food arrives southern slow. Mom pushes over the basket of table bread and we debate the prepping merits of quality vs. quantity in both food and lifespan. My parents say they will eat cans of tomato soup in a bunker for years if it means surviving. My dinner arrives and the chef’s skill roasting beets for my salad and cooking over an open flame persuade me that I might prefer one final glorious meal than years of dehydrated jerky. 

On the second morning, I’m drawn back to Survivor Jane’s tent for a basics on food prepping. She values quality over quantity too. “Don’t stock anything you haven’t eaten first,” she warns and I make a list of my favorite foods to double in my grocery order. It won’t hurt to have extras on hand, right? I’ve resisted prepping because it sounds like something extremists do. I’m aware of the privilege of having a stock and the harm to others if I take more than I need.  But I grew up in a flood plain and know the panic of filling sandbags to hold back a levee when water wants your land. Now it only takes a winter storm wind to knock out the power in my suburban neighborhood. We have flashlights but probably not the necessary batteries. We have a grill but not an extra propane tank. A few water filters wouldn’t hurt either. I make a personal list in my journal: diva cup, anti-wrinkle face cream, Valium, and vodka. 

Jane advises prepping on a budget but it’s clear that having extra is a luxury and that survival is for those who can afford it. When ABAO (all bets are off), we’re all YOYO (you’re on your own).  Jane advises keeping treats for when morale gets low. She warns that when we’re living WROL (without rule of law), it’s best to GOOD (get out of dodge) before the marauders arrive and snatch our gummy worms. There is a superiority to her task, a belief that her preparedness may be a divine calling and that those who don’t answer it are lazy rather than too poor trying to survive today. She’s not talking about a Hollywood-style apocalypse. She wants us to consider realistic threats we’re ignoring, including natural disasters, an EMP (electro magnetic pulse), or a cyberattack. She preaches self-sufficiency but acknowledges that we also need a prepper community. 

Rick shares tips on building a MAG (mutual assistance group) and asks where we’re all from in hopes of pairing us up. I’m the only one from the D.C. region. Dad suggests I keep this to myself as if my love for urban life is shameful. When Rick’s message gets too terrifying, Jane interjects that we should consider who we really want to be isolated with in our home for months. “Do you really want to be stuck in your bunker with Uncle Bob?” I hope she means Uncle Bob is annoying and not that he’s a burden and barrier to their idea of survival of the fittest. 

At Prepper Camp, I found committed back-to-nature survivalists equipped with traditional skills in homestead cooking, canning, and blacksmithing their own bullets. It was more colonial living and less “Doomsday Preppers.” When I rewatch Jane and Rick’s famous episode on my flight home, I see a foreshadowing of a future they couldn’t have planned for. On camera, they are harvesting hot chili peppers as a potentially fatal pepper spray for their home defense perimeter. Though they are both wearing respirators, Jane and Rick choke in their kitchen and cough their way to recovery by running to fresh air and freedom. Jane screams, “I can’t breathe!” years before its political relevancy in 2020. I wonder what the founders of Prepper Camp would have us do during an actual apocalypse with people who struggle with mental or physical health but my suspicion of their answer is the first real fear I feel. Their adage that ‘only the strong will survive’ still terrifies me. It’s the dark side of individualism. I have more questions than answers and maybe that’s why I wrestle with meaning on the page and create art rather than calculating pepper spray perimeters. The possibility of killing someone, even an ill-intentioned stranger, by burning their throat and lungs, isn’t something I can bear. 

Last year, when Covid invaded and our country began shutting down, my Missouri family invited me back to their homestead. Mom and Dad packed up their house in Florida and headed back to my brother’s OTG (off-the-grid) property. They told me that fleeing D.C. was my only chance for survival. They’d prepped plenty and offered to share resources with me. I heard fear in their voices when I refused to return. It’s not that I can’t imagine my world ending, but I believe faith in humanity and hope for our future is a strength, not a weakness. 

Maybe the political chasm facing our country is about how we make decisions. It’s not a simple as good and bad, as the devotees of Prepper Camp want me to believe. It’s an easy, false answer in a complicated world that needs nuance. 

On the last day of Prepper Camp, Jane and Rick thank us for coming and wish us luck. They are both wearing the new green camp t-shirt on sale in the vendor tent. “Let’s pray for our survival,” Jane says. Mom and I hold hands and Dad bows his head. I’ve survived three days in tents with folks I wouldn’t have crossed paths with in my daily life; perhaps we’re all better for it. I accept the flyer with a discount code that the organizers are distributing as we walk to our truck but I will not be coming back. 

Survivor Jane is right about one thing: our moral courage might be all we have in the end.  

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