I have been thinking about preparedness since September 11 when I lived on the East Coast, but I never took actual steps to prepare for emergency situations other than leaving an old pair of sneakers under my office desk. Since moving to the desert southwest, we experience regularly occurring forest fires, including one so powerful that it climbed the switchbacks near our house, smoke filling our lungs and making our eyes water for days. When this, the Slide Fire, happened in 2014, I didn’t even know where our homeowner’s insurance was, but in my dazed and worried state, I somehow managed to put together our mortgage papers, some cat food and cat carriers, and our social security cards—stashing everything in the back of my car. For two weeks I drove around Flagstaff with a hodgepodge of our lives in the back seat, a week longer than the pre-evacuation orders. The fire, and my response to it, remind me how completely unprepared my husband and I are for any emergency situation. I decide it is time to learn, and do, more.
It’s not that I am completely unprepared. My earliest memories of preparedness training began back in the ’80s when the nuns used to drill us, teaching us to hide under our desks and cover our heads with our hands. This was supposed to save us in a nuclear attack by the USSR, when there was such a country. We watched The Day After and knew what was coming. Thinking back on the utter uselessness of those drills I wonder about the aftermath. Perhaps hundreds of years would pass and archeologists would find arrays of small skulls under tiny metal tables and wonder what kind of ritual had been performed.
My initial forays into preparedness start off small. I add a few tools to my keychain: a mini key knife, a safety whistle, a flashlight. And then I create a little “emergency kit” for my purse, which contains everything from bandages and Neosporin to some expired Cipro from my near-fatal staph infection ten years ago. But it doesn’t stop there. I buy two camo-style backpacks on sale at Walgreens for $10.96 each. I know I should probably spend more money and get better packs, but I’m already doubting my sanity and this seems an appropriate and small investment. I know I will be sorry I have crappy cheap backpacks if something happens. When something happens. Because I have been reminded recently that world leaders have large buttons on their desks that could end life as we know it—destruction is only a tweet away. A text message warning, perhaps, if we are lucky.
About a week after the 2017 inauguration, I took the cheap camo Walgreens backpacks out of the garage where they had been collecting dust. Already the first executive order for a travel ban had been announced. A combination of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and discussions with friends had given me an ongoing and unrelenting sense of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep, listening to minute-to-minute updates. I switched to BBC News on my Internet radio hoping to get some outside perspective on what was happening in our country. Large crowds of people protested at airports and the administration labeled media reports of this as “fake news,” but, like many people worldwide, I could see everything happening on television in real time. The protests didn’t look fake at all.
Perhaps I had been primed for this anxiety. I had just finished rereading The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, and then I binge-watched the television show Colony, where the premise is about space aliens (we think) who build a wall around Los Angeles overnight. At this particular moment, I felt quite confident that I knew what our dystopian future looks like. It looks like post-election 2000. It looks like the aftermath of September 11. It looks like January 27, 2017 at airports around the country. It looks like every day, present tense. It is the time and place in which I am no longer too busy to notice the daily chipping away of rights and freedoms.
In imagining what comes next after this first ban—maybe a nation-wide riot, maybe Marital Law—sleep became pointless. I got up and looked through our bathrooms, culling duplicates and even triplicates of items we would need. Dental floss, travel toothbrushes, nail clippers, ACE bandages, antibacterial ointment, bandages, aspirin, acetaminophen, expired antibiotics. My brain repeated “this is crazy,” but still I pulled the items together, putting one of each into the backpacks; I didn’t go back to bed until after midnight. In bed, I searched the Internet on my phone, looking for other items I might need to add to our “bug out bags,” now partially full.
Emergency preparedness isn’t the kind of thing I can talk about with my friends, so I’ve had to do my own research. Although I tried to watch variations of preparedness shows (including the National Geographic Channel at one point) and internet videos, I finally settle on creating hidden Pinterest boards so that my crafting and baking girlfriends won’t know exactly how much of my time and energy preparedness-pinning takes. Exponentially more time than my grain-free diet recipe searches, more than my paper crafting idea collections. There are boards for food stockpiling and storage, living off-grid, and what amounts to a shopping list for essential items for life in the wilderness. In theory, these things all seem practical to me, but I decide to visit the two military surplus stores here in town—Flagstaff Military Surplus and Peace Surplus—in order to get some grounding in preparedness and see up close the types of things I may not even know I need. A part of me knows that this is the consumerism talking. Once in a while, I wonder what I can buy that will make me feel prepared. Or at least to ease my anxiety, if only for a few minutes.
