The Moment that Made Us Unplug Together
A severe storm pulled my town back to a primitive way of life. I wish I could go back, and I don't think I'm alone.
I woke in a dark, cold room to the sound of chainsaws.
In my groggy state, I’d forgotten about Superstorm Sandy, which rolled through our community the previous evening. The worst had passed. The sounds outside were the beginning of the tedious clean-up process.
Must not’ve been that big a deal if I slept through it, I remember telling myself.
Losing power for a few hours after a storm was just something that happened where I grew up. Because of this: my family and I had done plenty of prep work in advance.
Light sources with fresh batteries in each room
A stockpile of backup batteries
Plenty of on-perishable food on hand
Blankets and warm clothes at the ready
I switched on the camp lantern on my bedside table, stretched, and powered up my cell phone, wondering what the damage was like in my friends’ neighborhoods.
No service. This was unusual. For all the times we lost power, cell service usually remained.
Probably just a lot of people on the network, I told myself.
After surveying our own house for damage, my mother sent me out to help our neighbors. Things looked a bit grimmer outside.
The roads out of our community were not passable. Huge trees had fallen across the streets, ripping up enormous chunks of sidewalk in the process. Until these were removed, no one was going anywhere.
I headed across the street to the source of the chain-sawing: a group of men cutting up a tree that had fallen onto our neighbor’s garage.
While we were helping him break down the limbs and bring them to the curb, we learned another woman around the block had almost been crushed when an oak toppled into her bedroom.
A few streets farther, we discovered the first sign we’d probably be without power for a while: a telephone pole split and collapsed. The top half had not fallen completely. It remained suspended above the intersection by a tangle of cables and wires.
Doubts began creeping in about how other friends and loved ones may have fared in the storm. With landlines and cell service offline, this would require in-person check-ins.
After working with our neighbors to clear a path to the main road, we loaded up the car for an expedition.
The rest of town looked just as bad as our neighborhood. Plenty of other roads remained unpassable. No one had power; not the stores, or even schools.
Out on the high school lawn, the marquee message board bore the warning:
School closed until further notice.
A New Schedule
Normally my routine was a mind-numbing cycle:
In the days that followed, everyone’s routine became subtly more survival oriented.
For families lucky enough to have a generator: one representative needed to make daily trips to the gas station. Power outages took the refineries offline too, leaving us with a limited fuel.
It didn’t take long for a run on the pumps. A constant line of cars stretched for almost a mile down Broadway to the little gas station at the center of town. Neighbors would wait hours, often only to find out a fuel delivery would be arriving late, or there wouldn’t be enough gas for everyone.
After a few fights broke out over how many jerrycans a person should be allowed to fill, my parents decided to try and limit driving as much as possible.
I started walking more. The trip into town on foot was the best way to survey the cleanup effort, check the school message board to confirm classes were still cancelled, and meet up with friends.
Brown Fox to Gray Squirrel
Schlepping across town on foot had a bit of novelty to it. But getting all the way to a friend’s house only to learn they were elsewhere got old real fast.
Luckily, a lot of the gear my family had acquired over the years for backpacking is also useful in post-disaster scenarios. Item number one: long range walkie talkies. Their signal carried for miles, even through dense trees and mountainous terrain. Reaching the opposite side of town was no trouble.
I distributed them among friends, set a schedule for radio checks, and established code names. These checks happened around mealtimes, when everyone was usually at home and around the table.
Often, I’d hear a radio crackle followed by a friend’s distorted voice in the kitchen:
“This is Gray Squirrel checking in, I repeat, Gray Squirrel checking in, over.”
To which I’d pick up the radio and offer a reply: “This is Brown Fox. I read you loud and clear, Gray Squirrel, over.”
Through the radio, we planned outings, meet-ups in town, runs with fellow cross-country team members, and evening card games.
One of my fondest memories from the experience came about a week in. The storm had come just before Halloween, making for some cold autumn nights. The sun went down early, and without power, six o’clock in the evening felt more like midnight.
We heated the kitchen with the gas stove burners, sat around the table, and played Texas hold ‘em. The lanternlight cast long shadows on our faces, each completely focused on their cards and the conversation.
Not a single person tried to sneak a text under the table, or check in on social media; how could they? By this point, everyone’s phones had long since died.
Looking back, I had an extremely difficult time finding pictures from the Sandy Aftermath for this very reason. We’re so used to the idea of having a camera in our pocket to document everything. Word-of-mouth was the only way to pass information.
It amazed me how quickly high-tech habits faded from memory. Everyone was present, because where else were you going to be?
Rebuilding, Piece by Piece
Due to the nature of the damage, most of our power grid needed rebuilding. That took a long time and meant not everyone had their electricity restored right away.
Some homes regained power, then lost it again.
Those who could keep the lights on started hosting gatherings where we could bask in the incandescent glow, enjoy the warmth, and — for those unlucky enough to have electric hot water heaters — actually get a hot shower.
Even at these gatherings, cell phones remained out of sight.
This was my first time adapting to a “new normal,” but it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about getting back to the way life was, pre-pandemic.
“Humans are creatures of habit. We hate changing our routines, and usually won’t until we’re forced to. Once we get used to those new routines though, we stick to them unless we’re forced to change back.”
The biggest surprise to me of the whole ordeal: even when electricity became available again, a lot of us seemed perfectly content staying offline. By day eight, huge chunks of the community had power back. But the pre-internet vibe persisted for another week until we were forced to return to school.
At this point, college applications were due. Research for homework became necessary. We had to return to the way things were before.
When I started writing this account of the storm, I thought I was one of the few people who actually liked living the old-school experience, free of the obligations that come from social media. I thought the storm pulled my peers into a state of existence I was ready to embrace willingly.
What an idiotic conclusion I’d reached.
I now realize we probably all felt the same way; that many of us regard the digital world with the mindset of an addict. We don’t like being in a state of dependence, but we can’t quite tear ourselves away.
We’re looking for an excuse to let go together, because nobody wants to be the only one unplugged.
The situation that triggered these circumstances was one-of-a-kind. But we don’t need the apocalypse lite in order to live in the moment. There are plenty of us walking this path, reconnecting with our survival needs, and enjoying life in the real world.
This is the beauty of the growing outdoor community: we all crave the escape and the grounded presence that comes with it. And we’re having fun achieving this state of being together.
You’re not alone in your pursuit.
And so, I wrap up today’s newsletter with a heartfelt request: If you want to share stories and experiences with a great group of people — join us on the trail.