OFF THE GRID
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
December 17, 2008
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We may talk about running out of oil in this country, but up here in Vermont, we're already practicing a lot of the survival skills we'll be needing if - or when - it happens.
That's because we often lose our electric power.
Usually power is restored within hours. But last week's ice storm, which started Thursday evening, was different. As I write this, almost a week later, some people are still without it.
The power at our house lasted until 2:10 a.m. on Friday morning. I happened to be up at 3:30 a.m., so I grabbed a flashlight and called Green Mountain Power to report the outage. Thanks to land lines and our reliance on antiquated technology, some of the phones in our house were still working.
Friday morning we woke to a winter wonderland - every tree and branch encased in sparkling ice. At least it would have been a winter wonderland if we had had power. To us, it was just an ice-covered mess.
I called GMP again and got a message that our outage was a "known incident" which would be fixed in 24 hours.
No power meant no water, because the pump in the well works on electricity. Water is the blood of a house. When it stops flowing, the house quickly becomes lifeless, quiet, dead, dark and a little spooky.
It also becomes damned inconvenient. We can't flush a toilet, take a shower, make toast, watch television, or go on-line. I was on deadline for a magazine article, but my computer, of course, was down. We still had some power in our backup laptop, but I quickly used it up.
We had thought about power outages long and hard before we moved up here to the wild hills of Dummerston. We heat with wood (electric backup came with the house - no help there), so we stayed fairly warm. We store lots of water in plastic bottles. We cook on a gas oven. People who depended on oil burners and electric stoves were flocking to Red Cross shelters.
We spent the evening talking and reading by kerosene lanterns. We went to bed at 8 p.m.
On Saturday, with the power still out, we were running out of water. The stream at the bottom of our driveway was flowing hard. Randy took a bucket down, filled it and hauled it back. We flushed the toilets, filled two stock pots and put them on the wood stove. We used the hot water to wash ourselves and the dishes.
I started thinking about the lives of our Vermont predecessors.
Our road is named for Lt. Leonard Spaulding, who settled at the top of the hill in 1772 with his wife, Margaret. They had 11 children up there without any electricity at all. They hauled water every day, farmed with animals, grew their food, wove their cloth, sewed their clothes, cooked over wood fires and went to sleep when the sun went down.
Every two years, Margaret would mount her horse and ride alone to Providence to visit her mother. I love that about her, but the history book doesn't say where she went to the toilet on those long trips.
Lt. Spaulding died just before he turned 60. Margaret died at 94, maybe still living up here on the hill, maybe with a son or grandson hauling her water and cutting her wood. These were hardy people, and as the idea of electricity faded to a wistful dream, my respect for them grew.
Several friends offered us accommodations, but we couldn't leave the house. We had to keep stoking the stove to keep the pipes from freezing.
Saturday night we had a less-than-romantic dinner by candlelight. Randy clicked his beer can to my wine glass and we both grunted. I called GMP again. "Known incident; 24 hours."
The full moon rose and made the icicles glisten. Somewhere, I hummed, there's music - and showers and "Law & Order" reruns and Internet access - but not for me. How high the moon indeed! We went to bed again at 8.
When the sun rose in the morning, it turned the icicles red.
By this time we were running out of potable water. I called GMP. "Known incident; 24 hours." Randy made oatmeal with seltzer.
Neither of us was in a very good mood. What did the Spauldings do about cabin fever, I wondered. Randy watched me writing this - with an ink pen on a legal pad - and snarled, "I'm off to haul water. That's why artists are useless in an emergency."
It's true that most of the heavy work falls on his shoulders. I'm recovering from hand surgery, but even if I was healthy I couldn't swing a heavy maul at the woodpile to break the ice, or haul in logs for the fire. Secretly, I think this heavy labor makes him sexy. Don't tell him.
I went to a friend's house to work on my magazine article. When Randy called, I knew the power was back on. Toast! Laundry!
The power went out three more times Sunday night. Each time I called GMP to report the outage. Each time, "Known incident; 24 hours."
When things finally settled down, there was nothing on television but reruns. And I sort of missed the candlelight conversations with Randy.
But praise the lord and the line crews of the GMP.
What did more than 60 hours without power teach me? First, that I wasn't powerless (sorry). That we could be resourceful when pressed. That we should think about getting off the grid. And that real danger lurks ahead in a post-oil world, and we should all start preparing ourselves.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com.