Long power outages aren’t as common as they used to be in the Smokies, but when they happen, we’re ready. Here in rural western North Carolina just four or five inches of heavy wet snow can be enough to cause the lights to flicker and go dark. And I have a confession: I look forward to it.
I look forward to the quiet: no faint clunk of the refrigerator cycling on and off; no low hum of the ceiling fan as it circulates wood stove heat from from ceiling to floor; and instead of light bulbs, the softer glow of an oil lamp before dawn. Even when electricity is flowing we heat our home and office with wood, but a power outage gets us thinking differently. We fire up the wood cook stove in the kitchen and switch into analog mode. We abandon the useless plug-in kettle for the more basic stovetop version and dig out our manual toaster from New Zealand, a device that looks at first glance like a fat, pyramid-shaped cheese grater with a flat top that toasts four slices of bread at once over an open flame. It’s a relic of our South Island tramps where we used them in the well-equipped DOC alpine huts and later purchased one to take home. This turned out to be a good decision; it’s so useful when there’s no electricity and we’re craving toast to go with the eggs we’re scrambling over the woodstove.
Power outages usually happen in the winter when we’re busiest with book production. Certainly the deadlines don’t magically go away when the power does (our printers in Michigan and Canada aren’t in the midst of a storm right now, after all), but somehow time seems to open up and we don’t feel quite so pushed. We could run our computers on battery, of course, and then haul out the noisy generator to recharge them when they run low. But in this situation we tend to turn away from digital chores toward pencil and paper projects.
Jim, for example, pulls out his notes and maps for a forthcoming mountain bike trail guide to cover north Georgia and east Tennessee (scheduled for publication in 2017), and the folder for a back-burner pet project he’s been working on for years now: a hiker’s field guide to wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians. With no ringing phones or chirping electronic devices, it’s a relief to slow down and take stock of where we are and where we’re headed.
There are more household duties, of course—keeping the wood box filled, hauling buckets of water from our rain barrel to flush the toilets, heating water for dishes, and feeding the fires. They are simple yet important tasks, and they dictate the rhythm of the day.
Staying dry and comfortable in a warm house can hardly be considered deprivation, electricity or no electricity. Compared to being out in cold wet weather on a long-distance bike ride, a hiking trail, or on the river as we have been so many times, this is pure civilized luxury and we know it. But being required to pare down to essentials is a simple reminder of what we always experience in the outdoors: we are not in charge. Whether at home or abroad, Mother Nature always has the last word.
We haven’t yet heard from the power company when the lights will come back on, but this storm pattern is supposed to last into the weekend, so it may be a while. In the meantime we’re prepared—and grateful that what we have learned from being outside gives us what we need to appreciate the moment inside—as we ride out the storm.