‘Escape from Vermont,’ by Chelsea Lowe

As you may recall, I got pissed off a few weeks ago at House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for suggesting that funds not be allocated for relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Irene until such time that federal spending cuts were made elsewhere. I was particularly pissed off because a friend of mine, a writer by the name of Chelsea Lowe, who splits her time between residences in Boston and Vermont, was one of those folks trapped in rural Vermont, cut off from the rest of the world. Well, Chelsea eventually made it safely back to Boston, where I contacted her a little while ago, and asked if she’d be kind enough to share her memories with the readers of this site. Fortunately, she agreed. Here’s the whole story, in reverse chronological order.

This time, I’m not packing up the car. I walk into town, grab a free croissant half at the cafe and swing by the town offices. By now, I’m used to being here. If I can’t get out, I’ll paint the house’s peeling windows upstairs, and read Ann Tyler. (In perhaps the happiest development of the week, the local library’s open.)

Today, however, there’s a way out: north, opposite the direction I need. Working backwards from a set of directions going the other way, a volunteer outlines the most convoluted route I’ve ever seen. Route 100 is washed out in several places, requiring detours onto what locals are pleased to call “back roads.”

First detour’s Maston Hill Road–which turns out to be mud and gravel, with the backward incline of a roller coaster. (So much for my healing back.) At at least one point, I travel over a drainage ditch with only a shallow mud covering. I hope the way is right. I don’t want to see this road again.

It isn’t, and I’ll see it again twice. I wind up on a familiar stretch in Hancock, one town up. I stop the car and look around, from the glass studio to a building opposite to a house in between. As I ponder which to approach, a young woman, followed by a tall, thin guy, leaves the house, carrying a baby in a car seat.

The man gives me directions even more convoluted than the first, involving roads with names like Puddledock; a commons, a “T” shape, loops. Then a miracle happens, the kind of luck I’ve only heard about: They’re going my way. I can follow them to the highway.

I’ve never been more certain of anything: If not for these people, I’d remain in Rochester, Vermont, indefinitely. The way proves intricate beyond description—but, with my new friends leading, the inclines didn’t feel as steep, nor the curves so winding. Sometimes, the man gestures out the window while his companion drives, and I can’t tell whether he means for me to veer off. I stick with them. At last, they signal left and point right. I pull up and thank them for more or less saving my life. Then, I drive north into Waterbury for the trip home. (Back in Boston, Dave will say it was the Madonna who led me home. “Well,” I’ll answer, “the guy did have long hair.”)

Furniture and building materials litter the streets of Waterbury. Young people pass back and forth across the street. It looks like any first week of college–but of course, it’s storm damage.

In southern New Hampshire, I squeeze one last call from the near-dead cell. “Well, well,” my husband answers.

Morning. I remember yet another way out of town, for a total of four potential routes. I don a spare sweater (What the well-dressed refugee is wearing, I think) and drive into town. Someone says the grocery’s opening for a short while, cash only. I run into my editor friend and other neighbors, who tell me my plan won’t work. All roads are gone. I join the supermarket queue and cry. Not the way I generally try to impress editors. Another woman and I realize aloud that others have lost their homes; we have nothing to cry about. But we do it all the same.

It always looks ridiculous when people stress about getting home to their stupid work. But it’s been a lean year (for the first time, I’ve let my flood insurance lapse), and I finally have assignments. With deadlines.

It’s more than that. It’s primal. I want to go home.

I’m Private Benjamin. Diane Keaton in “Sleeper” (“…I haven’t had a bath in eight hours…”). Sam Waterston in The Killing Fields:”[but] I’m an American!” Mostly, I am Dorothy in Oz, dropped into brilliant Technicolor beauty with true friends, yearning all the same for the gray tones of home.

The line moves agonizingly slowly. Two hours for me; longer for others. It’s hot. Store staff comes around, giving away water bottles, fruit, cookies. I grab an apple and water and realize I’m usually on the other end of charity. But everyone needs help sometime.

I discover the reason for the line’s sluggishness: staff are admitting two customers at a time, accompanying us and recording purchases. (Perishables are free, up to three of any item per customer.) As we walk the aisles in the dark, I think out loud: “Oh; an orange. That would be good. But wait: they make garbage. Though, now that I think about it, orange peels might make the garbage smell better.” (I don’t enjoy regular trash pickup. At the moment, I keep garbage in the fridge til the trip home. Only, at the moment, everything in the refrigerator is garbage.)

