When I climb into Scott Campbell’s warm truck, it’s with gratitude and trepidation. We’re both early, and the parking lot’s cold, but I don’t know Scott all that well, and while he’s been kind in inviting me along, he’s also got a burr cut, a barbed-wire bicep tattoo and a concealed-carry permit I’ve heard him brag about. He cranks the heat, and we talk about the earthquakes in Oklahoma—how we can feel them all the way in northwest Arkansas.
When others arrive, we get out and join them for Show & Tell. A waifish, camo-clad kid named Hop, no older than twenty, has pulled out his new double-ply, US woodland pattern poncho with matching pouch. He got it on sale last week and wants to show it off. Ferociously bearded, blue-eyed and older, Wookie has a poncho too, but his has a woobie inside, a padded liner that helps it double as a sleeping bag. He lets me feel it, and I discover that woobies resemble horse blankets. Despite his limp, Scott hurries over to assess both ponchos. Scott hasn’t brought his pack, but he wants us to know that he has a poncho and two woobies stashed in his storage shed at home.
Tick stands apart, dramatically indifferent to the jockeying of the younger set. He tells them all to simmer down, that it isn’t even raining properly on this cold February morning in Fayetteville. The oldest of the group by at least a decade, Tick wears a camo anorak and matching bucket hat and has an easy smile, despite a couple of rotten teeth right in front. He smokes Pall Malls in quick, sucking succession and is eager to talk, though he hesitates when he spots me. He’s pleased to meet me, and he wants me to know I’m welcome, but if I try to find out more about him, he warns, like a background check, I’ll get “stonewalled” by the Department of Defense. He doesn’t detail how the DOD will accomplish this, or why.
Show & Tell continues for another hour behind Fayetteville’s Lifesource Education Center, where the Arkansas Defense Force (ADF), the state’s independent militia since 2007, holds its Northwest Arkansas training sessions. For weeks now I’ve been attending trainings with the Fayetteville Preppers group—a homesteaders club cross-pollinated with militia members—but this is my first Defense Force meeting. Today’s event is open to civilians (as Tick calls nonmembers), so I’m here to be trained in orienteering. Scott, an active member of both the Preppers, who focus on supply, and the ADF, who focus on defense, offered to bring me along. The only problem is that none of us got the FRAGO (or “fragmentary order,” essentially, an “update”) that changed the meeting time from 0900 to 1030, so we’re locked out of the building and waiting on Colonel Werner, who has the keys.
It’s thirty degrees out, and Scott and I are the only ones not in camouflage, though Scott’s got his Search & Rescue fleece. I’m wearing all the neutral, non–city slicker clothing I own, but without a scarf or hat, it’s difficult to maintain a pose of nonchalant robustness. It feels vital to my developing rapport with these guys not to let on that I’m a wuss, and what’s more, poorly prepared—anathema to this group of overgrown Boy Scouts, ex-snipers, proto-survivalists, and militiamen who gather each week to maintain and expand their skills in survival, defense, and supply. Beyond companionship, they do this in the name of protecting their families, communities, and, if need be, every resident of Arkansas, should an emergency situation arise. Potential emergency situations they cite, upon further questioning, include gang violence, socialist rioting, martial law, natural disaster, or the infiltration and attack of ISIS or China.
Cowed into returning his poncho to the trunk, Hop pulls out his new rifle instead, which draws Wookie and Scott like fourth-graders to a Cal Ripken, Jr., rookie card. They caress and pet the thing, debate scopes, slings, mounts and bipods. Scott, no doubt in order to judge his own pack comparatively, lifts Wookie’s rucksack and whistles. “Whatcha got in here, bricks?”
“Bullets,” Wookie says, with evident glee. “And some Zesty Beef Heaters.”
