It’s late January. I’ m ‘seasonally unemployed’ as they say, drawing the dole until the race track opens again in February. Paul is heading off to Edmonton to a job in a therapy centre for handicapped kids. It seems like an opportunity. After we arrive I’ll head over the mountains to Vancouver and see all my old friends for a couple of days. I’ll be back in two weeks.
We leave on a snowy morning, sent off like Shackleton’s heroes in Paul’s ’65 Chevrolet, a monster of a car which has room for everything, including his house plants. I have just got my licence, for the second time, and am confident, more or less, that I can share the driving. But for some reason we don’t pay much attention to the fact that the car is heavily loaded behind, the weight distribution uneven, not calculated to improve road holding.
Heading North from Sudbury around the northern shore of Lake Superior, I begin to realise that I am terrified by the possibility that on a tight slippery curve the back loaded Chevy, and I, just can´t handle, we might, just might, drift into the path of one of the monster trucks that are travelling all too frequently in the opposite direction. The conditions are not like they were in Liverpool. The road is two-lane and narrowed constantly by drifting snow that tends to cover the slick patches. The car’s power steering makes me feel like I´m driving on skies. And I can’t ski. To complicate matters my feet are being chilled by the wind that’s whistling in through the hole in the floor we have only recently noticed. Twice we, that is to say I, drive into a ditch. That we don’t die is something to be thankful for. We get out somehow and head off again in a sort of Laurel and not so Hardy prairie adventure. Paul drives the rest of the way.
After making up for time lost in ditches, we stop around midnight in a National Park on the North shore of the Lake Superior. “Wow man ! look at those stars. Let’s pull over and smoke a joint”. We do. We walk across a frozen lake admiring the glittering night sky. “Wow Man !”. The night sky is a jewel, but as we walk back we realise that the car is axle deep in the snow. “Wow man, heavy duty”. It’s past midnight in an isolated park, North of nowhere, and we haven’t seen a single car drive by since we stopped about half an hour ago. We’re worried. We’re really worried. Worried that we don’t have the blankets or candles or any of the other things they tell you to take if you don’t want to freeze to death on a lonely highway north of Superior. “Oh shit man”.
I don’t know what we do, or how we do it. Perhaps we dig with our hands or put branches under the tires. We certainly pray. I keep thinking about stories of mothers who wrestle cougars or crocodiles to death, or lift cars over their heads to save their children. It feels like the same kind of mystical experience. I know Jesus is on our side. On the third try we get the car out.
It begins to dawn on us that we’ve been optimistic about the time it will take to cross the prairies in the middle of winter. Optimistic about the amount of money we need and optimistic about the ability of the house plants to survive. When we finally arrive in Edmonton, the snow is piled five feet high and the house plants are dead. Thankfully we are still alive, but we have no money. We stay the night in a room in the therapy hostel, and in the morning I borrow five dollars from Paul, who borrows it from someone else, and buy a bus ticket to Vancouver. I leave the next day. We wish each other good luck.
On the other side of the mountains the weather is much better: the grass is green and the cattle are fat. But one thing doesn’t change, money is still a problem. Thankfully there are refuges for those who don’t have any: shelters for the needy, which I have never considered myself to be, at least until now. After convincing those who needed to be convinced, that, Canadian citizen or not, I’m stranded with no money or place to stay, I’m given a bed in a men’s hostel close to Pigeon Park, where the pigeons are outnumbered by the drunk and homeless. There I see the first person I know, ‘Max’. We had met a few years ago picking strawberries in Abbotsford, about twenty five miles from Vancouver. I’m glad to see a friendly face. I call out. He looks at me blankly and wanders unsteadily into a grim looking hotel.
At the hostel they give me vouchers for meals in the White Spot Lunch, a greasy spoon with its complement of cigarette mouthed waitresses, men who would not be out of place in a 30’s Bowery film, and an owner with a drooping moustache and an enormous belly covered by a grease stained semi white apron who looks like he has seen his best days, but might still convince himself to cut your throat if you don’t pay. I eat well. At night, back in the dormitory, I sleep soundly, with wallet and knife under the pillow.