Apparently, volunteers went house-to-house yesterday, informing townspeople of a meeting. I didn’t get the memo. Word, however, is that there’s another today, at the church.

Town offices become the central hub. I stop in to ask about getting word to my husband and family that I’m OK. A guy I don’t know offers a ride to Bethel Mountain Road. I can borrow his cell phone. I hesitate–not so much about riding with a stranger as traveling the Mountain Road. My last car overturned there.

Ross Laffan is a nice guy. We don’t have to drive far to get a signal. I get out and, from a grassy, quiet hill, call Dave, ask him to get word to my family that I’m all right, and to post on my writers forum on my behalf. I say I’ll try to make it home tomorrow.

“I got in touch with your friend Rachel and some of your neighbors,” Dave says. What? How? The cell tower’s out. Phones are out. Electricity, too. “Well, I am a reporter.” I’ll learn later that he’s called the National Guard, Red Cross, AmTrak (which informs him that the nearest station is “submerged”), and friends with a light truck.

Dave asks if I have food (he teases me often about my constant “snacks”). I tell him I’m doing all right. (My food needs are kind of special. My Perricone-inspired diet is out the window, of course, but I won’t touch anything canned or vacuum packed; nor beef. Which lets out most of the plentiful community offerings, from the church to the inn to the restaurants. Good free food can be had at all–but I end up accepting only bread.

At the town meeting, neighbors tell me my husband’s been trying to get in touch. Rachel’s shocked that he got her cell number. (Later, he’ll tell me his secret: He opened my phone book and began dialing numbers with Vermont area codes.)

Inside the church, it’s hot–still late August, after all–and packed to the rafters. I don’t remember much, only town select board chair Larry Strauss saying all roads are closed, east, west, north and south. He gets an unintended laugh by saying that some folks are trying to get Dr. Jewitt, the local doctor, into town on a four wheeler. Someone’s got a mounted camera. I remove my glasses.

Disaster guys (FEMA? Staties?) wear grim faces. Power? “Three to six months,” one deadpans. He can’t mean this. Oh, and more rain’s predicted for the weekend.

Art gallery owner Anni MacKay takes an inventory of medications needed. A man who’s had to leave his home reports wholesale looting. Someone suggests a watch committee. Someone else says we should remember how everyone, for the most part, is pulling together.

How I’d always imaged long-term power outage in Vermont: Trekking through drifts of white snow, bringing bread I’ve baked to all my near neighbors. Reality: My stove is electric. I don’t help many people (though I do manage a few good turns) and generally fall to pieces even though my house and I are fine, as far as I can tell.

Can anyone volunteer space in his or her home? I fear the risk, though I’d welcome the company. I compromise: give my handyman, who has a key, a short list of people authorized to stay in my absence. Turns out few, if any, end up staying with strangers.

A call goes out for mealtime volunteers at The Park House, the local private senior residence in the heart of town. This, I can do. A woman leads me by the hand to a whiteboard.

I’ve always felt comfortable at the Park House and drop by often to visit. Jeanie’s mom lives here. I try to tell her she must have been a great mom, because Jeanie shows a nurturing spirit, holding my hand on the market line and assuring everyone that we’ll be fine. And making sure to buy “kid food” so her children won’t see this disaster as frightening. I can’t get out the words without crying again.

Evelyn, the cook, is stranded like me; there’s no longer a road to her home in Pittsfield. My stylist lives in Pittsfield in a mobile home; I’m worried for her.

Evelyn’s a lively lady. We get to talking about cleaning our refrigerators and, when I reveal that I don’t have trash pickup, she shows me where the Park House throws its garbage, and invites me to deposit mine there, too. A godsend!

The joy of the evening comes in the person of a second Evelyn, who arrives bearing a beautiful soup. We “click” immediately, riffing with each other, inventing silly lyrics to “Love and Marriage,” celebrating the union of soup and sandwich (which go together like…soup and sandwich).

The food doesn’t interest me, and I’m not in the mood for a crowded community potluck at the Huntington House. I stop at my favorite local restaurant, The Porch. Only the hostess, Toni, and chef, Michael, are there. Michael offers gorgeous meat entrees–including another delicious-looking soup–from the gas stove. I say bread would be simplest, and choose from bags of defrosted rolls and bagels.

