Roughing It

7:00 PM Tuesday January 3rd, 2017
It has been snowing heavily since Monday. The snow is now about seven inches deep, one of the heavier snowfalls in recent years. So it comes as no great surprise when the power goes out. The snow builds up on the trees limbs, and eventually some tree somewhere next to a power line collapses onto the power line, knocking out power. Kathy and I are watching television when the power goes out. We’ve been through this before, so we know what to do. Kathy starts collecting candles, lighting them, and setting them up around the house. Meanwhile, I set to work getting a fire going in the fireplace. We collect all of our flashlights and other battery-powered light sources and put them in one central place. Then we settle down to wait until power is restored. It probably won’t come until tomorrow morning, but we can handle that.

We read for a few hours while I keep the fire going. Eventually we get into bed, piling on extra blankets. Anticipating a cold house when we arise in the morning, I remove only my outer clothing. 

6:30 AM Wednesday
It’s time to get to work. I rise, get dressed, and get a fire going. The house temperature is only down to 52ºF — I’m surprised at how well it has held its temperature. The outside air temperature is 28ºF.

By the time the fire is roaring and the dogs are fed, it’s 7:30 and the twilight is well advanced, so I head out to the garage. It kept snowing all night long and the snow is now 14 inches deep — the deepest we’ve ever had in the past was 12 inches. This is bad, but I don’t want to be pessimistic. Of the two cars, the van has the higher ground clearance, so I decide to see if I can get it moving. I start the engine, give it a minute to warm up, then ease it into reverse and back up into the snow. I get about ten feet before the the drive wheels start spinning. OK, I’m not going anywhere soon.

So it’s out to the tractor; I can use it to clear the path. The tractor doesn’t have anything like a snow blade, but I can use it to mash down the snow so that the van doesn’t have to expend traction fighting that problem. Unfortunately, the key is frozen in the ignition, so I can’t start the tractor. I delve into the shop and find an old propane torch. It feels like it’s out of fuel, but I try it anyway and somehow it fires up. I run out to the tractor (well, one can’t really run through 14 inches of snow) and I carefully heat the area around the lock. After a few minutes, I try it — the key turns. I turn off the propane torch and toss it aside. The engine starts right up! I drive all the way up to Sterling Creek Road — a half mile distance. Then I turn around and come back down. I repeat the process twice more, making a nice clear path for the van. Since the tractor goes very slowly in first gear, this task takes nearly an hour.

The path is as clear as it’s going to be, so Kathy loads up the van with all her stuff and we spend a good 20 minutes clearing the area around the van with the snow shovel. Our snow shovel sucks; it’s a weird cupped design that is good only for clearing smooth open snow. We have a smaller snow shovel that’s good for breaking up ice.

Now we discover the killer problem: the snow sits atop a layer of ice about half an inch thick. This is the worst possible situation: the ice robs the van of traction and the snow adds resistance. We struggle trying to get the van backed up. I make a few feet of progress, then get out and shovel some more. This process goes on for 45 minutes. I am exhausted from the effort but eventually I get a long enough straight, clear section of pavement that I am able to get the van moving forward.

I’m fairly decent at driving in the snow; I can read the road ahead of me and make a pretty good guess as to how to handle it. But traction is weak; the van is skittering back and forth. This is not good. I get about a hundred yards before the van slips off the road. I can’t get it out. 

OK. so I bring the tractor up along with a chain to haul the van out. Just hooking up the chain takes twenty minutes; I have to dig through a lot of snow to expose a support strut strong enough to take the load. Eventually I get a solid connection. Kathy takes the wheel of the van and I slowly advance the tractor. It is to no avail; that van is going nowhere.

Kathy is starting to despair. She has to be at the airport on Thursday morning and it looks as if she won’t be able to get out. I’m not worried; I have layers of backup plans. But it’s going to be a real pain.

Since we can’t get the van out, we’ll have to get somebody to come get Kathy. We assume that the power outage has already been reported to the power company by one of our neighbors, but we can’t be certain of that.

Living in the country has its problems. Without power, we can’t heat the house, other than with the fireplace, which serves only to heat the living room. We also don’t have water, because the pumps have no power. We have no way to communicate to the outside world, as our cell phones rely on our Internet connection, and there is no outside signal. 

