The hairs on your arm will stand up,
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
Will you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter's ground?
— Johnny Cash, 2002
On a chilly November day, I walk through a nondescript wooded area about an hour west of Charlotte. The destination is a secret underground bunker. I've been led here by Ava, a 38-year-old marketing professional. She and her husband Jim purchased the rural property two years ago and installed the steel structure on it. It's about the size of a single-wide trailer. The front section is stocked with canned goods and drums of water. The back is outfitted with bunk beds. I ask Ava how long she could stay in here without coming up for air. "As long as it takes," she replies.
Ava and Jim are part of a network of Charlotte-area people known as "preppers" — survivalists who are preparing for a natural disaster or other doomsday scenario, such as the coming Apocalypse, if you happen to buy into those vague Mayan prophesies that tell us the world will be kaput come Dec. 21.
The Prepping Movement has become increasingly popular in Charlotte and elsewhere. Across the metro area, groups meet to share survival knowledge, test their skills in the wilderness, and build bunkers like Jim and Ava's, to house them in case of complete societal collapse. Local preppers even have a convention, Charlotte PrepCon, which held its third event last month in Cornelius. Most of them find each other through websites like MeetUp or ads on Craigslist. They operate in as much secrecy as possible. Few will share their real names and photos are prohibited in their circles.
I first became aware of the prepping phenomenon back in 2010, when several women in my office began talking about their chickens. I was confused. These ladies didn't live on farms; they lived in Plaza Midwood. Why the hell was raising live chickens in the middle of a city suddenly in vogue?
That same year, my husband and I received invitations to attend tactical firearms training in a wooded area near the Kings Mountain battleground. The training wasn't led by security experts, just average guys we knew. I wondered why anyone not involved in the armed services would want to spend their Saturdays training for a non-existent battle. I received my answer at the top of our next invitation: The words "When the shit hits the fan, what will you do?" were superimposed over an image of the Mayan calendar. They were preparing for the apocalypse.
"I know it sounds crazy, but we live in unstable times," says Josh, the 36-year-old sales executive who had set up the shooting course. "Look what's happening all over the world: Rebellions, coups, food shortages, no clean water. America can't stay insulated from this stuff forever, and our leadership in Washington makes me nervous."
The election and re-election of President Obama seems to have put many of these preppers on edge, or at least inspired them to stock up on guns and ammo, for fear the second amendment will suddenly be outlawed. Mentioning Obama in the group of shooters results in long-winded endorsements of both Ron Paul and anarchy. Some others I tried to speak to for this article replied with religious rants and scripture.
I expected to find those kinds of political and religious extremists at the center of the prepping movement, but what surprised me was the large number of young, professional, rational people investing their time and money into this.
"I think what we're experiencing is a kind of generational panic attack," Neil Strauss, the former Option, Rolling Stone and New York Times writer who penned the 2009 survivalist guide Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, told Newsweek. "We were born in a good time. We experienced booming technology and rising stock prices. And then all of a sudden, 9/11 happened, Katrina happened, the economy plunged. And it's like the rug being pulled out from under our feet."
Anita, age 35, jumped on board the prepping wagon very recently with her fiancé. They've stocked a small storage facility behind their home on the east side of Charlotte and undergone firearms training. Anita says they became motivated to do this when they heard acquaintances talk about preparations they were making. "At first I thought they sounded insane," Anita says, "but then I decided I don't want to be forced to depend on anyone else for my family's survival. I'm not saying I think anything is going to happen on December 21st, but that date is out there and you never know. Right now, I feel kinda silly buying Christmas presents. It seems frivolous."
Tell that to the Charlotte PrepCon attendees who were shopping vendors for holiday favorites like bags of grain, essential oils and crank radios. The market was set up at the Grace Covenant Church on Statesville Road in Cornelius, where the shoppers could also attend panels and breakout sessions with prepping experts. Topics ranged from canning and preserving foods to tyranny and martial law. Apparently, there are many aspects to consider when prepping for Armageddon.
Charlotte conservative media personality Vince Coakley kicked off the convention, stating that power is no longer with the states or people, it's with the federal government. To hear him talk, it sounds like everyone's preparing for some sort of revolt.
"We're preparing for anything," says 34-year-old prepper Jason. "This is the reason a lot of preppers talk about the Zombie Apocalypse. It's not that anyone believes zombies are going to happen, but if you are prepared for that, you are prepared for anything!"
Despite living downtown Jason has a hidden pen where he raises rabbits for food. He says he's stocked enough for his family and neighbors to survive a short-term crisis. He's even marked out a spot on his rooftop to protect his building, sniper-style. He advises prepping novices to ignore the hype. "It's easy to get caught up in the 'end of the world' scenarios. Realize that the world is not going to end anytime soon. Prepare for the most probable scenarios first."
I was disappointed to hear that no one considered zombies a probable scenario. Instead, Jason considers long-term loss of power from a major storm to be the most likely circumstance.
Chris, a 44-year-old who has been prepping for 15 years, thinks a more major event is imminent. "I think we will face an economic collapse that destroys our supply chain infrastructure," he says.
Experts estimate that only about 7 percent of the U.S. population is prepared for a breakdown in our food supply chain, which relies heavily on trucks. Most grocery stores do not carry back stock. They have only what is on their shelves and order more as it sells out. In the event that suppliers' trucks couldn't reach them, grocery stores' food supplies would be gone in a matter of days. As Chris puts it, "It would be like Black Friday times a thousand."
As I consider these facts, suddenly the preppers don't seem crazy — the other 93 percent of us do.
Sociologists say that a preoccupation with survival in the modern first-world is an indicator of social anxiety. For religious and political zealots, that anxiety comes from their particular ideology not being in power. I would guess that for the younger, more rational-thinking preppers, the anxiety probably stems from realizing how dependent we are on a very precarious system for obtaining our basic human needs.
Most of us don't know how to farm or prepare a freshly killed animal. Knitting blankets and sewing clothes are skills I passed on learning in favor of graphic design and digital photography. Perhaps my generation is beginning to realize our grandparents' beloved pastimes are actually post-apocalyptic survival skills, and those of us who failed to obtain them are at the mercy of nature. We have no control if the system comes crashing down, and lately that system doesn't feel so stable.
So, what's a newly-aware urbanite to do in the event he or she can no longer make a run to the local Harris Teeter?
Charles, 52, who teaches survival classes to a group of 40 people, says our No. 1 priority should be learning how to grow and capture our own food. He says that although storing food, medicine and fuel is essential, our supplies will run out faster than we think and we need to know how to supplement them.
Charles suggests people should join prepper groups, read books or use Internet tutorials. His group practices mock survival scenarios about once every three months. They're open to the public and you can join them by signing up at ncprepared.webs.com.
What if we truly only have until Dec. 21?
"Get together the basics immediately, and learn to fish and trap," Charles says. "Line fishing and trapping expend very little energy." Also, "the city is overrun with squirrels. You can eat forever off all these squirrels and no one will miss them."
The thought of being forced to eat a squirrel has about as much appeal to me as dying in a zombie attack. This possibility alone motivates me to take up gardening instead.
Whether you're prepping for a general sense of control or because you're convinced the end is nigh, a focus on self-reliance isn't a bad thing. And even though we'll probably wake up to sunny skies and mall traffic on December 22 — in which case this actually will not be "The Last Issue" of Creative Loafing — it is always smart to have a backup plan.