Flagstaff Military Surplus is in a nondescript, sand-colored warehouse that shares space with a powder-coating operation. I go during a lunch break from work, and, after opening the door and walking across the threshold, I realize that it is a mistake to come here first. I am wearing black linen pants and a flowing, flowery blouse: perfect for office-wear, but not for “shit hits the fan” shopping.
The first things I notice are the banners hanging from the ceiling for the different branches of the military. Then boxes upon boxes of special patches for shirts and jackets—combat missions, American flags, and POW remembrances. I stare at a wall of rifles while seeing two sales staff members in my peripheral vision stare at me—a tall, lean man with a crew cut and a young woman, probably no more than twenty-five years old. Luckily, she walks over and tries to act like I belong in the store. I appreciate this, and she puts me at ease almost immediately. To her, my requests don’t seem odd, which makes me wonder how many other middle-aged white women are trolling military surplus stores.
I explain that I am starting an everyday-carry (EDC) keychain and ask her to point me to the tools that I’ll need, imagining that they are all organized on one shelf. The moment I’ve dreaded occurs: she asks what exactly I’m looking for. I had a separate Pinterest board for this and printed out what I wanted—essentially a pictogram shopping list of keychain items. She points at a photograph of a folding knife/scissors combo. Essential and good, she encourages, but I’ll have to buy it online because they are out of stock.
“Of course, you’ll want a monkey fist,” she says, taking the list from my hands.
“Of course!” I reply, my face flushing. I had forgotten an essential item even though I didn’t know what it was.
She takes me to a display of paracord-wrapped metal balls that are used for self-defense. She assumes a lot—that I will know how to adjust the paracord, and that I even know any form of self-defense. I pick up a camo-colored monkey fist ($7.95) and nod.
“Thanks. Exactly what I was looking for.”
Next we look at knives. I want some kind of dainty Swiss army knife with a corkscrew for all the post-apocalypse wine I hope to drink, but she has other ideas. She walks behind the display case and hands me a small, heavy, and sharp-tipped knife ($9.95). The weight feels good. The only drawback is that the blade needs to be unscrewed to be opened and then re-screwed into the handle in order to work. I ask her about being able to assemble the knife quickly while being threatened. Her brows furrow.
“That’s what the monkey fist is for. This is for, you know, cutting. Not people, but… stuff.”
The phone rings at the sales counter, and she leaves me to browse the store alone. I take in where I am, turning in place from my vantage point. This is a surplus store for people who know how to use these tools, for people who use these tools for protection, in actual combat, and as a part of their livelihoods—not for people like me. I see rifles and scopes, an assortment of serrated knives, rubber replacement tubing for slingshots (and bags upon bags of ball bearing ammunition), bows, arrows, boots, and a variety of backpacks that are combat-ready. Who do I think I am?
I turn the aisle and come across two older women trying on camouflage jackets. They reminisce about the jackets they had in the ’60s. I am about to judge them, but then remember that I am the one wearing a flowery blouse and buying monkey fists.
Finally, I find a section where I feel comfortable: packages and tubs of dehydrated food. I contemplate buying the dehydrated spicy penne pasta, but decide to wait another day. Our supplies at home are minimal, but after considering what I believe may be an inordinate amount of hoarded canned beans ($.89 each/limit ten at Fry’s) and chunk pineapple in the pantry, I know that I should take inventory of our food at home before spending more money. I pick up a magnesium fire starter ($4.95) and take my haul to the cash register.
“You did good,” my sales clerk assures me. “Will that be cash?”
“Of course!” (Because no one in their right mind who buys things from a military surplus store wants permanent documentation of those items on their credit card).
She hands me a small plastic bag with my purchases. The bag design is forest green camouflage.
