We chased the fault line south of Salt Lake City, just past the Cottonwood Canyons, to a small ridge that overlooked a reservoir as silver as the sky. It was October, during a cold drizzle, and the sun was lofted behind the clouds like a shineless mothball. My brother, a Ph.D. student in geology, explained that what appeared to me as indistinct knolls and dips were “expressions” where the fault had deformed the Earth above it. I had spent the day looking at the ground or aiming my eye down my brother’s extended arm to identify subtleties like this. When my gaze finally returned to the Wasatch Mountains, the vision was fresh and horrifying. They were monster-like, tyratnnizing the skyline with their beauty. Under their jagged eminence, my brother and I felt burdened with our knowledge of the region’s fate.
Earthquakes had invaded my dreaming. I sometimes lay awake, panicked by the slightest tremble of my nightstand or groan from the innards of my home. I pictured the Earth shattering in twilight, then, in seconds, my girlfriend and me struggling to breathe under the rubble of our house. Our dog squealing. Distant sirens echoing through the old neighborhoods south of the city. The Wasatch Front, a regional section of the larger Wasatch Range which carves and rolls from Utah into Idaho, is due for an earthquake that will dwarf the quakes of Utah’s last century—at least 7 on the moment magnitude scale. One seismologist puts the quake’s odds at one out of two in the next fifty years, meaning the risk cannot be relegated to unborn generations. Every day, I stared at the mountains and wondered what they had in store for the living.
In the autumn of 1883, some years after an earthquake in Owens Valley, California, killed over two dozen people and injured many more, the legendary geologist G. K. Gilbert warned readers of the Salt Lake Tribune that fault exposures created by earthquakes were “conspicuously absent” along the Wasatch Fault near their city. By Gilbert’s reasoning, this meant there hadn’t been an earthquake there in a very long time. “In this period the earth strain has been slowly increasing,” he wrote, “and some day it will overcome friction, lift the mountains a few feet, and re-enact on a more fearful scale the catastrophe of Owens Valley.” Proof of Gilbert’s portent followed over the next century, in the form of lesser earthquakes: Mt. Baldy (1901), St. George (1902), Sevier Valley (1921), Hansel Valley (1934), Cache Valley (1962). “What are the citizens going to do about it? Probably nothing,” Gilbert speculated, imagining them unlikely to abandon seismically weak materials like brick, stone, and adobe. He was right. He was also correct in assuming that an advanced geology would be little help in predicting exactly when the quake would occur, for “it is only by such disasters that we can learn” about the fault in question. By the time we acquired such knowledge, Gilbert concluded, “Salt Lake City will have been shaken down, and its surviving citizens will have sorrowfully rebuilt it of wood.”
Today we know far more about the machinations of the Wasatch Fault, and we are, by Gilbert’s calculus, that much closer to the historic quake. I had come here to live with my brother on a coin flip, making that 50 percent chance feel like a particularly cruel irony.
To leave such a great shift in my life to a clichéd performance of chance was, I believed, to dramatize what was already the case. I arrived in Utah obsessive and neurotic, believing the world hostile to modern creatures like me, who experienced life as a perpetual contradiction between the volatile realities of existence and our impulse to control it. My immune system had nearly killed me; whatever I was calling a “career” seemed wholly fruitless and irrelevant; the social and political realms in which I hoped to find respite from my cynicism were themselves withering in the hot winds of an era of anger and dissonance. I survived by disengaging, by placing great and unnatural distance between myself and the chaos of the world. My life had become a kind of epiphenomenal drama, something always reeling away.
I had promised myself I would not become such a person. Years ago, I’d sat in a bar listening to friends describe the wars and ecologic disasters they were sure would soon rend the world apart. One opined that following geopolitics—this was not long after 9/11—was like “watching the lights go out.” He said this with an impossible calmness, his eyes crazed but tired, as if he could only bear witness to Armageddon, stare at its hurtling bow with deep interest and deeper resignation. Too much acid, I thought, too much cocaine. His inner turmoil had darkened his vision of the world and its fate.
Before Utah, I had never known the specter of local cataclysm, of something that endangered not only myself but everything around me. It was eerie to feel my personal landscape of terror merge with the state’s arid highlands. (Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains.”) I imagined the earthquake wherever I went. I would see a federal-style cottage and think of the family doomed to be buried alive under it. I would see the mansions and villas of Utah’s wealthy, installed on mountains or balanced atop sleeping landslides, and feel a blackened satisfaction.
