What To Expect When You're Expecting The Collapse Of Society As We Know It

Millions of Americans may identify as “preppers,” but most don’t have massive stockpiles of guns, dress in camo, or live off the grid. They’re more like Lisa Bedford, the "Survival Mom," who’s built a massive following simply by suggesting that being ready — for a financial crisis, for a massive natural disaster, for a terrorist attack — is just common sense.

Outside of Houston in late August, the weather’s been doing that early-morning Texas thunderstorm thing for an hour: the sort of rain that feels like a Texan god has ripped a seam in the heavens. Cars are hydroplaning all over; even with the windshield wipers at the highest setting, the world outside is mottled mess. The Top 40 radio station plays Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer” for the fifth time; when it finishes, the morning shock jock comes on with a stern voice: "Flash flood warning, all surrounding counties."

At her house, in a location she’d prefer to keep vague, The Survival Mom — Lisa Bedford, who gives her age as “somewhere between 40 and 60” — is nonplussed. Sure, the floor-to-ceiling windows are all sweating, and her rescued white Pyrenees, massive as a dire wolf, is pacing the front hallway. But if a flash flood knocked out the power — or the sanitation system, or the road surrounding her house — she has enough supplies to last her and her family not just weeks, but years. She knows how to make a composting toilet, how to make semi-gourmet meals out of freeze-dried goods, how to harvest as much drinkable water as possible from the pipes before the pressure’s gone and how to make whatever water remains drinkable.

“You fill up all your tanks with water, but at some point there’s no water pressure left,” she explains. “But on commercial buildings, there are openings on the outside for a water release, and there’s a tool you can buy that works as a kind of tap,” she continues. “So I bought one for every member of my family, and now each time we look at a commercial building, we’ve started to think, OK, where is one of those things?

Acquiring a tool is just one of dozens of simple, straightforward strategies that helps put Bedford’s mind at ease. “My tagline is that I help moms worry less and enjoy their families more,” she says. “And what I’ve found out is when you put things in place to help through difficult times, then you can worry less.” For example, if a mom is worried about a potential loss of income, Bedford has a straightforward first step: Buy a month’s worth of extra food. “Then you won’t have to ask, ‘Do I buy groceries or do I pay the electric bill?’”

Bedford has the soft, slightly wearied eyes of a fiftysomething mom and dresses in a way that’s familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the suburbs of arid Southwest climates. Think capris, slightly embellished flat sandals, flowy tops. Since 2009, she’s been building a modest digital empire out of helping others “put things in place.” There are tutorial blog posts on water purification, videos declaring “a vague sense of uneasiness is reason enough to prepare,” and five different Survival Mom Facebook groups totaling more than 150,000 members. “Preparedness runs the gamut from practical things all the way to the real, extreme, worst-case scenarios,” Bedford says. “The stuff that isn’t even that unthinkable anymore.”

Stuff like a massive electromagnetic pulse. Or an earthquake, or a tidal wave, or a complete unraveling of the fabric of society — stuff that would make for a second Great Depression. Not the end of the world, then, so much as the end of a relatively pleasant and convenient one.

Even as these scenarios become increasingly plausible, Bedford’s still reluctant to broadcast her plans to the neighbors. Until my trip there last August, no one outside of the family had visited Bedford’s storage bunker, currently filled with enough food for her family to live for several years. Her online identity, brand, and livelihood might be centered on her identity as a Survival Mom, “but I’m very careful talking about it,” she says. “Otherwise people think I’m nuts.”

Bedford’s what used to be called a survivalist, and what most of the internet — where she’s made a name for herself among hundreds of other sites, Facebook groups, and YouTube videos — now call “preppers.” And even though preppers remain regular objects of ridicule, an increasing number of people are adopting some form of Bedford’s mindset and practices. Ashton Kutcher’s a prepper; Carrie Underwood's a prepper. It's been reported that up to 3.7 million people in the United States identify as such in some capacity — an impressive number until you realize it’s still just over 1% of the American population.

Many preppers have been introduced to the movement by men like Jim Rawles, whose blog and books focus on the more militaristic, offense-oriented elements of survival. Bedford’s approach, by contrast, is distinctly defensive — what she calls “maternal.” Her site is filled with family-centered advice; her book, with its cheery, primary colors and clip art, hangs out in the family section of the bookstore. Undergirding all of her preparations is an ethos of conservation and thrift: how to reuse, how to make do, how to embrace the ideas that our Depression-raised ancestors accepted as a matter of course. In her willingness to debunk “accepted prepper wisdom,” as she puts it, and cater to “suburban” preppers like herself, she’s carved out a niche in both the subculture and the multibillion-dollar industry that’s grown out of it.

