Even though I took my birthday week off, I’m coming back with a self-indulgent theme; the winter storm I just weathered in my tiny house, with pain, limitations and all. This is something that will touch most of us at some time or another—survival skills in storms and natural disasters.
Some of us live in very sheltered conditions out of necessity or privilege. My budget limits my choices, and I chose a rugged lifestyle over the other options available. I would easily qualify for a housing subsidy, but I’d have to live in a complex. I went with a tiny house on wheels so I could enjoy privacy and pleasant surroundings, and be able to move elsewhere if my space stopped offering those things. Quiet, and a level of control over the sound profile in my environment, are critical for my health. I could not have that in subsidized housing. Even the low-end condominium I left last year was noisy enough to keep me constantly stressed.
Most of the time this is an easy lifestyle. There isn’t that much to clean, and I have wonderful neighbors who help me with any big chores, like re-staining the wood on my house in the summer. The strenuous things I do, like gardening, are by choice, and if I can’t manage it for a week or two, it’s in a community garden and my neighbors water my section without having to be asked.
When I heard the winter storm predictions last week, I didn’t think much of it. I’m a confident snow driver. I made sure I had a few days worth of good food, but I have a heated water line and a robust heat pump, and I do much better in the cold than my neighbors do in their travel trailers. My land hosts (the owners of the land where I park my tiny house) were both out of town, but I have other neighbors.
The storm hit on Sunday night. In almost whiteout snow conditions, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from the (indoor) public pool, and the warmth and goodwill between strangers was heartening. I met a woman who complimented my hair and said she hadn’t found a new stylist since her salon closed. “Was that Max?” I asked. She said yes, and I pulled up a Facebook post on my phone that had the personal contact information for all the stylists there. She was so excited, she hugged me. Similar exchanges were happening all over the store.
At home I dug in with my fleece robe, my cats, and Netflix. Everything was great until Monday morning, when I took a quick shower before getting dressed. Why was I standing in water up to my ankles? I realized the drain trap under the shower floor must have frozen. In this mild climate, I hadn’t bothered to put straw bales under the trailer for the winter as people do in colder places. Still no big deal, I just let the hot water stand there for an hour. While I was eating lunch, I heard a mighty “Schhhhlorp!” and a cascade of rushing water. Before bed, I ran warm water through the pipe again in the hope of it not freezing while I slept.
Tuesday morning was fine, if a bit chilly. I found that my heat pump kept the middle of my 26-foot house toasty warm, but my office on one end and the vestibule on the other, where my reading chair is, were around 50 degrees. No worries, I have a small ceramic space heater that warmed up those spaces in an hour. The cold made my pain worse, but there was still no reason to be stressed out.
That evening, I had to pick up one of my land hosts from the airport. That’s only 3 miles away, but the snow was almost a foot deep and I think my town of 100,000 has two snow plows. I was raised with snow driving; I felt pretty good about going to get Cathi. I left early and stopped at the grocery store on the way. While I was there, I realized that all my passenger doors were frozen shut. Now, I consider my land hosts to be unusually solid adults; we’re talking expert-level ninja adulting. I did not want to show up with my car doors frozen shut and force Cathi to shove her bags into the back seat over the reclined front seat, then climb over the console to get in. I wanted to meet her on her own level.
I started the engine and turned the heat on high, then climbed over the console myself, wincing as my damaged spine objected to the abuse. I tried pushing the car door out from the inside—nothing. I put some shoulder into it and an electric bolt of pain shot through my upper body. “Oh, this is bull****,” I muttered. I tried reaching into the back seats and pulling on the door handles. Still nothing. I climbed back over the console and got out, cooling my sudden hot flash in the bitter wind. More as a nervous gesture than an actual attempt, I tried the passenger door handle again. It opened! The back door too! The heat must have softened up the ice. Exultantly, I hollered “Towanda!” and pumped my mittened fists in the air. Then I noticed the 3 people standing by the store entry, watching.
My text tone went off; it was Cathi letting me know the shuttle bus from SeaTac (90 miles south) had just left the stop before the airport. I got back underway, creeping across the icy bridge just as the bus came up the exit ramp behind me. I led the bus to the airport and gathered Cathi and her things, the picture of confident assurance as I drove us home through the heavily falling snow.
On Wednesday morning it was 15 degrees with a minus 1 wind chill. My shower drain was frozen again. No biggie, I knew how to unplug it. But my toilet drain was frozen too! There’s a valve that responds to water pressure from above to release the contents into the drain pipe. Evidently there had been water in the drain, but not enough to cause the valve to open and release it, and it froze in place. When I poured hot water down on it, the water froze on contact and made the plug worse. I was without a toilet for as long as it was going to take to thaw on its own, and my shower drain hadn’t budged either.
I used to work in the national parks, and I was once very comfortable with “going rough” like a bear in the woods. My body has changed since then; squatting is no longer an option. I assured my host that I was fine in here, though I might like to use her house bathroom to freshen up in the morning. I grabbed a plastic soup container from my favorite take-out place and repurposed it, using it in almost a standing position. My bathroom sink drain was running freely, so I emptied the container into the sink.
I had hours home alone when I could have caught up on my work. I did nothing with that time. I was in pure survival mode. I had no productive thoughts; it was all I could do to keep my normal routines. My heat pump was working hard, but I still needed a heavy sweater indoors. My space heater was needed in the bathroom, heating the small space with the door closed in the hope that the drains would thaw.
Late Wednesday night, my shower drain schhhhhlorped again and the water ran down. The toilet remained frozen, the bowl filled with sludge to an inch below the rim. I used my improvised loo twice in the night.
On Thursday my carpenter neighbor, Mike, came over and went to work as if my drainage were his problem. He asked for a long object to wedge my toilet pedal down so the weight of the sludge in the bowl would work against the ice plug. I found a curtain rod from my old condo and braced it against the wall. We poured salt in the bowl to work its way down the pipe too.
Around 3 PM, I went to check on the toilet and found the bowl empty! When I turned the water back on and flushed it, the pipe filled immediately. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but after pouring 8 hot teakettles of water down and waiting between pours, the pipe cleared completely. As I scrubbed down my bathroom, my whole body ached and I had to rest several times to keep my back from going into spasms.
It’s about 45 degrees out now and the snow has all been washed away by rain. The storm challenged me physically, but the worst of its effects was going 4 days without exercise. That is serious in my world, but I made it! Between my own resourcefulness and the support of my little community, I weathered the storm. I’ve got this; I’m still a tough Western woman.
When have you been challenged like this? How did you get through it? Are you prepared for the worst that nature is likely to do in your area?