The original version of this article was researched and written in early 2017, but has been edited for this issue of Cipher. All names have been changed for the sake of privacy.
"Planning for the future is like going fishing in a dry gulch; nothing ever works out as you wanted, so give up all your schemes and ambitions. If you have to think about something—make it the uncertainty of the hour of your death." -Gyalse Rinpoche
In Jill’s small thrift store on the corner of a hill in Manitou Springs, I asked her, “Where do you see yourself in three years?”
"Dead," she replied, without missing a beat. She noticed my surprise and let out a deep sigh. "I'm not good at suffering." She looked up at me, face trembling slightly, as we stood in her little thrift store. "I mean, we're going to suffer terribly! Without food and water … we can live without food for a while … you can’t really live without water," she said, and I began to picture the world she imagined. Moments earlier, I’d found myself standing in her small shop, flipping through the pages of Mother Earth magazines. I read out loud, "how to build a solar oven, how to start a hydroponics system, how to survive with only four dollars a day."
"I've been trying some of those out," Jill said. Her cheeks jiggled slightly as she spoke, as if her words were full of enormous weight, causing her face to droop down towards the carpeted floor of her shop. Though she’s currently a Manitou Springs resident, Jill is originally from California. She’s the single mother of a daughter who shares my name. Jill collects rainwater from her roof in a 100-gallon bucket that she uses to water her plants and bathe, and she’s built a small dam in the creek behind her shop, to slow water flow before it no longer exists.
"People don’t realize how fragile we are, how fragile our beautiful world is, we're given this beautiful world … I can’t even watch nature shows on TV anymore, I just start crying." I felt my eyebrows crease, and when I finally looked at her, it seemed like she’d lost hope already.
"I'm not a religious person,” she said, “I'm a little spiritual … so in a little bit of my spiritual way I think it's mother nature's way of getting rid of the worst virus its ever had, humans. All we do is destroy and ruin … we're a selfish, greedy, self-centered race … God, I hate to tell you this."
Every day for nine years, Jill has spent long hours in her small shop, staring at her computer screen, reading articles and watching YouTube videos about earth science and climate change. She has invested $20 in a small solar panel that conducts enough energy to fuel a small light for her living area, and she has already begun to dehydrate foods and make beef jerky for her cat. "I'm a prepper," Jill tells me.
My first encounter with Jill filled me with fascination and curiosity, but also left me disturbed by unanswerable questions about the future and fate of humankind. My obsession with her beliefs brought me into her world, and into those of others who saw the same things she did.
“If I let fear take over,” Robert said, as we sat in metal chairs on the small porch of his chicken coop, “I imagine it's going to be total chaos, total anarchy, people killing people for food. You have a little bit of food, somebody's going to want it, and they'll kill you for it.” Robert Matthews is a Colorado Springs resident and retired interior designer. He built a greenhouse in the backyard of his home, next to an outdoor garden that flourishes in the growing season. We connected two years prior to this conversation, when I expressed interest in helping with his aquaponics project, and ever since, I have spent long hours watering his papaya trees, giant chard, and tomato vines. Often, he harvests next to me and we talk about life and the state of the world. I told Robert about my conversation with Jill, and we talked about what it means to survive, sitting in his backyard watching his well-groomed hens stick their heads through the small spaces in the cracks of the fence behind him, calmly squawking.
"I've been in a funk," he told me, and I watched red wetness fill his eyes. I noticed the empty beds in his garden, and thought back to the summer months we spent pulling weeds. In the midst of climate change chaos and the anticipation of human-initiated anarchy, growing food has become Robert’s mission. He told me he'd woken up. He clenched his fists and looked down at them, "What do you have to do to wake people up?"
“Nobody’s ever lived through anything like this, so nobody really knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Robert said. His vision of the future aligned almost identically with Jill’s, and I started imagining the exact same picture of a doomsday in my head again. “We’re nine meals away from anarchy,” he said. Jill had said the exact same thing just days later, and suddenly, it didn’t seem so crazy anymore. Preppers like to say that the average grocery store is said to have approximately three days worth of food supply per person. Nine meals. This means that if food trucks no longer arrived at the grocery store, it would take only three days before the entire store was depleted of its goods. That’s it. So what happens when we start to get hungry? I imagined half a day without food: my stomach would throb and ache, and my body would quickly lose all energy. We cannot begin to imagine the problem, however, as we still sit in abundance. Unlike those currently battling starvation in other parts of the world, to most of us reading this article, hunger is a foreign reality. We do not know a life without food in abundance, so what happens when we get desperate?