That rainy day on the ridge with my brother, the mountains’ wide trunks were mottled with onion grass, white fir, and boulders. Great sheaths of light parted clouds and made alabaster windows on the slopes. All around, foothills rolled and plunged, covered in Junegrass, needle-and-thread, galleta, the longer stalks flattened by wind to resemble hair obsessively overcombed. Shameful and absurd as it felt, I made a pact with the mountains: Please, wait until I leave.
It was my fourth year in Utah, and Gilbert’s forewarning had begun to seem like the basis of an eschatology. Here, life was suspended at the onset of a natural rapture, a reckoning dividing time into a before and an after. I would mention the quake to colleagues and mostly receive the same mute nod, the very idea of the earthquake withheld in some great reservoir of fear. I saw an exhibit at a nearby university with old seismometers preserved beside a timeline of the great quakes of the West, as if human history were properly understood as occurring between seismic events. That seemed right to me. Utah’s impending earthquake was an irrevocable transition through which all of our errors and complacencies would echo.
And yet people still lived here, as did I, rooted in place by the weak magnetism of a bad job, the convenience of residence, and the stronger pull of people I loved—they who were caught in the same entanglement of human relations that evidently overpowers the will to flee certain danger. Living beside a throbbing fault line certainly had its effects on the mind, though. I spent months watching a friendly man of Irish descent as he built an enormous house across the street from mine. When I asked if he’d taken any seismic precautions during construction, his face softened with sympathy, as if I’d been grifted. “There’s not going to be an earthquake here,” he said. I was trading emails with a geologist about seismic risk when he abruptly informed me: “I live in unreinforced masonry and expect to simply die with my family in my home sometime in the next fifty years. A minor concession for the joy of living next to the best skiing in the world.”
In 1971, journalist Susan Rather wrote an article in the Davis County Clipper entitled “Who’s Going to the Earthquake?” She argued that human beings are lethally attracted to earthquakes because of their association with divine retribution. “If the location and time [of the next great quake] were known,” she wrote, “perhaps the number of people who would go there for the excitement of it would exceed the number evacuating because of the danger.”
Was she wrong? Multiple doomsday cultures have taken root in the sagebrush deserts of Utah: the Latter-Day Saints, for one, have always maintained a rich tradition of apocalypticism. There’s historical record of early Mormons interpreting earthquakes as final judgment, as Doctrine and Covenants 87:6 foretells that “with earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath… of Almighty God.” The brick bungalows of Mormon preference often contain basement food stores in case of catastrophe, and amid the industrial sector of Salt Lake City you can see the glimmering white cannery of Welfare Square, an arm of the church’s national network of charity and disaster preparation. More recently, Utah has become a home to “preppers,” who concern themselves with seismic risk and all else that could obliterate humankind, and who are viewed in American culture as oddities, so preoccupied with human desolation that they betray a kind of Freudian death wish—one that happens to involve you and me and everyone else.
Ignorance, denial, fatalism, morbid fascination—these intoxicants offer to forestall the sacrifices necessary for salvation, and in some cases they pose as solutions. Walking on the eastern edge of the city, my brother and I visited a small indiscreet park, a patch of spongy Butadiene rubber beneath a playground. The ground was mostly flat, but to the south it dropped off abruptly: we were directly on the lip of the local fault segment. The park was named Faultline Park, a plaque explained. “Very on the nose,” my brother said. (He has always been more comfortable with mortality than I am.) We bounced our heels on the rubber. We used the swing set. This place was an absurdist shrine, a monument to a species that could no longer justify its existence.
In Utah, my thinking turned apocalyptic, as though by some spell of the land, and I spent my years there wondering who would be saved.
A local structural geologist named Ron Harris once offered me a secular account of our lack of preparedness. Complacency was the true and only problem. “I hate to say this,” he said. “The best thing that could happen would be for us to have a medium-sized event along the Wasatch Front, on a Saturday when nobody was at school”—he cracked his hand upon a table—“and the school collapsed.” The rationale being that if people imagined a collapsed school with hundreds of children beneath it, the horrible vision would compel a serious response that ultimately saved the region from a deadlier quake.
Like all open secrets, the earthquake had become the subject of bruits and myths, and I suppose I found Ron, who works at Brigham Young University, so that he might set me straight, proclaim what was known about the Wasatch Fault, and what was not. Though increasingly, my search for a seismic specialist was shaded by the wretched loneliness that comes with regularly pondering death and destruction.
