Chapter 1: The Dread Merchants: Selling Safe Space 1 The Dread Merchants: Selling Safe Space
“The disaster takes care of everything.”
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
I made my way from Salt Lake City to South Dakota in 2017 at the tail end of one the coldest winters in a decade. In Wyoming, a snowstorm shut down Interstate 80, forcing me onto backroads where I vied with 18 wheelers for space on the ice-crusted asphalt. I almost turned back more than once, but the snow eventually receded, and rime gave way to pasture. I made it to Edgemont, a sleepy town of just under eight hundred people, only half a day behind schedule. I was finally within reach of what promised to be the largest community of doomsday preppers on Earth: the xPoint.
I drove on from Edgemont toward the abandoned United States Army Black Hills Ordnance Depot in Fall River County, a stone’s throw from both Nebraska and Wyoming. Ahead, an expansive horizon slowly shifted into a warm gradient of light sliding under a flat seam of cloud. Squinting under the sun visor, I veered onto Fort Igloo Road, a remote track leading to the base. The pavement rapidly broke down as it cut in between crumbling brick chimneys, their long shadows stretching over the landscape. I crept between hillsides over a dilapidated railway bridge and past half-buried monster truck tires pinioned with “No Trespassing” signs flanking a small guard shack with rock-shattered windows.
I pulled off the road near a row of derelict houses and walked through a field of broken glass to squeeze past a door hanging off its hinges. Inside, mushrooms grew from rotting floorboards covered in a thick layer of shit. The roof was a sagging mess. There were racks of something slumped in the back of the room, but to investigate might have meant falling through the floor. Instead, I tightrope-walked across the structural support beams and peeked into the next room. It was more of the same. I wondered if I’d taken the wrong road, and made my way back to the car.
As the lane sloped into a valley, the span of the property came into breathtaking view. An expanse of eighteen square miles, or nearly three-quarters the size of Manhattan, was dotted with regularly spaced bunkers set out along an orderly road grid; it was easy to imagine a city blooming here. Robert Vicino, the California developer who was interested in Burlington, and the CEO of the Vivos Group, was behind the xPoint. He claimed there was space for ten thousand families. Yet as I scoped the site, no movement could be seen for miles. The emptiness relieved a tension that had accumulated in my shoulders on the drive up: after all, I was about to go off-grid with hundreds of heavily armed doomsday preppers for the better part of a week.
Construction had begun on the Black Hills Ordnance Depot in 1942. By the summer of that year there were six thousand people employed there, completely transforming the nearby towns of Edgemont and Hot Springs.2
The depot’s original function was to store munitions for the war effort. Arms and ammunition were packed into 575 semisubterranean reinforced concrete bunkers that the military personnel stationed there and called “Igloos”—hence, Fort Igloo Road. The depot served its function during and after World War II, but by 1967 the base had begun a slow slide into dereliction. The site’s remoteness and the architectural resilience of the abandoned bunkers are what made it a perfect site for the xPoint, the place, in Vicino’s mind’s eye, where our species would crawl out of the postapocalyptic ashes to start again.
I’d met with Robert Vicino at a Starbucks near his house in Del Mar, California, a few months earlier. The shopping center that included the coffee shop was the antithesis of a survival community: a row of clean eggshell-colored stucco buildings with outdoor vapor misters and a glossy asphalt parking lot. Yet as I pulled in for our meeting, I was greeted by two incinerated vehicle shells next to a bank cash machine. It’s the kind of thing you see often in Southern California: traces of inexplicable violence intruding onto the movie set wealthy people live in. Vicino was staring at the scene from his Lexus sport utility vehicle (SUV). Catching sight of me, he waved me over and said, “Give me your camera, I’ll take a photo of the future for you.”
As we walked in from the car park, Vicino implored me to make the trip to South Dakota to see “the point from which humanity will arise after the great calamity.” He was hosting the first annual xFest, a weeklong festival designed to pull doomsday preppers from all over the world together onto this sprawling treeless prairie, which he claimed was one of the safest places on Earth, being “high, dry, and far away from all known targets and metro areas.” Vicino had chosen the site well. A map produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), compiling data from all federally declared disasters between 1964 and 2003, made it clear that southwest South Dakota is one of the least disaster-prone places in the United States. Nestled among half a dozen federally protected wilderness areas that have checked population growth in the area, it’s also not far from geothermal hot springs, Mount Rushmore, and the Old West tourist town of Deadwood: recreational opportunities before the fall of civilization.
This wasn’t the only development by the Vivos Group. He explained that he was building underground shelters all over the world. He had a fully occupied bunker in Indiana and was negotiating deals for bunkers in Germany and Seoul, in addition to the Burlington Bunker in England.
At Starbucks, Vicino put on a big personality to match his six-foot-eight stature. He picked up other people’s babies, joshed the teenager bagging bagels with tongs, and ogled every woman who passed by, rating them “a seven,” “a two,” “a nine.” He bought me lunch, and as we settled into some chairs outside, he wasted no time in getting down to brass tacks.
“What do you know about Planet X, Brad? Nibiru?” Vicino said, leaning back with expansive authority.
“Can’t say I’ve heard of it.”
He slammed forward in his chair. “Wowee, you’re a researcher and you don’t know about Nibiru? Looks like you need to go back to school.”
Planet X, Vicino told me, was discovered by the NASA Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) telescope in 1983. Nibiru, he continued, passed the Earth every thirty-six hundred years, and when it did it caused a pole shift—meaning that the magnetic poles of Earth would physically move, creating a three-thousand-mile-high tidal wave that would “reset” the planet.
He arched his eyebrows. “So. Noah’s Flood. Obviously. That’s why my bunkers can be submerged in two hundred feet of water.”
