Prepper Paranoia or Pragmatism? Inside Wyoming’s underground survivalist movement

By on December 13, 2017

“Watch your step. It’s steep on the way down.”

There’s something unnerving about climbing down a set of narrow stairs and into a metal pod buried on a rural plot of Wyoming ranch land — bad things happen in buried bunkers, don’t you know — and when coupled with the darkness of the room below, it feels bit like you’re stepping to your doom.

“There’s nothing to be scared of. You’re safe down here,” Dylan* said, stifling a laugh. The 35-year-old father of two has spent the last few years preparing for disaster, and the addition of this pre-fabbed steel shelter is the last step in that process.

As unnerving as the descent into the underground shelter is, the interior of the bunker really is impressive to see. It should be for what it cost.

Inside the reinforced steel abode, there are living quarters, along with a kitchen, bathroom and shower. The biochemical air filtration system pumps the airtight structure with cleaner air than can be found in most of the nation.

A massive generator pumps the temporary shelter with plenty of power, and there is enough water in the fresh water tank to last three months, give or take. The septic system is top notch, too.

“We’re in about $500,000 or so,” Dylan said. “I don’t know how much we’ve put into the rest of the stuff in this place though. Seems like it’s been coming together piece by piece.”

The steel pod can comfortably fit about six people, and Dylan’s made sure there’s enough dehydrated food to last for a few months. The pod is pretty useless without food or other supplies — sanitary products, medical supplies and entertainment — because the idea is that once you’re sealed in, it’s not safe to go back up to restock. Not until the apocalypse is over.

“Listen, I know it sounds crazy, but you can’t be too prepared. Seems like every day there’s some new threat. It started with Obama and it ain’t gettin’ any better under Trump,” Dylan said. “We were hopeful. But it looks like he ain’t delivering.”

His shelter is one of many structures hidden around Wyoming by members of the so-called “prepper” movement, a group of folks hell-bent on preparing themselves for the collapse of modern society.

Pragmatism? Or Paranoia?

The premise of prepping, or survivalism, is simple: It is making preparations – i.e. stockpiling medical supplies, food and ammunition in a secure location – for a catastrophic disaster that is likely to occur in the near future.

Ask a prepper what disasters they’re stockpiling supplies for, though, and the answer gets exponentially more complicated. Perhaps that’s because there are too many potential hazards to count.

The survivalist movement appears to stem from a wide range of issues: massive meteors colliding with the earth, radiation poisoning, nuclear electromagnetic pulses or even a complete financial collapse.

“The nation is divided,” Dylan said. “No one’s willing to cross party lines, and nothing is getting better. We just get worse. At this point, anything could happen.”

There’s also the potential collapse of the food system or widespread water contamination, or the fall of a government run by leftists who refuse to follow the Constitution and hate freedom. Despite his promises, President Donald Trump isn’t helping.

The recent terror attacks that have taken place in the U.S., France and elsewhere haven’t helped to ease the fear, nor have the outbreaks of deadly viruses or the threat of war. The dangers are endless.

Given the laundry list of disaster scenarios, it could be easy to chalk the prepper movement up to mass paranoia. It certainly doesn’t help that the prepper movement is insular to its core and notoriously unwelcoming to outsiders.

While there certainly has to be some element of unease to spur preppers into spending massive amounts of money on bunkers, air purifying systems and sprawling ranches in case of the fall of the nation, perhaps there are some pragmatic elements in there too — especially given the current political climate.

The sudden escalation of the North Korean crisis under President Donald Trump’s regime is concerning, prepper or otherwise. The North Korean leader recently launched its most potent missile ever, and in return, South Korea and the United States held a massive five-day Vigilant Ace military exercise with 12,000 military personnel and 230 aircraft.

The tension between two nations led by unstable dictators is a threat that spans states, countries, continents and political lines, and takes the world across a dangerous threshold. Should the U.S. become the target of a nuclear weapon, preppers will have it made while the rest of us are at the mercy of the nuclear fallout.

So perhaps these preppers, with their caches of dehydrated food and clean underground air, are on to something. After all, some of the wealthiest folks in the world are following suit.

