I’ve seen California’s future, and it’s dark

The recent mass power outage offered a glimpse of what’s to come.

I’ve seen California’s future, and it’s dark

The recent mass power outage offered a glimpse of what’s to come.

My friend Erika texted me on a Tuesday morning to tell me she was taking her five-year-old son and driving three hours to her brother’s in San Francisco because Pacific Gas & Electric was turning off the power again.

“Oh my God,” I said. During particularly windy, dry days (otherwise known as “fall”) when there are red flag fire warnings, tree limbs can ignite when they make contact with active power lines. This is not just a safety problem, it’s a years of neglect problem. They were supposed to have trimmed the vegetation away from the power lines awhile ago, but instead, they’d spent their time and money on lobbyists and executive bonuses and somehow not gotten around to it. I knew PG&E had turned off the power a few weeks ago, and some of our friends hadn’t had power for days, but since it hadn’t been a huge thing we only found out about it when they showed up on our door step, begging for showers.

“You guys are welcome to come here if you don’t want to drive all the way down to San Francisco,” I told Erika.

She laughed. “Your power is going out, too, you know.”

I was truly shocked. I knew this was happening and that it was going to be a bigger thing than last time, but I didn’t think it meant us. “We live in town,” I protested. I really thought she must be mistaken.

“Sorry Nellie Oleson,” Erika said. “The power is going out everywhere everywhere.”

I still didn’t believe it. How could they just shut down the supermarket, the drug store, the movietheater? But I put our address in on the website that PG&E had created for this event — its rare, and perhaps only, point of efficiency — and she was right. We were losing power, along with about two million other Californians.

“They’re turning off the power in Oakland!” I exclaimed. Basically if you lived between Oakland and the Sierra Foothills, minus Sacramento, there was a good chance your power was going out. “How long are they doing it for?”

Erika said she wasn’t sure, but she’d heard it could be for four or five days. She said she was sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it sounded like I needed to get my shit together.

I was conscious of our house in the Sierra Foothills of California as a discrete unit, helpless, a little island of wood and glass and, I’m sorry to report, vinyl siding.

At around 3 a.m. the next day our house made a sound like someone had punched it in the stomach. I guess it was the boiler, or the furnace, or both. I don’t even know which of those is which or if they are even different things, or which of them is gas and which is electric and if someone told me I would forget instantly. Our lights were all out but I picked up my phone, still plugged in. I’d made sure to charge it, along with my computer and iPad, but the little lightning bolt that assures you it’s getting power was gone. I instantly felt smaller and alone. I was conscious of our house in the Sierra Foothills of California as a discrete unit, helpless, a little island of wood and glass and, I’m sorry to report, vinyl siding. “They really did it,” I said to my boyfriend Tor. “What do you mean? We knew they were going to do it,” he said. “I was sort of hoping they wouldn’t,” I said.

We live in a little village called Nevada City. It’s not really all that different from the little New England town where I grew up, except here the trees are many, highly flammable, and enormous, and if you go a half-mile in either direction, you could theoretically have your throat ripped out by a mountain lion, and go a half mile more, and you’re in the (pine) jungle, baby. That’s where Tor works, and his shop is off the electrical grid and on solar, so he got up and went to work as usual. I just lay awake in bed, with a childish snow-day tingle in my limbs balanced out by a more adult anger.

Fucking PG&E. They casually cut off power to over two million people in both urban and rural Northern California to cover their asses and avoid being sued (as they were for the Paradise (Camp) Fire in 2018, and the Santa Rosa (Tubbs) fire in 2017 and several others). I remembered the very first time I’d ever heard of them, back in 2000 when, having buried cancerous hypervalent chromium in the desert near San Bernardino, they played the villians in the movie Erin Brockovich. Twenty years had passed and they’d just gone on being themselves, making lots of money while more people died.

At some point this beautiful place where I live and just bought a home will probably burn, or become virtually uninhabitable.

Tor had suggested we fill up some containers with water the night before, so we had a large Le Creuset casserole dish, a big stainless steel soup pan, the kettle, and the crock pot filled with water. I made coffee, we have a gas stove so the only out of ordinary thing was I had to light the burner, and bathe in water I heated up on the stove. The gym was closed, the store was closed, but this was all fine, one could live without these things for a few days, it could be fun, cozy, lazy-making, snowdayish, as I had mentioned. But imagine a snow day where you were justifiably worried that the snow was just going to come and come until it suffocated you. This power outtage was the merely inconvienient first step to what will be eventually be a walk into the sea.

There’s a woman I know on Twitter who is writing a book about how California is just going to turn into a desert eventually, actually, and not all that unsoon. I have her muted sometimes because it hurts so much to know she exists, and everything she says is real. The landscape was the same as it always was, but we know that California is heating up and drying out and it’s not going to stop. At some point this beautiful place where I live and just bought a home will probably burn, or become virtually uninhabitable, they’re already cancelling people’s insurance, and my willful naivete about “living in town” will not stop anyone from someday cancelling mine. I walked around the downtown, emptier than usual, not the biggest of deals, and, my with my horrible Future Glasses on, imagined store windows boarded up, manzanita bushes poking out of the entrance to the Mine Shaft bar, the store on the corner that sells beads and ponchos overrun by foxes and coyotes.

The big Chevron market, just outside the town center, seemed to not have gas. Cars just kept pulling into the parking lot and driving away, insofar as this attribution of emotion is possible, in a huff. The cash-only station a bit further up the road had gas, but it also had a long line.

I wrote a friend of mine to see if she had power in Davis, 80 or so miles away but flatter, and infinitely less forested. She said she did, and then started asking me if I had everything ready to evacuate. I told her it wasn’t like PG&E had done this because they knew there was going to be a fire. They had just done it because conditions were ripe for one, and this was more about their liability than being absolutely certain there would be a fire. She asked me if I had cash and knew where the deed was to my house. “Please Stop freaking me out worse than I already am,” I wrote back, angry. I erased this. This thing was not her fault. I wrote “Thanks, good thinking. TTYL.”

