Every night the world ends, and every morning it begins anew. Or so the ancient Maya believed.
On Monday night, Oct. 29, when the sun went down, the world inside my apartment in Manhattan's East Village still consisted of the comforts of electricity and momentary concerns: How bad would Hurricane Sandy be? Had I bought enough food? And why did "Breaking Bad" on Netflix keep pausing to buffer?
Then, without warning, the lights went out. Blackness. I made my way about that night with flashlights and candles and awoke to a new day without power or cellphone reception. I walked to work in the Flatiron District to find out that it too was without power. I called my mom, my first contact with the outside world, who told me the extent of the blackout, and how bad the coastal areas had been hit. Indeed, the world, at least in the tri-state area, would never be quite the same.
Doomsday flight cancelled
Then came the voicemail (which I accessed north of 20th street, where I still got service) telling me my US Airways flight had been cancelled. This struck me as ironic: The flight was to take me to West Virginia to meet and interview people featured on "Doomsday Preppers," and learn how to survive an apocalyptic scenario.
Luckily, I was able to find another journalist with whom to carpool down to West Virginia, passing miles of blacked-out buildings, downed trees and hours-long lines for gas, on our way out of the city.
After eight hours, we arrived in White Sulphur Springs at an event hosted by the National Geographic Channel in anticipation of the second season of "Doomsday Preppers," a show that debuts today (Nov. 13) at 9 p.m. ET and profiles extreme survivalists who believe the world as we know it may soon end.
As part of the day-and-a-half event, the preppers took us through a variety of activities to help us "survive the apocalypse."
How to survive
First, we learned to defend ourselves with the bare minimum — in this case, using a bow and arrow. You need to select a bow that's strong, but not too strong. You've got to notch the arrow in the string, with the odd-colored feather facing toward you. The idea is to pull back and fire in one motion, like Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games." I can't do that gracefully, but I did own a small bow as a kid that I used to shoot cardboard boxes, and I once won some trinket for hitting multiple bull's-eyes at Camp Drake in Fairmount, Ill. I was rusty, though — my first few shots at a wooden bear soared high. I compensated and landed three arrows in its midsection. Then the preppers put up a zombie target that is supposed to bleed when you hit it. Although it didn't bleed, I did hit it right between the eyes. [The Gear You Need to Survive Doomsday]
That night, we heard from two couples featured in the show: the Blevins and the Southwicks. Jay Blevins, a former police officer, fears an economic collapse and societal unrest. To prevent his house from being attacked, he has trained his wife Holly and several neighbors in the arts of self-defense, besides stockpiling 7,000 rounds of ammunition in his bedroom. The couple also fit wooden boards into their windows, which they unsuccessfully tried to dislodge with axes in the show, mimicking would-be intruders. "By the time you hear the pounding, you're going to be upstairs shooting them," Holly Blevin said to her husband gleefully.
We also heard from Braxton and Kara Southwick, a couple who lives in a suburb of Salt Lake City with their six kids. Braxton believes terrorists may attack the United States with weaponized smallpox, which is why the family has stockpiled more than 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) of flour, sugar and wheat, along with 14 guns and eight chickens, enough food to support their family of eight for more than one year. [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]
Fishing and firing
But defending yourself would be meaningless if you have no food. Enter fly-fishing, something we learned the next morning. I've been fishing many times, but had never been fly-fishing, a method that uses artificial flies to catch fish. Unlike with a regular reel, the casting is different — you've got to flick your wrist and propel the fly forward like a frog's tongue. The baseball player in me couldn't get the motion right. You've also got to be quick, and pull back your rod the second the fish strikes — and manually reel in to keep the pressure on. I learned this the hard way, losing several fish by not being sufficiently snappy and pulling in frantically enough. Finally, just as our time in the ice-cold creek of White Sulphur Springs was coming to an end, I hooked one — a decent-size rainbow trout. My guide helped me net the shimmering beast and release it into the dappled water from which it came.
That afternoon we learned how to fire a shotgun. I'd done this once at Boy Scout camp at age 12, and I was terrible, too afraid of the gun's recoil to aim properly at the flying orange clay pigeons. But I decided to give it another shot. Our instructor Mike (who didn't give his last name), gave us a 20-gauge shotgun and 25 shells. You've got to face forward in a "fighter's stance," put the butt of the gun on your shoulder and put your cheek against it, he said. This allows you to aim it properly and prevents it from recoiling too much. To hit the (clay) pigeons, you've got to move along with the "bird" and lead it, he continued in a hearty West Virginia drawl. [10 Innovations that Revolutionized Combat]
"You've got to pull right at the apex, and hit it right in the nose," Mike said. "Don't be afraid about missing, 'cause we all miss."
I was better this time: I hit 15 out of 25 pigeons. It's a lot harder to hit real birds, though, Mike informed us, because you have no idea where they might be coming from or in which direction they may dart. But if you are able to hit them, it could make for a nice dinner.
That night we toured "the bunker," built underneath the West Virginia Wing of the Greenbrier Hotel. It was built in the late 1950s by the federal government as an emergency fallout shelter for the U.S. Congress. For 30 years, it was continuously stocked with water, gasoline and tons of food and medicine, enough to keep the entire Congress alive for several months in the event of a nuclear war. It was paid for by U.S. taxpayers without their knowledge, and for 30 years it was kept a secret, according to our tour guide and the Washington Post story that led to the bunker's closing.
Before the tour, I spoke with University of Kansas researcher John Hoopes about the Mayan "apocalypse" myth, a topic in which he's an expert. The myth states that the world may end on Dec. 21, 2012. But it's just that: a myth, forged by Westerners with an incomplete grasp of the calendar of the Mayans, who themselves didn't believe the world would end on this date. Besides, as Hoopes said, the Maya believed the world began and ended each night, and began anew each morning.
After the tour, I had to leave to attend a geology conference, where I was immediately thrust into the company of scientists who spoke of near-apocalyptic scenarios, such as hurricane and accelerating sea-level rise … not to mention climatic reasons for the Maya's demise.
Besides a renewed desire to shoot things with arrows, my time with the doomsday preppers brought me to a couple conclusions. First and foremost, I am completely unprepared for a major disaster. And so is most of society, ever-dependent on electricity, without access to a rural hideaway (a "bug-out" location, as the preppers call it) or room to store months of rations. Even the show's producer Alan Madison said that he'd be "screwed" since he lives in New York City.
Second, it makes sense to be more prepared, to at least store several days' worth of food and water in my apartment, make a survival kit and to have a plan for evacuating the city. One upcoming episode of "Doomsday Preppers" features a woman in New York determined to escape the city in the event of a large hurricane; it was filmed two months before Hurricane Sandy hit.
Finally, it's up to us to secure our future. Instead of secretly building bunkers like the feds or hording guns in a mountain cabin, we could work together to prevent the risk of an apocalyptic scenario. Perhaps we could reduce carbon emissions, which are bound to warm our planet and lead to a host of problems like rising sea levels, especially on the East Coast (where sea-level rise is accelerating). Or work to reduce arsenals of nuclear and biological weapons — maybe even figure out how to live peacefully.
The world needn't really end for us to begin anew.