Deluged in Vicino’s apocalyptic sales patter, I hesitated. He used the opportunity to pick up my voice recorder and move it nearer to his chair. “You’re not really recording this right, you need to get closer.”
He took a deep breath and carried on. “People can sense the end coming, so the world is in social meltdown. Did you know a third of Swedish women have been raped by Muslims? It’s a mess out there.… For all we know there’s a comet coming our way and the government is ready but they’re not going to protect us. You look at the dinosaurs, they got hit by a comet and what life survived that event? The life that went underground, Brad. The bunkers I’m building are an epic humanitarian project.”
The conversation—or, rather, monologue—continued in this stream-of-consciousness vein for nearly three hours, during which time I had trouble figuring out what the story was there. It was hard to know what to ask Vicino that would clarify the parts of his narrative that seemed off-kilter.
One thing, though, was clear. In building bunkers, stocking them with food and supplies, and filling them with people, Vicino was acting on his beliefs. Evocatively portraying the bunkers at xPoint, the other, more polished, site in Indiana, as ships and arks, he made clear that escaping into the Earth would buy humanity the time we needed to start again. If we couldn’t stall the collapse of the world, or leave it, burrowing into it might be the next-best thing.
“We can’t build a celestial ark like Elon Musk,” Vicino told me. “We can’t leave Earth, so we’re going to go into the Earth. I’m building a spaceship in the Earth. Whether or not people want to board that ship is a choice they’re going to have to make.”
I asked him about his selection process for xPoint, and whether economic considerations overrode everything else, if only those who could afford to survive should survive. Vicino’s response was blunt. “Do you mean will the survivors survive because they were successful? Sure they will. Who do you think the government is putting in their bunkers? The homeless? The criminals? The bad apples? No, Brad, they’re putting their most intelligent, successful, necessary, and reliable people in there. In the private sector, those people are wealthy.”
Vicino was hardly alone in his attitude. It was, after all, one held by many Americans, one that had been forged in an age of wealth and excess, where hard work was rewarded. Now speculators like Vicino were using this narrative to justify their own profit-making activities. If the government could do it, he reasoned, so could he; as far as his bunkers were concerned, it was the survival of the richest.
Vicino himself was doing well from it. I managed to gather that the bunkers at xPoint were owned by a ranching company who bought them from the US government as part of a plan to graze cattle on the land. Vicino negotiated with the ranchers to be able to offer ninety-nine-year leases on the bunkers, profits from which he would share with them, without affecting their ability to use the land. Essentially, he was leasing the land and then subleasing it to preppers. I quickly calculated that even at the introductory price of $25,000, if he leased all the bunkers in xPoint, Vicino could rake in more than $14 million. Since bunker owners are meant, and indeed desire, to be self-sufficient, operating costs are low. The crucial factor in getting that self-sufficient community up and running, Vicino explained, wasn’t technical or logistical; rather, it was about engineering the right kind of community.
“Tolerance is the key to survival, Brad. We have to fill the bunker with tolerant people. Anyone intolerant will not have a place in the community,” he said, without a hint of irony.
In preparation for our meeting, I’d scrolled through the promotional material for xPoint on the Vivos website. Vicino suggested there that once you bought one of his bunkers, “built to withstand the forces and effects of virtually all threats,” you could fill it with an “ample supply of food, water, fuel, medicines, clothing, air filtration, and security to ride out an event.” Thus equipped, and surrounded by “a community of like-minded individuals,” you could survive for weeks, months, and even years in the facility, until the time came to re-emerge.
The Vivos website provides a handy—and remarkably specific—timeline of what will be happening aboveground or outside the blast door in the “days following the event”: on day three you can expect anarchy, and by day ten vigilante gangs; by day twenty-one people are resorting to cannibalism. Things have calmed down a bit by day 365, which is labeled the “Restart,” when the lucky residents of xPoint emerge into the postapocalyptic world—or PAW, in doomsday prepper parlance.
The website looked pretty slick, but there was no guarantee of success at xPoint, and I knew Vicino had a couple of false starts under his belt. Back in 2010, he announced he was building a thirteen-thousand-square-foot bunker in the Mojave Desert, inside a Cold War–era hardened-concrete telephone routing station. It was meant to accommodate 132 people. The buy-in was $50,000 each. Vicino had signed up a number of potential residents, including two Californians—Steve Kramer, a fifty-five-year-old respiratory therapist from San Pedro, and Jason Hodge, a labor union organizer in Barstow.3
Vicino told me he scrapped the project when the location was revealed by the LA Times
, rendering it a potential target during the end times.
In 2013, Vicino then announced he was building a sixty-thousand-square-foot, five-thousand-person bunker in Atchison, Kansas, in an old salt quarry that he would fill with RVs around a public space that would include an indoor golf course and skateboard park. Some would-be residents signed up before Vicino canceled the plan because he said the bunker didn’t feel safe, an idea that was laughed off by Jacque Pregont, president of Atchison’s Chamber of Commerce, in an interview with CNBC, where she said that there are several businesses operating in other parts of the mines, all of which were “very safe,” and that the Vivos project simply had difficulty attracting interest.4
At another proposed Vivos development in Seoul, called Vivos Asiana, Vicino intended to store the blood of every person in South Korea. In what seemed to me a strange mixture of get-up-and-go and complete fantasy that can be characteristic of a certain strand of prepping, he proposed that the project would be funded by Samsung and Asiana Airlines. The idea, as he explained it to me, would be to “collect three drops of blood from every person in the country, which we can store in the bunker. What we will have then is essentially the entire genome of all of South Korea. People who can’t afford space in the bunker will be able to be reincarnated through cloning later.” I suppose those corporations might see holding that data as a fine investment opportunity, though in the context of the Chinese surveillance state collecting biometric data, including DNA and blood, from the minority Muslim Uyghur population, to track and control them, it takes on a more ominous tone. I couldn’t imagine South Koreans consenting to this en masse.