“There are plenty of blogs that revel in scare tactics and promoting one apocalyptic theory after another,” Bedford writes on her website's “Get to Know Lisa” section. “Me? I just want to have a plan to handle everyday emergencies and am prepared for worst case scenarios at the most practical level possible. That’s why my Costco runs always including picking up 2 or 3 cases of their toilet paper and multi-packages of ibuprofen!”

Forget the color-coded bunker, the carefully organized bug-out bags, and the piles of cash she keeps strategically stashed around the house. The most compelling thing about Bedford is how much sense her entire philosophy makes — and how it casts the rest of our utter unpreparedness into sharp relief. How little we save, how nonchalant we are given our children’s lack of basic of survival skills, how blasé we remain even as environmental and economic catastrophe devastates those around us.

And while this brand of willful ignorance is not unique to America, it is yoked to the particularly American culture of abundance — and an ideology of domination and invincibility that dates to the end of the second world war. Over the last 15 years, however, that ideology has been compromised: by 9/11, of course, but also by a series of natural disasters and the near-collapse of the global economy. Fears that were once the provenance of paranoids feels increasingly, persuasively, like logical. As Rawles tells me, “The whole base is growing. Conservatives do not corner the market on common sense.”

“Prepping is the way that people have always lived,” Bedford says. “At an archaeological site, they’ll find a big drum of wheat, or a huge thing of that held honey: Food storage basics go back for so long! So when did the shift happen? When did being completely unprepared for everything — and always flying by the seat of your pants — when did that become a virtue?”

“Mormon women have been doing this forever,” she continues. “Same for women who’ve always been rural or homesteading. This knowledge is very common for them. You know who doesn’t have this information? People like you.”

Bedford didn’t grow up deep in the woods or spend her childhood rereading a earmarked copy of Hatchet. Her father was a pastor and owned a contracting company in the Phoenix area; her mother stayed at home. “That was the era when the dollar was so secure,” Bedford recalls, “and you could count on your real estate going up in value every year. There was no reason for me to think of these things.” She narrates her past with the same tone she uses in her YouTube videos: just professional enough to invite trust, just amateur enough to be relatable.

Bedford calls herself un-tech-savvy, but she’s taught herself Wordpress; she uses Slack and loves Evernote. She homeschools her daughter, 16, and her son, 14, not out of some antipathy toward the American school system, but because, as she puts it with a knowing lift of the eyebrow, “I like to swim against the stream.”

When Bedford was young, she traveled the world, including several months in Israel; her husband grew up in the South Pacific, where his father worked for an airline. “We both have these backgrounds where we would feel very comfortable living outside of the U.S. And, you know, things here in the U.S. have been limping along for years,” she told me. “And they could keep limping along for years. And my kids are getting older, and I’d like to take them places that we’ve talked and read about as a family. But it could also all come crashing down in September.”

Her interest in prepping didn’t become acute until 2008, when the financial crisis unmoored her family and so many others in the Phoenix area — which is part of why many of her preparations, then and now, are intended as a way to ease families through monetary crisis. As she explains, “The whole preparedness thing is really just building as many margins as possible into your life.”

Earning money by sharing her own skills — that was its own sort of margin. Bedford started adapting some food-storage classes she’d been teaching into webinar form, and launched the blog, using a simple Wordpress format, in 2009. She built a Facebook page, and as her brand expanded, a New York agent approached her to transform the content of her blog into a book, which was then sold to HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. Today, Bedford maintains the blog, which receives around 300,000 hits a month, and earns money through a combination of banner ads, referral links, and partnerships with various companies she endorses. (“My income is overtaking that of my husband, which he doesn’t mind at all,” she told me. “It would be enough for us to live on.”)

Bedford also has plans for a series of Survival Mom’s No Worries Guide e-books, the first of which, on emergency evacuation, went live in October. She employs a part-time assistant, pays a smattering of writers for periodic posts, and has an IT guy. Her daughter does all her art and illustration and taught Bedford the importance of Pinterest, where "prepping pins" flourish. She’s copyrighted her brand; she’s experimenting with Periscope.

