ASKED by an out-of-stater where the nearest shooting range is, Patrick Leavitt, an affable gunsmith at Riverman Gun Works in Coeur d’Alene, says: “This is Idaho—you can shoot pretty much anywhere away from buildings.” That is one reason why the sparsely populated state is attracting a growing number of “political refugees” keen to slip free from bureaucrats in America’s liberal states, says James Wesley, Rawles (yes, with a comma), an author of bestselling survivalist novels. In a widely read manifesto posted in 2011 on his survivalblog.com, Mr Rawles, a former army intelligence officer, urged libertarian-leaning Christians and Jews to move to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and a strip of eastern Oregon and Washington states, a haven he called the “American Redoubt”.
Thousands of families have answered the call, moving to what Mr Rawles calls America’s last big frontier and most easily defendable terrain. Were hordes of thirsty, hungry, panicked Americans to stream out of cities after, say, the collapse of the national grid, few looters would reach the mostly mountainous, forested and, in winter, bitterly cold Redoubt. Big cities are too far away. But the movement is driven by more than doomsday “redoubters”, eager to homestead on land with lots of water, fish, and big game nearby. The idea is also to bring in enough strongly conservative voters to keep out the regulatory creep smothering liberty in places like California, a state many redoubters disdainfully refer to as “the C-word”.
In this section
Trump in the dumps
In plain words
Back in the booth
Up, then down
The last big frontier
Goodbye to Bratton
Estimates of the numbers moving into the Redoubt are sketchy, partly because many seek a low profile. Mr Rawles himself will not reveal which state he chose, not wanting to be overrun when “everything hits the fan”. But Chris Walsh of Revolutionary Realty says growing demand has turned into such a “massive upwelling” that he now sells about 140 properties a year in the north-western part of the Redoubt, its heart. To manage, Mr Walsh, a pilot, keeps several vehicles at landing strips to which he flies clients from his base near Coeur d’Alene.
Many seek properties served not with municipal water but with a well or stream, ideally both, just in case. More than nine out of every ten Revolutionary Realty clients either buy a home off the grid or plan to sever the connection and instead use firewood, propane and solar panels, often storing the photovoltaic power in big forklift batteries bought second-hand. They also plan to educate their children at home. The remoter land preferred by lots of “off-the-gridders” is often cheap. Revolutionary Realty sells sizeable plots for as little as $30,000. After that, settlers can mostly build as they please.
Lance Etche, a Floridian, recently moved his family into the Redoubt after the writings of Mr Rawles stirred in him “the old mountain-man independence spirit—take care of yourself and don’t complain.” He chose a plot near Canada outside Bonners Ferry, Idaho, cleared an area with a view, put down gravel, “and they dropped the thing [a so-called “skid house”, transported by lorry] right on top of it”, he says—no permit required.
Some newcomers are Democrats keen to get back to nature, grow organic food or, in Oregon and Washington, benefit from permissive marijuana laws. Not all conservatives dislike this as much as Bonny Dolly, a Bonners Ferry woman in her 60s who says: “We don’t want liberals, that’s for sure,” and carries a .45-calibre handgun “because they don’t make a .46”. But lefties who move in and hope to finance tighter regulations with higher taxes often get the cold shoulder. Mr Walsh weeds out lefties from the start, politely declining to show them property, noting that they wouldn’t fit in anyway. This discrimination is legal, he says, because political factions, unlike race or sexual orientation, are not legally protected classes.
A red dawn
Todd Savage, who runs Survival Retreat Consulting in Sandpoint, Idaho, works with the more usual sort of client: political migrants who rail against “morally corrupt” nanny government elsewhere. He does a brisk business helping them set up their food-producing fortress-homesteads. Staff train clients in defensive landscaping, how to repel an assault on their property with firearms, and the erection of structures “hardened” to withstand forced entry and chemical, biological, radiological or explosive attack.
