Joe Ramos was slowly and steadily developing an obsession with electricity. That he lived off the grid was a given – everyone in this part of El Pescadero did – but the attention he paid to the setup of his solar panels, the various meters and monitors that kept popping up over the years, and particularly the bodega full of spare parts, well – let’s just say it went well beyond the level of routine maintenance.
Joe had no formal training in electronics. He taught Math at a tough elementary school in The Bronx, where he met his wife Joyce, who taught English. They had no children, dedicating themselves to struggling students whom they would tutor after hours at the school. Both of them had gone into education right after college, and both would make it their life’s work. Then one day, after 25 years as a teacher, Joe decided that it was time.
Actually, he said “I’m not that old, but my grandfather died at my age. I’m going to quit while I’m ahead and enjoy my life while I still can.” Joyce reluctantly agreed to retire at the same time. They sold their modest home in East Meadow and packed up for Mexico. That was 30 years ago.
Joe and Joyce had lived in the suburbs and weren’t used to a rugged lifestyle. They packed up everything they owned into a station wagon and pulled a small pop-up trailer from New York to Baja California Sur. After camping out in a trailer park for a few days, Joe bought a plot of land on the side of a hill in Pescadero Heights. They cooked meals on a small hibachi grill and drank bottled water until Joe could dig a well. It took two years to build a primitive structure that could almost be called a house, and another year before they had water and electricity.
Electrical power was supplied by solar panels installed by Joe. This was long before “living off the grid” became fashionable. Every week Joe would bring different parts into the yard, setting them up in some order understood only to him. Joyce didn’t dare touch any of it. It took two months before he actually began assembling what could be seen as some sort of structure, all the time measuring panels and collecting meters and dials.
Before long, he had built a small shed out of scrap wood to keep his collection out of the elements. Some were clearly parts made for the solar panels, but others had nothing to do with it: vacuum tubes and capacitors from old televisions, transistor radios, data modems, telephones – you name it, you were likely to find it there. He spent hours checking his inventory, carrying a clipboard every bit as old as some of the old televisions.
For her part, Joyce left Joe alone, realizing that this was his way of remaining busy. She would do all of the food and clothes shopping, in addition to volunteering at a local school teaching local children how to speak English. On the rare rainy days they experienced in Baja, Joe would restlessly pace in their tiny house, chomping at the bit to get back to his collection.
Being the handiwork of an elementary school Math teacher, the solar-powered setup failed regularly, particularly after a thunderstorm, a fairly common event. Whenever this happened, Joe would rush out of the house with a flashlight – regardless of whether the storm had ended or not – and inspect the panels for damage. At first he had no clue how to fix his Frankenstein of a system, often being out of commission for days, but over the years he accumulated enough spare parts, curious onlookers and know-how to be able to get back up and running within minutes.
In the early days of living off the grid, Joe was quite the novelty. People would stop by from as far away as La Paz and Cabo San Lucas to either offer encouragement and advice or to gape in amazement. Slowly but surely, the setup became more professional looking. The house grew an extension and got a fresh coat of paint. Joyce provided tasteful landscaping and a planted significant garden of local fruits and vegetables. The storage shed became a proper bodega with shelving, lighting, and the same collection of oddball parts. Other do-it-yourself-ers would stop by looking for a specific, hard-to-find part, and more often than not, Joe would not only have it, but would know exactly where it was. He never accepted a peso, but was more than happy to receive some other part in a trade. Now people stopped by in genuine admiration. Joe always kept the refrigerator stocked with ice cold Pacifico, and Joyce was always willing to heat up another pot of tea.
Rather than going to his head, all of the attention eventually made Joe cranky and aloof. Apart from Joyce, he had no friends. He didn’t have a phone or a computer, so people dropped by unannounced, which slowly began to irritate him. As he got older, he turned away novices looking for advice, and scorned curiosity seekers who would drive by on the recommendation of others. He spent increasingly more time alone in his bodega, inventorying and cataloging his spare parts, occasionally entertaining visitors offering obscure electronics.
Joyce always felt that she understood Joe too well to worry about him, but he began spending less and less time making small talk with her and more time among his miscellaneous electronics. She would make a pot of tea, and rather than sip it with her on their terrace, he would bring it to the bodega. Eventually, he would only return to the house when the sun went down, and then with barely a word to say by way of conversation.
One night, a spectacular electrical storm lit up Pescadero Heights. No rain had fallen, but the wind shook Joe’s solar panels violently. He quickly threw on a coat and slippers to look for any signs of damage.
“Please don’t go out there,” pleaded Joyce. Joe ignored her.
Unknown to Joe, Joyce put on shoes and a jacket and followed him from a safe distance. She had started to do this regularly, so she had become quite good at keeping a watch undetected. Without warning, a bolt of lightning struck one of the support beams of the solar panels, followed immediately by thunder so loud it drowned out Joyce’s loud gasp. Joe stood perfectly still until the shock of the flash had passed, and then proceeded to check the meter on his solar panels. They remained functional, the grounding he had done over the years finally able to divert even the most direct lightning strikes.
In the woods nearby, Joe’s dog was whining. Joe carefully scaled a steep hill, flashlight in hand. Lucy the yellow Lab was fine, but a large jack rabbit was lying on its side, lifeless. Lucy wasn’t a hunter, so Joe concluded that the rabbit had been struck by lightning. He gently carried it into the floodlights on the terrace, stroking the fur between its long ears. Before Joyce could break her silence and beg him to leave it alone, he slowly set the rabbit on the ground, and watched it hop away.