Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
WTSHTF, some people won’t have to worry about finding a bug-out location. If they don’t live in an isolated area already, they at least have a close relative living on a farm, raising a family in an outer suburb, or renting a summer retreat.
But I come from a long line of committed urban dwellers. They live in the high-rises of Chicago, the working class boroughs of Boston, the hillside homes of San Francisco—basically everywhere you don’t want to be when the system collapses. Consequently, since restocking my supplies after my three-day test, I was well-prepared to bug in; but I still lacked a failsafe plan to bug-out.
“If you’re going to live in the city, the key is getting out ahead of time,” said Kevin Reeve from urban evasion class when I called him for advice. “You need to keep your finger on the pulse and look for tripwires. If Israel attacked Iran, for example, I’d be on the next plane to St. Kitts. If you get stuck in L.A., your next best bet is to shelter in place. Bugging out would be your last resort.”
On his next trip to California, Reeve took a few days off work to help devise my escape. Evidently, he meant what he said over dinner in Oklahoma City when he told me he’d be my network.
Reeve and I spent the morning studying topographical maps of California, assessing the survival potential of dozens of lakes and reservoirs. Our goal was to choose three different locations and escape routes, so that no matter what type of disaster struck, I’d have at least one getaway option.
That afternoon we tested our first bug-out plan, and rode a motorcycle through the hills and fire roads to Malibu Lake thirty miles away. En route, we checked for possible obstacles, traffic choke points, and roads wide enough so that I could weave to avoid shooters.
“This area actually has everything you need to survive,” Reeve informed me when we arrived at the lake. “There’s water, fish, edible plants, animal tracks, and yucca for cordage. You could hide in the cottonwoods here for weeks.”
As we scouted the area, he plucked a yucca leaf and showed me how the pointy tip could be used as a needle to suture wounds. Then he picked up a stick and poked at a lump of nearby poo to see what type of animal had made it.
“It’s composed of cereal,” he informed me. “Must be a dog.”
I added poo reading to my survival to-do list.
Then I scratched it out. Some skills were better left to the experts.
In search of a second, more remote bug-out option, I called Mad Dog for advice.
“You need to get yourself an autogyro,” he said firmly, as if it were as essential as a good knife. “Then fly over all the shit rather than navigate through it. If you get an autogyro with pontoons, you can land on a mountain lake that has no road access. You could live there forever with just a seven-pound tent, a little fuel, an axe, a saw, and a fishing pole.”
It sounded like the perfect way to isolate myself from the chaos and danger of a collapsing society. So I started looking into gyrocopters like this one:
The problem was that gyrocopter kits cost between $10,000 and $30,000, and my survival expenses had already put me in debt. In addition, I had nowhere to store it, so I’d have to rent extra space somewhere. I inspected helicopters as well, and though they also seemed ideal for bugging out, a decent used one cost well over $150,000.
So I chose a more affordable option: United Airlines. Obviously, a commercial jet wouldn’t be a feasible escape option WTSHTF, but for now, it was the quickest way to find a second bug-out location far from the smog of Los Angeles.
To make sure I learned something from the experience, I gave myself a new test that probably would have killed me six months earlier: I decided to make sure I’d completely shed my addiction to the system and could survive three days in the wilderness with nothing but a knife and my wits to sustain me.
In case I accidentally ate California parsley surprise and died, I brought Reeve along to keep an eye on me. As additional backup, after I arrived I buried a cache of survival supplies.
Though I’d spent months preparing, the test was nothing like what I envisioned. Nature has a way of defying even the best-laid plans.
I didn’t have enough daylight to build a debris hut when I arrived, so I had to sleep against a tree and cover myself with a mound of leaves for warmth.
It took half a day and both of my shoelaces to make a bowdrill and start a fire.
It took three days and a three-mile hike before I found a single edible plant.
I didn’t even come close to hitting an animal with my throwing stick. And I couldn’t set traps because they’re illegal in national parks.
It took hours to purify water, because open fires were prohibited and I had to build a small, hidden scout fire.
And when I finally caught an animal with my bare hands—a salamander with translucent skin, bulging eyes, and a long, slimy tail—I didn’t have the stomach to eat it.
But despite my discomfort and salamander squeamishness, I survived. I lived off the land for the first time in my life. It was one of the most liberating feelings I’d ever had. By the time I left, I knew I’d be able to stay in the wilderness as long as I needed. I wouldn’t be comfortable, but I’d be alive. I couldn’t believe how far I’d come since my snivelly nights at Tracker School.
