S. Lee Manning: Tuesday: My husband was about to step into the shower when the power cut out. We get our water from a well that is powered by an electric pump. No electricity. No water. But Jim’d showered the night before – and we’d be back from Burlington by seven-thirty. Every Tuesday, we drive from our home in the country on the side of a mountain in Vermont to the city of Burlington, an hour and ten minutes away for shopping, guitar lessons, and a French conversation group. It had snowed, and it was still snowing, but no big deal. We’d lost power before for up to four hours. The power would certainly be on by when we got home.
But in case it wasn’t – I’d had the foresight to fill one pot with water, Jim had filled a bucket for the bathroom, and we had three gallons of bottled water.
In Burlington, we relaxed. The snow diminished, the roads were slushy and wet, but not terrifying. We laughed about the weather with our friends, and the road home was – for Vermont – easy.
Ah, we were young and naive.
As we drove down the darkened road towards our house, we realized that the neighbors’ lights were off. We pulled into our driveway. The light over the wood shed normally triggered by a motion detector to illuminate the sidewalk – didn’t. We found flashlights in the car and waded through the snow to a cold and dark house. We found candles, and I lit a fire in both of our wood stoves.
It’d be okay, I thought. The power would come on overnight – and the stoves would keep us warm until then.
I told myself it was romantic. Candlelight – firelight – no television or internet. Not enough light to read. I had a notebook with the outline of a book I’m working on, but I need to be able to read what I’ve written down. No signal for cellular – so our iPhones were useless. The landline phone worked. I called the electric company. I was informed that the area was out and they had no estimate for time of restoration. I could hold on and talk to a representative. I did. She was in Texas and had no information. I called my kids to complain – and then I was out of things to do.
We sat in our leather chairs where we normally watch television near the wood stove in our basement family room –in flickering candlelight and stared at each other. I love Jim, and he loves me, but after 35 years – we know each other’s stories. Besides, we’d had the long drive to and from Burlington to talk politics, news, and family.
I damped the fire down in both wood stoves, and we went to bed at nine o’clock.
Throughout the night – our house alarm beeped to tell us that power was out, the alarm company called – twice – to tell us that the power was out – and a battery powered smoke detector chirped every thirty seconds or so – because the battery needed to be changed. With each phone call, I trudged downstairs to throw more wood in the wood stove in the living room, keeping the damper closed.
Wednesday: The trilling of a non-stop alarm woke me at 5:45, and I stumbled downstairs. It took me a minute to realize that the alarm going off was the carbon monoxide alarm. Another thirty seconds of trying to turn it off – and it occurred to me – that maybe there was a problem.
Another clue – I had a headache – and I was nauseous.
We pulled clothes on, opened the window in the living room, and opened the damper on the wood stove that I’d been feeding all night. Then we ran out. It was still snowing.
We drove to the nearby town, where we found breakfast at a diner. Locals were there, eating fresh baked donuts and gossiping. I drank coffee, ate, and felt better.
On the way back to the house, we called the local volunteer fire department about checking the house. One of our neighbors was waiting when we arrived home. He asked if we were okay, and I explained about feeling sick but feeling better after leaving. He called an ambulance. “Just to check you out,” he said.
It was still snowing.
We watched the ambulance slide by our driveway and continue down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, they called and suggested that my husband – who had four wheel drive and snow tires – drive me down because they couldn’t get back up the hill. A fire truck with carbon monoxide equipment and more neighbors pulled into our yard. Jim dropped me off and headed back up the hill.
The ENTs said I was fine, but that my pupils were unequal. I immediately thought of stroke or brain tumor. They tried to reassure me but suggested that maybe I give my doctor a call.
Jim drove back down to pick me up. He said that it was probably the damping down of the fire, and we should get the chimney and living room stove checked. I told him I needed to go to the doctor – and off we went.
The doctor said no brain tumor, no stroke – and my pupils were perfectly symmetrical.
We ate lunch, bought more water, and headed back to the house. It was still snowing. Still no power. I called the electric company. The same recording. No estimated time for restoration.
We carried loads of wood to the basement wood stove – the only one I felt comfortable using after our carbon monoxide scare – and shoveled the walk. We fed the stove and watched it get dark – by four-fifteen. We changed the battery in the smoke detector – and the beeping stopped. We lit an array of candles; I called my kids and the electric company. We tried to read by candlelight. We ate a dinner of whole wheat bread and peanut butter. I considered practicing guitar. But between the beeping of the alarms, and the calls, we’d both had less than four hours sleep. We went to bed at eight o’clock.
Thursday: Uneventful night. No phone calls and no beeping alarms. Of course, the battery had run down in the carbon monoxide detector, but we were neither sick nor dead.
It was still snowing.
