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Days On Ice

December 11, 2008. Freezing rain was forecast. I prepared in my usual way, setting aside jugs with water, and checking my supply of lamp oil. I filled my woodboxes, made sure my pantry was well stocked. The dreary rain reminded me of the day in January 1998 when the sound of gunshots resounded around me as big trees snapped in two and fell on my house and barn roofs. It was like the world falling down all around me. Since that time, any forecast for ice has traumatized me. They called it the “storm of the century.” Nothing like that could happen again in our lifetime. We hoped. But this rain, falling heavily through the night seemed like déjà vu all over again. At one o’clock in the morning, I woke to a still darkness and the instinctual knowledge that the power was out. A call to the power company revealed that virtually the entire state of New Hampshire was without power. I stoked the stove and returned to bed. In the morning, still dark, I lit candles and brought my hand-crank radio down off the shelf. The radio had little news, except to say that 400,000 households were without power, from Berlin to Winchester. A power company official used the apt analogy of a tree to relay the news of when we could expect our power restored: “There’s the trunk, the branches, the limbs and then the twigs. If you live in an outlying area, you are a twig.” I knew it would be a long wait.

Morning light revealed my car, every tree, every branch, every blade of grass imprisoned in ice. Icicles hung from branches and power lines like prisms from a chandelier. The power and phone lines that connected my house to the utility pole on the road lay on the ground across my driveway.

Soon, my neighbor who lives about a mile down the road called to ask if I had lost power. Her house is all electric. I invited her to come to my house where I have woodstoves and a gas range. She said she would be right up. I waited a while but she did not come. I pulled on my ice creepers and set forth onto the newly arctic landscape, everything coated in ice white. I traveled about on my tundra, every step resounding in the still air, careful to avoid the wooded areas where trees continued to fall. It was a completely new world. Tree bowed, trees broken. Limbs lay about as if a tornado had come through. On the icy sheath I crept out onto the road. For the first time I could see tree after tree lying in the way. I knew then why my neighbor had not come. I was completely cut off. From where I stood, it looked like Armageddon.

For two days, I sat at my kitchen table, watching out the big window that faces the mountain. Rain hammered the house like a summer storm but the thermometer was stuck on 30 degrees. Every ten minutes or so, a branch or a tree snapped, giving that dread sharp crack, and then shattering on the ground like broken glass on a concrete floor. Rain continued. I felt like a captain on the bridge of a ship keeping watch in a big storm. Visibility was poor, navigation pointless. On the second night the rain ended and a full moon rose, lighting up the crystalline world like a stage set for Fantasia. I strapped on my ice cleats and walked out into the welcome, almost blinding light. The shortest day of the year was only a week away and the darkness brought on by the storm had felt punitive. The beauty of this ice-covered world seemed magical, suspending reality.

Driving was a unique experience, slaloming around felled trees, broken telephone poles and downed wires. The tops of many trees had snapped off, leaving naked trunks standing like so many raised swords in the forest. Trees, too big around for me to hug, had been snapped in two like twigs. Some had been reduced to a bundle of splinters, the tree torn as if by the huge hand of a giant. Enormous splinters stabbed the ground like javelins thrown. Of all weather phenomenon, ice is the most serenely destructive. No shrill wind, no thunder or lightning or shuddering of the earth. Just silence but for the piercing reports of the breaking trees.

So many back roads were closed it was easier to tell us which roads were open than which ones were closed. Out on the main highway, I saw a tractor trailer loaded with generators parked by the side of the road, selling generators out of the back like a street vendor. When I reached the town of Peterborough, I found what looked like an abandoned village, stores dark, few cars parked on the street. It turned out that some stores were open, in spite of their lack of power, and customers could come in, using flashlights to scan the aisles and cash to purchase their items. At the post office, workers sorted mail in their heavy coats by the light of big flashlights. The impression of End Times continued.

Shelters were set up in schools and in fire stations. Volunteers, most of whom did not have power at home, cooked for their neighbors in the school kitchens. Bathrooms with flush toilets were much appreciated but hot showers were the scarcest commodity. A mobile trailer with stall showers was set up at the town fire station, offering showers to anyone who needed them.
I hauled water in five gallon jugs from the local spring into my kitchen. I read by candlelight, gathered hunks of ice fallen from the trees and melted them in pots for wash water. I cooked and washed dishes by the light of my (indispensable) headlamp and fed all my woodstoves an astonishing amount of wood. My bedroom went cold so I slept beside the stove in the living room, a considerable gift. The real meaning of a three-dog night became apparent.

The days went by. My hand-cranked radio worked well but the radio stations seemed clueless. The public radio station continued with their usual programming, referring listeners to their website for information about the storm. Who among us had a hand-cranked computer, I wondered. We were also warned to “stay away from downed power lines,” but they were everywhere, scattered across the icy roads like so much spilled spaghetti. Most of us had become used to driving over them and even walking over them. There was no such thing as a live wire for miles and miles. Those toxic cylinders known as transformers lay about as well, some of them sitting in the middle of the road day after day. It was not only a physically frozen world but everything else seemed frozen as well. If help was on the way, we had no way of knowing. Shipwrecked sailors, we waited for rescue. I read in the paper that crews from as far away as Ohio and Florida were coming into the region, arriving like an army, some 500 trucks in all, here or on their way to help. Power in some of the towns around us had been restored but for us, they said it was simply “unknown” when we could expect to return to normal. All my basic needs were met and yet I was falling into a pit of despondence. I felt that unreasonable fear that life as I had known it might never return.

