Wednesday, October 07, 2009


They say the most important thing about real estate is “location, location, location,” but if you are relocating to a small town, my advice is “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.” Real estate people sell lot-by-lot and try to direct your attention way from such an un-sexy and global issue as “infrastructure.”

In case you don’t know what infrastructure is, I’m talking about the support systems for electricity, sewer, water, telephone, internet, mail -- which are the “hard” wires, pipes, lagoons, streetlights, wells and poles that make stuff work. One could also profitably inquire into the “soft” infrastructure which might be things more like policing, plowing, bookkeeping, leadership, churches, organizations, stores, service stations and demographics. Far too many people who move to Valier are surprised by the differences from their former residences. In cities infrastructure can be taken for granted.

These past few days I’ve been cranky -- and I wasn’t the only one. We are prone to having blackouts since our electricity comes a long way via wires on poles which are vulnerable to weather. Today there is an early snow, weighting down trees that still have leaves, and some of them will drop branches across the lines, interrupting service. Also, there is a cold front kicking up the draw on the power supply. But for the past few days we’ve had interruptions in power that were long (several hours) and short (a blink that turns off all the electronics in the house) plus long periods of “brown-out” involving something to do with the “third leg” -- I don’t understand it and won’t attempt to explain here.

The consequences are not just that the music stops. Small motors are vulnerable to burnout when they must operate on low power: there goes the refrigerator, the computer, the microwave, the VCR. The internet infrastructure (I have no idea what or where they are for this town) begins to get confused, We’ve all been seduced into dependence on electricity governed by electronics which are in turn dependent on electricity. So not only did the local bed & breakfast have to replace a key part that regulates the heat for her historic three-story stone building, but also she lost her capacity to take reservations or swipe credit cards. Luckily her dining room is heated by a gas fireplace. I have a carbon monoxide monitor plugged into an electrical outlet which howls and shrieks if there’s a break in power. It’s been going off in the night, even with the furnace off, so that cats and I startle awake with our hair on end.

But all this is understandable when one lives out on the wind-raked northern prairie of Montana. Usually you call your neighbor who was told by somebody who knows somebody that someone got drunk and either wiped out a power pole or dug up the optical fiber cable. And from that information you know whether you’d better plan on using the powerless day for filing or whether just an hour with a book is a good idea. (If you’ve got enough light to read. My “little cataracts,” as the doc calls them, are beginning to require a bright reading light.)

This time I couldn’t find out anything. The sheriff’s dispatch knew nothing. My internet provider was baffled. The power company, Northwestern, a big predator corporation based in the Dakotas, instructed me to turn everything off and wait for the repairman. Their power outage answer phone was only designed for individual household problems, like a shorting-out toaster, and had no information at all about local town blackouts, particularly ones where the service was going off for several hours for rebuilding. I should have called the radio station but didn’t. I don’t listen to the local station which is on a different electrical provider anyway, a co-op. (I was raised to believe in co-ops as a near-religious principle, because my father grew up on the northern Canadian prairie.)

My internet provider had told others it was an “ISP issue,” that it was “user failure” and that if we just shut off our DSL units for fifteen minutes, all would be restored, and a lot of other invented advice that actually amounted to superstition more than anything else.

This morning a sheriff’s deputy had picked up a little bit of information, which he hadn’t bothered to share with the dispatcher. There have been two recent fires, one at a substation or transformer in “Williams” (a defunct little town SE of Valier) and one involving a broken power line that fell into a field near the New Miami Hutterite colony and set a prairie fire. Both have meant service interruptions, but the information was never conveyed to anyone in the newspaper or posted anywhere, like a service-monitoring website. What does Northwestern care about our worries in Valier? They have a monopoly.

This sort of stuff is cumulative. When we go along being repeatedly blind-sided, we finally get smart and fight back. It’s not just the power corporations, though they have the strongest grip on us, strong enough to take the power grid away from the pre-existing and once highly functional Montana Power. It’s a whole pattern. And it soon leads to what we called in seminary, “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” That is, people jump first to the assumption that someone is making money at our expense. No kidding.

And these power-gobblers have been worming their way into our governance at every level, imposing laws that say we MUST upgrade our sewage lagoon, water treatment, and wells -- without providing any money. (How nice for those who come in to evaluate, to recommend expenditures, to guide the money into certain pockets.) Or at the town level to impose more and more and more ordinances about sprinklers or yards in hopes of making the town look “nice,” meaning capable of attracting tourists who might make us rich. Micro-zoning prompted by realtors try to eliminate specific features like people in trailers because that hurts sales on that block. The town is promoted as “safe,” in spite of what the residents know. (I won’t tell you.)

Mostly what they know is not to run for office. To be a town commissioner is to be assailed by angry people who either want to go back to the past or to leap forward into the future. Newcomers declare they will run for mayor and “clean up.” Then they find out how complex and tough that is. I just want to know what’s going on. If I’m going to be hit with a big bill for a water meter, if I’m going to have to fix lunch without any electricity, if I’m going to have to weather a snowstorm with no gas heat -- I can do all those things. But I hate to be blind-sided. And I do NOT want to run for mayor.

Out on the horizon, visible from Valier, taunting us, is a forest of hundreds of giant windmills producing torrents of electricity destined for Canada.

1 comment:

Lance M. Foster said...

If I won the lottery, I'd live off the grid. Too bad I know too much about my odds of winning the lottery, so I don't play it. The odds are better for starting a revolution than for winning a lottery.