by Sierra Grey
Robert Burns once wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”. Translated—no matter how well we plan, things often fail, turn out wrong, or go awry. Humans have limitations. We possess only fragments of knowledge and limited experience. Pride and emotions cloud our thinking. Only God plans perfectly. We, mortals, are left to hope we have planned well enough to survive what comes. And learn from our mistakes early in the game.
My baby steps as a prepper began in 1991. Talk radio exposed me to the teachings of Larry Burkett, a Christian financial advisor and author of the book, The Coming Economic Earthquake. The truths in that book still apply 23 years later—governments with huge levels of debt eventually fall victim to money printing and hyperinflation.
America becomes another Zimbabwe. He inspired me to forsake debt and avoid risky investments. We got seriously frugal and paid off our home. Got our small nest egg out of the stock market. Maximized our savings. Withdrew everything from our IRA to avoid government seizure in the future.
Larry Burkett did not live long enough to readjust the timing of his predictions. But I remembered his thoughts about the aftershocks that could follow the economic earthquake. Societal collapse. Fascistic government. Social disorder. Widespread violence.
My wife, the eternal optimist, doesn’t agree that the future could turn out that bad. The rest of my family sees me as a lovable, occasionally annoying, conspiracy theorist. So, instead of learning a trade, leaving the clutches of the California government, and moving to the Redoubt, I had to settle for a compromise. An “investment” in California land for my wife and family that would also serve as my desired survival destination when the SHTF. But California was simply too expensive.
One man’s misery is another man’s fortune.
The economic correction in 2008-2009 smashed the real estate market in California. A friend with inside knowledge told us that there was a bank-owned mountain cabin on 20 acres just over 75 minutes from Fresno. It was a foreclosure on the bank’s inventory and they wanted to dump it. Suggested we make a cash offer at 30% of asking price. But we had to act fast. I wasn’t sure what my friend was smoking, but if true, it was too good to pass up.
We quickly toured the property and made the offer. They accepted. Larry Burkett was correct—not everyone suffers during economic depressions. People without debt and who have saved can find incredible bargains. We did. Or so I thought
The retreat was beyond expectations. 4100 feet elevation—just below the snow line. A perfect blend of colossal Ponderosa and Jeffrey’s pines and a variety of deciduous trees. An artesian well, hardly needing the electric pump. Clean water poured out of an overflow pipe 24/7.
Locals couldn’t remember the flow ever stopping. Said there wasn’t another artesian well for miles. But should it ever fail, there was a man-made lake filled with good water. The cabin was heated with a wood stove and had modern facilities. One side of the property bordered King’s Canyon National Forest—a wide mountain expanse void of anything but nature.
My wife and I spent our weekends and holidays removing trash and debris. We painted and patched and learned how to repair fences. I cleared trees and split firewood, dug up broken pipes, and re-roofed the well-house. My income was enough to allow me to start adding supplies and equipment month-by-month.
The cabin was built 40 years ago as a summer house. It is perched on pylons on the side of a hill to allow the wind to cool the house from underneath. Winter was not in the original plans. I insulated under the cabin, not an easy task for an older man on top of a 16 foot ladder. But I was turning my plans into reality. God had blessed me above and beyond my wildest expectation. It was a labor of love.
The flora and fauna became my weekend learning lab. With the help of good books, I learned to identify the berries, edible greens, and avoid the poison oak. Bay trees, yerba santa, white sage, milkweed, chokecherries, and elderberry trees provided spice, sweetness, and medicinal supplies.
And if you wanted a puff, Indian tobacco. Wild apples served up a huge batch of applesauce each fall. The giant oaks provided enormous and abundant acorns as a source of protein and flour. There seemed to be a plant for every need. I learned how to dig 18 inches through rock-hard soil to extract the bulbous root of the Indian soap plant, a source of saponin for a sudsy shampoo. After 20 minutes of digging in the heat, my hair was ready for it. But I was pumped—I finally had a survival retreat!
