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.

Bus Bitches Part 1

I’d like to tie this in to an earlier post, in which I discussed how the logical response when somebody asks you if you can drive a bus is, “no”, not, “Sure, legally.” Recently visiting friends who have known me for some years, working the horse farm and running or biking the 6km there and back everyday, they were not surprised. “We loved your Instagram posts of you and the bus this summer,” they said. I reiterated the story of how I learned to drive the bus and I was comforted by the fact that they viewed me the same way I did. “I think if somebody asked you if you could drive a bulldozer, you’d say yes and you’d just figure it out.” More or less.

L and I exchange post-cards in between seasons. I made a lot of friends last season. I was lucky. I found myself. I heard soul-affirming statements and compliments. “You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” my boss wondered. Thanks, bud. This, shortly after he finds his girlfriend and I on the kitchen bus, topless with our boobs in bread pans of dyed flour-water paste, making a birthday card of breast imprints. “I promise I’ll be ok for tomorrow,” I say.

I plant my personal best the next day in some weird mind-state, after spending an inappropriate amount of time naked the day before, then swimming, fully clothed, in leech lake, trying to wash off the flour water paste. I had naked wheel-barrow raced a friend that day and couldn’t look him in the eyes for months, remembering hysterically laughing as I held his legs under my armpits and basically staring into his asshole as we raced around the bus with his sneakers on his hands. My potted plant, bought at a garage sale in Hearst, dares everyone on the bus to get naked and they comply. A friend speaks for the plant and begins to tear him out of his pot. “Jesus, he’s a plant, he doesn’t wear clothes, he’s already naked! You’re just tearing him out of his pot!” He is constantly having beer poured into his pot, a show of solidarity, a brief ‘salut!’ to acknowledge him. I bring Dyl to the block and my crew boss takes his numbers. The next week night off, somewhere between ‘boat races’ and ‘strollin’ like Moses through the desert to find a bonfire’, I bring Dyl to a friend, a sort of mentor like figure, a figure I oft refer to as “dreadlocked sex Santa” or occasionally, “Dad”. I look at him sort of slanty-side eyed and say, “I think Dyl is dying.” He plucks at a limp leaf that wilts in his hand and falls to the ground. “You’re right. We should probably put him out of his misery.” And in a moment we fall upon him like animals and rend him limb from limb. Nico runs in at the last moment and retrieves the empty pot, screaming about how we have murdered him. She carried the empty pot on her head during our travels about camp in search of the rumored bon-fire until I tire of the dead past and throw it victoriously upon the fire.

When I roll into Northern Ontario for a second season, I’m exhilarated and terrified all at once. I found my people last year. This season can’t be the same. It can’t live up to the last year, yet at the same time, it’s been the resounding siren call to live for over the past nine months. Do you remember when the promise of life made you shiver, anticipating snow in London and azure seas and the sheer ecstasy of being alive, driving through mountains at midnight, careening through wheat fields in a car like a space ship with the other occupants in some deep, medically induced sleep. Over the monotonous winter and the dreary restaurant work, there’s been the promise of the woods and the lakes, the beaver ponds and unpopulated meadows and the fragrance of wild strawberries, the philosophical discourses on psychedelics and the promise of old friendships renewed and new relationships kindled. L and I meet up the first night back in Hearst and return to spend a night at the Queens, our last night in a bed for a while. My greatest longing over the next four months is just to sprawl across a bed, for while we do occasionally stay in a hotel room, there are four people to a bed and the hours spent there are brief.

