They’re rich, armed, and ready for the end of days—and they just might live in the McMansion down your street
BY ROD O’CONNOR
ILLUSTRATION: ARTHUR MOUNT
By all appearances, Bob Valenti is your average upwardly mobile suburbanite. The 40-something father of two has a couple of advanced degrees and a high-paying job at a high-flying technology company. He has an aggressive retirement plan and plenty socked away in college funds for his kids. As of last year, he also has a plan for surviving the end of the world as we know it.
A few years ago, Valenti (who asked that his real name not be used, for reasons that will be clear soon enough) and his wife traded their Chicago townhouse for a gorgeous $800,000 residence in west suburban Downers Grove. The idyllic 12-room house features handsome walnut cabinetry, a sprawling yard, and a basement that holds the beginnings of what will ultimately be a year’s stockpile of food and emergency supplies. Valenti recently ordered a box of 50 lighters and is squirreling away batteries, which he believes could someday be highly valuable for bartering. He has 25 pounds of meat in his freezer and another 50 at an undisclosed location out of town that he refers to as “Plan B.” Should he and his family need Plan B, he has a couple of 30-pound packets of “survival seeds” there for jump-starting their own farm.
Valenti, who otherwise seems like a perfectly reasonable man, is preparing for society’s collapse, which he believes could come any day now in the form of a global pandemic or the implosion of our highly leveraged financial system. “All of a sudden, you have hyperinflation, and you’ll need a wagon of cash for a loaf of bread,” he says as we chat in his immaculate kitchen while a cleaning woman vacuums in the next room. “Society could crumble in three days. That’s all it would take. Then it’s going to get primal.”
You can bet Ted Nugent’s crossbow that, for most people, the term “survivalists”—or the more polite “preppers”—conjures images of tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists holed up in Montana hoarding canned pinto beans and assault weapons. National Geographic Channel’s hugely popular Doomsday Preppers, which spotlights fanatics who build bulletproof shelters out of train cars to wait out Armageddon or dress their families in matching HAZMAT suits, reinforces the extreme stereotypes. So do the “doom boom” opportunists who peddle nuke-proof multimillion-dollar luxury condos in abandoned missile silos, complete with spas, rock-climbing walls, hydroponic farms, and HDTV windows programmable to the preapocalyptic view of your choice.
Valenti is just one example of how the prepper movement has climbed out of the bunker and established itself, quietly, along affluent streets in Chicago, its suburbs, and beyond. Combined Universal Martial Applications Survival School chief instructor Waysun Johnny Tsai, with his penchant for knives and a license plate holder that reads “Zombie Police,” looks the hardcore survivalist part but says that his students don’t. Over the past few years, participants in his classes at the Chicago school have included doctors, lawyers, and upper-management types who live in upscale city neighborhoods and hoity-toity surrounding towns. Tsai tells me that he trains individuals for “the possibility, not the probability” of hardcore disasters and civil unrest. They come to him to learn how to build makeshift traps for catching their own food and light fires with a metallic rod and Vaseline-soaked cotton ball after the shit hits the fan—or SHTF, in prepper-speak.
With every new epidemic or terrorist attack in the headlines, a new batch of preppers is born, says David Scott, whose Northbrook company, LifeSecure, sells everything from crush-resistant earthquake survival kits to fireproof masks designed for fleeing a bombed-out building. “We think of it like sediment,” he says of the movement that he, of course, has a stake in stoking. “Another headline comes and another layer forms.”
Scott started his business in 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina, and believes the storm’s aftermath was a wake-up call for thousands of Americans. “It taught people you could go hungry, thirsty, and even die in the U.S. before the government could save you,” he says. “I talk with people on the phone, and they’ll say, ‘I don’t think I’m going to die from Ebola, but it made me think.’ There are a lot of prudent people out there who you wouldn’t identify as preppers who understand the need to be prepared.”
How Prepared Are You for the Apocalypse?
