In search of heat in South Beach


I have turned into one of those women who is always freezing, whose fingers are icy when you shake hands, who wear three times as many layers of clothing as seems logical. It’s not my age, and I certainly haven’t gotten skinny. No, the pellet stove, the main source of heat at my house in the woods, is defunct again. On the Thursday before Christmas, it developed this habit of starting to light a little fire in the pot and then moaning to a stop. No more fire. No heat.

I cleaned it, scraping out a layer of pellets burned into  rock. Surely that would fix it. Nope. Little fire, moan, darkness. I hit reset 10 times that day. No go. I called the stove guy. Got the machine because a hundred other people are having stove problems around here.

The poor stove had been working overtime for weeks, with temperatures staying in the 30s much of the time. Threats of snow and ice had not materialized here yet but Portland and places not far inland were going crazy, with cars sliding all over in the big freeze. Schools and businesses were closed. A friend in Eugene had no power for six days. Not a good time for a dead pellet stove.

I love small towns for their lack of traffic and crowds and the way everybody knows everybody. I love that I can walk into the post office and Valerie grabs my package from the stack because she knows who I am. I can walk into my favorite restaurant and they know I want iced tea with no lemon. I can park my car by the pallets of pellets at Copeland Lumber, and a guy will start loading them into the Element before I even go in to pay. They know I’m getting 15 bags, 600 pounds of processed wood. It’s all good.

But this no-heat business stinks. You see, we have no gas out here in South Beach, unless you install a big expensive tank, and most of the houses were built without electric heating systems. We have baseboard heaters in some rooms, little “Cadet” heaters installed in some walls, but mostly we heat our homes with wood in the form of logs or pellets. Chimneys sprout from every roof, most with metal caps that swing around in the wind.

We used to have two woodstove shops in town. One went out of business. The other is trying to take up the slack, but there are too many stoves out here, and one must wait for an opening to get service. I was lucky the guy made it out here last Wednesday, after only six days and a chilly Christmas. He took one look and declared that I need a new thermocouple, a little piece that sticks out above the burn pot and enables the stove to light and stay lit. He would have to order one. It would not be here before New Year’s. Looking around at my assortment of plug-in heaters, he sympathized. “Well, you have some heat.”

Yes, enough to stay alive but not enough to be comfortable. Plus I have knocked out the circuit breaker six times so far. My electrical system cannot take the added stress of a plug-in heater plus almost anything else in the kitchen. If I want to use the microwave or toaster oven, I need to go without heat for a while. At least now I know exactly what to do when suddenly everything goes dark and silent. It’s number thirteen on the circuit board. My electrician dad says I can’t keep doing this; it’s dangerous. He says you get 20 amps on most circuits. The heater takes 12.5. That doesn’t leave much for extras, and if the refrigerator cycles on, it’s over. Maybe I don’t need the microwave.

The picture above was taken at 10:21 a.m. The sun was shining outside, and the three-foot-tall electric heater I bought with Christmas money two years ago had been on full blast all night. It wasn’t going to get much warmer.

People who live in snow country are thinking I’m a wimp. It’s not like it’s 30 below. I do have sources of heat. Remember the bedroom I moved out of a couple months ago? I have moved back in because that bed has an electric blanket, and I can’t afford to buy one for the other, larger bed. It also has a baseboard heater that I use reluctantly because it’s too close to the sheets. In addition, it has space on the floor for Annie, who can no longer jump up onto the bed and has decided she is not going to freeze alone.

The master bedroom, pretty though it is, is just too cold. In fact, when I was cleaning out Fred’s clothes after he died, most of his neckties had mold on them. It’s that cold and damp back there.

I have a baseboard heater in my office, too, but I only feel it if I’m sitting right here typing and only on my legs. My hands feel like iced bones with a thin covering of skin.

This morning, the frost-crisped lawn and leaves are edged in white. The sidewalk and driveway sparkle with flecks of ice. My phone weather app claims it’s 35 degrees now but feels like 26. I know it’s worse elsewhere. On the radio, the guy said it was below zero in Bend, Oregon. I’m not going to Bend or anywhere east. I’m from San Jose. I don’t do snow and ice.

Next time I go house-hunting, my first question will be: What kind of heat does it have?

Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street walks around his house in shorts as smoke billows out his chimney. It’s actually hot in his double-wide. Maybe it’s time to go borrow a cup of sugar.

May you be warm and healthy in the new year, and may the world come to its senses.

It’s All About Staying Warm

We’ve had a spectacular run of blue skies and starry nights. No rain, which is surprising for December on the Oregon coast. But it’s cold, so cold. Still frosty in the shade at noon. If there were precipitation, it would be snow. Every day, it’s a battle to stay warm. Here in the trees, we don’t have gas or central heating. Most houses have wood stacked up for winter. I have a woodshed outside the house with a diminishing supply of raggedy wood, which Annie occasionally takes to the lawn for chew toys. She has created a wonderful supply of kindling for me. After she chews it up, I put it in a bucket to use for starting fires in the woodstove in the den.

I don’t light a fire every day. I have other options, including a space heater and a persnickety pellet stove in the den, our main source of heat.
The pellet stove is annoying. It often fails to come on. If it gets too much ash, not enough pellets or is just in a bad mood, it will start up, hum for a while, then decrescendo into silence. When the power goes off, it doesn’t work at all. This time of year, it eats a 40-pound bag of pellets a day. When it works, it’s a beautiful golden source of heat. Annie and I spend a lot of time warming ourselves in front of the pellet stove, taking care not to get burnt.
I love a wood fire. But you have to tend it. If you forget it for an hour, it goes out, so I only use it when I’m feeling ambitious or when we don’t have electricity. The other night I decided to start my fire. I didn’t have my glasses on and had only a dim lamp for light. As the first sparks were starting to shoot out of the kindling, something didn’t look right in there. A piece of wood near the door looked furry. As I looked closer, I realized it wasn’t fur; it was feathers. I had a dead bird in the woodstove. It had made the incredible journey past the chimney captain, down the chimney, and down the long black stove pipe, including a bend near the ceiling. It probably died on impact. I heard no flapping or chirping.
I grabbed a paper towel and took the bird out, carefully avoiding the growing fire. Cradling the bird in the towel, I took the opportunity to look closely. Shyly, I touched it. So, so soft. Possibly a junco or a finch, it had black tail feathers, a gray chest, and a stubby beak. I felt so sorry for it. After a while, I took it outside and laid it to rest in the ivy with a little prayer.
It’s all about heat around here lately. The other morning, I plugged in a space heater in the bedroom because I just couldn’t seem to get warm. Then I went to blow-dry my hair. I had one side of my hair done when the power went out on the whole south side of the house. The circuit couldn’t take the addition of the heater. Now I know: I can either style my hair or be warm. Given the choice, I’d rather be warm.
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