Real estate for the apocalypse: my journey into a survival bunker | News | The Guardian
Not long ago, I travelled to the Black Hills of South Dakota to see the place from which humanity would supposedly be reborn after global civilisational collapse. The end of the world was trending, and it seemed as good a time as any to visit a place for sitting out the last days. Over the previous few months, perhaps as a means of sublimating my own anxieties about raising a small child in an increasingly dark and volatile world, I had become preoccupied with the apocalyptic tone of our culture.
One of the more perverse aspects of this obsession was a months-long binge of doomsday prepper content, of blogs and forums and YouTube videos in which burly American guys, most of whom were called things like Kyle or Brent, explained how to prepare for a major catastrophe – your global pandemics, your breakdowns of law and order, your all-out nuclear wars – by pursuing various strategies for “tactical survival”. And this had opened out on to a broader vista of apocalyptic preparedness, and to a lucrative niche of the real estate sector catering to individuals of means who wanted a place to retreat to when things truly went sideways.
I had made arrangements to meet with one Robert Vicino, a real-estate impresario from San Diego who had acquired a vast tract of South Dakota ranch land. The property had once been an army munitions and maintenance facility, built during the second world war for the storage and testing of bombs, and it contained 575 decommissioned weapons storage facilities, gigantic concrete and steel structures designed to withstand explosions of up to half a megaton. Vicino intended to sell them for $35,000 a pop to those Americans who cared to protect themselves and their families from a variety of possible end-time events.
Vicino was among the most prominent and successful figures in the doomsday preparedness space, a real-estate magnate for the end of days. His company specialised in the construction of massive underground shelters where high-net-worth individuals could weather the end of the world in the style and comfort to which they had become accustomed. The company was named Vivos, which is the Spanish word for living. (As in los vivos – as distinct, crucially, from los muertos.) Vivos claimed to operate several facilities across the US, all in remote and undisclosed locations, far from likely nuclear targets, seismic fault lines and large urban areas where outbreaks of contagion would be at their most catastrophically intense. They were advertising an “elite shelter” in Germany, too, a vast Soviet-era munitions bunker built into the bedrock beneath a mountain in Thuringia.
Vivos’s new South Dakota location went by the name xPoint. Each of the bunkers, evenly spaced across 18 sq miles of prairie land, had an area of 204 sq metres – significantly larger than my own (admittedly not very large) house. The place would, it was claimed, be home to somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people and would become “the largest survival community on Earth”. It was pitched at a demographic somewhere between the super-wealthy clients for Vivos’s luxury underground shelters and the doomsday preppers who planned to survive the apocalypse through manly grit and YouTube knowhow. It was the future domain, in other words, of the post-apocalyptic petit bourgeoisie.
The place was, I read on the company’s website, “strategically and centrally located in one of the safest areas of North America”, at an altitude of about 1,200 metres and 100 miles from the nearest known military nuclear targets. “Vivos security team can spot anyone approaching the property from three miles away. Massive. Safe. Secure. Isolated. Private. Defensible. Off-Grid. Centrally located.” It was not intuitively clear to me how a place could be both isolated and centrally located, but, to be fair, if pretty much the entire rest of the world had perished, any settlement of living humans would have legitimate grounds to proclaim itself centrally located.
Vivos was offering more than just the provision of ready-made bunkers and turnkey apocalypse solutions. It was offering a vision of a post-state future. When you bought into such a scheme, you tapped into a fever dream from the depths of the libertarian lizard-brain: a group of well-off and ideologically like-minded individuals sharing an autonomous space, heavily fortified against outsiders – the poor, the hungry, the desperate, the unprepared – and awaiting its moment to rebuild civilisation from the ground up. What was being offered, as such, was a state stripped down to its bare rightwing essentials: a militarised security apparatus, engaged through contractual arrangement, for the protection of private wealth.
End-time real estate was an increasingly competitive racket. On the website of one major purveyor of luxury apocalypse solutions, Trident Lakes, I read that in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological emergency, the properties would be sealed by automatic airlocks and blast doors, and that each would be connected via a network of tunnels to an underground community centre featuring dry food storage, DNA vaults, fully equipped exercise rooms and meeting areas. The promotional blurb also promised such features as a retail district, an equestrian centre and polo field, an 18-hole golf course and a driving range.
This was a new entry into the canon of apocalyptic scenarios: bankers and hedge-fund managers, tanned and relaxed, taking the collapse of civilisation as an opportunity to spend some time on the links, while a heavily armed private police force roamed the perimeter in search of intruders. All of this was a logical extension of the gated community. It was a logical extension of capitalism itself.
