The congressman who went off the grid

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.