Here’s the thing: I am sixty pounds overweight, out of shape, and ignorant of life outdoors. I participated in some sort of wilderness experience at overnight camp when I was thirteen. The counselors gave us some supplies, but not actual survival lessons, before walking us into a forest several miles from camp and telling us they would pick us up in two days. I don’t remember what supplies we had except for some hot dogs, a roll of toilet paper for six of us (what were they thinking?), and a box of five hundred matches. Being urban and suburban girls, we unknowingly built our latrine on the scenic lookout for the camp site. But the view! And, in the damp July of upstate New York, we couldn’t find any dry tinder or wood to start or sustain a camp fire. We used the whole box of five hundred matches over two days, to the ridicule of our camp counselors and the rest of the campers when we finally returned. Yet, we were still awarded our wilderness badges. I like to think it was because we were reduced to leaf wipes and somehow managed to return with only one case of poison ivy. At home, I promptly forgot the proper construction of campfires. But in the camo backpacks, I now have some dryer lint tucked into empty toilet paper roll tubes and some petroleum jelly for fire starters that I learned how to make on Pinterest. Fuck found tinder. I know better now thanks to the Internet.
I make my way to Flagstaff’s second surplus outfitter, Peace Surplus. It is also a nondescript sand-colored building, but located on historic Route 66 downtown, with a lot more foot traffic. Department store bells chime as I enter. The atmosphere is completely different from Flagstaff Military Surplus. One of the first displays I notice is what may be the largest shoe collection in our small town. Why had I not been to this store before? Immediately, I think I know what I’m doing. I wonder if I should I get hiking boots (I’ve never hiked), or sweet little waterproof flats (because sometimes I step in puddles). Interspersed in the women’s shoe section is a variety of messenger bags and tote bags and cross-body bags. For a good five minutes I walk around the shoe department with a Sherpani messenger bag ($89) slung over my shoulder. But, because a woman really can have too many adorable bags and I still want to buy some legit gear, I put the bag down and walk the rest of the store.
Whereas Flagstaff Military Surplus caters to the do-it-yourself crowd, Peace Surplus caters to the crowd that has a little extra spending money to buy already-made items. For example, on one of my Pinterest boards, I have instructions for how to make a small keychain-portable roll of duct tape that involves a paper clip, a broken pencil, and a foot of duct tape from the roll I already have at home. At Peace, I can buy two types of pre-made tiny duct tape rolls—either for my keychain or my knapsack. I walk up and down the aisles making mental notes on the variety of flashlights, glues, waterproofing liquids and gels, LED lights, fire starters (magnesium, flint, or waterproof matches), whistles, lanterns, and can openers (at least seven types).
I stand at the knife counter and spin a display of Victorinox and Leatherman combination knife tools. I am overwhelmed by all of the options for not only knives, but knife holders, blade sharpeners, and even decorative items that I can add to my keychain, advertising my preference for one knife over another. Although a handsome sales person who looks very outdoorsy (replete with a lush beard and blue flannel shirt) offers to help, I demure, but not before taking a last, long look at one knife in particular—it has both a corkscrew and a bottle opener. I hadn’t thought about post-apocalypse beer.
After circling a stacked display of used ammo boxes ($19.99 for 20mm), I believe I have walked the entire store. But there is a sign that points upstairs toward the “hunting and military supplies” where pairs of black shiny men’s combat boots stand at attention, lined up on each step. The upstairs is small, but chock-full of a large selection of backpacks that look sturdier than the ones I purchased at Walgreens—and for only $24.99. Seems reasonable, I think as I walk between rows and rows of camouflage clothes, touching the canvas and fleece materials. The patterns are new to me; one in particular looks like it has pine needles and cones painted on it, perfect for those of us living on the edges of a ponderosa pine forest.
This section also has more hunting-specific tools including elk whistles, cow whistles, duck calls, field dressing gloves, and human body odor-masking sprays and lotions (primary ingredient: animal urine). But perhaps the most unexpected find of all is a pack of “Camo-Off: Makeup Remover Wipes” ($4.69/30 wipes). It never occurred to me how stubbornly camo makeup must stay on. It would be a public service to point hunters and other preppers in the direction of the Target-brand makeup remover wipes ($3.69/thirty wipes). I make a mental note to add the wipes to the appropriate Pinterest board when I get home.
My officemate at the university where I teach has read parts of this essay. He shares my preparedness inclinations, to a point. He’s been buying rice and beans since the 2016 election. We make small jokes about stockpiling before moving on to the more serious topic of water access and purification. I wonder out loud what we have in the office. We take semi-casual stock of our granola bars and peanut butter crackers from the dollar store. For liquids, he has some vegetable juice, a bottle of electrolyte water, and Diet Coke in mini bottles. I have only one bottle of wine (but no corkscrew—I knew I should have bought that knife at Peace Surplus) that was a holiday gift from a colleague that I never managed to bring home. I search my desk drawers, finding the monkey fist behind a box of white board markers. I wonder why I brought it to campus—which faculty member did I imagine I would have to fight off in a departmental meeting? We discuss how else to shelter in place on the third floor of our building where our office is located, and he laughs, holding up the monkey fist. For protection, I remind him, but he has already remembered that part of the essay.