Waiting for a call from Vicino to arrange our meeting, I had nothing better to do than mooch around Hot Springs. It was Sunday, and the town was largely deserted, save for a steady procession of grizzled and leather-vested bikers passing at a respectful clip through Main Street en route to a nearby motorcycle rally. In a cafe on Main Street, I sipped a coffee and scribbled in my notebook, before being driven away by a loose but resilient alliance of flies, who took turns in alighting on my forearms as I wrote.
Eventually, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Vicino was out at the site and was ready when I was.
About 10 minutes after turning off Route 18 on to the cracked interior roads of the ranch, I passed what was once the town of Fort Igloo, home to the hundreds of workers who moved there to take up jobs at the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, built in 1942 to service the army’s increased wartime need for munitions testing and storage. Schools, a hospital, shops, houses, a church, a small theatre: all abandoned now to the oblivious cows.
Only once Fort Igloo began to recede in the rearview mirror did the landscape reveal the true depth of its uncanniness, because it was then that I saw the vaults. I noticed at first only three or four of these things: low, grass-covered protuberances, spaced a few hundred feet apart, their hexagonal concrete frontage jutting from the earth. The deeper into the ranch I drove, the more of these structures emerged from the landscape, until I realised that they were everywhere, hundreds of them, as far as I could see in every direction. It was an ethereal sight, alien and ancient, like the remnants of a vast religious colony, a place built for the veneration of derelict gods.
I drove another couple of miles and came across a large, empty barn, beside which was a dark brown shipping container the size of a small house. On one side was a banner that read “xPoint: The Point in Time When Only the Prepared Will Survive.” Parked next to it was the silver Lexus SUV I’d been told to look out for.
I walked up the steps into the shipping crate and into a kitchenette. From a room in the back, a gigantic man in his early 60s emerged and ambled toward me, and immediately embroiled me in a painfully vigorous handshake. Robert Vicino was a man of intimidating physical scale: 6ft 8in tall, as he made of point of clarifying.
The crimson bulb of a nose, the pockmarked face, the neat grey goatee: before he even began to speak – which he quickly did, and never let up – he presented himself to me as a distinctly Mephistophelian figure. Before long, we were in the Lexus, getting ready to head to the nearest town to get diesel for the generator. His seat leaned backward at an absurdly steep angle, Vicino removed a large wooden-backed hairbrush from a side compartment and began to groom, with firm and precisely rhythmical sweeps, first his beard and then his hair.
“This is a great car,” he announced. “You guys got Lexuses in the UK?”
“We have them in Ireland, anyway,” I said, a little more sharply than I’d intended. “Not me personally, but people have them.”
“Best car I’ve ever owned. And I’ve owned Mercedes. I’ve owned Rolls-Royce.”
Sitting in the back was Jin Zhengii, a 23-year-old recent engineering graduate whom Vicino had hired as his intern. Jin didn’t say much – partly on account of being Chinese and not having particularly good English, but mostly, I guessed, on account of just being the kind of person who didn’t say much.
“I tell him, Jin, I’m like your American dad,” said Vicino. “Right, Jin? He’s a great kid. Great kid.”
As we drove, I gazed out the window at Fort Igloo, or the ruins thereof, and I was struck by the sense that I was apprehending at once the past and the future. Vicino mentioned as we passed that the place had been home to hundreds of families. The news anchor Tom Brokaw, he said, had grown up here after the second world war, a fact he seemed to take a proprietorial pleasure in presenting to me for inspection. A concrete staircase with metal banisters stood in the middle of a field, utterly alone, no trace remaining of the building that once presumably provided it with a context.
We reached a dismal little nearby town, which had clearly foundered badly in the years since the ordnance facility had closed. The streets were long and narrow and seemed entirely desolate of human life. There was a laundrette, a low corrugated iron structure, called Loads of Fun Laundry. Outside a gas station, a cluster of bikers were standing around beside their Harley-Davidsons, variously bedecked in patriotic insignia. They were, I noted, all wearing the ideologically appropriate wraparound-style sunglasses.
“I’m gonna go talk to these guys,” said Vicino, as he piloted the Lexus suavely into the gas station’s forecourt.
He explained to me a little running joke he had with himself when it came to bikers. He’d approach them and ask them very civilly what they would do if he were to just kick over their bikes on to the street. Most recently, he’d aired it with a couple of motorcycle cops back in California. Without fail, he said, the reaction was one of disarmed amusement.