A few days later, I sat on a bar stool at the back of Colorado Coffee, across from another Colorado Springs resident, David Dandt. Robert had put me in touch with him, telling me that David had something to say about doomsday, too. A wide-brimmed, black hat shadowed the top half of his face, while the lower half was covered in thick gray stubble. His eyes looked almost black, like his dark, long-sleeved button up shirt, and the thin rim of his glasses. He held a serious and controlled expression as he sat back in his tall seat. "When the grid goes down"—David picked at a crumbling section of his chocolate chip muffin—"imagine you're standing in San Francisco, way up in Clint tower, and you see millions and millions of people in a relatively small place … all these people completely dependent upon outside food, and there is a crisis of some kind … I just imagine, you know, food riots, and just some really terrible stuff.” David Dandt is a journalist for Time Magazine and the Denver Post, a documentary filmmaker, and resident permaculturist in the Pikes Peak region. He began to paint the same picture of a doomsday: Anarchy. As a leader of a movement called Adventures in Permaculture and a participant and facilitator of a local project aimed at growing and distributing food to feed the population of Colorado Springs, David is a prepper of his own kind. He said, "we may not be ready for what comes, but we're trying to get ready, and part of that readiness has to do with understanding the vulnerability that modern society has, and building self-reliance and resiliency at a community level. So that’s kind of our plan."
When I first met Ava, she was standing at the very top of a tall ladder, picking papayas from Robert’s tree in the greenhouse. She was wearing maroon robes with matching sandals and a small beanie covering her shaved head. Ava is a Buddhist nun who has a garden of her own near Manitou Springs. She also believes in an imminent doomsday. She told me a story that illustrates what we are feeling:
“It’s a time of warfare, and the invading army is coming in from another country. There is a monastery, and there are monks, and they hear about the invaders coming in, and so they all flee because they want to be safe. Except the one. The Abbot. He sits there, and he's meditating, and a big warrior comes in with a huge sword, like a samurai warrior. He sees the monk, and he says, ‘what are you doing just sitting here? Don’t you know I have the power to run this sword right through you?’ And the monk answers back calmly, ‘and don’t you know I have the power to love you while you're doing it?’ And then the samurai warrior puts his sword down, bows before the monk, [and] realizes who the stronger person is.”
I thought back to the Black Plague, when millions of people were killed off. I thought back to the Cold War. I remembered Y2K, when on December 31, 1999, thousands of people prepared for a total shutdown of all technology systems, and I considered 2012, when hundreds of people sat anticipating the end of the first Great Cycle of the Maya Long Count calendar, when people imagined Earth colliding with a nonexistent planet called Nibiru, giant solar flares, a planetary alignment that would cause massive tidal catastrophes, and a realignment of Earth’s axis. I considered the plethora of recent books and films about the end of time, including “The Road,” “Sudden Impact,” “I am Legend,” “Independence Day,” and “Take Shelter,” and I wondered if our obsession with the apocalypse was more than just coincidence. I remembered the morning I received a fluorescent orange backpack in the mail from my grandfather, a survival kit that held all the essentials, and how I laughed with my sister about my grandfather’s unnecessary anxieties.
Overwhelmed by a sense of naivety, I thought about Jill, who has lived through all of these moments in history, and yet this time, in this moment, she truly believes it’s the end. The end of the world and the total extinction of mankind conjure an unimaginable fear that if truly felt could awaken the prepper in all of us.
What was so interesting to me is how connected all four of my conversations had become. Without even knowing it, Jill, Robert, David, and Ava had said some of the exact same things and described almost identical versions of our future. They all expressed a similar fear and a corresponding awareness, but they were all isolated in their efforts to combat or simply conceptualize their realities. So, naturally, I invited them all to breakfast.
Five of us move to a circular table near the window at Good Karma Café. "She looks nervous," Robert whispers to me, watching Jill fumble with her wallet. No one seems hungry, so instead we all sit in a circle with full mugs of coffee and spiced chai. The table is shaky, and Jill spends the next few minutes trying to stuff tissue under its leg, crouching uncomfortably close to David. He shuffles to the left. Robert spills coffee over the side of his mug, and David appears frustrated when Jill comes back to her chair and the table continues to shake. Robert wipes the spilled coffee away from my recorder sitting in the center of the table.
The cafe smells like breakfast burrito and cinnamon and is full of regular people enjoying breakfast conversation. I think how funny we must look: a dark-featured man with a wide brimmed black hat and thin glasses, an older woman with reddened eyes and thinned, matted hair, another middle-aged man with snow-gray hair and a wide, sturdy shoulders, a Buddhist nun dressed completely in her maroon robes, and a young, painfully curious college student. The way we sit like stones, arms tucked by our sides and faces full of nerves, makes it obvious that we don’t know each other at all.
“We’re living in the most fascinating and interesting time a human has ever lived," Jill says, and leans across the rickety table, as if to break the tension.
We are gathered on the basis of belief. Each stranger sitting around the table believes in the imminent end to human civilization. They are all doomsday preppers. We share a few moments of silence around the circle, before delving into several hours of deep and heated discussion on the nature of humankind, the damage we have done to the earth to cause our destruction, and what our final days will actually look like.
