Day in the Life

At precisely three thirty a.m every morning my alarm goes off, followed by an alarm every five minuets until four. Just in case. The first week of the season I often don’t get much sleep, writing mental prep lists over and over again, worrying about water lines and pumps freezing, calculating serving sizes and generally being a little bit disoriented by the return to the bush and waking up separated from the frozen ground by a few meager inches of Thermarest and blankets.

Jude and I disembark from my tent together in the morning and go our separate ways, settling into a familiar schedule. The stars at four a.m are still vivid, numerous pinpoints, and a full-moon light is enough to navigate by. The giant diesel generator lurks behind the kitchen bus and the dry storage trailer and I always feel bad turning it on so early and hearing it roar to life, unnaturally mechanical in the sprawling silences of camps that are often many dozens of kilometers into the forest, away from highways and cities and cell service. Animals are still up and about at this time and Jude has had unpleasant early morning skunk encounters

This is the time where I’ll find out if there are any issues, if the water has frozen, or, worse, if the propane lines have frozen. “Hold up, propane doesn’t freeze,” you say, and you’re right, but the regulator valve can get damp and condensation inside and that can freeze, blocking the flow of fuel to the range and water heater. I’ve learned enough to have the second cook fill up every single giant stock pot and leave them on the range over night so that we have water in the morning, worse come to worse, but it takes me a while to figure out the regulator valve issue. A rapid and vigorous flipping of the tank selector from side to side will usually clear any blockage, although that may necessitate lighting all the tricky pilots of the ovens, range, flattop and water heater… again. Sometimes nothing works, and this is how I find myself working furiously over a standard home sized electric griddle to produce enough pancakes to feed a camp of sixty (rightfully) unhappy treeplanters. When the second cook rolls in around five thirty there’s no time to waste on pleasantries, I just point at the six large cans of ‘Tropical Fruit Salad’ that comprises the majority of the fruit we get delivered and direct him to the can opener graveyard with tidings of good luck.

First things first, turn the burners to boil the gigantic stock pots of water for coffee and tea. We feed the planters Mother Parkers on our inadequate camp budget, but I reserve a tin of ‘good’ coffee for the cooks and staff. ‘Good’ in this case being Folgers or something else I’d usually sneer at. Second order of business, turn on our personal 12 cup drip coffee machine, always, always, always set up and ready to go the night before. Small cook efficiencies like this make me happy. I’m not a tyrant but the expectations I do have are non-negotiable.

This season those small efficiencies were expanded to include task delegation like traying cases of bacon, although with just a few home sized refrigerators to work with, the ‘trays’ are sheets of parchment paper, neatly rolled one on top of another with the shingled bacon and then tightly saran wrapped, labelled and tucked into the ‘meat’ corner of the overloaded deep freeze. Anyway, it makes it much easier, with the million and one logistics challenges of lack of space, lack of refrigeration, maintaining temps, order frequency, volume, lack of time, etc, to simply peel off a few of these sheets, throw them on a sheet pan and into the oven and listen to them sizzle, rather than having to pull a box of bacon the day before, wait for it to thaw, not have room in the fridge for trays, be stuck traying it all the morning of, covered in gross, cheap, shit Sysco bacon fat and silently weeping over it all as you wonder if it will even have time to crisp. Efficiency is key.

This season marked the debut of ‘breakfast buffet’, which while initially a prep nightmare proved a time and resource saving bit of genius within just a few days. Pre-planter arrival we worked feverishly to prepare huge hotel pans of vegetarian baked beans, diced and cooked entire bags of potatoes for hashbrowns, prepared vast amounts of onions, caramelized with sherry vinegar, paprika and salt to season them, kept a solitary waffle iron sizzling in the background for the entirety of the day, producing one inexpensive waffle at a time (fuck you and your Belgian waffles that eat up an entire day’s budget, Sysco, I don’t need you anymore!) The idea was to always have several rotating breakfast options so that everyone could have something to their liking, and have enough. Leftovers could be folded into the next day’s offerings and we could always be a day ahead of prep, only having to throw hotel pans into the oven in the morning to warm up and maybe wrangle some scrambled eggs around the tilted flat top, or nail out some fresh pancakes, and never having to do a full rota of breakfast prep on any given day.

One day a week: bagel day (sliced the night before by the second cook and neatly arranged in a few deep hotel pans to throw in the oven to toast in the morning) served with some vast trays of cheese slices, tomato slices, red onion, bacon, cream cheese and fried/scrambled/baked/whatever eggs, along with the other ubiquitous breakfast buffet offerings, which shall go without saying from here on out.

One day a week: grilled cheese, a perennial favorite and a great way to use up the inexplicably detested bologna, left untouched on lunch meat platters by planters everywhere. I like to always keep a reserve of grilled cheese prepped in the freezer, ready to deploy at a moments notice, and a large part of the second cook’s life has been methodically layering cheese, bread and meat, applying a light layer of margarine and persuading hundreds of these premade sandwiches to fit into the deep freeze nicely, ready to hop right into the oven one early morning as needed.

One day a week: pancakes/waffles, with sides of fruit, dubious syrup, margarine and on very special occasion, whipped topping. Margarine and whipped topping must be labelled, so as not to be confused with one another, lest a very disappointed planter take a bite of a waffle laden with hydrogenated soybean oil and feel the last of his soul leave his body, between the rain, the bugs, the Christmas toe, the tendonitis, the five kilometer walk in and now the fucking margarine filling his mouth like bitter disappointment.

Once breakfast is working away in the background, it’s time to open up dry storage. This is when Jude usually reappears from his nocturnal ventures around the perimeter of camp, in search of breakfast and lunch meat scraps. Its time to re-up the mess tent supplies, mentally inventorying the supply of 5kg tubs of peanut butter and strawberry jam, cases of loaves of white and brown sliced sandwich bread, 50 pound cases of apples and oranges, powdered juice crystals Take out spatulas for the peanut butter and jam (more than one for each container so the line up can move along more quickly). Take out the pre-prepped tray of cold breakfast items (a hotel pan of bags of cereal, a Tupperware of quick oats, spoons, brown sugar, white sugar, honey if we’re feeling extra bougie, containers of raisins, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, various tea bags and instant powdered ginger drink) mental inventory the Rice Krispies, Cornflakes and Cheerios and juice crystals. On that note, drag the giant Gatorade water dispensers over to the sink and start filling them and mixing up Peach Iced Tea and Raspberry Lemonade. Hopefully the second cook read the prep list yesterday and mixed up the powdered milk that you started using this season- its been a lifesaver both for the budget and for the fridge space it saves, and nobody seems to notice the difference. Start bringing out the trays of lunch arrangements- platters of deli meats arranged like disgusting meat flowers in bloom, the unloved bologna arranged prominently front and center. Keep these all stacked in the same place in the fridge, FIFO, labelled and wrapped. The same with platters of leaves of romaine and sliced tomato and red onion and cheese slices, and a neatly arranged tray of liter Tupperware containers of various condiments- pickles, mustard, ketchup, mayo, hot sauce. Set out a tray of some kind of square or baked good that, hopefully, you haven’t fucked the dog on and have prepared and portioned the night before. Don’t forgot the very strict sign indicating portion amounts. You can soften the instructions of “ONLY ONE EACH” with a smiley face. Lay out the hummus and the tuna salad and the egg salad and the large containers of neatly chopped carrot and celery sticks, and watch all your hard work be devoured in mere seconds by the hordes of increasingly hungry planters. I like to have all of this out by five thirty at the latest so that any early risers have access to it.

These are good tasks to share between first and second cook depending on the day, but I’ve been disappointed after delegating this duty before, to have somebody nod assent and say “Yeah, they're good out there,” and then find a line of planters clamoring at the back door of the bus for fruit or bread or whatever it is they don’t have, or find an old box of apples mouldering away in the back corner of the dry storage trailer while the one that came in from Sysco yesterday is being snatched up in handfuls in the mess tent. One of the many advantages of basically having breakfast prepped the night before is that it frees up hands to lay out all the lunch items and mess tent crap in the morning and reduces the, arguably, most hectic, time sensitive part of the day. If the second cook shows up and all of this is out already and breakfast is chugging along in the background, they can get started right away on dinner prep or dishes or baked goods, whatever. Somewhere in between running back and forth to the mess tent with arms loaded with platters, I like to stop to notice the sunrise, which is always stunning in Northern Ontario. Unreal pinks and oranges streak the sky and illuminate the shitty old Cool Bus. Coffee, smoke, jot down illegible notes on my par level/order sheets.

