Dust off your survival skills


These are good days for survivalists, those dour predictors of dire times who've said all along that we'd better prepare for the worst. With people losing jobs, homes and life savings through no fault of their own, and with natural disasters, oil shortages and terrorists in the news, those long-predicted grim times may have arrived.

Kurt Wilson, who hosts a Web site called "Armchair Survivalist," predicts that the nation is falling into such chaos that survival skills will be crucial. But what are those skills? I think I have a good idea, based on what pioneers endured as they worked to settle the West. I believe they have a lot to teach us about what it takes to make it through hard times. Here's a hint: A gun isn't the most necessary thing.

Where I live in Wyoming's inhospitable high desert, settlers in 1908 knew that if they were ever going to grow anything, they needed to build a reservoir and ditches to direct water down from the Wind River Mountains. They did that by working together, and the ditches they dug a century ago still run water today. 

Some families lived in tents their first winter, burning sagebrush until they could bring logs from the mountains to build cabins and provide better fuel. They cleared the sagebrush, planted hay and grain, hunted rabbits, antelope and sage chickens. Gardens provided vegetables -- fresh in summer, canned for the rest of the year. Each family had a cow, a pig and chickens. Surviving meant working dawn to dark.

Because it took two days to ride in a wagon to Rock Springs, Wyo., the nearest town, they stocked up on staples once, maybe twice, a year. As recently as the 1930s, folks here were about as close to self-sufficient as you could get. Asked about life during the Great Depression, one old-timer said, "We didn't notice much difference. No one had any money, but we had a roof over our heads and enough to eat." 

That kind of self-sufficiency may again become necessary, says Barton Biggs, a New York-based strategist who advised investors at Morgan Stanley. His recent book, Wealth, War and Wisdom, echoes survivalists by warning that the breakdown of civilized society is coming. Biggs advises creating safe havens stocked with necessities such as canned food, liquids, medicine, seeds and fertilizer. For the long term, he says, these "survival retreats" will also need a supply of water and a way of growing food. That makes them sound a lot like the early homesteads that were established in my community 100 years ago.

Since my husband and I live on some of the same ground that supported settlers and their descendents -- even in the same log house (although since remodeled) that they built -- I've been wondering if we could survive under the same conditions they endured. We had a dress rehearsal during last year's severe winter. We were snowed in for days and had to dip into our stores of canned and frozen goods. Fortunately, neither the electricity nor the propane failed so that our TV, stove, refrigerator and heaters kept us cozy.

But what if the power grid were completely wiped out by weather or, as alarmists warn, by sabotage? Could we make do by heating with only our wood-burning stove and cooking on the camp stove? How long would batteries sustain our transistor radio? No e-mail? No telephone? No indoor plumbing? What if there were no gas to drive the 50 miles to town for supplies, and what if the shelves were bare even if we managed to get there?

It puts our gardening hobby in a whole new light. Forget the petunias. Put that precious water on the potatoes and beans. Hunting local wildlife would no longer be recreational. It would be a necessity. Could we raise chickens or barter with friends who do? We could try to get a calf or pig to fatten, and we'd want to replace our horse with a milk cow. On second thought, we might need that horse to get to the post office, assuming we still had mail delivery.

If what armchair survivalist Kurt Wilson calls a "grid-down societal collapse" really did thrust us back to a frontier culture, he thinks we who live in the rural West would have an advantage over urban and coastal dwellers. The 19 states rated as best "retreat areas" on survivalblog.com are all inland Western states. The top five are Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and my home state, Wyoming.

The prospect of having to survive for long under truly primitive conditions is daunting, even frightening. But I like to think that if we absolutely had to, we could go back to living off the land. After all, I tell myself, we're only a few generations away from the pioneers who did exactly that.

Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Wyoming and is the author of Staking her Claim: Women Homesteading the West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

there's no romance in hunger
lee anderson
lee anderson
Mar 23, 2009 01:37 PM
This column makes the Depression in Wyoming sound romantic, when that is so far from the truth I can't believe I'm reading it.

My dad grew up in Rock Springs, the son of a father from Minsk and a mother from Vilna. Grandmother Vera had 12 kids, but only six lived past infancy. My grandfather, an educated man, worked in the coal mine, where he died in 1945 when a shim popped and about took his head off; his family of eight lived in a two-room coal-camp house with no indoor plumbing. The miners went to the public baths at the end of the day; on Saturday, the rest of the family got to bathe. They had a little kitchen garden, but mostly lived on game, legal or otherwise. (My dad joined the Marines to get away, only to be a slave for three years in a Japanese prison camp, but that's another story.)

My mother was from Sheridan, where her father, a police officer, lost his job during the Depression, then joined up with the CCC to build a road through the Big Horns. My grandmother convinced him and her three daughters to move to a little farm, where all of them labored morning till night to grow a few chickens and crops. No plow horse; my granddad pushed the plow himself after working all day on the road crew. Everyone was skinny. My g-parents had homesteaded near Otter, Mont. One of my mother's first cousins kept the combined ranchland and worked it until he died and the ranch went to the bank. I remember a day about 12 years ago when that cousin came to Sheridan to pick up my mother and me and took us back up to the ranch. As we drove, he pointed out the ranches on the way, and everyone had a tale of significant tragedy.

After three generations, I'm still the only woman on either side of the family to get through college. Hardscrabble runs deep and leaves scars along the way.

I'm sorry, but it's no accident Wyoming's population doesn't get bigger than a half-million. You want to live a life of feudal misery, go ahead. But don't act like it's going to be a lovely adventure that you might actually survive.

Mar 23, 2009 09:21 PM
Lee does hit on some very strong points. There is a reason game populations were at very low population levels during those times - not just because of too much stock on the range. And with the higher populations levels today, I don't think they, or the land and the local populace would fare much better. Hearing the stories from my parents and grandparents that went through the Depression also left a lasting impression on me. Yes, they survived and managed to keep the family farm, but it wasn't pleasant.
Mar 24, 2009 08:34 AM
And if you think you won't need the ability to defend yourself in this apocalyptic chaos, you haven't seen Mad Max. Living in LA, and seeing who roams around the nearby mountains and forests, I have a different view.
Population and Coastal Abundance
Albert Preston
Albert Preston
Mar 25, 2009 02:46 AM
My first comment concerns population. There are a lot more of us here than there were 100-150 years ago.There is a very limited amount of land that can support self sufficiency. My second comment is, how could anyone overlook the abundance of the sea? Coastal environments provide a multitude of resouces. The pacific coast is still extremely productive compared to most of the inland west. The weather is much less extreme as well. From a pure survival standpoint I would choose the pacific coast above all other environments. You just have to learn to tolerate all that rain!
Best retreat areas
Apr 06, 2009 06:24 PM
Oregon and Washington are not "inland states".