Vicino’s bunker in Germany—Vivos Europa One—was on hold while they scoped out a new business model, after failing to attract much interest from individual preppers. “We’re looking at a corporate model, renting it out to BMW or Mercedes so they can shelter the entire executive staff in there,” Vicino said. “We got some bad press out there with people saying the fire marshal wasn’t going to let us build it, but we’re just talking about installing some sprinklers—this is nothing on a one-hundred-million-dollar project.”
Like the blood vials he was going to store in Vivos Asiana, this seemed less than likely. Not that the media seemed to care; they kept running stories as long as Vicino-supplied pithy acerbic quotes and convincing photographlike CGI renderings of the facility.
Following my chat with Vicino, I was sitting in the Starbucks parking lot scrolling through the Vivos website, trying to separate the present from the projected, when I remembered that my brother Pip, a contractor, was in the middle of building a walk-in closet that doubled as a panic room for a client about an hour from Del Mar. When I called him to chat about it, Pip wasn’t at all surprised by the popularity of the xPoint bunkers and told me that his clients were increasingly asking for “hardened” elements in the homes he was building. He was drawing up plans for air filtration systems or secret compartments in the same way that he installed fireplaces and granite countertops. Some clients even wanted rooms that could shield possessions from an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP—a burst of gamma rays from a solar flare or nuclear explosion that could disrupt or destroy electronic equipment. Pip invited me to come and see the panic room he was working on and meet the owner, a guy called Rogan.
The house was in a dusty future suburb being scraped out among the granite boulders and baking desert sagebrush of San Diego County. The panic room, square in the middle of the house, measured twenty-six by sixteen feet and was ringed by fire-resistant cinder blocks filled with poured concrete. Entry to the room was through a one-foot-thick fireproof door with two locks: one with an electronic keypad and one with a mechanical tumbler in case an EMP fried the keypad. The room also had a safe in the floor, fire sprinklers, a buried landline, closed-circuit television (CCTV) that streamed from every room in the house, and—most important—a dedicated ventilation system.
Rogan, a muscular guy with a straight-billed baseball cap and a soul patch, who’d hired Pip to build the house, told me that “the entire thing could burn down, but this room, with everything we need to get back on our feet, would stand. The rest is for the insurance company to deal with.” I asked Rogan how long he might stay in the room during an emergency. He assured me that weathering a low-level event like a blackout for three days in the panic room was feasible, but after that “who the fuck knows, dude, people will eat their babies. People are nuts.” A common saying among preppers, “seventy-two hours to animal,” suggests that even the most mild-mannered of people might turn wild within days.
My encounter with Rogan seemed as good an illustration as any of the prevailing social climate in the United States. A survey conducted by National Geographic in 2012 found that 62 percent of Americans thought the world would experience a major catastrophe in less than twenty years; 40 percent believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than saving for retirement.5
A 2015 article in an academic special issue about future catastrophic threats to humanity surveyed people from the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia and found that 54 percent of them rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next one hundred years at 50 percent or greater. A quarter of respondents believed humanity had a 50 percent chance of being wiped out altogether during that time.6
Rogan didn’t expect to ride out the end of the world in his panic room; he just wanted to buy himself a few hours or days. Because the house was on a relatively isolated lot, the three things he worried about were home invasion, robbery, and wildfire, all of which, ensconced in his panic room, he could wait out.
“When you’re building a house worth millions,” he told me, “what’s another twenty-five or thirty grand to make sure the closet space you’re already going to have is multifunctional?”
By the year 2000, a third of all new homes in the United States were being built in gated communities: a kind of social contract–failure architecture in which every community must fend for itself.7
In these private communities, private roads connect hardened houses patrolled by private security services. In the years since 9/11, as media narratives have become increasingly frightening regarding threats both foreign and domestic, Americans’ desire to hunker down has only become more prevalent. I imagined satellite images from America’s future showing fragmented archipelagos of fortified semisubterranean residences, where open expanses were traversed by armored SUVs. I imagined South Africa on steroids, Blade Runner
without cities, a permanent state of civil war running on the fumes of empire. xPoint, as I first saw it in the glare of that low winter sun, seemed to exceed these imaginings. It was a monstrous escalation of disaster architecture.
As I pulled up to the central meeting point for xFest, where I was supposed to link up with Vicino again, a banner flapped in a crisp plains breeze over a derelict loading dock. Rows of sterile, spotless port-o-potties stood lined up like sentries across from a food truck staffed by two bored workers. I asked them where everybody was, and they said they didn’t know. Driving around the site, the only people I encountered were three film crews (one from Japan), and members of the xFest “security detail”—a bunch of local teenagers drunk-driving hoopties up and down the dirt roads. I parked in front of the banner, fuming. I’d come here, at great expense, to see the largest gathering of preppers in the world and had the distinct sense I would, instead, be spending days photographing empty concrete Igloos. As a grazing cow rubbed itself gratefully against a port-o-potty, I recalled Vicino’s boast that he was building subterranean time ships and welled up with disappointment.
Determined to find something happening, I followed a car with a “Vivos Security” magnet stuck to the door, to an abandoned house where a few people were squatting for the duration of xFest. Outside, leaning on a post and nursing a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey, was Wyatt, a bushy-blond-bearded twenty-eight-year-old in tasseled rawhide leather chaps. In a distinct regional drawl, Wyatt told me he didn’t know what the plan for xFest was, or if there was a plan.
Out of nowhere a mud-splattered red pickup roared up. In the passenger seat was Vicino himself, his son Dante at the wheel. Vicino curtly advised me that there was “nothing here” and told me to follow him, speeding off in a filthy haze at fifty-five miles an hour up the blown-out road I’d come in on. After driving for days through snow to attend this overhyped event, I followed behind the red pickup with a sinking feeling.