Over the last year, Bedford’s spent far less time generating new content and far more time organizing her site: creating “Lists of Lists,” collecting “Most Popular Articles,” and expanding “My Story,” to make the site as welcoming and navigable as possible to those who arrive via scared Google search. People who read about a massive, overdue earthquake and realize their kids go to school in the direct path of the resultant tsunami. Or people who have an infant, or a disabled spouse, or an elderly parent for whom they’re responsible. That’s who’s doing the googling, and that — especially the moms and the caretakers and the families and the people who’ve never thought about prepping before — is who Bedford aims to reassure.

Those people are often ill-served by the majority of prepper blogs — Survival Blog, The Prepper Journal, Survivalist Blog, Graywolf Survival — that rise to the top of search results for “prepping.” Such blogs cater to existing, oftentimes advanced preppers; as a result, they can feel a lot like a gadget blog, overflowing with specs and insularity.

“All the websites are the same!” Bedford exclaims from the driver’s seat of her pickup, which she’s piloting with ease through the sea-like puddles of rain, the hum of talk radio droning in the background. “They’re all very, very male-oriented, and those men are much more into the idea of protection. They’ll spend hours debating firearms. But I read something like that, and I think, I know most of you have wives and girlfriends, so where do they come in? You’re sitting here debating the right kind of specific specialty tool for your bug-out bag, but what about your wife? Could she really haul a 45-pound carry? What about your kids? What are you going to do when your autistic son won’t eat anything but Cheerios and mac 'n' cheese three meals a day, and now you have to get out of the house?”

Calling out “conventional survival wisdom” is a favorite hobby of Bedford’s. We're seated on a covered deck of a local bar and grill, where the wind periodically swooshes in a gust of rain from outside. “I examine that conventional wisdom and then point out all of its flaws,” she says in a tone that’s almost conspiratorial. “I really like to do that. You know, because it’s all men! And I have nothing against men; I’m not anti-man. But here’s an example: Jim Rawles, the guy behind Survival Blog, says you need to find a town with about 800 people — what’s often called ‘a wide place in the road.’ But what kind of job opportunities are there in a town that small? In order for a town to be survivable, according to him and most experts, you need to be a good 50 to 100 miles away from the biggest city, and off the interstates. But what would we do?”

Bedford sighs, takes a sip of iced tea. “Now, Rawles, he’s not irresponsible. He’s been encouraging people for years to get that second source of income going so you can move to one of those spots. But I always keep one foot just really solidly planted in reality and the practical world. And only you know your circumstances. So what I try to do is be compassionate towards those people, because they’re afraid. When they start researching evacuations and different things that could happen, and their kids aren’t healthy, or they’re disabled in some way, it’s a terrible thing to realize: Well, we’ll just have to stay here and cope. I want to give people hope! I don’t want to tell them, ‘To survive, you have to have this acreage, and it has to be here, and you have to have this much food, and if you don’t have $10–20,000 to sink into all that, then you’ll be the first to die off.’ That’s so unfair to people, and I don’t want to participate in that.”

As Bedford points out, Rawles himself has been clear that his work is for “intermediate and advanced” preppers. It’s usually in the massive, sprawling forums — whether on Rawles’ blog or elsewhere — that accepted wisdom turns rigid and exclusionary.

And Rawles, for his part, appreciates the work Bedford’s done with “the soccer mom demo.” “Lisa is a fantastic lady,” he told me from an undisclosed location in North Idaho. “She’s incredibly level-headed, and has shown prepping as accessible to people with average incomes who live in the suburbs. Because let’s face it: Very few people have means to move to the hinters and the boonies. If you’re a beginner, something like Survival Blog feels like you’ve been hit with a firehose. But Lisa’s stuff is very nonthreatening, and she offers it in bite-size chunks that aren’t overwhelming.”

“She’s a great spokesperson, too,” Rawles continues. “I’m not willing to go on camera — you know, none of my neighbors even know what I do — but she’s gone on the Today show. She’s helped wake up millions. And you know, every prepared family is one less family rushing towards me. The people she reaches, now they’re part of the solution — instead of part of the problem.”

When I visited in August, Bedford was dealing with a different sort of problem. Her storage bunker was way too humid. Last year, the family moved from Phoenix, where humidity essentially doesn’t exist, to outside of Houston, where you swim in it. The bunker is about 15 by 5 feet and lined with shelves, built out from the corner of a garage by Bedford’s husband — a trained electrician.

