Prepared for Anything
As the global future grows more unpredictable, some people are staking out their own worlds and learning how to take destiny into their own hands
In 1975, a cranky Arkansas scribbler named Kurt Saxon launched a newsletter called The Survivor, and it was in its pages he later claimed to have coined the word survivalist. “My definition of a Survivalist,” he wrote, “is a self-reliant person who trusts himself and his abilities more than he trusts the Establishment. Insofar as the Establishment is deteriorating, the Survivalist prepares to leave it.” This being America, however, there was a fork in the road to self-reliance.
In the ’60s and ’70s, large numbers of peace-loving youth had retreated from the economic mainstream, preferring to tread lightly as back-to-the-landers. They took their cues from Thoreau and, later, Scott and Helen Nearing, whose writings made Vermont a popular destination.
But survivalism was a different beast. Historian Kathleen Belew sees its origins in the Vietnam War, from which many veterans returned disillusioned, but also inculcated with a warrior mindset and endowed with valuable military skills. A life outside the mainstream appealed to them, although the idea of retreating had, in Saxon’s words, “strong connotations of cowardice.” These survivalists moved to the country and made lives resembling those of the back-to-the-landers, but their motivation was tactical. “Unlike the back-to-the-landers, the ecologists, the retreaters and such, survivalists are not non-involved pacifists,” Saxon wrote. “They are simply aware that civilization is cracking up and see the possible need for desperate measures to come through with a whole skin.”
After September 11th, cataclysm seemed more and more plausible, and “preparedness” became a buzzword. “Preppers” were like survivalists, only there were more of them. You didn’t have to head for the hills to be a prepper. All you needed was a stockpile of food, an emergency-preparedness kit and an above-average susceptibility to sensationalism. You might even end up on reality TV.
Much of survivalism’s rhetoric revolves around endangered liberty. Liberty, in this case, means maximum elbow room and minimum regulation. Survivalists thrive on recreating the frontier experience — a situation where the state is present enough to guarantee property rights but do little else. Survivalist author Joel Skousen advocates “strategic relocation” and talks about “building liberty anew” in pockets of freedom. “There are no more Americas to discover,” he has said, “but there are out-of-the-way wilderness places.”
Finding such pockets of freedom, in the wilderness or otherwise, was the objective of a wave of political-migration movements that emerged after 2000. Most centered on the sparsely populated Intermontane West, but the most successful one set its sights on New Hampshire. The Free State Project, which aims to bring 20,000 libertarians to the Granite State (enough, they hope, to affect political outcomes), is not overtly survivalist, but its adherents have in common with survivalists a notion of freedom that any 5-year-old can understand.
Liberty has become almost a brand in New Hampshire, with its rugged landscape, harsh climate, and inhabitants who prefer to be left alone, making it a potential preppers’ paradise. If Vermont, our flower-child twin sister, attracted droves of back-to-the-landers in its day, might a parallel culture of survivalists be hiding in our hills? Are there people here who would like to see the Granite State made over into a Granite Redoubt?
Ten years ago, Tory and Laura Walls owned an excavation company on Cape Cod. When the recession hit, they lost everything. Bankrupt and living with Tory’s parents, the couple gambled on a fresh start in South Carolina. Life there, off the grid, played out in three small prefabricated sheds. Local preppers taught them to raise chickens, pigs and ducks. “We were saved in South Carolina,” says Tory. But in the end, the heat got to them. They returned to Massachusetts with a very large pig and a radically altered view of the world.
A friend told them they should consider New Hampshire, where they might afford to live without debt. They scraped together enough to buy a decommissioned hydroelectric plant on 10 acres in Bethlehem. “As a prepper,” Tory says, “I’m thinking standing bomb shelter, root cellars.” Friends gave them an old camper, a woodstove and a pile of wet firewood. They moved to their new homestead in January of 2015, not an easy time to come to the North Country.
When I first met them, the Wallses ran a preparedness-supply shop in Littleton. The business didn’t open until 3 p.m., because they needed the daylight hours to run their homestead and school their children. Tory, 40, had a strong build and spoke with a gruff Massachusetts accent. Laura was 37, had a wholesome midwestern look, and spoke with a milder version of Tory’s accent. “We have a hard time trusting,” Tory told me before agreeing to speak on the record.
I looked around the store and saw dehydrated foods, gardening tools, seeds, barrels, trauma packs, Army T-shirts, steel body armor, camouflage clothes. On the wall were a modern American flag and a Betsy Ross flag.