We drove back into Edgemont, to the Hat Creek Bar and Grill. The entire security detail had also followed us, in a caravan of three or four cars, looking to get a free dinner out of Vicino. Local patrons eyed us up. Tables were quickly pushed together; the owner scrambled from behind the bar to welcome the twelve men who commandeered them. The teenage waitress was the owner’s daughter, and Vicino immediately fixated on her, telling her, as she spread menus over the tables, that when he incorporated Edgemont into xPoint in a few years she could be a “permanent fixture.” He then whispered to a gray-goateed man next to him, “Is it wrong to say I want to chain her up in my bunker?”
“Robert, shut the fuck up,” the guy said with a smile. Shaking his head, he introduced himself as Jerry, an old friend of Vicino.
“He’s got a big mouth but he’s totally harmless, don’t worry,” Jerry said. He asked me what I was doing there. I mumbled that I was working on a book, not wanting the whole table to overhear. Many people who prep place a premium on secrecy and might, I thought, take offense at having a writer in their midst.
“Well now, that’s something,” he said, smiling. “It’ll be nice to talk to someone who has half a brain out here.” Jerry, as it turned out, had a good working knowledge of Hegel’s dialectic philosophy, which we happily butchered over dinner. As we did so, I had a chance to quiz him about what it was that brought people to xPoint; what they were preparing for. He explained that I’d get as many answers to that question as there were people at the table. People were worried about civil war, contagion, inflation, martial law, asteroid strikes, climate change, crop failures, artificial intelligence, and a host of other issues.
“More than anything, people are worried about the unknown,” Jerry told me. “There seems to just be a lot of crazy stuff going on in the world that people have no control over. Making the decision to be here is something they can control, would be my guess.”
“I’m no hard-core prepper,” Jerry continued, “but I’ve known Robert for twenty-two years, we go way back, so we’ve talked about these things.” Jerry owned a graphic design business, and Vicino had come to him to get some work done for a previous business he had making inflatable objects. (Vicino’s previous claim to fame came from mounting a giant inflatable King Kong onto the Empire State Building as a marketing gimmick for the film’s fiftieth anniversary.)
Jerry seemed dubious about whether xPoint would be a financial success, but like me, he saw the gathering as a sociological curiosity and had come along for the ride. He did admit, when I pressed him, that Vicino’s anxiety had rubbed off on him a bit over the years, and that he was involved in some low-level prepping.
When I asked him if survival was a natural instinct, Jerry got confessional. “You know, man, a couple of years back I had a heart attack,” he said. “I was forty-seven years old. I’ve always been super healthy; I’ve never had a broken bone. I wasn’t a candidate for this. I asked the cardiologist what the hell happened, and he said one word: ‘stress.’?” Jerry had lots of bills, a mortgage, and lots of “big boy toys”: RVs, boats, and motorcycles. Expensive holidays, meant to alleviate the stress, just added to it.
“I just ran myself into the ground,” he said. “After that I got really depressed, I mean down in the dumps, drinking every morning and waking up worried that every day was the day my heart was going to give out and I was going to die.”
Jerry paused as the young waitress delivered a plate of tacos with a smile of thanks, causing him to chuckle in response.
“I’ve got another friend that thinks if there’s a disaster there’s no point in being alive,” he said, turning back to me. “Let me tell you, after what I went through, it’s not in our DNA to die. Your survival instinct will kick in and you’re going to find a way to live.”
“Do you think xPoint is a good model for survival?” I asked Jerry.
“Well,” he said, spooning some salsa onto his tacos, “if I’m sitting here and that guy over there, without knowing it”—he pointed vaguely with the spoon—“is having the same survival thoughts, it multiplies exponentially. That’s how you get these three or four dozen people here. None of us joined a club, man, no one forced us to be here. Robert put his thoughts out there, and everybody came together. That’s the idea and I think it’s a great idea.”
We careened home past midnight, sometimes taking the old ordnance depot roads, sometimes weaving our own. Vicino directed me to the “B-Block,” where some preppers—prospective tenants of xPoint here for xFest—were camped out. On the way there, I drove past a boxy pickup truck perched on a hill. The dome light was on inside the truck. Against the all-consuming dark, it illuminated a brief tableau: a gun on the dash and a lanky man in camouflage in the passenger seat, drinking from a tall can.
B-Block was also dark when I drove down it. There were no running lights, water, or any infrastructure to speak of, let alone amenities, just rows of empty concrete shells. I popped my tent inside an empty bunker—number B-207—and closed the blast door with an unsettling sucking thud. Once I was inside, with my lights turned off, every sound I made, even just shifting on my sleeping mat to get comfortable, echoed back at me in eerie receding waves of reverberation that bounced off the bare walls.
As I lay in my tent, eyes open but seeing nothing, my mind replayed the rambling conversation with Jerry earlier that evening that had taken in philosophy and the dread of the unknown. It then flicked onto the gloomy figure of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish progenitor of existentialism, a school of thought with an emphasis on individuality, freedom, and choice. The phrase that looped in my head was his description of dread, or angst: a “sweet feeling of apprehension” about the future, an anticipation of “freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility.”8
This, it struck me, resonated with the preppers’ tantalizing apprehensions about the unknown.
As Kierkegaard suggests, something about dread is strangely alluring. His words again: dread doesn’t “tempt as a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates with its sweet anxiety. Thus, dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when… freedom then gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself.” Dread stems from the knowledge of the cost of our choices, but also from the freedom to be able to choose. Hence that repeated, uncanny adjective: “sweet.”