Even as I secretly shiver and struggle to keep up with the stream of gun names, military acronyms, and inside jokes, I’m disarmed by their teasing, brotherly tone, as though they were discussing an intramural softball league rather than how to blow a drone out of the sky using a homemade EMP (electromagnetic pulse). In fact, in an hour and a half of discussion about poncho plies, full metal jackets, birdshot, and homemade napalm rockets (just mix gunpowder with Jell-O and add water), I can’t get over how much the tenure of their chatter resembles the competitive, mischievous, stuff-obsessed air of adolescence. Still, every time I start to feel acclimated, I’m brought back to attention by some jarring gesture or aside. “I mean, what are we supposed to do with a Muslim president?” Tick says, gravely. Scott, who is holding the rifle, brings it up, mimes cocking, mimes KABOOM.
By the end of the first hour, I’m mostly numb and still getting my bearings, but they seem to have become more aware of me, and more concerned with managing their image. They know what it looks like, they say. But don’t misunderstand. Over the next thirty minutes, each man addresses what he perceives to be the “militia-prepper stereotype” perpetrated by the MSM, or mainstream media.
Earlier, in the truck, Scott had explained that the ADF hosts nonmember trainings to prove they aren’t a bunch of crazies. Later, during the class, I’m even invited to be in photos for the website, since as Scott is kind enough to point out: “You’ll do a lot to make our image less threatening.” This question of image seems deeply important. They keep coming back to it.
For starters, Tick is quick to point out the militia is in no way racist or antigovernment. “We welcome anyone,” he says. “Any skin color, any faith.” He puffs on his fifth or sixth Pall Mall and leans in. “Well, maybe not Muslims,” he smirks, all palsy, then straightens, returning to business. “But seriously, if your heart’s in the right place, you’re welcome to join us.” The other guys are nodding at this. “And if you don’t want to join us, we’ll protect you. Even if we don’t like you, we’ll protect you.” This gets a lot of mumbles and nods, the equivalent of a chorus of “Amens.”
From Wookie, I get an important addendum: “The thing you’ve gotta get clear is, we don’t want any of this bad stuff to happen. We have families.” At this, jokes are made about Wookie’s wife, which lead me to believe Wookie is the group’s token romantic. Then Tick tells a story about running into a state trooper while teaching his seven-year-old nephew how to splint a leg fracture with a machete, which seems to be intended as evidence that he, too, is a family man.
Finally, there’s a pause long enough for Scott to chime in: “People think we’re nuts because, well, how can a small group of us”—he gestures around the circle—“how can a handful of guys think they can stand up against a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand gang members, national guardsmen, terrorists, you name it—” He’s ticking off the enemy on his fingers. “Well, because we have skills.” He nods at Tick. “We’re old for a reason.”
Before today, my conversations in this parking lot have had more benign concerns: what to name my sourdough starter, the shelf-life of aspirin, how to make DIY seedling-warmers out of Christmas lights. I’ve attended three Fayetteville Preppers meetings at the Lifesource building, the first on “Baking with Sourdough,” the second on “Emergency Medicine,” the third on “Starting and Storing Seeds,” and despite the informal meetup group’s more modest mission—to share knowledge—its members are generally less forthcoming about their personal practices and beliefs.
I met Scott while taste-testing sourdough pancakes during the first meeting. I’d planned to approach the elderly hosts, self-described “off-grid geeks” Al and Arn, who seemed, by nature of their more advanced position on the road to self-sufficiency, to be the group’s natural leaders. (If the Fayetteville Preppers had a graph to illustrate their value system, “Knowledge” and “Execution” would be on the x and y axes.) But before the first session had even begun, Scott, who turned out to be the garrulous teacher’s pet, and Chuck, the mustachioed class clown, had already discovered that in the event of an emergency, I could not make fire.
“Got a lighter?” asked Scott.
“Nope,” I said.
“Zippo?” asked Chuck.
“I don’t smoke.”
“I don’t care,” said Scott. “You at least need a pocket flint, or you could get stuck in a really bad situation.” He pulled out his flint, part of a hip-mounted multi-tool, which looked like an old Blackberry stylus. I nodded, like I’d go right out and get one.
“Better yet—ever go to Sonic?” he asked.
“Love Sonic,” said Chuck, nodding along.
“Sure, I guess.” I really didn’t go to Sonic that often, but I hated to keep disappointing them.
