An excerpt from Liberty For All
FROM CHAPTER 1
FREEZING FOR FREEDOM
“YO, RICK! YOU BETTER GET OVER HERE!”
The moment before I heard this, an urgent summons was about the last thing I expected. In fact, there were 12 of us each ruing one of the slowest evenings of our lives. One was sick, enduring the woodsman’s nightmare, trying to tough it out in a camping hammock strung between two trees, with a tarp cinched over it to keep the rain out. Two others were lost somewhere in the woods, or maybe they had retraced their steps and made it back to civilization. The rest of us were soggy and frigid and quietly dreading a night that was likely to be more miserable than any of us had prepared for.
An interlude of excitement should have been welcome, to get some blood pumping and take my mind off the creeping numbness. But when I turned around I realized Omar, the bulkiest member of our group, was stomping on something that on closer inspection turned out to be my only pair of gloves, the thin cotton gardening variety, which had become saturated after about five minutes of use and were wholly inadequate given the circumstances, and were now, on top of that, on fire.
Omar, a caustic, goateed Dominican American who might look like Bob Dylan if he lost 150 pounds, stomped like he was trying to kill a copperhead as I tried to figure out whether he was ruining my gloves or saving them. “Your gloves kinda burned up,” he explained as I reached down to snatch the smoking pile of fabric from the ashen mud beneath his boot. “They’re toast.” This was alarming news since I was already underdressed and had been counting on those gloves to keep my fingers on life support until daylight, if it ever arrived.
Gloves had seemed like the last thing I would need as I began the “Tough Preppers’ Bug-Out Weekend” in the Catskill Mountains, about 130 miles north of New York City. It was mid-September. The forecast called for dry, mild weather in the 60s, even in the mountains. No freak storms were on the way. As a novice prepper, I had spent the last month researching survival gear and stocking up, the main goal being not to look like an ass among hearty folk who might mistake me for a soft suburbanite. I had a Leatherman multitool and a flip-top water purification bottle and stormproof matches and a radio that doubled as a cell phone charger when I turned a crank and a bunch of other gizmos to help me simulate an escape from mayhem, all stuffed into a black “spec-ops tactical backpack” I purchased online. Gloves! I must have had 20 pairs at home, for skiing, shoveling snow, jogging in winter, and even riding a motorcycle through the frost, from back when I had my second (or was it my third?) midlife crisis. But the only advice I had noticed about gloves was to bring some canvas or leather ones along, just in case work broke out.
My regular work gloves in the garage had seemed too dirty to stuff into my brand new spec-ops tactical backpack, so I brought the gardening gloves—freshly laundered. And wouldn’t you know it—work broke out right away. The bug-out weekend began gloriously, with a mountain hike to our campsite under warm blue skies that left our group sweating and gulping water within 10 minutes. We were all still sweating when we reached the campsite about an hour later, but the sun had slipped behind the mountaintop by then, and the woods surrounding our little encampment turned out to be damp as a bog once you stepped off the trail and began to tromp through the underbrush. There had been a thorough downpour the night before, and unlike the yard in front of my house, which had been completely dry by the following afternoon, the ground at the bottom of the woods was as wet as if the rain had just ended. It probably never really dries out down there.
We all brought our own gear—tent, sleeping bag, food, clothes, and whatever bug-out gear you wanted to test on the trip. But there was one communal activity: building and sustaining a fire. I had tried to anticipate all sorts of eventualities I might want to be prepared for: a bear attack, drenching rain that soaked everything in my bag, getting hurt, getting lost, even getting mugged, since I was in the woods with a bunch of urban oddballs I didn’t know. But it hadn’t occurred to me that we’d have to fetch our own wood. I guess I figured the $5 fee for the trip included all the wood you could burn, delivered and stacked by the firewood fairy.
So the men in the group—or rather, most of them—set to work doing the one thing men still feel a primordial obligation to be good at: building a fire. First we had to gather wood, which wasn’t exactly laying around in log form but was inconveniently buried beneath weeds, infested with bugs or tangled in vines. And all of it was wet.
Firewood duty immediately revealed who were the pros and who were the amateurs in the group. Jason, our lead prepper, was a burly New York City firefighter who had trekked up the mountain with an axe in one arm—not a folding, camper-style axelet, but the kind of bad-ass axe, as long as a baseball bat, that firemen use to crash through doors. That was in addition to the 75 pounds or so of gear on his back. I offered to carry it for a spell at one point, and he just glared at me, as if insulted. John, another practiced prepper, had a nifty folding tree saw that collapsed to the size of a ruler yet could cut through a 12-inch tree trunk in about a minute. Teli, a contractor from New Jersey, had a variety of blades and other tools that would probably allow him to build a house right there in the woods if necessary.
I had a two-inch blade on my little Leatherman that was capable of spreading cheese, cutting rope and perhaps killing a salamander if I got lost for days and desperate for food. As for wood, I might be able to whittle with it, but that wouldn’t help much with the fire. Thus, I discovered the First Rule of Prepping: always make friends with people who have better gear than you do.