The start time of the second cook becomes pretty negotiable after the first shift, dependent on how efficiently the system is set up and how efficient you have both become at prep. If it’s going to make somebody significantly happier to roll in at six instead of five, that’s fine by me. As soon as they roll in, they start filling MORE POTS WITH WATER to fill the planters dish sinks so that after breakfast, in theory, they can wash their dirty breakfast dishes instead of leaving them crusted in food in the mess tent to attract bears and other unwanted critters to the camp where we, the cooks, spend the day alone, surrounded by food. At ten to six, its time to pour the water that you started boiling at four a.m into the giant coffee carafe and hot water carafe (because they’ve been around for so long that, unfortunately, the plug -in for them doesn’t work anymore and they no longer work as percolators, simply as vessels to keep the hot beverages warm). These have been prepared the night prior with the appropriate amounts of coffee. Stagger them out to the mess tent.

At six a.m its time to find the vehicle with the loudest horn and lean in the window and absolutely haul on it, preferably in the most irritating combination of length and volume possible, to wake up the camp. Occasionally a crew boss who’s tent suffered in the most recent rain/wind/snow storm may pop up from the back seat, heart jackhammering and ears ringing. This six a.m horn means that coffee and tea is out and the lunch table is ready and to get the fuck up, because if you miss breakfast or the best lunch stuff gets creamed out , I don’t really give a god damn. Now its time to plug in to the auxiliary cord of the cobbled together sound system that rests under a protective layer of tarps and bungee cords on folding table in front of the bus and blast some sort of motivational wake up tunes. I’ve been fond of everything from Lords of Acid to Buffy Saint Marie. From now until seven, when the planters depart for the block, the second cook makes attentive rounds of the mess tent, replacing empty platters with full ones, replenishing sugar and milk.

At promptly six twenty five a.m, its time to bring out the first trays of breakfast. Planters figure this out pretty quick, and vets are always in line around twenty after six, heading off those less wise. Hold your cards close and never, ever, ever fucking put out all of what you have at the same time. Half of the portion game is mind-fucking planters and making them think there isn’t anymore. Between budget constraints and other limiting factors, you have to be strict with your portion sizes. Always have enough and more than enough, but don’t let them approach a tray of bacon and load the entire thing into their groddy lunch Tupperware container and leave. Hold some of everything in reserve, particularly for those who fail to heed the next horn- the six thirty a.m horn which means “Breakfast is served!” and that those who have been standing impatiently in line, straining at the scent and steam, can descend upon the food in hungry droves. Don’t forget appropriate cardboard portion signs here, too, and the ‘vegetarian ONLY’ section. The first hard push of the day is almost done, now- its just you and the second cook circling around the mess tent on a regular basis to replenish items as necessary and to enforce the portion sizes, and finally, sitting on the stairs behind the bus with steaming mugs of coffee and cigarettes and hair tied up in bandanas like every hot lesbian vegan working at a trendy café in your hipster hometown.

As the planters depart at seven, wearily shuffling onto the bus and tying their boots, hacking darts and consuming water out of emptied beer bottles, its time to bring in all of the depleted trays from the mess tent and replenish them. My favored approach is to have the second cook jump on dish duty and summit Dish Mountain, then jump in on bringing everything in from the mess tent. It makes more sense to me to replenish the trays right away as you bring them in, keep them at the par level and craft new ones. A good second will be done dishes pretty quick and the two of you will slam out the mess tent clean up and tomorrow’s lunch prep in no time. With a completely clean bus, dishes dried and away and platters neatly replaced in their homes for the circus of the next morning, its time for a civilized tea break and the writing of the day’s prep list.

You have to be prepared when you’re working remotely. Meal plans for the week need to be accurate and your portions sizes are better to be too much than too little. Meeting budget goals while providing variety, utilizing your limited refrigeration and storage space, providing adequate portions sizes and meeting nutritional needs while accommodating for allergies and preferences is at best, complex. A week should have a ‘big ticket’ meal and be rounded out with less expensive ones. Ideally once every other shift there’ll be a big leftover bonanza. Sometimes hotdog night with pasta salad, potato salad and Caesar salad is a fucking awesome option. If Treeplant Friday’s an in camp, you don’t want to be slaving away until nine p.m so you want to throw out something easy so you can join in the festivities. Over more coffee and more darts, a prep list comes together with initials beside each item, delegating it to one of the two cooks.

From seven thirty or eight onward, we bake and we prep. I am a pastry pro and fan, and baking in large quantities can be tricky, so depending on who I’m working with I’ll do the majority of the baking, getting the second cook to weigh out all of the ingredients into Cambros and deli containers. This is the time to measure out pasta, measure out rice, chop vegetables, cook off huge amounts of meat, do any necessary breakfast prep for the next day, and generally make a hard push until all that has to happen when the planters come home is warming up an almost completely prepared meal. With confidence and success, some of this prep can be held off until after the mid day break. I hear stories of companies with huge trailers converted into walk in refrigeration space, but I haven’t worked for them (yet) making prep a logistical challenge unrivalled by any other kitchen I’ve worked in. You can’t get ahead because there’s nowhere to store anything thawed or cooked, nowhere to keep vats of salad dressing and mayo and dressings or prepped veg- just a dark, cool (ish) trailer that you keep the animals out of with a 2x4 jammed in the door. Before break there’s a thorough clean and scrub down of the bus, including a mopping that seems futile in the face of the rain and mud, and after finalizing a Sysco order list, I climb on top of the bus with the sat phone to phone it in.

Yet another logistics challenge- Sysco only delivers to Hearst two days a week and with limited storage opportunities, one has to be creative with rotating fresh produce and meats in and out quickly. Frozen vegetable medleys are a lifesaver both budgetary and logistically, as are any tinned, preserved or cured items. Beets, peppers, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, zucchini and eggplant are popular items that don’t go bad quickly or require refrigeration. As eggs arrive, most are cracked into Cambros for storage, leaving just a few flats for baking. A giant order pre-season stocks up all flours, sugars, spices, cereals, canned goods and other non-perishables, to be topped up only as necessary throughout the season, although this huge order means careful budget balancing throughout the remainder of the season to make sure it all ends up kosher. The top of the bus ranges from slippery as hell in blinding rain to covered in wasps to scalding hot in the heatwave Boreal sun, but its the only place the sat phone gets service, most of the time, so its up there I stand with my arm extended toward the heavens, clutching my notepad in one hand and shouting pleasantries into the sat phone. Calls typically get dropped after six minutes or so and it can take several phone calls to complete an order. Shout out to Sean, my amazing North Western Ontario Sysco rep, who had my back and always double checked my orders for items we usually got and helped me get the best prices on all possible items. Alternately, Sysco orders are placed from town on the day off, shaking and hungover and addled, sometimes completely unsure of the order of things and more concerned with the meaning of life and imminent death than the current price of the veg medley you usually like to get. Shit, you’ve forgotten eggs and it’s too late to add them to the order- a quick run to the Independent to browse around for specials like watermelon, off-brand Nutella, on sale chicken thighs and mini multi colored marshmallows will solve that problem, anyway. Ta! Off to a hangover breakfast at the local diner with the bottomless coffee.

The mid day break is the holy grail of treeplant cooking, a stretch of hours in the middle of the day to sleep. The four a.m. rise for the duration of the season is exhausting, especially when days often don’t end until eight or nine p.m. If there’s a river of a beach nearby, swimming and suntanning are a popular option, swatting at deerflies and skinnydipping with your second cook who’d better be your best friend in the entire world. It might be time for a beer, too, as you’re the only one in camp with access to the magical ice box that keeps them warmer than piss and drinkable, even the shit brands prevalent in the small towns. PBR, king of beers, I’ll fucking take it if it’s ice cold. Or even warm, really. This is a weird, unreal time of day, of unholy exhaustion on the verge of hallucination paired with the absolutely weird isolation of a camp in which the two cooks are the sole living humans. This is the time of day where strange ideas begin to percolate, especially as the season drags on and the bush crazy sets in. This is when we plan proms and parties and make customizable banners for Boozemas Eve or Tartinable Prom. We transform the mess tent into a dancehall with our camp boss, draping it with flagger tape and pushing the tables to the side. We make hundreds of liters of Jello to fill a kiddie pool for wrestling, make flagger tape corsages with friends at home in camp nursing tendonitis, read. Naps are necessary but never satisfying, filled with strange and vivid fever dreams and the soothing, unyielding hum of the diesel genny. The bugs can be intolerable, from the time you rise until the time you sleep. Mosquitoes in lunatic droves in the early morning turn into blackflies in the heat and deerflies in the afternoon glare.