Bug-out bags containing everything you’d supposedly need to survive for the first few days of a catastrophe were also for sale. The idea is to have one sitting by your door in case you need to head for the hills, or “bug out.” The basic formula for a bug-out-bag is “beans, bullets and band-aids.” Tory showed me a pump he built following instructions on YouTube, then pulled a copy of The New Pioneer off a rack and said, “This is the magazine.”
The possibility of a telecommunications interruption is a survivalist bugbear. Tory keeps his radio set in a homemade Faraday cage, a steel box covered in metal tape and lined with cardboard. He said everyone should keep their devices in such a protector, a precaution against electromagnetic-pulse attacks. Important how-to videos should be downloaded from YouTube, compressed, and stored here as well.
Three rifles were prominently displayed atop a glass display cabinet: an AR-15 chambered in 300 Blackout; a Remington 700 chambered in 308 (“It’s a long-distance rifle,” said Tory. “I’m not going to say sniper rifle.”); and an SKS. Tory told me the AR-15 and the AK-47 are the staple firearms for preppers. He carried a sidearm while we spoke.
Despite all the weaponry, however, debt is the shadow that looms largest for the Wallses. “Every year is a progression, and we own everything,” said Tory. Laura, meanwhile, recited a litany of the payments that hang over Americans’ heads: student loans, car loans, mortgages. “We don’t want our kids to grow up and have nothing,” she added. Protection of their son and daughter is central to their worldview. For Tory, the imperative extends to Laura.
Tory agreed to take me to the homestead, while Laura minded the store. We drove along the Ammonoosuc River, which sparkled in the autumn sun, and turned into woods girdled in NO TRESPASSING signs. At the bottom of a long and rocky hemlock-shaded driveway was a goat pen hacked out of the woods. On the right was a vegetable garden, and beyond it a makeshift shooting range. Powerlines ran over the property, an intrusion of public life that irks Tory but keeps property taxes low.
We were greeted in the sandy dooryard by Tory and Laura’s children, two dogs and a few goats. Tory talked sternly to his son, rebuffing his boyish questions with “Not the time.” The kid returned to assembling a bicycle from old parts. Tory later told me the boy, 13, had split most of their firewood the past two winters and that he can assemble an AR-15 in seconds, blindfolded. “We’re raising our kids to be contributing members of society,” he said, “not drains on it.” The daughter was curious, following us at a distance and making cute remarks. Now 10, she was pistol-certified at 8. They were sweet kids, affectionate to one another, with excellent manners.
The homestead was a cross between a natural oasis and a construction site. None of the buildings looked habitable. A one-story concrete structure had graffiti on it: “Punk rock will never die!” On an inside wall was a painting of the Grim Reaper. This was the power plant’s former workshop, but for now it was the Wallses’ house. The cavernous interior served as their sole living area. It contained a master bed and a bunk bed. Between the two was a forge. The ceilings were high, the walls unadorned concrete. No sunlight came in. It felt cold. In one corner was a shower fed by a barrel of bleached river water. Tory was planning to build a cabin the following year, and this would become a workshop again, as well as a bible-study area. He’d like to set up a church here, and maybe a camp where young people would learn to live closer to nature.
When we reached the targets beside the garden Tory said, “My buddies and I train here.”
“For what?” I asked.
“You’ve got to protect your family,” he said.
The sun was still bright in the southwestern sky, but a chill was creeping into the October air. Tory was thoughtful here at home. “We were pushed this way,” he said, as we ambled upstream toward the old dam. “It wasn’t like I had a choice. I forced a life to happen for us through money and loans, and all I got was addiction and fake friends.”
At the property line I asked about the NO TRESPASSING signs and the prepper obsession with security. He said the signs were to ward off a poaching neighbor; he has no problem with respectful people on his land. As for security, things aren’t getting any better, and when they get really bad, he said, two things will be important: keeping away people who are trying to steal what you’ve had the foresight to stockpile and fighting to protect your freedom and your family. “I don’t like violence,” he said, “but you have to protect your wife and kids.”
“Don’t you think Christianity demands pacifism?” I asked.
He said he knew Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but added that he also said to sell your cloak and buy a sword if you don’t have one. “I’m not going to be meek,” he said.
“The meek will inherit the earth,” I said.
“I know, I know,” he said, and looked at the ground.
When I hazarded that prepping seemed misanthropic, Tory countered, “I love people. I wouldn’t have you here if I didn’t. I wouldn’t have a store. Without people there’d be no community, no survival. A lone survivor in the woods? Good luck with that!” His voice was warm.