Home again, I worry some. If I had a heart attack–or if a criminal, emboldened by the unchanging darkness, broke a window and got in–I couldn’t call for help. I place the car alarm in close reach and remind myself that’s only a possibility; my need for adequate sleep is a certainty. Surprisingly, my flashlights have held up well, and I’m lucky to find a new package of D cells in the house. (The hardware store’s open in the dark and I’m delighted–mostly because I’m out of cash–to see my friend Donna behind the counter. They’re out of D bats, though. On the plus side, I get the opportunity to do a good turn: lend our car cell-phone charger to a woman in need.)

Morning. I discover my neighbor Arlene was right! My windows are intact. Miraculously, the pond and lake on my neighbor’s and my properties have disappeared.

The shower water’s cold. I skip it and realize I could save a lot of time without a daily shower.

I pack my things, place an item in the mailbox and load the car. It’s obvious there’s no road to the south. I’ll have to take the long way. I give my neighbors, David and Sandy, a big smile. Survived the big storm. See ya.

David says there’s no passage around the mountain, either. I imagine the local cafe, lit by generator, serving waffles and French toast. In my vision of a day stuck in town, I’m on my laptop, writing articles via wifi. Sandy tells me the cell tower’s been knocked out. David adds that the local hotel is providing free breakfast.

I’m late, and the offerings have dwindled, but I’m grateful for the oatmeal and muffin. I drift to the bakery, open in the dark. Dawn, behind the counter, doesn’t know how long they’ll be open. There’s no running water (a surprise, as my house has it. I’ll learn that, through some quirk of fate, each of us has a different advantage, like twisted superheroes. I can flush. Jeanie has no water, but does have a working gas stove and can cook. Rachel’s staying with friends who have solar power, and can make and receive calls. Several people have grills and generators–though these won’t last long without fuel.) Dawn says there are plenty of sandwiches–but I need food that will keep, doesn’t need cooking, and won’t attract mice. This is the country, after all.

She points me toward power bars, granola, popcorn, chips: stuff I wouldn’t touch any day of the year but my birthday–maybe. I choose the lowest-sugar offerings I can find: raw food bars and chips, plus a tin of candy for a neighbor. I discover that, however hungry you are, raw food bars will not tempt. I can’t find enough cash on my person, but am a regular. Dawn records my purchases on paper.

Back at the house, I think: I know! I’ll drive north, get the highway in Waterbury. I’ll feel more awake and the roads will be better tomorrow. I’ve bought old newspapers to stave off boredom, and read every page, even sports. Apparently, some ball player’s wanted for murder.

Morning. I drive into town, fill the car and buy two gallons of water. I park at the end of the driveway, for easy egress, though I’m a little worried about the phone pole and mailbox.

Dave and I talk by phone. The storm’s passed him. Although not all of our fellow Massachusetts residents enjoyed such luck, there’s power in our apartment, and nothing amiss. Dave tells me the storm has changed course and is moving toward Vermont.

I do laundry for an upcoming trip, boil a couple of eggs and put on a pot of quinoa and farmers-market vegetables in case the power goes.

I reach my folks in their car. Power and water went out at their hotel. They’re heading back toward Long Island. I invite them to Vermont.

It rains. A lot. It looks as if the Atlantic Ocean has overturned somehow, onto my house. I work. Power goes out at 4. I keep busy, painting chairs and woodwork.

Dave and I talk again. I look out the window. The neighbors across the street to my north look as if they have lakefront property. Two houses down, there’s a river. My side yard is nearly submerged. Panic rises with the water. My financial troubles arrived at the same time as my hefty flood insurance bill.

I’m alone in a darkening house. I imagine the whole place tumbling from the volume of water. Or bills mounting into the tens of thousands. I cry into the phone that I’m alone and scared. David begs my father’s number. A Florida resident, Dad has seen dozens of hurricanes and will know what to do. I give it, on condition he not tell my father I’m upset.

Dad calls my cell. We decide I’ll evacuate for the evening, if only I can find out where people are going. I reach the Park House, and am told; the school.

I sling my folding cot onto my shoulder, grab a sleeping bag, gather a few things and head out, imagining a convivial, if subdued, generator-lit gathering.

I run into neighbors, one of whom asks if I’m carrying a saxophone. I explain that, when I bought the house, I didn’t have a bed and slept on a cot. I’m sure any shelter supplies are limited, so I’ll bring my own.

Other neighbors offer shelter in their homes–but they’re across the street, backing up to the river. I press on to the school, down the block. Water has risen all the way up to it. No one’s inside.