Though I didn’t end up using the cache, I left it where I buried it—not just in case I decide to bug out there in the future, but in case you do.
If you ever need it, this is what it looks like:
I’d tell you exactly where it is, but then everyone else reading this could also get to it. So I’ve compiled eight short clues, each hidden in one of the illustrations in this book. If you can decipher them, they’ll lead you directly to my emergency cache.
When you retrieve it, email me at StSlimJim@gmail.com to receive an additional reward that won’t fit in a hole in the ground. You may also contact me there to find out if it’s already been unearthed.
If you can, bury something else there for other treasure-hunters. In the meantime, until I can save up for a gyrocopter kit, assemble it, and learn to fly there, I have other bug-out plans.
Wind and salt spray whipped against my sun-beaten face as the sailboat picked up speed, dipping its rails into the deep blue of the Pacific and bringing me closer to the final location in my bug-out simulation. I couldn’t imagine a more ideal and exhilarating way to escape the city WTSHTF. There’d be no traffic jams, no roadblocks, no need for fuel, and no looters out here, unless a small pirate subculture suddenly developed.
And fortunately, Reeve was in the process of telling me how to deal with that very contingency. “If you’re attacked by pirates, you can sink their boat with your Remington shotgun. Just remove a slug from the shell casing and drill a quarter-inch hole in the slug. Then insert a .22 short round backward and replace the slug. When fired at the water line of most boats, the round will blow a hole that can sink it.”
We were on our way to Catalina Island, twenty miles due south of Los Angeles. With a population of four thousand, the island would be relatively safe from rioting and violence.
An inflatable dinghy, stocked with supplies and stored near the ocean, would at least be more affordable than anything in the copter family. With a fishing pole, I’d have easy access to food. With a desalinator, I’d have a lifetime supply of drinking water. And with a sail kit, I’d have an inexhaustible source of energy.
“You know this is pointless, right?” Katie’s voice interrupted my scheming. I’d brought her on my final test run because if I ever bugged out, I’d be taking her with and I wanted her to be prepared.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re just going to Catalina to dig holes in the ground for no reason.”
“Do you mean the cache?” She shrugged. I’d brought along an Army ammunition can loaded with freeze-dried food, water, and other survival essentials. “The point is to bury supplies. This way, as long as I can sail to Catalina, I can always survive there.”
She dropped her head into my lap, stretched her legs along the sailboat bench, and fell fast asleep. She was tired from the Dramamine she’d taken for seasickness, and in a generally cranky mood. Not only was she worried the boat would hit a rock and sink, but she hadn’t eaten dinner the night before or breakfast that morning.
She reminded me of the boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, whose innocence and compassion constantly interfere with his father’s attempts to keep him alive. I wondered whether the compassionate would be the first to go WTSHTF or if they would outlast the remorseless, which I was fast becoming.
Reeve reached into a paper bag and pulled out three tuna sandwiches we’d packed for lunch. I woke Katie and handed her a sandwich, but she blinked groggily at it, then fell back asleep.
By the time she woke up, the sandwich had spoiled in the sun. On the horizon, the outline of Catalina Island began to take shape. She’d be able to get food there soon enough.
Three hours later, we dropped anchor at the port of Two Harbors in Catalina, ten miles from the main city of Avalon. Reeve and I climbed into the dinghy, while Katie stayed on the boat to nap until dinner.
Racing against waning daylight, Reeve and I motored along the coast until we came to a deserted stretch of beach. After finding a well-concealed site in the hills above the shoreline, we took compass bearings and then, like pirates burying treasure, dug a deep hole to drop the cache into.
An hour and a half later, we returned to the sailboat wet, exhausted, and elated. Bugging out was a lot more fun than bugging in. I looked forward to ending a hard day of work with a hot meal at Two Harbors’ one and only restaurant, famous for its seared, slow-roasted prime rib.
While Reeve napped below deck, Katie and I took the dinghy ashore. By now, her hunger had turned from craving to illness.
“My stomach feels like it’s being tied in knots,” she complained. “I would give anything for buffalo chicken strips and hot sauce and onion rings right now.”
Thankfully, the restaurant was open. Though no one was sitting at the tables, there were a few patrons at the bar. “Can we see a dinner menu?” I asked the bartender.
“The kitchen is closed,” he replied brusquely. “There weren’t any customers, so the cook went home early.”
Katie’s face fell. She asked if there was another restaurant, a pizza place that delivered, or a convenience store. As the bartender responded to each question with a curt no, her eyes began to blaze.
