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Back to the Future

Column by George Sibley

Mountain Life – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE NATURAL GAS PRICES this winter were bad enough. And if you tend to entertain yourself browsing cheerful web sites like “,” you realize that this century probably has worse things in store energy-wise than just high prices.

But the real moment of awakening came one cold Sunday morning in December: our gas furnace — the new one installed just last summer — failed to come on. We noticed this when the temperature dropped under 60°.

Sunday morning, of course, is not the ideal time for the furnace not to come on, but the guy who had installed it happened to be home. Just try turning the switch on the high-tech programmable timer-controlled thermostat to “off,” he said, then back on. I did, and sure enough, the furnace came on. “They do that sometimes,” he said comfortingly. “We don’t know why.”

But that was the tipping point for us. This is the first house I’ve lived in since coming to Colorado that doesn’t have a wood stove, something I thought about when we bought the house. I figured I would miss the comforting feel and sound of a wood fire in the house, but I also figured I wouldn’t miss the trudge to the woodpile every afternoon, and the cleaning up of bark and sawdust and ash that are the inevitable byproducts of a wood stove.

But the feeling of general helplessness that morning tipped the balance.

With a modern gas furnace, we are dependent not only on some complicated technology I don’t understand, but also on two massive and remote systems that are way beyond our personal control: a gas pipe that comes in from somewhere Way Out There, and a far-flung fragile electrical grid that includes California, about which enough said. I knew all of this, of course, but in an abstract way. It became a different kind of knowledge on a cold Sunday morning in Gunnison when the furnace didn’t come on.

So, although we wouldn’t want it to be construed as a loss of faith in our great macro systems, my wife and I started looking for a wood stove. This is a different experience than it was when I got my first wood stove, up in Crested Butte when Botsie Spritzer and I were fixing up the front part of his family’s old building for a newspaper office. Botsie found us a free stove that time — people who were modernizing their home gave it away.

It wasn’t a great stove — basically just a metal cylinder with a grate and a door and a pipehole, but I took it with me when I sold the newspaper and moved to Gothic to become an artist. And then my family and I moved to Gunnison where we “traded up” for a big old Monkey Ward stove with someone who wanted a smaller one; that one we retrofitted in two more houses until we finally left it behind because we’d moved into a house that already had a stove.

BUT AS A RESULT of all that low technology, buying a wood stove today was a Rip Van Winkle experience. The EPA-approved stoves we were looking at had primary, secondary, tertiary and even quaternary combustion zones, burning not just the wood, but gases from the wood combustion, and I guess gases from the gas combustion. They were lined with bricks, and had stainless steel tubes, ceramic blankets and steel baffles doing whatever.

Very impressive — as were the prices.

Some stoves are designed to burn wood pellets, with a little stoker device to feed the pellets into the fire. But that seemed to present the same problems as the gas furnace — technology for which you have to call a repairman, and dependence on two out-of-valley supply systems over which you have no control. What I wanted was something we could start burning the furniture in if we got desperate. Or the pine paneling in the dining room, which needs to go anyway.

We decided to go ahead and buy one that was on sale, and we now have it sitting on the back porch — no sense rushing to install it this winter because we don’t have any wood anyway (except the pine paneling). By the time we get it installed, it will probably have cost us about as much as the new gas furnace. And then there’s the further fact that we saw a good deal on a ’79 Ford pickup in the Shopper; after all, we’re going to have to get firewood now.

But that’s the price of a little security to supplement the great interlocked systems that run our lives. Even though the stove is not warming the house yet, I feel better just knowing it’s on the back porch.

George Sibley teaches and writes in Gunnison, where a thaw is expected sometime around Flag Day.