It was a real western goodbye, waving the girls off at the train
station, then walking down the dusty street to the bar with the horse
tie-ups out front. Our covered wagon was an old school bus that Tim
had bought once from a defunct rock band. He had painted it blue over
the band's black and started bumming around the country with a couple
of dogs. When we met in Santa Fe and starting traveling together he
was on his way to Alaska.
I wasn't the only passenger he'd picked up along the yellow brick
road. He always stopped for hitchhikers-- usually he wasn't going too
fast anyway. He was traveling with his girlfriend, Emma, and I had
convinced my friend Maggie to come along too. Part of our adventure
was the fact that the bus was showing its age. There was always the
possibility of an unscheduled stop.
We rolled into Seattle in June, nearly broke. The money we'd brought
from our jobs in New Mexico had melted away-- the bus averaged about 6
mpg. We parked the bus underneath a bridge and rode our bikes
downtown to look for opportunity. At the public market there were
street performers, so Tim tried juggling, I tried playing classic rock
tunes on my guitar. We made pennies.
However, we noticed that there were performers making dollars. They
were blowing up balloons and twisting them into animal shapes, passing
them out to the kids. Ostensibly performance, it had the element of
exchange that encouraged the recipients to complete the transaction.
A dollar per child was the usual. The balloon men were passing out
balloon animals by the dozen, and a bag of 144 balloons cost ten
Making the animals wasn't too hard. We bought a book and began to
practice. More difficult was inflating them. They are latex tubes,
fairly sturdy so as to resist all the abuse they take; when they've
never been stretched before they resist mightily. Once a puff of air
inflates the first inch or two, the pressure of the air within the
balloon mediates between one's lungs and the rest of the tube, making
continued inflation easier. Yet getting the first puff in was
ridiculous. When I was in grade school I played french horn in the
school band, but these balloons were too much.
We bought some small plastic hand pumps sold for the purpose, hoping
to get the mouth-inflation technique before they all broke. It got us
started. I looked forward to not needing them. Several times over
the coming month I heard passers-by comment on the obscenity of the
Also difficult was the performance aspect. Without a doubt, the
quality of the entertainment affected the payback. We started working
up a vocabulary of jokes and mannerisms. When I finally started
blowing up the balloons without a pump I learned to keep the patter
going even through the near-faint of an oxygen deprivation rush. It
must have shown, though, because I was often asked about it. I
invariably replied, "you just have to learn to like that feeling."
Perhaps most challenging of all was the continual practice and
development of new designs. Naturally it entailed hours of inflating
balloons in the bus. The balloons squeaked intolerably as they were
contorted and combined. I eventually got used to it. Tim's dogs
never did. When we started our practice sessions they would whine and
complain, eventually burying themselves at the far end of the bus.
By July we had made enough money to keep going. It was already
getting late to shoot for Alaska but we headed north anyway. At the
border the officials were suspicious but polite, letting us through
with a brief search. We rolled into Vancouver on the crest of a wave
of enthusiasm. It was like being in a foreign country. We drove
around looking for a place to park-- none of us had ever been there.
Following the map in our atlas, we found parking by a public park,
with woods and a beach; even public showers. At the public market the
same tricks worked for us. Canadians use a dollar coin, a bill for
two. We found we were able to coax a number of bills our way, more
than enough to make up for the difference in exchange.
We spent another week this way, till the day before Maggie's birthday.
Tim's followed 2 days later. We wanted our vacation and we wanted it
right away, so we headed up the road into the mountains up the coast.
Over the next 10 days we made our way slowly north, camping and
sightseeing as we went. By the time Maggie and Emma headed back to
New Mexico we weren't worried about getting anywhere. The bus had
broken down quite dramatically. Western Canada was beautiful and
interesting. It turned into engine-fixing summer camp.
The old bus had performed well, for a while. Tim had been working on
it as long as he'd been driving it; by his standards, our run so far
had been a pretty good one. Even before the girls left, however, it
gave warning that it needed attention. When we pulled into a camping
space on the beautiful Lillooet Lake, Emma noticed smoke rising from
the hood. The solenoid had grounded itself and lit its wiring on
fire. After hitting it with a fire extinguisher, the damage looked
pretty local. Tim and Emma hitched to town and got a replacement from
In our few days there we were visited by a fellow camper, who offered
to get us high. Our standard belief at the time was that anyone who
smoked pot couldn't be all bad. The more we talked the more sketchy
he seemed. It eventually came out that his father had been in
Hitler's Luftwaffe and he felt that the germans had gotten an unfair
We left the lake and started over a high road toward the town of
Lillooet. There was a long hill, which the bus took at about 15 mph.
The temperature gauge slowly rose toward and then into the red zone.
We spent the afternoon alternately creeping up the hill and pulling
over to cool the engine and pick blueberries. The engine fan flew
into the radiator. By the time we crested we were beat, so we took a
day off to hike the trail that started there, through old-growth
forest to a chain of glacier-fed lakes. It took another day to make
the 40 miles to town.
