Every night, once I’ve settled into my shelter for the night, cleaned up from dinner, and banked the fires that are the only things standing between us and never waking up again, the idle conversation around the fire inevitably turns to the past. I’m taking my first steps into my forties, older than most people traveling through the tundra, and there are often a lot of children in the groups I guide. The children, curious about an older stranger, all want to know the same thing.
“Where were you when it ended?” Tired, wind-chapped faces peek out of heavy coats and the insulated sleeping bags every traveler keeps if they want to survive once the fire burns low. Even the adults gather around, always eager to hear a new story. “What were you doing when you knew it was over?”
They ask not because they want to know what the world was like before the end, there’s still enough civilization left that even the children of the permanent nomads have seen towns and the comforts afforded by intact generators with gasoline to power them, but because they are bored. All of us who knew life before the collapse will wax rhapsodic and go off on tangents, telling stories about all the things we loved and people we knew. All things now lost to us are fair game and most of us would go on until the weight of our words and the low light of the fire brought us to a mumbling halt.
Then, in order to break the silence and regain some of the strength we felt before remembering what we lost, we would share the story of when we knew that everything had gone to shit. It was a different moment for most people, and not just because everyone was doing different things when it happened.
For some of us, myself included, the moment predates what is commonly considered the collapse by the few scholars and scientists we have left. Most of them admit it was a gradual thing but they insist that one event can be pinpointed as the time when we had irrevocably passed the tipping point. According to the data dumps that are passed around the few working computers still attached to the net, few of them actually agree on what it was, though.
We maintain that it happened much earlier and everything after that was merely a consequence. The fate of the world was sealed and all subsequent potential moments merely hurried it along. Unlike both other groups, the scholars with their tipping points and every other person with their single moment of no return, all of us are very nearly in agreement. Within a week of each other, so far as I’ve found.
Ultimately, though, I don’t know how much it matters. I haven’t spent a lot of time examining what it would mean if humanity ever agreed on what exactly triggered the collapse. I prefer to avoid spending too much of my time thinking about it since survival and my work are more important. In other circumstances, I’d have been a writer. Here and now, I just do what I can to keep my groups alive as I guide them from community to community, and part of that includes keeping their spirits up. So I tell them my stories of what I miss, the people I’ve lost, and then of the moment I knew it was over. It was a moment that was heard around the world, as it would have to be to effectively end the world as we knew it, but few saw exactly what it meant at the time.
Most people only realized it in retrospect, but it was significant enough that they still remember when it happened with crystal clarity. I was preparing for the end since the moment I read the first news reports and saw all the things he said. I was prepared for the fallout and ensuing winter, even if I didn’t anticipate exactly how those would be delivered. I was one of the few who listened to the ranting of a person everyone dismissed as a lunatic and I felt no satisfaction when it turned out I was right.
Unlike most people of a like mind, I think we could have still avoided the collapse at that point, if we’d done all the right things. But we’re humans. Doing the right thing isn’t exactly what we’re known for, nor can we ever really get enough people to agree on what the right thing is. I don’t tell the younger people in my group this, though. Post-apocalyptic society is easier for humans to handle if we can blame something outside ourselves for everything. Instead, I just focus on my memories of sitting at my desk, reading the news reports, and solemnly outlining the plans I’d made to my friends as we ate lunch and they ridiculed me.
None of them made it.
I don’t tell the young ones that either. They see enough death in any given week, let alone the past twenty or so years. They don’t need me telling them how almost everyone I knew from back then was gone. Given the overall decrease in population, the average human has lost about 80% of the people they know. As is usual for statistics, they fail to paint a complete picture. People in first-world countries that were used to harsh winters had relatively low death rates while countries not used to them were almost entirely wiped out. I was the exception to the rule, though.
I’d lost all but three people I knew from before the collapse. Three friends from college who had actually listened when I raised the alarm. Everyone else is dead or missing. Most people who are missing end up being dead since the communication networks lasted a while after the collapse. People aren’t really missing if you can call them on your cell phone. It is only when their phones go unanswered and the obits fail to post their passing for two years that they’re declared missing, presumed dead, and you’re told to get on with your life as best as you can. We still occasionally find communities that have been entirely cut off, but most of them are long dead.
That’s how I became a Wayfinder, I tell the adults who were too young to remember when this winter began. I went looking for the people I was missing and became one of the models they used to create the Order of Wayfinders. Now I have brothers and sisters everywhere in the continental US, even if I’ve never met more than a handful of the ones outside my group.
I still keep an eye on the obits whenever I get to a town still connected to the net, but I’m certain they’re all gone by this point. Over ten years of solo or small-group survival is impossible, given the patrols we Wayfinders run. They’d have to be very lucky to have survived this long or found some odd community that isn’t connected to the net but still strong enough to survive bandit attacks.
Now that I’m no longer looking for people, I lead the largest group of Wayfinders and guide entire families and small communities from one place to another. Mine is the only group in the midwest that actually has the firepower to stand up to the bandit tribes that prey on any wayfinder group they track down.
Wayfinding for large groups doesn’t come cheap, but most families are willing to pay my prices in exchange for a chance at surviving travel through the wilder zones of the tundra. The history lessons and storytelling are free, though. They keep my mind sharp and they’re an important part of humanity’s past if we want to ever have a future. So I keep walking, picking up groups and dropping groups off, telling stories in the silence of my shelter, and trying to survive the frozen wastes of what was once the US.