By KEITH O’BRIEN
Published: November 16, 2012
On a clear morning in May, Ron Douglas left his home in exurban Denver, eased into his Toyota pickup truck and drove to a business meeting at a Starbucks. Douglas, a bearded bear of a man, ordered a venti double-chocolate-chip Frappuccino — “the girliest drink ever,” he called it — and then sat down to discuss the future of the growing survivalist industry.
How we photographed the Douglas family’s disaster-preparedness supplies from above.
Many so-called survivalists would take pride in keeping far away from places that sell espresso drinks. But Douglas, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and founder of one of the largest preparedness expos in the country, isn’t your typical prepper.
At that morning’s meeting, a strategy session with two new colleagues, Douglas made it clear that he doesn’t even like the word “survivalist.” He believes the word is ruined, evoking “the nut job who lives out in the mountains by himself on the retreat.” Instead, he prefers “self-reliance.”
When prompted by his colleagues to define the term, Douglas leaned forward in his chair. “I’m glad you asked,” he replied. “Take notes. This is good.”
For the next several minutes, Douglas talked about emergency preparedness, sustainable living and financial security — what he called the three pillars of self-reliance. He detailed the importance of solar panels, gardens, water storage and food stockpiles. People shouldn’t just have 72-hour emergency kits for when the power grid goes down; they should learn how to live on their own. It’s a message that Douglas is trying to move from the fringe to the mainstream.
“Our main goal is to reach as many people and get the word out to as many people as we can, to get them thinking and moving in this direction,” he said. “Sound good?”
The preparedness industry, always prosperous during hard times, is thriving again now. In Douglas’s circles, people talk about “the end of the world as we know it” with such regularity that the acronym Teotwawki (tee-ought-wah-kee) has come into widespread use. The Vivos Group, which sells luxury bunkers, until recently had a clock on its Web site that was ticking down to Dec. 21, 2012 — a date that, thanks to the Mayan calendar, some believe will usher in the end times. But amid the alarmism, there is real concern that the world is indeed increasingly fragile — a concern highlighted most recently by Hurricane Sandy. The storm’s aftermath has shown just how unprepared most of us are to do without the staples of modern life: food, fuel, transportation and electric power.
The survivalist business surged in the wake of 9/11, when authorities instructed New Yorkers to prepare disaster kits, learn how to seal doors and vents with duct tape and be ready to evacuate at any time. Threat-level warnings about possible terrorist attacks kept Americans rattled for years, and were followed by various disasters of other types: the financial meltdown, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, drought, blackouts and concerns over everything from rising sea levels to Iran’s nuclear program.
Late last year, Douglas and his partners formed the Red Shed Media Group, a single corporate home for several endeavors: the Self Reliance Expo, conventions that Douglas founded in 2010, dedicated to showcasing survival gear and skills; Self Reliance Broadcasting, an Internet-based channel devoted to the cause; and an entity that controls the rights to publishing “Making the Best of Basics,” a popular survivalist handbook. The name Red Shed was symbolic for Douglas. “When your grandfather went and did a project,” he told me, “he went out to the red shed and pulled out all the tools he needed for the job.” Douglas wants his virtual red shed to be a single place where people can get all the preparedness information they need. Five expos this year have drawn 40,000 people who pay $10 each. The radio network has logged more than two million podcast downloads; in one day alone in July, it reported nearly 90,000 downloads. The book, which was first published in 1974, includes recipes for everything from wild pig (“they are easy to prepare”) to dove pie (“simmer for one hour or until doves are tender”). Douglas said it had sold about 20,000 copies this year.
But the goal isn’t just to sell to the same old preparedness crowd. Red Shed wants to attract liberals and political moderates to a marketplace historically populated by conservatives and right-wing extremists. “It’s not the end of the world,” Douglas told me last spring, making a bold statement for someone in his industry. “It’s not doomsday.” It’s about showing the gun-toting mountain man in his camouflage and the suburban soccer mom in her minivan that they want the same thing: peace of mind. “We don’t say, ‘Hurry up and buy your stuff because Obama is going to ruin the country,’ ” Douglas said. “We don’t get into the political crap. We just want to teach people the lifestyle.”
The first thing you notice about Douglas’s neighborhood in Frederick, Colo., about 30 miles north of Denver, is that it’s not particularly noticeable. He doesn’t have a mountain stronghold or a 20-acre spread. He doesn’t have a bunker or anything resembling a barn. Instead, he, his wife, Heather, and their six children, ages 4 to 16, inhabit a typical American suburban home. There’s an in-ground sprinkler system and a play structure in the backyard. The siding on the house is an innocuous beige. Pink tulips bloom in the flower beds come spring. The children can walk to school.
The fact that Douglas not only told me where he lives but also invited me to visit him would be considered a huge mistake by many in the prepping world. Revealing your location runs the risk of compromising your Opsec, or “operations security,” an abbreviation coined by the military and adopted by survivalists. “I don’t even mention what state I live in,” James Wesley Rawles, the editor of SurvivalBlog.com, a popular prepping Web site, told me. “All I’m at liberty to discuss, with consent of my wife, is that I live somewhere west of the Rockies.”
For Rawles and others, it’s a matter of security. Revealing your location gives the Unprepared a road map to the stockpiles of the Prepared, in the event of Teotwawki. “I don’t want to wake up and find out that I’m the go-to guy — literally,” Rawles says.
If civilization breaks down, Douglas’s house is definitely where you want to be. In his home office — the de facto headquarters for Red Shed’s six shareholders and two independent contractors — he keeps not only his iPad and his MacBook but also a ham radio and a C.B. radio. In his basement, there is roughly a year’s supply of wheat, rice and other staples. And outside, he tries to keep a year’s supply of chopped wood and, in his garage, 375 gallons of water.
If he needs to leave, Douglas has modified a Chevy Suburban so that it can travel 850 miles between fill-ups. If he stays, he’s ready to protect his family and his provisions. Douglas can’t even remember how many guns he owns. “Twelve?” he guessed when I asked. “Not as many as most.” But he knows his favorite: the Governor, a Smith & Wesson handgun that fires shotgun shells. “This is the home defender here,” he said. “You just point it in the right direction, and it’s over.”
Yet unlike others in his industry, Douglas doesn’t waste energy worrying about things like Opsec. And though he owns guns, he doesn’t push gun ownership.
At a meeting at an empty Hooters restaurant in Colorado Springs this year, Douglas listened impatiently as a salesman tried to get him to buy some ads on a local radio station for a coming expo. He was saying he could offer the same rates for a typical gun show. Douglas told the man that he wasn’t getting it at all. “I’m not just a gun show,” Douglas said to him.
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