Valentino and I trudge through 6 feet of snow along the southern slope of Mount Hood. Somewhere beneath the snowpack, Valentino assures me, are the bones of those who died on this old pioneer trail.
Valentino is my guide. I found him on the internet. I'm trusting him to teach me how to survive a night in the woods—and the breakdown of civilization.
He offers his full name, Valentin Belia, reluctantly, and refuses to tell me his age. "There is much I would like to forget," he says.
Growing up in rugged Banat, Romania, he learned wilderness survival from his grandfather. The wolves that prowled the forests there, he says, would occasionally drag away a villager to eat.
He came to America to be "poor and free" in 1999, and stopped in Oregon, where the terrain reminded him of home. Though he rents a small house in Southeast Portland, he claims he lives for as long as six months at a stretch in these woods.
He eats tinned food and salted meat kept cool in a stream. When bears, cougars or bandits prowl too close to his camp, he tries to reason with them and, if that fails, fires a warning shot from his 1952 Czech army pistol.
Is any of this true? When the sun is setting and you're still sawing trees to build a tarpaulin shelter, it's best to follow Valentino's lead.
This is, after all, his business. For $190, he will take you up on the mountain for an "immersive, advanced survival training" course. His target market: "preppers"—a term commonly used to describe people obsessed with surviving cataclysmic societal collapse.
It's a booming market.
"This is in vogue," Valentino says.
There's certainly a lot to worry about these days: nuclear war, civil war, class war, climate change and that old constant fear, the megaquake.
But Valentino and a number of Oregonians have turned this worry into a cottage industry, if not quite a business model. They are ready to teach you how to approach the apocalypse with confidence—for a price.
The doomsday-prepping fad has never been more lucrative. As the New Yorker reported in January, you can now buy a luxury post-apocalypse apartment in a decommissioned nuclear missile silo in Kansas for $3 million, or follow fearful Silicon Valley billionaires seeking to escape nuclear fallout and rising seas in remote New Zealand.
What Oregon's preppers lack in wealth, they make up for in experience and tradition.
"There is a strong [prepper] culture here in the Pacific Northwest," says Eric Holdeman, the Puyallup, Wash., consultant and writer who runs a blog called disaster-zone.com and pens a column for Emergency Management magazine.
Holdeman says many preppers are located in Eastern Washington and Oregon, but spreading to the west side of the Cascades. "It's not just the good old boys, backwoods type of thing," he says. "I've seen more—let's just call it 'educated'—people who are informed and are making what they think is a logical decision" to plan for the worst.
After browsing the vast marketplace at the end of the world, I identified three distinct types of Portland-area preppers—plus a city agency that tackles the same dark obsession using your taxpayer dollars.
These are people who dedicate a substantial portion of their lives to thinking about doomsday—for money, yes, but also love.
From a home base in Clatsop County, Ore., Cameron McKirdy runs a YouTube channel and website, survivalbros.com.
The site bills itself as "more than an emergency preparedness blog": It's also a "strong community" and an "alternative news" source (think conspiracy king Alex Jones). With his infotainment brand, McKirdy markets himself to millennials as a high-protein, fluoride-free guide to scraping by in the dystopian chaos.
And he has no doubt that something terrible will in fact occur. His money is on economic collapse. "After something bad happens, people are going to be killing each other for like five days," he says.
McKirdy, 33, grew up in Seaside and attended the University of Oregon. He started taking survivalism seriously after a 2011 tsunami warning.
Like many people his age, he's juggling multiple gigs. He was an announcer at mixed martial arts fights, but now he's an on-call professional cuddler with Portland business Cuddle Up to Me, offering platonic embraces for $1 a minute.
McKirdy also works retail at a nutrition store, which confers a discount on the protein powders that compose much of his diet. Sometimes he wins cash prizes in eating competitions, and he makes about $100 a month from ads on his Survival Bros YouTube channel, which has roughly 6,000 subscribers.
His video titles are straightforward: "Breaking Car Windows With the Gerber LMF II" (a survival knife), "How to Get FREE Stuff—Request, Complain, Take" and "Would YOU Pee in a Plastic Bottle? Be honest!"
In a recent video, McKirdy narrates his discovery of a derelict trailer by the side of the road.
"I want to swoop it," McKirdy says. "Would you guys do it? Do you have that hustler's mentality like me?… Make sure to subscribe on YouTube."
McKirdy's manic screen presence earned him a guest appearance last year on the Viceland series Abandoned, in which he gave a tour of tsunami evacuation routes on the Oregon Coast.
He came to Portland last month to show me some urban survival tricks.
His vision of urban scavenging amounts to constantly demanding free samples. "That's kind of what this is all about, is the art of asking," he says.
Within minutes of parking his Mustang, McKirdy led me to a Sherwin-Williams paint store in Northwest Portland to procure survival gear. He told the clerk he was "working on a project" and asked for some complimentary T-shirts and a hoodie. He got two shirts, each with the store's logo. But no hoodie.
