The narrow, worn track in West Virginia, close to the foothills of the Appalachians, leads to a camp set back in the woods. There, a group of US survivalists have been preparing for the collapse of civilisation long before the arrival of the new coronavirus that has brought so much of the world to a halt.
Boxes full of family-size tins of food, bags of freeze-dried provisions that can last up to 25 years, rice, flour – the survivalists did not wait for the wave of panic buying that has emptied shelves across the United States. Their provisions were already neatly stacked up in a bunker made of reinforced concrete and dug 1m into the ground.
Ever ready, they even have ample supplies of two of the most sought-after commodities in the jittery country: toilet paper and face masks.
“It’s worth a lot of money now,” joked Mr Steve Rene, presenting the 40ha site that he manages as though it were a holiday camp – which it kind of is.
The Fortitude Ranch’s motto embraces both end times and more normal times: “Prepare for the worst… enjoy the present.” Members have up to two weeks each year to revel in this rural retreat, enjoying nature, hiking or trout fishing in the appropriately named Lost River.
Friendly and clear-headed, Mr Rene, the manager of the West Virginia site – there is another branch in Colorado – tries from the outset to sweep away the cliches surrounding survivalists, also known as “preppers” for their constant doomsday preparations.
“It’s not a bunch of crazy people with this idea that tomorrow, the world ends,” he said.
“We’re not militaristic. We have no ties with militias, anything like that,” he insisted, although his past military service – he served in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991 – is evident from the impeccably ironed brown shirt he wears.
Nevertheless, there are lookout posts in all four corners of the property, and there is a high-calibre rifle, capable of stopping an armoured vehicle, in the ranch’s living room to convince would-be recruits of just how seriously the members take this enterprise.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” said the manager, standing among the bare early spring trees.
More than foreign invaders, the survivalists view their main threat as fellow Americans rushing out to steal their provisions if public order collapses as a result of a nuclear or biological weapons strike, an economic implosion, a political uprising, a pandemic or a mix of any of the above.
“Obviously, that’s not very likely, but the possibility exists,” said Mr Rene. “If you’re not prepared in some way, you have just nowhere to go, nothing to do. Everybody scrambles and lots of things get out of hand.”
A committee of five people, including Mr Rene, would decide in an emergency whether to declare a “catastrophe scenario”, in which case all the members would be invited to retire to the barricaded camp, after which entry would be permitted only upon production of a password.
In the case of an epidemic, the temperature of each new arrival would be monitored with a no-contact thermometer before they can enter to enjoy free access to a self-sustaining ecosystem that includes wells, solar panels, radio equipment, greenhouses, locally sourced chickens, goats and cows, and a ditch where possible contaminated bodies can be incinerated.
The creator of the Fortitude Ranch franchise, Mr Drew Miller, is a former military intelligence expert and Harvard graduate who hopes to establish a dozen such retreats across the United States.
As opposed to “luxury bunkers” that the super rich are building themselves, the entrepreneur is aiming clearly at the middle-class market.
People pay at least US$1,000 (S$1,430) per year, per person, for the basic package: a berth in a bunker dormitory. “It’s like a life insurance policy that actually protects your life, rather than a life insurance policy that pays to bury you,” said Mr Rene.
His site has the capacity to house up to 500 people in different buildings spread across the property, which is about a two-hour drive from Washington.
Disaster, it seems, is good business. Mr Rene has been getting more and more inquiries and e-mails as the coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, spread across the country.
Worried people who already had the idea of survivalism “at the back of their minds” are now seeing “there can be a need”, the former soldier said.
A laptop open next to him shows an online map displaying the spread of the virus in real time. There are no red dots in the vicinity of the survivalists’ ranch so far.