A wildly disjointed dispatch

There are any number of fuck ups that can occur in bush camp and I think I’m learning to take most of them in stride. I’ve woken up to 15 cm of snow on the ground in mid May and frozen water lines, and the propane regulator frozen so that the gas can’t run through the lines. I’ve been moved with a day’s notice to a new forest three hours away from home base (and had to three point turn the over heating cook bus on the trans Canada while towing a water trailer ) and had to find out that Sysco doesn’t deliver there. Sysco has smashed entire cases of eggs and in my drug addled next day brain I’ve fucked up placing orders.Things have broken or frozen or gone not according to plan. Personal drama has occurred and been resolved. But I never accounted for the possibility that my assistant would turn out to be a remorseless sociopath.

Pre season in the midst of the winter blues I had my doubts about the cook I met while I was belligerently whiskey drunk at the GO station two years ago. I was carrying my knife roll; I’d just finished filming a segment of an old bosses new YouTube cooking show and was in fine fettle when he started chatting to me. Needing a second approaching the season, he expressed interest and I hired him. There was no indication that he would spend literally six hours straight talking about buttholes, fucking girls in the ass, deny evolution or otherwise be a pain in the ass, until we were stuck together in the car for the twelve hour drive up north. “I have made a mistake,” I thought while screamig “Shut the fuck up for five minutes!” I don’t think he sleeps. I think he may have laid in his tent at night and stared at the ceiling unblinking. I don’t think we ever saw him blink.

Differences in personality and political leanings aside, he was a good worker until he decided the job was too easy and basically tuned out. I’m left questioning his credentials. The bush does weire things to people especially if there’s anything going on already; he found out it wasn’t the place for him and that everybody in camp hated his fucking guts but rather than quit or correct the behavior he decided to try to get fired by sabotaging me on a deeply personal level at bush prom and then pull the classical abuser move and make himself look like the victim to cancel out the bad behavior by going behind my back to the camp manager and crying about me being mean. Rewind.

A few nights prior I had brought to fruition an elaborate scheme involving a kiddie pool filled with jello for jello wrestling at prom. A little lit after gin, I’d enlisted assistance by saying ‘Help me make this jello or you’re fired.’ That’s obviously a joke. I can’t force somebody to help me boil dozens of liters of water to fill every hotel pan we own with jello and then fill every fridge with it and then clean up the next day. Yet this is the incidence he chose to focus on, after going to a friend of mine at prom abd intentionally telling her about something pretty shitty I’d done the year before that didn’t really need to come to light. That scheme backfired when it only solidified our friendship and reliever the tension of the secrecy. During an enforced and mediated meeting in which we tried to make our work relationship continue to stagger along, I apologized for the jello and the firing jokes and waited patiently for the return apology for being a literal sack of shit. It never came- reports later reached me that he said “I don’t apologize. Ever. I don’t think I did anything wrong.”

Having been fucked with and not being the forgiving type, I enforced a new staggered shift schedule in which we were never on the bus at the same time, if there was overlap I wore headphones and if we had to communicate it was via written prep lists. Collectively as a camp we watched with horror as he proceeded to have a psychotic break. Julia came to get a coffee from the secret cook coffee stash one morning and turned about face to quietly leave when she heard him talking to himself on the bus. “Ooh Jakob,” he cackled. “You’ve been a bad boy. You’ve been a bad bad boy.” We didn’t exchange words for an entire four day shift while we stood an an obviously unsustainable stalemate. I am not an unreasonable woman but I do not tolerate bullshit behavior either. The next day off rolled around and I was made aware of ways he was making other people in camp uncomfortable and the mad shit talking he was doing about me behind my back. At the shop picking up my car the Big Boss, not usually at work on a Saturday, saw my face and asked what was wrong. I divulged all and the words were barely out of my mouth when he said ‘Thats it. He’s gone. He no longer works here as of today.” He added later “It’s nice to see you smiling again. I’ve never seen you look so distraught.”