Contemporary life, it occurred to me in my mausoleum-like bunker, was dominated by a feeling of being overwhelmed by a multitude of choices, all of which seem inconsequential on a personal level and collectively irresponsible. This—if you believe Kierkegaard—only works to increase our dread. As a Christian, Kierkegaard suggested that “it is only at the instant when salvation is actually posited that this dread is overcome.” My last thought as I drifted off, dimly aware of my breathing reverberating off the bunker’s naked concrete shell, was that maybe, for the preppers who made their pilgrimage to xPoint, buying the bunker was the moment when salvation seemed tangible.
Steeped in the most thorough darkness I’d ever experienced, I slept well. Very well.
I awoke to a piercing birdcall coming through the bunker’s ventilation shaft, where larks had nested. Their call was the only hint that the sun was up: inside, it was still pitch black. Opening the blast door with a full body shove, I was reborn into searing morning light. Walking up the dirt road, shivering, past clumps of cows staring at me, I ran into Tom Soulsby, Milton Torres, and Mark Bowman, three preppers who’d camped in another B-Block bunker. They were lying on the ground in mud-caked shoes, trying to get a flat tire off of a truck axle with a rubber mallet. A glance at their well-stocked trailer made it clear that they were no weekend warriors. This was a committed crew.
Tom had the air of a hunter. Bald, bespectacled, and dressed in a camouflage jacket and well-worn hiking boots, he greeted me with a firm two-handed clasp. As I pulled out my notebook, he explained that he’d bought land in Kansas that was strategically located but not well fortified, and that he was looking to upgrade to a bunker. Milton, a burly, twitchy information technology (IT) manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in Chicago, told me, in between tokes of THC from a vape pen, that he’d become a prepper because “people forced me to think I was crazy,” and he was going to show them he was right. Mark found this hysterically funny: he’d had his fair share of similar comments. He was a towering, jovial man in his fifties, with a diamond earring and a prosperous belly tucked into a many-pocketed vest stuffed full of pencils, measuring tapes, and spirit levels. The crew warmly invited me into their shared space.
The contrast between my lonely tent in the empty concrete shell and the home they’d put together from material unloaded from Mark’s hand-built trailer was stark. The accommodation included camping chairs, tents, personal protective equipment (PPE), multiple stoves, large plastic buckets of dried food, and two different battery banks. One was for solar, the other for a wind turbine Mark was going to “mount on top of the bunker.” He’d even rolled out a carpet in the makeshift living room, which worked to separate it from the back, since the bunker was a single cavernous, open space—virtually identical to the one I’d slept in and 573 others. These three had been the first preppers at xPoint to take a bunker for a test run.
Mark affirmed emphatically that he was going to sign a contract with Vicino and lay down the $25,000 required to buy into xPoint. For this, he would receive an empty concrete shell that he’d build out himself. An expert machinist from northern Minnesota, he assured me that his skills weren’t limited to metalwork. He proceeded to show me a “washing machine” that he’d made from a five-gallon bucket and a toilet plunger. Sensing that I wasn’t much of a craftsman myself, he ripped a page out of a mail-order catalogue and handed it to me dismissively, saying, “You don’t have to build all this stuff, you can just have it delivered.”
While we drank coffee boiled on a propane camp stove and sweetened with freeze-dried honey (the tin confidently advertising its twenty-five-year shelf life), I told them I thought it was interesting that they all camped in the bunker together, rather than each claiming one. I wondered aloud if they wanted to build a community. Milton jumped up energetically, using his vape as a pointer. “We’ve already got one! We’ve got Mark, Mr. ‘I’ll build a toilet out of a two-by-four and a tube’ over there, which is neat. I do IT, so I can keep us connected after things go downhill, and I’m into sports. You’re going to need to play, too, while you’re waiting stuff out.”
Tom laughed, “Yeah, it’s already ‘home sweet bunker’ around here.”
Having been abandoned for more than fifty years, many of the bunkers had been left open at some point. They were cool places for the cows to hang out on hot days, and the ungulates were the ones running the place. The bunker the guys were staying in had had to have a foot of poop shoveled out of it just a few weeks prior. The man doing the shoveling was Ojay, an Edgemont local with a pointy red beard, a missing front tooth, and a consolatory phrase that he repeated like a mantra: “It’s all good, man; it has to be; it’s the only way it can be,” which seemed strangely to equip him for casual work on a doomsday commune. I mentioned to the guys that I’d be interested in seeing what the bunkers looked like before they were cleaned up for sale, and it was agreed we should go and find one.
As an aproned Mark got breakfast started, Tom, Milton, and I ventured out of B-Block past a herd of white-masked cows with grass hanging out of their motionless mouths. They looked lost in thought. Dew on the tall grass soaked our jeans as we walked. Underneath the pasture, the bunker field was a wet, sticky clay that formed a corona around our boot soles, and had to be continually scraped off on the sharp edges of blast doors.
It took a good fifteen minutes to reach the next row in B-Block. Exploring the whole place by foot seemed beyond hopeless—the site was massive. Blocks A–F each consisted of ninety-some bunkers laid out in rows of eight. Nonetheless, we scrambled over a rubble pile into a bunker whose interior was decorated in one corner with pencil drawings of naked women, signed and dated by a soldier stationed there in 1942. The discovery felt archaeological. Externally, each bunker was a clone stamp of the last, offering no hint as to its contents. Milton mused that you could hide anything out here in a random bunker: food, gold bars, a body.
“Just don’t put a lock on it,” Tom mused. “Because if I’m a thief, I’m looking for a bunker with a lock on it and I’m going to get it open.”
“Shiiiiit,” Milton responded, “that’s sneaky, Tom!”
Tom and his wife, Mary (whom I’d not met, but who’d initiated the family search for a bolthole), were semiretired, but I got the sense that they enjoyed keeping themselves busy with travel and projects. I asked if his move into the bunker field was an attempt to escape society.
