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Steal a car, escape the apocalypse

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Penguin Press

10 Questions for The Disaster Diaries author Sam Sheridan

Sam Sheridan has an intimidating bio. In addition to stints in the U.S. Merchant Marines and a degree from Harvard, he’s worked construction at the South Pole, been a cowboy on the largest ranch in Montana, and toiled as a wildland firefighter, a sailor, and a wilderness EMT. He’s also written a couple books on his time as an amateur boxer, MMA fighter, and student of muay thai and jiu-jitsu.

You’d think that would make him the top draft pick for anyone’s fantasy survival team. But guys like Sam tend to be overachievers, so in the interest of really preparing for the end times, he challenged himself to learn the few practical, adaptable, post-apocalyptic skills he didn’t already possess. Then he wrote a book about the point and process of learning each of these. This is The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse.

On the occasion of his book’s release, we gave Sam a call to discuss stealing cars, outdriving zombies, and if there’s anything he wouldn’t do to survive. Highlights from our conversation follow.

Brett Berk: “You have quite an impressive, varied, and very butch resume. Are you working from some sort of lifelong checklist, or do you just enjoy a challenge?”

Sam Sheridan: “There’s no checklist. It’s just you sort of—I’m always looking for what’s the most fun thing to do at the moment. I definitely try to set up things and see if I can get things working that seem kind of extreme. But I have a million jobs I’ve tried for that I haven’t gotten—like, I tried to get hired as an oilrig firefighter once.”

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We’re all going to die sometime, and when the bomb hits, I personally plan to drive into the mushroom cloud. Why this profound interest in resisting the apocalypse?

I think it’s human nature. You may say now that you hope you’ll be incinerated, but when an event actually happens, the natural thing is to choose life. Also, I recently had a son. When you’re a single guy, you think: if a tsunami comes, I’m a good swimmer. I’ll be fine. But when you have a family, you have other people who you’re responsible for.

You learn how to forage for food, perform close-range knife combat, and patch up traumatized family members. But you spend a lot of time discussing your “go bag”—the items you need to be ready for whatever comes. If you had to winnow that down to just three things, what would they be?

People always want lists—what’s the best this, what’s the best that. But you have to look at problems and think about what you’ll be facing and what tools you’ll need. Survival is very much like jazz. It’s improvisational. There’s no right way to do it, it’s just doing what works. In order to survive, you try to move within the rules, and play a jazz song.

You also learn how to steal a car—though your outcome is less like Gone in 60 Seconds, and more like Gone in 60 Minutes. Tell us a little about how you found an instructor. Did you just post it on Craigslist: Expert car thief wanted?

I’d been in contact with this organization in LA called Homeboys, which rehabilitates formerly incarcerated gang members through work in a bakery and café. So when I was thinking about urban survival, instead of going online or reading a book, I thought I should talk to people who’d actually survived in a rough urban environment. And they led me to a guy known as The Hairy Hand, who could steal anything. He thought my question about how to hotwire a car was kind of hilarious, because stealing cars that way isn’t really practical with modern vehicles—anything after the early 2000s has so many electronic theft prevention systems. But he still showed me. 

This instructor, Luis, tells you you’ll get better with practice. When you walk by easy-to-steal cars now, do you get the itch to pull out your Slim Jim and dent puller?

No, no. But it’s nice to know it’s there, it’s an option. There’s a growing disconnect with our technology. You pop the hood on a modern car and they’ve hidden everything under a cover. So it’s nice to get back to the opportunity of messing around under there with some hope of success.

You also learn how to perform some evasive maneuvers at a stunt driving school. You pass the class. But what was your least favorite part of this process?

The hardest thing was doing the skid turn into a 90-degree stop. Doing a 180 and coming to a stop isn’t that hard because it’s all big moves. But the sliding 90-degree turn stop—the Ace Ventura—you have to make a sort of finesse move inside some big moves. It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, but, you know, fast and while you’re driving.

Have you had the chance to practice any of those since—maybe during a high-speed run to pick your son up from day care, or make it to a matinee of Ice Age 4?

No. I did the course some time back, and the learning all feels very perishable—even the professional stuntmen all talk about needing to get on the track at least once a year. Plus you need to fix the e-brake on your car so you can pump it like a regular brake. Also, being in your own car, when you’re paying the damage bills, it’s a little different.    

I get the allure of stealing cars and knowing evasive maneuvers, but in a post-apocalyptic world, do you honestly think you’re going to be driving much?

No. But if you don’t make it through the first ten minutes of the apocalypse, you don’t have to worry about the next three weeks or three years. You have to be tactical enough that you can outrun that zombie, fire, earthquake, whatever right away. After that initial episode, is there going to be any gas anywhere? Probably not. But you worry about the first 24 hours and figure out how to improvise from there.

You confess to not being much of a car guy—in fact, you confess to being the antithesis of a car guy: you owned a Chevy Corsica and a Geo Prism. Has that changed now that you’ve been exposed to real driving, and driving instruction?

Definitely. I’m still probably not going to buy some crazy sports car. But I’m into something with more power, more clearance, more off-road capabilities. More of the survivor-type car. But for these kinds of applications, there isn’t one best vehicle. You have to be adaptable. I have a neighbor with an armored car. But if he can’t get to it, then what good is it? It’s like having a bunker: if you’re not near it when the trouble strikes, then how is it helping? If you put all your eggs in that basket, it can become a crutch.

Having undergone all of this training, is there anything that you simply wouldn’t do to survive?

I think there are certainly moral places I probably wouldn’t go to survive. It’s a slippery slope. You don’t want to become the monster. Would I kill someone? It depends. Are they trying to kill me? Or am I killing them to take their water? I think that one of the dangers that people who prep get into is that they think when the s--- hits the fan, the law will never return. And I think they’ll be surprised how quickly the law returns. The Nazis thought Nuremberg would never happen. I think there’s going to be a reckoning sooner than you think. And I think there’s a moral question to survival that isn’t often addressed in survival books. Not only how you are surviving, but why and how.