A Long and Chilling Tale

All of us were in great moods. My friends and I were meeting for a week at modern cabin near Mica Peak. It wasn’t all that far from civilization, with Liberty Lake on the opposite side of the mountain west of us and State Line just to the north with I-90 bisecting the little tow. State line was home to a few bars and sex shops and thrived selling cigarettes to Washington residents looking to avoid the $32 per carton tax levied by Washington on a carton. So here we were, some 30 miles up a rocky, dusty track which some with a sense of humor called a road, but living in the lap of luxury.

The cabin had a large living room and a den downstairs, where a full bath and a well equipped kitchen stood. The living room had a large fireplace, perhaps six feet wide and four feet tall. It worked really well. It was built into a central pillar of mortared river rocks which radiated the heat both up and downstairs. The pillar was hollow, forming a chimney. The walls were sheathed in sheetrock, painted and decorated with huge paintings of Washington natural scenes of waterfalls, deteriorating barns still handsome to admire, forest scenery. My favorite was an 8 foot by 6 foot painting of a wildfire being fought by all of man’s tools. The artist captured everything, yet in a way that demonstrated the state’s vast wealth of evergreens.  Another favorite was an oil that captured Indian fisherman at work with nets working rapids on the Columbia atop frail scaffolds.

I was lucky to draw the bottom room. It had a single bed with the rest of the furniture hand crafted from Colombia driftwood and well seasoned birch. Save for linseed or tong oil, none of the furniture was finished in anyway, but the oils brought the grain into stark and lovely relief.

“Check this out, guys,” said Mikey. He was an excellent chef and getting him to prepare our means was a coup in the highest order. He called out to those of us unpacking into out rooms that dinner would be served in two hours with drinks on the protection porch running around three sides of the house an hour earlier. “We’re having antelope.” I wasn’t sure I should take him seriously, but the last time he cooked he said we were having llama and we by god had llama and it was great.

We weren’t expecting paradise. We expected cold weather and snow and ha brought cross country skis and four snow mobiles to cart us around taking pictures you just couldn’t get unless you took them in the mountainside forests. I cranked up the snow mobiles and backed them off the trailer, putting them into a fold away canvass quonset hut supported by a folding frame of steel tube. It wasn’t going to stave off an indian attack but it would keep the majority of snow off of the gizmos inside.

Things unpackd, we collected on the porch for that drink we’d been waiting for to warm us up and soothe our insulted muscles. “You goys are such pansies.” said Mike. “Why, when I was your age and just starting out I had to push a 20 mule team to tote the barrels of flour, sugar, dried meats and vegetables it took to feed a 1000 man cattle drive crew. Mike was pelted by drink coasters, wadded up cocktail napkins and a hearty booing and hissing. “You’re no older than we are you faker and most of us here attended your graduation from Gordon Blue.” said Aron, my friend and fellow mechanic at the local Fiat dealer.

“Well, it’s true in SPIRIT,” said Mikey. Okay, we could grant him that. All of us were Walter Mitty types in our own right. Besides, sitting outdoors was starting to get too cold for the group to sit around talking and so we took it inside. Dinner was, indeed, antelope, and it was great. I think we ate a leg along with some baked potatoes with everything, some peas and carrots, a great salad and creme brulet for dessert. We all curled up in front of the fireplace and began to scan the bands to see if we could find someone in an exotic land to talk to us. No such luck. Phil stepped onto the porch and said “Holy Crap!” We bustled up behind him and marvelled at the sight. Outdoors had become a fantasy land. The trees sparkled as if decorated every inch with diamonds.

Not just the trees, but the bushes, saplings, grass knots and the ground itself. It was as if glass particles of dust were heavily sifted as far as the eye could see and then suddenly exposed to a kiln. The result being a world sized sculpture of beauty and wonder. Yet a damp cold surrounded us, causing our interest in the magic to wane and we shuffled into the cabin and took positions near the giant fireplace. Another pair of logs were placed on the fire, seasoned oak cut into four and a half foot lengths and eight inched at the thick side of the split log. The fire would burn through the night, needing little to burst it back into life. The rocks and granite of the chimney and the firebox carry on the disbursal of heat as the flames consumed the huge fire logs and turned into glowing coals.  We gathered blankets and cushions and sat in front of the fire talking about everything and nothing, sipping brandy until our eyelids grew heavy and we fell asleep there in front of the fire.

During the night we were occasionally wakened by what sounded like muffled gunshots. It wasn’t alarming, something in our subconscious told us to go back to sleep. And we did.