It was last fall’s Ebola outbreak, in fact, that made Valenti suddenly feel he was ill-equipped to protect his family if a pandemic disease were to spiral out of control. “I remember exactly where I was. I was crossing one of the bridges in the Loop, and I thought, Why am I not more prepared for this?” he recalls. “I fear the government isn’t very prepared. I don’t have any confidence that Chicago can handle it; Chicago just figured out how to handle major snowstorms.”
Valenti decided to call one of his hunting buddies, a longtime friend in Wisconsin whose reading list had recently shifted from postapocalyptic fiction to books that addressed “more plausible scenarios,” as Valenti puts it. “He was having exactly the same thoughts. And he had already done research. He’s like, ‘I’m thinking about starting to buy some food.’ ”
Within days, Valenti kicked off his own efforts, which he sees as no different from those in other walks of his life. As a professional, he likes to be overprepared. “I am paid to anticipate the questions my clients are going to ask,” he says. He’s telecommuting today, so his usual khakis have been replaced with comfy sweats and a Blackhawks cap he wears backward. He walks me down to the basement and cracks open two large plastic storage trunks. Inside one is a six-gallon bucket containing 330 servings of just-add-water meals with a 20-year shelf life (the same Chef’s Banquet All-Purpose Readiness Kits that sell for $121 on Amazon), a water purifier you can drop in your tub—which can store 100 gallons of drinking water—and a military-grade first-aid kit complete with sutures, splints, and a hand-crank emergency radio. The other trunk holds three 15-gallon containers of gas.
“Come back in a year [and my stockpile] will be double the size,” he says. “Ultimately, it comes down to one fundamental concept. I have the disposable income. I’d rather be in a situation where I have something and I don’t need it than need something and I don’t have it.”
Valenti’s largest-scale effort, Plan B, is an outwardly innocuous summer house that’s been in his wife’s family for years. It’s this property that he and a handful of like-minded friends and family members have designated as their safe haven if they need to (a) wait out a short-term threat or (b) start from scratch (hence the survival seeds). Valenti won’t tell me where this house is, except that it is a few hours’ drive away, is near the woods, has a virtually limitless water source, and is “easily defendable.” Onsite is a small arsenal of “multiple rifles, guns, and pistols,” along with 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
No one other than those in on Plan B knows about his new hobby. Not coworkers, not friends, not extended family. And especially not the guy next door. “This is about survival. I only want to talk about it with the people I’ll be surviving with,” he says matter-of-factly. “Mostly, I don’t want my neighbors to know about it. Because I don’t want them knocking on my door when the shit hits the fan.”
A portion of the Trapp family’s supply of dry goods and canned food PHOTO: RYAN LOWRY
Preppers are, not surprisingly, a paranoid bunch. Locating people willing to speak with me about their habits was more challenging than finding vegans at a gun range. After emailing a dozen members of Northern Illinois Preppers, a Meetup online community whose membership has grown from about 110 to more than 150 in the past six months, I received two responses. One was from someone who told me to take a hike (“I have no interest in being involved in your article. I also do NOT give you permission to quote me,” he wrote, which was perplexing, considering that no interview had been conducted). The other was delivered via a peer-to-peer encrypted email service.
“I took the liberty of setting up a secure email for you,” read the note, whose sender requested I call him Tommy. Then, in the encrypted message, Tommy chewed me out for asking about his prepping efforts:
Due to OPSEC (operational security) and PERSEC (personal security) you’ll never see my stored materials. Though I personally take no offense at your question due to the nature of this interview the question itself is exceptionally rude in prepping circles. By way of analogy it’s the equivalent of my coming over to your home for the first time and, in front of your wife or girlfriend, telling you I think she’s hot and I’d like to see her without clothes. It’s simply not done. Any prepper who would be willing to show you their stocks, anonymously or otherwise, has violated so many rules they may as well just put their stocks on the curb for all to see and take.