When the news was broken to my second cook he smiled and was happy. He had wanted to leave, he said, and thought maybe he had done it on purpose to get himself fired. While waiting for somebody to drive him into town we heard him talking to himself again, always in the third person. “Jakob doesn’t like the yelly birds!” he murmured darkly, “No he doesn’t like them at all.” Knowing he was leaving in disgrace, he didn’t say goodbye. As the truck drove my problems off in a cloud of dust, I cracked a beer and seared off a celebratory steak. “Don’t fuck with me brah.”

Henderson the Rain King

“Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, ‘What do you want?’ But this is all it would ever tell me.” Chapter 3, p. 24 , Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow.

 

So I approach life full on, exploring the alleys and corners and plains, the backstage theaters behind velvet curtains and the forests. I’ve wanted cool forest glades shaded by fir and dew damp and mercilessly primal but upon arriving found dry hollows that burned with the scent of fires and scorched earth and beetles that clicked over the carpet of dead, dry needles, unfeeling, unthinking, motivated only by the drive of ‘need’ not ‘want’. I’ve found I wanted, without knowing, the small fresh blossoms of wild strawberries that grow prolific along the roadside, and release the smell of berries underfoot. or wanted for a loon to cry out at night, passing over a neighboring lake and shrilling eerily as she touches down between reeds and turtles, but not until it had happened could I put a name to it.

A cold and rainy hell

I don’t know what time we went to bed or how we got there; it wasn’t my bed, anyway, it was four of us crammed into the tent Michaela had set up in the back of her $800 Ford Ranger. Four of us and the dog in a tangle of limbs and confusing body parts and bad breath and treeplant smelliness. We had to evict one after it became clear he had sleep apnea; we laughed relentlessly at the ground shaking snores and then gave him a headlamp and the old heave-ho over the side of the truck, listening to him crash away through the brush and party detritus. It had been cold and damp for longer than seemed fair and the bare metal of the truck, under only a layer of tent canvas, seemed aggressively chilly. At one point I fought my way through the layers of tarp and fly and tent to lay my head disconsolately along the bed and puke red goon sack wine and acrid Baby Duck and tomatoes (tomatoes!?) into the grass. When the chill of the metal became too much to bear, I left Jude, glaring at me balefully, and stumbled out to the dying embers of our fire, free of spectators, and turned myself around it like a slow spit roast, trying to get warm and occasionally spitting surprise bits of puke into the sand, suffering the worst psychological and physical agony I can remember experiencing.

This was still preferable to the hangover day spent on the side of a logging road in temperatures hovering near zero, the bus overheating and leaking coolant and the grey sky spitting out an incessant drizzle that made our clothes smell like wet dog and plastered our frizzy hair to our blackfly bitten foreheads. This is hell, I thought. A cold and rainy hell.

Goodbye Howard Johnson

We are banned from the Howard Johnson, rightly so, for the hundredth time. Instead of climbing the log pile (bad bad) they’ve gone swimming in the sawdust pile and left a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail of sawdust all through the hotel, leading the very angry receptionist right to the room containing the culprits.

The dance floor at the Companion on a Hearst Saturday night is lit, there’s a bachelorette party we are crashing, a swarm of big pupilled treeplanters taking over. My favorite Hearst activity; buying cigarettes at the Esso at 3 a.m

Dispatches

Well, a week of pre-season prep is flying by at warp speed, leaving us all a bit shell shocked, wind burnt and bogglingly exhausted, dehydrated and giddy. It’s 4;30 a.m and I’m wide awake which bodes well for the next 2 months of 4 am start times (followed by another 2 months of early rising in the Okanagan). The familiar sound of the generator running soothes me through the night- the fridges on the trailer and the kitchen bus will be getting cold in anticipation of the arrival of our giant Sysco order this afternoon.

