LOST CITY, W.Va. — Drew Miller, who heads a survivalist camp here, sometimes talks as if time is divided into two periods.
In good times, the treehouse at Fortitude Ranch is a place for children to play. In bad times, Miller said, it would become a guard tower.
In good times, the mountainous landscape offers an inviting place for hiking, ziplining or disc golf. Bad times: The ranch’s wooded slopes would become fields of fire to protect the camp’s inhabitants from their most dangerous threat — other people.
“It’s just human nature,” Miller said. “The worst enemy you face in a pandemic could well be your neighbor.”
Miller, along with about 100 other people who he says have purchased Fortitude Ranch memberships, believes that underground bunkers, stockpiled food, and semiautomatic weapons will see them through an apocalypse, however it may come.
Some preppers — people who invest significant amounts of money and time in preparing for anything from a natural disaster to the collapse of civilization — think the end may come sooner than later. In addition to worrying about overpopulation, climate change, economic collapse and war, some also fret about politics. With impeachment in the air and tensions building toward the 2020 presidential race, preppers warn that violence could erupt in this fiercely polarized nation.
“You know, people use the term ‘civil war,’ and that seems hard to imagine, but what started World War I? Some guy assassinated a minor archduke,” Miller said. “. . . Stuff escalates unpredictably.”
The scenario most often advanced by ranch members concerns the possibility of a disputed election. There’s fear by some members that if President Trump loses, he might blame cheating and refuse to step down. Others believe that if Trump wins, his opponents might also blame the outcome on fraud, triggering unrest. It’s not a scenario Miller thinks likely, but he’s heard it from both sides.
Trump, in one of a series of tweets trying to discredit the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats, has stoked tensions further, suggesting his removal from office could trigger a “Civil War like fracture.”
That’s the scenario David L. Jones, a Fortitude Ranch member who’s also something of a celebrity prepper, believes could set off unrest. Jones, 62, a former Alaska state trooper and Army veteran, is known as the “NBC Guy” because of his military background in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. He has also worked in state and federal emergency management agencies. He has a podcast and was one of this year’s featured speakers at Prepper Camp, a three-day symposium that attracted more than 1,000 off-the-gridders, survivalists and homesteaders to a private campsite last month in North Carolina. Jones said he foresees turmoil, and perhaps violence, whether Trump wins or loses.
“You see, the veneer of civilization is very thin,” Jones said.
Fortitude Ranch occupies more than 50 acres within the George Washington National Forest. Its serene setting belies talk of catastrophe. On a recent tour, there were green mountain vistas just below the clouds and a stillness broken only by the soft patter of rain on leaves.
Members, who pay about $1,000 per person per year to be a part of the community, are encouraged to use the ranch’s two large rustic cabins here as vacation lodgings. In the event of emergency, however, they would head to 10-by-10-foot, claustrophobia-inducing rooms in underground shelters, some of which are constructed of metal culverts. Altogether, the compound here can hold up to 500 people.
The organization also has two sites in Colorado. It’s working to set up a fourth in Wisconsin. The motto: “Prepare for the Worst — Enjoy the Present.”
The camp is a reflection of a survivalist movement that has grown in recent years, although reliable numbers are hard to find. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which analyzes community preparedness, doesn’t track survivalists. And many preppers are reluctant to identify as such or discuss their activities, fearing that attention could attract marauders when things go south — or “s--- hits the fan,” in prepper parlance.
The number of preppers also tends to expand and recede in sync with social crises, both real and imagined. (Remember Y2K?) But interest appears to have grown since the Great Recession. Google searches for terms such as “survivalist” began ticking upward in mid-2008 as the economic crisis deepened. Reality TV — “Doomsday Preppers” on the National Geographic Channel in 2011 and “Apocalypse Preppers” on the Discovery Channel in 2013 — fed the end-of-days craze and fed off it.
24/7WallSt.com, a financial news website, estimated in 2013 that there are 3.7 million preppers and a multibillion-dollar market that includes “bugout gear” such as freeze-dried foods, water purification systems, crossbows and tools. Businesses such as the Ready Store and the website Doomsday Prep have built on the movement, too.