American Redoubt, Wyoming Style

Large swaths of uninhabited land and the remote landscape of Wyoming have long been a draw for folks longing to escape the urban madness, so it’s hardly surprising that a place as rural and wild as Wyoming is now a favorite among survivalists and “patriot” groups.

What is surprising, though, is that one of the factors contributing to Wyoming’s growing prepper population is something called the American Redoubt, a political movement started by survivalist blogger James Wesley, Rawles. Yes, that comma is there on purpose. Sir Rawles is a stylish guy.

Redoubt — a word that means fortress — began back in 2011 when Rawles, a former U.S. Army Intelligence officer and technical writer, wrote an essay on his survivalist website SurvivalBlog.com about the need for conservative Christians and Jews to create their own utopian survivalist area, or to use Rawles’ words, “a conscious retrenchment into safe haven states.”

Rawles pinpointed in his essay three states — Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — and a couple of adjoining areas in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington as safe havens for the Fox News crowd. He urged his followers to consider relocating to the triad to create a safe zone for conservatives who shared the same moral framework.

“Sociologist Albert O. Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, identifies the growing libertarian trend of “Exit” strategies, all the way from the individual level up to the level of nation states,” Rawles wrote on his blog in the initial American Redoubt essay. “Giordano Bruno identified a trend that has been developing informally for many years: A conscious retrenchment into safe haven states. I strongly recommend this amalgamation, and that it be formalized. I’m calling it The American Redoubt. I further recommend Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington for the réduit. Some might call it a conglomeration, but I like to call it an amalgamation, since that evokes silver. And it will be a Biblically sound and Constitutionally sound silver local currency that will give it unity.”

Rawles is quick to point out in his essay that the force behind the movement is religious separatism, not racism.

“I am a separatist, but on religious lines, not racial ones. I have made it abundantly clear throughout the course of my writings that I am an anti-racist. Christians of all races are welcome to be my neighbors. I also welcome Orthodox Jews and Messianic Jews, because we share the same moral framework,” Rawles wrote. “In calamitous times, with a few exceptions, it will only be the God fearing that will continue to be law abiding. Choose your locale wisely. I can also forthrightly state that I have more in common with Orthodox Jews and Messianic Jews than I do with atheist Libertarians. I’m a white guy. But I have much more in common with black Baptists or Chinese Lutherans than I do with white Buddhists or white New Age crystal channelers.”

Much of the initial fuel firing Redoubt stemmed from the fear that then-President Barack Obama would destroy the Second Amendment, making it difficult — if not impossible — for gun-toting “patriots” to bear arms. The idea was a shot to the heart for libertarians, who make up a large portion of the Redoubt movement — and an affront to their personal liberties.

“I’m often asked why I make such a ‘big deal’ about choosing conservative Christians, Messianic Jews, or Orthodox Jews for neighbors,” Rawles told Los Angeles Times reporter Kim Murphy in 2013. “The plain truth is that in a societal collapse there will be a veritable vacuum of law enforcement. In such times, with a few exceptions, it will only be the God-fearing that will continue to be law-abiding. Choose your neighborhood wisely.”

Curiously, though, the prepper movement has continued to grow under Trump’s tenure, without an outright campaign against the Second Amendment, and as he sings the National Rifle Association’s praises.

Rawles, who states on his website that he receives over 200 emails daily, did not answer the Planet’s requests for an interview.

Thanks to Redoubt, hordes of conservative and libertarian Christians and Jews focused on surviving disasters have made their way to, and dropped tons of money on, Wyoming.

The number of preppers who have moved to the Redoubt areas are estimated to be somewhere between the hundreds and the thousands. Nobody knows for sure — the community isn’t exactly forthcoming with information, nor is there any clear method to keep tally.

Whatever the number, if there’s a place preppers are welcome by the general public, it is probably Wyoming.

In 2012, the Wyoming House advanced a bill aiming to create a task force to study and prepare for potential catastrophes, much to the amusement of the rest of the nation. 

Coined as House Bill 85, the bill was sponsored by Representative David R. Miller — a Republican — and an early version of the bill asked for $16,000 to convene a task force to “examine conditions under which Wyoming would need to implement its own military draft, raise a standing army, and acquire strike aircraft and an aircraft carrier.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room today who would come up here and say that this country is in good shape, that the world is stable and in good shape — because that is clearly not the case,” state Rep. Lorraine Quarberg, R-Thermopolis, told news outlets. “To put your head in the sand and think that nothing bad’s going to happen, and that we have no obligation to the citizens of the state of Wyoming to at least have the discussion, is not healthy.”

