Gridlocked (Out) At Christmas

"Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a drop of electricity could light up a mouse...."

I am spending my holiday with my family and friends in the mountains of Idaho in our log cabin, and after a lovely Christmas Eve pizza party, when we arrived back at our little cabin in the woods at 10:00pm, the lights went out. They went out everywhere.

We looked across to our neighbors, and there was velvet blackness. Immediately I went into triage mode, grabbing flashlights and lanterns from the cupboard and lighting candles around the small cabin where we assumed it would be a brief but fun Christmas Eve memory. Wrong. As we read "Twas The Night Before Christmas" by flashlight and nestled the children all snug in their beds, and as Pa and I settled into our own (I forsook the kerchief and he his cap) the visions in my head were not of sugarplums but of the food now in danger of spoiling in the fridge.

When we awoke there was not such a clatter. The silence was stunning, the darkness what mattered. It was amazing how quickly I went into my mental checklist (OK, the gas works so we can boil water). But then the water didn't work because it was an electric water pump. So we managed to get a fire going and start up the wood-burning stove which never gets pressed into service except when the power goes out.

Luckily we had wood, gas and matches. I even got out my old cast-iron skillet to complete the return to another time, another place -- me as Laura Ingells Wilder in my own Little Cabin in the Mountains. I was also able to make coffee -- a must on a cold winters morn because I had pre-ground the beans in my electric grinder the afternoon before into the (you got it) electric coffee machine. But I was able to salvage the grounds and use the old, retro drip cone maker with the water from the machine, boiled on my stove.

There was no way to contact anyone because it was an electric "phone system", a multi-line Panasonic wireless job. My husband drove into town to get cell service and was able to find out that it was a major outage and that they hadn't found the source. Then his cell went out because the cell tower/center went down. So no power, phones, computers, TV. Perfect.

As soon as I realized we were in this for a while I got into camp mom mode and started making breakfast while we opened our gifts: CDs, video games, movies, all needing power. Ah, a book, fabulous. And slippers, yes! The next big issue was... OK, you know I am the Activia spokesperson, and this stuff does work... toilets need water, water needs to be pumped, pumps need electricity. So now we start the mantra "If it's yellow keep it mellow, if it is brown...."

Water, hmm. Where to get water? I had a few small bottles of drinking water in a cabinet, but only a few. Ah! Snow! Snow makes water. Every disaster movie and an "I Love Lucy" episode came flooding back into my mind as we started getting every pot in the house filled with snow on the stoves and filling toilets with the precious elixir H2o. So now that toileting was under control and food was able to be warmed and the dogs had their meal and enough water and we had wood ... what to do?

Stay warm and be with each other. Yes, instead of the post-Christmas dash into our own worlds, trying out the gifts that keeps on separating us from each other -- video games, DVDs, etc -- we hung out. There was music, Chris had a mandolin, my daughter sang, my son played with his rubber chicken, and we had a rousing game of Pay Day (Tom won). The power stayed off. I went to a neighbor, who told me of another neighbor who had solar panels and a generator and was making cappuccinos for whomever needed one. My neighbor had one cell phone with 1/8 of a bar of battery and service because they were on the other carrier. I was able to let my people in California know about the outage and have them pass the word, and then I went back to paradise. None of those horrible, obligatory phone calls to make, just my immediate family all cozy in a cabin in the woods with each other.

What was stunning to me is how dependent we all are on the grid. Now, my good husband and I are trying to be green advocates. We solar-powered our home in California and drive hydrogen-powered cars and hybrids, but this was a whole other issue. I also was the spokesperson for the American Red Cross' "Do More Than Cross Your Fingers" campaign for disaster preparedness, and although in LA I am ready for anything, up here in my cabin I only had the basics: flashlights, matches and wood but no extra water (one gallon per person, per day) no battery radio and none of the myriad things they suggest.

As the day went on, I started to prepare the house for the eventual setting of the brilliant sun. Candles went up around the house, lanterns stood at the ready, toilets were filled, dog bowl was filled. And then my husband went into town and saw it had lights and reported when he came back that we would get ours soon. As happy as I was, I was also a little sad. John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans." Well I felt like we had really had a vacation. A vacation from our dependence on the grid, from the plugged-in nature of our iPhoney and laptop-sided lives. A vacation from the isolation that four people on their own computers have from each other.

When my family heard that there was electricity in town, we were drawn to the flame. We dressed in the dark and bundled into town and managed to get a lovely hot meal at a local tavern and, yes, even made the 7:00pm Opening Day showing of "Sherlock Holmes." And as we drove home in our car, heading the many miles back into the wilderness, we were making bets as to whether we had power. First one neighborhood had their Christmas lights on, then more illuminated windows and then, sadly, as we rounded the bend to our little cabin, we saw that our neighbor's lights and reindeer were bright, and we knew that the idyll was over. And as we pulled our gas-powered sled into our cabin in the woods, I remembered the last words that Old Saint Nick said ere he rode out of sight:

"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good conversation about what power is and whether we have the power and ability to change our relationship to it."