David Sanders, Doomsday Prep’s owner, launched the online store near Atlanta in 2012. Although Sanders declined to provide exact sales figures, he said that except for a flat year or two around 2015, the business has had annual growth of about 25 percent. His orders increase in sync with disasters or other bad news, such as the outbreak of Zika virus.
The bitterly divided political atmosphere is a driver right now, Sanders said. But his typical customer is someone who thinks about enduring a power outage for a few days, not a nuclear holocaust, although the website sells supplies and equipment for that, too.
“Preparedness is a choice for empowerment, security and peace of mind,” he said. “Why would anyone not choose that?”
Miller’s experience with doomsday scenarios goes back to the Cold War. He’s a retired colonel in U.S. Air Force intelligence. He’s also a Harvard PhD, cryptocurrency consultant and author of a post-apocalyptic novel, “Rohan Nation: Reinventing America after the 2020 Collapse.” He’s disdainful of the recent prepper craze, especially the reality TV shows that often focus on the most wide-eyed survivalists and hold them up for ridicule.
“It really hurt preppers,” Miller said. Fortitude Ranch, he said, offers a more sober and realistic strategy for survival that draws on his own professional military experience. “I’ve been a prepper a long time,” he said.
Raymond Andrew Miller, 61, grew up in Lincoln, Neb., about an hour’s drive from the U.S. Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base, a prime target for the Soviet Union. Yet, Miller said, he didn’t dwell on the threat of nuclear annihilation, even after reading somewhere that Soviet ICBMs were accurate only to within about 60 miles.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s great. They’re going to aim for Offutt, and it’s going to land in Lincoln,’ ” Miller said.
He volunteered for the Civil Air Patrol when he was 13 years old. He entered the U.S. Air Force Academy, graduating in 1980 with a double major in history and international affairs. He obtained masters and PhD degrees at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His dissertation argued that NATO troops could survive a Warsaw Pact nuclear blitz at little cost if the allies built 10,000 inexpensive shelters using metal culverts with some dirt on top.
“Three feet of earth is kind of the magic number,” Miller said. “That’s why at Fortitude Ranch we have shallow underground facilities. No one’s going to drop a penetrating multi-megaton nuclear warhead in our area.”
Miller has analyzed other lethal threats, too, particularly pandemics, that he thinks are more likely to occur than another civil war. He noted that the 1918-1920 “Spanish flu” pandemic alone killed an estimated 30 million people. The next such outbreak could be started with a genetically engineered pathogen that has been designed to be more lethal and resistant to treatment, Miller said.
He also wants to ensure Fortitude Ranch could survive natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina; the eruption of a supervolcano, such as the one below Yellowstone National Park; or widespread civil disorder, such as occurred during the 1977 New York City blackout when rioting broke out and nearly 2,000 businesses were burned or looted. He wants the ranch to be prepared for nuclear attack, economic collapse or an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a massive burst of energy that could fry the nation’s electrical grid.
There are stockpiles of food, ranging from homemade preserves to cafeteria-sized cans and buckets of emergency rations, and a small greenhouse, along with seeds specially created to withstand long shelf lives. There are also chickens, milk goats and — in Colorado — cattle.
The ranch also has radio gear and solar- and propane-powered electrical generators, along with supplies of coal, kerosene and wood. Down the hill from the main bunker is a burn pit to dispose of contaminated bodies during a pandemic. Miller said he’s already tested the pit with a dead goat.
Miller and assistant camp managers are armed, and members receive training in using AR-15 semiautomatic rifles or pump-action shotguns for self-defense, but he emphasized that his group is not allied in any way with anti-government militias.
“We’re not gun nuts,” Miller said.
Miller has never had to shoot at anyone, although he came under rocket and mortar fire while serving in Iraq.
But he said he is prepared to do whatever is necessary defend himself, his family and members of Fortitude Ranch. There’s a saying among preppers — “72 hours to animal” — that suggests anyone can become dangerous when desperate.
“I think it’s more like 72 seconds,” Miller said.
And yet his worst nightmare is imagining a mother arriving at the camp’s gates with a starving child during a pandemic and asking for help. Survival discipline, he said, requires even they be turned away.
“There’s going to be so much panic,” Miller said.