I was six, and there was very little food in the house that night. I rummaged around in a cupboard and pulled out a nearly empty peanut butter jar, and using a table knife and my finger, I scraped out every bit of it and went to bed early. Being young, I don’t remember if this time lasted days or weeks, but the gnawing feeling of hunger made a profound impact, and from the roots of that childhood experience came the mindset for preparedness and survival.
Everyone has a story, and this is mine. It is hoped that by sharing the stages of the preparedness evolution that I went through it will resonate with those that are beginning their journey as well as those already on their way. All of us, no matter where we fall on the continuum, must constantly be evaluating and reevaluating our prepper status. We are all works in progress. My personal convictions rely on two principles: 1) reducing dependency and 2) minimizing waste, which anyone can learn to live by, in whatever stage they are. For me, these two principles represent freedom and being the best steward possible for the gifts and blessings we were given by our Creator.
Because of the food insecurity issue, I had long watched grocery store sales like a hawk and started small stockpiles of food and supplies early on when my children were young. My first actual effort at prepping beyond food was shortly before Y2K. I bought a kerosene heater and fuel, and in the upstairs bathroom closet I tucked away other items, including bottled water. Those provisions were meager compared to what I have accumulated today, and I didn’t end up needing them, but they gave me a sense of some security and I was glad I had them. As a beginning prepper, it can seem intimidating and overwhelming trying to figure out how to begin, but like many things in life, the best advice is to start where you are.
What are your fears? Where do they come from? Use this information to guide your self-improvement in areas that are uncomfortable for you, and build up your tolerance, albeit slowly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, my mom liked to declare, and it does apply to a lot of life experiences. Start where you are. What can you start to accumulate, and what can you start to give up? Give priority to health and well-being, and your actions and activities will flow from there, in whatever stage you are at this moment in time. Live more sustainably, and responsibly, in the situation you find yourself now.
A few years after the Y2K event, work on these very ideas began in earnest for me. I was newly single and earning $7.75 per hour at a job I loved but did not allow me to save much. The poorly insulated upstairs apartment I lived in had the typical story – hot in the summer and cold in the winter. I kept the furnace thermostat set on 50 degrees because I wouldn’t have been able to afford the heating bill otherwise.
My Early Steps
Fearful of not being able to provide and survive, I found two part-time jobs to help supplement my income. One of the first self-preservation and dependency-reducing purchases I made was a garage sale find – a five-dollar water filtration container for the refrigerator. I was on my way – in a small way – but wasn’t reliant on dosing myself daily with chlorinated city water. Several years later, the next step was to buy a big canister-type water filtration system for treating larger quantities of non-potable water in the event of an infrastructure breakdown. It was around that time that I started going through my change each week, sorting out copper pennies and pre-1965 silver dimes and quarters, since I couldn’t afford to buy any tangible precious metals.
Minimizing waste also started small – with regular recycling and trying to buy and store things in bulk. After the apartment, I lived in a house in town that backed up to a bluff, and it was at the edge of my yard at the base of that bluff that I started my first compost pile. The yard at a later rental house I lived in had no place for composting, so I did the next best thing – I moved it indoors. For several years, through two rental houses and my current home, I have kept a colony of red wiggler worms in a tub in the garage or basement, happily munching on my vegetable scraps and peelings. The castings make great fertilizer, and I trade them from time to time for fresh vegetables from someone I know who has a hoop house garden.
After beginning composting, I had also begun to observe the tremendous amount of plastic involved in packaging and wrapping our food and other household products. I grew to detest most plastic and all the wasteful packaging that accompanies our lives of convenience and our “microwave society.” We expect the things we need to be at our fingertips, and we expect to get them fast. There is a great disconnection for many of us from the raw and true sources of the items we use, with many of the items processed and packaged, and stacked in abundance at the ubiquitous local big-box store. Back away from the microwave (which is literally an item I no longer own, by the way) and focus on making your life into a slow oven. What raw products and materials can you start to accumulate that will help you over the long haul, not the short run?
