Last year, somewhere between story research and general curiosity, I found myself in Central Park with Shane Hobel, a compact and furiously energetic man who makes his living teaching other people how to stay alive. There were seven of us in his bite-sized “urban survival” course, for which Hobel travels down to New York City from the property outside of Beacon, New York, where the bulk of his work takes place. The thesis of the class appeared to be how ill-equipped any of us were to survive a major disaster or societal collapse. It was hard to argue with then and feels darkly accurate today.
I sat at a picnic bench between a pair of women in their fifties and a guy in a hot pink tank top sporting a gold watch. A man in a business suit played with his toddler in the grass nearby. “A lot of the people who come to this class are weekend warriors,” Hobel said. Most of everything we knew about being prepared for “an event,” he inferred repeatedly, was wrong. Our sense of observation had been dulled from years of overstimulation; tactical gear wouldn’t mean shit if we didn’t know how to move through a landscape undetected or come up with a cohesive plan for escape. If we were serious about the near-future anxiety implied by our willingness to part with $100 for an audience with a wilderness expert, we’d have to significantly expand our vision.
Hobel possesses skills and a kooky self-possession that have served him well as an ambassador between survivalists and city-dwellers concerned with their lack of tangible expertise. He’s been interviewed dozens of times over the years in every conceivable national outlet and has charged up to $15,000, he says, to help private clients create their own comprehensive doomsday plans. But like anyone who could be identified as prepping-adjacent, Hoebel told me more recently he’s had a big year, catering to a much wider clientele than the anxious Manhattanites who joined us in the park. “The people that are coming out now are the people that made fun of the people coming out” in the past, he says. The number of private groups he consults for or hosts on his property have sharply increased; he’s had multiple classes sell out.
It’s been a big year for the idea that Americans have a personal responsibility to expect and train for collapse. Through the spring and summer of 2020, as every newspaper in America offered shooting graphs tallying the number of the infected and dead, they also interviewed a rather remarkable number of preppers. A Utah couple described their pre-pandemic 90-day experiment subsisting solely on what they’d stored and could grow. A wealthy survivalist emailed a journalist from his bunker to say he didn’t “seem so crazy when there’s a pandemic, correct?” Nearly every accessible person with survival skills or a Youtube channel emerged to recommend a backup cooking system or brand of go-bag or ax.
The people who had prepared for the end times became, suddenly, certified prophets, now that something approximating an apocalypse had finally come. In the early months of the pandemic, as Americans hoarded toilet paper and seeds and firearms and live chickens and yeast, the only people who looked smart were the ones who had panicked earlier than most. Even the hubris of Silicon Valley’s survivalist technocrats was rehabilitated, the New Zealand bunker-owners and weekend bow-hunters significantly less easy to mock when they were being interviewed from their undisclosed locations flush with N-95s.
What the preppers had gotten right, exactly, besides a feeling of satisfaction was somewhat less clear. What did a successful preparation look like—having enough food to survive a month of quarantine? What about a year of being unemployed?
2020 was the year the media’s long-standing fascination with those weirdos who stockpile cans of beans in the woods had finally come to fruition, the perfect meeting of trend and major news event. As the year marched grimly on, this fixation with survivalism expanded so far from its origins that any action could, theoretically, be framed as preparedness. The New York Times published an op-ed by the author Mira Ptacin framing motherhood itself as a form of prepping, reinterpreting an unexpected and unwelcome turn as a housewife as an exercise in resilience and making one’s resources stretch.
If hardship is a matter of personal responsibility rather than institutional response, every tragedy can be rendered as an inability to foresee or prepare. The pandemic divided the world into people who’d engineered life-saving circumstances, and those who found themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control. And sure, it is somewhat true that this was the year that everyone turned into a survivalist, in the sense that most Americans spent most of 2020 desperately trying not to die.
On the summer day I spent in Hobel’s class, he told us he’d recently run a drill with a group of clients who live in SoHo, waking them up at 2 a.m. on a randomly chosen night. The men were responsible for navigating their way out of the city using predetermined routes and personal bug-out gear, which sounded like something between a video game and what you’d do at a particularly extreme corporate bonding event.
I’ve been thinking about those guys recently, and whether they regretted all the training they’d done: I doubt most of them are still living in Manhattan, much as I doubt their escape from the island took place under cover of dark and on foot. The problem with the most cliched forms of prepping—which I got the sense Hobel might profit off of, though not necessarily endorse—is how unlikely it is that the end of civilization will come as a single cinematic event. Our 2020 apocalypse has happened in slow motion, an interlocking series of disasters reinforced by a startling political will to leave people to die.
I did learn quite a bit in Hobel’s class, the most resonating message being that whatever end might come I was woefully unprepared. Dressed in a fishing hat and a khaki shirt—Hobel favors quiet clothing, he said, to avoid being detected—the survivalist unleashed a staggering amount of information over the course of a little more than an hour, most of which served to remind me how many potential calamities there could be. It might be a snowstorm or a power outage or terrorism, he said. Or biological warfare or infection, which scared him the most. New York is a “vertical megacity,” he reminded us, invoking a scene in which all 1.4 million residents of Manhattan come out of their buildings at once and, without enough ground space to fit comfortably, are pushed over the sides.
Definitely don’t try to go out to Long Island when the event happens, he said. Learn to pick locks. Consider getting yourself a hazmat suit, and pre-arrange meeting areas with your crew, but use code names when you’re communicating over eavesdroppable lines. Train yourself to be hyper-aware of your surroundings: Every building has drinkable water in the pipes. He showed us a map of the jet stream surrounding the city on an iPad and briefly discussed toxic plumes.
In response to Hobel’s introduction of a startling set of variables, the students’ questions during the third act of the class focused on known quantities, namely which brand names offered the best gear. When Hobel mentioned a certain water purification system, a woman in fashionable cloth overalls exclaimed, “Oh, I bought that for us!” before kissing the man she was with. Hobel’s final pitch, as it often is, was that no amount of money spent on tactical gear was as useful as knowing how to identify edible fungus or start a fire, a true enough sentiment that also provides an opportunity for Hobel to pitch his longer class. At the Mountain Scout Survival School upstate, he said, “I remove you from a matrix shoebox. You’ll come out to the woods and into the real world.” It was the third time he’d referred to our lives as a matrix. He gestured out to Central Park. “It’s not this.”
A year later, fully entrenched in the matrix, I watched stores empty of toilet paper and friends pack up go bags as the wealthy fled for more distanced environs and sharecropping came back repackaged as a yuppie trend. Stockpiling might help a person avoid going to the grocery store but it won’t keep their bosses from insisting they go back to work; a go-bag only makes sense if you have somewhere else to be. All the interviews with preppers had filled up space, but I wondered how useful all of this advice could really be. Ingenuity and resourcefulness certainly weren’t the most consequential assets that the people holed up in their prepared homes possessed. Of course a person can spend their way into surviving disaster. But it’ll cost a lot more than a waterproof bag filled with a hand-crank radio and a first aid kit.