“The one cop was like: ‘You’d hurt your foot is what’d happen.’”
Vicino was, among other things, a man who knew how to exercise his whiteness to its fullest extent. He was going to try out his joke as an opener with these bikers. They were, after all, pretty much right in his target demographic: these guys tended to be self-reliant types, he said, not big fans of government. And despite appearances, a lot of them were doctors, lawyers, professionals, retired folks with money to spend.
He’d been sitting in a cafe in San Diego last year, he told me, when he received an email from a cattle farmer in South Dakota, informing him about the vast tract of land on his ranch, its former munitions vaults, and how it might be a suitable property for his business to acquire. The plan came to him instantly, he said, the whole idea for xPoint: he was going to pay the rancher the sum of one dollar for the property, offering him a 50% cut of all future profits from the vaults, which he was going to sell at a reasonable price to people willing to fit them out to their own specs, and it was going to be the largest survival community on Earth. It was going to be a much more affordable proposition than his other survival communities: an apocalypse solution for consumers of more modest means. He’d already sold off 50 or so.
The sound of the door closing was like nothing I had ever heard, an overwhelmingly loud and deep detonation, the obliteration of the possibility of any sound but itself – so all-encompassing and absolute that it became almost a kind of silence. It lingered in the empty interior of the vault for what felt like perhaps three or four minutes, taking full command of the darkness. It was an apocalyptic sound, and I was unnerved and exhilarated.
The darkness, too, was absolute, an annihilation of the very concept of light. As I stood in the reverberating void, it struck me that the fear of darkness was not so much the fear of what might be out there, unseen and moving, but rather the solipsistic and childlike terror of there being, in fact, nothing out there at all, that a world unseen was a world that had ceased entirely to exist.
If I’m seeming to imply that I was having cool and abstract insights into human psychology there in the black vault, let me state again that my primary emotion was fear. I was momentarily deserted by my faculties of reason and began to panic that I might never get out of this place. I was pretty sure that the bolt was on the outside of the door. What if Vicino was a homicidal lunatic who had decided to immure me in here, like a poorly characterised antagonist in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of terror? What if he’d decided I was going to sell him out, that I was likely to damage his business prospects by making him out in my writings to look like a fool, or a charlatan, or the kind of Poe-esque madman who might murder an adversary by entombing him in a decommissioned weapons silo. The kind whose only recourse was to encrypt me alive somewhere in the lonesome Black Hills of South Dakota, where even if there was another human being for miles around, which there was not, they would never hear my cries for help?
Or what if – and this struck me as a more likely scenario – he was suffering a massive cardiac arrest out there, perhaps brought on by the effort of heaving shut the reinforced metal door, and was right now keeling over face-first into the dirt? He was a vast man, even perhaps a giant, and such people were prone to early death from heart attacks – not to mention the presumably considerable stress of spending all your time thinking about the end of the world, of constantly envisioning outbreaks of incurable disease, asteroid collisions, government cover-ups, collapsing coastal shelves, total nuclear war. How long would it be before I was found? The fact that Jin was standing beside me was slightly reassuring in terms of the first scenario, but not at all in terms of the second.
The void then filled with sunlight, and as my eyes adjusted to the brightness I was able to make out Vicino’s prodigious silhouette in the doorframe.
“How about that? Isn’t that something?” he said cheerfully. I agreed that it was, and the slight quiver in my voice was engulfed and obscured by the rapid echoing of my words in the emptiness.
Later, Vicino told me of how he’d made his money in advertising back in the 80s. He’d basically pioneered what was known as “large inflatables”. His hour of glory had arrived in 1983 when, to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the original King Kong, he’d attached a massive inflatable gorilla to the side of the Empire State Building. It made the front of the New York Times, the first time the paper had ever featured an ad on its front page.
“Maybe you’ve seen the movie Airplane! I guess that was before your time, but it’s a famous film. With Leslie Nielsen? You know the scene where the pilot and the co-pilot get food poisoning, and the stewardess switches on the autopilot, and it’s an inflatable doll of a pilot? That was me. I made the inflatable autopilot.”
