Friday night, Bob Rutz spent New Year's Eve with a few dozen of his neighbors at their own homegrown church--the windowless back room of the local skating rink here, praying and singing and waiting, possibly, for the first signs that the modern world would end.
Many of them connect the close of this century to biblical prophecy, to a spiritual revival or Christ's return or maybe his vengeance. Each expected something different to happen soon. Not all thought there would be an apocalypse. It depended on their temperament, their theology, the voice in their head.
Nancy Dignan is a cheerful sort; that's why she opened this skating rink in this remote northwest Arkansas Bible Belt town. "God's wanting something major to happen, spiritually," she had been saying all Friday night, and her expression conveyed only rapture.
Then at midnight, she stopped her joyful dancing and suddenly froze. She lay face down on the floor, and in a few minutes stood up to resume her trance-like singing.
But Rutz, a grizzled, older man who has come here to prepare for the end of the technological world, was more nervous. In his mind, the best prediction of what will happen over the next few weeks comes from Psalm 91: "terror by night," it says, "pestilence that walketh in darkness."
"Something big is fixing to happen," he said. The first evidence would start coming Friday night, but the biggest sign, he predicted, won't come until Monday with the collapse of the banking system. After that, "all hell will break lose," he said. "And you'll know where to run: to Him."
The locals call these new outsiders the "Y2K people." Two years ago, dozens of them came streaming into the Ozarks, looking for mountain hideouts to duck from the coming doom. Most were Christians, although some were skittish exiles of the computer industry.
Back then Rutz wasn't so far off the mainstream. The evangelical world buzzed with the news of the Y2K bug; such leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson hinted that Jan. 1, 2000, could bring Christ's tumultuous return as laid out in the Book of Revelation. They warned their flocks to stockpile food and prepare for the worst.
Before Jan. 1 arrived, though, most of the mainstream doomsayers, like most of America, backed off their apocalyptic predictions. Soothed by government and industry reports, they said they expected New Year's to pass quietly.
"Reject millenium madness," urged a recent cover of Charisma, a popular evangelical magazine.
That has left Rutz and a few others across the country the lone believers, the rare dissenters who have uprooted their lives in anticipation of the end, or something close to it. Many are here in Huntsville. Others are scattered across the country, numbering only in the dozens. Some, like Rutz, seeded Christian agrarian utopias in remote corners of West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada. Some live alone and keep their locations a secret, posting warnings on their Web sites.
Rutz's role model is Noah, who sat prepared in the ark the day before the flood started. And like most end-times predictions, his are a mixture of terror and hope. He fears the worst, but looks forward to meeting his maker. "Surely, He will deliver thee," he said, reciting the good news in Psalm 91. "He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him I will trust."
A retired California missionary trained as an engineer, Rutz bought 700 acres of hilltop land and renamed it Prayer Lake. He told the local paper he wanted to build a city of refuge, with 100 Christian families living off the grid, growing their own food, tilling the land with horse-drawn implements.
As it turned out, only a handful of people showed up. But with the help of his grown children and the few families who have moved to Prayer Lake, Rutz and his wife are inching toward self-sufficiency.
They've started to farm--potatoes out front, vegetables in the garden. There are now six fuel tanks on the property in case the power runs out. In the last year, Rutz has conducted mild temperature experiments--turning the thermostat down and piling on extra clothes. Family members say they don't know what will happen; they're just being practical.
They settled on the Ozarks for the same reason most of the other Y2K people here did. The Rutzes subscribed to a newsletter written by Gary North, the most vigilant of the Y2K Jeremiahs, whose Internet site is one of the few that has never relented on TIME BOMB 2000. "We're on the Titanic," North writes, in one of his blunt warnings. "It's time to start moving toward the lifeboats."
North himself moved here from Texas a few months ago, into a house far off the main roads of Springdale, just west of Huntsville, and he never speaks to the news media. He chose the mountains of northwest Arkansas because of the mild weather, easily available water and natural gas. It's also a place where a lone survivalist might not seem out of place, where self-sufficiency is the ideal, where, as one contractor put it, "backup power is a hobby."
The rush for refuge included a Dallas preacher, a Chicago minister, a religious family from Miami, a Microsoft executive and a few computer engineers. Just last week, about 30 people from the Mount Olive Christian Church in Savannah who had heard North speak came down for a few weeks, to ride out Y2K, according to two members who stayed behind.
Real estate agents could tell they were Y2K people because they all asked for the same thing: cheap land, off the main road, spring water on the property, a garden already started.
Paul Haag, who left his job as a computer consultant in Sacramento, said that when he first heard about the Y2K computer bug, he was in a panic. "I was a total kook," he recalls, and stayed that way until almost two months ago. Only in recent days has he felt calmer. In a six-month mania, he and his wife took care of everything--five years' worth of dried food, a water pump, solar panels, three propane tanks, three generators. "Only one more trip to the city," he said. "And then we'll be ready."
Locals regard the influx of yuppie survivalists with some amusement. "We old-timers are pretty skeptical," said Carol Whittemore, a part-time real estate agent and editor of the local Madison County Record. "The newcomers are living off the land. But you can't just live here and figure it all out. You'll starve to death." Eventually, she figures, "they'll go back to California."
Still, the town is happy to have the business. In a typical year, Nathan Parker, a local contractor, installs two or three solar panels. This year, between the newcomers and local anxiety, he did 15. The same is true for generators: Instead of two or three generators in a year, he installed that many in a month.
"It's all Y2K-related," said Parker. "People are wanting alternate sources of power. And quite honestly, some are into the fanatical zone."
The local townspeople would probably cast Rutz among those. When he came here and bought his farm, he offered three-acre lots for $25,000 and told his new neighbors his grand plans for simplicity, for weaning them off modern technology with horse-drawn equipment, a buggy factory, a blacksmith shop, a carriage house, greenhouses.
In the end, few bought into his Luddite fantasy. With the economy booming, they were hard to convince. Dozens of families came to visit Prayer Lake but only a handful stayed. He and his wife still live out of a borrowed trailer, while a few half-finished houses dot the hill.
Still, Rutz is glad he came because "after all, it's only temporary. Everything on this Earth is temporary. I'm waiting to spend eternity with the Lord."
CAPTION: Jeremy Sonnier, left, of Portland, Ore., and Jeremiah Baldwin of Seattle warn pedestrians in Times Square of impending doom if they don't embrace Jesus.