Earlier this month, Winter Storm Jupiter (aka Icepocalypse, Icepocalypsageddon) unleashed a cross-country cataclysm that first hammered the Pacific Northwest on January 10, including Portland, Oregon, where more than one foot of snow piled up, and didn’t relent until blanketing much of New England a week later.
In between, Jupiter brought frozen precipitation throughout the Midwest. From the Texas Panhandle all the way to Michigan and as far east as Kentucky, millions were affected as the ice, up to 1” thick in certain areas, damaged trees, downed power lines and created exceedingly dangerous road conditions.
Now, I’m normally the kind of guy that downplays “severe” winter storms and the related threats of impending doom. Admittedly, my attitude is probably too cavalier, but nine times out of 10, they’re really not severe at all and, at the risk of sounding cynical, the scare tactics seem intended to drive consumerism far more than safety.
Perhaps I’d feel differently if I hadn’t grown up in the Midwest with every type of extreme weather imaginable, from tornado season in the spring with gale-force winds and occasional hail to summer days with 100-degree temperatures and stifling humidity to intermittent blizzard conditions throughout the winter than can quickly drop a foot of a snow almost without warning.
I’m well versed in shoveling my way out of snowy messes and driving ill-equipped, non-4x4 vehicles on sketchy roads. I’ve also weathered a few power outages and came out mostly unscathed on the other side. If anything, a winter storm warning is usually a reminder to stock up on a few items simply because venturing out will be a pain in the ass, not a life and death endeavor.
Somehow, though, this one felt different. First, icy roads are a more vicious animal than snowy ones, even when the accumulation is heavy. Second, thick ice ratchets up the possibility of a power outage due to downed trees and power lines. And third, because I’m somewhat less inclined to throw caution to the wind at this stage in life, I simply felt the need for a higher level of preparation.
That said, when ice weekend was finally upon us, I still procrastinated until Sunday morning to make my errand run. This was mainly to avoid the panic-stricken crowds in the days prior that resembled the same sort of madness you might see on Black Friday. But also because, well, I still felt a strong sense of “meh” until shit started to get real. (Old habits die hard.)
Over the next three days, however, I learned several valuable lessons.
Lesson #1: Fear is (still) a powerful motivator.
Despite my intention to “only buy a few items, you know, just in case,” I couldn’t stop putting things in my cart once the shopping spree began. To my surprise, I could actually feel the grip of mild fear as I reached for item after item, realizing that these choices would go a long way in dictating my quality of life and general well-being over the next several days.
It became a strategic game of sorts as I calculated the number of meals I would need to survive a worst-case scenario, including mostly self-contained foods that require no refrigeration and little-to-no preparation in the event of a power outage. That led to a number of selections I’m not particularly proud of, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Lesson #2: Like it or not, peace of mind is a valuable commodity.
In my case, it was worth a few hundred bucks as I stocked up on the aforementioned foodstuffs (including dog food and treats for Betsy and some adult beverages for me), filled my gas tank, made sure I had enough ice melt to clear my walkways and very steep driveway, and, ironically, enough ice to maintain an emergency cooler “fridge” on the back deck.
After I got home, unloaded everything and looked upon my bounty of snacks, I felt somewhat foolhardy for my fiscal overreaction and for succumbing to Ice Panic™ in general. But the flip side is that it felt good (really good, actually) knowing that Betsy and I had everything we needed to hunker down for days on end if needed. This feeling was bolstered by the rationalization that almost none of this stuff will go bad and that much of it was “necessary” anyway.
Lesson #3: Still, I wouldn’t normally eat most of this crap.
I’m not the world’s healthiest eater and I don’t count calories for the most part, but I do try to avoid carbs and fatty, processed foods in general. When I eat fast food, I’m likely to opt for chicken over red meat, sub a salad for fries, that sort of thing. However, when you’re looking for foods that don’t require preparation or refrigeration, healthy options, even quasi-healthy ones, are pretty scarce.
I again relied on the power of rationalization to justify a few frozen pizzas (which had to be consumed quickly, of course, due to the specter of power loss) and two tubes of Pringles. I still haven’t eaten the latter, but if/when I do, I’ll remind myself that climbers have taken them on Everest expeditions, and that the fuel they provided was most likely the catalyst that helped them reach the summit.
This tale of survival is brought to you by Pringles®, the stackable, life-giving chip. Reach for them during your next crisis.
Lesson #4: Smoked Gouda Triscuits are terrible.
Unlike the Pringles, I launched into the Triscuits almost immediately. I sliced up some Colby-Jack cheese and made myself a nice little appetizer tray in time for the Packers-Cowboys kickoff. I mean, cheese-flavored crackers with actual cheese on top… what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, the whole damn plate becomes rather unappealing when the crackers taste like smoked hell. Fortunately, because I was prepared, I also bought some original flavor Triscuits (low fat even, so win-win) to guard against this outcome. First crisis averted. Whew!
Lesson #5: Cabin fever is real.
By the end of the Steelers-Chiefs game, I was getting pretty antsy. Betsy and I would occasionally go out and slide our way across the back patio so she could do her business and we could both stretch our legs. But that was about it. The rest of it mostly involved staying indoors, watching TV and deciding which snack(s) to eat next. That might sound like a dream come true for some, and it was fun for awhile, but the feeling quickly waned and was exacerbated by the realization that this routine might go on for days.
Lesson #6: Real fever is very real.
As a result of the cabin fever, I decided to take my chances and venture out to work the next day. It was actually pretty fun as there was only a small skeleton crew in the office. I even led our daily all-team meeting at 11:11 and took a selfie to commemorate the rare instance of having far less than our normal 100+ Firespringers in attendance. Those of us who made it in felt heroic in our own small way and the resulting solidarity bonded us even more tightly.
The problem is that, shortly thereafter, I realized I was starting to get for-real sick. Various bugs had been going around, including a strain of Influenza A, and few were spared at least some mild cold and flu symptoms. I was fortunate to avoid the truly nasty stuff, but it was enough to keep me out of commission the next two days. So I went back home, back to Betsy and back to all my snacks, and dealt with the symptoms of real flu and “get me the hell out of here” flu over the next 48 hours.
Lesson #7: We (mostly) dodged a bullet this time.
In the end, while the dangerous roads resulted in several car accidents, schools were closed, sickness continued to spread and work productivity generally took a hit, it was mostly a non-event as the Lincoln and Omaha communities avoided major outages that could have led to far more serious problems. Other parts of the country weren’t as fortunate, however, as evidenced by significant levels of destruction and, sadly, a loss of life.
Given that the warnings far exceeded our local reality, however, a younger me might have walked away feeling deceived, more cynical and less inclined to prepare for the next Something-pocalypse. Instead, I’ll reflect on this experience fondly and treat it as an opportunity to become more diligent and efficient in my planning. Even if that results in nothing more than staying the hell away from Smoked *Anything* Triscuits, the experience was worth its weight in fine, golden cheese.