I started up the wood stove in the basement. Jim flushed the toilet with the last of our bucket water. We looked out the basement window. A hundred feet away, in the woods behind our house, a brook gurgled merrily. I shoveled a path through snow to get to the edge of the woods, and then Jim and I forged through the remaining snow to fill up buckets from the stream to flush the toilet.
I thought about working on my new book, but I was too occupied with the necessities of life.
Late morning, we headed to a town forty minutes away for lunch and to buy more candles, more water, a battery powered carbon monoxide detector, and a portable radio.
We agreed that if we didn’t have power by Friday we’d pay for a day at a local gym – so we could shower. Jim said that after four days with no shower, he was going to burn the bed sheets. I thought hot water and soap would be sufficient.
By the time we got home, it was close to four o’clock. No power. We drove to a nearby town for dinner. On our drive home, we were cheered by the sight of lit windows as we approached our neighborhood. Then we turned onto our street. Darkness. The electric company’s recording was sounding a bit testy. Yes, they were working hard to restore power. But we no longer believed it.
My daughter urged us to go to a hotel – or back to New Jersey. But the basement wood stove was keeping our pipes from freezing. We glumly lit candles, turned on the radio, fed the wood stove, and settled in for another long, dark night, worried that this could continue for weeks. I’d hoped to go from outline to writing this weekend – but I couldn’t focus.
At 8:30 – the lights flashed on. We cheered at the sudden and wondrous brightness – tore into the shower, settled into our chairs with our computers, and turned on the television. Life was normal again.
Friday: I threw out all of the food in the refrigerator, cleaned the house and washed clothes and sheets. I finished my outline. Plan is to start the writing over the weekend.
Saturday: I’m writing my post for Rogue Women Writers. I now a have a deeper appreciation of things I take for granted. I never fully understood just how much time and energy is required just to survive without electricity, running water, or central heat, and we at least had our house, a wood stove and a nearby stream. Some people in Puerto Rico went nine months without electricity. People in Florida lost everything in the hurricane. People are living in tents in California after losing their homes in the recent fires. I had a house and food and heat, even though it was a little inconvenient. Going without electricity for a few days reminded me of just how lucky I am – and reminded me of those who are not so fortunate. For those of you, who like me, are among the lucky, reach out this holiday season. For some guidance to giving, try Charity Navigator. https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=5456
Postscript: There may be an ice storm tonight – which could mean more power outages. This time, I’m filling up all the pots in the house. And I’m thinking about a generator.
What an ordeal! Living in the Colorado mountains, we've experienced power outages also. We've had trees come down and take out the power lines. We always have lots of wood on hand, and my husband stores 3 5-gallon containers of water in the basement. The carbon monoxide part of your story is terrifying. Thank heavens you're both alright.
I'm exhausted just reading about everything you went through, Sandy! And I also have a new appreciation for living in the 'burbs, where we have running water whether the power is on or not. We had a minor outage a few months back, and our biggest concern (besides cell phone battery charging) was that the hot water recirculation pump meant we didn't have instant hot water–which is such a minor inconvenience, having to let the water run while gas water heater gets it to that side of the house. It was high summer, but the house is so well-insulated that it didn't get much hotter than 78 inside. And to think I used to want to move to the country!
We hve the same isues here (NC) with no power- no water. When hurricanes or storms are coming, I fill a bathtub for flushing water. After Hurricane Fran, we were two and half weeks with no power. But it's rarely cold enugh for a fire during hurricane season. We worry ovre being hot and mosquitos. So happy the CM problem wasn't any worse!
What an ordeal, and how wonderful none of it was lost on you, S Lee. Very glad both of you are all right, and you got the outline done!
So glad that’s over!! I’m paranoid about carbon monoxide. My first week at the coroner’s office, they brought in a family of 5. I stopped on my way home and bought two of the best I could find, one for me and one for my parents. Fast forward 5 years and we moved to Florida. With a bunch of stuff still in boxes, I was out somewhere and my husband was nearly driven mad trying to find the source of a beeping—which turned out to be the detector with a low battery. He said we could throw it out now since we have an all electric home, no gas…it still took quite a bit of convincing to get me to let it go!
We have a generator. Worth the investment.
Oh Sandy — SO glad that you are OK now — (I assume there were no generators for sale in your area — of course they are always the first things that are sold out). When we are in our Florida home, we certainly know about power outages (they say we are the lightning capital of the country!). Looking at the larger picture, what the country needs is to invest in more protection for our electricity grids — which have been threatened by all sorts of nefarious characters — most recently by that N. Korean dictator who, just before we started "talks" with him – threatened to take our grids down! Bottom line: we all take our electricity way too much granted — you are so right about that. Thanks for a great post.
This is a great reminder of the everyday conveniences we take for granted. Thanks for this one!
Yikes!! Thank goodness you're okay, Sandy. We once lost power in our town for nearly a week, and ended up cooking the contents of the freezer on the bbq, in the middle of the snow.