Ron was one of the few people I knew who had felt the negative rhythm of the next big one. I’d felt it before, walking under the irradiant heights of Salt Lake’s business district, feeling the sidewalks with my heels for the initial vibrations that meant the mountains were about to slam. Is it now? Or… now? This made walking around town a kind of insane meditation, one I could only sustain (…now?) for a few minutes at a time, and it was no small relief to meet someone whose mind had drummed that eerie rhythm far more than mine.
It was then year three in Utah, and I was waiting for Ron and a caravan of his students in Provo, a city tucked along Wasatch Fault south of Salt Lake City. I stood before a capacious green house that was somewhat famous among Western geologists because it was built directly before a fault exposure—a scarp, in geological parlance—and had become a locale of academic significance and a source of black humor. The house was a suburban neo-eclectic with a terraced yard, placed at neighborly distance from a row of newish houses winding along a segment of the Wasatch Fault. Above them were the seven broad peaks that give the region its name. The mountains, steep but short for Utah, were bearded by grass the color of lager and, towards their summits, evergreens and faces of naked stone. Along their slopes I could see enormous boulders. You wouldn’t know it, but they’re on their way down. Roll. Slam. Roll. Slam. Decades of this. At the base, newts darted nervously between shrubs.
I ate an apple, then walked up the driveway to meet the green house’s tenant, who stood on the porch. I mentioned the earthquake threat and the fault the house was built on, with trepidation—delivering this information felt somehow flippant. He asked if I was advising against buying this house; he was considering the purchase as he rented. I prevaricated and left the porch. When Ron arrived, I took recourse to his scientific authority and relayed the question.
He glanced at it from the curb. “I would not buy this house,” he said.
We made our way just beyond the backyard, until we were balancing at an angle in several inches of crush rock. Ron, sinewy and short with parted white hair, stood with me behind his students. He had the steadiest gaze I’d ever seen.
The scarp was gray, brown, and blue, and glassy like a scab. Ron instructed his students to measure—his Oregonian accent made it maysure—the length of gouges on the rock face. “Slickensides,” as they are called, are created by solids pinned between the fault and the tons of earth that have accumulated atop it. When the fault shifts before a quake, these objects—usually stones—are dragged down and pressed into rock, creating tremendous friction and gouges reminiscent of desperate scratches made by human nails.
Most students were huddled in groups against the scarp; a few had ventured up its steep angle, crouched like mountain goats on some impossible footing. By measuring slickensides, they could determine the minimum length of the fault’s last shift. Minimum, because objects are usually ground to dust before the fault catches. Ron polled the group for the longest measurement. It peaked at 147 centimeters, about five feet.
One student, knowing that the Wasatch Fault was “normal”—meaning it would shift more or less vertically—realized something and turned to address the green house.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, to no one in particular, “your house will fall 147 centimeters.”
We turned and looked at the house, its patio and small well-watered yard. Parked near the sliding door was a Little Tike coup, yellow and red.
You cannot read about earthquakes or speak with the people who study them and not detect the darkling of morbid fascination. And there it was: smiles and giddy laughter at the thought of the ground beneath this family’s home shifting five feet beneath them. Because this particular fault will accelerate faster than gravity, the home will hover in the air, for an agonizing instant, before returning to the ground. That this house is likely built to modern seismic code will be irrelevant.
The fascination with events of destruction is not cruelty or sadism. When we ask ourselves what it’s like inside a tornado, at the peak of an erupting volcano, at the base of a tsunami, in the middle of an earthquake, we are bringing ourselves into contact with the forces of nature in the easiest way we can imagine. There are movies and entire television channels dedicated to this. Our most powerful conception of nature equates the devastation it causes with the wonderment we feel. I have seen it in young people and in scientists, and especially in young scientists: intrigue about the moment when the forces that govern our universe intercede in the human dimensions of time and scale, when, as philosopher Will Durant put it, “the demon of earthquake, by whose leave we build cities, may shrug his shoulders and consume us indifferently.” Durant, whose geological musings are commonly revisited after major quakes, would have assented to Ron’s description of the fault slipping with the sounds of relief: ahhhhhhh.