The town of Lillooet is a way station on the upper Fraser River, which
passes through rugged country with a dry, dusty climate. The town had
supposedly been founded when a herd of camel that had been imported
from Arabia passed through. We intended to pass right through
ourselves and link up with the Alaska highway farther east. We had a
terrible pizza dinner and parked on a street corner to sleep.
The road out of town was another long, slow climb; just the sort of
place for an old school bus to break down. A few miles up really loud
noises came from the engine and it lost power. We coasted to a halt
at a handy pullout. Tim checked it out and announced that we'd
overheated and cracked a head, and further driving was out of the
question. It could have been worse. The pullout was small but
adequate and not at too much of an incline for sleeping. It was on
the side of a steep hill facing the oncoming lane. Below us was a
steep drop-off; across the road was a cutaway cliff that periodically
sent crumbling plumes of dirt down onto the road. Traffic was light.
Tim thought he knew how to fix a cracked head. The head is a piece of
solid metal that attaches to the engine block, which is an even bigger
block of metal. In the block are the piston cylinders, where the gas
is ignited. If the engine gets too hot, the metal can crack, and when
it does it allows the different fluids passing through it-- oil,
coolant, gas-- to mix, which is unacceptable. If the block cracks you
have to replace the engine or junk the vehicle. The heads cover the
top of the cylinders; if they crack they can be removed and replaced.
The job has to be done right, though: high temperatures and pressures
are created in an engine, and we were hauling a heavy load over the
He worked on it for a week. People stopped to say hello and see what
was happening. Mounties came by to grouse nervously about being on
the wrong side of the road. An indian stopped and offered to trade a
dozen salmon for the bus. We rode our bikes into town each day,
walked much of the way back up. Tim frequented the local junkyard for
parts and worked doggedly. It wasn't without its charms. There was a
park where the Fraser River absorbed a tributary in town. Ponderosa
populated the hills. The weather was dry and clear. The cliff across
the road from us continued to spontaneously erode.
Ultimately the mountie returned and, citing the fact that we were on
the wrong side of the road, insisted that we leave immediately. He
gave Tim 2 hours to get gone. He was close, worked feverishly and
succeeded in getting it moving- at least downhill. We made it all the
way down the hill and across the little town to the yard of a mechanic
Tim had been consulting with. It was also much closer to the
The next day Emma and Maggie hopped on the train. The whistle blew,
the wheels turned, and they were gone. Tim took another day and fixed
the engine again, a little closer to right. We held our breath up the
big hill out of town; stopped once or twice to pop the hood and
reassure ourselves that the engine was still there. We picked up a
hitchhiker who provided the useful verb 'mechaniking.' After a few
more stops he decided to hitch a faster ride.
At first we hadn't realized that some of our mechanical difficulties
were the result of previous failures; as long as Tim had had the bus
it had been breaking down. Over the coming weeks, however, the bus
continued to malfunction, and we slowly figured out the train of
causation. When the engine fan had flown into the radiator, it caused
a leak which we had fixed by closing the two affected cores with
solder, although doing so reduced the capacity of the radiator
somewhat and exacerbated the overheating. What we hadn't realized is
that the fan had also been damaged and no longer spun true. Not only
was the cooling air flow reduced, but it began to pull itself loose
again. When it flew into the radiator a second time it became
misshapen enough to notice. Again we closed off the punctured cores
with solder and for good measure we threw in a bunch of 'stopleak' --
a brand name for pepper flakes whose purpose is to clog holes in
radiators. We used tons of this stuff.
Tim hitchhiked to the nearest town that had a junkyard and got us a
new fan. It's easy hitching rides with an obviously damaged engine
part in hand. The first car that passed stopped so abruptly that it
almost got flattened by a semi rounding the corner a moment later.
Two days later we were on the side of the road again-- another cracked
head. Tim had always made a habit of carrying supplies; the bus was
typically stocked with a month's supply of brown rice, dry-packed
tofu, and other staples. Along the same lines he carried engine
supplies, such as oil and antifreeze, especially since he knew that
all such things are much more expensive in Canada. We carried 5
five-gallon gas cans on the roof racks, which we filled before
crossing the border, and any other time the price dropped below about
twice the US price. Along similar principles he had stocked up on
engine heads at the junkyard in Lilloet. I guess we were carrying 4
or 5 extra. Still, at 20 miles each we didn't expect to get too far.
We decided to look for help.
