Camping out at home

by Alan Kesselheim



The first heating bill I got was for October, and it jumped from summer levels right up to what I was paying mid-winter last year. Mind you, I didn't even light the furnace pilot light until Oct.10, and because the weather was nice, we only kicked in the thermostat on a handful of days, less than six, I'd say.

Almost the same day I opened the newspaper to stories covering the whopping, multibillion dollar quarterly profits that major oil companies have reaped. They made billions of dollars over a three-month period. Pure profit!

There were some quotes in there from industry representatives answering tough questioning from members of Congress. Weasely rationalizations on the theme of the "ebb and flow nature of the business." I tried to recall the last "ebb" I got on my power bill. Seems like there has been a pretty consistent history of "flow" on my end of the business. All the ebbing has been happening in my bank account.

Still, I'm trying to draw lessons from this experience. One of my conclusions is that I have to apply my camping practices to life at home.

When I'm camping, I dress for conditions. Layers, insulation, heavy socks, a wool cap. What am I thinking wearing a short-sleeved shirt at home when it's winter outside? Put on a sweater, for crying out loud! Wear some socks.

I'm always amazed, as the season progresses, by how I acclimatize to the weather. Pretty soon the same temperature that felt pretty chilly at the start of winter feels absolutely balmy come January. Heck, people who live in igloos strip down and exist quite comfortably in 40 degrees. Why should I require 65 or 70? Get used to it!

When I'm camping, I pay attention to conditions. Where's the wind coming from? Where will morning sunlight hit? What are the clouds doing? Does it look like rain? Then I make decisions about campsite location, tent orientation, using trees for shelter from wind.

At home, I'm starting to apply the same frame of reference. When the morning sun hits my east-facing windows, for example, I open the drapes wide. As the sun moves into the south, I open those drapes. The amount of solar heat generated through a pane of glass is staggering. When the sunlight goes, I pull them closed and trap that heat inside.

In camp, I light a fire first thing in the morning, boil up some water for hot drinks. Same at home. I kick in the furnace for an hour while everyone gets ready for the day. We all drink our coffee and cocoa and hot tea. Then, off it goes, just like the campfire. If we bake something in the oven, I leave the door open after the food comes out and the kitchen warms right up. That basement room we never use, we’ve put foam blocks into the windows and shut the door tight. Little things like that.

After bedtime, the heat never comes on. We go to bed early and snuggle under the weight of blankets and quilts, just like burrowing into sleeping bags in a tent. It feels nice and cozy that way.

Now, in Montana, we got what I’ve been worried about, the big freeze. Temperatures down to -20 degrees at night. It’s the kind of weather that, if I were camping, I’d just have to hunker by the fire and wait it out. At home, that hunkering in for a couple of days may require getting a part-time job. It’s enough to make me live in fear of the mailman.

In the big picture, though, these shocking power bills are a good wake-up call. For too long I've been able to ignore the weather, living scantily clad in my thermostatically warmed shelter, driving in my cheaply-powered, temperature-controlled vehicle, as if I had immunity from the seasons.

I do wonder, from time to time, what sort of campers those oil-industry executives would make. I'd enjoy the opportunity to invite them over for a weekend campout at my place. We could sit around in our bulky clothes, sip some hot chocolate, and talk about the ebb and flow of climate.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.

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