Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part I

Baby, it’s cold inside!

We drove up to our camping shed at Howard Mesa this morning. Just me, Mike, Alex the Bird, and Jack the dog. We left the horses home. It’s getting mighty cold up north these days and I really didn’t think it was fair to the horses to make them stand outside with no shelter when nighttime temperatures were dipping into the teens. The problem of shelter becomes even more serious when there’s a chance of snow for Tuesday.

The ride was long and uneventful. We made two stops: the Ace hardware store in Chino Valley for a gasket and some pipe insulation and the Safeway in Chino Valley for lattes and discounted fuel for Mike’s truck.

Mt. Humphreys and the San Francisco Peaks had a nice thick cap of snow. The air was crystal clear and we could see the mountains when we were still in Prescott — at least 50 miles away. It looked amazing.

When we got on I-40 west of Williams, there was snow on the ground. Well, on the north side of hills, trees, and other shade-producing structures. Any area exposed to the sun was free of snow. But there was a considerable amount in the shady area. We started speculating on whether there would be snow on the ground at our place.

I took some video along the way, with the usual idea of making a little DVD to send the family. You know: how we spent Christmas off the grid. I have quite a library of video tapes I’ll probably never show to anyone.

When we got to Howard Mesa, there was some snow on the ground and on the road. It was about noon and the sun was bright and warm. The outside temperature was about 40°F. The snow was melting into the dirt below it, making the road slick wherever the gravel-like cinders had been crushed or worn away. The truck had one brief skidding incident before Mike slowed down.

Up on top of the mesa at our place, it was as deserted as usual. I got out to unlock the gate, coating the bottoms of my shoes with gooey mud and gravel. Mike parked up by the shed so we wouldn’t have to walk far with all the stuff we’d brought up. (For some reason, we brought a ton of stuff with us — I think the Christmas presents took up most of the space.) Then we went inside the shed to survey the situation.

For years, we suffered with mice, both in our camper and later, in the camping shed. It took us the best part of two years to find all the holes they were using to get into the walls and close them up. I’m still amazed when we come in after being away for a month or two and there aren’t any mouse droppings. There were none today, either.

But there was ice. We have a 5-gallon water jug we keep on a plastic holder with a spout. The water bottle was frozen almost solid. We had to carry it outside into the sun to get the defrost cycle going. The dish soap was frozen and so was the 409 cleaner.

Mike had some small problems getting the heater going, but it was soon filling the place with warm air. I started up the gas fridge and moved everything from the cooler into it. It was already cold in there, which would save some energy anyway. Then I started up the oven and threw in a frozen pie. When it’s cold up here, we bake a lot.

The big problem seemed to be the water pump. At first, it wouldn’t work at all. Mike pulled away the wall so he could check it out and the warm air from the room slipped into the small space. He was in the process of testing it with some electric testing equipment when it suddenly went on. Unfortunately, all the pipes in the area seemed to be frozen so the water wouldn’t flow. We’d brought our gas bottle heater and Mike set it up to throw heat on the whole area. After a while, the pump started working better and soon we had water in the sinks and shower. The plastic hosing to the toilet is frozen, though, so it’ll be a while before the water gets in there. We’ve got a bucket full of water for manual flushing.

As I type this, Mike is wrapping the 4-foot hose from our water tank to the shed with heat trace tape. We’re hoping it keeps the hose and valves from freezing overnight so we’ll have running water all night long and — more important — in the morning when we get up.

Howard Mesa Christmas I went out for a while and took some photos. It’s so perfectly clear and beautiful outside, with just enough snow to remind you that it’s winter. There’s just a slight breeze blowing; if it picks up it’ll get very cold outside.

Tonight we’re meeting some friends for a big dinner at El Tovar in Grand Canyon National Park. Last year, we had a party of six in the private dining room on Christmas Eve. This year, it’s a party of ten in the same room a day earlier.

The moon is full tonight and I’m bringing my tripod along. I’m hoping the wind stays calm so we can stop at Mather Point for some moonlight photos of the canyon.

More later…

What do you think?