It is darker than any black I have ever known. There is usually a frisson in the darkness of night, a reflection, a spark. Here all orientation is removed.
Ten meters underground, through a yellow transitory tunnel 5.2 feet in diameter and into a bomb shelter 59 feet long… is my lodging. I am curled in a sleeping bag seeking warmth in the constantly almost-frozen air. Dreams of mushrooms clouds, the Kennedy family on old black and white monitors, clips of Vietnam, the World Trade Center and terrorists in India clutter my brain as I try to sleep in a bunk without a pipe of ambient sound. There are no honking cars, no garbage trucks, no birds, no barking dogs and I can’t sleep.
Shelters come in various forms and sizes. The smallest among them are the local, temporary shelters, built for no-warning emergencies. Then there are the “medium shelters” that can house one or two families for a more extended period time, for use if, for example, a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan were to break out and go global. Finally there are the units in Montana or Texas capable of housing 1,000 or more for a few weeks at a time. I spend my nights in a temporary, emergency type shelter built for a terrorist attack rather than an extended-stay suite.
Above me, in a Salt Lake City tract home in Utah, Western US, my host Paul, a sweet and mild mannered man, lives with his wife and three daughters. There are dirty dishes, toys and discarded cloths strewn about, a different world from my ordered boxes of bullets, soap, raisins and nutrition bars down below.
Paul strongly believes that the world is both unpredictable and dangerous. “Anyone within 10 miles of an airport with a 7,500 foot runway should have a shelter,” he says with a relaxed smile that belies the gravity of his statement. Paul installs these contemporary pharaonic tombs at the rate of one a month with his business partner Sharon. The goal is to simply survive impeding disaster, be it a product of god, man or nature, and they are, quite literally, preparing for the end of the world.
The Mormon religion dominates the social, political and economic environment of Utah. A central tenet of Mormonism is the need to be prepared and not depend on government for survival. While not all Mormons have shelters, the majority of shelter-builders in Utah and Montana are Mormon. In Spring City, Utah (pop. 1018) alone there is a colony of about eight or ten ‘medium sized’ 115-foot shelters, most completely independent of one another.
Mormons tend to have large families and conservative political views. They believe the US Constitution should be strictly enforced and the 2nd Amendment, which speaks to the right to bear arms, left as is. My host Paul has two handguns and a knife on him at all times. A Beretta pistol is in a lock-box on his pickup truck console, and an AR-15 is behind the back seat.
Mormons believe they can survive to begin anew in a radically altered world that will favor them. Unfortunately, such a belief is based on the premise that society as we know it will fail, but who can say with 100% accuracy that this is crazy? The insanity of the modern world certainly backs up their position, and doesn’t let me sleep any better, either.
In the 1950s during the atomic age, shelters were built in response to the threat of mushroom cloud nuclear destruction. That movement fell out of favor for a while, and the tins of biscuits and emergency supplies were left to rust and rot. But the events of 9/11 and Mumbai have given the shelter movement a renewed sense of purpose.
Turning on a small, low voltage, battery operated light, I examine my supplies. The food is small canned sausages, instant dehydrated food (Mexican and Middle Eastern flavors) and left over candy from Halloween. The shelves are stocked with the basics: water-purification tablets, vitamin C, potassium iodide and paper products. The entertainment consists of the entire DIE HARD collection, Red Dawn, Cape Fear, Winnie the Pooh, and a Tom Clancy novel whose name seems to sum up the library: The Sum of All Fears.