A few weeks later, I went to a Lombard gun range on shooting league night and met a wealthy couple from Barrington who, I was told by a reliable source, had recently begun taking shooting lessons as part of their preparedness plans. Both gave me their phone numbers. After repeated calls, I finally caught the man on his cell. He told me they were both too busy to participate in this story and hurriedly bid me adieu.
Then I casually mentioned this assignment in an email exchange with a former colleague, an advertising executive who lives on the North Side. I was surprised to discover a closet prepper in my midst.
“I’m sure you want people a lot more hardcore than me,” wrote my friend, whom we’ll call Pete Campbell, “but I’m a bit of a prepper. I probably have some materials and views that could get me seriously put on a watch list. Plus, I don’t want people knowing I got the goods when they get desperate. My greatest asset is my unobtrusiveness. No one would suspect me of harboring such ideas.”
We agree to meet at a bar near his place. When I arrive, he’s already there, sitting in a booth and sipping a craft beer. After some small talk, he tells me that if things “go from pudding to poop,” as one prepper so eloquently posted on a chat board, his primary concern is getting out of the city, which would have the highest concentration of desperate, unprepared types. Since he’s a condo dweller with little space, his “bug-in” plan is limited: two cases of military-issued MREs (meals ready to eat) that could last him a month and three firearms (an AR-15 rifle, a .38 revolver, and a .45 semiautomatic pistol).
I ask Campbell if he fears the kind of lawlessness seen in post-Katrina New Orleans or the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. “I don’t think that’s too far-fetched that something like that could happen in Chicago,” he says. “And if that happens and I’m holed up in my house and somebody tries to break in, I want to be able to protect myself. You can call 911, but what if they can’t get there in time?”
For the trek out of the city (on foot, if necessary), he has a carefully constructed bug-out bag, which some preppers refer to as a 72-hour kit or an INCH (“I’m never coming home”) bag. (Preppers really relish their acronyms.) “If something goes down, I grab this bag and a couple other things and get out the door,” he says. “Once the roads become impassable, I throw this on my back. My plan is to make it 72 hours and figure it out from there.”
He places the compact 25-pound pack on the table and starts talking me through its contents: water packets, protein bars, survival rations, a tent, light sticks, a first-aid kit, and one of those foil thermal blankets that are draped over finishers at the end of marathons. Everything is individually packed in plastic bags, in case he has to wade through a river or endure a rainstorm.
“Check this out,” he says, excitedly holding up a paracord bracelet that looks like one of those Livestrong wristbands but unwinds to provide 10 feet of rope. “You could use it to secure things, or as a trap or a snare.”
At the end of show-and-tell, he fishes out a small utility knife, flips open its corkscrew, and smiles. “No matter what happens, I’ll always be able to open up a bottle of wine.”
For Campbell, who is in his 40s and dresses in the youthful ad-industry uniform of untucked shirts and hip sneakers, the interest in prepping began two decades ago, when his parents, both military contractors with top-secret clearance, would occasionally call him with vague warnings. “They’d say, ‘I can’t tell you anything, but shit may be going down,’ ” he recalls. “To this day, my mom still won’t tell me what she meant.”
He doesn’t consider himself an extremist. “As soon as the power goes out, I don’t pull out the supplies. I like to think I have a firm enough grasp on reality that I am comfortable with my level [of prepping]. For me, it’s a hobby I hope I never have to use. A lot of people have figurines on glass shelves that they display. I’m collecting peace of mind.”
The whole notion of prepping is a mental exercise, argues Richard Mitchell, a sociologist from Oregon State University, who wrote the 2001 book Dancing at Armageddon. “There aren’t any practicing survivalists because the world hasn’t come to an end yet.”
Mitchell points out that preppers emphasize certain threats and ignore others to “craft a scenario where their preparations can be seen as both necessary and sufficient.” Their most popular threat, by far, is an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which, whether caused by a nuclear detonation, terrorist strike, or solar flare, involves waves of intense magnetic energy frying our electronics, ushering us and our Kindles and computerized coffeemakers back to the Dark Ages. In response to our cushy existence full of meaningless choices—Should I get the space-gray iPhone or the silver-and-white one?—preppers choose to imagine situations that put their choices to the ultimate test.
