No Fixed Abode
UK to Canada
Along with a morning paper run and various after-school jobs I used to garden for an English lady. Little did I know that I was building credits that would help me on my OE.
Her brother, John Workman OBE, owned a forest surrounding a post-card perfect village in Gloucestershire. Because I’d been a reliable garden boy in Canada, I was able to walk into the most delightful employment in his forest. I joined a small team, and each day we would selectively extract trees in a way that maintained the forest, while creating revenue.
My accommodation was a double storied 200 year old stone cottage. Complements of Google; here’s the view from what was my bedroom. No matter that this photo might have been taken forty years later, 1920 or 2020, the village will have looked much the same.
My work started at first light and finished at dusk, so my memories of genteel encounters, must have been created on weekends. One stands out for the wrong reasons: Often my mother would amuse herself and others by putting on an aristocratic accent and say “Oh shut up do!”. Living nearby Mr Workman had a second sister, and she accompanied us to the November 11th Remembrance Day church service. She was carrying on in that same accent my mother parodied. Thinking it would be funny, I said “Oh shut up do!”. She did not see any humour, just impudence. What was funny in Canada, went down like a lead balloon when the caricature being mimic was present company.
Pre-9/11 travel was a breeze, and none more so than flying by Laker Airways. The day before leaving the UK, I bought a £99 ticket to Los Angeles. (£69 to New York). No meals. No fuss. Just turn up at Gatwick, board the DC10 and go. The girl sitting next to me had ordered the optional meal, but wasn’t hungry, so gave it to me. She couldn’t have found a more grateful recipient.
In no time we were touching down in Bangor, Maine. If you’ve never heard of Bangor, Maine, that’s because it’s about the size of Nelson, but there was nothing small about its runway. The air force had recently withdrawn their assets, freeing up a strip of asphalt big enough to handle anything flying. Rather than having to endure customs in LA, all passengers were cleared into America by the friendly country folk from Maine. I had enough time to go for a walk in the crisp New England air. I remember looking back and thinking how small the terminal looked with the DC10 parked in front of it. Seven hours later I was in LA, and straight onto an over-night bus bound for Sacramento (600km).
I had arranged to meet up with Stacey, my Californian pen pal. She was attending university at Sacramento.
Stacey’s letters were masterpieces. She was majoring in literature. She told me that she had come close to dropping me, as a pen pal, as my letters were pretty boring.
University in New Zealand typically entailed flatting with a bunch of others in an old house, and either riding a bicycle, or public transport. Stacy was in her own apartment, and her dad bought her a car. She was, however, disparaging about American and in particular, Californian consumerism.
In Sacramento I amused myself one day by attending a lecture at Stacey’s university, otherwise I wandered around and met up with her after classes.
At the end of my stay, Stacey dropped me off at the start of a north-bound ramp for interstate ‘5’’. I strode up the road with my thumb out, and it wasn’t long before a big black car pulled up. It was the highway patrol, and I was informed that hitchhiking on the interstate was not allowed. No matter. I retraced my steps, and before long another car pulled up.
I believed, as the recipient of a free ride, that it was my job to be chirpy, and attentive; in short ‘to earn my ride’. This driver was somewhat lugubrious. It transpired that he had just been released from San Quentin. He told me interesting stuff about what he called ‘Animals’ on the inside, and I’m sure there was lots more that he judged unsuitable for my innocent ears. Then he drew out the biggest knife I’ve ever seen. The blood drained from my head. He was, however, just showing it to me. Fortunately, my over-active imagination is limited to nice things. I had no thoughts of the dark events that could have followed. I just kept on being chirpy and attentive, and was eventually dropped off about 500 km up the road, somewhere in Oregon.
I booked into a cabin and attempted to cook a tin of beans on a heater. I punctured the tin and when it heated up the contents started spewing out the puncture. I managed to clean up the mess and salvage most of the contents.
Then I had a tantalizing idea. I had my transistor radio. It was a clear cold night. I wondered if I could tune in the soundtrack of my childhood; CKLG transmitting from Vancouver. I had no problem remembering the frequency. I’d heard it a thousand times. 1373. The first thing I heard when I tuned in was an announcer in oh-so-cool dulcet tones saying “LG 73”. I whooped. The signal then faded, but I didn’t need to hear any more.
My destination was Vancouver Island, where I had a sister, and a $100 Canada savings bond that had been accruing interest for ten years. I was now living on a loaf of wholemeal bread and a pot of honey.