“Oh, no, no, that’s not it, Brad,” he explained. “This is just an insurance policy. I’m going to fix it up and pass it down to my family. I hope no one ever has to use it. The way I see it, being prepared puts me in a better position to help others. It’s like when you fly, and they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. If you’re dead you’re not helping anyone.”
He made one exception to helping others, however: a pandemic. “If there’s a pandemic, nobody can come in, period,” he said. If a pandemic were to break out, Tom said he’d hightail it to the bunker with Mary and “pray there’s not somebody already there who’s infected.” It would be a race against an unseen enemy.
“Some of the pandemic scenarios have wiped out 100 million people on a planet that’s not nearly as populated or as mobile as what we have today,” he said lamentingly. “Now, you could have something spread across the planet in a week.”
Nevertheless, Tom seemed to think most disasters would actually bring out the best in people at a time when many of us have come to see our fellow citizens as suspect; that, strangely enough, disasters might be a way of enabling us to recover a lost social solidarity—among survivors, that is. This view, which I’d often hear repeated among preppers, was at odds with media depictions that promised your neighbor would just be another body in the horde coming to take your “preps” when they realized their bank cards were about as much use as drink coasters. The idea was that the dread we now feel would be punctuated by the disaster, bringing with it clarity of choice and meaning.
Footage of Hurricane Katrina, for instance, which ripped through New Orleans in 2005, drastically misrepresented the scale of chaos, looting, and ill will. Though the Category 5 storm killed twelve hundred people, those people didn’t kill each other. In fact, the post-storm evidence collected indicated that the only murders that took place were perpetrated by police officers.9
In her book A Paradise Built in Hell
, the California-based author Rebecca Solnit found that when disaster strikes, it often brings about the best in people as they “fall together.” Communities arise in the wake of disaster, even in places where there doesn’t seem to be a strong sense of community before the event; catastrophe becomes an opportunity to exhibit camaraderie, what Solnit calls “disaster solidarity.”10
Records from recent disasters back this up: immediately following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, New York City saw a record eight-day run without a single homicide.11
Tom had a similar instinct, and was keen to tell me about examples of that instinct in others. He recounted a story about a seventy-four-year-old New Jersey prepper named Joseph Badame, who had spent decades preparing for an apocalyptic event and had fifteen thousand pounds of emergency food on hand. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that wracked Puerto Rico in 2017, Badame shipped his entire stockpile to the island and fed a thousand people. Pictures of him happily doing so could be found in newspapers all over the world.
Tom said, “Sure, Badame wasn’t in the midst of the emergency. He probably would have taken care of himself first in such a situation—but we can help each other out like that here.”
“Yeah,” Milton chipped in, “because FEMA ain’t gonna save you, dude, people that think that are drinking the Kool-Aid.” Mark later told me that many preppers say FEMA stands for “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid.” Both Mark and Milton demonstrated an unabashed skepticism toward what they saw as sclerotic government infrastructure and politicians who seemed to be either inept or corrupt. In contrast to the distant interests of elites that left them feeling listless and abandoned, the practical preparation they could undertake at xPoint, with no government in sight, gave them a clear sense of purpose.
Back at the base bunker, on the only block in the entire facility that had been cleaned up for xFest, a succession of film crews lined up to interview Mark while he used his five-gallon bucket washing machine. In the midst of that odd phenomenon, one of Vicino’s workers arrived with maps, breaking the monotony. He was also clutching historical photographs, and diagrams of the facility. I viewed the images of bunkers filled with rows of bombs and reminded myself that the bunkers were originally built to protect weapons, not people. But if the weapons had never existed, bunkers wouldn’t be needed to protect people—from the threat of weapons, at least.
Tom and Milton were debating the relative importance of access to well water in B-Block versus getting a spot on high ground in F-Block—so as to, as Vicino’s worker put it, “keep control of ingress and egress.” The worker also pointed out a building close to the entrance on the map and told us not to go in there because it used to be for mustard gas storage. This was the building I’d wandered through on the road in, with the slumped racks in it, and I felt my abdomen clench.
Suppressing my vague sense of unease, I joined an exploratory crew to go and survey F-Block, the bunkers with the best vantage point. Getting there would be challenging. F-Block was a good five miles away, and most of the roads had long disintegrated into the mud and tall grass. We formed a three-car caravan. On the way, we passed the boxy truck with the gun on the dash that I’d seen the previous evening. Its camouflaged occupant was in the exact same place, can in hand, scanning the skyline.
Halfway to F-Block we encountered Pat and Sue, a wizened retired couple—he slender and quiet, she stout and effusive—driving an ancient station wagon coated in prairie dust. Sue told us she knew the area and that we needed to be careful driving off-piste because there were small cacti that would needle through the sidewalls of our tires: this was what had happened to the truck with the flat the guys were hammering on earlier. She also directed our attention to moss on the ground, unusual for prairie: a sign that water wasn’t draining properly. Squatting down, Sue pulled at it with her nails and told us that you had to dig a mile into the Earth to hit groundwater, at which point it spurted out in a scalding stream.
“Every foot deeper you go, the water gets one degree hotter, so I don’t know how in hell they’re going to build water infrastructure,” she called up to us from her squatting position. I asked Sue if she was looking to buy a bunker.
“I’m just trying to find someone here who knows what the hell they’re talking about,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun with a wrinkled hand.
Later, during a rambling sales pitch that Vicino made mostly to film crews in the empty bunker where I’d slept—one of the only clean ones—Sue threw up her arms in exasperation and walked out. I watched her speed off in the dusty station wagon, Pat radiating contented indifference from the passenger seat. Peering back in through the blast door, I felt uneasy. Like most people on camera, Vicino appeared a caricature of himself. With shutters snapping, he was talking about how North Korea was going to wipe the West Coast off the map. The only thing missing from the meeting were buyers.
