It’s the night before Valentine’s Day, and the world is ending.
I am in Lakeland, Florida, for the weekend; a small, well-manicured town surrounded by strip malls and lakelets an hour outside of Tampa. The breeze is cool, but the air tastes of the tropics. There are alligators in the lakes, I’m told.
Tomorrow at 9am, the doors will open for the National Preppers and Survivalists Expo , the largest of its kind for people preparing to face the apocalypse, civil unrest, natural disasters or some combination of all three.
Some of them are preparing to “bug-out” (as in, run for the hills when the shit hits the fan) in large paramilitary units or tightknit bug-out teams. Others are preparing to “bug-in”: hunker down in bunkers with an appalling amounts of guns, ammunition and freeze-dried macaroni.
The Lakeland Center, where the expo will be held, crouches like an ancient monster on the outskirts of town. Attached to it is a Hyatt. In the parking lot, my little Kia rental is dwarfed by enormous trucks.
‘I’ve already got the chainsaw’
Entering the high-roofed expo hall the next morning, I find myself staring down the barrel of an enormous machine gun.
It’s a 50-caliber, military-spec, and it’ll cut straight through concrete and solid steel. This one is a show gun, though if you have a level 3 dealer’s licence, it’s yours for $13,250. The company mainly sales them to military customers, but are offering a discount (and free shipping) for expo customers. I have the salesman take a photo of me holding it, sunglasses on. I look ridiculous.
The sheer variation of equipment on display is overwhelming. There are gas masks, bullet-proof vests, freeze-dried foods, medical supplies, hydroponic food-growing kits, portable power generators, water purification tablets and beekeeping equipment.
There are gold bars, for when currencies collapse. Of course there’s camouflage clothing, but there’s also a family from Minnesota selling essential oils.
There are guns – from hunting rifles to pepper-spray guns – and crossbows, with everything imaginable in-between. There are survival-spec “bug-out” trailers, with camouflaged chemical toilets. There are stalls selling sniper scopes, grips, gun parts and additions.
There are torches, tools and tchotchkes – even a battle axe. There are pen knives, flick knives, bowie knives, folding knives, knives with lighters build into the grip, big fuck-off machetes and small, vicious knives designed for concealment with knuckledusters built into the grip. Incongruously, there’s a stall selling vibrating plate exercise machines.
A woman called Linda is selling Valentine’s themed kitsch alongside stools with hidden compartments for pistols. A pink tea tray spells out “L-O-V-E” in grey stencilled assault rifles.
Outside, smoking cigarettes in the sun, people compare prepping anecdotes. One couple have come down from New England, which has just seen its eighth foot of snow in a month. “Living up there basically necessitates the prepper lifestyle,” says the guy, who looks in his late 20s and has a beard. “I’ve already got the chainsaw in the back of my truck.”
“Well, the tomahawk, anyway,” his girlfriend cuts in.
“Like the ones we had in ‘Nam,” says an older guy with a gnarled hiking stick. The first guy, who can’t be more than 25, nods sagely.
“Tomahawk? I got pretty good at throwing ‘em”, says an elderly woman with disarming nonchalance, leaning on her cane and blowing out a cloud of smoke.
I catch up with Ray McCreary, who runs the expo. He tells me that the idea came from running shows for the preparedness industry, when he wondered: why don’t these guys sell to the public? He says that after Obama got elected, there was a huge upswing in demand.
McCreary is not a prepper himself. “I think ‘prepper’ in general has negative connotations,” he says. “People view it as somebody who’s out in the sticks, who wants to live off the grid.” Nothing wrong with that, I say, conversationally. “No, no no no,” he says quickly. “And we definitely have many people who come to our shows who like that lifestyle, and that’s great, we support it.”
The expo is indeed a broad church; environmentalists selling devices that re-use drinking water rub shoulders with guys with mullets wearing T-shirts with bald eagles clutching flags or similar, selling snub-nosed pistols and hunting rifles. Some people I speak to are here for “the lifestyle”, but others are just interested.
In a way, especially here in Florida, a lot of what is being prepared for is reasonable. McCreary says that hurricane Katrina was a watershed moment.
Richard Duarte, an attorney, is here giving talks and selling his book, Surviving Doomsday. “Folks are preparing for all kinds; from serious emergencies, like hurricanes and floods and earthquakes, to the ridiculous,” he says. “You’ll speak to people preparing for a zombie apocalypse, or the government taking over and putting them in a camp.”
