Friday September 28, 2012

It was the weekend before my mom's 90th birthday, and we drove up to Fairlee for a birthday visit. After visiting with mom we jumped back on to I-91 to visit my cousin Cheryl and her husband Joe in Morgan. These two Springfield natives moved to Morgan about six years ago, eschewing the fast-paced lives they had established in southern Vermont. Every time we would see my cousin at a family event, she would tell us how much they loved the Northeast Kingdom. I had never seen their home in Morgan, and now was the perfect time to visit.

The third week in September in southern Vermont has indicators of the fall to come, with weaker deciduous trees beginning to show color, but in the Northeast Kingdom the foliage is beginning to look good in spots. We must have stopped six or seven times to take photographs of brilliant colors. The temperature was a perfect 72 degrees, the sun was warm and bright, and the sky was a perfect blue. Suddenly the cell phone rang, and it was my cousin asking where we were. At the time we were in East Burke. She told us she had just finished pulling her boat out of Lake Seymour for the season, and it was very windy and difficult to power through the chop. In East Burke there wasn't even a light breeze. Interesting.

By the time we got to Newark, the wind was playing with the leaves on the silver maples, making them glitter like a skimpy outfit on a Las Vegas show girl. Even the anti-wind power signs were flapping in the breeze.

We had been climbing in elevation since East Burke, getting up onto that high ground that the Northeast Kingdom is so famous for, with sweeping vistas of the Green Mountains to the south. The GPS took us through Island Pond, over dirt roads, past Echo Lake, through farmyards, and past overgrown cemeteries. As the voice on the GPS was telling us we had reached our destination, we were on a dirt road that had homes about a half mile to a mile apart, and we were in between a couple of those places, and not a driveway or a home in sight. This was the second time the GPS had failed us. I decided to back track a half mile or so, and sure enough, there was my cousin's large, beautiful log home just up the hill in a high meadow. I think that Global Positioning Satellite receivers are great, but once again learned that they are not infallible.

As we drove up the long, winding drive, I noticed a big solar panel in the meadow, alongside one of those residential windmills on a metal tower, the blades spinning in the stiff wind. I looked around. No power lines, and no indicators of buried public utility power lines. They were completely off the grid, and had been for the past six years. I was impressed.

My cousin pointed out a ridge to the southeast that had some giant wind towers on it spinning in that deceptively slow looking manner, generating a lot of electricity with each revolution. I noted that we had seen the anti-wind power signs in Newark, and both Joe and Cheryl agreed that the towers are interesting to watch and do not constitute an eyesore, an opinion that I strongly agree with. I noticed that the wind was coming out of the west over Lake Seymour, and I looked southwest to where my biological father lives some 51 air miles away, and realized that they are in that same weather pattern as Fairfax, which experiences a great deal of wind off Lake Champlain. What a perfect place for wind power.

Part of our visit was purely focused on how Joe and Cheryl exist off the grid. The house has great southern exposure, so there is quite a bit of solar gain. The wind almost never stops up there, and the cell service is great. With satellite TV and high speed internet, plus a propane powered emergency generator, and sufficient firewood harvested from their own acreage, they survive quite nicely. They also mentioned that they built the house from wood off their land years ago while still living in Springfield, using it as a great weekend getaway.

Living off the grid is more possible with each passing year. With a combination of wood, solar, and wind, my cousins have achieved a good standard of living in a beautiful part of the state. Their propane back-up generator only kicked on three times last winter. A good portion of their generated power initially came from the solar panel, but once they added the windmill, the situation improved dramatically. It's a good thing that it's windy up there.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for 20 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM every weekday morning at 8 a.m.