I’m a seasoned Mainer, I’ve dealt with brutal winters for most of my life. But nothing prepares you for the moment you’re forced to use a cat as a makeshift tool to inch your way up an icy mountain or face certain death.
The year was 1998. I was 27 and living alone with Conan O’Brien, my fat orange tabby. I had just finished my shift at work and walked outside one night to find my car encased in a thick layer of ice. It took me an hour to chip away a small window to see well enough to drive home.
Huh, I thought. This sucks.
I arrived at my apartment to find the power already out. The following day the freezing rain the local weatherman predicted would end only intensified. Frigid air seeped in at night, hovering around 20 degrees. I went to bed wearing 12 layers, my winter coat, hat and mittens.
Huh, I thought, my teeth chattering. This really sucks.
On the third day of the ice storm I woke up to find Conan sitting on my head for warmth. He normally wouldn’t go near me unless I fed him. I tried to shove him off my face but my arms had gone numb from the cold. I sighed and a frosty mist shot out my nostrils.
Huh, I thought as he dug his claws deeper into my ear and settled his butt onto my nose. This sucks an incredible amount. Must be the end of the world as we know it? But I don’t feel fine.
No power meant no coffee. A monster of a headache crept across my skull. Dear lord, what was next? I shuffled to my bathroom to discover my toilet was full of icy water and had cracked. Never knew that was possible. I also knew I had to get to a place with power or warmth or I would end up like my toilet.
So I crammed a meowing Conan into a cat carrier, threw a few things in my bag and chiseled the ice tomb off my tiny Ford Fiesta. My destination? My mom’s house 20 minutes away. I knew it was crazy to attempt. But I prefer to not slowly die from hypothermia.
My neighbor warned me most of the major roads out of town were closed. Unfazed, (or just manic from caffeine withdrawal), I slowly drove out of my driveway onto a skating rink. Power lines were down everywhere, lying across the icy roads like dead black snakes. Trees hunched over in despair, their branches touching the ground under the weight of an inch of ice. It looked like hell had finally frozen over.
“But I need my coffee!” I said to Conan. He let out a sad cry.
As I gingerly slid onto the desolate main road, a Central Maine Power guy repairing a frozen power line waved at me to stop. I tapped the brakes, skidding and fishtailing in slow motion about 100 feet. He skated over to my window and said, “Are you crazy? You really shouldn’t be out here.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. Conan howled.
We continued down the windy road through the ice-encrusted landscape, maintaining a steady clip of about 15 mph. I was hoping I’d make my trip to my Mom’s and have a hot cup of coffee before the end of the world. Although I had a feeling the end was already upon us.
As my car crept along I-95 for over an hour, I noticed I hadn’t seen another soul in any direction the entire drive. Even the plow guys knew better. Conan’s meows intensified.
My harrowing ordeal in the car finally ended when by some miracle I reached the bottom of my mom’s driveway. Her house sat at the top of a steep hill. I glanced up at the warm yellow light streaming out her front windows. Unfortunately, the thick layer of ice that coated everything between the house and my car would prove to be my final yet greatest obstacle.
The car would need to stay in the street, there was no time to waste. I grabbed Conan’s cat carrier and stepped outside onto the crunchy driveway. I slipped and fell down immediately, still managing to hold onto the carrier. Now lying down on the ground flat on my back, I looked up to see my mom and brother in the front window waving enthusiastically at me. I reached over to the car to try to lift myself up but it was no use, everything I grabbed onto was a slippery icicle.
Great. Now I was trapped on the driveway, with no way to pull myself back up to my feet. This was how it was going to end, dying from exposure, a mere 100 feet from the coffee pot.
Conan cried again and a thought sliced through my foggy, caffeine-deprived mind.
“Conan,” I whispered into the slats of his carrier. “Get ready, buddy. We’re gonna get up this godforsaken hill if it’s the last thing we do. Just might be the last thing we do.”
“Meoooooooowww,” said Conan.
To be continued — Part Two: Why the Lack of a Hot Shower is the Harbinger of the End of Civilization as We Know It
Looking Back at the Ice Storm of 1998 — Maine Sunday Telegram