ATCHISON, Kan. -- Through the darkness and past massive pillars in this old limestone mine, you come upon lights shining down on several brand-new recreational vehicles.
Sort of a Flintstones-like RV showroom, more than 130 feet deep below thousands of tons of solid rock.
Welcome to the doomsday world of Robert Vicino.
Give the man credit. He's come up with selling points to get someone to pay thousands of dollars to spend a year in a travel trailer in a Kansas mine sealed shut by 2-foot-thick steel and concrete doors.
For a reason that may never occur.
We should all hope it's blown money.
Vicino's plan is to turn the mines on the bluffs of this old river town into what he calls the world's biggest private survival shelter. His vision is that 5,000 paying members will make a beeline for the shelter in their recreational vehicles when nuclear war, a killer asteroid or global pandemic appear imminent.
Beyond the doomsday event itself, he strongly pitches the resulting anarchy's roving packs of predators.
"The lights go out and there is no food," Vicino, 59, said last week. "It will happen quickly. You have to decide which side of the door you want to be on."
That door, he says, will withstand a nuclear blast as close as five miles.
Inside his shelter, where work is just beginning, are more than 2 million square feet of RV park. Vicino promises enough food, water and generator fuel to last a year. Plans also call for a fitness center, a clinic, a theater, a school and, of course, a place to get a cold beer. The average family can secure space for $25,000 or so.
After a year, according to Vicino's business model, the survivors will climb to the top as the next Genesis generation to repopulate the Earth.
Sound good so far? Not to Ken Rose, a history professor at California State University-Chico. He told The Associated Press recently that although interest in underground shelters is on the rise, the Atchison project is a "colossal waste of time and money."
The Cold War, which ended with the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, presented the threat. "At least then, anxiety was based on a realistic scenario," Rose said.
But look around, Vicino says. Syria, Iran, North Korea. Satellites passing over carrying who knows what. Rogue nukes. Chemical war gases. Biological terrorism.
Don't think him a gloomy Gus. This is a guy who got his start in large inflatables. In 1983, he mounted a 90-foot King Kong onto the Empire State Building.
And just in case an "event" never happens, his Vivos Survival Shelter and Resort -- which he tagged at $25 million -- will include camping, go-carts and other family-friendly amenities. Open year-round. Think of it as pre-apocalyptic bonding.
A TV crew from Russia recently came to Atchison to do a report on Vicino's company, which includes five other shelters around the country. National Public Radio and the Nat Geo channel did segments. Vicino and his shelters have been featured in major newspapers. Katie Couric called to chat.
Olathe (Kan.) Ford RV Center sent over new RVs to display for prospective buyers. The Atchison community is all for the project.
"With the heavy focus on tourism that we have, we hope it will bring people to our town," said Jacque Pregont, president of the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce. "We have a rich history to share. From a chamber standpoint, we want to promote business, so new business is always a good thing."
Vicino does not spout religion. On a recent visit, his casual shorts and slip-on shoes, no socks, belie urgency. He's far more interested in hydroponic fresh greens than in the Mayan calendar, Nostradamus or the Bible.
He makes clear he is not a survivalist. It is deep into a conversation before he even mentions 50-pound bags of rice and a thousand rounds.
"You can't shoot radiation or an asteroid out of the sky," Vicino said. "You need a secure structure with a blast-proof door, air filtration systems and food for a year.
"We're not survivalists; we're survivors."
Big idea, big guy.
Vicino is 6-foot-8 and weighs 300 pounds. He talks fast, bouncing easily between disaster scenarios and jokes.
"Fukushima could kill marine life everywhere," he warns, referring to Japan's tsunami-wrecked nuclear reactor.
Two minutes later: "So this guy wraps his arms around a tree like he's hugging it and someone comes up and asks what he's doing ..."
He grew up middle-class in Connecticut. One of seven kids. Catholic. Stay-at-home mom. After high school, he studied fine arts in college.
"Never worked in arts a day in my life," he said.