The next day I got a ride to Portland. The weather had turned grim. There was a big bridge to cross to get to Washington State, and hitch hiking was forbidden (and insane) on and beyond that bridge. I seriously considered hocking off my transistor radio to pay for a bus fare, but didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how much money I would need to get to Canada, but it was late afternoon, and if I dallied, I would need to spend more on food, if not accommodation. I decided to get moving and paid for a bus to Seattle.
The bus arrived in Seattle late at night, and I made for the downtown youth hostel. There, I had another frightening experience. I put down my passport, and when I went to pick it up it was gone. I had travelled three quarters of the way around the globe without mishap and now almost at the Canadian border, I was without my passport and very little money. It turned out someone had picked it up my passport by mistake and all was resolved in a matter of minutes, but it was a sobering reminder to be ever vigilant.
The Seattle youth hostel wasn’t anything like the wholesome hostels in New Zealand. I had a shower and wondered if the disgusting ceiling above me would collapse. Never mind. I was sufficiently tired that once I was safely zipped up in my sleeping bag with my valuables next to my body I was soon in another place.
The sheltered waters that separate Vancouver Island from Washington State are plied by ferries that would be swamped in the first week on Cook Straight. It’s a bit of a bus journey including a few short ferry crossings from Seattle to the international ferry terminal. I had ten cents to spare after paying for the journey from Seattle, to the terminal and across the channel. The Canadian terminus was at Sidney. When I was a boy, Sidney was ‘the village’ and Victoria was ‘town’. In other words, given a few hours, I could have walked from the where the ferry landed to my old home. That would have been pointless, however, as we had sold the farm and moved to New Zealand eight years before. Instead, I walked to the bank where I had purchased the Canada Savings bond a decade earlier. Withdrew it, plus interest, and phoned my big sister.
It was late November. Vancouver Island has the most benign climate in Canada. Snow was unlikely until late December. The festive season was under way and it may have been a good time to pick up a temporary job in retail, but I had my sights set on the wild frontier.
The province of British Columbia is about five times the size of New Zealand. I managed to kedge a ride into the interior with a neighbour who was a bush pilot. A two-hour flight took us to a town about a sixth of the way up the province. My big brother, Dave, lived further north, about 500 kms, so I made my way up to join him. Then I was unsure what to do next. So close to Christmas, companies were not hiring.
Dave was planning to drive down to the coast and across to the Island, to spend Christmas with my sister. He had a Dodge station wagon in which, his preferred method of doing a 180 degree turn on icy roads was deft combination of accelerator and steering.
David had to work late on Christmas eve, so we didn’t get away until midnight. We had the road to ourselves. I had a short spell at the wheel, but I lack the alertness required to drive so long after my bed time, particularly with the rhythmic slapping of the windscreen wipers sweeping away snowflakes. David told me he had better take over.
We spent three days on the island and then retraced our steps back to the interior. At a gas station, I learnt that there was a mine up north that was rehiring after a protracted strike.
The first day of the 1980s was the best. Dave was snoring off his New Years revelry, when I shouldered my pack, walked out to the highway and kept on walking. I always used to walk when I hitchhiked. My theory being that it shows that you’re prepared to make a bit of effort. There was virtually no traffic, but the first vehicle to come by stopped to give me a lift. The driver was a Dutch immigrant, who owned a farm in Alberta. Canada was a land opportunity for new arrivals prepared to make sacrifices and work hard, and you can’t go long before encountering a Dutchman doing just that.
I also felt the exciting sense that you could go as far as your energy could take you. The New Zealand I had left in the 1970s suited me fine, but it was highly regulated. Pleasant, Egalitarian, but controlled.
My next ride was in a Chevy Monza driven by a man younger than me in years, but decades ahead of me in skill and confidence. As the name suggests, the Monza was a set of hot wheels, and my driver was no slouch. He smoked a bit or Marijuana as he drove, but that seemed not to impair his judgement. We pulled up at a diner, and he challenged a local to game of pool. He cleared the table in one turn, then casually returned to the Monza for another two hours of driving north. He told me that he operated a log skidder and was in charge of a logging gang. Compared to him, I was just out of nappies.
One more lift brought me to my destination, the town of Fraser Lake, a dormitory for the Endako Molybdenum mine.
I booked into the motel, and was serenaded by truck engines running through the night. At -9o C diesel turns to the consistency of butter, so transport trucks had keep running to power their fuel heaters.
I rose early to catch one of the workers buses to the mine. There, I saw the personnel manager, and was immediately given a job.
Whew! What I thought would be one article about a slice of my life, is turning into a book. I think it’s time for me to give it a break, and return, for a while, to local interest stories. Sometime in the future I’ll write the next episode ‘The Truth about Mine Work in Northern Canada’.