The narrow, worn track in West Virginia, close to the foothills of the Appalachians, leads to a camp set back in the woods, where a group of US survivalists began preparing for the collapse of civilization long before the arrival of the new coronavirus that has brought so much of the world to a halt.
Boxes full of family-size tins of food, bags of freeze-dried victuals that can last up to 25 years, rice, flour… the survivalists did not wait for the wave of panic-buying that has emptied shelves across the country: their provisions were already neatly stacked up in a bunker made of reinforced concrete and dug a meter (yard) into the ground.
Ever-ready, they even have ample supplies of two of the most sought-after commodities in the jittery country: toilet paper and face masks.
“It’s worth a lot of money now!” joked Steve Rene, presenting the 100-acre (40 hectares) site that he manages as though it were a holiday camp. Which it kind of is.
The Fortitude Ranch’s motto embraces both End Times and more normal times: “Prepare for the Worst… Enjoy the Present!” Members have up to two weeks each year to revel in this rural retreat, enjoying nature, hiking or trout fishing in the appropriately named Lost River.
Friendly and clear-headed, Rene, the manager of the West Virginia site — there is another branch in Colorado — tries from the outset to sweep away the cliches surrounding survivalists, also known as “preppers” for their constant Doomsday preparations.
“It’s not a bunch of crazy people with this idea that tomorrow the world ends,” he said.
– Collapse, uprising –
“We’re not militaristic. We have no ties with militias, anything like that,” he insisted, although his past military service -– he served in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991 -– is evident from the impeccably ironed brown shirt he wears.
Nevertheless, there are lookout posts in all four corners of the property, and there is a high-caliber rifle, capable of stopping an armored vehicle, in the ranch’s living room to convince would-be new recruits of just how seriously the members take this enterprise.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” said the manager, standing among the bare early spring trees.
More than foreign invaders, the survivalists view their main threat as fellow Americans rushing out to steal their provisions if public order collapses as a result of a nuclear or biological weapons strike, an economic implosion, a political uprising, a pandemic or a mix of any of the above.
“Obviously that’s not very likely, but the possibility exists,” said Rene.
“If you’re not prepared in some way, you have just nowhere to go, nothing to do. Everybody scrambles and lots of things get out of hand.”
A committee of five people, including Rene, would decide in an emergency whether to declare a “catastrophe scenario,” in which case all the members would be invited to retire to the barricaded camp, after which entry would only be permitted upon production of a secret password.
In the case of an epidemic, the temperature of each new arrival would be monitored with a no-contact thermometer before they can enter to enjoy free access to a self-sustaining ecosystem that includes wells, solar panels, radio equipment, greenhouses, locally sourced chickens, goats and cows and a ditch where possible contaminated bodies can be incinerated.
– ‘Life insurance’ –
The creator of the Fortitude Ranch franchise, Drew Miller, is a former military intelligence expert and Harvard graduate who hopes to establish a dozen such retreats across the United States.
As opposed to the “luxury bunkers” that the super-rich are building themselves, the entrepreneur is aiming clearly at the middle-class market. People pay at least $1,000 per year, per person, for the basic package: a berth in a bunker dormitory.
“It’s like a life insurance policy that actually protects your life, rather than a life insurance policy that pays to bury you,” said Rene, who noted his site has the capacity to house up to 500 people in different buildings spread across the property, which is about a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital Washington.
Rene has been getting more and more inquiries and emails as the coronavirus spreads across the country. Worried people who already had the idea of survivalism “at the back of their mind” are now seeing “there can be a need,” the former soldier told AFP.
A laptop open next to him shows an online map displaying the spread of the virus in real time. There are no red dots in the vicinity of the survivalists’ ranch: as of Monday, West Virginia was the last state in the country not to have declared any cases of the disease that has shut down so much of the world.