When I visit the Wallses again in July 2018, I learn that they’ve closed the storefront in Littleton, wanting to put all their resources into making the homestead a success. The entire family is in high spirits, and their clearing in the woods teems with life. Everything is green. Where before I’d seen only the dogs, two pigs and a few goats, it seems now that Noah’s Ark had spilled its contents on the banks of the Ammonoosuc. The animals are mostly unconfined and act like members of the family.
Tory and Laura have both taken part-time work, but they look forward to the day when this will no longer be necessary. They’ve held on to their licenses for the manufacture and sale of firearms and ammunition, and they hope eventually to run a retail business from here, alongside the earthier everyday activities of growing food, raising their kids and defending their property. The kids are looking after the immaculate garden, which is alive with lettuce, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, squash.
The principal dwelling, which on my last visit had resembled nothing so much as a bunker, is starting to look like a home. The entrance is graced with a wood-framed vestibule, and the inside is partitioned into rooms. The walls and ceiling bear a layer of insulation. A coat of paint has exorcized the Grim Reaper from what is now the dining room. “We’ve been eating out of our laps for the last four years,” Tory says, “and just last night we got a dinner table.”
This second glimpse enabled me to perceive a real shape to what the Wallses are doing. Everything here proceeds by baby steps. They cleared the land by successively setting out goats to munch branches, pigs to root out stumps, and chickens to clean up the rest — all of them fertilizing as they go. The hum of a motor reminds me that, for now, electricity comes from a gasoline generator. “But next year we plan to convert to propane,” Tory says, “and from there we’re going to start using animal waste to make methane. Odorless energy!”
As I regard the life multiplied around me, I see, abandoned in a far corner of the ever-expanding meadow, the camper where the Wallses spent that first hard winter.
Sometimes I wonder whether some of us have a psychological need to learn American history the hard way — by reliving it, working our way up to the present from scratch. It seems, intentions notwithstanding, an inefficient way to live, failing as it does to exploit the advantages of scale and tradition afforded by society.
Or maybe the notions of tradition and scale have been exploded by YouTube. Perhaps this isn’t a harking back, but a reaching forward. On a winter’s day, Ian Underwood went outside to find that one of his goats had drunk gasoline and died. “What do you do with a dead goat in the middle of winter?” he asked himself. “You can’t bury it. The ground’s frozen. You can’t eat it. You can’t do anything with it!” He went to YouTube and typed in, “how to build a funeral pyre.”
Without today’s internet, Ian and his wife Jody doubt they’d be able to live the life they’ve chosen. They were early signers of the Free State Project’s pledge to migrate to New Hampshire, and they moved to tiny Croydon from suburban Philadelphia in 2007. They continued in their old jobs through a combination of telecommuting and regular trips south. With another Philadelphia couple, they settled on a large piece of rural land and established Bardo Farm, where they strive after a measure of self-sufficiency, sell produce (for which they’ll take cryptocurrency), and offer a place for curious liberty lovers to explore the skills requisite for an independent lifestyle.
Jody and Ian provocatively call Bardo Farm an “unintentional community.” They conceive it as an alternative school with no particular program, except to foster grassroots liberty. “Basically,” Ian explains, “the four of us own it and we make the rules.” In the early years, they would let outsiders stay on the farm, although they’ve stopped since their partners, Neil and Emily Smith, had kids. “You could stay here and contribute, but if you didn’t, we kicked you out,” Ian recalls. “In that sense it wasn’t what you normally think of as an intentional community.”
“It wasn’t a commune,” Jody adds.
“Right,” says Ian. “None of this communist stuff.”
Ian and Jody are not survivalists in any usual sense. They exhibit a degree of sophistication not generally associated with the stereotype. Jody has a doctorate in education and a master’s degree in computer science. Ian is a mathematician who once worked for NASA. When it comes to politics, they don’t talk about “the government” when they really mean the state. Insofar as they are survival-oriented, it’s not fear that drives them. To them, fear represents an instrument the state uses to bully its citizens. The more we know how to do for ourselves, the less leverage the state will have. Learning even simple skills, such as cooking or removing a fallen tree from the driveway, is one way of seeking independence.
“We prefer to think of sustainability instead of self-sufficiency,” says Ian. “In other words, what can you keep going? If the shit hits the fan, it’s not like you’re going to be a prepper up in the woods, shooting anybody who comes close. You’re trying to be in a position to do as much as you can for yourself, to be able to help the people around you so you have something to trade. If money goes away, well, we have stuff. We have food. We have animals. We have plants.”