It was strange, I thought, how his advertising career had brought him into contact with these two classic disaster-based entertainments, before taking him into the further reaches of catastrophe, projected now on to the real world. Vicino had at his disposal a lavish prospectus of end-time scenarios, an apocalypse to suit every aesthetic taste and ideological preference. Back on the ranchland, as he drove Jin and me across the broken roads into the deeper reaches of the former ordnance depot, he outlined some of these scenarios. There was the “crazy little man in North Korea”, and the nuclear war he seemed on the verge of initiating. There was the ever-present possibility of a global pandemic, and perhaps even a weaponised virus, causing death on an unimaginable scale. There was the prospect of hackers, motivated by political aims or pure demonic mischief, unleashing chaos on the systems that controlled the national grid, taking out society’s entire technological infrastructure. There were the massive solar flares that occurred periodically and could just as easily do the same thing without need of human agency. He was fond of mentioning the so-called Carrington Event, a massive eruption on the surface of the sun that had occurred at the turn of the last century and caused the breakdown of electrical systems across the world.
“And let me tell you, we’re well overdue one of those things,” he said. “Well overdue.”
A major element of Vicino’s sales pitch was the idea that the government knew some cataclysmic event was in the offing, but was covering it up to avoid mass panic. You could be sure, he insisted, that those who controlled the world were making arrangements to protect themselves, and that they were hiding from us both those arrangements and the cataclysm itself.
He had some strange beliefs, Vicino, beliefs that were supplementary to his basic apocalyptic vision. He believed that the Earth had a tendency to shift abruptly on its axis, causing massive earthquakes and tidal waves. He believed in the existence of a rogue planet the size of Jupiter called Niburu, which was out there just roaming around untethered to any particular solar system, and that it was on a collision course with our own world, and that the government knew about this, too, and was hiding it from us. He believed that everything that happened, from North Korea to Brexit, was orchestrated with the intention of bringing us closer to one world government.
He wasn’t particularly evangelical about these beliefs. He was mostly just putting them out there, it seemed, in the knowledge that apocalyptic unease was basically a volume game. If you didn’t like one terrifying dystopian scenario, he had another that might be more your thing. But conspiracies – secret knowledge, hidden revelations – were a key component of his business model.
He dilated at length on his theory that the Democratic party had historically built its base by promising handouts to minorities. “What the Democrats did was they said: let’s get blacks. Let’s get Mexicans. Let’s get every minority and make them believe we’re the best thing for them, that we’re gonna give them all these handouts. But even after eight years of Obama, nothing was better. More handouts. More promises. More nothing.”
He lifted a great fleshy hand to his graying goatee, massaged it with rhetorical vigor. I took a moment to absorb the physical spectacle of the man. The chunky gold sovereign ring. The beige cargo shorts. The brown leather slip-ons. The pale and weirdly delicate ankles. There was something grimly compelling about all of it. And if my portrayal of him seems to be verging on the mode of caricature, even of outright grotesquerie, it is only because this was how he presented himself to me in fact.
After a further half hour or so of aimless driving, the purpose of which, as far as I could see, was simply to illustrate the immensity of the property, Vicino brought the Lexus to a stop by another of the vaults. You could see where the prairie winds had blown away some of the topsoil and grass from the top of the structure, revealing an arc of bitumen coating beneath.
The question I needed to ask myself, Vicino said, is which group I wanted to be in when it all went down, when whatever was going to happen happened. When the asteroid landed. When the lights went out. When the economy crashed for good. When, for whatever reason, in whatever way, the whole setup went irrevocably tits up, as it unquestionably would. Did I want to be out there, trying to get in?
Because if I thought I was going to be able to get past the armed guards Vivos would has stationed at all the property’s perimeters, good luck to me. I was going to be out there, and you know who was going to be out there with me? A whole lot of other people, and not a lot of food. And it was a known fact, historically, that after 21 days without food, people will resort to cannibalism.
“There’s going to be gangs roaming,” he said. “Cannibals in great numbers. Raping. Pillaging. The have-nots coming after the haves for everything they’ve got. And my question to you is, do you want your daughters to live through that?”
I did not at that time have any daughters, but I felt it would have been somehow pedantic to point that out, because I understood that on some level he wasn’t even talking to me. He was speaking of, and to, a conjured phantasm of idealised masculinity – the man who provides, the man who protects, and whom only the breakdown of the state, the collapse of civilisation itself, could bring to its truest apotheosis. He was speaking of a man for whom society as a whole had on some level always been a hoard of marauding cannibals baying for the flesh of his daughters. The apocalypse, in this sense, was an unveiling of how things really were in this life: of what people were, of what society was, and of how a man stood in relation to it all. Apocalypse, after all, means only this: a revelation, an uncovering of the truth.
It seemed to me that this scenario Vicino had outlined, the haves battening down the hatches against the have-nots, was in some basic sense how the world essentially was, only more so. And though I was not certain about much, I was certain that I didn’t want to be one of the haves in a world like that.