“Okay, so next time, ask for extra straws.”
I nodded along, took notes.
“Then you go home, roll some cotton balls in Vaseline—”
“Get ’em real saturated,” interrupts Chuck.
“And then you stuff the cotton-jelly down into the straws.”
“Like with a knitting needle,” interrupted Chuck.
“Anything long and narrow,” Scott nodded. “Just cut them up and seal the ends with the lighter you’re going to buy. And poof—instant fire starters.”
Chuck patted his front shirt pocket. “Then you keep ’em on your person. Just in case.”
“Just in case” becomes a familiar refrain, but when I push—“In case of what?”—I’m consistently rebuffed. The group spends between eight and twelve hours each month sharing skills on sustainable, off-grid living—how to can meat, how to store seeds, how to stock emergency medical kits—but no one seems all that keen on talking about why.
Painted as enemies in the more sensationalist corners of the internet—the web of alternative news, advice blogs, and vendors that cater to various segments of the more than 3 million preppers in the United States—the federal government and the concerned prepper share many of the same anxieties. And it’s clear the government has doubled down on climate change as the most likely catalyst of TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It). In its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which seeks to “adapt, reshape, and rebalance our military to prepare for the strategic challenges and opportunities we face in years ahead,” the Department of Defense states that it fully expects climate change to wreak both direct and indirect havoc:
Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.
Still, when I push the Fayetteville Preppers to describe their own ideas about the most likely threat, rather than theorize, they prefer to stick to the idiosyncratic or improbable. Chuck makes it into a joke.
“Remember the ice storm of 2009?” Chuck asks, leaning in. I didn’t live in Arkansas then, but people mention it often enough. Long-term power outages, property damage, hundreds of felled trees and telephone poles.
“Yeah,” I nod, trying to look grave. “I heard it was bad.”
This is the response Chuck was hoping for. He leans back in his chair. “Really? I wouldn’t know.” He shrugs, now farcically nonchalant. It takes me a second to get it, and when I finally catch on, he winks.
At the second meeting, it’s the opposite problem. Firehawk, the group’s online administrator and host of “Emergency Medicine,” starts with the following announcement: “I’ll be covering how to treat or respond to common medical issues both in the now,” he enunciates, “and post—what’ll it be today?”
“Volcanoes!” Chuck offers, from the back row.
“All right,” says Firehawk. “Post ‘every-volcano-in-the-world-erupting-at-once,’ okay?”
Back in the cold, damp parking lot, the militia members are more upfront. By the time Colonel Werner arrives with the keys and a crate of training supplies—compasses, survey maps, Ranger beads, Heater meals—I can’t tell whether I’m relieved, for the sake of my extremities, or disappointed. I’d just gotten them debating the most likely scenario to trigger TEOTWAWKI.
“My money’s on an EMP,” says Tick. He argues that the damage done by an electromagnetic pulse to our fragile national grid would be catastrophic. “What with the fact that we outsource all our manufacturing to China.” He looks around for support. “Say the Chinese decide to fry us. How quick do you think they’ll make us replacement transformers?” Scott mentions the Yellowstone caldera, a supervolcano. Hop favors terrorists.
It’s anyone’s guess what will trigger the apocalypse, but when I ask about the when, I get even less. As much as these guys like to talk logistics, they don’t seem much interested in timelines. For those, I must seek out a different sort of prepper.
Ken Uptegrove tells me to look out for “the tallest man in the place” when we agree to meet at Braum’s Custard in Springdale for hot fudge sundaes and a chat about the end times. “I’ve got piercing blue eyes and white hair. I’m pretty hard to miss,” says Ken, founder of ArkHaven Ministries, an online forum that disseminates information on eschatology—the study of end-time events—and his “visionary plans to establish a Prepper Christian community and farm in the Ozark mountains.” He’s also a movie buff, a “hopeless romantic,” and partial to chocolate custard. “Some people even call me a prophet,” he says, but Ken is too humble to go that far himself. “God tells me things, that doesn’t make me a prophet,” he clarifies. But he isn’t coy about his visions.