Down the street, the road ends in a lake. This road has been known to flood before. I’ll have to take the long way home tomorrow.

On the return trip, a woman in a van offers a ride. I tell her about the empty school. “I told him to stay there!” she says. Turns out there were few takers. Word among the neighbors is that a couple of houses farther up the road have washed away. Coffins have even slid out of their plots.

The rain seems to be abating–but strong winds are on the way. I fear broken windows. Arlene, who’s lived here all her 76 years, assures me this won’t happen, despite the fact that my attic window’s so flimsy, I once accidentally pushed one of its panes clear out. I go home and close all curtains, just in case.

Crews have already assembled, working on the flooded road. Cars line up all the way to my house.

I think about what my infinitely kind maternal grandmother would have done. I approach the lead guy and invite him and the crew to use my house as a command post. “I can’t make you coffee or tea,” I say, “but you can sit down and get warm, use my bathrooms.” I tell him the door will be locked, but to knock. I run home and scrub my toilets in the dark.

I have never slept here in the dark and find I’m comforted by the line of trucks and cars, their lights on, stretching from my house to the flood. Still, I second-guess my offer. Why did I invite strange men into my home when it’s dark and I can’t use the phone? (It’s a moot question. Either no one shows up, or I sleep through the knocks.) The rain continues til about one.

Dave has insisted on keeping our iPhone, in anticipation of Hurricane Irene knocking out power in Boston. But I need it to show my editor friend my app. We agree that he’ll FedEx our old one. I wait, decorating, painting and laying the groundwork for articles due next week. I’m grateful for the work.

Dave refuses to accompany me to Vermont, preferring to remain in Boston. I drive to Rochester, go into town and get my hair done. Lou, my stylist, is watching Carolina’s hurricane coverage on her computer. So far, nothing much is expected here. Another customer comes in with an ice cream. Lou and I talk about Creemees, a local soft-serve sensation. I’ve been diligently eating vegetables, olive oil and so on, and think I’ll reward myself on the trip back to Boston.

In town, I run into my editor friend, Jeanie, with whom I have a meeting planned. She says to call her at work on Monday and we’ll get some lunch.

I speak with my mother and stepfather, who’ve been evacuated from Long Island and booked a hotel room in Connecticut for themselves and my special-needs brother. They ask whether I have food, water and gasoline. I say, “some.” I invite them to wait out the storm with me in Vermont. They decline. A new neighbor drops by to chat.

My dad emails: a hurricane is heading for Boston. My husband and I should take refuge at our second home in Vermont. I’m planning to go to Vermont that weekend, anyway, for a business meeting.

Turns out, my parents and their friends have been worrying, praying and, in one case, lighting a candle (I’m an atheistic Jew, by the way) and in another, trying to rally her church group to rescue me. My mother forwards emails expressing hope for my safe return. Friends, too, have been talking with Dave (a good development; normally, he’s solitary and shy). He’s posted updates on Facebook and the writers forum. God bless him, he has a hot meal waiting for me. He’s bonded with my parents, keeping in frequent contact by phone.

Vermont casualties are few, but the damage is vast. (many ways to help.)

What I kept thinking:
“This was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some of it wasn’t very nice–but most of it was beautiful. But just the same, all I kept saying to everybody was, ‘I want to go home!’ And they sent me home.”
— (Wizard of Oz screen writers include Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf.)

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  1. Edward
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Thank you for taking the time to share your memories of the event, Chelsea. I’m glad to hear that your home survived, and that you eventually made it back to the real world.

  2. Mr. X
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I like the imagery of cleaning toilets in the dark in preparation for the road workers. And I too am glad that you and your home made it through enact.

  3. anonymouos
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I’m sure this will come off wrong, but it’s nice for a change to hear a story about Vermont that doesn’t make me jealous.

  4. K2
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    This is exactly why everyone in my family has a Haliburton SurvivaBall.


  5. ChelseaL
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    You all are nice! Thank you.

  6. Posted September 14, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve said this before but Mark has really cool friends! You must now have a huge party at your house where we all can attend. I will bring the beer and help you with party favors. Also, we will meet everyone at the door with a large, glass bowl….

  7. Posted September 14, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    PS: Chelsea, glad you are ok!! Thanks for sharing your ordeal with us.

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  1. […] site, through a program we're calling Blogbaby. Today's contribution comes from my author friend Chelsea Lowe, who lives in Boston.] The difference between high school and life, of course, is that one teaches […]

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