We’re all going to die.
Okay, hopefully not anytime too soon. But if you ask the stars of “Doomsday Preppers” (new season premieres Tues. Nov. 13 at 9:00 p.m. on NatGeo), there’s a fair chance it’s not only going to happen sooner than we expect, but most of us are either going to starve to death, die of thirst, get hacked up by crazed marauders or turned into oven baked hams when we can’t hide from the nuclear blast. And by “we,” doomsday preppers really mean everyone but themselves.
Hey, these people are ready for everything from tornadoes to Armageddon, which was what I learned during a visit to West Virginia. There, along with a few other journalists, I talked to real preppers from the show as well as learned how to shoot a bow and arrow (sort of), fly fish (again, sort of), prepare something edible from shelf-stable goods and skeet shoot. This was, theoretically, to inform me as to my own level of disaster preparedness.
Yeah, about that… given my current skill level, I suspect I’ll be in the first wave unless the zombie hordes are willing to spare my life for some DVD box sets and stale Trader Joe’s cat cookies.
Flying into Lewisburg, West Virginia, I had no idea what to expect. Having seen the first season of the show (which became a break-out hit for NatGeo and is now their top rated program), I recalled wall-to-wall weirdos. Parents who insisted their kids spend every free moment preparing for disaster, anxious types who seemed oddly soothed by counting their ammunition stores, miserable moms obsessing over worst case scenarios. They may have been prepared, but these people weren’t exactly fun. I foresaw a weekend embedded with a bunch of miserable gun nuts eating MREs and hand fishing for dinner.
The first surprise was The Greenbrier. Above ground, it’s an extremely oversized, garishly decorated hotel that could, in some parts of the country, qualify as its own city. Below ground, and one reason for our visit, is the once top secret Cold War fallout shelter specially constructed for Congress in the event the bomb was ever dropped. Though decommissioned in the ’90s after an article in The Washington Post exposed its existence, it had everything 1,100 people (all of Congress plus one aide a piece) needed to survive the end of the world. With its blast doors and extensive air and water filtration systems, it’s still a pretty decent place to be if all hell were to break loose. What better place to hang out with a bunch of survivalists?
Of course, the guests of honor — Braxton and Kara Southwick, Holly and Jay Blevins and prepping professionals Scott Hunt and David Kobler — could have shown up at the Greenbrier carrying pipe bombs and encouraging everyone to eat all the mushrooms they could find on the golf course and it might have gone over just fine. This weekend retreat was taking place just days after Superstorm Sandy had wiped out entire chunks of New Jersey, and suddenly preparing for the worst didn’t seem like such a crazy idea. “I believe everyone should and could store adequate supplies to get them through a crisis situation,” Hunt told me. “Katrina, Sandy, they can have enough to get through those types of disasters.”
More importantly, NatGeo didn’t call up the show’s more, shall we say, colorful stars for this outing. After all, they may not have wanted to leave behind their supplies of dehydrated pineapple or they might have tried to take semi-automatic weapons through airport security. No, the Southwicks and the Blevins were not only pleasant, suburban family folk, they were able to calmly and rationally explain their concerns (in the structure of the show, each family had to pick a concern as their focus; the Southwicks fear a weapons-grade smallpox outbreak while the Blevins suspect society will break down following economic collapse). “Yes, there are some preppers that are more fringe, but there are many mainstream, normal, regular families who are prepping now,” Holly Blevins told me. “We’re just a normal family. We don’t even involve our kids very much in this, because we want them to have normal childhoods. It’s just for our peace of mind.”
After a weekend of testing my abilities to survive in a wild, “Revolution”-style new world, I can’t say I had much peace of mind. When given three tries with a crossbow, I managed to hit everything but the very stationary (and embarrassingly close) target. During my go at fly fishing, I stood knee deep in a well-stocked creek watching other people reel in fish (then release them; that’s how you keep a creek well-stocked). The one time I got one on the hook, completely forgot how to reel it in, instead yanking my line and waving my rod around as if I were in the midst of a grand mal seizure. I watched helplessly as the fish easily freed itself and swam away. Apocalypse: 2, me: 0.
Talking to Hunt, who runs a prepping company called, yes, Practical Preppers, I didn’t feel much better about my utter lack of Katniss. Hunt is the consummate man of both faith and science — he’s an engineer with an MBA and also a former pastor. With Practical Preppers, he spreads a different kind of gospel, helping people set up all the necessities — water filtration, storage, solar power and the like — they’ll need to survive a crisis. On “Doomsday Preppers,” he and Kobler provide a feature that’s new to the second season; they give each prepper a rating from 1 to 100 as well as an estimated length of time for how long they’ll be able to survive a disaster. Most of the people featured on the show score between 50 and 80. As for a clueless, unprepared urban dweller? “You’d be down to days or weeks,” Hunt said. “Sorry.”