“I’m easily ten, twenty years in front of everybody,” he says, in an effort to explain how his insight from God, combined with his study of theology, gave him a head start when it came to prepping. He was at a filling station in Richmond Heights, Missouri, in 1974 when he got his first direct transmission. “To this day I could go back and put chalk on the place where the Lord talked to me,” he says, joking about how it wasn’t in a cathedral or a field of wildflowers. “It was just three words: Lead my people,” Ken says. His blue eyes, which are indeed, very piercing, bore into mine. “That meant: physically, mentally spiritually,” he ticks off on his fingers. “I understood without being verbally told that our society is going to crash, our economy is going to crash, and America will not be the place we’ve known these two hundred-some years. We’ll become a Third World nation almost overnight, and all by design. By the antichrist system.”
“What do you mean by ‘antichrist system’?” I ask him.
“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define who or what that is, but it’s very nebulous.” No shit, I’m thinking, but he does, in good faith, try to elaborate. He refers me to an essay he’s written on the subject, about Obama and Satan. But ultimately, I’m after that timeline.
“There’s an awful lot of bible math,” Ken concedes. “A lot of mistakes, a lot of conjecture.” Even as he’s playing his own naysayer, he’s batting the uncertainty away. “But all the math comes out the same: 2018.”
“2018?” I repeat.
“2018,” he nods. All uncertainty gone. “Nobody believed me in ’74, ’84, ’94. Now people believe. Now people write to me and say, ‘I was so relieved to find your website—I thought I was crazy, no one seems to see this but me.’” The website, I learn, is his ministry. He has no physical congregation or community yet, but a group of two hundred people from all over the world who post on his forum and consult with Ken on issues of eschatology and spiritual prepping.
“So there’s no physical prepping yet?” I clarify, since his website not only describes the ideal “Christian prepper community” at length, but also lists northwest Arkansas real estate that might be well suited to host such a commune.
“If you’re prepared physically and mentally but you aren’t prepared spiritually,” he says, almost as a knee-jerk lecture, “you’re still extremely vulnerable, likely to get killed and fail.”
“Okay,” I say, “but let’s say you are prepared spiritually—”
“Then the physical is very important,” he admits. “Get off the grid before the grid goes off.”
“But 2018 is coming up. Are you planning to be off grid by then?”
He admits the reasons he hasn’t gone off the grid are mostly financial. But he did take steps to move to the Ozarks, a region he and other spiritual thinkers call “a green island of survival,” based on a variety of geographic and divine factors listed in Douglas Nelson’s “Geological Assessment of American Survival,” which is also, conveniently, posted on Ken’s website. It features the following map of protected areas:
Yet despite all the information Ken has collected, and the online community he’s developed, when I mention the ADF and Fayetteville Prepper groups based in the immediate area, he seems surprised, even suspicious. His calculations say there could be a period of great hardship that even the faithful must survive on Earth before they are saved, and for this interim, Ken seems to feel anxiously, if somewhat passively, underprepared. I suggest looking into the trainings and meetings as a way to appease these concerns, but his attitude suggests that despite an overlapping rhetoric, Ken’s brand of prepping is rooted in more solitary, theoretical soil. “ArkHaven,” he writes, “will not be a paramilitary armed camp of survivalists . . . Our protection will be divine or none at all . . . Our prayer warriors will keep up a prayer hedge about us at all times.”
Something tells me suggesting a “prayer hedge” to my new friends in the Lifesource lot would not go over well. The arrival of Colonel Don Werner promptly at 1030, in full camouflage and bearing sheaves of US Geological Survey maps, only reinforces this conviction. Colonel Werner is only a colonel in the ADF, but he is all pomp and formality, and as the certified leader of the day’s training module, he wields enough authority to usher us efficiently into the drab, low-ceilinged warren of beige rooms for Land Navigation & Orienteering 101.