The morning brought us awake to a shout from Mike. He’d stepped on the porch to fetch a couple of logs to rebank the fire, but stood staring out the door, seemingly mesmerized. We all woke up and with our blankets wrapped around us went to look out front. Phil’s Outback was covered in a four inch shell of clear ice. Around us, tree branches sagged to the ground, they too covered in the mass of ice that had fastened itself to everything in view. We sat entire trees, broken and laying across their neighbors, and many branches were snapped off within a foot of the trunk. None of the evergreens stood with their proud pointed tops pointing a finger at the heavens, but were bent over like a witch’s hat. Bushes that stood six to eight feet the day before wee turned into glass topped mushrooms, squashed to a height of three feet -if that.  The ground was a rough hewed skating rink that Phil challenged to go look closely at his car.

“Wait!” I yelled and stepped inside. I returned and held out his camera. “We gotta get a lot of pictures of this. No one’s going to believe what happened up here.” Or so I thought, unaware that the same blanket of ice covered the entire Spokane area -and more. Below, in the city, most power lines were broken and lay on the ground along with their cable and telephone counterparts. Cars were kitty-whumpus all over the roads and freeways as people were sure they were better drivers than nature was a malicious goblin, casting spells of mayhem everywhere. We didn’t know that people had moved into schools and other large scale buildings as shelter from the cold that had quickly permeated and taken possession of their homes, apartments and condos. Later, we would hear a growling noise that seemed to come from all directions that we would come to realize was a symphony of generators.

“We need to get below, off this mountain.” said Mikey.

“Screw that,” I said. First, we arent going to be able to chip the ice off of Phil’s Subaru, and even if we did, do you remember the ‘ahem’ road that brought us here?”

“No one’s chipping my car said Phil. We can wait this out and the ice will melt off.” We looked around and saw no signs of anything dripping, save for a few rivulets from the cabin roof. “We came up here to spend a few day just hanging out. Let’s just stick to the plan. We have a ton of food, plenty of water and we have satellite TV.”

The TV dish stood on an 8 foot post at the corner of the house. Phil went inside and returned with a hammer and a wooden crate he used to hold rolled newspaper for starting fires. He climbed up on the box using one hand to steady himself and the other hand to smack the ice coated dish. He made a dent but that was it. I suggested we heat some water in pans and pour it over the back of the dish. “What, lay the pans in the fire?” asked Mike.

“Naw, we’ll use the stove. I have an 8 foot propane tank. It can completely run the house for 25 days or so. Thus, we have hot water from the water heater and power for the TV, among other things.” A round of congratulations twittered through the group and Mike and I went to fetch some hot water. A half hour later, the dish was clear of ice and our now chilled to the bone group retired to the house.

We were starting to wear on each other after four days. Stupid arguments got heated over what to watch on television. We ended up watching the news and found that much of the city was functional, but it would be a couple of week before all homes had power. A check on Phil’s Outback showed it still entombed in ice and so we used the hot water method to unseal the driver’s door. After twenty or so minutes of work we were startled when a door shaped piece of ice separated from the car and crashed to the ground. We muscled it out of the way and Phil opened the door to a freezer-like interior. He tried the key and the car started immediately. Turning the heat controls to full hot, he stepped out and proclaimed we would wait and see if we could clear the ice in big chunks like happened with the door.

Ten minutes later showed water running off the car and we all set to trying to lift or slide ice and after a time, we’d cleared it.  Leaving the car running, we went back inside and collected our things and got the house set up to fare by itself until the next use. Throwing our stuff into the cargo hold, we hopped into the car and Phil se the vehicle for all wheel drive. We crept across the ice and got onto the road, in a good mood. Until we reached the first of twelve downhill patches of road. Phile took it very slow but gravity relentlessly pulled us until we were fairly flying down the hill. We reached the bottom and still under very limited control, slew up the slight incline to its top and then carried us down a mile long downhill. The road leveled and Phil managed to keep the car in the center. Then another downhill came along and soon we were careening down it. At the bottom was an intersection. The government had some domes that were part of the air navigation system that sat on a peak adjacent to the one the cabin was on. Apparently they’d had reason to visit it, because a layer of sand had been not only dusted up to the peak, but downhill all the way to the state line road. We flew down the hill and onto the sanded section and Phil carefully applied the brakes. “Ha!” he yelled. “Yes!”

The rest of the trip to drop each of us off at our homes was uneventful if not slow. Phil didn’t push his luck and none of us blamed him. I crawled out at my place and told the guys ‘thanks, it’s been real’ and snagged by bag from the locker. I didn’t watch them drive away instead trudged up to my door, slipping and falling twice, to see what nature’s goblin had done to me. Broken pipes? Vandals wrecking the place? Anything was possible.

