Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

It’s easy to put Robert Vicino in a metaphorical box, the box of those conspiracy-minded, doomsday-prepping, tinfoil-hat-wearing nutjobs. Or in, you know, an actual box. He did, after all, found an underground bunker company, Vivos, whose slogan — “The Backup Plan for Humanity” — is not particularly mainstream nor particularly inspiring.

His South Dakota project sounds like something straight out of the Netflix show Doomsday Preppers: an 18-square-mile complex of 575 underground military-made bunkers where people can live out the end of days not just in safety but in style. Imagine Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but with an apocalyptic twist: Instead of vaulted ceilings and intricate stonework, there are “massive front bulkhead walls,” “steel blast door entrances” and “earth-covered protection.” Instead of a prime lakefront locale or resort-like amenities, this community considers its “isolated,” “very remote,” “totally off-grid” location to be its biggest selling point. Instead of your standard curb appeal, bunker architecture boasts a very different kind of appeal: “The compressive elliptical shape mitigates a surface blast wave as well as radioactive fallout.”

This massive community of end-of-civilization-fearing preppers isn’t aiming to be your home sweet home, though you can certainly get it tricked out like the model unit, with hardwood floors, leather furnishings and an impressive kitchen. Rather, it wants to be your temporary home while the rest of the world is burning to the ground. And given the state of our world, Vicino may be on to something.

“You know what the news is today?” he asks me from his 6,000-square-foot Tuscan villa in Del Mar, California. “Los Angeles is starting to see leprosy. Leprosy! They think it’s coming back, because of the slums, the filth and so on. And it” — meaning the beginning of the end of the world — “could be just that. You gotta put a bubble over your town. And that’s what Vivos is.”

It must be noted that Del Mar, the San Diego beach community a couple miles from the Pacific Ocean where Vicino lives, is particularly susceptible to natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, the perils of rising seas, the potential of California just cracking off into the ocean. But we’re not here to talk about where Vicino spends most of his time during this (somewhat) peaceful period in history. Instead, we’re here to talk about where Vicino will spend all of his time if — or, in his view, when — the whole damn world goes up in a puff of smoke.

Vivos has three locations worldwide. There’s an “impervious underground complex” in Indiana that was built during the Cold War to withstand a 20-megaton blast and can accommodate 80 people for at least a year. There’s a 76-acre above- and below-ground facility in Germany that the Soviet Union carved into a mountain of bedrock, also during the Cold War.

Then there’s Vivos xPoint, 575 underground bunkers in one of the most remote parts of the United States, near the Black Hills of South Dakota. They were built by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II and for decades stored bombs and munitions. But the bunkers have sat empty since 1967, with cattle grazing above and around them, until Vicino decided to repurpose them as Vivos xPoint, strategically located in the middle of nowhere, far from any body of water, far from any potential military target. It’s a massive piece of land cut off from civilization and a place where, if any sort of apocalyptic event threatens humanity, humanity can start over.

And what sort of event could that be? Well, leprosy, for one. Or a pandemic or plague. Or a killer asteroid or comet. Or a super volcanic eruption. Or a mega tsunami, or a civil war, or an economic meltdown that triggers anarchy, or an electromagnetic pulse that bursts out electromagnetic energy and wreaks havoc on electronics, or a crustal displacement that causes Minneapolis to be relocated to the equator, or a sudden cataclysmic pole shift (something Vicino finds particularly fascinating): a civilizational threat caused by the hypothetical Planet X passing through the solar system and causing a physical pole shift that could… Ah, just Google it.

This complex of end-of-the-world bunkers represents two things: first, the ability in today’s ultra-connected world for anyone to find a community of like-minded souls, even if those like-minded souls are preparing for a time when they can be utterly disconnected from a crumbling world. And second, the importance of having an insurance policy against the end of humanity. It’s easy to shrug off this community as a bunch of crazies. But is its core belief really that crazy? Or would not having an insurance policy against today’s upside-down world be the crazy thing?

A couple questions also come to mind when you think deeply about Vivos xPoint and the particular strain of Americana it represents. One is whether this is just a bunch of stone-cold conspiracy theorists who have gained an increasingly strong foothold in today’s America. And the answer to that is, quite obviously, yes, at least when you talk with the founder. Vicino — 66 years old; 6 feet, 8 inches; 300+ pounds; “hardly a snowflake,” as he puts it — sees a conspiracy around every corner.

But die-hard conspiracy theorists actually aren’t Vivos’ clientele. In fact, in its sales process, the company attempts to weed out people who won’t fit into its survivalist community, those whose theories go too far. There are no tinfoil hats out here, Vicino insists. Just average, everyday Americans who fear that the way things are going in this world doesn’t make our lives particularly sustainable, at least not the way we’ve been leading them.