American Western geology, which G.K. Gilbert consummated with the theory that mountains are formed via faulting, belongs to a lineage of mechanistic philosophy that began in Greece—where Anaxagoras believed quakes were caused by winds howling through subterranean caves, and where Aristotle later inferred a connection between quakes and volcanic eruptions. (Descartes would modify the former theory by suggesting that the shaking was caused by the explosion of volatile gas trapped beneath the earth.) In parallel, though, other civilizations created myths to account for earthquakes, ones remarkably consistent across space and time. The Mongolians and the Celebes believed we rested atop a giant hog whose wild throes caused the world to rock. The Kamuhatha supposed it was a dog, the Iroquois a great turtle, the Hindus of India a ring of elephants standing on another turtle. Each myth slightly varied the meaning of earthquakes: in medieval Europe, they were punishments exacted upon a sinful populace by God; in Japan, Namazu, the massive catfish that lived in the mud under the islands, would thrash about when its guardian, Kashima, failed to restrain him.
The old metaphors portrayed nature as something fundamentally relatable—a humanoid deity, an animal—and thus created intuitive, albeit ineffective, responses to calamities like earthquakes. If the Abrahamic God was wrathful, we repented. If Namazu shook the Earth, Kashima was derelict and must be replaced by another deity (a replacement the Japanese judiciously made after the 1855 Edo quake killed nearly ten thousand people). Earthquakes are now commonly described as accidental, the meaningless spasms of a planet whose deeper workings are alien to the endeavors and yearnings of the civilizations growing mold-like on its surface. Today, if we take recourse to mythology, we invoke one of the oldest and bleakest myths: nature is a terrorist, a pitiless and unfathomable mother who will shake us off her back for no reason whatsoever.
Ron, his students, and I hiked single-file up a narrow chasm, above the scarp, further still to the top of an embankment. The sun had gone red, and on and behind the mountains it made subtle alpenglow. We could begin to see Provo in relief to the dry brown of the valley, the city so tidy and green. Ron asked his students for a show of hands: Did they live in buildings adhering to the seismic code that had been established in the mid-1970s, much safer than what had preceded it? Most of them did not, because most Utahns do not.
Ron was flabbergasted by their nonchalance and assigned them a problem set along with a reading: his essay, entitled, without any apparent intent for hyperbole, “The War of Seismic Terrorism.” The essay’s primary warning is against precisely the complacency his students had just exhibited, compounded by the illusory invincibility of their youth. Ron urged them to “refuse to live in deathtraps” and educate others—particularly fellow students—about the danger we all faced. He was often grave, but his genial personality worked against him: his pitchy voice, the endearing mischief in his smile. “You have no idea when this earthquake is going to happen,” Ron told his students “But when it does, you’re going to reflect upon all the decisions you made before the shaking started. You don’t want to feel guilty about it.”
After college, marriage and his Mormon mission, Ron went to graduate school at the University of Alaska, which he calls the “Mecca of geology.” It was there, during his first year, at twenty-six, that he was diagnosed with stage-4 lymphoma and informed he wouldn’t have long to live. Ron told me he didn’t think of death all that much in the month that followed. Continuing his research, he set out with two professors on a long trip down the Yukon River. They’d beach themselves at outcrops, lug an engine-powered drill from the raft, and bore samples out of boulders to later analyze their magnetic properties. It was Alaskan summer, when the sun moved steady along the horizon like the pendulum of a grandfather clock: Six hundred miles on the eminently flat Yukon with a river boat and an inflatable Zodiac, between riverine birch and conifer, the occasional bear chasing them along the shoreline. There was no night. They ate canned food and peanut butter sandwiches, which they sometimes traded with indigenous Alaskans for salmon caught in fish wheels. Ron would often swim, dive below the river’s surface, into a mystifying darkness made of fine and endless silt that seemed to boil in the local currents. Golden streams of sunlight would pierce the waters and glimmer on the mica there. In these depths Ron would disappear, as the world churned and swashed around where he used to be. Years on, his cancer went into remission. He regards the prospect of his individual extinction gratefully; it taught him how to live.
Much later, Ron traveled to the scythe-shaped islands of the Indonesian archipelago to study the seismic activity of Sumatra. In 1997, and again in 2002, he published papers warning of an impending 8+ magnitude earthquake. In 2004, that earthquake happened, except it was a 9.1, the third largest on instrumental record. By a conservative estimate, it killed 230,000 people.