The bill was shot down in the senate, but not before it made headlines across the nation and coined the idea that Wyoming could become the nation’s first “prepper state.”

Ed Peden, who is credited along with his wife as the founders of the reclaimed missle silo movement, poses inside his bunker.
“As a historian, I’ve studied human history and I am concerned about the future may hold for us, sad to say.”

The Prepper Next Door

70-year-old Edward Peden and his wife, Dianna Ricke-Peden, have lived in a decommissioned Atlas E missile base outside Topeka, Kansas since 1994.

“We bought the property about 35 years ago,” Ed said. “At that time, Reagan was president and he was talking about the Evil Empire. I had two young daughter and was thinking nuclear exchange really could happen.”

Armed with concern for the safety of his family and a solid knowledge of Cold War missile bunkers — Ed is a retired history teacher and historian — led to the purchase of the abandoned Atlas E base and life in the  20,000-foot reclaimed missile silo.

“The room I’m sitting in now had 8.5 feet of water in it [when we bought the property],” Ed said. “It was a mess – we had to paint it, dry it and clean it up, but this is a special hardened structure. It’s meant to withstand anything.”

Built in 1959 and decommissioned in 1964, the Atlas E bunker was dubbed by the Pedens as “Subterra.” It has 18-inch-thich concrete walls – blast-proof, of course – and an 8-foot tall steel and barbed-wire perimeter fence and security cameras to guard the perimeter. It is situated in the midst of 34 pastoral Kansas acres and is buried three feet below the earth.

While Subterra is incredibly functional and basically indestructible, it’s hardly your typical prepper bunker. The interior is decorated with brightly-colored art and religious artifacts from around the world, and the turrets and the folksy signs make the property feel like a medieval castle than a prepper bunker.

“We’re promoting peaceful existence. We are not reacting out of fear,” Ed said.

The couple hardly fit the stereotype of the camo-sporting survivalists, either. Ed and Dianna seem more interested in sustainability than stocking weapons, and the couple has been known to hold drum circles and Ayahuasca ceremonies at their underground home.

“We think the only hope of survival is nurturing loving attitudes. Love is the only engine of survival and if we don’t get that right we’re really going to be in trouble,” Ed said.

That’s especially true these days, Ed said.

“As a historian, I’ve studied human history and I am concerned about the future may hold for us, sad to say,” Ed said.

The Pedens are widely considered the founders of the reclaimed missile silo movement. Subterra was the first public bunker project, and it sparked a wider interest in the idea of rehabbing missile silos as housing.

For over two decades, the Pedens have been running a real estate business — 20th Century Castles — and helping interested buyers find missile silos of their own.

It’s not an easy task for buyers or sellers, Ed said. Inventory is limited — after all, the government only built a limited number of these properties — and banks won’t touch the financing.

“Our inventory is very low,” Ed said. “Most of these sites we’ve sold are gone into other hands. There were times when we had 20 or even 25 properties, so they’re being picked up and realizing what a buy these properties are.”

The price has also skyrocketed over the last couple of decades. Subterra was purchased for around $40,000, but these days reclaimed missile silos are out of reach for most buyers.

“It’s changed over the years – in the beginning there were just common people,” Ed said, “We worked with a lot of people who were retiring — who wanted a project and wanted to buy a bunker – but the middle class has now been priced out. It’s almost becoming an ultra-rich elite market.”

There has also been an uptick in people buying bunkers in the southern hemisphere, Ed said, a trend that he finds concerning.

“Some people are locating properties in the southern areas, and it worries me to know some of that is happening. A lot of people in the know are positioning themselves below the equator,” he said.

But whether they’re buying in Kansas, Wyoming or one of the other Redoubt areas, one thing is for sure: After Trump was elected, the interest in bunkers has grown.

“There is more interest after Trump’s election – he’s like a loose cannon,” Ed said. “I think he is a pathological liar and is at the helm of the country. I think there’s so much instability in the country that’s growing with Trump at the helm.”