He says “resiliency” is a still better word, “because, even with sustainability, we use fossil fuels. Resiliency means if things go wrong for a period of time, everything doesn’t come crashing down. Having things ready. A total prepper would keep 500 gallons of gas around. We keep 30.”
He knows there are extremists who seem to wish for disaster. “Our concerns are more if the power goes out, or there’s a flood, or the economy tanks for a while — all things that really happen,” he says. “What if propane goes to $12 a gallon? One thing we know how to do is make biodiesel. These things are not end of the world, but you’d like to be ready for them.”
New Hampshire has exceeded their expectations. “I’ve been on the school board for over seven years, and they keep reelecting me,” says Jody. Ian was elected to the zoning board nine months ago — and he’s pleased that it has yet to convene. “You can do what you want here,” he says, “as long as you’re not scaring the neighbors. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Which is how we like it. We stay out of their business, they stay out of ours. It’s a nice fit, the idea that you want more freedom, and you come here, and there is already quite a bit of freedom.”
“Of course, New Hampshire has its quirks,” Ian goes on, “like the fact that the live-free-or-die state has state-controlled liquor stores. And a lot of people move up from Massachusetts and try to change it. But that’s kind of a constant fight.”
“Spoken like a true native,” I say.
“It feels more like home to me than any place I’ve ever lived,” says Ian.
“Me too,” says Jody.
I first met the unforgettable Joel White at the foot of Mount Washington. I was 14 and one among a group of summer-camp kids he was to lead to the summit. I should have known he had survivalist tendencies, because survivalists have in common with 14-year-old boys a love of two things: pocket-size gadgets that do unlikely things of questionable practical value, and explosions. And on that day in the early ’90s, White had all sorts of tricks up the sleeve of his denim jacket.
After disintegrating a tree stump in Ammonoosuc Ravine with a quarter stick of dynamite, he showed us what looked like a thumb-sized revolver that shot dyed pepper spray. It would stain the skin of an unlucky assailant for seven years, he said, making him easier to apprehend. “But,” White told his rapt admirers, “around these pahts the attacker’s more likely to be bay-uh” — which was to say, “bear.”
“Where’d you get that funny accent, Mr. White?” a boy from Connecticut asked.
White thought for a minute, then cautiously began, “I suppose there’s Maine, a little bit of Vermont, some Massachusetts, and a dash of Canader.” He left a pregnant pause before concluding, “I like to call it a New Hampshire accent.”
Now 60, White still wears waist-length hair and is built like a fireplug, a compact bundle of muscle that makes you take him seriously as a woodsman. His father died when he was 15, and he took over the family septic-pumping business. After five years, married now, he bought the business, as well as a mountaintop A-frame camp with no water, no electricity, and no septic system. He cut a driveway with an axe and rotated the A-frame to face south. Over the years, he’s brought in modern comforts and put on two additions, but the structures are built from wood harvested on the mountain and reflect White’s rustic eccentricity.
Survivalist is a label White neither self-applies nor rejects. He values preparedness partly because of his environment: He and his wife, Bonnie, live on a mountaintop, where access can be difficult and winter sometimes lasts six months. But he’s also wary of the state and interprets the world in terms of biblical prophecy. Unlike many suspicious people, however, he’s buoyant and friendly and, in all the hours I spent with him, never badmouthed anyone — except the Antichrist.
White likes to figure, which makes him an excellent prepper, and he figures that the essentials for surviving a cataclysm are three things: precious metal, food and firearms. For food, he has a stockpile of military MREs and freeze-dried meals that last 20 years. But guns and ammo are what White gets excited about. “Everybody should have an M-16-type gun,” he says. “You could go against tyranny if you had to, and you can hunt with it. Then you need something short for protecting your house.”
White belongs to a target-shooting club called the Dalton Gang. Members compete in intricate multi-gun challenges. White — alias “Longhair” — shoots with two pistols, a lever-action rifle and a shotgun. It’s great practice for shooting under pressure, and other members are also interested in survivalism. “A lot of them are older guys,” White says. “They’ve seen the Depression. They know that any minute anything could snap.”
“The disaster you worry about then,” I ask, “do you imagine it like the Depression, a traumatic but reparable breakdown?”
“Except,” he says emphatically, “what I told you about what the Bible says is coming. We know it’s going to get apocalyptic.”