They call it Narnia. On one box, one of Bedford’s kids has written, “Hello, my name is: William 'Mountain Man' Wallace” in thick Sharpie — an homage to one of the most popular, and earliest, survival authors. And if you looked at their modest suburban house from the outside, with the Texan star and the hulking pickup and the sprawling live oaks, you’d never guess it was there.

In truth, the bunker isn’t that different from a well-stocked Costco pantry, except for the giant tubs of wheat, which can then be ground with one of four specialized mills into the building blocks of various meals. Or the dustings of diatomaceous earth — the skeletons of millions of dead insects — that dry up any live insects that try to infiltrate the bunker’s walls. It’s just that the Survival Mom’s pantry is a lot more organized — and capable of keeping her family of four alive for at least five years.

Bedford’s long-term solution for her current bunker problem will look something like a massive dehumidifier, but for now, she’s got a temporary fix: a set of crystals that attract the humidity, allow it to condense into water, and trap it in a pint-size container. The crystals look kooky and mystical, but you can buy them at Home Depot for less than $4 a piece. It’s a fitting metaphor for Bedford’s philosophy: ostensibly weird, practically sensible.

Returning to the living room, Bedford’s promised to show off some of that knowledge in the form of her family’s bug-out bags. Her son, Andrew, 14, says hello and retreats, but her daughter, Olivia, sticks around to answer questions: how she started designing graphics (she taught herself by using free Photoshop alternatives and Creative Commons images) and her favorite fonts (Clicker Script and Princes Sofia, “but never together!”). She also fills in the blanks when her mom struggles to remember an exact book title — like Alas, Babylon, a classic of the survivalist genre — and tells me about her various experiments in paring down her needs: She’s made her own deodorant and experimented with washing her hair with baking soda, and she's learning various medicinal herbs and plants and how to make her own tinctures.

When asked about her college plans, Olivia says she wants to major in something practical — like marketing, or business. “I’m not going to be someone who graduates with $50,000 in student loans and a degree in women’s studies,” she says. “But I’ll minor in something like music, so I can teach piano lessons, or Spanish — something I could use as a backup plan.”

Olivia — or Liv, as her mom calls her — lugs her khaki backpack over and starts unpacking. “Liv packed this one herself,” Bedford narrates. “It’s a nice bag! Not terribly heavy.” There something that looks like a massively complicated friendship bracelet affixed to the side. “That’s paracord,” Bedford says. “Inside are many, many strands — you can unravel them and use it to replace a shoelace, or cut the outer casing and pull out a tiny strand inside for sewing. It’s very versatile. There’s an old joke that you can spot a prepper by her paracord bracelet.”

There’s a sewing kit, light sticks. Liv’s learned to do basic sewing — one of dozens of skills, like archery and marksmanship, available to her and her brother because of the flexibility of their homeschooling schedules. For each item she removes from her bag, she has an explanation.

Baby powder: “It’s good for so many things! Your feet and rashes, and if your skin starts rubbing together and you get chaffing, or from the prickly heat.”

A small notebook: “For writing things down, and memories.”

A travel Bible, a duct tape wallet, aluminum foil, a pink loofah. “Part of this kit is from this woman who wanted to develop a kit specifically for women,” Bedford pipes in. “She went through so many products to find the best ones, and ones suited to the size of women’s hands, but she also has this quirky idea: She wanted something in the pack that was brightly colored, because all the emergency stuff is gray or camo, and she said, you know, you’re out and you’re stranded with your kids, but you can pull out this little pink loofah and give your kids a sponge bath, and it’ll just feel, well, like something.”

While some preppers debate which items to bring along for bartering — a popular item is airplane bottles of booze — Lisa likes to conceive of their offerings in terms of skills: sewing, or cobbling, small engine work. “Can you imagine a time when you can’t buy new clothing, and things are ripping, but you know how to repair shoes, or have an old sewing machine that can repair tents. Then you have something of use to you, and then you can trade it with other people, too.”

The bag itself is good for “bugging out," or fleeing quickly with essential possessions in case of catastrophe, but it’s also good for smaller, less life-threatening disasters. Like if lightning hit a house in the neighborhood and a gas line was compromised — “You can’t even think, there’s no time to make decision. But if you know that we have these bags, and they’re packed, and they have $1,500 in cash, and a change of clothes — well, we could just take that to the hotel and we’d be OK for a few days.”

