Thunderfucked

The season’s running long- it’s running so long, I’ve lost track of how many days straight we’ve worked. Cooks have come and gone, we’ve merged camps, and the fruitful beginning of the season has devolved, as we gleefully anticipated, into a fuck around. “Things are going too well,” we said. It’s almost like we wanted things to go badly. The season’s gone so long I had to push Julia “What’s a Spatula?” emergency second cook back into the kitchen for thirty six hours for me to drive the round trip to Sudbury to drop off Jude before G.  jets off to Nepal, to pick up my bags and shove them into the dusty trunk of the Pocket Portable Pontiac Party and bust it back to the bush to finish the god damn thing off with a bang. The season’s going so long that when I roll out, there’s a coup d’etat unfolding in the staff trailer and we’re all mad about money and being salaried and how we’re not making any money now that we’ve run two weeks long, and we’re mad because we’ve been in the bush for so many days straight that we’re all out of  beers and pot and cigarettes and there’s construction happening in the pit- they’re digging up our road with excavators starting at four am, which isn’t so bad for me, the cook, with my three forty-five a.m alarm, but for the planters, it’s hell. The world is dust, sun and bugs. The mess tent blew away in the windstorm- but we five-man half ass assembled the new Weather Haven, which weights about eight hundred pounds. I think the coup’s been smoothed over with a peace offering of cash and a case of beer and some packs of smokes, because nobody’s called me from the sat phone to tell me that they’ve bagged up my tent for me and thrown it into a car that will be impossible to track down and I’ll only get half of my equipment back, but it will be ok because in just a few days we’ll be in Oyama and it will be paradise- I fantasize that that’s what’s happened, but I know it’s not the case. Rumors fly around about how many trees are left and we’re simply not sure, but I hear anything from three hundred thousand to half a million, and planters are dropping by the day with low morale and injuries and other commitments and simply not wanting to be there anymore.

It’s a weird moment to realize that your job is basically keeping sixty people alive, especially when you’re maybe not a very nurturing person, like me. I don’t want kids. I’d go Andrea Yates and drown them in a bathtub. It’s not sadistic, it’s true- I know my mind, I know my mental health, I accept it. It isn’t something I want. “It’s my turn,” I say one night, being talked down from a mental breakdown by my boss and best friend, “to have somebody fucking look after me.” We’re just all so busy- even when my friends show up, its because they need something. “Do you have any Band-Aids?” Go fuck yourself. “Where are the condoms?” Thanks for reminding me of how dry this season has been. My alarm is set for 3:45. I get up, boil hot water, make coffee, grill a hundred and twenty grilled cheese sandwiches, wrangle eggs on the tilted grill, fill dish water, lay out the mess tent with the lunch spread, make sure there’s bread and fruit and peanut butter and jam. I put out a lunch treat (or sometimes make it in the morning…) start dinner prep, and lay on the horn at six a.m to wake the camp. Hot water and coffee go out at six, then we crush breakfast out at 6:30 and lay on the horn again. We bring everything in when they leave at seven, restock, make platters, prep breakfast, have our coffee and make a prep-list for the day. Then we nap, or try to- its been forty degrees during the day recently and too hot to sleep, except in the staff trailers, but it seems like as soon as we lie down the entire camp tramps through looking for shit. We come in again around one pm after having our weird fever dreams, tossing, turning, sweating, and I lie there dreaming about scalloped potatoes and dessert and how much we’ll need and whether I need to climb on top of the bus to place a Sysco order or not with the sat phone and the spotty service. We merged camps last week- so for a few days there were three cooks, but with that damn long running season, one had to bail to go on a trip to Norway that was already bought and paid for and we had to merge the bus into the trailer and shuffle everything around and then start planning for how we were going to feed double the amount of people and I keep pushing back food orders because I think it’s the end, but it never is, so we’re running on bare bones leftovers and getting used to working with one another and I’m getting used to new planters, who aren’t used to my particular brand of crustiness. “Why the fuck are you eating my vegetarian food, Viktor, I see meat on your plate.”

“Its just food…”

At which I stamp back into the trailer and bang shit around and make my displeasure clear the next day with a cardboard sign out with dinner that reads

VEGETARIAN ONLY
I’M FUCKING WATCHING YOU.