We’ll usually return around two or three, although this is widely varied. Some mornings are so exhausting and energy sucking that as soon as the lunch trays are brought in and replenished we go on early break and return around noon instead. But as a rule, the afternoons are easier, having slugged away at the majority of the hard prep in the morning, fueled by coffee and sheer willpower. This is when the buckets of chopped veg and cooked meat and TVP/seitan/tofu turn into simmering curries, when the proofing dough is transformed into fresh, hot dinner rolls (served with margarine, of course- butter ain’t in the budget, baby), when pasta salads are created and all sorts of sides spring forth. The meal prep for the next day might begin, or we might get ahead on baking and freeze it, or we might do something special and call the crew bosses on the radio to come and gather up the Freezies bought in town in anticipation of the heatwave and distribute them amongst the planters. If it’s raining or cold we’ll put on a soup and a hot bevvie, a morale boost of hot chocolate or hot stock to warm up frozen, rain drenched innards. This is tying up loose ends and being ready, to, as soon as the planters roll in from the block, get dinner hot and ready to go within fifteen minutes of their return. I’ve had fuck ups, but I’ve heard horror stories of planters waiting hours after their return from the block for dinner, of elaborate ethnic cuisine themed nights, of beautifully designed chalkboard menus and meals utterly lacking in substance, of vegans and vegetarians forgotten and of cooks who didn’t know how to cook meat (vegans…) who simply chopped up cooked hotdogs and threw them into every carnivore meal.

Sometimes food deliveries are late. Sometimes they forget to send something. Sometimes people don’t follow the portion sizes and you run out of na’an bread. Sometimes people complain no matter what you do. Sometimes there are issues, and there will be, that you will never be able to foresee, like the water pump you and a crew boss so diligently spent your hungover morning off scouring town for three hundred feet of 1”PVC tubing for going AWOL and having to carry stock pots of water up from the river, one at a time, to boil for use. Sometimes people don’t get up, or have breakdowns, sometimes there’s personal drama and the entire camp will be waiting to leave to go to the block while you’re lying on the floor getting screamed at by a friend you did something shitty to. Sometimes you only get to sleep for forty five minutes between party night off, serving breakfast and then packing up the entire camp for a camp move. Sometimes the bus won’t start, sometimes you’ll forget to take cases of eggs out of the fridge before driving down the bouncing, pot holed logging roads. Sometimes you won’t get accurate directions and you’ll have to three point turn the bus, towing the water trailer, on the Trans Canada highway to go back to the logging road you were supposed to take. Sometimes a rogue dog will eat the entire lunch meat platters and blow a large part of your budget, sometimes you’ll be so tired and so sore and so grumpy that you’re just not going to want to do it anymore. But sometimes you’ll make homemade pizza on the last night of a shift and planters will actually cry tears of joy, and sometimes you’ll serve fresh made donuts and get hugs and sometimes, it’ll be fun.




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Office views

Hearst Forest, 2018

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GREAT SUCCESS

Maple Nutella/Bacon Glazed Donuts

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Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Bush Style

A long time coming.

The Great Migrations of Animals

Winter begins to close in on the Okanagan and the seasonal claustrophobia is compounded by the high mountain passes that comprise every means of egress. I’ve recently driven the Coquihalla and the Pacific Rim with Wanda, coaxing her up the inclines so steep and so gradual that I start to wonder if the van is breaking down until I arrive at the summit, to careen wildly down the narrow, winding highway lanes with grades of up to eighteen percent. One day after driving the Coq back to Kelowna my brakes give out completely and I can't allow myself to think about if the catastrophic failure had occurred between Kamloops and Merritt. Snow tires become mandatory as of October first, and on October third, the weather changes and snow flies in Rogers Pass, leaving behind thirty centimeters of treacherous snow. The weather changes at the drop of a hat. I don’t like the idea of not being able to leave if I wanted to, knowing that I could be landlocked by mountains, work is less than thrilling and rental prices in Kelowna are nearly as bad as the GTA, let alone availability. Just as we left Northern Ontario in mid July, I spend a nearly sleepless night before departing in the morning. Fuck ‘em, I think. I owe nobody anything and leave without goodbyes.

What is there to say about driving solo across three quarters of the country, one of the largest on Earth, other than it is long and tiring and contemplative. The days bleed into one another and every truck stop is a welcome respite. Coffee snobbery is shelved in favor of whatever caffeinated beverages are readily available and I dub the Husky House, especially those with showers and twenty four hour restaurants and a dark corner to park between silent eighteen wheeler behemoths the sacred alter of tired drivers everywhere. Since Hearst and a wise Francophone waitress (or maybe that was just the acid) the Formica tabletops and showers, available in exchange for rewards points redeemed from gasoline purchases, have been a bastion of comfort and civilization and comfort.

Kelowna BC-Brooks AB

Jude co-pilots through the Rockies, settling in to the passenger seat with resigned stoicism. This is a brisk drive without the leisurely enjoyment of touring around Vancouver Island and stopping at everything that piqued my interest. I almost leave immediately once I decide but refrain in a rare exhibit of pragmatism and organize and pack and prepare, charging batteries and checking oil and tire pressure and sleeping, a bit. Before departing the Okanagan, I check the BC highway webcams to make sure the roads are clear. The grade combined with snow and the size of the van could be catastrophic. Wanda sails to Golden no problem where we fuel up one last time before hitting the mountain passes. Check the oil, check the fluids, suspiciously eye the tires, and carry on. The sun breaks through the clouds as we start the ascent, but I’m hesitant to take it as a good omen. Taking the good means taking the bad, too, means the menacing clouds on the horizon or a black cat could become foreboding.

Rogers Pass, after the Coq and Pacific Rim, is a breeze. We make a brief stop in Banff for gas and to let Jude go for a run at the off leash dog park and to take in the mountains for the last time for awhile. It’s smooth sailing to Calgary, except for construction through the pass and the evidence of the snow a few days ago- there are still several vehicles in the ditch all the way into the city center. I miss the turn off for the bypass and we’re stuck driving through a downtown Calgary rush hour. A few years ago before setting out on a short roadtrip from Toronto to Manitoulin, having borrowed my ex’s parents car, I had such bad anxiety I didn’t sleep all night, dreaming about merging onto the DVP and 401 catastrophes. Funny, in retrospect, given I’ve now driven across the country four times and all over B.C, Northern Ontario and Quebec, as well as back into and all around Toronto and the GTA. Winter has descended swiftly and mercilessly upon the prairies on the east side of the Rockies and we settle for the night in Brooks, Alberta, completing the last leg from Calgary in herky-jerky little steps, stopping in Chestermere for dog walks and hot coffee and to kick at the foot of snow on the ground distastefully.

Driving while exhausted is one of the worst feelings in the human condition. The road rolls out for miles and miles and miles before you, kilometer markings taunting with their impossible slow passage. Its a weirdly dreamlike feeling, and one of acute danger- “Do not sleep,” your brain commands. “Do not sleep or we die.” But even that isn’t enough to stave off the involuntary eyeblinks and head nods that presage the necessity of finding a place to park for the night. The great thing about having the van is simply having to park, and having the bed, the kitchen and all the amenities right there in the back. It’s been home for months and it’s comfortable. Parking can be iffy, but residential streets are usually a good bet, as are the vast majority of Walmart parking lots and Husky lots. We sleep a few hours on a side street in Brooks before waking up to frost on the inside of the van from our breaths. As I’m chipping away at the layer of ice on the inside of the windshield, I hit the rearview mirror and the ancient and frozen glue crumbles and it topples, to rest sadly on the floor beside the passenger seat. No Canadian Tire is open (it’s ten to four in the morning) and I’m not fucking waiting. I can see with the side mirrors and the rear door windows so we carry the fuck on.

Brooks AB-Austin MB

Early in the morning in the still darkness of Medicine Hat, deer roam the streets, comfortably ambling the median of the Trans Canada and foraging for grass. They’re on the lawn of the Tim Hortons I descend upon, ravenous, and they’re looming in the residential areas with all the stealth of suicide commandos who may or may not choose to destroy my van. I feel significantly better about my odds in a van vs. deer collision than I do in a BeBe vs. deer collision.