As Olivia carefully repacks the contents of her bag, the conversation takes the darkest turn of the two days we’ve spent together. “Now, here’s a big question we think about all the time,” Bedford begins. “What do you do when you’re well-prepared, but you see the neighbor kids out there and they’re scrounging through trash? In some scenarios, I think it’s actually the moral dilemmas that’ll eventually become more emotionally draining than ‘What are we going to eat tonight?’”

So what would Bedford do? “You weigh the pros and cons and do whatever research you can. And at some point, you make the best call that you can. So in a bad scenario, that’s exactly what you’d keep doing.”

It’s a hedge, but it’s also a way to talk about the connection between prepping and religion. Bedford and her family are Christians, and she sees many similarities between the current state of America and the descriptions in Revelations 18. But she also sees a deep hypocrisy at work within the Christian preparedness community.

“There are people, and I know they are Christians,” Bedford says, “but in the forums, they actually sound like they are actually looking forward to the collapse, because it would give them license to have an open hunting license on humans. I would not define that as a Christian perspective. The other day, I read this prepper advice column. A reader from New York City had emailed and said, ‘I know that you’re in a rural situation, so what are you going to do when there are hundreds of us [urban people] coming towards you? And this man’s response left me so uneasy that it actually just made me emotional.”

Bedford pauses, looks me directly in the eye. “He wrote, 'What you don’t know is that that my buddies will all be there hiding in the trees, and we can pick you off.'”

She breaks eye contact, sighs. “And I’m like, ‘Does the Bible just go out the window? It’s not like God says, you know, treat your neighbors as you’d treat yourself and follow the example of Jesus, but only during good times. Or that when it hits the fan, all bets are off. So that’s another huge moral dilemma. And it’s one I don’t think most Americans can handle.”

The prepper community runs on acronyms. There’s WSHF (When Shit Hits the Fan) and the slightly more unwieldy TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It), and EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), which would occur as a side effect of the launch of a massive bomb, nuclear or otherwise. An EMP would destroy the electronic components inside, well, basically everything — our cars, our phones, our computers, but also air traffic control and all municipal systems: the brains of modern society. It’s also the event that’s currently most on Bedford’s mind. As she puts it in her book, “An event like this has never happened on a large scale, and there are differing opinions as to the exact consequences, but one thing is certain: In a matter of moments, life as we know it would be gone forever.”

“Back in March, someone said to me, ‘You know, Lisa, every so often, we hear that North Korea did a missile test, and we all laugh because it failed. But what if it didn’t fail? What if they’re experimenting to see how high up in the atmosphere they can get that missile?’ Because technically, if someone got a missile not even that far up above the United States, and it exploded and created this pulse, it would wipe out anywhere from all electronics to a significant number of them.”

“There are a lot of books about EMPs,” she continues. “And the granddaddy of all those books is One Second After,” a New York Times best-seller. But no one, according to Bedford, has written a straightforward guide to dealing with the aftermath. “The lights go out, you check your cell phone, it’s dead; my cell phone’s dead; maybe we look out the window and see a bunch of stalled cars and we think, Oh my god, what if this was a massive pulse?” she says. “So what’s the very first thing that we should do? The first five things? The first 20?”

Sign up for the Survival Mom’s “EMP Survival Report” newsletter, and you’ll know. You’ll also get a dose of Bedford’s characteristic reassurance: “I don’t believe that only Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and the most vicious, lawless predators will be the ones to survive,” she writes in the intro. “In fact, moderate preppers already have many advantages over these groups. We recognize warning signs that have led us to take proactive steps to prepare. We’ve incorporated both the mindset and lifestyle of preparedness into our daily lives and, by doing so, blend in with every other household around us.”

Fear of an EMP is a particularly contemporary anxiety: rooted, at least in part, in our increasing reliance on technology. It’s a postmodern version of nuclear terror, which sublimated itself in all manner of popular art over the course of the Cold War. Today, a targeted EMP attack is a plot point in Pacific Rim; the NBC show Revolution depicted a world grappling with the effects of an EMP; One Second After knockoffs are legion. People want to see the scenario of electronic blackout enacted — and then survived.

There’s a question, of course, over how viable these threats really are — whether or not the fear, and the need to control it, on whatever level, is justified, or an overblown result of too many apocalypse narratives and Fox News. A report from the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, assembled in 2004 in order to assess the viability of an attack over the next 15 years, makes fears of an EMP seem very, very legit. An EMP “has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of US society,” according to the commission, and “is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in the defeat of our military forces.”

