Photographs by David Gottschalk
Ken Uptegrove is the founder of ArkHaven, a website that chronicles his beliefs about religious “prepping” — preparing for survival in the event of a disaster or world cataclysm. He moved to Northwest Arkansas in 1985 to live on a blueberry farm because he believes that region is the safest place in case of a disaster.
Originally published August 13, 2017 at 03:35a.m., updated August 14, 2017 at 04:30a.m.
Robert Steadward is always on edge. At restaurants he angles his chair toward the door so he can watch who goes in and out, he hoards firearms in case a government collapse causes the need for protection, and he has an escape plan if a natural disaster makes Fort Smith unlivable.
His vigilance and intense preparedness began with a gunshot when he was 7 years old. Steadward was walking home from school with a friend when they were caught in the crossfire of a gang-related shooting. The children were just two blocks away from the safety of his California home.
His friend was hit and fell to the sidewalk. Steadward held him until he died.
"That changed my life," Steadward said. "It became how to prepare so that stuff does not happen to me and my kids. As a father of three now and a husband, I do anything to protect them."
The experience of seeing his friend die, paired with a childhood of caring for younger siblings with an absentee father and a drug-addicted mother, sparked Steadward's interest in "prepping," a life spent getting ready for catastrophe.
Steadward is one of two administrators for the Arkansas Prepper Network, a group of close to 900 members that connects like-minded people in the state who are all getting ready for the worst.
That worst could be something as simple as a job loss or a hit to a savings account, but these preppers are also getting ready to survive an earthquake large enough to send bridges crashing down or a terrorist attack that wipes out the country's power supply.
The other administrator for the network, Robert Porter, got wrapped up in the world of prepping after an F3 tornado ripped through Fort Smith and Van Buren on April 21, 1996. The storm flipped train cars off their rails, tossed vehicles through the air and claimed the lives of two children hiding in their houses.
Porter, then 15, sat huddled with his parents in his bedroom closet, listening to the winds that topped 200 mph whip around them. The three felt an immense pressure surround them, then heard a pop as the twister tore the roof off their house.
"Our house was taken," Porter said. "We didn't really have plans for something like that."
Nationally, an uptick in the number of preppers began in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina swept across the southeastern United States, killing nearly 2,000 people, said Chad Huddleston, an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University who has studied prepping for nearly nine years.
"Other individuals, they might have certain things in their lives, but they all pointed to Katrina as kind of the large-scale social event that really got them interested in thinking, 'Oh, maybe I should start doing some of this for myself as opposed to waiting for the government, or the Red Cross or something,'" Huddleston said.
Zombie Squad, the group Huddleston focuses on, has added 12 chapters across the nation and has grown by about 15,000 members since he started studying it.
Zombie Squad, like the Arkansas Prepper Network, serves as a forum for discussion on prepping, although it is also a charity organization that collects food and supplies for communities going through emergencies.
Researcher Hal Marchand from Western Illinois University traces the roots of modern prepping to 1941 when then-President Franklin Roosevelt established the Office of Civilian Defense, organizing air-raid procedures and blackout drills. The movement saw a resurgence with an increased fear of nuclear attack in the 1950s.
Prepping has gained its name and its current recognition through TV shows like Doomsday Preppers, Huddleston said.
Porter started Arkansas Prepper Network in 2009, and Steadward joined soon after. It is intended to be a platform for discussion and tips on how to survive disasters.
The Web page contains posts with recommendations for making fuel when the electric grid goes down, storing water and the best way to build a shelter ready to withstand a natural disaster.
Porter said he spends four to five hours each week prepping. That may mean tossing a few extra cans of food into the shopping cart when he visits the grocery store, working on his gardening skills or learning more about survival equipment.
He has an underground refrigeration system that could still function if electricity went off. A solar backup system is a work in progress.
Steadward is slightly more invested in prepping. He and his family keep chickens in their backyard and have an extensive garden.
He also has a backup plan with about eight other Arkansas families to meet on a 20-acre piece of land in the southern part of the state if extreme measures are necessary.
The piece of land has an extensive garden, several houses, and a storehouse of food and supplies.
Community is an important aspect of prepping, Huddleston said.
"This group is community-minded," Huddleston said. "In fact, they want to act as first responders in their community and go out and give stuff to people to help out."
Members of the Arkansas Prepper Network are expected to volunteer in their communities in times of need, Porter said. Porter is a volunteer firefighter and a City Council member in Dyer, a town with a population of less than 1,000.
Porter and other members of the community have developed a safety plan for the entire town.
The details of the plan, what supplies Porter keeps in his truck and exact numbers of members in the network are kept secret because of a fear that people who are less-prepared will steal survival gear, Porter said.
Porter and Steadward said these plans are not based in government conspiracies, religion or political beliefs, but on an attitude of preparedness that they believe most Americans lack.
Huddleston said that is the case with most preppers he has researched.
"I didn't personally run into anyone who was talking about tin foil hats and the government was out to get them or any of that kind of thing," he said.
Ken Uptegrove represents a different type of prepper -- one whose life is dominated by getting ready for a religious rapture.
Uptegrove, who lives in Springdale, is the creator of ArkHaven, a Web page that provides guidance to survivalists who consider the lifestyle a calling from God. He moved from Illinois in 1985 because he believes Northwest Arkansas is the safest place in the world from natural disaster.
He moved onto a blueberry farm that had about 6,000 bushes because of a divine calling, he said.
"A typical lifestyle is to try to become as self-sufficient as I can," Uptegrove said. "I grow my own food, I live a very quiet lifestyle. I fellowship with my neighbors, especially the like-minded people who will travel some distance."
Uptegrove mentors several people who visit his website and reach out to him for guidance, via email or in person, he said. His site chronicles his studies and beliefs about the rapture and advertisements for pieces of land in the Ozark Mountains that are suitable for prepping.
Religious prepping -- often paired with apocalyptic prepping that became a fad with the Y2K scare and the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, Huddleston said -- makes up most people's view of the movement. But Huddleston said religious prepping is rare, based on his experience.
"It was more like, 'Well I need to take care of my family and think about that,'" he said.
This view of prepping -- the stance the Arkansas Prepper Network takes -- is growing, Huddleston said.
The movement's growth has prompted RK Prepper Shows, a company that puts on survivalist trade shows across the United States, to organize its first-ever show in Arkansas, promotions manager Randy Kehrli said.
The expo will be Aug. 19-20 in Conway. Kehrli said he expects as many as 3,000 people to attend the show.
Kehrli, who is not a prepper, said there is a wide range of people who attend these shows -- from doctors and lawyers to "hard-core preppers" and organic gardeners.
Presenters will discuss many topics, such as food storage, prepping on a budget and the importance of body armor.
All topics center on self-reliance, a common goal among preppers, Kehrli said.
"If we go back and look at the practices in our lives, what is missing? It is having that self-reliance," Porter said. "Because by using credit or having to borrow from someone else, that is not us taking care of ourselves and by raising our own food -- rabbits, chickens and whatnot -- that helps us gain independence."
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