“Modern life has traded complexity for efficiency and abundance,” Mitchell says. “Most are satisfied with the exchange. But a lot of us are damn near useless. [Preppers] want a place between a rock and a hard spot to test their talents and gauge their gumption. This hands-on grappling, at least hypothetically, gives them purpose.”
This need seems to be particularly heightened among the wealthy—those with the most to lose. Edward Limoges, who has worked as a bodyguard on behalf of the Glenview company NIS Consulting Group, which provides security for high-net-worth individuals, explains that among the superrich, preparedness often extends as far as their disposable income allows. He shares stories of families in gated communities in Barrington and Long Grove who own pickup-truck-size generators, satellite hookups for emergency phone and data communication, and high-end freeze-dried entrées such as pasta primavera stored in their climate-controlled wine cellars.
Preppers with big bank accounts want to maintain at least a semblance of their comfortable pre-Armageddon existence. In the case of Valenti from Downers Grove, that also means preparing for the possibility that, for a while, the nation might operate under a totally new economy in which the dollar is useless.
During my visit, Valenti shows me his basement workshop, just around the corner from the kids’ playroom. On the wall is a large poster that diagrams proper assembly of an AR-15, a lightweight semiautomatic rifle (the civilian version of the M-16) popular among preppers. Here in this small, unfinished room, he’s taught himself to recycle spent bullet casings into fresh ammo. When he’s at the gun range, he collects used casings—like picking up errant golf balls at the driving range—and refills them with primer, powder, and the actual bullet. The function of his substantial ammo stash, safely kept at Plan B, is more capitalistic than ballistic. “Ammo is a great barter tool,” he says. “It’s the ultimate commodity item.” He also has a network of contacts who can help him acquire coins and precious metals, he tells me, in case he needs to stock up quickly on cash alternatives as the economy goes south.
Much of Valenti’s approach to prepping has been shaped by books such as 2014’s Prepper’s Blueprint, a step-by-step manual by Tess Pennington that promises “freedom through self-reliance.” A few times a week, Valenti consults the legal pad on which he’s scribbled lists of supplies in five primary categories: food, energy, defense, shelter, and hygiene.
He says the last category is tragically underappreciated among preppers. “It’s one thing to have food. But if you don’t have tampons, your wife is going to be pissed off. And let’s say it’s difficult for me to take a bath because water is scarce. I’ve got baby wipes.”
Mark Trapp, a corporate attorney, and his wife, Karina, invite me to sit on the couch in their sunny living room in Glenview. A large portrait of Abe Lincoln lords over the proceedings. The bookshelves lining the walls are filled with tomes on Reagan and Churchill, as well as a few zombie books. The Trapps’ spacious brick colonial overlooks the Grove nature preserve.
Their oldest child, 17-year-old Eleni, plops down next to me, along with her friend Blake. Unlike Valenti and Campbell, whose significant others are largely uninvolved with prepping, the Trapps view preparedness as a family affair.
The clan of seven convenes every Monday night to pray and to discuss whatever is on anyone’s mind. One evening last fall, Eleni brought up the topic of emergency planning, which she had recently learned about at school. Soon the conversation progressed from blizzards to the quintessential prepper novel One Second After (detailing the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse attack; Newt Gingrich, America’s favorite conspiracy theorist, wrote the foreword), which she had recently read. Eleni, who has braces and hipster glasses, asked her parents how prepared they were for a serious disaster such as an EMP.
“Putting the kids to bed that night, I thought, What if something bad happened?” Karina recalls. “What do we say to our kids: Sorry, we didn’t prepare?”
The concept of prepping wasn’t new to the Trapps. They’re practicing Mormons, members of a religion that stresses self-reliance. “If you look at history, Mormons were chased out of a lot of places, so they had to take care of themselves,” says Mark. “It’s not just a theological thing. I think God does want you to rely on yourself, but the church does it as a practical matter.”
