Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ice Storm '08

I had several posts I wanted to make over the weekend, but I was one of the 400,000 people caught in power outages here in New Hampshire. I’ll get to those, but for now.... Let’s just say that it was an increasingly chilly 40 hours.

The ice started on Thursday. I actually went to some friends’ house that evening (and had a lovely time, thank you!), and, though I had to scrape the car when I left, the roads were perfectly clear. I got home without a problem, even though I had to cross a drawbridge with a potentially problematic metal grid in the central span. The dog needed some attention, though, having been crated for longer than usual, so I poured myself a glass of wine and settled down to throw her flippy toy for a while. And in the middle of that - the lights went out.

I had a bad feeling about this from the start. Usually when ice is predicted, I make sure I leave the heat up so that there is residual warmth in the house if the power goes. This time, though, I hadn’t done it. I hadn’t even turned the heat up when I got home, so the thermostat was set to about 61F. I sat there for a minute, hoping the lights would come back on, but nothing happened. My eyes adjusted to the dark. I put the flippy away, finished my wine, and found the flashlight so I wouldn’t trip over stray animals. The lights were out all the way up Middle Street past the stop lights, and all the way across to the junior high school. I could hear the generator starting up in the old folks’ home next door. Yes, I definitely had a bad feeling about this.

So, since there was nothing else to do, I went to bed. At 2 o’clock Friday morning, the lights came on long enough to wake me up. I turned off the bedside lamp that I had accidentally left on and went back to bed. At 8 o’clock Friday morning, the power was out again. There was a big chunk of a tree down in the middle of the street, and it had taken down the wires that led to both houses opposite mine. It lay in pieces, with a scattering of broken ice like glass under it, and a raw pale scar on the tree where the limb had fallen. The street was closed. There were no cars next door at the Victorian monstrosity, nor in the apartment lot across the street.

I walked the dog. Trees were down everywhere, and everything was coated in ice - incredibly beautiful, except for the silence and the absence of everybody. We came back in, I baked some Pillsbury cinnamon twists - I have a gas stove - and I called the local power company. The hotline said to assume that power wouldn’t be restored for several days, and plan accordingly.

Luckily, not only do I have a gas stove, but Lisa’s brother, who has been a Civil War reenactor, has over the years given us many useful historic gadgets. And some contemporary ones: I got out the hand-cranked radio he gave us 10 years ago, got it going, and tried to find out what was going on. Everything was closed, of course, and there was a state of emergency. I kept the oven on, and wore a hat indoors. And a sweater. And my heaviest handknit socks. And a knitted wimple. And fingerless mitts. I have never been so glad to be a knitter!

Around noon, the city came and chopped up the tree that was lying in the road. They tied more caution tape across the road because the wires were still down, and went away. I dug out all my candles and candle lanterns and put them in place for the night: there’s nothing worse than trying to find candles and matches in the dark. I called my usual kennel to see if they had power, thinking maybe I could get the animals there and go to a hotel, but they weren’t answering their phone: no power in Greenland, either. With nothing else to do, I cast on for the fish hat from the latest Knitty, using yarn from stash. (It’s a present for my new niece, or at least for my brother - hey, he gave me a Gummi rat a couple of years ago, so a fish hat seems appropriate.)

At 3:30, I decided I would chop the onions and garlic for chili while I still had light to see. At 3:45, the dog and I walked up toward town to see that power was still out everywhere. We came back home in the increasing twilight, and I saw that the caution tape warning people about the downed wires had blown down. The road was still blocked, but people were ignoring the “road closed” signs, and trying to drive around the tangle of wires. The bigger SUVs didn’t fit very well, and the wires kept being dragged around. I called the city and asked apologetically if they might send somebody to put up something more substantial. They said someone would be there when they could, but to their credit a crew was there within the hour. They walled off the wires with sawhorses and more caution tape. People still tried to go around the roadblocks, but at least when they saw the second set of sawhorses, most of them turned around.

I ate my chili by candlelight, and tried to read, but the light was hard on my eyes. For the first time, I was aware that my eyesight isn’t what it was even 5 years ago: the print trembled and faded in the yellow light, and my eyes itched and burned from the effort of reading. I got out my iPod and battery-powered speakers, and listened to music for an hour or so while I knit some more on the fish hat. I was knitting by touch, mostly, and it was surprisingly easy.

Eventually it was 9 o’clock. I walked the dog, dug out extra blankets and my spare down comforter and piled everything on the bed - the radio said it was going to get much colder overnight - and I went to bed.

And Saturday was cold, well below freezing all day. I put on long johns and two t-shirts and a wool sweater and extra socks and fur-lined boots and the wimple and hat and fingerless mitts and a shawl, and the dog still got a shorter walk than usual. (Not that she seemed to complain.) I huddled by the stove for a while, listening to NPR, and then I decided I would knit some more on the hat. I was closing in on the tail fins now, and quite pleased with my progress.

But it was getting colder. I began to think that staying in the house another night without heat might not be such a good idea. I had options - I could call Lisa’s sisters, either of whom would certainly let me and the animals stay, or I could call a friend in Manchester, where things weren’t so bad, see if she had power and space - but at the same time, I wasn’t all that happy about driving long distances across roads with no traffic signals and wires still down. The batteries were dying in my flashlight - maybe, I thought, maybe I’ll just go get batteries while it’s still light and see what’s going on before I make a decision.

Every other traffic light was working along Route One, and Wal-Mart had power. I got my batteries, and bought a couple of cans of sterno, thinking I could make a heater with them if I wanted to stay in the house one more night. And when I got home, as I was unpacking the bag, the lights came on. I turned the heat up to 72F to celebrate
and slowly, slowly began to remove the layers of clothing.

It was an odd experience, all considered. On the one hand, I was fairly proud of myself for making do - for having the supplies and knowing what to do with them. On the other - well, as I said, I noticed for the first time that my eyesight isn’t up to reading by candlelight any more. At least I can still knit, as long as the project is light yarn and relatively large stitches! But somehow that feels like a more concrete sign of aging than my graying hair or my aching knees. The strangest part, however, was how alone I felt.

Most of my neighbors - many of whom have electric stoves and heat - up and left. There were no cars in the parking lots at the Victorian monstrosity next door, or across the street in the duplex. I saw another neighbor pack up, leave a note on his door, and leave. The people at the old folks’ home had generator power, and therefore heat, and I saw the Red Cross truck arrive with meals, but everyone was, wisely, staying indoors. The few neighbors who remained were doing the same. So was I. It was cold, and quiet, and at night the full moon was very bright, but very cold indeed. And I was lonely. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, because, though I may live alone, I’m not unconnected. And I didn’t like it at all.

I have never been so in sympathy with Bilbo Baggins before: I don’t want adventures, and I don’t like being cold, and I certainly don’t want to be late for dinner!