This story is part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29. It was reported between March 11 and 13.
From an undisclosed location somewhere in rural Maine, a man named Jimmy is giving me advice on how to survive an apocalypse. He refuses to share his full name because that would violate a sacred rule of prepping: Don’t tell them who you are. Because when something very bad happens in America, as preppers have long predicted it will, people like me — in other words, the woefully unprepared masses — will come knocking.
“You, with the little kids? You should have a minivan ready to load up with supplies,” he tells me. “And the idea of having a ‘go bag’ is, you have extra medicine, food, maybe a little cash, you know, MREs or dehydrated food.”
I do not own a minivan, and I did not know what a Meal Ready to Eat was until I Googled it. As coronavirus panic set in over recent weeks, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was among the anxious crowds who raced to big-box stores to buy toilet paper and canned beans and Lysol wipes. Jimmy, on the other hand, calmly went about his daily routine at the solar-powered house he shares with his wife in the woods, where he long ago stockpiled more than enough food, water, medicine, and other supplies to outlast the pandemic.
“We can lock the gate to our property and we don’t have to leave for years,” the 62-year-old says. “We would be fine.”
Jimmy could be described as a “prepper,” part of an oft-ridiculed community that takes its name from tireless preparation for a major disaster. As I fumbled clumsily through my own preparations in the suburbs, where my husband and I are raising three young children, I wondered how preppers were feeling. They’re often portrayed as over-the-top fanatics in popular culture, thanks to shows like Doomsday Preppers. Do they feel vindicated? And are they better equipped to survive than the rest of us?
“It was only a matter of time before something like this happened,” says Derrick, a 45-year-old writer from central Maine. He also doesn’t want his last name printed because of the stigma associated with prepping, though he points out the subculture has grown beyond its radical-right, gun-rights origins to liberal devotees motivated by fears of global warming. Derrick runs Prepper Press, a “survival media company" that publishes how-to guides, doomsday novels, and the occasional tongue-in-cheek story about “prepping for the wasteland.”
Derrick says most preppers already have fully stocked pantries and own many of the products that have recently disappeared from shelves, such as medical-grade N95 respirator face masks. He also has items I hadn’t even considered buying, like paper maps (in case the coronavirus takes down Google Maps?), fire starters, and water filters. He hasn’t yet heard of anyone who plans to “bug out” — prepper slang for getting the heck out of dodge and into an underground bunker somewhere. In any case, he says, that’s simply not realistic for most people — even preppers.
“I don’t own a remote cabin in the woods,” he says. “And I’m also, you know, living a normal life. So I’ve got a job. I can’t just uproot my family.”
Instead, he’s going to self-quarantine like the rest of us. But he’s not panicking, which is somehow comforting to hear. Jimmy says, “I don’t think it will be one thing that will bring [the country] down. “But it would be a combination of different things that could cause the system to fail. Because the more complicated something gets, the more things that can go wrong.”
Instead of letting our anxiety spiral out of control, we should ignore the “herd mentality” and formulate an educated response to what’s happening, says Jeffrey Weinstein, a 31-year-old paramedic who lives in Enfield, New Hampshire, with his wife and two children.
“You could have a flood, an earthquake, a tornado, hurricane, that causes this type of panic again in the future. You should avoid this type of panic by being prepared,” says Weinstein, who owns a private paramedic training company, Armageddon Medical LLC, which teaches civilians emergency medical survival skills.
Weinstein has a camping tent ready to go in the highly unlikely event that they do have to abandon their home, but he plans to stay put and rely on the astonishing stores in his basement, which include canned goods, freeze-dried food, silicone respirators, tourniquets, intubation supplies, solar-powered phone chargers, IV supplies, antibiotics, and even a dental kit to fix cavities. In any crisis, Weinstein recommends staying focused on the essentials — food, shelter, water, and power — as well as learning basic first-aid and CPR skills. In addition, he says, you can’t forget to protect your family’s financial health.
“You never know when an incident is going to occur that completely uproots your lifestyle. And it doesn’t always have to be a physical or natural disaster,” he says. “It could be the loss of a loved one. It could be the loss of a job. You know, I have the ability where, if I were to lose my job tomorrow, I can still feed my family for a year.”
Freeing yourself from the constraints of consumer culture also has mental and physical benefits, says Jimmy, who eats fresh produce from the garden and orchard he planted on his 45-acre property, heats his home with a wood cook stove, and hasn’t paid an electric bill in years. He trades food and other essential goods with homesteaders and Amish families who live nearby. “People think [the way we live] is so, so backwards, but I’m living the way my grandparents and my great grandparents lived,” he says. “They were independent. They were American. They didn’t need help from the government.”
Are we all destined to become preppers in a post-coronavirus world? I don’t think I’ll ever buy freeze-dried food — I’m not that nervous — but I would like to live in a smarter and more sustainable way. Maybe a bit more like Sarah Murphy, a 42-year-old landscape designer who lives in Boxborough with her husband, their four kids, and a menagerie that includes chickens, horses, goats, and pigs. Her freezer is filled with organic chickens that she helped slaughter. Her pantry contains, among other long-lasting staples, homemade applesauce from the orchard, maple syrup from sap she collected herself, bone broth, and dried herbs from the garden.
Murphy didn’t race to the store when the coronavirus arrived in New England. She isn’t a prepper, but she’s taking the pandemic in stride. If neighbors need help, she’ll share her family’s reserves.
“Yeah, I don’t tend to worry about this sort of stuff very much,” she says. “My kids are all home, but I’m not panicking. . . . And I think, honestly, we have enough food here at the house to do fine.”
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Meghan Barr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.