Mule deer peacefully roamed the property in groups of three to six, and nice bucks were common. Shot the first at less than 50 yards from the comfort of my front porch while having a cup of coffee. Only needed my defense rifle, a Saiga in .308 Winchester that was conveniently close-by. Butchered the deer and learned how to turn it into jerky. I put pemmican on the “to learn” list.
The air was clean and crisp, the skies a deep blue, and the nights full of stars. Quail and rabbits were plentiful. Fox pups played near the porch after dark. My game camera caught black bears, bobcats, coyotes, and even the occasional mountain lion slinking about under the moon-lit night sky.
Wild turkeys visited the lake for their morning dip. Near a seasonal stream was an Indian relic, an enormous granite boulder marked with holes a foot deep where the Indians ground their acorns. The presence of Indians for such a long time assured me I was on the right property.
The prior owner had put up a deer fence to create a 10,000 square foot garden area and built raised beds to avoid gophers. I ran PVC plumbing for drip irrigation. We planted beds of strawberries and raspberries, and some grape vines. They grew happily in between our visits to enjoy the harvest. We planted fruit trees. There was more than enough room to enclose chicken and rabbit coops and grow far more of a garden than we had when we moved in full-time.
What more could we want? A comfortable cabin set among the giant Ponderosa’s. Fresh running water year round. A lake as back-up water supply, brimming with fat-legged bullfrogs. Abundant sources of wild food. I felt confident that my plans were working out.
Who moved the cheese?
Fresno County became a center for “medical” marijuana. We soon had over 500 growers in the foothills and mountains. A group moved onto the property next to mine. I have no issues with growth or use of marijuana.
But the War on Drugs has made it a very high-priced item and created a criminal market, as did Prohibition with alcohol. The growers are generally felons with nothing to lose, seeking easy riches and their own supply of high-grade “bud” and “Reggie.”
The marijuana crops are “medical” in name only. Most care little for their neighbors’ property rights or the environment, killing off local wildlife with poison scattered around the outside of their dwellings and crops. Worse, they brought crime and violence.
Its easier to steal someone else’s weed than grow your own. The first year, a robbery attempt was stopped by a shooting a quarter mile from my property. By the end of the year, six men had been killed in county marijuana-related crimes. Break-in’s of vacation cabins skyrocketed after the growers arrived. Booze and guns seem to be the targets. Some locals have started storing their gun collections in the safes of city pawn shops until they need to hunt.
They brought in a bulldozer and destroyed the natural lay of the land. Unusually heavy rains caused runoff from their property that damaged our road and cut deeply into the dam. Another rainy season could bring the dam down and cut off access to our cabin. When we asked them to have it repaired they promised they would, after they sold their crop in the fall. The crop came and went, as did they, to Mexico for the winter. We reached deep into our pockets and paid $7,000 to have the damage repaired.
The heavy rain was followed by three years of record drought, blistering summers, and record-cold winters. The fat and sleek mule deer turned haggard and worn, fewer in number. A small pond now sits where the lake once did.
Banks of mud that will suck in your foot to the knee and rob you of your boot prevent easy access to the remaining water. Water, if you can call it that. More of algae and moss soup. Nary a bullfrog can be found. The snakes, raptors, and critters are picking them off, one by one.
The lack of water and food at other elevations brought in more bears. Lion sightings increased. We suddenly had real competition for the local game animals and the limited harvest of wild berries. The coyote and bobcat populations increased as well, reducing the rabbit and quail populations to a small remnant.
And our 24/7, “has never run dry” artesian well? The overflow pipe has stopped producing anything but dry rust.
Get to know the neighborhood before moving in.
The area is populated by retirees on pensions and/or Social Security, vacation homeowners, and a handful of local forest and park service workers. Into the mix throw a goodly number of folks that just get by. Most on EBT cards and welfare, happy in their ancient, leaky single-wide’s covered by blue tarps.
That adds up to most of the resident population dependent in some way upon the federal government. Fixed incomes take a heavy hit when times get bad. And times are getting bad. What will happen when the SHTF?