My first time driving a bus has been recounted over and over again. I can’t help but laugh. I can’t say no. My first round of drop-offs goes well, backing the orange bus into line in the Esso parking lot, framed by the piles of pulp logs and cranes and logging equipment. Shuttled back to the bus yard by another staff member in a white truck whos back door won’t open, requiring me to climb over the seat and into the front to exit, I bring over the next round of buses. The dry bus, the equipment bus, soon to be loaded to the rafters with tarps and tents and guitars and boots and the detritus brought along to survive two months in the wild. I arrive in the Esso parking lot and back the bus into place fairly confidently. My chauffeur back to camp is waiting outside. We stand and light a cigarette and chat casually outside the bus. In a moment, like an optical illusion, the bus begins to slowly roll backward, toward a deep ditch full of brackish water and cat tails. I futiley grip at it with my hands as if it were an errant horse I could stop with my willpower and stern gaze. “Jump, jump, jump!” I’m being shouted at and boosted in the door with a surprising strength and agility. Shaking, I slam on the brakes. I swear I’ve put the parking brake on. We drive in circles around the Esso parking lot, throwing the parking brake between ‘on’ and ‘off’ and there’s no difference. Later in the season, I learn that the parking brake had long ago been burnt out by a rookie crew boss who repeatedly drove with it engaged, thus rendering it useless. We cholk the tires in the future.

L had brought the same bus from the winter storage parking area, ten kilometers away from the shop. Her first time driving a bus, she ran it dry of coolant and overheated the engine, as our boss mistook her frantic “stop sign” hand-motion for a ‘thumbs up’ and geared up and drove back to the shop while she lagged behind with a smoking engine. Driving the old buses is a negotiation, a conversation. “Bertha,” I cry out, smacking the dash affectionately with a closed fist. “We’re gonna do it, old girl!” my eye on the temperature gage, delicately adjusting the speed to allow the temp to cool off, eyes watchful of highway traffic in the rearview mirrors. Neil Young’s blaring on my Spotify in the cupholder and I hold a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich in one overfull fist, the steering wheel gripped between a pinkie and index finger, and a coffee cup dangles from between my clenched teeth while I watchfully observe an OPP cruiser drive by. Thank fuck my four year outdated license plates go unremarked.

Our first camp move, from Waxatike to Pitopiko, is a two day affair. There are not enough drivers for the number of vehicles we have. We pack up camp one morning after breakfast and leave with the dry bus, the kitchen bus and the ‘people’ bus. I may or may not try to gear out of a muddy incline with my old bus and roll slowly back into the dry storage trailer, colliding with a dull, final thud. No damage was done. We spend hours filling in the greywater pit until I am convinced it is purgatory. The planters are dropped off in town to enjoy a night off; the rest of us have to continue to our new camp nearly 100km away to begin set up up and the first round of vehicle drop offs. I leave the kitchen bus plugged in at the shop and ride with L out to Pitopiko, seated atop a pile of tarps and planting bags, while shovels ricochet dangerously around me. A ten liter water jug falls from on top of the cubbies to my feet, narrowly missing my head. My dog lies miserably at my feet near the radiator, wearing both his sweater and his coat. It’s miserably cold and rainy. Really, I could have brought the kitchen bus, but nobody wants to set up the generator, digging a hole for the ground plate and lifting the 1000lb diesel burner from a flatbed and playing with fuel and dongles (heehee) in the blackfly ridden evening. We are also both on the dangerous verge of falling asleep. We blast Stan Rogers songs as loud as possible on her phone speaker and sing along, badly out of tune, to Barrett’s Privateers. “Never have I ever fucked anybody because they knew all the word to my favorite Stan Rogers song.” After we turn off the highway, the directions are convoluted. “Left on Rail Road,” seems simple enough, but the rest of the directions are clues and inside jokes from previous seasons. “Ten kilometers past naked bridge,” they said. The road is an old torn out railway bed with narrow trestle bridges looming high above foamy, frigid rivers. We see five bears on our drive from highway to camp.

We drive back to town, two hours away, in the crew cab, piled in tight. “We don’t have booze,” we lament. It will be ten o’clock before we’re at the Hojo and it’s party night. I guess we’ll be spending a lot of money at La Companion. Our Quebecer lumberjack crewboss smiles slyly and showcases a pillowcase full of tallcans. “Pre-game,” he says. I fall asleep in the backseat cuddled between my dog and the pillowcase while the low lull of crewboss conversation continues in the front and the strains of Johnny Flynn reach my ears. I might be dead, this is the road to heaven, and I’m ok. The dark woods flash by and a bear runs alongside the truck for nearly 5km and I think I am born to be here.