We’re living out of our vehicles and a job site trailer parked on a wicked angle at the shop, where we at least have hydro this year. After last season’s -13 with wind chill temps over the first week, this 22 degree weather makes me feel spoiled. Somebody’s always brewing coffee on a camp stove and we are back to pissing outside incessantly and driving to the Husky to shit and shower. You can hear them everywhere we go. “The treeplanters are back,” they say, as we trudge in to buy groceries and beer and gas. Soon we’ll be followed by close to a hundred planters.

Setting up a bush kitchen from scratch is no easy feat. The week has been pretty full with getting the bus ready after she sat in storage outdoors all winter. We’ve been checking propane and water and fixing cupboards and washing every dish after the mice made their home in the cupboards with leftover toilet paper. The tasks are never ending, although the list at the moment is quite manageable. Encouraging, after the full-on, heads down charge that was necessary to tackle the immensity of the whole project.

Equipping the pantry and meal planning for the first week took two full days of obsessive list making, poring over copies of the Sysco catalog. Everything from spices and baking supplies to toilet paper and ground beef has to be considered. The order, a two page affair, took a solid thirty minutes to phone in to our rep, who is excellent at helping us with the most cost effective products for our needs. Having done this last year makes it immensely easier for me to handle now, knowing quantities that will be needed and preferable products and what a shift will typically look like. We are meeting industry standard this year with 4&1 shifts although the first will be a 5&1, followed by the inaugural HoJo/Companion night off. Look out, Hearst!

Walking back from La Companion a few nights ago, I caught a glimpse of flickering green in the sky, followed by the briefest moment of pink. It was so brief I could have imagined it but when I got back to the shop everyone was outside watching the sky and the aurora borealis that graced us this far south, for, as north as Hearst may seem, Canada still stretches on seemingly indefinitely to the north. I have finally tricked somebody into coming up here with me and after the twelve hour drive and the warnings of snow and bugs and shittiness, the spectre almost makes it worthwhile.

‘I thought you must have been exxagerating at least a little bit when you talked about treeplant,’ he says. ‘But now that I’m here and I hear everybody’s stories, I realize you weren’t. Even a little bit. Actually, you might have underplayed it.’

Looking forward to bringing you another season of unbelievable stories. Bex out.

Lads

Spumante foams along the neck of the bottle and flecks our clothes
as the race-worn spittle horses foamed at the iron bits and slathered,

drunk feet dangle from the trunks of Audis that speed celebratory up Chalk Lane
remember being suspended above the churn of steel shod hooves at speed.

Languid ponies loose in paddocks on the Downs serve to reenact the starting line-up,
the day’s winners urged on to glory in a hundred different retold versions.

Bar of Silver

There are moments that come and go, flitting so quickly in and out of existence that they’re hardly substantial, brief little silver linings. We’ll remember them in a rocking chair in a nursing home somewhere, feeble and crippled, living them out over and over again.  The names of horses long since consecrated to the ground, the flash of a rainbow-bright pheasant in cedars, wind-chapped hands in December and a kiss from the lips of the chapped-hand man.

The racehorses come to us with names ranging from regal to outright absurd. Royal Rackeen, Twice on Sunday, Cashflow Expected, who never won a dime. Bar of Silver was a lean little chestnut with bright chrome stockings and a blaze, belonging to a meek, eccentric woman who would have done better with a steady cob type thing that would have plodded along the Downs trails happily. A.G, as she named him, after the periodic table of elements symbol for ‘silver’, had been acquired from a polo string. “The perfect gentleman,” the seller assured her, and while he was a polite, kind gelding, he was still all Thoroughbred, young, quick on his feet and inclined toward a bit of speediness.
I’d hack out with A.G and his owner every day, mounted on one of the full liveried horses and ponies I had the pleasure of exercising. Ginnie, one of my favorites, a highly strung colored mare with a naughty streak, Milton, a little Welsh section C named after the famous show jumper, Lucero, an Andalusian from Spain who took me speedily down the sand gallops with the bit in his teeth and lost stirrups more times than I can count, leisurely Val, the big fleabitten gray with navicular, or one of my personal favorites, Arnie, a chubby Appaloosa with a stand-up broom mane and a neck that disappeared out from under you when he put his head down at the canter. If I wasn’t riding out with her, I was riding A.G for her, deeply flattered to be trusted with the precious little horse.