“I felt I had blood on my hands,” Ron told me later. If he had been serious about warning people, he believed, he would have “hightailed it to Sumatra, and we’d have gone village to village to village telling people—because that’s the only way they would have found out. The news would have been really simple: you feel the ground shake, you leave the coast.” He continued in a whisper. “That would have saved thousands of lives, if I’d have done that. And I knew it.” A certain selfless absorption by the bounties of life, a perhaps romantic commitment to educate and help: these had been the teachings of his cancer, and in one destructive and incalculable gesture the world had deemed even those inadequate. At least that was how Ron seemed to have interpreted the Sumatra quake. For a year, he fell into a depression, inflamed by guilt, so precipitous and complete he barely perceived it.
Ron told me that the situation was all too similar along the Wasatch Fault.
Spend enough time in a place where people seem unwilling to save themselves and you will tire—to even contemplate denying our most imperious instinct is exhausting. Spend more time still and you will feel a slight but undeniable misanthropic condemnation, a sense that we deserve our fate. In my case, this was not a new development, but a recovery of something I felt as an adolescent.
Destruction was the pastime of my boyhood. I would build castles of sand, labyrinths of snow, buildings of plastic bricks and wooden logs, and entire civilizations of pixels, and then direct all of my creative energies toward their ruination. I always imagined the human life that harbored my otherwise vacant structures—and the sins that justified their death. The agents of devastation were typically armadas of toys, but when I wanted to enhance my power fantasy, I would substitute these forces for the titanic body of God: my own.
The skyline of Salt Lake City elicits my old impulse to reach out with my arm and sunder the tallest buildings. It had been a few weeks since Ron and I visited Provo, the day brisk and gray. The street angles of the city were cut smartly, the sidewalks brushed clean. As always, Temple Square harbored a cavalcade of pale children, men in ties and women in dresses that fell below the knees. Everyone obeyed crosswalk signals. Sounds of lawnmowers riding over aerated soil, symmetric rows of perforated earth. The city began here; streets and avenues were numerically labeled by their distance from Temple Square.
Ron and I stood before the stone steps and the iron-laced door of the Salt Lake Temple. Like most Mormon architecture, the Temple was grandiose and peculiar, a quasi-Gothic structure decorated minutely in stone reliefs, the tallest of its triptych pinnacles reaching well over 200 feet. It was built with great blocks of quartz monzonite which had been hauled fifteen miles down Little Cottonwood Canyon by oxcart.
“I never feel comfortable standing here,” Ron said. “My son got married in this temple.”
I asked him if he had thought about the quake during the ceremony.
“I was thinking about it the entire time,” he said. “This building does everything wrong in terms of earthquake engineering. It took forty years to build, and it’s going to take forty seconds to destroy.”
Stabilizing the Salt Lake Temple, Ron told me, would be relatively simple, though of course expensive. One could drill down through the columns that bear most of the Temple’s weight, and then thread very strong cabling through them into the ground. The intuition to reinforce a building by making it heavier or more rigid is precisely the wrong strategy. Nothing manmade can resist the power released during earthquakes.
As we walked beyond the southern gate of Temple Square, I asked Ron, in some state of fearful awe and suicidal impatience, to indulge me: Suppose the quake happened right now, just now. What would happen?
When the shaking begins, the first thing to disintegrate will be the notion that anyone could deserve this. Kilometers beneath the Earth, the Valley will snap three meters away from the mountains, westward, like a spring made of stone. In a heartbeat, the Wasatch Mountains will relatively grow taller. The energy released will approximate tens of thousands of Hiroshima bombs. A “stress-contagion” effect will cause the remaining segments of the Wasatch Fault to slip as well. Thus the green house in Provo, and all the others on the fault line, will find themselves aloft before they plummet like dropped toys. Oil pipelines shunted along the foothills will crack and sever, erupt into flames, swell into conflagrations. All over the valley, boulders will roll and bounce as readily as Spaldeens. Dormant landslides will awaken, vibrate, and careen.
The waves generated from the focus will not diminish into the distance, but reflect off the Oquirrh Mountains and return to the land they already devastated. Roads will be buried under thousands of tons of heavy rubble—brick, stone, wood, steel—and in some cases sawed in half by great fissures beneath them. This will make traveling almost impossible for fire trucks, police, and ambulances. One of the state’s best hospitals, at the University of Utah, will be isolated from the rest of the city by a ridge roughly eight feet tall, running through Faultline Park. Collapsed homes and buildings will kill thousands and injure tens of thousands more. Many structures will literally sink into the ground because the Valley’s porous soil will behave like a liquid during the quake. Subterranean gas lines, sewers, and water pipes will bob to the surface and rupture. Power lines and cell towers will fall to the ground like matchsticks. In some areas, spectacular geysers will erupt from cracks and craters, spewing water twenty feet toward the sky.