Very few redoubters, however, wish to secede from the United States. The Confederacy’s attempt fared badly, notes Mr Rawles. He did, however, exclude the politically conservative but mostly flat Dakotas from the Redoubt because mechanised units could manoeuvre easily there. The same went for swathes of Utah, a state also left out because it has little water.
Purists have criticised him for including eastern Oregon and Washington in the Redoubt, since their larger liberal populations near the west coast dominate state politics. But he believes that the designation will quicken efforts in the eastern reaches to form new, freedom-minded states within a generation. As Mr Walsh puts it, easterners’ taxes get them “nothing back except for a bunch more rules” from socialist bureaucrats.
As for doomsday itself, redoubters differ. Mr Rawles considers the most likely cause to be a geomagnetic solar storm like the Carrington Event in 1859, when a coronal mass ejection from the sun generated sparks in telegraph lines, setting some buildings on fire. Had the nearly 3,000 transformers that underpin America’s grid existed then, a quarter of them would have burned up, according to Storm Analysis Consultants in Duluth, Minnesota. Some redoubters have signed up to receive a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alert of any approaching solar storm like the big one that blew across Earth’s path on July 23rd 2012, missing the planet by days.
Alternatively, a nuclear explosion 450km above the central United States would produce enough high-energy free electrons in the atmosphere below to fry the grid and unshielded electronics in all states except Alaska and Hawaii. Conceivably, and unpredictably, North Korea or Iran might dare to launch such a missile.
A more likely catastrophe, Mr Rawles believes, would be a pandemic virulent enough to cause the breakdown of the national sewerage system as well as the grid. Mr Savage, for his part, worries most about a “slow slide into socialism” akin to “death by a thousand cuts, right, you just keep whittling away at liberty” by, for example, restricting gun sales. Some of his firm’s clients fear that bankers may deliberately collapse the financial system in order to introduce a single global currency.
The dominant view is simply that institutions and infrastructure are more fragile than most believe, says Dave Westbrook, an American Redoubt consultant homesteading north-west of Sandpoint. Videos sold by his firm, Country Lifestyle Solutions, show redoubters how to assess the viability of off-grid properties, plant orchards and tend crops. But paranoia is out there, says Ben Ortize, the pastor of Grace Sandpoint Church. Terrorism, and the widespread belief that President Barack Obama’s progressive agenda is naive, have fuelled strong support for Donald Trump in the Redoubt, which has a disproportionately large population of former policemen, firemen and soldiers. To calm them down, he tells his flock that the Bible advises them to trust in the Lord, rather than in shotguns and Tasers.
The area’s bad rap is sometimes undeserved. “Hate in America: A Town on Fire”, a recent Discovery Channel broadcast about Kalispell, Montana, attempted to conflate gun-lovers who recoil at big government with the few white supremacists shown at the start. In fact, there is much less racism in the inland north-west than in the South, says Alex Barron, founder of the libertarian Charles Carroll Society blog and self-proclaimed “Bard of the American Redoubt”. Some are quick to label ideological opponents as white supremacists, he says. Liberal bloggers have called him one; but Mr Barron is black.
The Redoubt does give refuge to more than its fair share of outlaws, whether ageing draft-dodgers or crooks on the lam. So says Mike “Animal” Zook, a bounty hunter in Spirit Lake, Idaho with a gunslinger image enhanced by his sidearm’s faux-scrimshaw handle. Pointing east from the Riverman Gun Works car park, he notes that a man can trek that way for nearly 150 miles and see nothing but majestic forest and game. Turn south, and the wilderness extends more than double that.
Wanted men can and do disappear here, Mr Zook says. Some pan for gold, hunt, trap game and quietly slip into a town once a year or so for supplies. Nationwide, perhaps only one in 1,000 indicted felons skip bail and run for it, he says, but the percentage is higher in the Redoubt and especially in Lincoln County, in nearby north-western Montana. That provides enough work, he says, for more than 2,000 fugitive-recovery agents—as bounty hunters are also known—who, like himself, operate at least part-time, typically as private contractors for bondsmen in the Redoubt. All in all, the frontier spirit of America’s Old West is still alive and well.