At the end of the second day, I resigned myself to another disappointing run at skeet shooting. I kicked myself that I had chosen it over Jay Blevin’s self-defense class. After all, in L.A. there isn’t much need for a rifle unless you’re too lazy to pick the oranges off the tree in your backyard. But to my surprise, I had some limited ability so shoot little clay discs out of the air. Would I be able to shoot grouse as easily? Probably not, but there was some glimmer of hope. Talking to the preppers, I’d started wondering about all of the scenarios they had posed, both likely (a massive earthquake near my California home) and less likely (EMPs, short for the electromagnetic pulses usually created by a nuclear explosion).
The next segment — a “prepper-friendly” cooking demonstration by Kara Southwick — wasn’t such a depressing test of my abilities. Though I wouldn’t whip up a batch of pinto bean fudge for kicks on a rainy Sunday, the stuff was edible enough and made entirely with shelf-stable ingredients. She even assured the audience that fudge is a great bribe to give kids who might be getting stir crazy under lockdown, I had to wonder if the fudge might enhance the crazy, but Kara has six kids, so I’m guessing she knows from sugar highs.
Talking to Kara and Holly, I also got a broader picture of what makes a doomsday prepper — not only on the show, but in real life. The emphasis of these preppers wasn’t on the individual or even a single family hunkering down with guns and picking off interlopers (okay, there was some of that), but was actually focused on creating a small community of people to share responsibilities after a crisis hits. As Hunt described it, preppers are “sheepdogs.” “You hear this sheepdog analogy,” he explained. “There are people who just want to take care of other people, sheepdogs. A lot of preppers are like that. They want to take care of others.”
While I initially bristled at the stereotypical male/female roles that seemed to surface in creating these doomsday groups (Braxton and Kara, somewhat in jest, wore T-shirts that read The Brain [his] and The Cook [hers] for a photo shoot), I didn’t exactly mind the idea of handing off the fishing and hunting to someone else with those skills, male or female. It also seemed that, when the world is ending, no one really cares who picks up the guns as long as they shoot straight. Holly, who caught four fish during our outing, not only knew how to shoot but easily blew away interlopers during a drill she and Jay performed for their episode of the show.
During an overview by Hunt and Kobler of all the goodies we needed to hoard to survive a crisis (as well as a demonstration of how to start a fire using steel wool), the message was clear that it’s not necessarily the strong who survive — it’s the people who bother to think ahead, plan accordingly and make nice with the outdoorsy folk in their neighborhood. But while I was wondering who I knew who had the skill set to might make it through a few episodes of “Survivor,” our group headed off to listen to a lecture about the Mayan “apocalypse” by archeologist John Hoopes.
For all the conjecture that the world will end in 2012, Hoopes dumped a bracing bucket of cold water on the very idea. Hoopes informed us that much of what we take as a given about the Mayan calendar is a whole cloth fabrication concocted by drug-addled New Age writers (he’ll probably reveal more on another NatGeo special, “Maya Underworld: The Real Doomsday” airing Mon. Dec. 3 at 10:00 p.m.). Suddenly, the idea of applying some stricter analysis to the more outrageous ideas tossed around during the weekend seem in order. When someone finally asked Hoopes if there was any need for someone to prep for doomsday, he paused (probably to consider his audience and whether anyone still had their bow and arrow from earlier in the trip) then shook his head “no.”
Such clear-headed skepticism is actually built into “Doomsday Preppers,” though you may be too busy trying to remember where you put your bottled water to notice it. At the end of every segment, a short assessment of the likelihood (or more often, the complete unlikelihood) of a certain scenario coming to pass is included. Producer Alan Madison admits that at first, he didn’t love the addition — it does, after all, suck a little of the drama out of watching a family leap into hazmat suits and run for the hills. “National Geographic demanded we included that, and I get it,” he said over dinner one night. “You need that balance.”
While some could argue that preppers are by definition out of balance, the ones I met seemed to be surprisingly centered, even if they do have a lot more canned goods than most people. One night, they headed down to the Greenbrier’s bowling alley and showed up bleary-eyed the next morning. “We just went wild, cranking ’80s music,” Kara laughed. The Mormon mom of six didn’t get hammered, of course, but I was glad to know she wasn’t squirreled away in her hotel room, trying to stuff a spare suitcase full of soap and tiny shampoos. Maybe once you’re prepared for the end of the world, there’s nothing left to do but have some fun.
Are you going to watch “Doomsday Preppers”?