As the economy continues to go down, the property crime has gone up. Two cords of oak that I had cut, split and stacked for the winter, disappeared. A local Hmong immigrant group was caught transporting 51 deer carcasses.
One of my “meth-head” neighbors was caught with five deer carcasses. He told the sheriff he was going to sell them for drug money. I was unaware of the ongoing problems with vacation homes being broken into by locals.
Poaching, thieving, drug-addicted neighbors were not in my planning. Not even close. A call to the local sheriff can take 2 to 4 hours for a response. I faced the reality that the only deputy sheriff available to my property was me.
No longer was it the just bears after my provisions that concerned me. Two-legged predators were now in the mix. Nothing can stop a determined, meth-addicted fellow with a crowbar and cutting tools from getting into a steel storage box. Fleeing a SHTF scenario, the last thing I need is to arrive and find an empty cabin and no supplies. I stopped adding to my supplies and equipment and transferred some back to the city.
Plans can and do go awry. Plan that it will happen.
While we prep, the world keeps on changing. We change. SHTF events are not always cataclysmic. Sometimes small chunks of s*** are flicked on you a bit at a time, more annoying than anything. One day you look in the mirror and realize you are covered in it.
Time to toss out the old plan and learn from mistakes. I learned that a deal too good to pass on is never too good to pass up. Price is not all that matters in survival preparations.
I made a list of my concerns and considered my options. We could sell the retreat for a profit and buy another. But how long would it take? Given the troubled times, we are closer to SHTF than ever before. But failures well-studied can lead to a better plan.
Due to my mistakes in planning, I now knew a lot more about the weaknesses of my retreat. The best option available for survival was to turn a lemon into lemonade. I’ll share some of the lessons I’ve learned, in hopes that someone might profit from my mistakes. And, some of the actions I am taking to modify my plans and survive.
I never considered the loss of regular income before the SHTF. I expected it would happen as we fled the city. Plan as though you could lose yours tomorrow. Not long after buying the property, I was laid off. Then again, and one more time.
Finally, three years of unemployment and I’m still without a job in my profession. My increasing age is an undesirable expense to potential employers, thanks to Obamacare. With much less income, I must reduce expenses. I’m using my now-abundant free time learning how do what I have always paid someone else to do.
Car and truck maintenance and repairs. Plumbing. Electrical work. Appliance repair. (YouTube is a great resource.) Video’s from the American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) are showing me how to do gunsmithing repairs. Reloading my ammunition. How to use Craigslist to find some bargains and resell them on eBay for profit.
We sold a life insurance policy and purchased a small, underpriced property. Hired a friend to bulldoze a dirt access road and building pad, and resold it for a profit. The profit went to income and the principle into another property that I am currently improving to put on the market.
I wish I had worked on these skills before trouble hit instead of spending too much time obsessing over mastering 88 ways to start a fire or how to pack a bug-out bag.
Just because a SHTF scenario is inevitable, it may not be as imminent as you think. I’m amazed that the world’s central banks have been able to print so much money and put off the collapse for so long. You may be in poor health or have diminished physical ability when it finally occurs.
When did I become so grey? I now qualify for discounted coffee at McDonald’s and senior shopping days at my local drug store. When did arthritis own my hands? One day I realize that I could no longer reliably rack my Browning High Power in .40S&W. The recoil spring is 24#—something for a younger man. Sold it and purchased a used Glock 36, small and light. I noticed that hikes into the national forest are not so easy at this age. Who started making guns, ammo, and water heavier?
I’m buying used synthetic stocks on eBay to replace heavy wooden stocks on my long guns. My carbine had a very heavy metal butt plate I once had made for potential hand-to-hand encounters. Blow to the head stuff, you know. I found a plastic one to replace it. I’m too old for hand-to-hand. I’ll just have to carry more ammo and shoot the fellow. Anybody young whipper-snapper need an 18-ounce butt plate?
I underestimated how much of what I use and need can be made without much skill or knowledge and how much money I could have saved for other prepping needs. I’m a big believer in Lugol’s 5% iodine solution and took it daily before I lost my income. It is an important part of my supplies, as well. $15 an ounce is no longer affordable.