All the doors are open at the Hojo and we are greeted with cheers of welcome. “You’re here!” the drunk planter scream, thrusting beers upon us. We’re here, we’re here, we’re alive and we’re so here. We crack open beers and find vacated showers with hair clogged drains and dirty boots occupying foyers, we both catch up and surpass in terms of inebriation. We go to join our friends and so equipped, go to meet our lives, rushing toward us like the trees rush past on the sides of the highways, the sound of the music ripped away by the wind.

Goodbye, Northern Ontario

4 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 4 to a bed and turning side to side to share cuddles. From the far side, a hand reaches over to pat my hair and tuck the blanket in. 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 2 nights on a hardwood floor of an auntie’s house and straggle through markets and restaurants and bars.

Strange to see treeplanters in other contexts- our friends, our family, intimate strangers. ‘I love Farley Mowat,’ fingering the spine of a book. 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 Rd, 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 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. 1 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 attendents 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 .50. 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.

 

 

Bad bitches don’t need no men

Here’s the way to live life-

Upon being asked if you can drive a school bus, whilst the answer legally is ‘Yes, if it is empty,’ the logical answer is ‘No, I never have before.’ Technicalities. You end up veering down highway 11 in a bus with no brakes, filling up with diesel at Pepco and backing it into a parking spot. Old hat. French treeplanters in their van leer at the short girl driving the bus. Put ‘er in neutral, parking brake on and begin to walk away, then watch in horror as it begins to slide backward toward a ditch. Instinctively scrabble at the door with your hands as if by pure brute force and willpower 140lbs can stop a few thousand. “Jump, run!” echoing and you are jumping up the stairs and into the drivers seat as if hopping the last train outta a small town burning down.

Planters in their tents behind the Beer Store with a fire going. Miss that, yeah, but barrelling toward Ryland in a dirty 4×4 to change a flat trailer tire is its own kind of fun. Fleetwood Mac on a phone speaker in a truckstop shower.

Packing fridges full of veg and meat and good simple comfort staples, the entire aisle of the converted kitchen bus stacked with boxes of bread, apples and oranges, sacks of sugar and pails of peanut butter and jelly.

Real life, maybe. Like some kind of hallucination of serenity in which we are absurdly capable. Of organization and brute strength and fearlessness. A night last year, flying and perfect and a train wreck- ‘I’m pretty sure I couldn’t drive the bus,’ and a friend, ‘I know you could,’ and the absurd conflict of abundant self confidence coupled with crippling self doubt. It tickles me that people are impressed by knowing how to use a drill- I’ve been fixing fences and stalls and driving quads and trailers for 10 years. The collectivity of skills in any given group is surprising but perhaps even more so here in the scope and expanse. These capable people I surround myself with and hope to be and have perhaps somewhat become.

Dispatches typed from a phone using sketchy 4G are apt to be short and stream-of-conciousness. Tomorrow! Into the bush at Waxatike. Holla atcha girl. More news in 6 days. Lovelove xox.

Dispatches

Ordering $16,000 worth of Sysco products to feed 100+ people in remote bush camps makes line cooking a 700 cover brunch look easy.  Sticking to budget, providing morale, meeting nutritional needs and generally knowing that if you forget something it isn’t a 2 minute walk to the cornerstore to pick it up are all contributing factors.

Communal trailer bunk bed sleeping and working, no running water, propane stove baked beans, hurry up and wait, awkward moments. Cool bus, McD’s wifi, changing tires, 4 wheel drive, diesel smells. Vans and trucks and buses, long johns and dogs and outside haircuts.

The treeplant cookbook- “Nobody Wants to Eat Hotdogs on Acid,” or “Big Macs and Car Snacks,” or “101 Ways to Repurpose Spaghetti Leftovers.”

 

Shakeapeare roles as written for Samuel L. Jackson:

Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war… Mother fucker.

 

To be or not to be? Mother fucker.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? Motherfucker.