Bill Arnott’s Beat: No Power? No Problem!

A day of transience. Change in the season, cooler than usual, as yet undecided. Tentative, somehow. So I built a fire. We were renting a small apartment in a low-rise Vancouver neighbourhood. Buildings are older, still furnished with wood-burning fireplaces. Like camping, indoors. Supper was already made, and with a freshly poured pint in my glass, I crumpled paper, added a log, and set it alight. The process still induces a primal thrill, tapping deep in a vein I can hardly articulate, somewhere between hunter-gatherer and tribal contributor. Then again, it may simply be pretty glimmers of wavering orange with a devious hint of pyro.

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We were set up with Netflix, the evening shaping up fine, then the lights softly surged, and with an almost audible “pop” we were cast into dark. A power outage. Blanketing the entire community. So much for Wi-Fi, movies, or charging devices. Like that, we were in the dark ages. But supper was already warm. The beer, still chilled. And the fire was throwing a blushing warm glow through the room. I dug out a book and what I thought was a very good evening morphed into one of perfection.

“Look at me,” I said aloud. “Reading. By the light of a fire. Like a caveman! (Well, a literate caveman, with a penchant for travel memoirs.)

It brought to mind another experience. A midsummer evening, when we walked to a restaurant facing a beach, setting sun low on the sea. Unbeknownst to us, the power had gone out then as well, across the whole area, while we made our way from our home to the oceanside restaurant. We entered the place and it had the ambience of good dining, candles lighting the compact space. It still didn’t occur to us that there was no power. The proprietor greeted us at the front door. It was early and there were no other patrons.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “We have no power.”

“Oh, right,” we said, a bit baffled, only then realizing the situation. “So, no service tonight?”

He thought about it. “Well, not exactly. But if you’re okay with candlelight, we could do you a salad. And we have oysters on ice. Which are excellent, if you eat them right now.”

We said that sounded ideal, along with some bread and a bottle of wine, still cool from the fridge. The meal, the ambiance, and serendipitous improvisation made it one of the best I recall.

Walking back in the dark, the power returned, streetlamps returning to life in a flickering row, lighting our path as though the whole town was on a motion detector. When we came home it was, unsurprisingly, just as we’d left it. But with a lingering sensation the entire near-perfect and dreamy excursion had all been imagined.

That’s how I felt in front of the fire, a warming mood of recollection, the space of shared stories. Where things move at an agreeably metered tempo, the analog pace of the world as opposed to the ramped-up speed of high-tech. When the things that we do, what we experience, are wholly sensory, engaged and engaging.

One more experience came to mind. From childhood. Mom, dad and me, maybe a sibling as well, seated in the living room, when the power went out one wintery night. Again we lit a fire, then told stories in turn. For my share, I sang a song, a song about summertime, the whole thing still utterly vivid. Those feelings, fondness and warmth. Tapping into agelessness. Perhaps that’s exactly what we’re meant to be doing on long and dark evenings together. Adapting. Improvising. And sharing. Experiencing rich simplicities in all their wonder, savouring the world we inhabit.

Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, the Gone Viking travelogues, and A Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot (Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land. 

5 thoughts on “Bill Arnott’s Beat: No Power? No Problem!”

  1. Excellent article. I love power failures! It helps to have had plenty of experience with them, to know one must always be prepared. And to be in a living situation that allows for it, and to be able-bodied. And as long as outage is not lengthy. A terrible thing, how reliant we are, on power from an external source. There are certainly many people who absolutely cannot be without power for long… physical ability limitations, for instance.

  2. A lovely article. When we built our camp in the 70s, Dad didn’t want power. As a kid, I loved the adventure. When he died in 1989, the first thing Mom did was install power. It never felt right. When the camp comes to me, I’ll undo that.

    There is something very basic, very peaceful about living without power. When it goes out at the house, it doesn’t bother me. I’m prepared with one foot in the past.

    I have to agree with you that the lighting of fire induces a primal thrill. It doesn’t matter how many times I do it, something deep inside sighs with pleasure.

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