I researched how to cheaply make iodine crystals and produce the solution myself. It’s not rocket science. If you can make instant coffee, you can make Lugol’s iodine solution. Potassium iodide from eBay, muriatic acid from Home Depot, distilled water, dollar store 3% hydrogen peroxide, and a coffee filter. Cost—about $4 per ounce. I produce enough for my own needs and pure iodine crystals for pandemics, nuclear/radiation events, wounds, and decontaminating drinking water.
Colloidal silver is also important to me. My family regularly takes it and increases the amount with any sign of illness. Retail cost—more than $200 a gallon. A better way—two 99.9 silver coins, 2-quart glass pickle jar, orphaned laptop power supply, alligator wires, $10 fish tank air supply, distilled water, and $24 PPM meter from the pool supply store. Cost— less than $2 per gallon.
When the world shifts (and it will shift), shift accordingly. The traditional game animals are fewer and farther between. But there still are bears, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and lions. And gopher, king, and rattlesnakes. What to do? Prepare to include predators in my food supply when the SHTF.
I bought some well-made snares and my wish list includes a few serious traps to use in the national forest. I’ve been rethinking my hunting guns and ammo to account for larger animals. And ways to hunt opportunistically—carrying enough weaponry to shoot whatever should present itself for dinner. Predator or prey.
But two long guns are just to heavy for an old man. Ideally, a shotgun-rifle combination gun would be best, but not in the budget. When I use a .22LR or shotgun for the intended game, I will also pack my best imitation of rifle at much less weight, my .44 Remington Mag Super Blackhawk with a 7 1/2 barrel.
That means increased practice at longer ranges and no more “cowboy” loads. I’m currently toying with homemade shotshells for the .44 to make it a pseudo-shotgun when I head out with a large caliber rifle.
A small powder load in the standard brass case leaves room to place shot. Disks of cardboard make a workable wad and a disk of styrofoam, a good seal. I considered making a snake-handling stick. And that was the end of that. If I have to eat snakes, I’ll shoot them.
Rethink scenarios that you thought you were fully prepared for. Who anticipates everything? I didn’t, and now it’s late in the game. What if an unlikely event happens? I’ve learned that my artesian well AND the lake cannot be relied upon as sources of water. I’ve added a solar well pump to my wishlist and moved water containers to the cabin and filled them.
I’ve constructed 3” PVC “buckets” that can be lowered down the wellhead by rope to retrieve water if electricity is lost. I’m dragging old wooden planks to the lake. Laying them on the mud, they will allow access to the water.
Next on my list is making a 5-gallon bucket sand-filter to take enough grossness out of the remaining water to allow filtering through a ceramic filter. After that, I’ve got to erect some sort of simple rainwater catchment system, and soon, before the winter rains start.
We, humans, are a worse lot than we think. Having grown up, worked, and lived most of my life in the nice parts of town, I never understood the true prevalence of crime. Or how much more it will be an issue after SHTF, even in the rural areas. Storing supplies at my treat in bolted-down construction boxes is no longer an answer.
I’m starting to locate possible caches in the walls and under the cabinets of the cabin for stashing ammo and other small supplies. Many of the smaller tools now go into my truck, as do some other of the small-sized, pricey or hard-to-replace supplies.
But I have yet to find a good answer for large supplies such as food, water, tools, and reloading equipment. Much less some way to prevent theft of firewood.
Full-size shipping container? There isn’t a lock that can’t be removed. And thieves out there have all the time in the world if I’m not there. The only acceptable solution may be to move to the retreat now, not when the SHTF.
It’s not like I have a job holding me back. With my reluctant wife staying in our city home, we’ve both considered that it may be wise for me to spend 5 or 6 days per week. It would make my presence known in the community as a full-time resident, not the owner of a vacation home/retreat. She and the family would make their exodus alone if need be. Sometimes botched plans are hard to smooth over.
Don’t forget that Indians dwelled in this land long before we did, wherever you happen to live. What did the local Indians do when times were tough? I met a very old man who is one of the last pure Indians in the area. He was happy to talk and to answer my questions.