Next stop: a nearby Holiday Inn. "I don't want to mislead them or lie, so I'm just going to ask for 'more soap please,'" he says, strolling into the lobby. It works. The receptionist hands him soap and shampoo without even asking for his room number.
At a convenience store, McKirdy scores some free matches and a large plastic sack of the sort used to collect large quantities of aluminum cans. Then he spends $2 at a Dollar Tree to build a low-cost fire kit with cotton balls, lighters and lip balm (the store was out of petroleum jelly).
In a parking lot, McKirdy smears the balm on the cotton to make kindling. With a few clicks of the lighter, bingo: fire. He rolls out a sleeping mat he bought for $20 from a homeless guy. He puts the garbage sack on the mat, stuffs it with T-shirts and climbs in, looking cozy on the asphalt.
"This is kind of the new American dream: being more mobile," he says.
Since McKirdy's method amounts to small-time grifting, I ask what the difference is between being a Survival Bro and a hobo. "I prioritize self-care and hygiene," he replies.
McKirdy also suggests making tin-can caches of scavenged goods and burying them in safe places. This is an ongoing project for him.
Finding spots to bury your stuff legally is difficult. "I'm creating my own system, like William Blake," he says.
The flaw in McKirdy's system is obvious: It relies on the generosity of a functioning society. It doesn't work in the event of a systemic breakdown, when stores are closed and pantries empty.
"If it gets even worse than it is now, I'm just going to resort to asking people on the streets for a light, or matches, or a dollar," he says.
From their $844,000 home in Portland's West Hills, David and Beth Pruett travel the country selling homemade first-aid kits and teaching informal classes about emergency medicine.
Since living through the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, the Pruetts have stockpiled supplies, made checklists and practiced for the next disaster. David is a U.S. Navy veteran and an emergency medicine doctor at Oregon Health & Science University.
In 2011, David designed a compact, individual first-aid kit, the iFak, which is short for "individual first-aid kit" and stocked with medicines, bandages, implements and adhesives. Soon the couple turned their hobby into a preparedness business and blog, amp-3.net, which Beth runs from home, selling iFaks, radio gear, books like The Survival Nurse and Modern Weapons Caching, and some self-produced instructional DVDs. In 2015, Beth says, Amp-3 topped $140,000 in sales.
They get a lot of online sales, but it's more effective to go where the customers are: prepper conventions.
Last October, the Pruetts attended the Sustainable Preparedness Expo at the Portland Expo Center. The next one is May 21 in Grants Pass. On April 21, the Pruetts will travel to Utah for PrepperCon, which is expected to draw more than 13,000 attendees.
Then, on May 6, they'll travel to Prosser, Wash., for the Northwest Preparedness Expo featuring lectures on "home food storage," "defensive landscaping" and "concealed carry options," as well as David's "wound care basics" course. Also scheduled to speak: Republican state Reps. Matt Shea and David Taylor, who last December introduced a measure proposing that Eastern Washington secede and form a new state called Liberty.
"David and I are very conservative. Always have been, always will be," Beth says. "But we're not into the crazy stuff."
After the Pruetts' experiences in 1989 in California—navigating cracked roads, passing fires and downed power lines, worrying about where to get fresh water—the aftermath of a major earthquake scares them more than anything. Their home is in what will be one the most dangerous areas in Portland after a big quake, the West Hills. (They know this; they're moving.)
Because they expect the cellular networks and power grid to fail, the Pruetts have invested in ham radio and backup generators. The cost of preparedness can quickly add up. The couple set aside $100 to $500 a month for equipment and supplies.
They don't have a panic room, Beth says, because their philosophy is "everyday preparedness," meaning full pantries and frequent trips to Costco. Their son, Matt, often asks Beth why she brings home even more food. "Because," she replies, "we can never have enough."
Attending expos, the couple has made friends with the "Christian-based preparedness community" in Prosser. To Beth, non-governmental protective associations form the backbone of the post-apocalyptic future.
"These people that just think they're going to have their guns and their weapons and fend off whatever intruder comes, that's ridiculous," Beth says. "Because every 48 hours or so, you have to sleep. I believe that if we band together, we can take care of ourselves and one another."
THE GOOD NEIGHBORS
Not everyone with a survival obsession is making money on it. For some, it's a matter of duty.
Under the guidance of Portland City Hall, something like Beth Pruett's vision of neighbors banding together is already happening.
The roughly 20 employees of the $4.7 million Portland Bureau of Emergency Management spend every day planning, training and warning people of the worst things to come. And the worst, as most Portlanders know by now, is inevitable: a major earthquake along the Cascadia fault.
"It's absolutely going to happen. The science is crystal clear," bureau spokesman Dan Douthit says. "It would be irresponsible for us to ignore it."
The bureau has recruited 1,000 Neighborhood Emergency Team leaders to act as point persons in an emergency.
An April 29 training event at Benson High School has 400 people enrolled and room for 100 more. Volunteers are key to the city's response plan.
"Get to know your neighbors," Douthit says. "That, in many ways, is more valuable than a box of granola bars."
Last month, I toured the bureau's 2-year-old, $20 million seismically fortified bunker on Southeast 99th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, where politicians and local emergency-response commanders will gather in relative safety after an earthquake or other emergency.