It’s now about 10:00. We decide that I’ll drive the tractor up the driveway to Sterling Creek Road, and from there I’ll try to make a call if I can get a signal. But there’s no signal at the top of the driveway, so I drive down the road a half mile. Still not signal. Another half mile and I get a signal. I hurriedly call my friend Hideko to inform here that I won’t be able to meet her today as planned. Next I call Kathy’s friend Katherine, who has a four-wheel drive truck, to ask her to come get Kathy. But the phone’s battery is now dead! 

I had forgotten that, when a cellphone loses its signal, it expends extra power looking for a signal. Both of our phones had been doing that since we lost power 15 hours ago. Both are now dead.

So I drive the tractor back home. The road is so icy that even the tractor has some problems keeping its traction. I drive with the right wheel in the snow on the shoulder. When the left wheel on the road slips on the ice, I use the left wheel brake (yes, tractors have separate brakes for exactly this situation) to transfer power to the right wheel, which had a solid grip in the raw snow. It is slow, but I got home that way.

On the way back, I carefully scan each of the houses I pass. I discover, to my great chagrin, that a neighbor only half a mile from our house appears to have power. That means that the downed power line is close to my house. That in turn means two things: first, the power outage had probably not yet been reported to the power company, and second, that there were so few houses that had lost power that we would be far down the priority list for repairs.

Once home, I discuss the situation with Kathy. We decide to recharge the phones from the two cars. I walk out to the van, start the engine, and plug the phone into the charger. Then I rest for 15 minutes until the phone is charged enough to turn on. As soon as that happens, I turn it on and set it into airplane mode so that it won’t expend power looking for a nonexistent signal.

After another 15 minutes I figure it is ready. We also have two little emergency phone chargers, nothing more than batteries that can be plugged into an iPhone to charge it. I plug mine in to continue charging, put the whole assembly into my shirt pocket, and head out on the tractor again.

It takes about 15 minutes to get to a signal, and from there I call a neighbor with a four-wheel drive; she agrees to pick us up at  12:45 at the end of our driveway. I then call the power company and report the power outage. It turns out that it had not yet been reported, and that there are currently over 7,000 people out of power. It is highly unlikely that power will be restored today.

12:00 noon.
Back home, I inform Kathy of the situation. She had used her camp stove to heat up some beans, which we wolf down. Then we start preparing to haul all her travel luggage up to the road. But just as we wae setting up, a big pickup truck shows up. Our neighbor is also snowed in; her gate won’t open so she can’t get out. She called a neighbor of hers who came to rescue Kathy. We load up their truck with Kathy’s stuff and off she goes. The plan is that they will take her to her office in Jacksonville, where she’ll do some office work, and then another friend will take her home for the night, and from there she’ll proceed to the airport on Thursday.

1:00 Wednesday.
I am exhausted. I lay down in the living room under a blanket and fall asleep, waking very half hour or so to add wood to the fire. The dogs are cold, too, so they climb on top of me to sleep. I spend the next three hours sleeping fitfully. 

4:00 Wednesday.
It’s time to get up; darkness will be settling in soon. I drag another cartload of firewood into the house, stoke the fire, and make myself a salad. I eat a little ice cream, too — solely to assess the state of the refrigerator, or course. I’m dehydrated from all the cold air, so I drink as much as I can. The outside temperature is up to 32ºF, so I don’t have to worry about pipes freezing — not yet. It all depends on whether the night is clear or cloudy. Clouds will hold in the heat and keep the temperature relatively mild. Clear means that temperatures will plunge into the teens. I read a book.

6:00 Wednesday.
It’s dark and clear. It will be very cold tonight and the pipes will freeze. As a last-ditch effort, I set one of the house faucets to drip. With the tiny amount of pressure left in the water system, it won’t last long, but it might buy me some time.

9:00 PM.
I’ve been keeping the fire stoked, hoping to get some heat into the house, but it’s still really cold. I feed the dogs and prepare to get into bed. The temperature in the bedroom is 43ºF. 

“How can someone live in temperatures like this?” I ask myself, and then recall that, until the coming of central heating, EVERYBODY lived like this. You wore lots of clothing and you never undressed. I have a drawing of Erasmus working at his standup desk. He’s holding the ink bottle in his hands to keep it warm enough that the ink doesn’t freeze solid. That’s just how people lived back then. I’m such a wuss. Here I am in a big house with a nice fireplace and plenty of wood, yet deprived of electricity, running water, and the Internet I feel as if I’m facing down the elements. Yeah, right. 

I partly undress and crawl into bed. It’s cold at first, but after a few minutes I’m comfortable. Now comes the long sleep. There’s nothing else to do in the dark. Besides, I *am* tired, mostly from all the stress and constant thinking about backup plans. 