Colonel Werner is younger than I expected, a spry, baby-faced forty-year-old in fatigues, and he’s got a knowitall’s approach to teaching. He fidgets when interrupted and peppers the lecture with snarky, low-hanging asides about kids and iPhones and the perils of relying on GPS. Later, out in the woods around Lake Wedington, he loosens up. We’re tromping through wet, prickly underbrush searching for tiny neon tags as he tells me how he learned land navigation from Basic Training, how he was actually a “desk jockey” engineer in the Air Force.
Temporarily lost on our way to the second marker, I expect he’ll keep telling stories with wilderness-skills morals like the ones he told in class, but now that it’s just the two of us, we end up talking about statistics. Bitching, really. He’s enrolled in an online course as part of his master’s degree program in project management, and it isn’t going well. The course is not hands-on enough and the instructor doesn’t give feedback. I’d taken statistics in college and done poorly as well. In the end, we decide Orienteering 101 is infinitely more useful than Stats 101, and Colonel Werner mitigates his rant by noting that the GI Bill is also covering his EMT certification, which is a breeze. “So what’s the end goal?” I ask. “The dream job?”
“Probably project manager,” he says, “if I can get the certificate.”
We locate our last neon marker and make for the picnic area when we run into Tick and Wookie, guffawing in the ravine. “You just missed it,” says Tick. “We scared the pants off some picnickers.” Wookie gives us the play-by-play: how they heard the couple coming up the path, ducked into the brush, then popped up in unison to elicit the maximum scare. The couple screamed and fled. I don’t blame them. Wookie and Tick, both large men, both armed, materializing from the brush in full camouflage, would certainly be a terrifying sight.
At 1500 we picnic on Heater meals—pouches of food reheated by adding salt water to iron and magnesium powder)—and trade squeeze tubes of chocolate peanut butter for Fancy Fruit. I give the colonel my M&Ms and, in exchange, he gives me his origin story.
After getting out of the service, Werner admits he was “deep into conspiracy theories.” He credits his initial move toward prepping—stockpiling food, water, wood, and gasoline—to reading about MKUltra, the CIA’s mind-control program in the 1950s and ’60s. Werner’s wife got on board after the ice storm of 2009, when due to Werner’s secret prepping, their family experienced little to no deprivation during a week of widespread power outage in their remote mountain town.
Hop accepts my Fancy Fruit and tells me that for him, it was Hurricane Katrina. After living with his mother in a squalid FEMA bungalow, he never wants to be at the mercy of government aid again. “We were right by the zoo,” he tells us, “and at first it was pretty cool because you could see the monkeys climbing all over everything.” Hop laughs but sobers quickly. “But then I started thinking, if the monkeys are loose, what about the boa constrictors?” Hop admits to being pretty paranoid after that, dreaming of giant snakes emerging from the flood waters in the night.
Tick gets the chocolate peanut butter and admits he likes the Ozarks for their central location—he can flee in any direction. After his tenure as a subcontractor to the Department of Defense for antiterrorism training services, he claims it was “a good time to disappear.” And while Tick seems to be milking the aura of scoundrelish mystery he gains from these oblique references to his military service, he appears to take his militia duties seriously.
As Tick’s “battle buddy” from the army, Wookie followed Tick to the Ozarks, and they now live on a secure compound with their respective families. The area where they settled, according to Werner and Scott, used to be known for its meth dens and petty crime, but by all accounts it’s been cleaned up since. If you believe their stories, the revitalization is largely due to Wookie and Tick’s particular brand of neighborhood watch.
Scott, of course, doesn’t need to be bribed with Heater meal swag to open up. In fact, we have to reconvene at Ruby Tuesday’s to get the whole story. It’s a long one. While so many self-described preppers, homesteaders, and militiamen give me the short version of how they came to prepping—the military, alternative news warnings, personal experience with disaster, a rural upbringing—Scott, also the only member happy to provide his full name, takes me on the scenic route. He specialized as a Navy sniper, but was medically discharged with a knee injury before he could see active duty. The glee with which he arranges ketchup bottles and ramekins of ranch dressing to illustrate his sniper training makes his disappointment all the more evident when he speaks of his attempts to reimagine a future after his discharge.