But they’re not all like that, Duarte says. Preparing for hurricanes and other natural disasters just makes good sense. He tells me he was awoken to the need for preparedness after barely surviving hurricane Andrew in 1992. “I could have very easily died that day,” he says. “That was my wakeup call. My goal is to dispel the myth and the fantasy and say this just makes common sense.”
At the back of the expo hall, looking slightly forlorn in a froggish way, wearing a neon yellow T-shirt that says “Climate change through climate engineering”, is Chris.
Next to him, on the table, is a cardboard sign. On it, handwritten in black marker, is the following missive:
WE ARE RECRUITING For A Small ‘Bug-Out’ team. WE need ‘Combat’ Para-medic, Doctor ‘surgeon’, Pre-medical student with a few years of Knowledge. JOIN US.
Chris refuses to tell me his last name. But he did he have opinions to share, beginning with Obama, who is apparently an augur of doom known as The Leopard.
“This is going to be as a result of Wormwood [an angel],” he barks in a thick Long Island accent. “Planet X. 3,357 years ago, it came about. How do you think the Mayan cities and the Pyramids under the Antarctic they just found ended up underwater? Because of Wormwood. Now Wormwood is coming again, we’re gonna get more water, less landmass, and then the fire that God said in the Bible – a solar storm.”
I nod, ticking off a conspiracy theory bingo card in my head.
“If Obama is indeed The Leopard,” Chris continues, ignoring the glazed look in my eyes, “then in the murals – the giant pictures in the Denver airport, have you ever seen that, with the murals with the leopard?” I nod vaguely.
He continues, shifting up through the conspiratorial gears with admirable rapidity. The Illuminati. The Rapture. The All-Seeing eye. Nostradamus. Aliens. Chemtrails. Tick, tick, tick.
I am interrupted from an almost trance-like state by his unorthodox but amusing pronunciation of Fukushima as “Fushushima” and decide that the conversation has gone far enough off-piste, so I ask him about the bug-out team. There are 12 of them, he tells me, plus families; retired law enforcement or military.
Standing uncomfortably close behind me, listening with rapt attention, is Darren Smith, who looks a bit like a movie star; he has the breezy air of the wealthy. He tells me he has already bugged-out – to Belize. There, he and his closed ones are almost completely sustainable, with 10,000 fruit trees, herds of goats, sheep and chickens. Nice, I think.
But Chris seizes on the opportunity to criticise. “Belize? Oh, no no no,” he says, rolling his eyes. “The south Pacific? No, you gotta be at the highest elevations. Colorado will be the highest.”
The news that Colorado would be a good place to go brings Smith to a stop. “But you gotta be out of America, right?” he says. “No, no,” says Chris. “Denver, Wyoming, New Mexico.” Smith looks discomfited.
Before we part, Smith tells me that economically, the western world’s about to fail. “It’s just a cyclical thing.” He says he’s not worried about bogeymen or anything, but says that when the economic system collapses, it could be decades before it’s rebuilt. He’s quite convincing.
‘These are do-it-yourself people’
Some school friends and I once sat down over beers, years ago, and worked out a detailed plan in case of a zombie apocalypse. The details now escape me, but I remember that they involved walking down train lines, raiding police stations for supplies, riot gear, and trying to get to the coast.
I ask Richard Duarte, of Surviving Doomsday fame, if zombie fiction and the like had planted the seeds of imagination in people’s heads. “I mean, shows like that are good entertainment … very little of it is factual,” he says, slightly unnecessarily. “What I do like is it raises some level of awareness, and once someone starts thinking about the topic they are more likely to research it, make good decisions.”
To be fair, a lot of the equipment I see could be very useful. For example, I really like the bio-dome guys. They have invented an ingenious air filtration system, which has been tested on military proving grounds, they tell me, to rave reviews. The doomsday crowd aren’t their core market – military and emergency services are – but they are selling a small, pop-up emergency tent, the “prepper dome”, which is completely safe from biological and chemical attacks.
We talk about the crowd at the expo. “These are do-it yourself people,” says Marty, who owns the company. “They don’t trust anyone. Not the government, not corporations. They want to do it themselves.”
‘When the shit hits the fan, I’m going’
When I speak to Chris again, I ask him if he’s had any luck finding a paramedic for his team. He hasn’t. “I’ve run into all the wackos,” he says.
I ask what he did for Valentine’s Day, and he says he gave his wife a card. “Is she here?” I ask. He suddenly looks tired. “No.” I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them. “I bought equipment for my son,” he says. “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son. My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride… ” Bingo! He begins another rant.
I interrupt him to get more details about his wife. “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly. “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”
For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.
“How does that make you feel?” I ask.
“What can I do about it?” he says. “I love her. Been with her 27 years. But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015