Making My Own
When I started looking to replace some of the household cleaning products I had been using on a regular basis, a coworker gave me the recipe for a multipurpose cleaner. The ingredients are simple – 1 part water, 1 part vinegar and a tablespoon of liquid detergent. It not only worked as a cleaner, but also as an after-shower spray for the shower and tub, to help reduce hard water buildup and soap residue. It was another small victory in the journey – I no longer was dependent on prepackaged products of questionable safety, and was reducing waste since I reused the same spray bottle each time I made a new batch. I still use the same spray today.
Since I was then using a lot of vinegar, making my own seemed like the next logical step. Family members with apple trees and a hydraulic cider press helped get me the juice. I had managed to secure several gallon-size glass pickle jars from a local restaurant. With the addition of cheesecloth, rubber bands, and patience for the weeks-long fermentation process, I was soon on my way with several gallons of homemade apple cider vinegar. Homemade air freshener, toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm and hairspray gradually came next, from recipes I found online and experimented with. There is some discomfort involved, to be sure, when stepping away from the convenience and ease of ready-made items, but this dissipated when freedom and self-reliance took over. Again, start where you are.
As a tenant, I chafed under landlords’ restrictions and nosiness. I yearned for a place of my own, but I wasn’t there yet. Instead, I planted small gardens in corners of the yards and grew tomatoes and peppers in food grade buckets. I was able to get a heat-treated wooden pallet (marked HT on its logo) from a friend’s place of work. I stapled landscape fabric to the back and sides, filled it full of potting soil, and leaned it up against the house for a vertical herb garden. Learning of the health benefits of young greens, I sprouted broccoli in a small dishpan by my kitchen window. Back-up cooking options included an old charcoal grill and an in-ground fire pit.
Readying for Self-Defense
Self-defense was a weak area for me. Growing up, I was nervous around guns and didn’t like them. I was never anti-gun, just not comfortable with them. I developed a friendship with a coworker who owned and enjoyed them, and in our discussions he gave me great advice about self-defense options. He pointed out that the only good weapon is one that you have on you or at very least, within reach. I started accumulating a variety of items, including bear spray that I now always carry with me. He took me to a shooting range where I got to fire a Ruger revolver, a Glock pistol and a semiautomatic rifle…. and loved the whole experience. As I continued to save money, I later purchased my own firearm. Quite an evolution for someone that didn’t even like being in the same room with a gun, and several steps in the direction of increasing independence in both self-defense and food security.
I continued my search for a house to buy and found one in a dream spot on top of a bluff, just minutes from the beloved river that I have lived near for a good part of my adult life. It checked off a lot of boxes – a well, a dry basement, and areas to grow food. It was exciting when my offer was accepted, and as I packed I looked forward to finally having the freedom of my own property. Just days before closing, however, it turned out that there was a lack of a current survey and driveway easement with the adjacent property owner, and I was advised not to proceed. Because I had given notice at the rental house, it had already been leased to someone else and I still needed to move.
Though friends offered to have me stay with them, the experience was unnerving and demoralizing, and shook me to my core. I went from living in a house with all my belongings around me to having most of my possessions kept in a storage unit and another friend’s garage, without a place to truly call home. Fortunately, my children were grown by that time, living on their own and at college, but it was so hard to admit to them what had happened.
It was a test of strength and survival, both mentally and emotionally, and it forced me to look again, in a deeper and unique way, at how to gain my independence back. Perhaps even more importantly, it also was a lesson in gratitude for the many blessings I still had.
A few months later, I managed to secure another rental house. Still feeling somewhat defeated, I was nonetheless appreciative of a roof over my head and not having to depend or impose on my friends anymore. I resumed stockpiling necessities and container gardening.
A Place of My Own
Three years after that, I found my home, and this time the sale went through without a hitch. I now have my own well, but the old water filter sets on a shelf in the basement – a reminder of the journey I took and ready for use again if need be. I rely on electricity to power the well pump and have a backup generator, but in the event of a generator failure, the trusty brand-name larger filtering system along with wood- and propane-powered options to boil the water are available.
I don’t have many acres of land, but a few feet away from my door is an abundance of wild black raspberry bushes. I planted rhubarb, horseradish and a few tomato and pepper plants, and keep a large garden plot at a friend’s place, all from which I preserve a multitude of produce. I have been able to purchase some precious metals in an effort to diversify away from fiat currency, but I still sort through my change. When my last bottle of shampoo runs out, I will be making my own. This is where I am, and the next step is where I am going.