He ran through several businesses, starting with inflatables for commercial purposes. He started the enterprise in his garage. He later worked in billboard advertising and real estate. He holds several patents. By age 25 he had 250 employees, drove a Rolls-Royce and lived in a house on the beach in San Diego.
"I've made it and I've lost it and made it back again," he said. "I never stole anyone's idea. People steal from me."
Somewhere along the way, he says, he had a vision that he needed to build a large survival shelter. But it had to wait.
Last year he got a call from a man who reportedly paid $510,000 for the limestone mines in Atchison, which date to the 1880s. Later, and for decades, they were used by the U.S. military for storage.
Two days after that call, Vicino flew in from San Diego and bought 2 million square feet. He won't say what he paid, other than the man "made a nice profit."
Vicino had started in the survival shelter business a couple of years earlier. The other locations are undisclosed. The company's website, www.terravivos.com, includes photos from a completed facility somewhere in Indiana.
Richard, who asked his last name not be used for fear his shelter spot could be jeopardized, said he paid $50,000 for space in the Indiana shelter. He's 42, a truck driver and airplane pilot.
"Some things are out of anyone's control, but that doesn't mean we all have to walk around with our eyes closed," he said. "I think there are threats and I don't think the government has plans for us when something happens.
"I want to be with like-minded people in here when it does happen."
He recently spent three days in his shelter.
"I did miss the sky," he said. "But since this was just a test run, I was able to get out and run to Wal-Mart."
So, what did his family think when he forked over his life savings for a bunk in a survival shelter?
"My mom thinks I'm crazy," he said. "My sister wants to take me to a doctor."
Steve Kramer works in risk assessment for Vivos -- he evaluates applicants to determine whether they are right for shelter life. People used to think he was crazy, too.
"Not anymore," he said. "Watch the news. This place makes more sense every day."
You drive past picnic tables and children's playground equipment in Atchison's pretty and peaceful Jackson Park before you get to the Vivos Doomsday shelter.
Vicino greets visitors at the electronic security gate. He's driving a white GMC Yukon with "Vivos the next Genesis" on the hood.
"Follow me," he says.
The grounds of the complex look like what it is: abandoned military property. Weeds. Debris. Broken concrete.
The Yukon passes though a large door leading into the mine. The door closes behind. The Yukon, with lights on, winds past the pillars, going perhaps a quarter-mile before coming upon four travel trailers and two motor homes from Olathe Ford RV Center.
There's a Freedom Express, a Wildwood and a Minnie Winnie. A sign on one says: "3 bunks! Perfect for the kids!"
People who buy space in the shelter will be charged upfront $1,000 per linear foot for an RV. No private cooking will be allowed. Each person must pay $1,500 for one year's food based on 2,500 calories per day: grains, pastas and "real meats." Plenty of beverages. Green vegetables, thanks to hydroponics.
The fee also covers toiletries, but "we don't provide linens," Vicino says.
So two parents and two children with a 16-foot RV would be looking at $22,000. If they need an RV, add the cost on.
Vivos also offers suites that sleep up to eight. Floor plans can be seen on the website.
Vicino says about 25,000 people have inquired about the Atchison shelter and 10 percent of capacity have already been accepted. Not everybody makes the cut.
"Most of them can't afford it," he says. "I've had mothers crying how their children should be allowed to live."
That prompts a story about a reporter who accused him of being elitist.
"I told her it's $25,000 -- that's the price of a nice compact car," Vicino says.
He's hoping for a good mix of vocations. Doctors, dentists, farmers, teachers, barbers and seamstresses.
"We're going to be a city in here and everybody will have to work," he says.
He knows what he's offering is not for everyone. Lots of people don't fancy spending a year locked underground with a bunch of strangers.
"But they will think different when little Miss Homemaker next door with the two cute little kids becomes a predator when the lights go out," Vicino says.
"The doubting Thomases? They're the ones who are going to be banging on the door."
Or if Armageddon never arrives, they could load up the RV and head to Yellowstone.
By Donald Bradley
The Kansas City Star