This day of driving, to be honest, is a complete blur and my recollection of it is grossly inaccurate. Somewhere outside of Brooks, the Rockies out of view behind us and the real stretch of Prairies beginning, we descend into a bank of dense fog that billows on and on for hundreds of kilometers. It’s a long and staggering day in which we stop and start for naps all over the place. There’s another stop after Medicine Hat when I realize I’ve cheated myself of enough sleep, and we’ve gone as far as we can for now. I park between rows of trucks at a truck stop in, I believe, Indian Head, although there were two similar stops that day and I couldn’t say for sure where the other one was. In the early morning light, we continue. We stagger all the way across Saskatchewan, stopping at any roadside distractions and points of interest. Some people have never done this in their lives- this is my fourth drive across the country. At Reed Lake in Saskatchewan I scream with joy, pointing at the lake and frantically looking for a place to pull over. Thousands upon thousands of birds of all types are upon the lake, honking and squawking and flapping. We’ve gotten here at just the right time of year to witness the great migration of animals from all across the north to their winter homes in the south. Jude runs across the Prairie, free and unencumbered for the first time in days and I could weep. It’s a Farley Mowat moment in a few different ways, the prairie slough, the animals, my mutt dog.

We stagger along in this fashion until Austin, Manitoba, just short of my trajectory of Winnipeg. A night beside a grain silo in the comfortable darkness and silence.

Austin, MB- Thunder Bay ON/Thunder Bay ON-Manitoulin Island ON

Winnipeg is a comfort to reach the next day. A hot Husky shower and breakfast almost makes me believe there is a god. I feel nearly human, though surreal, travelling the vast distances between myself and my family and my home, wondering the entire time about the meaning of the word and what I want out of my life. I love this vast and aimless wandering and the pure joy of the freedom of the highway. I can be wrapped up in all sorts of dilemmas and sadness and confusion and as soon as I start driving, it goes away. Its an absurd sort of joy and one I can’t quite seem to find any other way. Jude’s a wonderful co-pilot and passenger but I can’t help but think how amazing it would be to have somebody in the passenger seat to bear witness to some of the utterly mad and wonderful things you see when you’re on the road. Weird and wonderous and beautiful. My friends are dotted across the country and throughout my travels they’ve been there again and again at all different stops. The flocks of migrating birds and roadside coyotes pouncing on mice in the cut grain fields, roadside oddities and giant papier mache geese and animals, lakes and mountains and rivers and the sad, almost bleak and intimidating expanse of the land- you don’t know until you’ve seen it.

Getting to Ontario is not the end of the journey. In fact, it is the start of the worst part. Kenora to Sault Sainte Marie is the worst part of the drive. The highway goes down to two lanes, narrow and twisting after the fourlane stretch of fast driving through all three prairie provinces. It seems to become further between towns, a theory I inadvertently test when I fail to buy a coffee before leaving Thunder Bay. “Next town,” I think, but there, an eighteen wheeler cuts me off and I can’t find a good place to turn around so we carry on. “Wawa,” I’m hopeful. I pull of the Trans Canada in Wawa hours later to go to Tims and enjoy, finally, a hot tea and maybe some sort of awful prefabricated snack. Their debit machine is down so I leave to go and find cash. I lost one of my debit cards somewhere between Winnipeg and here, I’m suspecting in Amaranth when I pulled down my pants to pee in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station, so I’m trying to e-transfer myself money to my other account so I can take out cash to buy a god damn coffee and the e-transfer is refusing to go through and I am on the verge of meltdown because the Soo is still hours away. “You god damn whore,” I swear in ways I haven’t sworn since a harried service in a tiny kitchen with the missing tip of an index finger. We peel out of Wawa, and my bad mood and surly tempter tantrum continue until we get into the stunning fall colors all along the shores of Superior and the Agawa Canyon.

Much like the migrating birds, this is one of those things where the timing was just right. Every tree from Tamarack to Poplar is bright with autumn color and the weather is clear and fresh. Four hours of driving in absolute unbroken beauty. This is around where I get into the landmarks of home and become sentimental, passing turnoffs to White River and Manitouwadge and knowing that there is no return to Northern Ontario imminent the upcoming spring. Not so far from here somebody once played the accordion in the darkness of a North Ontario night to a small crowd invisible in the pure inky blackness of the bridge over the Pic River. These are the names of home I know, on my map of Algoma Manitoulin. The familiar names are an incantation, they hold power, they’re attached to memories deep in my psyche and soul. Pancake Bay elicits a cheerful smile, remembering a summer weekend spent there with the Italians and the frigid, clear waters of Superior. In the Soo I stop to visit a family friend. I’ve missed Thanksgiving dinner, now, a few hours away on Manitoulin. It’s less than five hours to my final destination there, but it’s three in the afternoon and my memory is garbled and my logic is skewed and I’m riding an emotional rollercoaster centered around the availability of coffee and the distance between gas stations. The last leg from the Soo to Espanola, and then, to Manitoulin, is familiar and easy. The Espanola Hills, once daunting, now seem tame in comparison to the highways of the mountains of B.C. I run into family at the Tim’s in Espo, which only seems right, and Manitoulin is a welcome respite from four days on the road- a journey completed solo in the same amount of time it took three or four of us to do the drive cross country earlier in the year. And we sleep and wait for the next adventure, anxiety building and cabin fever mounting as winter draws in.



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Prairie Copilot

Jude, Saskatchewan, 2018

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Carter Bay

Manitoulin Island 2018

On Cooking

Chef, Jeremy and I all make eye contact at the same time. Jeremy stands at the top of the trap door staircase leading down to the walk-in and the Dungeon ( a less than affectionate name for the damp, low ceiling office), shrugs apologetically, and beats it out the backdoor. "Have fun!" he says, and I hear relief over the apologetic air broadcast by his body. A fractious and contentious front of house manager still terrorizes the restaurant and he is relieved to be leaving before his anger boils over and his usual calm demeanor is replaced by the bitingly witty and insightfully mean spirit that it conceals.

His stand-in for the next two weeks has just spilled a liter of beet juice all over the inside of the garde fridge. It is everywhere, seeping into a creamy white puree of jerusalem artichoke, spilling over a carefully wrapped platter of cheeses (Blue Benedictine, a sharp Monforte cheddar, a rind washed gouda, it is enroaching upon carefully cut, washed and stored sprouts of sunflower, pea and coriander and the living mixed greens in their damp, black soil, delivered fresh from 100 Kilometer Foods.

"I'm sorry, Chef, I'm cleaning it up, Chef!" The twenty year veteran of the line is on his knees in his checkered pants, beet juice soaking into his tidy white apron, scrambling in hasty panic to soak up the beet juice with our dwindling supply of clean side towels.

I can't look Chef in the face any longer. I am no twenty year veteran of the line, but these sorts of mistakes, and those much lesser, raise the ire of the large man who looms, a threatening, First Testament sort of God like presence, over my world at least twelve hours a day. I think the reason he and I have come to an understanding and an ability to work together is because I am sensitive to moods and emotions, and although he is unpredictable and inconsistent in his moods, I can feel his rage rising a degree at a time. I know if it is a day to say "Yes, Chef," regardless of whether it was I or The Boy who fucked up a River Cafe inspired chocolate torte, I intuit whether or not to stay late, helping bone out poultry and scrubbing rolling racks with degreaser, or beat it. This new guy has none of that intuition. I turn on the grill and the fryer and start setting up my mise-en-place for 5:30 service. It is 4:45.

A year ago, I would have been consumed with a deep, internal panic at this time, having no knowledge of the ebb and flow of the service to come, no strategies to arrange my mise or what prep could be left to do leisurely during the lulls of a Wednesday night service. A year ago, I was blindly throwing together salads on garde and trying not to cry as it became more and more apparent that I was in over my head. A year ago, I was moving with such blinding speed and desperation, I once threw out my shoulder rifling through the garde fridge during a particularly busy service when Chef, a line cook from Cambridge moonlighting as a white-boy English rapper and myself fired out a 100 cover service after a glowing review from a notoriously harsh critic. Now I am calm. I am zen. Service will come, the curtain will rise, we will make the food, we will feed the people, it will end, and tomorrow, we will do it all again.

The signs have been there all week, since we started training Jeremy's temporary replacement. Chickens I need butchered early in the day to soak in buttermilk before breading and frying it remain entire, almost taunting Chef and I from their leisurely posture in the hotel pan where they lie in the walk in. When the dry goods order arrives and I leave my prep to begin squirreling it away in the basement and the back room, he remains at his station, leisurely chopping up a mirepoix that should have been done hours before. When asked to wrap beets in tinfoil and roast them, he wraps each one in an individual snuggy of foil, tenderly. Now, the climax, the culmination, the moment of truth, is coming.

Kasun is still bent over the spilled beet juice while gnocchi dough, a time and heat sensitive, messy, project, sits on his station, rapidly cooling and turning into a gluey mess. The potatoes take an hour to roast, to push through the ricer, gently but firmly, to roll out the long, even strands and cut and shape and blanch them another half hour. I spend two years tentatively approaching this project on-and-off, returning again and again to the scene of my failure, until finally, I get a grunted "Ok," from Chef instead of the usual criticisms. I fly that day. Better cooks than I have tried, and failed, and I am sensing an imminent opportunity to see the failure of somebody with more experience than myself.