Ron and I will be laid out on our backs. For the duration, there will be no walking or running. If we are lucky, we might manage to crawl to the nearby transformer and, provided it does not explode, take shelter on its side. Bricks and granite will rain down on pedestrians and cars. Motorists will lose control and plow their vehicles into sidewalks and train stations. The Salt Lake Temple will crumble to the ground. Huge sheets of glass, dislodged from their frames, will come down like guillotines. Ron and I will be unable to hear the screams over the furious howl of the Earth. We will have our hands over our heads, a position that will be mostly symbolic. I might be thinking of my destructive pastime, now on the other end of its menace, wondering if that giant child knew the terror he wrought.
I parted with Ron thinking about the strange interplay of fear and safety in the American consciousness. There is a long list of events and scenarios—some sensible, some not—that elicit the precursors of horror from our collective amygdala. Yet we seldom seek to address the sources of our fears, or demand that some official institution do so on our behalf. Americans, instead, will do almost anything to not feel fear. In living by this avoidance we have made terror more than a mere emotion; but rather something that perpetually looms just beyond consciousness, an infinite series of miserable possibilities that enclose and texture experience. As has been noted to the point of banality, this gives rise to an industry of alleviation that is sustained by an industry of fear; as this dark cycle encompasses more and more of American life, the ultimate source of our fear (death) is further externalized and projected, further abstracted from the embodied individual, until it becomes an environment unto itself. (This is the image Don DeLillo gives us of the diseased radiographic in White Noise, the novel par excellence of America’s social relation to fear and death.) In such an environment, we so often cannot distinguish between what is worthy of actionable concern, dismissal or acceptance. When everything evokes fear and exudes hostility, extinction seems unavoidable. The logic of American apocalypse is that it is our destiny.
There exist rare deviants from this mode of life, though, and Brett Williams is one of them. Brett has an uncanny ability to imagine the demise of a region, an economy, a society, the planet. He can plot confident steps of logic toward any cataclysm, past the shock of sudden loss, through its terminal firewall, and out the other end to a world leveled into simplicity. This is where he will remake his life.
I sought him out because I wanted to meet someone who believed in devastation, but also possessed the force of will to prepare for it; someone who still prioritized survival and thus rebuked what I, like most Americans, tacitly believed about the world. So I had travelled through the suburban plats of Elk Ridge, just south of Provo, and inside the French provincial manor, where Brett and his wife live, to a secret bunker whose exact location I was asked not to reveal.
Brett was not who I expected. He is a successful middle-aged psychotherapist who writes books in the genre of marriage and family therapy, including You Can Be Right or You Can Be Married and Xaler and the Dragon: A Relaxation Technique for the Fearful and Anxious Child. He is slightly short, with good skin, blue eyes, and wavy white hair that falls in a handsome lock over his forehead. We were in the bunker’s first room, where Brett spotted a pantry moth and picked up an orange shotgun. “This is my favorite gun right here,” he said, pumping the fore-end and aiming at the moth. He fired. A narrow volley of salt missed its target. He cycled the action on this strange weapon. Fired, missed. Fired, missed. “I take them out,” he said, scanning the bunker. “Because moths will eat your food!” He scanned again. “There it is, ah!” He pumped and fired.
Brett had corrected any oversight he could think of in his survival scheme. All of his electronics—ham radios, lamps, solar cells, generators—are inside Faraday cages, metal enclosures which, he explained, nullify the electromagnetic bursts that precede nuclear blasts. All of his lanterns and stoves burn alcohol, and he stores ample quantities of white sugar, yeast, and the rudiments of a still. Gasoline, I learned, goes bad after about a year. It has other limitations, too, besides its chemical instability. “You can’t pour gasoline on a wound,” Brett told me. “You can’t use gasoline to anesthetize somebody.”
