When Three Weeks Are Gone

Guest Blogger: Ilsa J. Bick

Talk to folks in survivalist circles, go to classes and workshops and whatnot, and you hear a lot of stuff about threes: what has to be done in those first three minutes, three hours, three days, three weeks.  These parameters all make good sense, too, because there are specific tasks that must be accomplished in a fairly specific order.  You can’t skip over one and hope to retrench later.  Forget something, and you might not make it.

So, let’s say you’re lost or there’s a storm headed your way and you’re still five hours out from any kind of shelter.  What to do in those first three minutes?

If you want a great example of what not to do, check out Stephen King’s THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON.  That girl keeps walking.  She thinks about staying put, but she panics.  She nearly gets herself killed bulleting over a cliff.  My guess is that King was more than a little familiar with those horror stories about kids out hiking the woods with their families only to become separated and, eventually, lost.  More than one of those children wound up dead, and some of them miles and miles from where they started, and all because they either broke or never knew the first rule.

Which is: hug a tree.

I’m serious.  (You ex-Scouts out there know what I’m talking about, I see you nodding.)  For those first three minutes, you must calm down.  Take your own pulse.  Do yoga, sing a song, count ants—but get control of yourself, or you’re toast.

Once you’re calm, then you can afford to let go of the tree because now, for the next three hours, you must find shelter.  Get dry and stay warm.  If you’re wet, you can become hypothermic on even a warm day, and that will kill you pretty fast, too.

What’s next?  Water: three days without, more or less, is the max a person can go.  (And those stories you’ve heard about drinking urine?  Don’t do it.  You’ll just kill yourself faster.)

And after that?  By three weeks, you need some kind of food supply, or all the water in the world won’t save your life.

After that, though, ask a survivalist what’s next, and he’ll just give you a funny look.  There are no rules, no guidelines, no nothing in the books or manuals about what you ought to do next, and that’s because survival is the endpoint.  If you’ve made it in reasonably good shape that far out, you’ve reached a kind of stalemate with nature: things might get better, but what you’re most worried about is that they shouldn’t get worse.  But forget the rules and handy-dandy algorithms.  They don’t exist.

In other words, you are surviving—but that’s not the same as living, if you ask me.

Maybe that’s because living is so very different from surviving.  Once you’ve taken care of the nitty-gritty of keeping yourself alive, how you go about building a life says more about you as a person than it does of disaster, whether that’s the apocalypse, a natural disaster, or an illness from which you won’t recover.

I guess that’s where my YA apocalyptic novel, ASHES, comes in because survival is the name of the game.  To be fair, I think you could call this an apocalypse on top of an apocalypse.  Alex Adair is only seventeen, but the world’s already blown up in her face twice over.  Her parents are dead; she’s got a brain tumor that will kill her.  Really, it’s only a matter of time.  She’s sick of the holding pattern, frankly: of treading water and simply surviving as she goes through endless rounds of failed chemo.  So she decides to call the shots and takes off on a last backpacking trip, pretty much determined never to return—and then the world comes crashing down around her ears.

All of a sudden, this dying girl is working hard to stay alive; she’s totally focused on those first three minutes, three hours, three days.  Three weeks.   Everything she does—building fires, making debris shelters, all that survival stuff—is real, by the way.  I know because I’ve done it.

What happens to Alex after is what interests me.  I want to know what compromises people are willing to make and the rules they’re willing to break in order to survive.  I want to understand what’s worth living for or, for that matter, what living really is.  Conversely, what’s truly worth dying for?  Where are the heroes when the world ends and what place will emotions like compassion and love and hate occupy?  Because the reality is quite stark and one the military knows, very well: there is no good or evil—just us versus them.

If you’ve got some ideas about the difference between surviving and living, tell me in the comments below.  If you think there might be nothing worth sticking around for after an apocalypse, I want to hear from you, too, because the way I see it is this: at the end of the world as we know it, logic fails.  No one can tell you what to do or how to prepare.  Beyond the basics, there are no acronyms, no algorithms, and there will be no one new normal.

There will be only what rises from the ashes.

Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, former Air Force major, surgeon wannabe, film scholar—and an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories and novels.  Her 2010 paranormal mystery and first YA novel, DRAW THE DARK(Carolrhoda Lab), earned a starred review from SLJ; won the 2011 Westchester Fiction Award; was named a 2011 Best Children’s Book of the Year by Bank Street College; and made VOYA’s 2010 Perfect Ten List.  ASHES, the first volume of her new YA post-apocalyptic thriller trilogy from Egmont USA, just hit shelves in the U.S. and overseas.  Forthcoming is the gritty YA contemporary, DROWNING INSTINCT, from Carolrhoda Lab.





One Comment:

  1. An absolutely amazing post. This kind of survivalist thinking of Ilsa’s is what made ASHES so phenomenal and what made it stand out so starkly against the other apocalyptic/dystopian works out there. This kind of in-depth thinking just put the others to shame.

    While guns would be a good think once the poo hits the fan, in reality you’ll probably be mobile so you won’t be able to carry an armory on your back. I’d probably go with a practical .38 and something with a little more kick, perhaps a .45 Magnum so prove to people that I’m not effing around. It gets the job done and the bullets are nominally small. A rifle could come in handle but it’s large. I’ll want that space for other provisions like water and food. And toilet paper. Can’t forget toilet paper.

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