Kasun returns, finally, hands stained with beet juice and trembling. I am enjoying an ice cold Log Cabin (Diet Coke- D.C- Washington D.C- Presidents- Abraham Lincoln- Log Cabin- the mind games you start to play when trapped in a windowless room upwards of ten hours a day are complex, meaningless and convoluted.) His entire station rapidly becomes a paste of too-sticky gnocchi dough that sticks to the stainless steel work top and is dragged across it by his rough handling. The snakes of dough, which must muster inspection by chef, are uneven squiggles ranging from 1/3rd of an inch thick in some areas to more than 2" in others. They are going to fall apart in the blanching pot. Their edges are uneven and undefined. The grated Parmesan isn't melted into the potato, the dough is so ill-mixed that egg yolk still colors parts of it a dark hue of yellow.

I am toasting perfect hashtags on the tops of the brioche burger buns I made earlier that day when it happens. "What the fuck is this?" By know I know the tone isn't anger. It is bewilderment and confusion and frustration. Why doesn't anybody care about the food as much as he does? Why can't anyone just see what is wrong with it, why can't they see the angle he wants the artichokes cut on or the way he wants the shiso to curl under the octopus like a piece of floating seaweed? Why can't we all be possessed of the same training and discipline and toughness, lightning fast and accurate knife skills and dogged dedication? What. The. Fuck. Why are people so disappointing? Why are we so content to linger in our mediocrity?

The lackluster gnocchi is swimming in oil on a parchment covered sheet tray. Chef has just popped one into his mouth, although the taste test isn't even necessary. The food is fucking ugly, and he will not have ugly food, particularly with something as simple as gnocchi. "People eat with their eyes first," I've heard him say a million times. "They are paying for pretty as much as tasty." The gnocchi is undeniably ugly, and insultingly rubbery and underseasoned in addition. Chef is verging on something, I can't tell, even with the study I have made of his moods, if it is tears or a screaming bout. "What... the fuck... is this?" he repeats again. He is dumbfounded. How could he be let down so badly by somebody with so much experience? How can Kasun be satisfied having spent twenty years of his life working on the line without even being able to accomplish a task like gnocchi without failing?

This comparatively gentle question, asked without anger or ire, only bewilderment, is what breaks Kasun's spirit. I see it happen. Chef sees it happen. Kasun takes off his ballcap and wipes his hands on it, starts untying his apron. "I'm sorry, Chef. I just can't do this." Chef's imposing frame stands between him and the trapdoor.

"The gnocchi?" Chef asks, leadingly, although all three of us know that is not what Kasun is talking about. "Of course you can!"

"No, Chef, the job," he blurts out, sneaking with surprising speed and agility between Chef and the stacks of Cambros perilously balanced on a shelf at the top of the stairs. He moves with such speed that some of them clatter down the stairs behind him as he sprints to gather up his clothing. He doesn't even change out of his clogs and checks, just reemerges a moment later carrying a hastily bundled bindle of his personal effects in his arms, wraps his knives in a tea towel and bolts out the door with a final apology of "I'm sorry, Chef, I just can't do this!" as he slams the back door behind him and disappears out of our lives and into legend.

Chef and I make eye contact through the pass. I am utterly frozen. A two person service in this kitchen can be messy. I am still new to the kitchen, although I am more organized now and more confident. Our first reservations will be sitting in half an hour. My hand snakes out to turn on the heat lamp, hoping I am not electrocuted in the process (it is hit and miss with sockets and electronics in our kitchen at this time.) And suddenly, we are both laughing, the kind of laughter that hurts your belly and makes tears come to your eyes and makes your knees weak.

He cries out "Eighty six gnocchi!" to the terrified server who comes through the swinging doors into the domain they all find terse and foreboding- the kitchen. "Chef is laughing!" we hear her relay to the front of house staff. And we clean up the station and stock the line and slog into a service where there is a 45 minute wait time for an appetizer that normally takes seven, where the tickets from the chit-machine droop toward the floor, where I am constantly squeezing between his bulk and the range to run around to garde to plate a dessert, a service where we run out of swears and laugh until we are plating blinded by our tears and out of breath.

Some names have been changed or committed to protect the idiots. Er, innocent. This is a story from my time at The Beech Tree, a small, intimate bistro in Toronto's East End where I am pleased to have gotten my start cooking and often return to, the prodigal cook, to my Chef Daddy (yet another inside joke.) More stories from The Beech Tree can be found at the blog of its founder, Robert Maxwell, Thrice Cooked.

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River Cafe inspired flourless chocolate cake

The Beech Tree, Toronto

Goodbye northern ontario

this is a repost of an old bextales blog, with some minor changes.
i haven’t talked much about treeplant on the newsite, whereas the old site was predominately plant based.
this is the first fall since 2016 that i haven’t been planning the following year based on a return to hearst, which makes me surprisingly sad.

Four of us pack our lives into a car much too small and drive across the country. Last night and the night before we lived at the Howard Johnson, sleeping four to a bed and turning side to side to the warm bodies there, fingers drifting through hair and tucking in balding blankets. At Hornepayne we turn off the highway. 5 year old trees he planted straggle through the clearcut corridors that are turning back into forest. Hearst is fresh on the horizon, one of the places we call home, and Winnipeg looms large ahead. We sleep two nights on a hardwood floor of an auntie's house and straggle through markets and restaurants and bars. We’ve found our friends here, too, people we know from the forest alien in the city.

Strange to see treeplanters in other contexts- our friends, our family, intimate strangers. 'I love Farley Mowat,' somebody says, caressing the spine of a book. Acid dropping, forest dwelling freaks, who are literature majors and antique aficionados carpenters and painters and everything. Who knew. Two seasons ago I rolled into Hearst scared sick and heartbroken and yearning and now I drive across the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border with a dry bag ratchet strapped to the roof and the seats occupied by planters. Lifers. People I've danced naked with in the middle of Waxatike Road, driven buses with, cried to, exchanged letters with, confessed to. Mythical creatures. My heart full of love, the car full of sleeping bags that reek of sweat and sex and booze.

You, my carload of friends, sleep through Saskatchewan and wake to the dawn in a new province. In Banff we drive up into the mountains, an abrupt departure from the flat rolling prairies and their optical illusions. Even in the midnight darkness and our time zone skipping car stupor the mountains loom impressive and giant. One a.m, quiet night free of traffic, we roll our sleeping bags out on the grass verge of the highschool parking lot and sleep. "Do not be mistaken- we are, indeed, vagrants." We are a strange looking bunch still clad in longjohns and shorts, Buffs and pyjama pants and true thrift store gems from small towns where the attendants have been waiting all quiet winter for the life of spring and treeplanters to return. They pull out wool sweaters and ponchos with flourishes; we buy wedding dresses for two dollars and spill red wine on them, cherish Hudson's Bay blankets bought for fifty cents My lip is still split from the Companion mosh pit.

We drift into British Columbia without remark. The highway is winding and treacherous switchbacks. Smoke from the forest fires throws a haze over the sun. The mountains are ablaze. We are giddy with confinement and possibility. We have done it. We are free and wild. We are in love, with each other, with life, with the world. We make things happen.

Our scars from plant heal and the blood stains turn to cherry juice as our lives amongst trees continue.  Seas of trees and fruit around us and our friends, as familiar and as strange as a dream.

 

 

Sometimes I pick apples

It’s always when thing are just veering into dangerous territory when the phone rings and a solution presents itself. “Something will come up,” I reassure myself about my job prospects as Wanda sits in the mechanic’s garage in Nanaimo, becoming a bit of a money pit mechanically. I knew this would be somewhat problematic when I bought her but the former owner seems not to have bothered to do any work whatsoever to the poor old van mechanically, or even to have bothered with routine maintenance outside of an oil change. Sure enough as I’m brooding another day away at a library or Tim Horton’s the phone rings with a friend on the other end asking me if I want a job picking apples in Kelowna and giving me a number to call. “He might only have four or five days of work for you,” she says, but that’s ok. In seasonal work and short contracts you take what you can get while you can get it and look for something better while you’re at least making a little bit of cash. Sometimes I plant trees, cook, ride horses and write, and now, sometimes I pick apples. Wanda is revived and we scurry down to the ferry dock hoping to make the next sailing.

