Deep in the mountains a few hours outside of Colorado Springs, its exact location known only to a privileged few, salvation awaits.
Officially called Fortitude Ranch, this sanctuary is a 50-acre development built in 2018 as a private, communal bug-out shelter—a place people could seek refuge in the unfortunate event of, say, a global pandemic. Should such a circumstance transpire, the compound offers security through its cache of ammo, weapons, and manned guard posts; lodging within an undisclosed number of underground bunkers; and a year’s worth of food and other supplies. At max capacity, the base could accommodate 500—though currently its membership stands at about 100 individuals who’ve forked over an average of $1,000 a year for the privilege of its protection.
“We’re more like a country club,” says Drew Miller, Fortitude Ranch’s founder and CEO. “You join a country club, you pay an upfront fee, you get to use their facilities.” (If you’re looking for a needle of optimism in the haystack of despair that has been the coronavirus, Miller says that he’s been advising members to remain at their houses instead of fleeing to Fortitude Ranch. By his calculation, COVID-19 isn’t all that bad compared to other apocalyptic scenarios.)
And like a ritzy country club, admittance to the shelter might soon become highly particular. “The way we’re expanding with this virus generating interest,” Miller says, “we should be up to several hundred in Colorado here in this year and probably open our second location [in the Centennial State].” Over the past few weeks, Miller claims, thousands have inquired about membership. “It’s been a wake-up call.”
In 2018, I wrote a story about Colorado’s prepper culture. The tone of the piece was, admittedly, droll (Von Miller made an appearance as a member of my apocalypse team). That being said, I did try to balance humor and education, because every emergency-services specialist I spoke with said disaster was coming and we weren’t ready for it.
Did I listen to them? Yes. Did I include their insights in the article? Yes. Did I go out and buy two weeks worth of water and food and devise a plan for escaping the city just in case a nuclear winter descended on Denver? I did not. But where the experts’ words failed, my King Soopers’ barren shelves have succeeded. “Fortitude Ranch did not contribute to the toilet paper shortage,” Miller says, “because we’re always stockpiled.” Faced with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, I now get why it’s reassuring to know that you’ll always be able to comfortably address such sanitary needs—and evidently I’m not alone.
Kiki Bandilla is a member of Fortitude Ranch and owner of the Self-Reliance & Simple Life Experience, an expo for the prepper community that will be held this year at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds in Aurora on October 24 and 25. Only a few weeks ago, she was beginning to organize the event. “Then comes coronavirus, which is great for the expo,” Bandilla says. “People are starting to see that peppers aren’t so crazy. Maybe we should take steps to prepare.” Bandilla says she hasn’t witnessed a boom in ticket sales yet, but two sponsors—Garden 4 Life, a Missouri company that sells a “soil-less” system for growing your own food, and Country Financial, which markets business interruption insurance—have since signed on.
In a more immediate effort to take advantage of the surge of interest in survivalism, this Saturday Bandilla will launch the Self-Reliance University. The first webinar will feature Miller and Nick Meacher, the manager of emergency operations at Denver International Airport, who will “give you an insiders’ perspective from those who are leading teams through this current pandemic,” according to the website. Bandilla says the first class will be free, though she’s thinking of instituting a subscription model for future lessons, which she plans to air either weekly or biweekly.
Still, apocalypse-related businesses aren’t completely immune to economic downturns. Jason Marsteiner, the CEO and founder of Colorado Springs’ the Survival University (not to be confused with Bandilla’s Self-Reliance University) was supposed to teach a class this Saturday titled “15 Minutes Ago”—how to react in the minutes following a catastrophic event. As of Wednesday, two students had already backed out because of the pandemic. “I think people are starting to realize what I do is important,” Marsteiner says, “but because of the financial crisis, everyone is being very careful on how they spend their money.”
Even Fortitude Ranch, with a horde of prospective members lining up outside its gates, is having difficulty attracting investors. The company has already constructed a second operational bug-out shelter in West Virginia, two hours from Washington, D.C. (“It’s just a great market,” Miller says. “People realize they’re a target there.”) But Miller wants to expand to 12 sites. “Thousands of people contacted us and want to join across the U.S. but we’re working now to find investors,” Miller says. “It’s a difficult thing to do anytime. In a pandemic, it’s not easier.”