Nothing was wrong in the house. It was cold and I turned on the only heat source I had; a gas fireplace in the living room. I turned it on full blast. From there I went to the garage and fetched my little Honda generator. I put it on my porch and ran a cord under the front door into my living room. I hooked it to my cable box, my TV, and my convection oven. It could handle a bit more than that but I figured why press my luck? I opened the doors to my fridge and was pleasantly surprised that odor of rot didn’t assail me. Warming the house would no doubt cost me some food. I got my car out of the garage carrying a couple of coolers and and got a weird look from the cashier when I asked for a bag and a block of ice. I picked up a few cans of stuff like spaghetti-os and beef stew, soup and a case of Cokes. I took it all to the counter and after a thought, picked up some peanut butter and white bread. From the pumps I filled my car and a pair of two gallon gas jugs.

Home again, I set up food storage on my back porch. The temperature there being about 28 degrees F. I put the block of ice into the freezer section of my fridge. After that, I took a nap.

It was 9pm and I was watching TV when someone came knocking at my door. I opened it and there stood a guy I thought I recognized as a neighbor. “Hey, man. It’s me. Jim Akerson two houses down?”

“Hi Jim, what brings you at this hour? I asked.

“Well, I see you have a generator here and I was wondering if I could, you know, tap into it.”

“Jeez, Jim. It’s only a 400 watt generator and I’m using all of that just for my absolute basics. If I shared it with you, neither of us would have enough power to do anything but light a light bulb.”

“Basics, huh?” I can hear the tv and see the light from it.” snarled Jim.

“The TV is battery operated and I don’t know how much longer it will work, and where do you get off judging me anyway?” I snarled. “You got kids?

“No, just me and my wife.”

“And you didn’t think enough of her to take at least SOME precautions against emergencies? Winter power outtages are common here, Jim, anyone thinking would lay in stores of a bit of food -a few days worth, and some water and a generator. ”

“Those things are expensive. I’m obviously not in your economic class.” growled Jim.

“I bought that generator at Goodwill for $25 bucks. You can’t tell me you live in a house and can’t find $25 lousy bucks to protect your wife.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“You got  a job, Jim?”

“Yeah, not much of one but I work security.” said Jim.

“Well, I’m unemployed and trying to find work. So I guess it’s good I spent that $25 when I had a little extra money. Let me tell you, Jim. The economy is in the trash, you got a job while guys like me have to stoop to the foodbank to eat and you want to give me crap like I’m Bill Gates or something?  Actually, that was a lie: I owned my own company and we were doing reasonably well. But the less Jim knew, the better.

“Jim?” said a woman’s voice behind him in the dark. “Leave him alone. He’s obviously not in a position to help. It’s not his fault.”

“You stay out of this Marcia.” snapped Jim. “You nag and nag me how you’re cold and hungry and now I’m doing something about it. Just shut up.” While his attention was misdirected I picked up my cell phone and dialed 911, hoping I had signal.”

“911, what is your emergency.” asked the operator.

“I live at 237 Oak and I have a man threatening me if I don’t turn over my scan supplies. I don’t know if he’s armed.” I said. I had the phone on speaker.

“Officers have been dispatched, can you describe the intruder?” she asked. I replied with his name and his address.

“Jim, let’s go!” said his wife. Jim spun around and slapped her hard enough she slipped on the ice and fell over. At that moment a cruiser pulled in front of my house and two police officers jumped out and carefully but firmly moved up and took Jim by and arm. After patting him down, the cuffed him and one of the officers moved to help the woman trying to get to her feet.

In the end, the cops took Jim to jail, charged with home intrusion, assault and domestic violence. I invited Marcia to stay with me. At least she could be warm and fed. She turned me down and said she was calling her sister who lived across town. The sister didn’t like Jim at all, and knew of his propensity for hitting Marcia.

I moved my generator to the back steps to make it less obvious and went back to watching TV. It took three more days before my lights came on and my baseboard heating began to warm the house. Power at my office was returned the following day and before long it was business as usual. It was an historic ice storm, felling thousands of trees and limbs, crushing homes and vehicles and killing some elderly through hypothermia. It took electric, phone and cable crews from three states to get the infrastructure back to a serviceable condition.

I bought a larger generator, one that could run my whole home on a limited basis and got the kind that hooked to my gas line, taking away from the need to buy gas. I also bought a gun.