From the outside, it's a dismal, squat rectangle surrounded by tall black iron gates. Inside, the facility looks like Jason Bourne at a ski lodge. The largest room features a wall-sized grid of monitors.
An adjacent room features a large wooden conference table, where city and county leaders will convene if downtown Portland dissolves into a gruesome mélange of liquefied soil and fallen towers.
Upstairs, there's a restaurant-quality kitchen and a freezer stocked with food. The roof features cisterns to keep the toilets flushing.
"We're optimistic," Douthit says. "We think we can survive and get through whatever disaster."
Last fall, the bureau gave DHM Research an $80,000 contract to identify "barriers to preparedness." The report isn't finished, but a DHM telephone survey last November asked Portlanders such questions as whether they would "feel comfortable asking for a small favor such as yard work or borrowing a cup of sugar" from their neighbors.
The bureau already knows that some advice is outdated, such as the idea that people should keep two days' worth of supplies in the home. Douthit says people should stock enough food and water to last two weeks.
At this point, though, the bureau doesn't have that much in its own freezer.
Valentino says bushcraft is "in the genes," and survival is in his soul.
Valentino, 43, has a long beard and weathered face. He wears army surplus gear and a leather belt engraved with his name. He carries axes and knives ground from salvaged metal.
During the week, he works construction. On weekends, he focuses on his side business, named after his home state in Romania: Banat Wilderness & Urban Survival Training. His motto: "Train local, not on YouTube."
"THIS WORKSHOP IS NOT FOR EVERYONE," the website says. "Please don't sign up unless you are willing to get sweaty, dirty, cold, tired, stressed, challenged, and HAVE FUN."
Valentino says he doesn't turn a profit on his roughly $6-an-hour classes, though he would like to. He keeps his costs down by shopping at budget tool shops, thrift stores, army surplus outlets and scrap yards.
He asks clients who sign up for the weekend course to pack warm clothes (but no cotton!), work gloves, food, water, a sleeping mat and bag, a 10-by-12-foot tarp and a knife.
Valentino supplies more essential gear: hatchet, saw, fire and first-aid kits, more tarps and rope.
Schlepping his packs on a plastic sled, Valentino leads a photographer and me over the snowy trail away from the parking lot at Barlow Pass Sno Park.
Partway up the trail, he remembers: "Oh! Safety." He proceeds to explain all that could go wrong.
Mount Hood could explode. There could be an earthquake—he felt several tremors last year. Cougars could pounce from trees and eat our kidneys. We could disappear in a snow-covered pit. We could be impaled by a tree. Assuming good cellular service, help is two hours away.
Later, he remembers another thing. "I forgot," he says. "Today there is avalanche warning."
Survival, Valentino believes, is a state of mind. "I believe in gear, but I also believe in here," he says, tapping the blade of his knife against his head, then his heart.
We arrive at the campsite. Valentino already spent hours digging through the snow to create a trench for the campfire. Shelter comes first, he says.
Thus begins a long day of chopping and sawing. It is possible to build a fire with wet logs. Valentino shows how. Split the deadwood to reveal the dry core. Keep splitting until you have a sizable pile of dry kindling. Clean the damp bark from some branches and shave the wood to make tinder.
"I love fire," he says. "Fire is life."
Valentino's ax handle breaks. This is hazardous work, for trees can shatter like glass. Valentino cuts his hand. "I don't feel it," he says. Once he saw a movie about 19th-century naturalist John Muir. "The human was stronger at that time," Valentino says. "The human is softer now. I am softer."
He cooks by throwing huge pork steaks directly on coals on the ground.
At midnight, after ghost stories, it is time to crawl inside our tarp shelters. Valentino says some campers prefer to sleep with their feet toward the entrance, rather than risk having a bear drag them out head-first.
I sleep for four hours and shiver for two. Valentino emerges from his shelter looking rested. "Morning is beautiful when you've got a man with a pistol and a knife approaching you," he says cheerfully.
Valentino boasts his course proved "too scary" for one student, a combat veteran. But he also recalls one night that left him full of fear. Valentino took part in first-responders training designed to simulate what might happen in Portland after the big quake.
One team played the wounded; another, the rescuers. Valentino hid in the dark, pretending to be pinned under rubble, watching flashing lights, listening to sirens and screaming. "The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck," he says. "That was just training. Can you imagine in real life?
"It's a nightmare. I can see the nightmare."
In the event of a catastrophe, Valentino says, Mount Hood will be no refuge. He expects it will be overrun with poorly trained, overconfident, trigger-happy preppers—more dangerous than in the city, where at least one could still find food and shelter.
"Let's talk about shit hit the fan," Valentino says. "People will not survive in the woods. They can't. Something will happen. The cold will take them down. Or their own brain will take them down. And what if people have children?"
When the big shocks come, you won't catch this mountain man running for the hills. Instead, he says, he'll be in the city, helping others.
Sign up for the city's free April 29 Neighborhood Emergency Team training at goo.gl/iJoXuZ or email email@example.com.