In line for the ferry, I run into a friend of a friend from Quebec and in ‘not the strangest’ small world scenario this summer, he too, is heading to the same orchard in Kelowna for work. In March we cycled down Sainte Catherine in the frigid drizzle of a Montreal winter, now, we weather the temperate deluge of the coastal rainstorm. After a drive through the mountains at night in the rain that can only be described as ‘butt puckering’ I sleep a fitful night in my van with the ‘day before new things’ anxiety. We meet the owner of the orchard the next morning and strap on the familiar fruit harnesses paired with the new- large canvas bags that open at the bottom and close by folding over and knotting into a slotted holder so that it can be adjusted at different levels and emptied carefully into a large bin so that the fruit isn’t bruised and ruined. Settling into the rhythm of apple picking is fairly easy after a few seasons of cherries. The trees are smaller and easier to pick, and color picking based on ripeness of fruit is no problem after the hellish blocks of Rainier cherries laid out on tarps and treacherous ground.

On Scenic Road the view is, indeed, Scenic, and I settle into a kind of quiet, giddy joy, looking out at the panoramic view of the valley. It is good to be ‘home’, to have a quiet place to park for a few nights, a shower, electricity, low-key, quiet work. The ubiquitous Mexican orchard worker is present here, too, even in the tiny family farm with two full time employees and very few pickers. He points at me the day we work together after the rain and says “You very good worker!” and I blush fiercely and return “Feliz cumpleaños!” in my bad Spanish, knowing it is his birthday, although he has kept it quiet. We work in amicable silence, moving down the rows in well-paced tandem. When the work comes to a temporary standstill at the one orchard we are referred to another just down the road and are allowed to continue camping out at the first with the great valley views and the nice dog and the horses across the street. “Buenas noches,” I call out softly in the evening rain, and R returns a “Good night!”, not correcting me that “Buenas tardes” would be more correct. We plunder the free cantaloupes set out in a wheelbarrow by the farmer across the street and feast on the warm orange flesh.

It rains more, a torrential down pouring overnight. I have not seen this much rain in the Okanagan before. At dessert like Cholla Hills when it rains the helicopters come out full force, turning the early morning into a scene from Apocalypse Now. The valuable cherries can’t be wet and then dry in the sun or the skin will split and the fruit will be ruined, so a fleet of helicopters is deployed to hover over the trees and shake off the water that threatens the fruit. In the haze of party madness the over stimulation of rain storm and hail and whirlwind helicopters is confusing at best. We huddle in the washrooms at Cholla, making our sandwiches on top of the dryers and camping out in the stalls with bongs and beers and dry clothes fresh from the dryer. No helicopters, here, just cool mornings where the fog obscures the valley view and our fingers cramp in the cold.

Wanda broke down again today- the brakes, today. I’m not even stressed out anymore. Zen has taken over, as life proves, over and over again, things always seem to work out. I’m immensely privileged in the way I am able to live. The mechanics are very understanding of my need to come in and get my tent and sleeping bag and supplies, since Wanda is my vehicle, but also my house. They see a lot of fruit pickers and transient workers come through and are kind and curious. While I only grabbed cheddar rice cakes and bread and Kraft Singles for grilled cheese, I’m indulging- I have access to power to charge my laptop and Wi-Fi signal so I’m listening to the Elon Musk episode of the Joe Rogan Experience and pretending I don’t live in a tent/van/orchard/campground/residential neighborhood after dark.

From a rainy tent in a Kelowna apple orchard
xoxo Bex

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Harvest time

Kelowna 2018

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Ladder fear

I’m scared of heights, why do I keep doing this?

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Better days with Wanda

Kelowna 2018

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Valley views

Kelowna 2018

Welcome to the Forest Primeval

I'm currently seated at a McDonald's in Nanaimo, my third accidental visit to the town, regretting the Big Mac I bought to comfort myself after having to get Wanda towed to the mechanic. She had been having more trouble than usual starting during my stay in Tofino, and I should not be surprised that the alternator belt finally gave up today. She went from Kennedy Lake to Port Alberni to Little Qualicum Falls, where I noticed a strap dangling under the front of the van. I plucked at it reluctantly and it came out right into my hand, a mangled looking rubber thing with teeth and a section entirely frayed through. My tired, sick brain didn't put two and two together and I hopped back in and started her up. She drove all the way to the rest stop at Nanoose Bay, where I stopped to take a picture of a double rainbow, and then right into town and into the WalMart parking lot, where she then died as soon as I parked her. Two and two came together- the dangling item I pulled out eighty kilometers before was the fucking fan belt and the fact that she made it the rest of the way before crapping out was a minor miracle. I had her towed to the BCAA center across the road and am looking forward to an uncomfortable floodlit night in the back before getting her fixed (hopefully) in the morning.

I am no stranger to the bush and large bodies of water. Growing up on Manitoulin Island most of my childhood memories are of being in the bush with my dad and granddad, tramping around crown land and climbing split rail fences to hike around the woods behind the back forty. Even the urban parts of Manitoulin are sparsely peopled and wild. I've never blinked an eye at driving the forty minutes back the unmaintained dirt road to Carters Bay to spend a week there by myself.  The rainforest, however, is unnervingly foreign. I'm driving back to Kennedy Lake in the falling dusk to meet up with friends and have vague directions given to me in dubious English by my Quebecer treeplant wife. Wanda's temperamental although reasonably reliable, and the logging roads don't bother me at all- I've careened down Waxatike going 90kph in the kitchen bus, veering around corners and feeling the deep clay mud suck at the tires.  I three (ok, five) point turn a couple of times, unnerved, and walk a few kilometers down a gravel path trying to figure out if I'm in the right place.

The trees tower above me in cathedral silence, great, ancient behemoths covered in wispy green moss. The forest is layers upon layers of soft green, everything damp and breathing and blurry, ill defined edges and oil-painting surreal. The sun's setting and it smells of funghi and wet moss and the good sort of decay, and there is not a sound except for my footsteps on the gravel. I would not be surprised to turn and see a dinosaur emerge between the leafy ferns and primeval trees. Suppressing the panic that comes as a surprise, I run back to Wanda and jet back to the highway where I ask a group of mushroom pickers for directions to Kennedy Lake. This time the drive is less eventful and I meet our group of vans along the way, following them to the bridge and the poorly defined path down to the beach. 

Even in the very last pale light the scenery is outstanding. The outlines of hulking fallen trees defy my attempts to make sense of the size, things the size of twenty story apartment buildings that tower into the night. The stars are a billion ice white diamonds scattered densely across the sky, the visible Milky Way interrupted by the silhouettes of the mountains across the lake. The Kennedy Lake rec site is well hidden, as most of the B.C rec sites are. Unserviced and user maintained, it is found fifteen kilometers down and unmarked logging road on the highway between Port Alberni and Ucluelet. Down the logging road it is a straight shot and during the on season, you may find several vans and trucks parked at the entrance to the path that leads down to it. 

 I set up my tent in the dark and make camp and for a few nights its like treeplant all over again, us in the woods down a logging road, lazing around a campfire and being content. We spend two days surfing in Tofino. I have a healthy fear of the ocean, the salt brine strange on my lips and the tides a mystery, undertow and riptides and marine life abundant dangers. Ten of us in the Pacific in wetsuits laughing and licking our lips and falling, thrashing against the sea. We've all gone our separate ways again for now, heading off to various jobs and contracts and vacation destinations. Until we meet again! 

Wanda is ready to go and pick up from the BCAA center so I'll call it a day.
Time to head 'er back toward the Okanagan and start looking for work.

 

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Little Qualicum Falls

Before the van broke down

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Wanda goes to the ocean
 

Tofino, 2018

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Ocean hair

Rainforest vibes

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Double rainow

Nanoose Bay 2018

 

The Family's Getting Bigger

One day this season of treeplant, stuck in the bush off Jackpine road, the cooks beg our camp boss to pick up a two liter bottle of tonic on his trip into town. "Come on," I plead. "Do it for the family. If I'm happy, the family's happy!" He relents and returns with the tonic, and other than the bugs and the rain and the shitty block and whatever various camp drama is currently unfolding, the family is indeed happy. 

The world feels as if it is drawing in around me sometimes. L & K, whom I've done multiple tree and cherry seasons with, get stranded in Ukee with a broken down van and K's university roomie. Fortuitously, I've just rolled into town with Wanda the van and turn tail to go and pick them up from Long Beach where they've been surfing. Upon arrival, K goes to introduce me to his roomie... but we've known each other since 2011 in Toronto-his brother is my ex's best friend. The odds of meeting up across the country on a beach outside of Tofino... "The world's not getting smaller," somebody says one afternoon at Cholla. "The family's getting bigger." 