Not for the first time since arriving, I wondered if xPoint was a twisted vision. Or maybe I’d become enmeshed in some kind of Truman Show
scenario, in which I was actually the quarry. People at home were sitting on their couches, popcorn bowls on their laps, watching me wander through this South Dakotan Potemkin village trying to figure out whether, and how, I was going to make sense of it. Vicino’s sales pitch did little to dispel my sense of unease.
That night we gathered for a party under the xFest banner and a night sky unpolluted by city lights, speckled with a dizzying array of celestial bodies. The scruffy security detail had piled up under the banner a small mountain of pallets, broken chairs, and particleboard full of plastic resin glue, which they doused with gasoline and set alight, vanquishing the stars. Black smoked curled off the pyre.
Vicino was manspreading in a wrinkled camping chair, swigging a pale ale and shouting to everyone who walked by—“everyone” being Tom, Milton, a cameraman from Switzerland, and the security detail. The couple with the food truck was long gone. Altogether, there were twelve of us there—the sum total of xFest.
Vicino had been occupied all day with organizing the sales pitch, and finally asked how my night had been in the bunker. I told him, truthfully, that I’d slept extremely well, but that I wasn’t sure I could handle more than a few weeks inside. I asked him what he would do in the bunker if he was locked in there for a year.
“Well, you could do anything, you could learn how to meditate, you could learn how to levitate, you could learn how to walk through walls,” he said offhandedly. “When you get rid of all the distractions and crap around us keeping us from doing these things, who knows what you can accomplish?”
We all soon moved over to huddle into a tight ring around the fire, and I listened into a flood of opinions on everything from the secret reign of Illuminati lizard people to flat Earth theory. I threw in one of my favorite ideas, proposed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, that it’s entirely logical to believe we live in a computer simulation, Matrix
-style. In Bostrom’s view, technological advances will inevitably end up creating a computer with more processing power than all human cognition combined; humans, meanwhile, run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.12
If we were actually in one of those simulations, Bostrom argues, we wouldn’t know, because we could never out-compute the simulation.
Later in the evening, the man from the boxy truck chimed in. Captain, as he introduced himself, was a precisely spoken Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and a serial consumer of energy drinks: he cradled a very large can as he spoke. Captain had no interest in a bunker. He’d made his way to xFest to offer an unsolicited contribution, which had been to sit in his truck for two days on the ridge, “keeping an eye on things.” Asked by another member of the group whether there were wars in space that we didn’t know about—Captain was, after all, a military man—he nodded.
“Yeah, I say there are. Think about the Cold War,” he said, words now tumbling out of him, “about how the government spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars building deep underground military bases. Remember how they denied they existed—and then suddenly all this shit is declassified, and it turns out all the ‘conspiracy theories’ were true. That’s all the proof you need that what’s known is a tiny fraction of what’s happening. We can’t know the unknown unknowns, but coming to know the known unknowns is why we’re all here.”
“Hell yeah,” Milton responded, leaning back in his camping chair. “When people at work find out I’m prepping, they tell me I’m crazy, and I think they’re
crazy, because they only live in the present. You look at history and what do you see? People getting caught by surprise over and over again because they don’t think through these things.” With this, Milton tapped his temple with his index finger.
Listening to them talk, I heard a curious mixture of conspiracy theory and good sense. It was clear the preppers were determined to reason through these scenarios rather than simply accept them—just as I’d treated the unprovable simulation argument earnestly. They were energized by thinking they might pull back the curtain on something.13
Standing around this bonfire were just a bunch of uncertain people who, in this age of constant crisis, refused to sit with their uncertainty. They demanded explanations for the inexplicable—and were happy to debate their theories. Not unlike academics, perhaps.
While Vicino’s xFest seemed a bit of a belly flop, those present didn’t seem to mind. Besides, camping around a bonfire in a military ruin, hours from a major population center, was just my speed, bringing to mind the countless hours I’d spent breaking into abandoned buildings and subterranean infrastructure as an urban explorer. As I gazed unfocused into the wood glue smoke, I felt a sense of common ground with my companions around the bonfire. I might reach for Michel Foucault, and they for InfoWars, but we understood each other: we were all getting screwed by technology, corporations, and the government.
The party lasted into the early morning. When we ran out of things to burn, Rex Bear, a minor YouTube celebrity among the preppers, set up a giant telescope to track moons around Jupiter. Then a woman arrived from nowhere. Swathed in a cape and carrying a small kerosene lantern, she started to grill Bear about Planet X, the celestial body Vicino had mentioned. At her side was a guy, shirtless and covered in soot, and a near-naked child, who was stirring melted glass in the embers with a piece of rebar. Vicino started yelling at the shirtless guy, I gathered, for starting a cooking fire inside one of the bunkers. I realized I was drunk, and had no idea where these new people had come from.
I got the sense that these preppers were operating on a variation of Pascal’s wager: the precept that even if the existence of a higher power is unlikely, the potential upsides of believing in one are so vast that we might as well. If these preppers were right about some, or just one, of their theories, then they just might survive a cataclysm—it’s a payoff for faith that costs little in the present.
As the group scattered, I took the long, drunken walk back to my bunker under the stars and thought about the different scales of prepping. Preparing for every unknown eventuality was an impossibility, the road to craziness. What I didn’t understand was the total disjunction between the actual terrible things happening at any one time and the preparation for events that by any measurement were total outliers. Why, for instance, was North Korea testing long-range missiles not enough reason in and of itself to build a bunker? Why did we need space wars?
