On a chilly December morning, the Southwick clan is enjoying a lazy Sunday at their house in suburban Salt Lake. Kara, a no-nonsense mother of six, is about to start cooking dinner – spaghetti and meatballs – when she realizes she's missing a key ingredient. "Hey, Braxton?" she calls to her husband. "Could you bring me two cans of tomato sauce?"
"Time for a trip to the food store!" Braxton Southwick, 41, says cheerily as he bounds down the stairs to the pantry. He flicks on a light, illuminating what must be the biggest stash of nonperishables in all of West Jordan, Utah: thousands of cans of peaches, corn, and soup; shelves of industrial-size bags of sugar; an army's worth of Maruchan ramen. And that's just the beginning. Stored in other parts of the property are 4,000 liters of water, 1,000 pounds of coal, 14 guns, and 12,000 rounds of ammunition - each a crucial piece in the Southwicks' all-encompassing plan to survive the end of the world. Not to mention the eight chickens in the backyard. "The great thing about chickens in a doomsday scenario is they'll eat anything," Braxton says, smiling. "Which makes them ideal for a prepper."
Maybe you've heard of preppers. Over the past few years, spurred by fears of environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, terrorism, and maybe just a smidge of anti-government paranoia, a growing number of Americans - 3 million, by one estimate - have started preparing for the apocalypse. They stockpile food, load up on semiautomatics, pack so-called "bugout bags" for when the shit hits the fan (or "wtshtf," in the parlance). They've given birth to a multibillion-dollar industry, spanning books, DVDs, survival gear, conventions, even ancillary industries like solar-generator design and bunker construction. And lately, it's gone mainstream enough to make it to prime time.
The Southwicks are one of dozens of families featured on the second season of 'Doomsday Preppers,' airing now on National Geographic Channel. The most popular of several such programs that cropped up in the past year (Discovery Channel's 'Doomsday Bunkers,' Destination America's 'Armageddon Arsenals,' Animal Planet's 'Meet the Preppers'), it's the biggest show in NatGeo history;
1.3 million people watched the season-two premiere. Southwick is one of its breakout stars: young, nice-looking, and relatively sane – at least more so than lots of other people on the show, like the hefty Tennesseean known as Big Al, who lives for three months a year in his 2,000-square-foot underground house, subsisting on something he calls "bunker stew." "I'm not allowed to call them 'crazy,'" Southwick says. "But they are."
Southwick is a former race-truck driver who works as a mechanic. He loves speedboats, four-wheelers, and motorcycles. "I'm just a regular ol' Joe," he says, in a voice that sounds vaguely like Owen Wilson's. Still, get him going on the subject of disasters and he can talk literally for hours – all the time acutely self-aware of how ridiculous he might sound. A lifelong Mormon, he believes in the End of Days. But it wasn't until 9/11 that he got serious about prepping. Now, he has a plan for any disaster imaginable: an eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, an earthquake on Salt Lake's Wasatch Fault, the breakdown of the federal monetary system, even another Katrina. (Sure, Utah is landlocked – but you never know.)
But his biggest worry is a biological attack. In Southwick's nightmare scenario, terrorists unleash a deadly strain of weapons-grade smallpox on Salt Lake. "It's clear. Odorless. Tasteless," he says. "It has a 100 percent fatality rate, and there is no cure. All you have to do is pour a jarful on the sidewalk, and within a week, it's been passed to 2 million people."
Southwick climbs into his Dodge Ram pickup. He's taking me to the cabin where the family plans to "bug out" in case of attack. If he suspects one has gone down, the first thing he'll do is text Kara and the kids, ages 13 through 21. "If they get 9-1-1 three times, they know to come home immediately," he says. (In case phone lines are down, they also have walkie-talkies.) Wearing gas masks, the clan will grab their guns and start loading their caravan: son Treston in the back; Braxton in the middle, towing an RV; son Braxton Jr. up front, driving Braxton's old racing truck, in case they need to ram through roadblocks. "It sounds crazy, doesn't it?" he says, shaking his head.
After about an hour and a half, we come to a little town called Fairview. We drive past a locked gate and up a winding, unpaved road. The air is crisp and piney; the view is breathtaking. As we walk around their five-acre plot, Southwick points out everything he hopes to get in place before they have to bug out: vegetable garden, goat and pig pens, salt licks for the deer they plan to hunt, WWII-era military crank phone, lookout nest. He talks about exit routes and perimeter breaches, and utters the phrase "marauding gangs" several times. He raps his knuckles on the cabin. "These are all real logs. They'll take a round." He pauses, then gets a sheepish look. "Sounds crazy, huh?"
Members of the doomsday community don't like to be called survivalists. It conjures conspiracy theorists, militias, Ted Kaczynski holed up in Montana. "Prepper" just sounds better – sensible (who wouldn't want to be prepared?), even upbeat. Some have taken NatGeo to task for their depiction on the show, calling it skewed: "They present a bunch of crazies...and get the largest viewing audience they've ever had," wrote Phil Burns on his popular site, American Preppers Network. Still, for all his worrying, Southwick doesn't seem that crazy, or even especially paranoid – more like an anxious dude who loves his kids and wants to do whatever he can to protect them.
"Everything we do is practical," Southwick says. "I use all the fuel I store outside. We enjoy the cabin all summer. We're preppers through and through, but I still love to have fun, and I want my kids to do the same. I'm not a guy hiding up in the woods, scared that the government is watching me." And on that possibly not-so-remote chance that something catastrophic actually happens? "You've gotta listen to the crazies. They know what they're talking about."