MATHIAS, WEST VIRGINIA – A narrow, worn track close to West Virginia’s Appalachian foothills leads to a camp in the woods where a group of U.S. survivalists began preparing for the collapse of civilization long before the arrival of the new coronavirus.
Boxes full of family-size cans of food, bags of freeze-dried victuals that can last up to 25 years, rice, flour — before panic buying emptied shelves across the country, the survivalists’ provisions were already neatly stacked up in a bunker made of reinforced concrete and dug a meter into the ground.
Ever-ready, they even have ample supplies of two of the most sought-after commodities in the jittery country: toilet paper and face masks.
“It’s worth a lot of money now!” joked Steve Rene as he presented the 100-acre (40-hectare) site, which he manages as though it were a vacation camp — which it kind of is.
The Fortitude Ranch’s motto embraces both end times and normal times: “Prepare for the worst … enjoy the present!” Members have up to two weeks each year to revel in this rural retreat, enjoying nature, hiking or fishing for trout in the appropriately named Lost River.
For those in the often-mocked survivalist community, this is quickly becoming their “I told you so” moment, though many resist saying that, even if it is in the back of their mind. What they hope is that they will finally be taken seriously and that more people will follow their lead.
“We’re not laughing. We’re not saying, ‘I told you so’ when people are out there fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizers,” said Paul Buescher, one of 32 members of a northeastern Ohio group who share a farm packed with enough canned and dehydrated food and water to last for years. He is now getting calls all day long asking for advice.
Survival supply stores can’t keep up with the demand for food kits and medical supplies.
“Every single business that has to do with emergency preparedness is overloaded,” said John Ramey, founder of a Colorado-based prepper website called The Prepared.
“The vast majority of this is ‘beans and Band-Aids,’ not ‘bullets and bunkers,'” he added.
Rene, the manager of the Fortitude Ranch’s West Virginia site — there is another branch in Colorado — tries to sweep away the cliches surrounding survivalists, also known as “preppers” for their constant doomsday preparations.
“It’s not a bunch of crazy people with this idea that tomorrow the world ends,” he said.
War, uprising, pandemic
“We’re not militaristic. We have no ties with militias, anything like that,” Rene insisted, although his past military service — he served in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991 — is evident from the impeccably ironed brown shirt he wears.
Nevertheless, there are lookout posts on all four corners of the property, and there is a high-caliber rifle, capable of stopping an armored vehicle, in the ranch’s living room to show would-be recruits just how seriously the members take this enterprise.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” said the manager, standing among bare early spring trees.
More than foreign invaders, the survivalists view their main threat as fellow Americans rushing out to steal their provisions if public order collapses as a result of a nuclear or biological weapons strike, an economic implosion, a political uprising, a pandemic or a mix of any of the above.
“Obviously that’s not very likely, but the possibility exists,” said Rene.
“If you’re not prepared in some way, you have just nowhere to go, nothing to do. Everybody scrambles, and lots of things get out of hand.”
A committee of five people, including Rene, would decide in an emergency whether to declare a “catastrophe scenario,” in which case all the members would be invited to retire to the barricaded camp, after which entry would only be permitted upon production of a password.
In the case of an epidemic, the temperature of each new arrival would be monitored with a no-contact thermometer before they could enter to enjoy free access to a self-sustaining ecosystem that includes wells, solar panels, radio equipment, greenhouses, locally sourced chickens, goats and cows, and a ditch where possible contaminated bodies can be incinerated.
The creator of the Fortitude Ranch franchise, Drew Miller, is a former military intelligence expert and Harvard graduate who hopes to establish a dozen such retreats across the United States.
As opposed to the “luxury bunkers” that the superrich are building, the entrepreneur is aiming clearly at the middle-class market. People pay at least $1,000 per year, per person, for the basic package: a berth in a bunker dormitory.
“It’s like a life insurance policy that actually protects your life, rather than a life insurance policy that pays to bury you,” said Rene, who noted that his site has the capacity to house up to 500 people in different buildings spread across the property, which is about a two-hour drive from the national capital, Washington.
Rene has been getting more inquiries and emails as the coronavirus spreads across the country. Worried people who already had the idea of survivalism “at the back of their mind” are now seeing “there can be a need,” the former soldier said.
A laptop open next to him showed an online map displaying the spread of the virus in real time.
There were no red dots in the vicinity of the survivalists’ ranch — as of Monday, West Virginia was the last state in America not to have declared any cases of the coronavirus disease that has shut down so much of the world.