Ed said he thinks a lot of people are concerned these days — a phenomenon no one really expected to happen — but made it clear that surviving isn’t about acting out of fear. It’s only going to work, and life is only going to continue, if we’re promoting a peaceful existence, Ed said.

“My hope is that we can somehow make a shift. I’m not very optimistic – I’m hopeful,” Ed said.

The Rise of Commercial Prepping

While there are preppers ready to drop millions on a property, securing a bunker isn’t going to cut it.

One must also track down a cache of medical supplies, dehydrated food and secure water purification methods to effectively prepare for the downfall of society. Foraging, gardening and medical care are all basic skills necessary for one to survive a major disaster.

It’s also important to have some technical knowledge. One is bound to be required to troubleshoot gadgets, even in a hidden bunker, and without some baseline knowledge things could get pretty hairy. Oh, and don’t forget sewing. Someone’s got to clothe the survivors.

But not all preppers are capable of sewing hems or foraging for food when the rations run out, so they’re looking for easier ways to stock supplies and prepare for the worst in the comfort of their bunkers instead. Luckily, backup is out there.  

As the prepper population has grown, so have the companies hawking provisions to them.

One of those companies, Food4Patriots, sells pre-packaged kits filled with dehydrated survival food packed in waterproof totes, making them an easy sell for those bunker shelves.

According to Food4Patriots, their items can last up to last 25 years, making the product a rational — albeit pricy — investment.

“More than one in five Americans say they believe the world will end during their lifetime,” Allen Baler, a Food4Patriots spokesperson, told Metro in 2014.

“When we in the emergency business talk about these things, we’re not trying to be fearmongers,” Baler said. “Instead, we’re communicating facts that will hopefully sink in and cause people to take preparedness seriously.”

The Food4Patriots kits offer fares like apple orchard oatmeal and powdered milk. They’re available in a 72-hour kit for $27; a 4-week kit for $197; or a 3-month kit for $497. That’s a hefty price for food one may never need to use, but when you’re shelling out $500,000 on a bunker, what’s another $500 for mixed fruit with a 25-year shelf life?

The company offers a 100 percent money-back guarantee on their products, and they up the ante to 300 percent money-back guarantee if the food is opened and found to be unusable.

While a 300 percent return policy may seem a bit obscene, it’s likely a good gamble for the company considering the difficulty one might have in returning spoiled items from a bunker in the middle of Wyoming.

Another company, SHTF Survival, offers a monthly “mystery” survival subscription box filled with what they call the best survival gear on the planet. The contents of the box can range from fire starters, multi-use tools, emergency prep and survival gear to anything else one’s mind could conjure up.

The boxes range in price from $19.99 a month to $89.99 a month, a concept – and price point – that seems absurd to Dylan.

Wyoming’s Billionaire Land Grab

Given the technical knowledge necessary for proper prepping, it’s interesting that the movement has seeped into nearly all facets of American society, including the billionaires.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, told the New Yorker earlier this year that he estimated that more than half of Silicon Valley billionaires have begun preparing for a catastrophic doomsday event.

Hoffman said that about 50 percent of Silicon Valley billionaires had bought some level of “apocalypse insurance” — meaning an underground bunker or some variation of it – an idea supported by Forbes reporter Jim Dobson, who said in a June interview that lots of billionaires have private planes “ready to depart at a moment’s notice.”

According to Dobson, they own motorcycles, weaponry and generators — but none of the billionaires will say why exactly they’re stockpiling enough stuff for a small army. If it’s for prepping, these guys certainly aren’t up front about it.

But while we know these billionaires are buying up large swaths of the nation’s land, it’s not clear what they’re doing with it. Mega-rich media mogul Ted Turner owns 2 million acres across Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and South Dakota, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon and the Washington Post has snatched up some 400,000 acres in Texas.

Even Bill Gates is getting in on the rural land grab. The billionaire recently purchased about 28,000 acres in Arizona and created his own city called Belmont.

“Belmont will create a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs,” the press release stated. “Belmont will transform a raw, blank land into a futuristic city built around a flexible infrastructure model.”

Do a little digging and you’ll find plenty more.