Routinely, I get up at 5 in the morning and start to write or read. It’s the way I live. Five o’clock in the morning is as dark as midnight at that time of year so, during the outage, I would get up, light candles and resume the vigil of the night before. The wait seemed endless. I pride myself in being self-sufficient, how well-prepared I am for storms and emergencies. I was stunned at how this outage had crippled me. In all the years I have lived alone, I never felt so isolated as I did during this time, deprived as I was of my phone, e-mail and the internet, all of which I use to stay in touch, 24/7, with that huge world outside my small, purposely remote life. I felt like a junkie, communication my drug.

Then one day, I was coming out of my neighbor’s driveway, after a visit. It was the tenth day of life without electricity. I looked down the long downhill stretch of my road. In a blur of orange and blue whirling lights, a literal armada of trucks was parading up the road toward me. I thought I was seeing a mirage. The town’s cruiser was in the lead – a police escort. It turned out that there were some thirty-five trucks in this rescuing army, all of them from Hydro Quebec. Apparently the high tension wires that run behind my house held the key to much of the outage in our area, as two of the towers had toppled over in the ice. I had seen helicopters buzzing around back there but had not realized they were lowering men and equipment to the affected areas, otherwise inaccessible from the road. In addition a fleet of smaller vehicles, carrying men who were organizing and directing this operation, buzzed around these big lumbering trucks like agile animals. In the history of this road, which dates back to the 1700s and which even today experiences only the occasional car, I can safely say there have never been so many vehicles on this road at one time.

They were here for two days, working from dawn to dusk. These men from Montreal, as I came to call them, did not speak English and worked with a translator. It was just days before Christmas and they, along with hundreds of other linemen from all over, had come such a distance to help us. I waved, clapped my hands and blew kisses at them to express my profound gratitude. In town, someone hand-painted a big sheet of plywood that read, simply, Merci! and leaned it against a tree. I was happy to see them and watch them work but all this excitement had not, yet, restored my power. They declined my offer of meals or warm refuge – they were here to work, they said. The damage was so complete they had to rebuild the entire grid from the ground up. They ran out of telephone poles, they ran out of wire, they ran out of transformers. Rumors flew. When a tractor trailer loaded with transformers was seen rolling through town, a cheer went up. I was told only: Soon!

On the twelfth day of life without power, I went out to buy more candles. Coming home, turning into my driveway, I saw a light on in my house. I wept at the sight. Inside, the house had come back to life without so much as a burp. Water ran from the tap, the oil burner rumbled on as if it had missed only one interim, rooms were illuminated with the flick of a switch, toilets flushed, my cellphone could finally be recharged. When my phone rang the first time, I was startled.

In the days that followed, I cautiously put away the lanterns and water jugs and cleaned out my refrigerator, humming again at last, and brought the cold food up from the basement, which had served as my makeshift refrigerator throughout the outage. Two days later, I went to Vermont to celebrate Christmas with friends and on the way home, I saw Christmas lights and decorations for the first time and realized that our dark December had shuttered Christmas as well.
By February, enough snow had fallen to cover the massive array of fallen trees and branches that littered the lawn and fields all around my house and along the roadsides, everywhere in this region. When the snow melted in the spring, we were faced again with the memory of the time most of us would rather forget. We were fortunate: no one was injured, no one lost their home. But for months afterward, many people shared how long it had taken to recover from the experience of the ice. We were somehow changed.
It would be nice to think that there were lessons to be learned from all this. I think back on the isolation but I also think back on the lively and spontaneous community supper that gave everyone a hot meal and lifted our spirits. I think back on choir rehearsal at the elementary school, we wrapped in our heavy coats, our scores illuminated by our headlamps. And on the evening I spent playing Scrabble with friends, something none of us had done in a long time. I think back on the afternoon I spent with two friends, an older couple who chose to stay in their house, even though their generator had failed them. The house was chilled, into the 40s, but we sat together in their upstairs parlor, a cheery hearth fire their only source of heat. A table of Christmas gifts and wrap sat in the corner – no matter what, their grandchildren were getting their gifts! We pulled our chairs closer to the fire and threw logs on the flames. Ancestral portraits looked down on us from the walls and the candlesticks stood ready to be lit as the afternoon waned. Outside the window, snow sifted down, covering the tiresome glare of ice. We talked and told stories. We laughed. As darkness set in, I made my way home, past the fire station where the men and women of our town were standing by. They waved. I fed the woodstoves, lit the lamps and cranked up the radio one more time. When it was all over, it was this that I missed and would love to have back, all over again.