There’s a reason the government has built deep underground bunkers in the Rocky Mountains, Vicino asserts: “Not just our government but the Russian government, the Chinese government and so on. What do they know that they’re not telling us that causes them to build bunkers so deep into the ground? The answer is, the government can never tell you about a problem they don’t have a solution for. All I’m saying is, it’s crazy not to be aware of all this — and not to be prepared.”

Which raises the second question about Vivos: Are its founder and his followers all stark raving mad, each as off-kilter as the next? Or is there some legitimacy to their worries? It’s a question that seeps through the countless stories the media has done about similar bunkers (often snarky, often look-at-this-wackadoodle condescending). The founder is usually portrayed as a self-made prophet or a survivalist cult leader, someone who believes himself to be a modern-day Noah.

The answer here is significantly more complicated than just brushing off Vicino’s project as the wild notions of a nutjob. Although each individual doom-and-gloom concern about the future of the world carries with it a certain color of paranoia — for example, if you were to Google the extensive underground monorail system Vicino cites as evidence that the government knows something bad is going to happen, you eventually are directed to the Reptoid Research Center, which posits that reptile-human hybrids live under the surface of the earth — is Vicino’s central hypothesis that human civilization is at dire risk really all that crazy? Do these theories of potential civilizational collapse really differ all that much from climate change, at least in terms of how we should prepare ourselves?

Sure, when Vicino says that society can change in a nanosecond and that after 21 days without food humans will become cannibals (“They’ll turn”), it sounds like the pilot episode of a sci-fi series. But is he wrong?

If human civilization is really at risk of an imminent cataclysmic event, does it matter what that event is? And when the cataclysm comes, wouldn’t places like Vivos xPoint become the most desired properties on earth, places that could be the literal survivalist outposts for the future of humanity?

“It’s not a new idea,” notes Vicino. “It’s been around thousands of years. It goes back to the dinosaurs. Whatever caused dinosaurs to be extinct, there were survivors: the tiniest little critters that could burrow into the ground and be saved from whatever was going on on the surface — the wind, the fire, whatever. The bigger creatures didn’t survive, because they couldn’t dig. There’s been an event every 6,000 to 12,000 years, major catastrophes where life gets wiped out: the Noah event, the Sumerian event. It’s an earth-cleansing process.”

Among the believers who’ve bought into Vicino’s idea are Georgians Tom and Mary Soulsby. He’s a computer engineer close to retirement; she’s an accountant. Their philosophy is one based on self-sufficiency and knowing that anything built by man is bound to fail. A few years ago, they purchased 17 isolated acres in central Tennessee where they planned to retire to what Tom calls “a resilient structure.”

Then an ad for Vivos xPoint showed up in his Facebook feed. He traveled to South Dakota and saw the endless skies of this beautiful part of the country — “When the sun goes down, the stars try to come in the house with you,” he muses — and met like-minded survivalists. He decided there would be no better insurance against the threats against humanity than one of these bunkers, so he plunked down the $25,000 for a 99-year lease on a 2,100-square-foot bunker and pays the annual $1,000 fee to keep the infrastructure in place. (The buy-in price has since risen to $35,000.)

A slight problem: Soulsby’s insurance policy against civilizational threats is exactly 1,499 miles from his home. But he’s thought this through, and he could get there in 24 hours, no stops. Say there’s a coronal mass ejection, a significant release of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s corona that knocks out 80% of electronics worldwide. For the first 24 hours, people will wait for the lights to come back on. In the next 48 hours, people will start to get concerned. “But I’m already headed for shelter,” Tom explains. “The actual chaos wouldn’t occur until a few days later.” Vivos xPoint is a place of refuge should the Soulsbys need it, but they pray every day that they won’t and that instead the property can be kept for their children and grandchildren to vacation in the Black Hills.

The question of when the end of human civilization will come dates back to the beginning of human civilization. No one knows, of course. A verse from the Gospel states as much about the second coming of Christ: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Robert Vicino, however, is not afraid to pass along some predictions he’s heard. “I’m being told by some very, very insightful people that October 3 is the beginning of a five-year term when all hell will break loose and America will break apart as a nation,” he tells me. A couple weeks later, October 3 comes and goes. The front page of October 4’s New York Times featured a story about President Trump asking China to investigate the Biden family, a story about the president’s CrowdStrike theory relating to the Ukraine call, and a story about the attorney general pushing Facebook to get access to encrypted messages. Alas, there was nothing directly discussing the end of the world, though it did seem that in the totality of the year’s news, there were quite a few clues. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.