One of the billionaires investing in Wyoming land is Philip Anschutz, an entrepreneur and drilling magnate. He’s ranked by Forbes as the 38th richest person in the U.S., worth an estimated $12.5 billion and has long had ties with the state of Wyoming.

Anschutz’s fortune began to rack up in the early ‘60s after he purchased his father’s company, Circle A Drilling. The move earned the younger Anschutz large returns in Wyoming, which he invested in oil, railroads, telecom, real estate and entertainment.

These days, Anschutz owns the L.A. Kings hockey team, part of the L.A. Lakers and — interestingly enough — a whole lot of land in Carbon County.

Altogether, Anschutz owns about 434,000 acres of land across the state of Wyoming, and about 300,000 acres or so is at his Overland Trail Ranch, smack-dab in the middle of Carbon County. Overland Trail is made up of a mix of federal, state and private lands, and the size of the property is comparable to the city of Los Angeles.

Anschutz has said in numerous interviews that he plans to build the biggest wind farm on the plot alongside the cattle he ranches. The wind farm will help power California, he’s said.

As with Turner, Bezos and the other billionaire landowners, Anschutz has never specifically said he’s preparing for doomsday out at his Wyoming ranch, but the signs certainly seem to point in that direction.

In addition to his wide investment portfolio, Anschutz is also a major player in conservative politics, fitting the mold of the ideal American Redoubt follower. He has invested and owns a few right-wing media outlets, and as of early 2017 he’d given at least $1.8 million to Republican election campaigns across the country.

The prepper sites across the Internet consistently buzz with stories of Anschutz’s plans, and rumor has it he’s prepared for just about anything.

Prepping on a Budget

In reality, the percentage of preppers able to drop several million on reclaimed bunkers falls in the minority. So what are the regular folks doing to prepare for the collapse of civilization? Well, they’re getting a little more innovative with their preparations.

Survivalist 101 suggests that preppers cut their entertainment budgets and put away $200 to $300 a month to purchase adequate amounts of food, water, light sources like LED flashlights, medical supplies, and household and hygiene supplies.

With a little research, or perhaps a little innovation, those costs can be cut down exponentially or ruled out completely.

“Most people aren’t meant to be preppers,” Frank*, a recent prepper convert, said. “Most people can’t even figure out how to survive with the tools they got out there. It’s work. It’s called prepping for a reason. Being prepared isn’t just about supplies. It’s about being mentally prepared to make it through.”

Ultimately the proper training and practice – not food rations, bunkers or sprawling ranches – will be what makes the difference between a prepper’s life or death, according to Frank.

As former military, Frank doesn’t think it’s necessary to invest his life’s savings into commercial products. He prefers to spend his time and energy training to be as industrious as possible. He can build his own shelter in a pinch, and has figured out how to grow his own food and forage for food safely.

Believe it or not, foraging for edible plants can be pretty darn tricky – the safe and poisonous varieties often look eerily similar – and it’s important to be able to tell the difference if you need to, Frank said.

“It’s not as easy as you’d think,” Frank said. “Wild carrots can look like poisonous hemlock and it’s a mistake you really don’t want to make. Not if you want to keep yourself alive.”

In addition to those botany lessons, Frank has also spent his time stowing vans and RVs around rural Wyoming and Idaho over the last few months.

He can’t afford an underground bunker or a reclaimed missile silo, so he buys the vehicles as cheaply as possible or does labor for trade. He then drops them into the strategic – and remote – areas he’s deemed least likely to be the target of political or nuclear chaos.

Should all hell break loose, Frank plans to use the vans as living spaces until it’s an all clear to return to normal life — if and when that happens.

Survival of the Fittest

Ultimately, that’s what all of the preppers say this whole thing is about. Whether it’s in a bunker, an RV or a sprawling Wyoming ranch, the survivalists who have flocked to Redoubt are preparing themselves for the worst and hoping for the best.

If the bomb drops, the food chain collapses or Wall Street goes belly up, Frank, Dylan and their cohorts just want to make it through the storm and return to a normal life.

If they have to live in a missile silo and forage for wild carrots for that to happen, well … they’re ready for it. PJH

Caption 2: A map of the American Redoubt promise land.
The political migration movement proposes the area outlined above as a safe space for conservative, libertarian-inclined Christians and Jews, based on its low population density and distance from potential natural disasters.

 

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