But why not prepare for it all? As Milton said, you look at history and what do you see? People endlessly being caught on the hop. The fourteenth-century Black Death that may have wiped out half of Europe’s population; the 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano that killed 100,000 people in Indonesia; the 1931 Yangtze, Yellow, and Huai River floods in China that killed 225,000 people, and millions more indirectly from crop, grain storage, and road destruction. Anyone prophesying these events would have sounded like a crank, but they happened, and they changed the world.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor of risk engineering at New York University (NYU), calls these Black Swan events. In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
, Taleb writes that they’re outliers, that they have an extreme impact, and that people tend to explain them away after the fact, which deludes us into thinking they could have been predicted.14
With the majority of the world’s population now clustered in cities that cannot sustain themselves, the likelihood of a Black Swan event increases. This view, that the world is becoming more fragile because of its increasing complexity, has strong roots in contemporary thought. Nobody expressed it better than the late Paul Virilio, a grouchy French Marxist who was obsessed with bunkers, war, and speed. Recalling the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, Virilio wrote that it’s realistic to think that “there is an accident brewing that would occur everywhere at the same time.”15
As space and distance are compressed by speed and connectivity, Virilio thought, they also become more vulnerable. Virilio’s work begs consideration of the impacts that would be felt from a cessation of global trade networks due to, say, a volcanic eruption on the scale of Tambora. Even a two-month blip could wipe out millions of people dependent on international imports for survival.
Both Taleb and Virilio suggest that what we dread today—more than at any time in history—is the unknown; and they argue that the possibilities of the unknown are multiplying through our own actions. In other words, progress and disaster go hand in hand.16
In nineteenth-century America, those who warned of impending disaster were called calamity howlers, and they were often lambasted for their predictions.17
People today tend to treat preppers in the same way, questioning their credulity, even though their views are often backed up by research and despite instances where their anxieties have become realities. Prepping often looks prudent in hindsight.
Whether we think of them as concrete Igloos or more metaphorically as a gated community, bunkers are not spaces built to increase systemic resilience. Rather, they are an architecture that concedes we humans have lost control of our trajectory. Those selling bunkers aren’t investing in some kind of greater societal fix; basically their profits hinge on growing disquiet about what confronts us. Equally, most preppers buying bunkers have given up trying to mitigate the apocalypse; instead, they’re seeking shelter from it, withdrawing into their underground boltholes in order to be reborn. As Vicino told me back in Del Mar: “No one wants to go into the bunker, they want to come out of the bunker.”
Despite the weak turnout at xFest, and a serious argument with Vicino over the merits of developing F-Block rather than B-Block, Mark was seduced by Vicino’s vision. He signed a ninety-nine-year lease on a bunker there and then; so, too, did the optimistic Tom. Milton went further. Not only did he buy a bunker, he quit his lucrative job at the Chicago Department of Veterans Affairs and moved into it full-time. Unlike Tom, who’d bought his bunker as insurance against the future, for Milton, the bunker became his present. He went on to appear in numerous documentaries. In this footage he could be seen doing martial arts in the snow outside his blast door, bobbing around in a virtual reality system he played while stoned, and reflecting on how his bunker offered him space for contemplation. So, while xFest failed to fulfill Vicino’s grandiose vision of attracting preppers from all over the world, a community was
formed. These pioneers were the first people to move into what would become, a few years later, a decent-sized, if not very bustling, doomsday commune.
On my last night of solitary confinement in bunker B-207, I had trouble falling asleep. Initially, it had felt good to be locked away somewhere where my phone didn’t work, where I was safe, and where I could experience true solitude. After a decade of living in major cities surrounded by noise, lights, and people, the lack of stimuli felt luxurious. As I lay there on that final night, however, a sense of dread, the very concept I had been pondering, crept in.
My mind spiraled into an apocalyptic meditation. A cinematic drone shot of a flurry of human activity on a city street: packed buses bumper to bumper, gridlocked cars, horns blaring, cyclists weaving in between and hanging on like feeder fish, hawkers shouting to pedestrians who dodged each other as they talked and tapped on phones. My mind’s eye ascended further, panning out to reveal the endless stream of products and materials that arrived to feed the gaping maw of the megalopolis: soot-belching trucks filled with under-ripe exotic fruit coming from a nearby seaport; planes stuck in holding patterns waiting for space on packed runways; lines of extraction stretching from some Saudi oil field, or Canadian tar sand, or Congolese mine to fuel it all.
I saw overflowing garbage cans tipped into trucks decanted into other trucks, all joining an endless queue to discard waste, the everyday disposable detritus of human existence, into a pit the size of a small city. All this activity, multiplied to infinity across the globe, interconnected by a ceaseless web of planes collecting and disgorging their human cargo like streams of ants, the motion constant, ceaseless. From somewhere my submerged mind dredged up factoids: 250 more resource-sucking humans born every minute; 10 percent of the humans who have ever been alive are alive today; eleven billion people on Earth by 2100; nine billion new people added to the planet in the 150 years from 1950 to 2100.18
I thought about cosmologist Carl Sagan encountering the first picture of the Earth from space: rather than borders, strife, or disasters, he simply saw home. Yet to look in the opposite direction, out into the boundless universe, was to see infinity: a view, moreover, that offered “no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”19
Those preppers I spoke to at xPoint—Milton, Tom, and Mark—were all in vigorous agreement that as a species we’re stepping onto a sacrificial altar of our own creation, and that we must take responsibility for saving ourselves. Their way of doing so was to hunker down. What drew me to these preppers, I thought, lying in my concrete shell, was the probability of their pessimism being justified. In a world this messy, they seemed rational actors, people who weren’t taking anything for granted.
On my way out of xPoint the next morning, I stopped in front of the Hat Creek Bar and Grill to glom onto their WiFi and allowed my neglected emails to flood into my phone. Hundreds of messages pinged in, from friends, family, and work. I felt an overwhelming desire to retreat to the bunker. Then one last message pinged. It was from Robert Vicino, who said simply, “I hope you met some good people, drive safe.” Under his signature block was his now familiar tagline: “Nobody believed Noah until it was too late.”