"I'm kind of looking forward to the whole thing," says my mother-in-law, who lives in a cabin near the tiny hamlet of Emigrant. "It all sounds kind of cozy to me, using candles instead of lightbulbs, toodling over to the neighbors to share their rations." Stockton White, owner of the Lazy Heart Guest Lodge and a volunteer on the Park County search-and-rescue team, is less romantic but just as hopeful. Instead of a softly lighted millennial tea party, White foresees a bucket-brigade atmosphere. "I'm relying on the community. Everyone will pitch in, I expect, fixing each other's houses and so on. That's why we live out here."
The digital apocalypse, like most things, is a matter of perspective. Consider: for all the new machines that potentially won't work, there are plenty of old machines--dusty, neglected, but serviceable--that will. John Fryer, who runs a downtown-Livingston bookstore, brags that his venerable rotary telephones are invulnerable to power failures because they contain, like others of their vintage, small electric generators powered by their dials. Fryer kept the clunky phones out of old-fashioned thriftiness, not grim survivalism, and now he's glad he did. Says Fryer: "Everything in the store is analog, from the adding machines to the handwritten account books. They worked, so I didn't see any reason to change them."
For some of the West's technological have-nots (and its rather-nots, like Fryer), Y2K offers the opportunity for an accelerated game of catch-up, a long-awaited revenge against the nerds. A vast assortment of basic skills given short shrift in the information age--from bow hunting to saw-blade sharpening--may well be transformed into lucrative careers. And while formerly high-paid website designers are frantically distilling potable water from the radiators of their Lexuses, men like master woodworker Dick Murphy will be relaxing before a roaring woodstove, sated by a meal of roasted venison chops. "This Y2K thing might show people," says Murphy, "how much they've been babied. There's no guarantee things will always go on the same."
For back-to-the-landers and civil defense buffs left in the lurch by the end of the cold war, Y2K is a reaffirmation, a renaissance. Ten years ago, before the Soviet army sold off its watches and medals to U.S. novelty shops, Christopher Rudy set out from Ohio for Montana in an old school bus loaded with provisions. Like hundreds of other members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age sect based in Corwin Springs, Rudy had been called on to prepare for an unspecified Armageddon. It never came, but the scores of underground shelters dug in anticipation of the catastrophe have suddenly become relevant again. What's more, Rudy's business--the selling of nonperishable bulk foods--has, as he puts it, "gone ballistic."
"Optimists see every calamity as an opportunity," Rudy says, taking time out from a hectic day spent filling Internet orders for dried blueberries and other chaos-resistant delicacies. "Civilizations rise to the level of their incompetence," he goes on, "but personally I really believe there will be a new Golden Age afterward." In the spirit of other latter-day Candides who see the Y2K bug as a liberator, smashing the shackles of bad credit histories, staggering MasterCard bills and decades-old criminal records (and putting these folks on an equal financial footing with newly impoverished corporate ceos), Rudy looks forward to next January as a "declaration of independence from the power trips of the power elite."
This attitude isn't as rare as it may sound, nor as crudely right-wing. The left-leaning journal Utne Reader has published a booklet of essays that paints the feared millennial blackout as a cross between an Amish barn raising and a perpetual Earth Day. "As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and quite wonderful is going to happen," writes Eric Utne, the journal's founder and the editor of Y2K Citizen's Action Guide. "We're going to get to know our neighbors." And not by stealing their larders at gunpoint, either. Emerging from the pamphlet's lofty talk of "intui-technology," "core heart values" and the "inner-information highway" is a message of love and spirituality that makes one wish it were New Year's Eve tomorrow.
It won't be long until Y2K, even for those who can't wait, but the projected Dark Age has already revealed at least one bright spot. At Safe-Trek, the Bozeman survival store Rudy is associated with, demand for Y2K foodstuffs is so great that management has turned its on-site shooting range into a canning plant. Guns into blueberries, in other words. "I think of myself as being a good scout," Rudy cheerfully reflects. "It used to be helping little old ladies across the street. Now it's helping little old ladies get their food reserves."