In February 2010, during the winter of what much of the Mid-Atlantic region came to call The Snowpocalypse, my friend Abby and I got trapped on a sheep farm in the northern Shenandoah Valley for four days.
At the time I was living on my own in East Baltimore. News of the impending blizzard conjured bleak images of my being stuck inside my tiny apartment alone for days, most likely in the dark (it took little more than a stiff breeze to knock out the electricity at that place), subsisting on canned beans and a dwindling supply of alcohol, with only my cat for company. Resolving that if I had to be snowed in, it should be in the company of other humans, I rang my friends John and Kelly, who live on a small sheep farm in rural Virginia, and asked if I might ride out the Arctic blast at their place. They agreed, so I bought a pound of single-origin coffee and a six-pack of decent beer, and took to the highway on the wings of the coming storm.
Along the way, I stopped in Washington, D.C. to collect Abby. By the time we left her place, travel conditions had already deteriorated to an alarming degree. We inched our way along increasingly treacherous roads that were all but invisible in the whiteout. As we navigated around stranded vehicles and strained to make out the lane dividers, we buoyed our spirits with thoughts of a relaxing couple of days with our friends.
Here’s what we were expecting: Abby and I would get to the farm, eat lunch, say hi to the animals, enjoy good conversation with Kelly and John, read books, brew up some of my fair-trade coffee, build a snowman, watch movies, get tipsy, sleep in, shovel out the driveway, and head home.
Here’s what happened. Shortly after we and our jangled nerves finally reached our destination, the inclement weather brought down power lines, which left the house without light. Because the switch that controlled the water pump was electric, the four of us found ourselves also without running water. The snow accumulated with unnerving speed, rendering the narrow country roads impassable and effectively cutting us off from the outside world. We were imprisoned on the farm.
Weathering a major winter storm without electricity or water is an inconvenience, to say the least. But we also had a flock of about two dozen sheep to worry about, including several newborn lambs, as well as assorted chickens, ducks, farm cats, and a dog, many of which would surely perish if we didn’t work quickly to safeguard them against the cold.
Since Virginia’s climate is reasonably temperate, there’s usually little need to worry about animals’ exposure to the elements. But with temperatures dropping and some three feet of snow expected to fall, we needed to act fast. We spent much of that first day reconfiguring the sheep barn, segregating the nursing ewes from the rest of the flock, and trying to move as many animals as possible under shelter.
Nor could we humans overlook our own biological imperatives. John converted the tool shed into an outhouse by dumping out a bin of sheep feed and filling it with kitty litter, and knocking together a toilet seat out of two-by-fours. For some reason he also brought out a stack of back issues of the ‘New Yorker’ magazine, as if any of us was going to be taking a leisurely time on the privy with our sensitive bits exposed to the bitter cold while surrounded by five-foot-high piles of snow.
The days that followed were humbling exercises in priority-setting. Our first responsibility – before breakfast, before brushing our teeth – was to check on and feed the animals. Then Abby would stoke the fire in the hearth and the house’s two woodstoves while Kelly prepared food and I collected buckets of snow to melt for drinking and washing both dishes and ourselves. John spent a lot of time shoveling and making sure the pipes didn’t freeze. He dug out his John Deere tractor in an effort to plow the driveway, but the little machine proved no match for the daunting mounds of snow in its path.
We ate a lot of lamb stew, which Kelly kept replenished and bubbling aromatically atop the wood stove. She found an antique coffee mill handed down from some Italian relative, and I used it to grind the fair-trade beans I had brought with me from Baltimore. I mixed the grounds with melted snow and brewed it in a steel kettle.
A couple of the lambs died. We lost one on the first night of the storm. Abby discovered its little corpse stiff and strangely angled, as if it had been flash-frozen in mid-leap. The adult sheep stamped and bleated their distress. Abby lifted the frozen lamb by its tail and trudged out to the edge of the property, where she hurled the carcass over the fence. Some days later, after the snow had receded, we returned to see if the corpses were still decomposing there, but scavengers had done their work quickly and efficiently, and had left only scattered bones.
In the evenings, after dinner, we lit candles and sang shape note hymns from the Sacred Harp. We drank wine and told each other stories in the firelight. We learned that each of our lives had been shaped by rebellion against our parents, whether it was their patrician disdain for manual labor, or their pathological lies, or their alcoholism, or their depression.
Outside, black branches susurrated in the northeasterly wind and the blazing moon cut across glittering pastures of white.
The rhythms we fell into were ancient, older even than the ones my farmer friends were accustomed to. Rise before dawn. Care for the animals. Dispose of the dead. Feed the fire. Feed yourself. Drink something hot. Tend to the dwelling and the grounds. Piss. Shit. Sponge yourself clean with frigid water. Wrap yourself in blankets. Sing songs and tell tales to push back the darkness and the chill. Sleep. Dream dreams.
We did make one concession to 21st century technology. John dug a track between the front door of the house and my car so that I could charge my smartphone. Once the power indicator had turned sufficiently green, I brought it inside so that we could huddle around its pale blue light while I read articles from the New York Times aloud, like the lector in a Cuban cigar factory.
It was past midnight on the fourth day when the electricity was finally restored. Kelly and John had long since gone to bed. Abby and I lay on the floor on our stomachs in front of the fire, sharing secrets. When the lights jumped back on, our first reaction was elation. Then we looked at each other in silence.
After a moment I got up and switched off the lights and we returned to murmuring in the dark.