Monday, January 13, 2014

Off the Grid

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett builds a new life. The congressman was once our neighbor and a friend of my father's. To quote:
When Roscoe Bartlett was in Congress, he latched onto a particularly apocalyptic issue, one almost no one else ever seemed to talk about: America’s dangerously vulnerable power grid. In speech after late-night speech on the House floor, Bartlett hectored the nearly empty chamber: If the United States doesn’t do something to protect the grid, and soon, a terrorist or an act of nature will put an end to life as we know it.

Bartlett loved to conjure doomsday visions: Think post-Sandy New York City without power—but spread over a much larger area for months at a time. He once recounted a conversation he claimed to have had with unnamed Russian officials about how they could take out the United States: They would “detonate a nuclear weapon high above your country,” he recalled them saying, “and shut down your power grid—and your communications—for six months or so.”

Bartlett never gained much traction with his scary talk of electromagnetic pulses and solar storms. More immediate concerns always seemed to preoccupy his colleagues, or perhaps Bartlett’s obsessions just sounded more like quackery than real science, even coming from a former Navy engineer who had worked on the space race. Whatever the reason, Congress’s failure to act is no longer Bartlett’s problem. The octogenarian Republican from western Maryland—more than once labeled “the oddest congressman”—found himself gerrymandered out of office a year ago and promptly decided to take action on the warnings others wouldn’t heed, retreating to a remote property in the mountains of West Virginia where he lives with no phone service, no connection to outside power and no municipal plumbing. Having failed to safeguard the power grid for the rest of the country, Bartlett has taken himself completely off the grid. He has finally done what he pleaded in vain for others to do: “to become,” as he put it in a 2009 documentary, “independent of the system.”

I visited Bartlett this past fall, following a set of maze-like directions—take a series of different forks in the road and look for the one paved driveway that turns off a narrow, rocky dirt road—as I climbed to nearly 4,000 feet, one of the highest U.S. elevations east of the Rocky Mountains. I lost cell phone service halfway into the four-hour drive from Washington and never got it back. The nearest shopping mall is more than an hour’s drive away.

When I arrived, Bartlett greeted me in faded denim overalls and an unruly white beard and asked if anything had happened since he was last in Maryland, about a week earlier. I told him that the National Security Agency had just been caught tapping into the connections between data centers run by Google and Yahoo. He looked nonplussed. (Read more.)


papabear said...

One of the few (the only?) to talk about peak oil, too.

julygirl said...

The photo of his cabin and layout is enviable, (except for the lack of modern amenities. Sorry, I need the "Grid"). I would like to do the same thing, except perhaps in New Mexico. God Speed, Old Timer!

The North Coast said...

Bartlett is just about the ONLY Peak Oil- aware statesman we have had. I recommend everyone look up and read the speeches he delivered on our precarious fuel situation and fatal dependence on copious amounts of liquid fuels just to live our lives.

He was, of course, ignored, which we will all be sorry for. The high fuel prices are not temporary, because the cheap, easy stuff is tapped out and we're left with the dregs to be gotten from "fracking" and deep water drills. The increasing cost of extraction and rapid depletion rates of these "unconventional" sources will be a permanent drag on the economy as far out as we can envision.