Brett’s wife, Lynda, a thin, pretty professor whose facial lines seemed almost calligraphic, joined us in the vault, as they called it—they uttered the word vault, like the word manor, as though it were a proper noun, a timeless refuge. Its two narrow rooms are fortified behind nine inches of concrete and absent on the home’s blueprints. The vault was designed to endure any catastrophe. “You can drop a nuclear bomb in Provo,” Brett said, “and it wouldn’t touch this.” He has other scenarios in mind: terrorist attack, fuel shortage, drought, famine, economic collapse, wildfire, pandemic. Out of deference to the possibility of an earthquake, the ten shelving units are secured away from the walls. Brett and Lynda were not ignorant of the seismic threat in Utah when they moved here; according to Brett, a geologist friend had inspected the manor and found it in good standing. The foundation is hewn out of solid bedrock and the frame is wood. The only brick feature is the façade. Brett rocked a shelving unit vigorously, and everything stayed in place.
The food on the shelves is stored according to three regimes of duration. Short-term is a replication of a household pantry: nuts, granola bars, oatmeal, salad dressings, spices, cake mixes, oils, stovetop boxes, jarred vegetables. The five-year regime is made of case lot sales of dried, jarred, and canned goods—pasta sauces, tuna fish, peanut butter, chili, soups, bagged chips, and so on. The last section reaches, according to Brett, into the thirty-year range—cases and cases of dry soup mix, ramen, and dehydrated milk and fruit. Against the wall separating the first and second room, Brett has stacked a dozen or so fifty-five-gallon drums of water, which he cycles and bleaches every month to ensure potability. Next to the bunker door are several drawers of medical supplies: splints, bandages, sutures, gauze, tweezers, scissors, castings, a large bottle of iodine. Brett has no idea how to use any of these implements, but figures the doctors in Elk Ridge will.
As Brett flaunted this inventory, Lynda eyed me nervously. I guessed she was not unaware of what the term “prepper” connoted in the national discourse. Of course I felt a tacit skepticism about the practice, a hypocritical impulse to root out an event in Brett’s past (an apocalyptic sermon? a sour encounter with the federal government?) that would reveal a pathologic motivation that would, in turn, allow me to dismiss him. But my sympathy won out, perhaps because it was an earthquake that had opened Brett’s mind to the unseen dangers of the world. He and Lynda both come from California—they are not Mormon—and their time on the West Coast was punctuated by the 1971 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge quakes, among others. Their memories of the Whittier Narrows earthquake demolishing their apartment one morning in 1987 are especially clear: it felt, Brett recalled, as if a bomb had been detonated.
When we spoke of earthquakes, Lynda winced as though she were being shocked, the memory still raw. Brett, however, recalled the disasters he had lived through with a grim yet boyish intrigue. They taught him that “the smallest thing can throw the entire system out of whack,” he told me, but also that disaster scenarios were not so much existential horrors as problems to be solved.
When I asked whether thirty years of food and so many supplies were strictly for him and Lynda, he referred me to a “golden rule,” though a version I’d never heard: “the idea is that the one who has the gold has the power.” Food and supplies are “power when you’re in an emergency,” he said. “Most likely, I would open this up as a trading post and use it for barter, trade, commodities.” As he said this he opened the door to the second room and his voice began echoing tightly. On the opposite wall, above an oiling table, I saw four semi-automatic pistols and a revolver hanging upside down by their trigger guards. Beside those were two assault rifles, a low-gauge shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, and a scoped hunting rifle. Brett estimated he had stored between ten and twenty thousand rounds of ammunition. Beside the rifles were a compound bow and longbow. At the far end of the room—about fifteen feet long—was a bullet trap and an exhaust fan: an indoor firing range. At our feet, beside the door, were a couple cats and a litterbox. It smelled as you would expect. Brett cooed at them, explaining that they’d been eating the heads off of bunnies in the backyard so they were quarantined in here until the bunnies matured. “We populated this whole area with rabbits,” he explained, in case they ever needed fresh meat.
I was staring at the weapons. “Do you picture hunting with these?” I dumbly asked.
They were mainly for protection, Brett said. Admittedly, he did not love considering this “sad part of the equation,” but he imagined that in some disaster scenarios the police would either abandon their duty or be rendered useless. “There’s going to have to be self-policing,” he said. “It’s probably the scariest part of it, for me. My hope is just having the weapons says, ‘This is not an easy target. These guys are gonna shoot back.’”