We begin, naturally, at the beginning: we talk about a time when humans lived among each other in community, with the sole intention of fighting for survival. Life was simple back then, but always a hunt for food and resources, and a means of surviving day-to-day. Every individual had their role, and together they lived off the land, hunting, gathering, and working with what they had. Humans existed as a single organism, where isolation meant death.
We don’t talk about if—instead, the matter is when and how to approach doomsday. The four strangers ask questions about when are we going to need to choose between survival and sacrifice, and whether we’re going to choose to love or to hate in the midst of chaos. They speak almost entirely in hypotheticals. As the cold coffee in our mugs is slowly sipped, we talk about fear, ethics, and the core nature of humankind. How are people going to respond in the face of doom, and how can we manipulate our outcome?
“I have a crossbow and I have a gun,” Jill says over her empty cup when Robert asks her how she intends to respond when other humans come to invade her food storage. She chooses survival. As if rearing from an unimaginable stench, David angles his body away from her, "I will not kill someone,” he says, “I will not kill myself, I will only share until someone kills me. I have no problem with that. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of giving. What I am afraid of is staining my soul with killing someone else or myself, and withholding what I have from someone in need. That’s what stains my soul. Not sacrifice. Sacrifice is fine." I notice other strangers in Good Karma Cafe begin to eavesdrop (how could they not), as we describe the very worst conditions of humanity.
As Jill continues to interrupt the conversation, uttering the same mantras as if still not completely convinced of doomsday herself, her eyes become shallow pools of subtle redness, and her thick wrinkles seem to sink lower to the floor, "Action is the antidote to despair," she continues to say, sounding increasingly frustrated each time, as she realizes that her vision of action isn’t quite the same as everyone else’s.
“The nature of human beings is to be vicious animals when they are desperate,” she says, and I imagine ferocious beings entering her small thrift store and trying to steal her stock: the evidence of the effort and preparation that had consumed the last several years of her life. I imagine Jill standing with her crossbow and gun in shaking hands, and I feel an incredible sadness in realizing the potential loss of human compassion in the face of fear.
"So you have a choice,” David says to Jill. “You can shoot yourself now, or you could wait to starve in 10 years." He is angry, and I’m shocked. I force a neutral expression, though I was utterly appalled: these strangers had met just minutes ago, and now it seems as if he was telling her to take her life.
Jill talks about needing to prepare, and Robert says to her, “Prepare to protect, or prepare to welcome them?” Robert describes opening up the doors of his greenhouse to the community, indulging in fresh food with strangers and loved ones, then finally “drinking the Kool Aid… [to go out] the pretty way, loving your neighbor, loving your family.” I suddenly see a raw humanity in the face of a common despair. They truly believe they’re going to die from this. “So it’s the dying with dignity approach.” Robert laughs, but he isn’t joking.
Jill had given up all hope in humanity in the end, and all that was left of her religion was fear—a fear that motivated her survival, but clouded her faith. To Robert, however, anticipating doomsday is about soul, and making people whole. Ava had remained listening for much of the conversation, and finally, she nodded her head, saying, it’s about the “potent[cy] of the importance of making our life matter.” I notice Jill nodding too, and I remember my second visit to her store, just days before breakfast, when she said, "I'm happier now that I’ve ever been in my life." She spoke of coming to realize the beauty in the fragility of life. I feel a sense of peace in knowing that even in her state of despair, Jill could still find the beautiful.
Robert, Ava, and I sat alone at the rocky wooden table, after Jill had stood up, put her sunglasses on, and walked back up the road to her small shop and David had exited out the squeaky door. The lingering jingle of the door bells rang in my ears, and I thought about community.
I thought about the minutes before entering the cafe when I sat in a small lime green Kia with Robert and Ava, unable to maneuver into a wide open parking space. I thanked God that Manitou was quiet that morning. I was still so anxious about the reality that in minutes, I was to sit with four individuals who agreed to meet and discuss The End that I had forgotten how to parallel park. Although still minutes early, I felt the panic of being late, of disappointing, and after what felt like a hundred attempts, Ava stepped out of the car, and Robert put his hand on the wheel. There we were, just feet from Good Karma Cafe, a large white haired man filling the front seat and directing the young college student, while a Buddhist nun blanketed in maroon was making absurd hand gestures at the little green car. And each time I prematurely bumped against the curbside, all the conversations in Robert’s greenhouse about wholeness, and community, and hope flooded from my toes to my skull. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether or not we had 10 years or a century left of existence, it didn’t matter whether we would have enough food to sustain ourselves, it didn’t matter whether we were prepared to kill or starve, because all that mattered in that moment was fitting into that space, and paying the three-hour parking fee.
Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019