The Trapp family’s bug-out bags PHOTO: RYAN LOWRY
All members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to have an emergency plan that includes at least a three-month supply of food and, ideally, up to a year’s worth of “long-term storage.” And while not every practicing Mormon follows this rule, it is actually a full-blown commandment.
The Trapps have made up ground quickly since last fall. “We may not be far up in the Mormon totem pole,” Mark says with a laugh about the size of the family’s survival stash. “But we’re pretty far up there compared with most people just by virtue of the little that we’ve done.”
After the family meeting, Karina started stockpiling first-aid supplies, which are now stored away with toiletries, protein bars, and other gear in individualized bug-out bags in a front closet. The backpacks of Eleni and her other teenage sisters (Reagan, 16, and Bella, 13) include items like favorite sweatshirts and girlie shampoos. Five-year-old Libby, who peeks around the corner during my visit before giggling and running away, has her own bag. Six-month-old Kiffin, the youngest child and only son, keeps his stash of Cheerios, Binkys, and bottles with Mommy’s gear.
Next Karina ordered wheat flour, oats, beans, and spaghetti from the Mormon Church, which sells the items in bulk to members and nonmembers alike both online and at home storage centers throughout the country. During trips to big-box stores, she loaded up on extra cans of corn, beans, soup, and fruit.
We walk down to the basement, where shelves across the back wall are filled with food. Boxes of Cap’n Crunch and Cheez-Its are stacked 10-high near the crawlspace, which the family might clear out for additional storage. Twenty-four cases of water sit under a table. All told, the Trapps are closing in on enough food and supplies to last about three months.
Most of the items have a 20-year shelf life, but the idea is to rotate the food, not stash it mindlessly. “You don’t buy a huge bulk amount and then, when the world doesn’t end in the next 20 years, you throw it out and buy it again,” Mark explains. “You cycle through it. You buy what you’re going to use anyway.”
Two of the Trapp girls with their rifles PHOTO: RYAN LOWRY
While food storage is a recent effort, Mark bought a .22 revolver in 2012, something he shares with me about an hour into my visit. Fresh-faced Reagan walks in, and Mark tells me he got her and Eleni their own rifles for Christmas not long after. She smiles and says that most of her friends didn’t believe her when she told them about her 22-gauge present under the tree.
Mark took both girls to the range so they could learn about gun safety as a family. “I didn’t want the girls to have the mindset that guns are the absolute worst things in the history of the world,” Mark says. “Because they’re not. If you know how to use one, it could save your life.”
We discuss whether, as many preppers believe, society is more dangerous now than in the recent past, as reports of school shootings, terror attacks, and global pandemics have become routine. “I don’t know if we’re the only ones feeling it, but there’s this sense that times are different now,” he says. “It’s sort of like the middle is not holding. Things are fraying, and I think more and more people are coming to the conclusion that if something is gonna get done, you may have to do it yourself.”
That includes protecting his family if a disaster triggers mayhem in the streets. “Those who are ready to deal with it are going to do much better than those who aren’t,” he says. “The social contract is potentially written on very thin paper when stuff goes down.”
I find myself wondering whether the rise of the modern prepper represents a grand illusion or a societal step forward through self-reliance. Who’s living the fantasy—them or me? I think back on something Bob Valenti told me when I visited him: “I don’t consider myself to be radical. I consider myself to be rational and practical.”
As he walked me out, he put in an earpiece and dialed into a conference call. We shook hands, and I jokingly asked him if I could be on the list to head to Plan B if the world as we know it ends.
He looked me in the eye, cracked a smile, and said, “I hope it never comes to that.”
But just in case, I have my real estate agent searching for houses in Downers Grove within a few blocks of Valenti’s. I’d love a big yard, but I’d kill for a bunker in the basement.
This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Chicago magazine. Subscribe to Chicago magazine.