You could easily argue that climate change poses a similar threat to the integrity of the United States. But climate change is also present in our lives, and our general concerns, on a near-daily basis. It’s a “normal” thing to be scared about. A report like this one powerfully suggests that an EMP as just as legitimate a fear.

But the probability, viability, or likelihood of these events matters less than the very palpable fear that people like Bedford and her readers experience on a daily basis. “We can see these different scenarios, and counterbalance them with the likelihood of things. When I get afraid of something — like this woman who contacted me today who told me, ‘A good friend of ours is in the military, and he said that an EMP is a sure thing.' So she’s scared out of her mind. When I get scared like that, or I read a headline, I just let myself be afraid. I’m not going to deny it, I’m not going to say, ‘It’s not scary.’ You have to feel that fear: To push it away, to minimize it — that’s nuttier than allowing yourself to be afraid. So I just feel it, and I just let it soak in. Because once I do that, you reach a point where the fear has dissipated, and you know what’s left? Knowledge.”

Moving to the kitchen, Bedford pulls pieces of freeze-dried food from industrial-size containers whose labels look straight out of Martha Stewart Living. “Try this chicken,” she says. “It’s so easy to throw this in a soup. And look at the 'contents' listing on these cranberries: cranberries. That’s it.”

The container’s brand, Thrive Life, is based in Utah, and like many long-term food-storage companies, got its start catering to Mormon families. Now it has a consultant-based selling strategy — Bedford is herself a consultant. Any Thrive foods purchased through the site give her site credit, which at this point tops $4,000. She could buy the $2,400 one-year supply of freeze-dried foods, if she didn’t have it already. The colors are pastel; the website, like its title (recently changed from Shelf Reliance) and its aesthetics, make it feel like any other quirky health brand.

In the “Why Thrive” section of the website, the reasons for adopting the brand are so ambiguous as to apply to nearly anyone: “If you’re a health nut, it’s the fresh taste, high quality standards, and natural health of our foods. If you’re looking to get a quick nutritious, and tasty meal on the table it’s the convenience and versatility we offer.” No mention of prepping, just “food freedom”: “With a good supply of all the foods you need right at your fingertips,” the site proclaims, “you won’t be dependent on anything, which means you’ll be ready for everything.”

Thrive, like Bedford’s blog, is part of the new accessible, female-oriented, and, crucially, logical face of prepping. Even that word — prepping — makes it sound like an extension of performing responsible motherhood: like scheduling your kid’s dentist appointments ahead of time or making sure to take get your Christmas card ready in October. Just as moms passive-aggressively shame one another for deficient snack-making or scrapbooking, it seems like a natural extension of contemporary maternal culture to start socially policing a lack of preparation: “Oh, you don’t have a year of color-coordinated food in your dehumidified pantry?” “You know that [insert brand here] of bug-out bags is really the best.” “Everyone has a backup evacuation plan these days.”

Bedford’s advice feels more and more common sense, because financial disaster (from lack of health care, from job insecurity, from the disintegration of the social safety net) is a fear common to almost all Americans. And if you’re struggling to level the financial playground, then prepping is a way to assure that after the shit hits the fan, you could finally be on top. Think of it this way: If the American dream is increasingly impossible, then survivalists are readying themselves for the world in which the principles of hard work and self-reliance will once again triumph, in however macabre a fashion. It’s the striving for that dream, and the spending, however moderate, that accompanies it, that’s transformed Bedford’s hobby into a massive industry.

Still, Bedford, and others like her, remain the definitive minority. As she tells me as she packages up parcels of dehydrated food for me to snack on at the airport, “Americans have never starved before. Even people on food stamps. What do we know about starvation? We have such a nice support system, with churches and food pantries and Second Harvest, and we have no concept of what it’s actually like.”

She walks me to the door, gives me a hug. “There’s a popular saying: ‘Nine meals away from anarchy,’” she says. “And nine meals — you know, that’s only three days.”

I pull my hood over my head to guard against the storm and run to my car, where I nearly decide to leave the packs Bedford prepared for me. But then my flight ends up delayed, and eight hours later, I find myself stranded in the Cincinnati airport, every restaurant closed. I eat every shred of chicken and powdery strawberry Bedford packed for me. Someone, thank god, had been prepared.

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