One of the yard lasses who had worked there just before I arrived, a sullen Polish girl, had taken to galloping him in the same spot on the Downs every time she rode him out, conditioning him to break into an open gallop at the start of the Farm. Racehorses are easily mentally conditioned- if you begin to gallop at the same spot every day, that spot takes on the dimensions of the starting gate and with his owner on board, he would merrily shake his head and surge ahead, her flopping like a frightened ragdoll, losing stirrups and keeling stiffly to one side, hauling on his mouth until he either stopped or she fell. As a result, the horse suffered greatly, as we were no longer allowed to take him out and stretch his legs with a good gallop anywhere on the Downs, lest he take it into his little Thoroughbred brain to try the same with his owner on board.

One day, the big boss away with the headgirl at dressage at Pachesham, we drew our rides for the day, James assigning me my secret favorite, A.G, he taking a large and obstinate warmblood who could turn himself inside out bucking, and the working student on a big, able bodied colored cob who had to be coerced into moving at faster than a plod.

The blackberries were out along the hedgerows and we ate them on our ride along the bridlepath to the downs, scattering rabbit kits beneath the horses hooves. There’d been a stretch of unbelievable weather in the south of England and the sky was blue and cloudless, the ground was dry and fast and the horses were fresh and pleased to be out for a hack. James, the defacto leader in the absence of the big boss, led us at a brisk trot along the sand gallops, and while the horses were fresh, they were well behaved, moving along quickly but obediently. I followed his instruction to push A.G up into the bit and suddenly found myself moving along in the most beautiful, floating collected trot, the red gelding framing up and carrying himself almost imperiously, pridefully. Still moving along at a quick trot, James calls out, “We’ll just go for a quick canter up the hill then, shall we?”

The Downs, in addition to the famous racetrack and the miles and miles of sand gallops, features woodlands with bridle-paths, and acres of undulating hills that look out over the English countryside. From one viewpoint, you can see all the way to London, the London Eye on the South Bank evident on the horizon. There is one hill smack in the center that has a long, gradual incline that we often used for conditioning, going for a long, slow canter up the verdant greenery until, upon cresting, an excellent view of the grandstand and the track comes into view. I had breezed a good many horses up that hill, but nobody at all was supposed to take A.G out beyond a trot, lest they lose control of him, or, worse, his owner did when he took it upon himself to go for a run at a later date. “It’s just like a little picnic,” James called back, breaking Dickie into a shambling canter. “Sit back and relax!”

And in a heartbeat, A.G eased into a quick, controlled canter. I could hear my blood rushing in my head, as, seamlessly, I eased into jockey position. The line between my hands and the bit became electric and supple, the quiet contact established, hands moving in stereo with the muscular pitch and yaw of the canter that was easing toward a gallop. My body was out of the saddle, perched over the tiny and constantly shifting center of gravity of the galloping horse below me, weight balanced entirely on the ball of my foot that rested along the thin strip of metal stirrup. My weight sunk into my heels and there I balanced above the surge of muscle and blood and flesh and will that is a galloping horse. James glanced back over his shoulder and laughed out loud at the joy evident in my face, the perfect harmonious mechanical wonder of a Thoroughbred doing what it loves to do, the fat cob galloping up the hill behind us and trying to keep up, and as we crested the hill and settled our bums back into our saddles, our horses came right back to a collected trot without argument.

I dream of this, sometimes; the moment where, without asking, the horse knew my mind, and the noise of the world became hoofbeats and blood and the breathing of horses, as we stole a gallop on a day without rain.