He remembers foods that his grandmother made during the hard times of his childhood. Turns out that the abundant but poisonous local buckeye/horse chestnut is edible in a pinch. Just pulverize them finely and leach them thoroughly, several times.
Raw, crushed buckeyes mixed into the waters of a rock-damned stream stun the fish for easy collection. And…goats. Goats eat poison oak, which there is always plenty of. And the milk isn’t tainted by the poison oak. I need to locate local goat owners that I could buy or barter goats from after the SHTF. For anyone interested, he told me that the tastiest part of the goat is the tongue. I think I’ll save that for last.
Laws get enforced only when there is an enforcer. Anticipate less law enforcement in rural areas. And deputize yourself. I put on my big boy britches and cracked down on the marijuana growers next door. Slapped a new lock on my gate to prevent access through my property.
The very next day they visited my house and asked what was happening. I told them that further access was dependent upon payment for the damage. They protested and said they had a right to the easement. I told them to call the sheriff if they wanted, but I wasn’t opening the lock without payment.
Two thousand dollars in twenties hit my palm and they came up with the remaining money over the next few weeks. I’ve learned that when it comes to growers, the thing they fear the most is not making it to harvest. $7000 to these fellows is chump change. And, they treat me with a lot more respect.
Folks in your rural location are more citified than you may think. They fill their pantries when they go to the city twice a month. Can’t recognize edible wild plants. And don’t know how to garden. I’m now anticipating that I might have to deal with folks at my door looking for food, just as in cities. I need to improve my knowledge in that area by studying urban survival. On the bright side, I have skills in gardening and foraging and may have enough produce to barter.
Consider that your plans may fail utterly—your retreat may become unusable before SHTF. FUBAR. Total failure. In my case, it could be due to continued drought, a forest fire, or advancing age. I may have to remain in the city. And frankly, I’m not well-prepared for bugging-in.
My plan has been centered on an exodus to the mountains. Back to the drawing board. Add “Option B” to the master plan—survive in place. I recently purchased the Urban Survival course from surviveinplace.com and am finding it to be an excellent collection of materials. I’ve got real work ahead of me, at a late hour.
Perhaps the biggest problem with my plan was that I did not spend serious time choosing my retreat. I chose by price and opportunity. In the end, an impulse purchase. As realtors say, it’s all about location, location, location. Not once-in-a-lifetime deals or large properties with lakes and nice cabins.
As you may have read in Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat, by M.D. Creekmore, it can be done successfully with much less. (I have an excuse—it had not been published yet.) In addition to M.D.’s book and the solid material on MDCreekmore.com, the last several years have brought extensive information all over the Internet.
Most of the largest survival websites have helpful information. Visit the county assessor to research income demographics, tax rolls, and maps. Check with the county planning division or department to see if any major changes are scheduled to take place in your area of interest. Talk to the sheriff about problem areas and crime rates, and types of crime. Put boots on the ground. The only business establishment near me is a very old, tattered tavern.
I’m starting to eat there occasionally, just to listen to the old timers that spend so much time talking about what is going on in our tiny piece of California. They are a wealth of info. I’m driving the backroads to learn more about the lay of the land and the people and their properties. You know, the sort of things I should have done BEFORE buying.
My well-laid plans turned out to be seriously off course. Partly because of a lack of research and an impulsive purchase. Partly because life just happens. But isn’t survival more of a spirit and attitude than any specific action, skill, or equipment?
Experts in wilderness survival all emphasize that attitude or mindset is the most important element of any plan. That’s why so many tiny survival kits give up precious space for a bag of tea and packet of sugar. The first thing you do when you realize that things have gone wrong is to calm down, make a cup of warm tea, mentally regroup, and commit yourself to survival.
Not panic. Not despair. The other supplies in that kit are important, but useless without the will, determination and spirit to endure. I’m older than I want to be. My income has changed drastically. My retreat plan has serious flaws. Let me rephrase that — my retreat plan has serious challenges. But I’m going to make it. I will make it.