At one o’clock in the morning on December 12, 2008, I woke to a still darkness and the instinctual knowledge that the power was out.
I stoked the stove and returned to bed. In the morning, still dark, I lit candles and brought my hand-cranked radio down off the shelf. The radio reported that 400,000 New Hampshire households were without power, virtually the entire state.
A power company official used the apt analogy of a tree to relay the news of when we could expect our power to be restored: “There’s the trunk, the branches, the limbs, and then the twigs. If you live in an outlying area, you’re 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.
I pulled on my ice creepers and set forth across the newly Arctic landscape, everything coated in ice-white. I traveled about on my tundra, every step resounding, careful to avoid the wooded areas, where trees were falling, the sound of gunshots filling the air.
It was a completely new world. Trees bowed, trees broken. Limbs lay about as if felled by a tornado. On the icy sheath I crept out onto the road. I could see tree after tree lying in the way. I was completely cut off. From where I stood, it looked like Armageddon.
For two days, I sat at my kitchen table and watched out the big window that faces the mountain. Rain hammered the house, but the temperature stayed at 30 degrees. Every 10 minutes or so, a branch or a tree snapped, giving that dreaded sharp crack, and then shattering on the ground like broken glass on a concrete floor. 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 evening, 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. Some had broken in two like twigs. Enormous splinters stabbed the ground like javelins thrown. Of all weather phenomena, 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.
On the main highway, I saw a tractor trailer parked by the side of the road, its driver 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 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.
Around the region, shelters were set up in schools and in fire stations. Volunteers, most of whom didn’t 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 commodities. Our town fire station set up a mobile trailer, offering showers to anyone who needed them.
I hauled water in jugs from the local spring into my kitchen. I read by candlelight; I gathered ice fallen from the trees and melted it in pots for wash water. I cooked and washed dishes by the light of my headlamp and fed my stoves an astonishing amount of wood. My bedroom went cold, so I slept beside the stove in the living room, a considerable gift.
The days went by. My hand-cranked radio worked well, but the radio stations seemed clueless. The public radio station continued with its usual programming, referring listeners to its Web site for information about the storm. Who among us has 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 here, arriving like an army, some 700 trucks in all.
Power in some of the towns around us had been restored, but for us, the electric company 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’d 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’ve lived alone, I’ve never felt as isolated as I did during this time, deprived as I was of my phone, e-mail, and Internet, all of which I use to stay in touch with that huge world outside my small, purposely remote life.
Then one day, I was coming out of my neighbor’s driveway after a visit. It was the 10th day of life without electricity. I looked down the long downhill stretch of my road. In a blur of whirling orange and blue lights, an 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 35 trucks in this rescuing army, all of them from Hydro-Quebec.
In the history of this road, which dates back to the 1700s and which even today experiences only the occasional car, I’m certain there have never been so many vehicles on it at one time. 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. I’d seen helicopters buzzing around back there but hadn’t realized why.
They were here for two days, working from dawn to dusk. These men from Montreal, as I called them, didn’t speak English, traveling 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 had 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. The damage was so complete that they would have to rebuild the grid from the ground up in some areas. They ran out of poles, wiring, 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 12th 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, rooms were illuminated with the flick of a switch, toilets flushed, my cell phone 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. I 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 holiday 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 lawns and fields all around my house, and which lay along the roadsides everywhere in this region. When the snow melted in the spring, we were faced again with the memory of a time most of us would rather have forgotten. We’d been fortunate: No one in our town had been injured, no one had lost his or her 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 to the isolation, but I also think back to the lively and spontaneous community supper that gave everyone a hot meal and lifted our spirits. I think back to choir rehearsal at the elementary school, we wrapped in our heavy coats, our scores illuminated by our headlamps.
I think back to the afternoon I spent with two friends, an older couple who had chosen to stay in their house, even though their generator had failed. The house was chilled, into the 40s, but we sat together in their upstairs parlor, a cheery hearth fire the only source of heat.
A table of Christmas presents 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 have loved to have back, all over again.