I’ve had the chance to really come into my own this season after struggling through last year with very little guidance and a series of setbacks that were out of my control, pertaining mostly to camp moves, distance, undelivered orders and a huge amount of personal drama (oops. Let’s blame the Leo me.) This year we’ve had some dope camp food- home made buns and naan bread and butter chicken, sliders and cheesecake brownies and a pretty sick lentil loaf. Donuts have been the real show stopper thus far, though. Nutella glazed bacon maple donuts. Twelve hour days on the block can be trying but a mutiny can be squashed with good food at the end of the day. It isn’t possible to do amazing food every day with the budget we work with, but we try. We put out breakfast and a lunch spread and a block treat and dinner and dessert every day, so give me a break, for fucks sake, I’m working with less than twelve dollars per person per day and I think I do pretty damn good with what I have to work with (and the excellent help of Julia and Gabby, who are both kitchen warriors and emotional support and great friends).

This is the worst blog entry ever and the shittiest way to end it, but IDGAF, it’s eleven pm and I have a solid nine hour drive ahead of me tomorrow to get back to camp and start the afternoon portion of all of my prep and dive back into the obscene amount of prep it takes to keep a kitchen trailer in the middle of the Hearst forest clean and functioning and tidy and organized and pumping out whatever various combinations of pasta, potatoes, rice, bread and canned chickpeas will still appeal to planters and staff. 10-4, pals.

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.

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.

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.

Come down tae the pub, or else you’re fired.

I dropped out of high-school halfway through the eleventh grade to fly to England and work exercise riding horses and mucking stalls, living on-site in an apartment that was a part of the stable block. Going down to the pub is probably the national past-time in the United Kingdom, and in Epsom, they were prolific. The White Horse, with an out of tune piano and a grubby stretch of bar, one of my favorites. The Queen’s Head, where the only memory I have is being extremely, extremely drunk, playing pool with a group of locals and having to return shamefaced the next day to retrieve a top I’d left behind in the fray. The Albion, Irish Paul’s old haunt and where we met a group of perpetually drunk WWII vets who drag us over hedges and bridlepaths to see Victoria Day fireworks. I used to carry a little stuffed zebra as a purse. “Oi, Freddy!” the bleary eyed man sitting next to me exclaims to the bar keep. “Did you know Canadians skin zebras and use them as wee purses?” The Amato, my favorite for Sunday roasts and weird pull-chain toilets. And, just a hop and a skip over in Walton-on-The-Hill, The Chequers.

I still had a sense of decorum at sixteen. “Oh no, going out to drink with my boss is simply not appropriate,” I must have thought at one point. Hahaha. My sweet summer child. I’m invited out multiple times and elect, instead, to sit in front of the tellie watching BBC 4, hours old horse-races and episodes of Holly Oaks (which sucks you right fucking in, no matter how highbrow you like to imagine yourself) until eventually, I am issued the ultimatum, of “Come down tae the pub, or else you’re fired,” and I go, and a beast is unleashed.

A few pub visits later, we find ourselves at quiz night at The Chequers, still in our riding boots and chaffy half chaps and dirt stained hands, guzzling cheap rose wine and badly answering trivia questions. “What has recently increased from £5,25 to £5,75?” Excitedly, we bump heads, writing down our answer. “Cigarettes! A pack of cigarettes!” The answer is ‘minimum wage’, something we should probably be aware of, since that is what we are earning during our 10 hour a day, six days a week of shovelling horse shit and galloping horses out over Epsom Downs. A new employee shows up, a Prince William look alike with a larger than life personality, and more rose is consumed. The big boss invites us back over to her house for spaghetti bolognese and I head up to the bar to get one more drink before we go. Unfortunately, there’s a minimum for debit, so I end up purchasing two half liters of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and pounding them in quick succession before departing the gorgeous garden at Chequers.

Sixteen, drunk, full of rose, stout and with a mouthful of spaghetti bolognese, seated beside my new coworker who I am just meeting for the first time, I projectile vomit across my boss’s bougie living room and dash for the bathroom, where I spend maybe the next hour with my head in the toilet, moaning.

“Canadians do everything so politely!” she exclaims, coming in to check on me, leaving a glass of water on the side of the tub. “They even vomit politely!” Later it becomes apparent that my hi jinx are not the epitome of what she has seen; one of my senior coworkers is spotted at a party a few weeks later pissing in the garden and passed out face down in the rose bushes, a high-heeled foot with her thong around her ankles hanging out into the garden where the night continues on around her.

The morning after the unfortunate rose/stout/bolognese incident, we wake up at the yard and head out to work, heads pounding, stale breath, bleary eyed, to participate in a jumping clinic with a relatively famous clinician, a former Household Calvary instructor and rider and prevalent name within the British show jumping world. We sit clad in our jods and half chaps along the side of the menage, heads in hands, and each ride our individual clinic with great success, piloting around 1000 pound flight animals over courses of fences with pounding headaches. As he rides out, the William look-alike says confidentially, “I think I’m still drunk.” I leg-up onto a blue-eyed pony and think I may be, as well.