The next day, I bring in five pouches of microwaveable Indian food, recently on sale, for lunches. I show my officemate, who jauntily calls them MREs. I hadn’t thought of the cheery yellow packages that way, but now I can’t think of them as anything else.
Aside from the monkey fist and the knife I’m not supposed to use on people, I’m rather clueless when it comes to self-protection. Even though I haven’t held a bow since overnight camp, I wonder if that could be my weapon of choice in my own personal version of The Road. But when Hunger Games came out, I realized that I’d never have Katniss’s skills, especially if I never owned a bow or practiced at all during the past thirty-seven years or so. My husband has a slingshot and, while powerful, it seems unreliable to me. The slingshot uses flexible rubber tubing, which I imagine drying out quickly as the sun gets hotter in the post-apocalyptic world. It’s not like I can plan ahead for more tubing either. And, at last check, the tubing is not readily available at three local mini-marts or Walgreens. I remember tubing at Flagstaff Military Surplus that I could stock up on, if only I wasn’t so embarrassed to go back there.
I spend hours on Pinterest looking at other preparedness items. There is more gear to buy and more things to learn, such as how to make a shelter out of leaves and fallen branches and how to make shelf-stable butter. I also add survival items to an Amazon shopping list. Many of these items are available as add-ons for purchases over $25. We now have two Mylar tents, some zipper-pull compasses, and a small solar charger. What is so attractive about this clandestine searching, saving, and purchasing is that it gives me the false sense that I can learn some skills and, with a few simple tools and a lot of knowledge, I can survive if I need to. If I need to. Now I start to wonder to what end I survive. I can’t imagine living in some kind of post-nuclear apocalypse, yet surviving would be something unto itself, wouldn’t it?
It could be.
Aside from my officemate, there is no talking about any of my outdoors education or preparedness with anyone else except my husband—who already thinks I am paranoid—and my father—who watches the commercials for emergency food supplies and gold coins with interest and reports back to me. Interestingly, they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but find common ground in the laughing stages of my obsessions and worries. Despite the ridicule, I can’t stop preparing—for what, I’m not sure anymore. I learn a phrase from one of my students: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” She tells me that it’s all about feeling anxious over not knowing the future and being overly worried about every situation that might possibly come one’s way. I read her research paper on this topic and can’t help but wonder if this is what I have. And, actually, couldn’t this be what all of us may have right now? How do we diagnose an entire population?
I try to go back and pin the anxiety I feel and the wariness I see in others to a specific time, but it seems hard to fix. For myself, and possibly my generation, September 11 could be that point. Every year on the anniversary I remember the jingoist messaging and overwrought concern about our economy—the national charge from the administration to go out and spend money. It started further back for my parents. I consider the impact of Vietnam on their generation—the undeclared war, the lives of family members and friends lost, and the gravity of potential unrealized. Working with college students makes me realize that every mass shooting impacts them as much as a large-scale war or terrorist incident. I reflect on the effect the Las Vegas shooting had on them during the fall semester—did they dare go to concerts anymore? Maybe anxiety can’t be tied to a fixed event, hence the generalness of it all. Perhaps we are all seized by the moments when we realize our country is still in an undeclared war overseas, or the oppressive feeling we have waiting for the next tweet and subsequent careening news cycle.
Nothing seems fixed or stable anymore except ongoing instability. The only predictive power we seem to have is that every day something will happen that will be impossible to believe, yet there it is, preventing us from catching our collective breath. I stare at the backpacks which are still only half-packed despite recent nuclear threats and alarming (if accidental) text messages. I realize that there is nothing I can do to feel safe on a day-to-day basis, but preparing gives me a sense that I am doing something. I can no longer cover my head with my hands, and hide under my desk (or bed) hoping this drill will end soon. Yet, I will continue to save items and articles on Pinterest, as well as buy a few more small pieces of gear because it gives me the sense, however false, that I will survive. And that, perhaps, we all will.
Rumpus original art by Genevieve Tyrrell.