As a young man, White read the Bible cover to cover. “Once I figured out things were happening in threes,” he explains, “that helped me understand Revelation better when I got there.” He spent 20 years literally cutting a Bible into verse-sized pieces, collating all the prophetic passages on to a 7-foot timeline of the Apocalypse. Without this long view, he says, the Book of Revelation makes no sense.
His main contention is that the rapture — the transportation of believers into heaven at Christ’s second coming, according to Evangelical theology — will happen near, but not quite at, the end of a strife-ridden 7-year period known as the Great Tribulation. “Here’s your seven years,” he says, launching into an explanation of a supplementary chart covering the fine details of the Tribulation. Then comes the War of Armageddon.
The Tribulation, though, is what White and other literalist premillennial Christians worry about, since by the time Armageddon starts they hope to be gone. White’s description of events is a mash-up of cryptic biblical passages and flame-breathing Hollywood action. Filtered through his solemn phrasing and old-fashioned Yankee accent, the effect is like Jonathan Edwards giving his buddies an off-the-cuff review of “Independence Day” down at the bar.
But White can return easily to the secular from this eschatological excursus. “Let me show you my newest toy,” he says, drawing what looks like a credit-card sleeve from his pocket. It unfolds into a .22-caliber pistol. “Wicked, idn’t it?” he says. “Carries four extra rounds.” He hands it to me and pulls out a pen, which is another .22. Then he straightens up in his armchair to expose his belt buckle. “Another one?” I say. “Ayuh,” he says, smiling. “This is what I wear on Sundays.”
After he’s plucked an assault rifle from behind his chair, then fished out a waterproof survival model from behind the couch, he leads me up a Swiss Family Robinson staircase to show me the view from the bedroom. “These walls are so thick a bullet ain’t getting through unless they got .50 caliber,” he says, giving one a knock. From every nook around the bed he pulls out more firearms: a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun (made following federal rules on length, since New Hampshire doesn’t have any), a Yellow Boy lever-action rifle, a .410 that can fire hollow-point slugs or .45 Long Colt pistol rounds and, finally, a 12 gauge with a folding stock that looks like something Mad Max would pack.
Looking over the hills I try to imagine this place under siege. White doesn’t really think an armed civilian could hold his own against an army. If chaos reigns, how worried will the government be about a few prepared individuals anyway? The real matter, in his reasoning, will be defending himself against other civilians, “because when everything drops out you’re going to have them roaming — to get your food, whatever they can — because they didn’t stock up on anything, because now you’re talking survival.”
White doesn’t read books about prepping. He’s not internet-savvy. “My whole life has been like this,” he says. “For my parents it was normal. We didn’t have silver or gold, but we had guns and ammo that we could trade if we had to. We had a cellar full of food we grew ourselves. It’s still our normalcy, but now people look at you like you’re crazy. People move up from Mass and say, ‘We couldn’t do that back where we come from. Let’s change the laws here too.’ Well, this is the way we grew up.”
White traces his ancestry to Peregrine White, who was born on the Mayflower while it rode off Cape Cod. It’s not important whether he’s a literal descendant of the first New Englander. He believes it. Family tradition also says his mother’s side has Native American roots. His family has been in northern New Hampshire for longer than anyone remembers. But like the others in this story, they too were once newcomers, and it probably wasn’t long before they started bemoaning immigration from Massachusetts.
It’s hard to put a finger on what makes New Hampshire distinctive. I once met a Westerner who said it and Maine were the only eastern states he felt comfortable in. Later, I had a summer job that sometimes involved crossing into Massachusetts. As soon as we’d hit the “Live Free or Die” sign at the border coming home, my boss would reflexively release his seatbelt and heave a sigh, as though he’d just sloughed his shackles. These two anecdotes go as far as anything in explaining New Hampshire’s uniqueness.
“Live free or die” began as a revolutionary rallying cry, but on our license plates it sounds like an ultimatum, compelling a question: What are you supposed to do, in a country where freedom is taken for granted, when you’re commanded to “live free?” Clearly, you can’t just bask in it. You have to exercise your freedom. Unbuckling a seatbelt becomes a private declaration of independence. Discharging explosives in a National Forest is another. Could upping the ante on everyday life, raising it to survival, be a third?
Horace Greeley, who was born in New Hampshire, famously encouraged Americans to “go West and grow up with the country.” But there have always been those who have preferred to stay put and grow up however they damn well please. For such people, there is New Hampshire. “Live free or die” did not become the state motto until 1945. At the time, it was only one among several suggestions. Another was “Pioneers, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”