“What if we go back to the boat?” she asked me, panic setting in. “Is there any food there?”
“Um, we buried it.”
“Can we go get it?”
“Sure, I guess, but it will take a while to go back and dig it up.” I was so focused on preparing for future catastrophes that I’d forgotten to plan for the present. But at least Katie now understood the importance of digging holes in the ground.
“I can’t wait that long,” Katie seethed. She scanned the bar for someone with chips or a sandwich. “I’m in such a hateful mood. I would viciously kill someone for food right now.”
Maybe Katie wasn’t as much like the boy in The Road as I’d thought. The hunger in that book was fictional. Her hunger was real. “This is exactly why I’ve been learning to shoot guns,” I told her, hoping she’d finally realized the importance of being self-reliant.
“Because one day you’ll be hungry and need to murder someone for food?”
“No, so I can defend myself from people like you.”
“Well, if I had a gun, I would literally go on all those boats out there and tell them, ‘Give me your food now.’” She glared at the bartender irritably. “I don’t like being hungry.”
There were moments when I doubted whether all the time I’d dedicated to learning survival at the expense of movies, parties, writing, friends, and vacations was worth it. But not anymore. If even Katie could be turned violent when hungry, what would happen to a whole nation of hungry people?
She looked up at the bartender, forced a smile, and pleaded, “Do you have any bread?”
“I guess,” he answered, “but it’s cold.”
“You don’t understand how hungry we are right now.”
It had only been one day without food, and already we were begging for a scrap of bread.
The bartender walked away and returned with two rolls. After wolfing one down, Katie turned to me. “I’m sure he could get us all kinds of food from the kitchen.” She paused to shoot the bartender another dirty look. “If all of us were stuck here, he’s the first person I’d choose to eat because he’s so mean.”
In that moment, I realized just how easily the snap I feared could be triggered. It wouldn’t necessarily take three days without food, as Reeve had taught. It could actually take less than a day. Because it wasn’t just the lack of food that was making Katie break down—it was the lack of hope. Without a peaceful solution to her hunger in sight, she’d been forced to devise an alternate plan. And when you combine hopelessness, desperation, and pain—and then dangle a remedy just outside the reach of social acceptability—the sum is often violence.
Fortunately for the bartender, when we returned to our boat, we found a few crackers to sustain us. After a fitful sleep, we sailed early the next morning to Avalon and refortified ourselves with a hot breakfast.
Perhaps bugging out wasn’t as fun as I’d originally thought. Without a well-stocked retreat, hiding on Malibu Lake or Catalina Island wouldn’t be easy. If I couldn’t eventually get to a better-fortified location, I’d waste away to nothing.
“Maybe I should start saving up to build a retreat somewhere nearby,” I told Reeve, “just in case I can’t get to St. Kitts ahead of time.”
“That’s probably a good idea. I’d look into Northern Idaho around Coeur d’Alene or Washington around Spokane. There’s cheap land, a low population density, lax gun laws, and a minimum of strategic targets.”
As soon as I heard the word Spokane, a memory I’d forgotten about came roaring back to me. My father once told me that in the early 1900s, my great-grandfather had sent his children one by one from Germany to a rural area in Washington State, near Spokane.
When I was a child, I’d even visited a cabin there with my grandparents. I remembered tagging along as one of my cousins picked huckleberries, caught fish on a quiet lake just outside the house, and took photos of a moose that was wading in the water.
It was a survivalist’s paradise.
I grabbed my phone and dialed my parents.
“What ever happened to that cabin in Washington grandpa used to have?”
“We’re still part-owners,” my father said.
“Is it okay if I use it as a retreat in case anything bad happens?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before, when I was looking for a good place to escape to?”
“We never thought about that,” my mother cut in. “You’re supposed to be the smart one.”
I pressed them for more details about the cabin. It had fishing tackle, rowboats, firewood, and a root cellar for food storage. It seemed ideal.
“I’d be glad to come up there with you at some point and help you stock it,” Reeve offered. “We’ll cache gas along the route to make sure you can get there.”
In addition to my three bug-out locations, I now had a real retreat.
However, as I flew home, I didn’t feel as confident as I thought I would. Since the blackout in St. Kitts, I’d absorbed what felt like a lifetime of information. But even though I’d just successfully tested most of it, in my heart, I knew that if the S really HTF, these simulations weren’t enough to guarantee my survival. I was still lacking something important, besides my discouragingly delayed second passport. Something that would make all the difference between life and death. And it would be the most difficult thing to find: experience.