When I got home I opened the refrigerator and took in its dimness. I’d been in at least 20 power outages in my life, I’d seen milk and butter and jam without the drama of stage lights. But today, the sad, warming darkness felt a little bit like looking into a coffin.

I kept calling Tor. After the third time I called he said, “Every time you call me I think our house is on fire.”

“It’s not,” I said. “I’m scared.”

He asked why, and I explained to him that I felt like I was living in the future, refrigerator as coffin, etc.

“Why don’t you just come out here?”

“Oh I don’t want to be in the way at the shop,” I said.

“But — my parent’s whole house is on solar,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “No way.”

“Almost everyone’s house out here is on solar,” he said. “Why did you think people moved off the grid, anyway? Because they don't want to be dependent on ultimately useless undependable corporate systems, hello?”

“I thought they just did it to be jerks,” I said.

I put everything perishable into canvas bags and took the dog and left. I locked all the doors and windows.

Tor’s parent’s place was in an area called the Ridge, near a blink-you’ll-miss-it town called North San Juan. I only had enough gas — poor planning — to get there and back. I didn’t want to wait in the shitty line here in Nevada City, and for some reason I thought the gas station in North San Juan, out near Tor’s house, would have fewer people waiting.

This was an unbelievably stupid idea. I think only about a few thousand people live in this whole area, probably 400 square miles, but about 10 percent of them were at the North San Juan gas station. Still, I figured how long could the line be? An hour? Before long I was third in line. There was another line coming in from the other side and I wasn’t quite sure how that was regulating itself. This is definitely a part of the county where people move to the beat of their own drum, sometimes literally. There was no one in charge here. It had only taken me 20 minutes be third in line, but then I just sat there for a long time.

I walked toward the station to see what was going on. There were cars parked at weird angles next to the pumps but no one was actually using them, except for one guy dressed like Robinson Crusoe auditioning for Vikings who was filling up a gas can. I approached a Rav 4 parked off to the side. In the car were three teenagers and four pit bulls. “Do you guys know what’s going on here?” I asked.

“No ma’am we sure don’t,” one of them said. I let a pit bull sniff my hand; its velvet snout was slightly soothing. “I’m a little confused in that there are four pumps and none of them seem to be being used right now.”

“Yeah,” said one kid, pushing a pit bull off his lap and onto somebody else’s lap. “People take a long time here you know, buying cigarettes and stuff and just shooting the breeze.”

“There are people in the store right now buying cigarettes and shooting the breeze?” I said.

“Probably,” he said. There was gas, but these hippies could not find a way to expedite its delivery into their vehicles so we could all move on with our fucking days. Not the people I would choose to face an apocalypse with, but there I was.

When I finally arrived at Tor’s parents’ place there was power. Everyone out there had power. I tried to do some work, but everything still just felt too off, too irregular. I spent a long time making an orzo dish from the Smitten Kitchen because I wanted to be useful but not “regular work day useful.” It was fine, probably not worth the effort, I should have just watched a show, since I could and all. Then we went to bed.

In the morning, we heard a rumor that the supermarket in town was just handing out all their food and this made everything feel terribly, surprisingly unstable. We heard another rumor that this was going to last a week, and might happen again in a few weeks. I took the dog for a walk and tried not to feel like I was going to be sick. I saw someone weedwacking with giant ear protectors and a mask on. They removed them as I approached and my mood lightened when I saw it was my friend Amber. “Even though we have power it kind of feels like the apocalypse,” she said. ��Fucking PG&E, man.”

“I used to think your guys just thought you were cool, with your solar and you’re ‘we’re off the grid’ thing.” I said. “I see now it has its practical applications.”

She laughed. “Well, sure,” she said. “It’s not one or the other, is it?” She asked me if I wanted to go to a birthday party at the Schoolhouse, the community space for this area that was, as its name indicates, in an old one-room schoolhouse. I’d only been out on the Ridge for 36 hours, but I already had cabin fever, and felt excited the way Laura and Mary feel in Little House when they’re figuring out what ribbon colors to wear to go into town.

I did what I do at most parties, which is I found one person to talk to and talked to her the whole time. She lived in Grass Valley, where there was no solar, and where she was taking care of her 85-year-old mother who had dementia and, as it happened, diarrhea. “I’m reminding her every five minutes that we can't flush the toilet or turn on the lights or the faucet, and trying to keep her, and the house, clean in the dark.” She tipped her bottle of Sierra Nevada at me with a fake cheers. I thought about how she’d lived pioneer-style as a kid, like a lot of people here did, including my boyfriend, and how they really had a leg up on those of us who couldn’t tell a water heater from R2D2.

There was no solar at the Schoolhouse, so no power or water. Everyone was peeing outside, no big deal. It was very, very dark, so there was a lot of “Hey, is that you peeing?”, “It's me, Max — Ruth and Karen's dad, Minnie's grandfather,” “Oh hey Max — it’s Willow, Jenny’s daughter?” “Oh yes, Willow, hello!"

And then the sound of people peeing with their friends and neighbors in the darkness. I thought about a future of all of us peeing in the darkness, which seemed fine, but what about — doing other bathroom things in the darkness? Could we bargain with the future like this? “We will pee in the darkness for just one week, if you just don’t make us poop in it forever.”

Three days later I was back home and I went to the supermarket right near my house. The dry goods were fine, but the refrigerator and freezer sections reminded you that something bad had happened, that would happen again, and again and again, until the time when the past week would seem like the good old days.

Sarah Miller is a writer living in Nevada City, CA.