The next day, arriving at the hippie commune outside of Tofino where I plan to work on the van for a few days, I don't anticipate seeing anybody I know. But after a few hours there three of the Quebec girls I picked with this past season at Cholla roll up. I'm sitting in the van reading and think I hear J's voice, but brush it off until I see her car roll by with the Quebec plates and the frantic waving of the two cousins out the back window in my general direction.

Where I am right now is pretty much every parent's worst nightmare although I'm drawing in on thirty and farther away from twenty or my teens. Poole's Land, subject of numerous documentaries, Vice articles, complaints from townspeople, whispered rumours, elated exclamations and the subject of the statement "It's a weird place, man," from the Hitch Hiking Accordion Player. The first person I meet upon arrival, other than the check in clerk who tells me where I can find the weed and mushrooms, is Sailor Steve, who does, indeed, look rather piratey with his gold tooth and dreadlock topknot and tattoos. He very kindly backs the van into a parking space for me, as I am evidently struggling with the rabbits warren of narrow, winding roads littered with vans, trucks, cars, campers that haven't moved in decades, vehicles in various states of disrepair, roadside tents, the Magic Bus, surfboards and bicycles.

Everywhere there is some project going on. Hammering, sawing, drilling; an eager if undisciplined group is building a small, off grid house. Singing, strumming, flutes, boardwalk repairs, cooking in the communal kitchen, cleaning up trash, sewing, reading, writing. There is access to all the tools I will need to complete my van project as well as the knowledge and assistance of those who actually know how to use them and the space to work. GiGi finds me in the kitchen and asks if I'm a cook. "Yes," I venture. "Are you staying?" she asks. I'm here for two days for now, but she thinks it will be longer and asks me to get involved in the community dinners they do a few times a week with a pay what you can mandate. I'm eager to be involved but also hesitant to set roots down and become sentimental and attached to the revolving door of people who come and go and the seaspray coast and the town and the community garden of pot and tomatoes and lettuce and the vehicles and the sailors and the everything. I think I will have to return to the Okanagan to find work for the fall, of some seasonal variety, and to pick up Jude in Vernon. 

On my way to bed, winding along the decaying boardwalk through the rainforest, I pass by a group sitting around a campfire outside one of the semi-permanent structures littered throughout the land. The Comfortably Sauvage. They are setting up an open mic night and a legit microphone has appeared, the extension cord snaking off through the ferns and redwoods toward some unknown power source. Fairy lights glitter in the trees and as I pass by they are all applauding a duet who grasp their guitars and blush, feral red cheeks in the rainforest evening.

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The Magic Bus

Poole's Land 2018

The Van Plan

I spent the past few days loafing around Victoria, no plan, just seeing the city and being back in the relative comfort of civilization for a few days. And being overwhelmed by it. It's hard to find a place to park the van for the entire day, so a lot of the day is just moving the van from one parking spot to another, especially since it is so long that it is more difficult to park, although for some reason, I can parallel park it and back it into a parking spot fairly easily. Sleeping in the van in nice neighborhoods like Fernwood feels furtive and uncomfortable and my ocean side pad had specific "No overnight parking or sleeping" signs plastered everywhere. It's hard to find a good place to set up and pull out the camp stove and boil water for coffee or heat up my food, and the foot traffic outside the van and the flood lights and the constant lowkey worry of a knock on the window and a 'Move along," don't allow for a wonderful sleep. The carburetor is temperamental a and starting the van for the first time in the morning is an adventure, especially if you're in busy downtown Victoria and have to stop almost immediately at an intersection where you stall out in front of a line of right turning traffic and frantically have to pull the choke out and feather the gas pedal with your foot while saying "There, there!" to either yourself, or the van. I scavved a shower at Crystal Pool and had a swim at the same time, as there's no Husky with showers available anywhere nearby.

I went out for beers with a dear friend from first year of treeplant at the Fernwood Inn. God bless those of us living our lives on our own terms. She's off to India next month for an indeterminate period of time, and if I didn't have the dog, I probably wouldn't be living the van life and would likely be bopping around somewhere abroad as well. These friendships are such a wonderful thing. They fill me with awe and the kind of joy that's so sharp it verges on sorrow. My treeplant family and I have shared some of the most intense, crazy experiences together, I'm closer to many of them than friends I've known for years, and the way we disperse and come back together in the most random corners of the world is exciting and sad all at once. I've been inspired by those who have traveled and lived in caravans and who taught me to sleep on the grass soccer fields in the dead quiet nights of summer, those with gold teeth that glitter in the Pacific sunshine and the vagabonds I love and miss who point me toward island beaches and hippie havens and the elusive dream of a place where we'll be happy and full until the next season of planting begins.

I have no intentions of this turning into a 'van life' blog, but it's all still so new and there's so much happening that its at the forefront of my thoughts these days for sure. I'm writing this from a rest stop outside of Nanaimo where I slept my first night in the van, my laptop is fully charged from my morning at the Greater Victoria Public Library, where I was publicly shamed for trying to take a photo of a Monty Python quote on the balustrade, and my phone is plugged into the laptop to charge. I spent the day bopping around Habitat for Humanity Restores, thrift stores downtown, Canadian Tire and Home Depot, gathering supplies. There's a lot of work to be done on the van and it can be difficult to prioritize where to start. It's easy to freeze. I'd like a mattress, I'd like to decorate, I'd like storage solutions and power and I must insulate for the winter and get body work done and get a leaky antifreeze line looked at, as well as a fanbelt replaced and the carburetor checked out. Today, I scored some storage solutions and started the list of prioritizing, biting the bullet and buying everything I need to get 'er insulated. I'll likely need to borrow some tools from either a tool library or a nice neighbor but I'm on my way to Poole's Land, an anarchist hippy commune outside of Tofino, and I think I'll find it a good place to work. I left Vic for the time being out of a combination of being overwhelmed by the city and the need to have space to work on the van. When you're drifting about the city streets and various parking lots, it is nearly impossible to find a workspace to cut templates and glue and paint and scrape and spray foam and remove all the van fixtures to lay down new laminate flooring. So the plan for the immediate future is to hit Tofino and get the insulating done. 

As a few small comforts, I got clean sheets, pillow cases and material to make curtains today from the VV Boutique. My lantern is equipped with fresh batteries and I treated myself, with my dwindling cash supply, to a string of unicorn lights from Dollarama. I'd like to get a new camp stove, a two burner guy, to be able to make more intensive meals, so that's added to the wishlist along with an entire solar system to power a mini-fridge and to be able to charge laptop, phone, etc, as well as maybe a fan/electric heater as necessary, or a nice lamp. As a short term measure to be able to keep my phone charged without having to spend multiple hours at libraries and Tim Hortons (which frustratingly, sometimes don't have outlets, an unpleasant surprise as I stand there poking around with the tea I didn't really want), I replaced a bunch of old fuses in the van, but it seems to be a bigger problem to fix. The BCM may be blown and a relatively expensive fix at this point in the game, with a quick online estimate of $350 for the part and the labor. I'm unsure if it makes more sense to sink the money into that fix or to start building an auxiliary power system that can eventually be hooked up to the solar when I can afford to install that. For the time being, it's Tim's and libraries, and surviving without data, Spotify and aimless Instagram browsing. Probably for the best for my productivity...

My goals for the winter include learning the tin flute, fucking finally, working on my conversational French and assembling a collection of poetry for publication, as well as completing the rough draft of The Treeplant Cookbook. 

Jude will be here with me in seventeen days, requiring a trip back to the Okanagan to snag the cranky old dog man, so I'm hoping to hustle through the basics of the van renos and start scoping out the work situation for the next few months.

Now, to enjoy the first television I've watched since April! An episode of RuPaul's Drag Race on the spotty Wi-Fi coming from an undetermined point near the rest stop, and a night's sleep under the bright lights with the soothing roar of steady traffic on the Trans Canada as a lullaby. I'm hoping to get up (and get the van started) early enough tomorrow to head to Pipers Lagoon, a large oceanfront park in Nanaimo, for the end of low tide and the sunrise. Swimming in the ocean may not be for me- too many sea creatures- but looking at the jellyfish like discarded condoms and the starfish and the scuttling crabs and bickering seagulls gives me great joy.