A series of tragic events involving his first wife and son also shed light on his belief in self-sufficiency and preparedness, as well as his suspicion of most government bodies. He was able to save his wife’s life during a road trip as the result of his basic medical training, and he claims his son was de facto kidnapped into the Oklahoma foster care system as the result of federal funding incentives. His focus now is to convert his parents’ 4.5 acres into a more secure, private compound. Though he currently resides in a trailer on the property and cares for his aging parents, he has plans to move the house back from the road, build a fence, and construct a gun range and several sheds so he can empty out the storage units he currently rents.
Still, according to Scott, the big picture is about helping people in “the now.” When he reads about men calling 9-1-1 when their cable goes out, he’s afraid for humanity. He sees himself as a protector of knowledge once broadly held but now fallen from favor with the rise of urbanization. A K-9 trainer and Search & Rescue member in Arkansas and Oklahoma (he was a first responder after the Oklahoma City bombing), Scott says he’s “less interested in volcanoes and more interested in real life.” Expanding on Werner’s classroom jokes about iPhones and GPS, he says, “If your phone dies and you get lost in the woods, I’ll come find you.”
“So, then, why all the time, money, and planning devoted to refurbishing your parents’ land? What’s it all for if not ‘post-volcano’?” I press.
Scott shakes his head. It’s a gesture that means: you’re missing the point. “Survivalism has been around for decades,” Scott points out, “but then it spiked for Y2K and the recent surge is being called a ‘third wave.’” I throw various theories at him. Does he think the movement is being fueled by reality TV? The booming prepper supply industry? The 24-hour news cycle? Nationwide collective dread?
Scott laughs. “Doomsday Preppers is a farce,” he rants, of the National Geographic Channel’s reality show. “But you can occasionally pick up a few tricks. For instance, one episode taught me how to build a Faraday cage.” A Faraday cage, he explains, is a box that protects your electronic equipment from getting fried by an EMP.
“But since when did you start worrying about an EMP? When did that become something you felt you needed to take active measures to protect against?”
Scott shrugs but nods along amiably as I continue to suggest potential contributing factors, citing consistent downward trends in national indexes like trust in mass media, government, and most institutions; how fear of terrorist attacks is at a post-9/11 national high; and how grimmer climate change predictions are released every month. I want to elicit a final statement of philosophy, some nugget that encompasses the allure of the can-do attitude, frontier work ethic, and so-called divine enlightenment of these active, supportive prepper communities, but that also acknowledges the undoubtedly fear-mongering, ignorant, and conspiring strains within the swiftly expanding subculture.
But Scott isn’t interested in all that. With my polls and figures and theorizing, I sound just like the MSM. He wants to talk skills, stories, goods, and services. He wants to rescue people who are lost in the woods and to know how to build a Faraday cage, even if he doesn’t want to buy an extra iPhone to store in it.
In the parking lot after my day of orienteering, Scott leaves me with a standing invitation to his gun range and the gift of a single copper-coned round of birdshot. A “lady-round,” he calls it, bestowing it, and the offer of shooting lessons, with an air of boyish heroism that is his most disarming quality. The colonel gives me his business card—an Arkansas flag crossed with assault rifles—and says I can keep my borrowed compass (implying that I need it more than he does). Wookie and Hop wave. They hold a phone conference every Thursday, if I need to call in. Tick, more morose, more aware all along of my role as skeptic, interloper, and even potential convert, offers a prepper’s version of Pascal’s wager in lieu of a goodbye: “Why not prepare when the upside is so great and the downside so small?” he says. “Why not be the master of your own fate?”
As a parting, proselytizing note, it’s both fitting and infuriating. I felt much the same when I left Ken Uptegrove with the last of his melted sundae, and he insisted on praying for my soul, come 2018.
I take my gifts and pull out of the parking lot onto Route 16. The lot is empty by the time I pass by again thirty minutes later, GPS in hand, newly confident I’m headed home.
Note: The scenes in this piece took place during the winter and spring of 2015. Work on a follow-up is currently in progress.