I knew there was some real hypocrisy in this: if this was already the arrangement of the world, after all, I was nothing if not a have. How could I be so sure that in the wake of some cataclysmic event, I would not be – would not, in fact, have to be – even more heedless of the suffering of others than I already was. Every single day at home in Dublin I practically stepped over the human bodies of the poor, the addicted, the destitute. I complained about the government that did nothing for these people, that had no intention of addressing the systemic injustices that necessitated their suffering, but I myself did essentially nothing to help them, aside from the occasional tossed coin, offered as much to alleviate my own guilt as to ease the suffering of the recipient.
But in the end, it was absolutely true that I felt nothing but horror for the product Vicino was trying to sell me, or sell through me. A civilisation that could accommodate a business like Vivos was a civilisation that had in some sense already collapsed.
I have some sympathy for the builders of bunkers, the hoarders of freeze-dried foodstuffs. I understand the fear, the desire for it to be assuaged. But more than I want my fear assuaged, I want to resist the urge to climb into a hole, to withdraw from an ailing world, to bolt the door after myself and my family. When I think of Vicino’s project, his product, what comes to mind is the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s judgment of what it means to secure oneself inside a shelter: a withdrawal from any notion that our fate might be communal, that we might live together rather than survive alone.
The bunker, purchased and tricked out by the individual consumer, is a nightmare inversion of the American dream. It’s a subterranean abundance of luxury goods and creature comforts, a little kingdom of reinforced concrete and steel, safeguarding the survival of the individual and his family amid the disintegration of the world.
“Burying your head in the sand,” Vicino told me, “isn’t gonna save your ass that’s hanging out.” He was, he said, paraphrasing Ayn Rand – his point being, I supposed, that not purchasing a place in one of his facilities amounted to an unwillingness to face down the reality of the world. But it struck me as an odd image, an odd analogy to use, given what he himself was advocating for. Because as far as I understood him, what he was arguing was this: it was no use burying your head in the sand if you didn’t also bury your ass along with it.
The following day I returned to xPoint. Outside the corrugated iron shipping container was an unmanned red jeep with decals on its doors advertising a local Fox News station, and I inferred that Vicino had gone tooling around the prairies with a TV reporter, perhaps adjusting his sales pitch to the particular anxieties of a South Dakota conservative cable news-viewing demographic. I parked beside the jeep and set out to wander the site, but then quickly realised it was far too vast to even begin to explore on foot and returned to the car.
I drove for 40 minutes or so, stopping now and then to unlock a cattle gate, and once or twice to get out and observe the delirious spectacle of the endless grass-covered vaults, the hexagonal fronts – an architecture less proportionate to the physical than to the psychic dimensions of human beings. I clambered up on to the top of one of these, to survey the immensity from a higher vantage. The day before, Jin and I had stood on top of another of these structures, and my growing apprehension of a military-industrial sublime had been casually undermined by Jin’s solemnly informing me that he had recently taken a shit on the roof of one such vault, although “probably not this one”.
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I sat down now on the sparse grass of the roof and looked out across the infinity of green, surreally ruptured by the vaults. The thought occurred to me that it was here, in what was then the southern part of the Dakota territory, that Laura Ingalls Wilder spent much of her childhood, and where she set several of her Little House novels. This was not just a prairie I was looking out over, therefore, but the Prairie: the fertile source of America’s dream of itself as a nation of entrepreneurial pioneers, settlers of a wild land. I was looking out over a country born in savagery and genocide, built on the ruins of a conquered native civilisation, and the bunkers seemed to me like the return of a repressed apocalypse. It was as though the land itself had extruded them as an immune response to some ancient antigen.
It was so quiet here I could hear the soft buzzing of electricity in the power lines above me, the brittle snap and hum of technological civilisation itself. I thought about the US’s twin obsessions with a frontier past and an apocalyptic future. What was Vicino offering in this place, after all, other than a return to the life of the old frontier, a new beginning in the wake of the end, one that retained as many consumer-facing luxuries as possible?
Driving east across the prairies, I wondered what it might mean to think of Vicino as, if not a saviour as such, then a man who happened to be in a position to offer salvation. The idea used to be that God would spare the righteous while the ungodly perished. These matters now were in the hands of the market. If you could afford the outlay, and if you had the foresight to get in on the ground floor, you were in with a chance to be among the saved. That was business: the first and the last, the alpha and omega.
• Adapted from Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell, which will be published by Granta on 16 April and is available for pre-order here
This content was originally published here.