After waking and checking that I‘m alive and documented, I set off in search of a more comfortable place to stay. I hunt through telephone books and anything else I can think of in search of friends, anyone I might know. But like the history of the men in the hostel, no trace is evident. Then, on the third day, salvation calls. My heart leaps when, sitting in a bus stopped at a traffic light close to the Burrard Street Bridge, I notice a Volkswagen passing in the opposite direction. There she is, a vision of a clean room, conversation, and perhaps more. In a Zhivagoesque scene, I shout and wave frantically, Sandy, Sandy, Sandy … while she, oblivious, drives off slowly in the other direction.
I give up on my invisible friends as a source of shelter, and head to the race track in the Pacific Exhibition Grounds. I know the season is to start around February or March, and I hope I might find a room in exchange for work. But fate doesn´t seem to be on my side. The scene is desolate. Apart from the seagulls shitting on the Greenpeace boat forlornly exhibited in the winter rain and the few hardy ducks that sit contemplating their navels, not much seems to be going on.
Of the few people braving the rain, no-one is interested in giving me work. I go back the next day, and then the next, until finally I manage to persuade someone to take me on. Wayne, a thin, dapper man with a Clark Gable moustache and an affable manner, seems like a decent type, and appears to be doing well enough. He has some good horses, he says, they’re in California for the winter…he’ll give me a 5 by 5 concrete block room complete with thin mattress, iron bed and burlap sack over the window, some horses to look after and, best of all, money.
It rains all the time. I feel like I am living on like Noah’s Ark. But nothing lasts for ever. Soon the spring leaves begin to appear. I begin to enjoy life. My little room becomes a refuge. Each morning I step out to look across the river onto the coastal mountains and breathe in the smell of the cedar mills down in False Creek. I am as happy as I have ever been. Spiritual revival, the Tao, Lotus Land. I am walking on air. I meet Laura. She works walking ‘hots’, is interesting, and is interested in me. So we sleep together, do acid in Stanley Park, talk horses, drink wine and watch foreign films at the somewhat unfortunately named “East Vancouver Cultural Centre”. But nothing lasts forever.
Tony is my co-worker, we look after about eight horses each. He has a couple of his own in the barn and is an experienced worker with aspirations of sorts. Tony definitely does not walk on air, nor is he interested in the Tao or the East Vancouver Cultural Centre. He likes to play tricks on me. He talks of animals suffering from ‘rain scalds’. I suppose I bother him. I work hard and don’t complain, and Wayne promises me one of the good horses that are to arrive shortly from California. Maybe this is the key, no way to be sure, but I’m certain that something is wrong when Tony accuses me of giving “needles” to his horse. An absurd idea perhaps, but Tony’s sense of the absurd is not that well developed. He isn’t keen on his “hippy” co-worker, so the long hair, and the needles, have to go.
The confrontation starts. Wayne stands by but says nothing. Tony goes a little berserk and hits me somewhere. Surprised, I do nothing. He hits me again. This time I fall back against the wall. He stands back shaking, neck bulging, face purple, fists at the ready. This is his mistake. He lacks the killer instinct. At least I can say that for him. Or perhaps he is just so certain that hippies high on love and peace don’t fight back. As he comes for me the third time I hit him a good straight left, and that’s that, suddenly it’s all over. I see him the next day in the racetrack kitchen. He has a black eye. “It was his ring” I hear him say. I tell them at the barn that I was once a boxer. I think some of them believe me.
I quit. Going back East, I tell Wayne. Just like that. It seems unfair to Laura. I like her, and but for the unforeseen would probably still be here, working. It even seems a little tragic, but for reasons I’m not able to define, I’ m determined to go. We sleep together for the last time, and then go down to Central Station. It is early May. I board the train for Edmonton to see Paul, the 65 Chev, and the duck he now has living in his bathroom.