With love from some cozy afghans and floral print pillowcases that are making the van feel like home,
Xoxo Bex

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Mill bay views

vancouver island 2018

 

Eulogy for a Beloved Car

Appropriately, it is raining in Nanaimo when I'm taking my Ontario plates off of Bebe, the little white Sunfire convertible that has been my whip for the past year. This is good, because I don't want the tow truck driver to see me crying about a car. "Just a car." Bebe is not just a car; she's the Portable Pontiac Pocket Party, the only convertible to have ever driven down Thunder Road (I mean, probably, the stats don't exist for that, I'm just assuming), my safe haven from the madness of the world. Bebe has driven all around Manitoulin Island, to and from Montreal multiple times, up to Hearst and all around Mattice, Sudbury, Timmins, and then across the country for cherries, where she almost met her untimely demise on a shitty gravel road and my own close call with bailing on the nomad life and going home. She made it all the way to yet another island, with new tires (god bless uncle Andy), the driver's side mirror precariously tied back on and the rearview mirror reattached with a DIY adhesive kit from Crappy Tire.

One night off in Hearst this most recent season, I leave Jude in the car with his food and water while we go to the Companion. He's pleased with this arrangement, the car is home and he's happy in there for stretches of 10-12 hours, and the HoJo is really cracking down on the presence of dogs after last year's PoPo the Party Dog and Jude Jude the Party Dude debacle. Absolutely soaked to the bone after yet another year of hiking to the Esso for cigarettes and catching up with my friend who works in the other camp, I crawl gratefully into the backseat and pass out, plastered to the white leather. The next day D & M borrow the car to run errands around town, and I find them later, fully reclined, feet out the windows, napping in front of the HoJo. We once cram six people and the dog into the car with the top down to go and spend an afternoon at Johnson Beach. The cigarette lighter car charger and the stereo are my saving grace on hangover days in town, when I can retreat from the rain or heat, charge my phone and sit scrolling absently through the internet I've been deprived of in the bush.

Bebe crosses Canada with ease. I've brought her out into the bush on Thunder Road, gaining a whole new appreciation for a freshly graded road. Camp is only twenty minutes from town and this way I can go on cigarette runs or drop off departing staff at the bus station. I have an idea that shit's going to go down, soon, as well, and the car is the escape vehicle if the coup d'etat unfolds. It eventually does, and after breakfast one day, I hustle my friends into the car. We ruthlessly dispose of extra baggage and then three of us and all of our gear are somehow Tetrised in, departing the Hearst Forest with a mix of sorrow and elation. Northern Ontario, home of my heart, seems to go on for days- it takes us two days to get out of Ontario, spending a night in comfort in a Thunder Bay hotel and then booting it all the way to Regina the next day. We park behind the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and roll out our sleeping bags in the blackness of the manicured lawn, taking refuge for the night behind a hedge. We make it all the way into the Rockies the next day. My car companions haven't seen the mountains before, and as we roll out of Calgary and the striking hulk of rock becomes apparent, suddenly, I say, "Look!" They wake up, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, to stare. We sleep another night in Golden (behind the visitor center, this time) and we're so bone weary that the light and mosquitoes and brief rain shower don't interrupt our sleep.


 

Pocket Party survives a season in Vernon and takes a ferry ride over to Vancouver Island. Our relationship starts and ends on an island, which seems oddly appropriate. In a Walmart parking lot in Nanaimo, I spend hours pulling my life out of the car and transferring it into the as yet unnamed van. The transition into van life is nearly seamless, although I blew the fuse of the cigarette lighter with my car charger and haven't figured out how to fix it yet, and I'm not quite used to having to start an engine with a manual choke, and I have to fill my water and charge my phone whenever I have a chance. Van life means never passing up the opportunity to use a public washroom, libraries are mana from heaven, and Husky showers rein supreme. I'm better at parking the long, boxy van than I am at parking the tiny car- it doesn't make sense. I can parallel park the van and back it neatly into a parking space. My two seasons of driving shitty Blunderhouse buses and being responsible for the kitchen bus has instilled me with a completely unwarranted sense of confidence.

A ridiculous amount of things have happened over the past few days and I've covered a lot of ground and distance. I'm currently parked in Victoria, enjoying the ocean views and generally bumming around. For a few days I've been filled with an overwhelming sense of "Being alive is god damn glorious," which is something I haven't been able to find in a while. I've got a long laundry list of things I have to do to the van to winterize it and make it more comfortable and livable, and a list of things to do to the van to make it pretty, and a list of things to do to the van mechanically. I've got a list of practical shit to do in my real life, including updating my license to a B.C license, beginning legal proceedings against a former employer who owes me money, start looking for a job and continue to tweak the new site for optimal performance and visibility. But until Monday it's me, the van and the ocean, maybe a good book or two, and all the tacos I can eat (tacos seem to be a thing in Victoria, and I miss Taco/Tequila Tuesday.) 

From the seaside with love
xoxo Bex.

 Goodbye, Bebe! Nanaimo, 2018.

Goodbye, Bebe!
Nanaimo, 2018.

 Jude enjoying a top down ride with Bebe. Thunder Road, 2018.

Jude enjoying a top down ride with Bebe.
Thunder Road, 2018.

 Packing up N'Kwala. Merritt, 2018.

Packing up N'Kwala.
Merritt, 2018.

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THE VAN

Seaside views almost make up for the loss of the Pocket Party.

West is Best

I wake up early this morning, which isn't hard. The comfort level of sleeping in the half reclined driver's seat of a Sunfire is fairly low, and I'm used to waking up at 3:45 a.m in a half panic of what to make for camp breakfast, weeks after plant has ended. I live lifetimes while the world sleeps, me and the fisherwoman on the seawall who casts her line out into the oncoming tide again and again and again.  After a few days outside of Merritt, camped in a silent campground in the lower Nicola, a night spent parked in Stanley Park is foreign. The largest city I've been in since April is Vernon, a pretty benign Guelph sized city of sports bars and fast food strips where we go from the orchard to devour chicken wings and splurge on cider at Monashees.

I go to Motion Notion a few days prior with some plant/picking friends, having forgotten how sleazy and grimy music festivals/raves are. We're partied out and head back to bed in the shared tent shortly after midnight and lie there together one last time playing 'Fuck, marry, kill' and listening to a baby wailing somewhere in the vicinity, audible even over the bass that reverberates through our bones and hearts and the piercing airhorn stylings of Neon Steve. "I wonder if that's what he wears, like, all the time," I say. "To the grocery store even." Ravers I knew back in the day possessed a certain level of commitment to the aesthetic and fun fur leg warmers, platform boots, huge pink hair and excessive kandi bracelets were not unusual everyday fashion. Now, alone for the first time in months, it's a pleasant surprise to be able to find a friend in the city and go out for a few beers. A treeplanter, of course. "The world's not getting smaller, the family's getting bigger."

I spend some time walking around Stanley Park and it's so early its just me and some seagulls that skulk around conspiratorially, holding their black eyes on me as they scuttle away. There's the odd cyclist, a single ambitious runner, and the fisherwoman. The tide's coming in rapidly and I'm startled by Carnival Splendor, a cruise ship that rolls silently in with the rising waters, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the highrises on the city shore. In the reeking Pacific waters, a seal peers up at me with its sad sea-dog face before bobbing under, not to reappear. My startled cry of "Seal!" may have scared it off, or maybe the oncoming boat traffic that has materialized out of nowhere. I miss the cathedral silence of N'kwala, where even the river is quiet. City quiet, in the small hours of the morning, is different- there's a constant electric hum, a dull background white noise that I'm no longer accustomed to, the metallic rattle of cars on Lion's Gate bridge. 

I wish I had some photos to share with you, but my car charger isn't working and I need to find a Tim Horton's to indulge in a steeped tea (and more importantly charge said phone) before heading to Nanaimo to look at a van. While currently technically homeless and unemployed, the potential van has a bed in the back and ample storage space and is roughly the size of my first shitty bachelor apartment in downtown Toronto. I'm not totally concerned about job prospects yet as something always materializes and my cost of living is extremely low, particularly if I snag this old Econoline and make it home. Horse farms, kitchens, WWOOFing, apple picking, barista, bakery; these are all viable and ample options. 

Another fisherman has joined the woman on the seawall and she's annoyed that he has almost instantly pulled up a catch and delivered it into his bucket. She glares at him as she reels her line in without the same methodical zen she possessed earlier. He's packing up his folding chair and reel and I think it's time for me to go, too. I've got a ferry schedule to figure out and some more downtown Vancouver driving to tackle and a Tim Horton's location to track down.

xo
Bex

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Hi, friendly friends- if you've made it here, you might notice that I'm in the process of switching over bextales to Squarespace and transferring it from a messy blog to a more professional portfolio. Hopefully we'll have it up and running and looking spic and span and full of fun stories and pictures for you soon. I'm currently finishing up the tail-end of cherry picking season in the Okanagan and recovering from the madness of the past four months of non-stop contracts and partying and getting anything done other than the basics is a fairly gargantuan task. 

Be well!

Cholla horses

The free roaming horses at Cholla Hills.