6:30 Thursday
I’m wide awake; might as well get up. It takes me a good five minutes to muster the courage to get out of the warm bed. It’s cold! I dress as rapidly as I can, then check the temperature. 13ºF outside, 39ºF inside. The pipes are a lost cause now; I’ll be lucky if the plumbing system isn’t shot through with holes. I hurriedly get a fire going; Stella the dog crowds me in front of the fireplace; she’s cold, too, and she likes to stand in front of the warm fire. It takes a good half hour for the fire to start warming the room. 

I head out to the shop where there’s a 12V car battery that I plan to use to power the tank. I carry it into the house and make some changes in the wiring to the emergency fans that I use to boost the airflow through the fireplace ventilation system. I fire them up and now air is moving through the system, carrying the heat from the metal jacket that encases the fireplace into the room. That should help warm the room better. After five minutes, I disconnect the battery; the metal jacket has been cooled a little by the airflow and I want to get maximum efficiency out of the short battery life I have. 

After a while I check the temperature in the living room; it’s up to a balmy 48ºF. There isn’t much else to do. Even if I could get out, the house needs to be babysat until the power goes on; then there will be lots of work to do bringing everything back into operation. So I work on my laptop. I read. I tend the fire. And I wait.

12:00 noon Thursday
I have high hopes that the repair crews will finally get power back. I head out to the van and work on clearing out the snow. Pretty soon I’m sweating. I give up without accomplishing much.

Lunch is cold cereal. I have a few dried apricots as well. After lunch I decide to walk out to the power lines to see if I can find the break. It’s exhausting plunging through the high snow. When I get back I rest some more. 

I walk up to the mailbox to see if I can get a signal on my cell phone. No luck. I could take the tractor but it’s running low on gas. I’m running out of everything. While walking up, I notice an airplane flying overhead at 30,000 feet; we’re on the flight path from San Francisco to Europe. The underside of the airplane is pure white. For a second, I am confused; I thought that commercial aircraft had dropped external paint for cost-saving reasons years ago, but this plane seemed to have a painted white belly. With a start, I realize that the belly is the standard reflective aluminum which is illuminated by the intensely bright snow underneath it.

There's a newspaper waiting for me at the mailbox. I take it home and read the weather; it’s depressing. We’ll have another bitterly cold night tonight, and then tomorrow we’ll have clouds, and on Saturday we’ll see a huge amount of rain. The rain will melt the snow and free the van, but the thought of being stuck here, out of communication, for another two days is deeply depressing. The paper says that this is the biggest snowfall in a century. Great; that means that the power company is probably swamped with downed lines. 

I sleep some more, then at 3:00 I head out to the van again. This time I have a heavy-duty come-along, with which I slowly pull the van back onto the driveway. It still won’t go anywhere, what with all the ice, but at least I’ll be ready if the ice ever melts. 

At one point, I decide that it’s warm enough to change my underwear. Standing directly in front of the fireplace, I hurriedly strip off pants, thermal underwear, and underpants, then race to put on clean underwear, shivering all the time.

4:00 Thursday
I’m losing the last of my eight hours of sunlight; now comes 14 hours of darkness. I realize that, once again, I’ll spend a night without power. The plumbing will be ruined just about everywhere. Now it’s starting to get to me. I still have plenty of batteries to power my little LED headlamps, but otherwise I’m running short of just about everything. I have used up two of the commodes; I have just two unused ones left. When the power does come back on I’ll likely have no water. The van will be stuck for at least another 36 hours. Has the power company simple forgotten my report? Are they so buried in work that they won’t get to me for days? 

Even if the van were working, I couldn’t leave the house for long. The ducks have to be fed. The dogs have to be cared for. I have to prevent the house from freezing or the pets will die. Perhaps, if I get mobility, I could buy a generator, but at this stage it’s unlikely that any stores have any generators left, and I’ll probably have to pay through the nose for anything that *is* left. 

While there’s still a little light I use Kathy’s camp stove to scramble some eggs. I need the protein. It’s nice to taste hot food.

I don’t feel much like reading. There really isn’t anything to do, and I’m feeling down. Ironically enough, I have no games on either my laptop or my iPhone; I never saw any need for them. It’s time to settle in for a long, cold night.

