At first glance, this modest home nestled against a hillside in the mountains somewhere west of Colorado Springs appears to have all the amenities you'd expect in a quiet retreat. There's even a two-story tower built right in. An otherwise peaceful place to catch the 360-degree view of winter's splendor.
"[It's a] really nice place to sit and vacation — enjoy. But, if necessary, it's a guard post," Drew Miller pointed out.
A Harvard Ph.D. and former military intelligence officer with 30 years of experience, Miller would know a good defensible spot when he sees it. Miller is a self-described "prepper," someone who makes active preparations to survive the fall of human civilization. The nationwide prepper community is often painted as composed of conspiracy-crazed eccentrics, he said, thanks in large part to television shows such as the National Geographic Channel's Doomsday Preppers.
It's a reputation he soundly rejects.
"These are people who are smartly concerned, who want some insurance so that if the electric system goes down, a pandemic occurs, you know, they can survive," he said.
This idyllic mountain retreat that Miller owns is a business venture he calls Fortitude Ranch. It's part of a chain of properties with a business model akin to a prepper's country club or a doomsday timeshare.
Marketing to the annihilation-conscious is not a new idea. Businesses such as Survival Condo have specialized in fortified homes and extravagant underground bunkers for decades.
"They have absolutely gorgeous facilities, fancy rooms," Miller said. "But not many people can afford it."
Instead, Fortitude Ranch seeks to capture a solidly middle-class market. The rust-colored home with the tower is at the company's second Colorado location; it's currently under construction. There's another ranch in West Virginia and others planned for California, Wisconsin and Nevada.
Until the end times
The Fortitude Ranch slogan is "prepare for the worst, enjoy the present." For an annual fee of about $1,000 per person, members receive 10 days' lodging at the ranch location of their choice per year.
It's not luxurious; spartan may be a more accurate term. Yet, the properties are in secluded, wild and scenic places that Miller hopes will make the fee worth it for the right customers.
As he hefted the assault-style rifle slung over his shoulder, a sidearm on his hip, Miller toured the soon-to-be-finished property on a recent snowy morning. While several of the guard positions are built and future locations of additional buildings are marked on the ground, the place looks nothing like he said it would if or when a national or global catastrophe unfolded.
For one thing, there are no bunkhouses or high wooden walls that surround the fort, partly because he doesn't want passersby to know his property is a prepper ranch. It's also because tasks such as building the walls will be the members' responsibility. He argued that it will be important for their mental health in a disaster situation.
"If you're just sitting around with nothing to do, you're going to be worrying about, you know, 'What happened to my daughter in San Francisco?' So we wanna keep people busy," he said.
If the structures of society crumble, Miller envisions each Fortitude Ranch location as a protected community of about 50 people, up to a maximum of 500. Initially, there will be supplies and food on-site to last a full year. However, once members fall into a routine of gardening, hunting and fishing in the adjacent national forest, Miller said, it should be sustainable in the long term.
Waiting for demand
Fortitude Ranch currently has about 150 paying members nationwide. Growth in the prepper industry is slow, Miller said, but all it takes is one big scare for his open membership spots to sell out.
As worries spread about coronavirus, plus the recent announcement that the Doomsday Clock has ticked closer than it ever has to midnight, Miller may yet find that there are even business opportunities in the apocalypse.
For those not ready to dive into full membership, there's a cryptocurrency that Miller calls a Fortitude token. It affords the holder benefits such as a membership discount or priority registration should something in the news cause a sudden spike in demand. Whichever way they approach it, members can leave the "prepping" to Miller.
"I don't have to ask my members for permission to do things," he said. "[My staff and I] set the rules, run the show, and we've got the expertise to make sure that we can survive the worst disaster."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the clock to symbolize how close the world is to catastrophe from nuclear weapons or climate change, other ills. So things are bad, but there are business opportunities in everything - even the end of the world. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce.
DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Let's start inside a modest mountain home with a quaint two-story tower built on the side. And up in that tower, you'll find a peaceful room with a 360-degree view of winter's splendor.
DREW MILLER: Be a really a nice place to sit and vacation, enjoy - but if necessary, it's a guard post.
BOYCE: A guard post.
MILLER: Clear line to fire there, down there.
BOYCE: Drew Miller is pointing out the windows to where hypothetical marauders might attempt to raid this vacation home/fortress against the fall of civilization. Miller is a prepper - a title he doesn't mind even though he thinks it's gotten a bad rap. And he's behind a venture specifically catering to others who share his apocalyptic outlook.
MILLER: These are people who are smartly concerned, want some insurance so that if the electric system goes down, a pandemic occurs - you know, they can survive.
BOYCE: Miller has the kind of background you might trust if you were looking for someone to get you through the end of the world - a career as a military intelligence officer, masters and Ph.D. from Harvard.
MILLER: My dissertation topic was underground nuclear defense shelters and field fortifications for NATO troops.
BOYCE: We're walking the boundaries of the property, nestled right on the border of a national forest. There have been companies specializing in fortified homes and extravagant underground bunkers for decades, with units often selling for millions of dollars.
MILLER: They have absolutely gorgeous facilities, fancy rooms. But you know, not many people can afford it.
BOYCE: And that's where Miller's business pitch comes in.
The common man's survival shelter.
MILLER: Well, I don't know if I'll use that word. But I'll go with middle-class.
BOYCE: He calls it Fortitude Ranch. This is the company's second Colorado location. There's also one in West Virginia with others planned in Wisconsin, Nevada and California. He says each location is designed to accommodate up to 500 people and that he has about 150 members total so far.
MILLER: We came up with kind of the country club business model idea.
BOYCE: The cost is about a thousand dollars per person per year.
MILLER: And we make the rules. You know, we guarantee our members - we'll provide you this service in good time; we'll keep you alive during a bad time.
BOYCE: His company's slogan is, prepare for the worst, enjoy the present. See, until Armageddon arrives, membership gets you 10 days per year at any of the Fortitude Ranch locations, all in secret, wild venues. The facilities here are pretty spartan.
MILLER: Solar and wind tower will be in the center and then feeding lines out to the different buildings.
BOYCE: And the place looks nothing like Miller says it will during a catastrophe. That's because he doesn't want passersby to guess this is a prepper ranch.
MILLER: We don't want to look too alarming (laughter) and out of the ordinary.
BOYCE: And then, if doomsday does come, building the walls, planting the garden, hunting, fishing - that will be the members' responsibility. It will be important for their mental health.
MILLER: If you're just sitting around with nothing to do, you're going to be worrying about, you know - what happened my daughter in San Francisco? You know, so we want to keep people busy.
BOYCE: A community, a safe place to start society over again - that is, if you paid the fee.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce, somewhere in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAYE WEBSTER SONG, "SHE WON'T GO AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.