I wasn’t there to prove myself a master prepper. I was there to find out if preppers knew anything important I didn’t. I assumed some members of the group—okay, maybe the entire group—would have better outdoor survival skills than me. The question was whether that mattered. I was testing a new theory that Americans were coming up short on self-reliance at a time when they were going to need it a lot more than they realized. This wasn’t the usual tirade about Americans going soft, morphing into pampered ninnies who don’t know how to take care of themselves. That was part of it, but there have always been people who fit that description, relative to what’s going on in society around them. America as a nation has almost always risen to a challenge because a critical mass of its people—far from everybody, but enough to pull the rest along—have mustered the grit and ingenuity needed to win or come back from defeat. There are surely still people like that today. But are there enough to pull the whole country out of a funk? Does America still sink or swim as one people with some sort of shared identity? Or has American society fragmented so much through globalization, the Internet, toxic politics or some other unprecedented force that that our collective self-healing properties have failed, and we’re all on our own?
These aren’t purely theoretical questions; they’re tangible problems in many Americans’ everyday lives. In my business as a financial journalist, we talk about the economy as if it’s one overarching thing that affects everybody the same, like the weather in your hometown or the Super Bowl when everybody’s watching. It’s not. In the taxonomy of everyday economics, there are two big subdivisions: one in which people have the skills to get ahead, and another in which they don’t. The pressure so many people feel these days is the grind of a tectonic shift between these two subdivisions. The first subdivision—let’s call it Progressia—is a land of abundance, the way Currier & Ives might depict a wholesome society. There’s plenty of everything in Progressia, except, perhaps, leisure time. The only real financial pressure is the kind people create, by imagining themselves as superheroes and trying to accomplish more than a mere mortal can. This subdivision is generally a pleasant place to live, but it’s getting smaller because there’s a mostly one-way flow of people into the other subdivision—more like Regressia—which is getting more crowded and contentious. Regressia is the subdivision in which people feel like they’re falling behind, even when they work hard and play by the rules and do the things you were always supposed to do to succeed in America. A lot of people in this universe aren’t succeeding, and it’s not clear their prospects are going to improve any time soon. They might actually get worse as an unsettling wealth gap grows, especially if the government runs short of money at some point, which seems likely, and has no choice but to cut back on spending programs that disproportionately benefit this group.
* * * * *
I was out there in the woods, damp and freezing, to test the extent of my own freedom and see if I was optimizing my own prosperity. And I was lacking anything resembling a saw, which you need to cut firewood, which you need to keep warm when it’s cold, which may ultimately determine whether you survive. To compensate for this embarrassing deficit, I decided I was probably more of a gatherer than a lumberjack. I scrambled into the woods and began to claw at anything that looked like it might burn, the bigger the better. I hauled tree limbs and even a couple of toppled trunks back to the campsite, where the cutting crew took turns sawing. I wasn’t the Alpha Prepper, but I wasn’t the slacker of the group, either. A few others seemed content to hang around the campsite, ask questions and avoid anything that might cause blisters. Omar, meanwhile, had plenty of commentary to offer on the correct manner of cutting wood and the proper way to vent a fire, but he seemed averse to demonstrating how.
Since everything in the woods was wet, my cotton gloves were soaked by the time I pulled my first branch back to camp. By that time, it was starting to get dark. Then it began to drizzle. Then the temperature dropped, and the sunny start to the day suddenly seemed like a memory trick. We had somehow been teleported to some frigid region of the globe where you really did need to prepare for disaster. There was one consolation: the fire. The collective effort of half a dozen determined men finally coaxed the wet timber into a reluctant burn, and we all inched closer and closer to the flames as it got colder and wetter and every one of us tried to delay the inevitable, unhappy duty of retiring to a solitary plastic tent.
I placed my soggy gloves on one of the rocks framing the fire pit. I’d need them during the night, and it was hot on the rock, and I figured they’d dry quickly. It didn’t happen quickly enough, however, so I pushed them closer to the fire and walked a few steps over to where I had assembled my tent and started to organize my stuff for the night. That’s when Omar bellowed to me. Once I finally pulled my smoldering gloves from beneath his feet, I grabbed some water from my tent and wetted them down all over again. Once the last spark was doused, I could see that the part that had burned was mostly the cuff on one glove, where it went over the wrist. The fingers were still intact, and the other glove was muddy but mostly unburned except for a couple of pinholes caused by sparks. If I had found these shabby-looking gloves in my garage, I would have thrown them away in an instant. But I treasured them now. My fingers were already losing sensation, even jammed into my pockets, and that mildly molten fabric might be the last barrier preventing frostbite. All I needed to do was dry them off. So I placed them on the rock near the fire once again, and didn’t take my eyes off them until they were as toasty as if they had just come out of the dryer. When I finally retreated to my dreary little tent, it was with 10 fingers I could feel.