The house is so cold that I resolve to keep the fire going all night. It’s much too cold to sleep in the bedroom anyway, so I drag out my heavy old sleeping bag and set up on the couch. I have to chase the dogs off it; Stella keeps wanting to sleep on the couch with me, crowding me off. I turn in at 7:00 PM but I have to get up every half hour to add more wood. I do a quick calculation; at this rate, I’ll run out of wood in the cart by midnight. There’s still a day’s worth of wood outside in the trailer, but do I really want to have to go outside to reload the cart at midnight. I let the fire go out around 9:00 and settle in for a cold night.

6:30 AM Friday
The dogs wake me up; they want their breakfast. Besides, it’s really cold inside now I take 15 minutes working up the courage to get out of bed. I hurriedly start the fire and then kneel directly in front of it, warming my hands. After about 20 minutes, I feel warm enough to tend to other things. I feed the dogs. The temperature in the bedroom is 33ºF; in the living room it’s 40ºF. Outside air temperature is 3ºF. This is the coldest I have ever seen in nearly twenty years here. Yep, the entire plumbing system is certainly wiped out. 

But I have one nice surprise: there’s some water pressure in one of the faucets. One of the toilets even flushes! The freezer, on the other hand, is looking bad; my work warming the house has raised the air temperature in the kitchen to 40ºF, and the stuff in the freezer is melting. I stare at it all, at a loss. Then I gird my loins and take action: the ice cream goes outside into the 15ºF snow. Gotta save the ice cream!

With temperatures this low, it is inconceivable that the ice will melt. I’m still snowed in. However, there’s a chance that the power will be restored today — if they haven’t forgotten about me. If not, I’m definitely in trouble. I have enough firewood left for today, but not tonight. I could get more wood from the woodpile, but it’s a hundred yards away with 12” of snow every step of the way. 

I’m down to my last backup plan: if power isn’t restored today, I have to walk to the neighbor’s house and ask them to take me in, along with the dogs and cats. Even that would be a huge job. I’m starting to feel depressed. Then I think of Hideko, an 82-year old survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima whom I am assisting. As a little girl of 10, all alone, she got herself out of the burning city and was re-united with her father a few days later. She lost her mother, her best friend, many of her schoolmates, her home — everything. She nearly died from radiation sickness and saw many people die. And somehow this little girl carried on without giving in. Thinking of her, I realize what a wuss I am, to be depressed over such trivial inconveniences. I'm even more depressed now.

11:00 AM
I decide that sitting around waiting won’t do any good. I resolve to drive down to the place where I can get cell phone reception and call the power company to see what’s happening, and call Kathy to tell her I’m all right. 

The tractor won’t start; it’s just too cold. I contemplate the problem for a moment. I could try to warm the engine with a propane torch, but my four propane tanks are almost all empty. It probably won’t work. And even if I get the tractor started, I might run out of gas on the way there. 

So I decide to walk; it’s about a mile and a half and the air temperature is now up to 10ºF. I bundle up and set out. I’m barely to the gate when a truck shows up; it’s the neighbors with their four-wheel drive! They take me down to the “good cellphone place” and I make two calls. On the way down, we see the power company trucks parked by the road. Huzzah! They’re working on repairing our power!

They bring me back home. An hour later, power is restored. I spend the rest of the day cleaning up, keeping the fire going, and checking things out. I try to put the five gallons of gasoline that Kristen sent me into the tractor, but the gas can has a special nozzle designed to spray gasoline every which way when you try to pour it. I get gas on my hands, my pants, and my boots. None goes into the tractor. Now how am I going to clean off the gasoline with no water to wash with?

The water system is completely frozen. I set some bright lights on the plumbing to help warm it up. I also disconnect the pump so that it won’t go on automatically. With the likelihood of broken pipes, I don’t need the thing spraying water every which way over night. 

9:00 AM Saturday
It’s not over yet. We had another inch of snowfall last night and the outside air temperature is 30.9ºF. But the house is now warm and I have recharged all the batteries. I am unable as yet to get the water system operational — when I opened up the valve going to the house, the water just ran and ran, indicating a likely leak somewhere. I was able to carry in 3 gallons of water in a big bottle.

There is an upside to all this: I have lost 3 pounds in 3 days. 

I write this on January 19th, 16 days after this all began. There were continuing problems, and a great deal of work required to put things back in order. I had to repair the plumbing in the wellhead, clear off lots of snow from the driveway with the tractor; I probably spent ten hours on that tractor. I’m not quite done; there’s still some ice on the driveway, so we can’t yet get the cars into the garage, and we have to be careful when walking on the ice. I need to do some wiring work to be able to plug in the generator. But I can provide an overall assessment of the costs of this episode: about $2000 and two weeks of my life.