Monday, March 4, 2013

Pioneering 2013: A no-electricity adventure

When my husband and I lived on the prairies of Illinois, we were without power occasionally, but never for very long. 

Normally, when we lived near Galesburg, we could hear the transformer “pop” or look out our family room window and see it hanging askew. A call to the power company with the exact location of the problem would bring the sound of a power truck to the road outside our home without much delay.

Later, when we lived south of Bloomington, our power was supplied by a main feeder line that apparently ran somewhere along Historic Route 66 near Lincoln. We were without power once for 36 hours in the dead of winter. It was COLD out. 

We retreated for a while to my brother’s house almost an hour away, and returned home a few hours later to see if the power was back on. Just as we were to head back to my brother’s, the house lit up. 

Believe me, electricity is something we take for granted. Go without it for 75 and three-quarters hours sometime, and you’ll know what I mean. 

That’s how long it took our rural Missouri electric co-op to get to our outage and repair it last week. We were lucky. Some were without power for a day or so longer than we were. 

You know what, though? 

I don’t regret the experience. It brought out the tough in me and in my husband. We survived and we learned from our adventure. Still, we’re not ready to relive it anytime soon. 

I’m a farm kid, so I grew up with occasional power outages, times when the pump on the well malfunctioned, or snows that had us housebound for several days. You learn to prepare if you have time, adapt whether you have warning or not, do without the things you want, and get by with the things you have on hand. 

The culprit responsible for this power outage was a winter storm. It dumped several inches of very wet snow and a bit of ice on mid-Missouri and was accompanied, in some instances, by nasty winds. It knocked out more than half of the power in the 2,300-square-mile area served by our rural electric cooperative. 

In the five days the power company worked to repair all the storm’s damage, its linemen were joined by workers from nearly 20 other utility companies, some who had completed repairs in their own areas before coming to ours. Through it all, the communications team from the coop used social media to keep us apprised of the status, inject a little humor, exude a lot of compassion. 

What did we do to survive, to stay in our home without freezing, suffering the potty woes of the passengers on the recent cruise ship disaster, dehydrating, or starving? 

We planned for it—thanks to the advice of some farm-bred neighbors, my experience as a country kid, a bit of good old common sense, and a dose of Girl Scout preparedness. We had the right stuff—from water and batteries to muscle and persistence. 

Our home has a gas furnace, stove, and water heater, but each of them works in conjunction with electricity. Fortunately, we have a wood burning cast iron stove in our living room, too. 

Our home overlooks a really big lake, but our running water comes from a community well with its pump powered by—you guessed it—electricity. 

So, not only were we without heat and lights, we were without water. 

We had a plan, though. 

For heat, we’d use our wood burning stove. We had some wood cut, split and ready, and more that could be firebox-size with just a little work. We had plenty of matches and, even better, several of those lighters designed for gas or charcoal grills, candles and the like. 

We had a stockpile of candles, several flashlights and a battery-operated camp light or two. We also had extra batteries. 

To cook our food, although the electronic igniter on our stove wouldn’t work, we could turn the burner switches to “ignite” and use a match or lighter. We did. 

Thanks to the advice of a neighbor, we filled our bathtub with water, which we used to flush the toilets. We also had several gallons of drinking water and a little more than a case of individual bottles of water. 

I had books to read and hubby, though he much prefers television, spent time watching the flames in the fire and reading magazines—when he wasn’t splitting or carrying in wood. 

There are a couple things we now have in the house that we didn’t before—larger bottles of hand sanitizer and a tub of diaper wipes for sponge baths. 

This time, we were fortunate that the roads were cleared after a couple days so that we could leave our neighborhood. We were able to shower at a friends’ home and to eat some warm meals at local restaurants when our refrigerated and frozen food began to go bad. Though we had plenty of things like peanut butter, canned foods, crackers and chips, after a couple days, we were longing for a warm meal. 

By the third day, our originally half-filled bath tub was running low, so I’d begun to melt snow on the stove so we could flush toilets. 

The best thing about our adventure was that it gave me a chance to read—an entire book. I chose “Tales from Two Rivers I,” a collection of nostalgic essays written by Illinoisans who were born and grew up in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

As I read of young school teachers traipsing through snow, mud and wetlands to get to school in time to fire up the furnace for their students, of people traveling by horse-drawn carriages or in Model T automobiles on rut-filled roads, sometimes overturning or having tires explode, and of all the other trials and tribulations people like my grandparents faced, our little power outage seemed more like an adventure or minor inconvenience than like a catastrophe. 

I realized I had a lot to be thankful for—a roof over my head, a warm home, a hubby willing to split wood and keep the fire stoked, water for flushing and for drinking, and friends who opened their home for a warm shower on a cold day. 

They offered a bedroom, too, but even when the conditions aren’t optimal, there’s just no place quite like home. 

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

(Image via)


  1. Beautiful piece, Ann, reminding us what's truly important. I'm so glad your power is back!

  2. Good piece, Tracy. Like if the Mayans were just... passing through.

  3. Thanks, Nina and Joe. I appreciate your kind words.