Brett has been dismissed regularly by friends and strangers alike, he told me, for the fear-based thinking that motivates disaster preparation. He sees this as ironic: it is precisely the unwillingness to feel fear that has so many people spending their lives denying undeniable danger. After a truly destabilizing disaster, most of us have no clue who we will become, what that person will do to survive. Brett would be less concerned with guarding his home and food if everyone else took it upon themselves to undertake basic preparations.
“You have to feel a little bit of anxiety to be prepared,” Brett said. “But by being prepared you’re going to prevent a lot of anxiety when and if a disaster hits. It’s a weird balance.”
Brett closed the vault’s heavy door and we went upstairs to his baroque parlor: furnished with leather; a wooden mantle towering over the fireplace; the room’s exit framed by an arch over two Ionic-style pillars. He asked me if I wanted to hear something crazy.
He gestured through a window over the ridge into the western side of the valley. “There’s a canal that runs from Strawberry down to the farms in Moab. If you take out the bridge there”—he pointed—“there, and there, you can isolate this entire city.” Lynda offered a laugh. “Anybody coming from Provo,” Brett said, would have no way to get up here.
I laughed politely. The idea was not crazy, nor strictly irrational, given the hypothetical scenario we were discussing, but Brett’s demolition plan did remind me of how easily the project of survival becomes the pathology of mastery. During a long stretch of human history, the area we call Utah was considered a place for only the cunning survivalist. Native tribes, like the Fremont, the Ancestral Puebloans, and the Desert Archaic, abandoned Utah or disappeared from historical record altogether. The Spanish imperialists of the seventeenth century surveyed the region’s steep mountains, its endless salt flats, its fetid lakes, and promptly left. The mountain men of the fur trade stayed only as long as it took to trap their quarry (beavers, mostly). The forty-niners avoided passage through Utah unless an emergency demanded it. The Mormons of the mid-nineteenth century made pilgrimage here for two reasons: they were welcomed almost nowhere else, and no one but the remnant tribes wished to live anywhere near the serrated spine of the continent.
That nature resisted human ambition and design was proof of its indomitability and of man’s place within it. The dominionism endemic to Western society conceived of nature as subordinate to humanity, and so replaced our intuitions with an abstract distinction between what is artificial and what is natural. There are times throughout every year when the mountains that fringe Salt Lake Valley are occluded; an effect of a notorious thermal inversion that traps moisture and pollutants in the valley. The sky is blighted and turns the color of dull steel. The air is a gray-green fume that tastes of gasoline and salt. If you drive up the mountain roads during an inversion, you will see an abrupt terminus, when the smog breaks like a putrid billow and you are suddenly free of it. There are few experiences that render the chimerical distinction between man and nature more tangible, more real—to break through the toxic clouds of industry and automotives into the vestal air of snow-powdered mountains. Our impulse to unsully or protect nature is animated by guilt, a sense that we have failed in our stewardship. Yet this is simply another face of dominionism, and our guilt will fail to motivate us when the mountains we seek to protect come to claim us. It is not nature that needs saving.
The city government recommends a basic “emergency kit,” which it markets, inexplicably, by casting the emergency as a “Zombie Apocalypse.” I gathered the suggested items and balanced them upon each other like staves of wood. A first aid kit: gauze, antiseptics, bandages, a mouthpiece for resuscitation. Twelve and a half gallons of potable water. A humongous jar of peanut butter. Granola and nut bars. Beans: garbanzo, black, cannellini, lentil. Canned chicken. Canned tuna. Canned fruit. Five pounds of food for the dog. A hand-crank radio that doubled as a flashlight. A tiny multi-tool. A copy of McPhee’s Basin & Range.
It was summer, and my backyard was a patchwork of fine dirt and weed grass. The pile of food and tools shimmered in treeshadow. My dog, a mountain breed, trotted over and sniffed at it. The anxiety emanating from the pile was strange: someday I would have use for a multi-tool. Someday I would need a bandage. Someday, before the quake ever occurred, I would forget to buy peanut butter and be tempted to pillage my emergency kit. I imagined, after the quake, after our house had been pulverized into a groaning ruin of clinking brick shards and splintered wood, rushing for the woodshed where I had, with admirable foresight, stored it. I would open the doors and find half the supplies gone, stolen by my pre-apocalyptic self in a typical episode of laziness and hubris.
I retrieved a box of matches and added it to the pile. I put everything in the woodshed, more stable than my house, and shut the door. I decided it was best to think these things no longer belonged to me.