A 20 minute bike ride brought me to the nearest house, where I met a
woman who graciously phoned her friend Wayne the mechanic. He came
the next morning and worked with us as we changed the heads again,
supplementing our tools with his. Even better, he explained what had
gone wrong. After the head cracks, the fluids mix. In particular,
there was antifreeze in the oil. We hadn't changed the oil and so it
couldn't do its job, which is to reduce friction and prevent heat
buildup. This time we changed the oil after changing the heads. It
took two days. When we finished I suddenly realized Wayne expected to
be paid. We gave him our last hundred dollar bill, consoling
ourselves by reflecting that it was only a Canadian hundred dollar
Wild West Economics
It was during this period of travel that I became obsessed with the
idea of having it together. Having it together was a far-ranging
philosophy, meaning having one's possessions organized for action. At
any moment I could grab a pack with food, water, tools and toys to get
me through nearly anything. I never knew whether the thing I would
need would be an I.D. or a flashlight, a compass or a paperback book,
pen and paper or a snack. Driving through a town was an exercise in
observation and memory. Any town could become our neighborhood for an
hour, a day, or a week, and it was good to know whether you had
already passed something like the auto parts store, or not yet.
We drove a few miles before dark and stopped at the last pullout
before our highway dead-ended into the cross route. It seemed a big
responsibility to start on another highway after having been on the
same road for so long; we decided to leave it for morning when we were
fresh. Some guys who had stopped to talk to us a few nights before
found us, camping there. It was a good thing we hadn't turned the
corner or they never would have found us. They needed to get rid of
an old perfectly good Buick just because it didn't run. There was
nothing wrong with the engine, though, and they were willing to give
it to us if we wanted it. It was the same kind the bus had; we
Canada is a rich country by world standards, but consistently reminded
me of my image of California about fifty years before. Clearly on the
verge of an economic boom, but before the population and capital had
fully arrived to exploit it. British Columbia is larger than Texas
yet upon leaving the urbanized area is quite empty. People are spread
thinly and are at the mercy of the economic cycle. Like rural people
everywhere, they don't buy what they can't afford, fix what they can,
and stockpile for hard times. Luxuries are costly, staples cheap.
railroads still move freight.
One manifestation of this philosophy is the success of the Overwaite
supermarket chain. They sell a large variety of foods bulk by weight,
and make a point of providing low cost staples. Fresh baked loaves
were a dollar; the bulk bins included chocolate chips. We had been in
love with this system as soon as we encountered it. Though we might
run out of sugar, we never lacked for food. One bin of brown rice
wasn't finished until 5 years later by a housebuilding friend back in
Later that night the guys returned with the engine in the back of the
truck. The four of us lifted it out and set it down, rested, then
hauled it to the door of the bus, rested again. We gathered around
and got our 8 hands in solid positions, then hoisted it up the steps
into the bus. As soon as it was far enough in that it didn't
completely block the exit, we let it be. For the next month it sat
beside the driver's seat leaking oil, the ultimate spare part. They
took our grateful thanks and--inadvertently-- our 9/16" socket.
Our next stop was the town of Cache Creek, a tourist waypoint for the
Alaska Highway. It was late August and we had taken a week to go 50
miles. It was too late to head north and too early to head south, so
we headed east. We were nearly broke and hoping to make balloons in
the town of Kamloops, which at least on the map looks pretty big.
First we scraped up all our loose change and our piggy banks and
change jars-- street performance tends to make such things
proliferate-- and went to the bank to convert it to Canadian paper.
It worked amazingly well.
About a dozen miles from Kamloops we were on the side of the road
again. The bus was still overheating and we were careful to park
before cracking any more of those damn heads. Tim stayed to see what
he could do, sending me hitching to town to see about buying a bigger
radiator. Of course I had no engine part in hand, and getting a ride
took a while. When I got to town I didn't know where to go. Kamloops
is a medium size town in a large but steep valley formed at a river
junction; all three banks are built up to some extent. The least
built up side has the junkyards.
I walked through a few junkyards only to discover that radiators
cost real money, like $80, which we didn't have anything like.
I felt bad going back empty-handed. Tim had seemed discouraged
and it seemed like we would be stuck with no good news.
Hitching out I was picked up by a young guy in a rented cube
van. Right away as I got in I noticed the smell of garbage. It
was thick in the air; I looked down into the footwell half
expecting to find a pile of rotting vegetables. The guy seemed
nice so I said nothing.
He explained that he was a driver for the kitchens supporting the
summer firefighting teams. Most of the stuff he was carrying was
spoiling or about to. I confessed that the truck smelled awful. We
pulled out at the bus, where he suggested that we might as well take
whatever we could use: vegetables, bread, some open breakfast cereal
boxes, and some ice cream that needed to be eaten so urgently that we
stopped what we were doing to take care of it. We stocked our shelves
courtesy of the Canadian taxpayers. Perhaps this was wrong. He even
got us high.
We weren't even stranded. The problem was still overheating. Within
the coolant flow system is a thermostat, a mechanical device that
helps regulate the engine temperature by opening and closing according
to the current temperature of the coolant. Tim had taken the
thermostat out altogether, figuring that even if it was working, it
was just an impediment to the coolant flow. We drove.
Kamloops doesn't attract tourists and is not a town that normally
generates festive crowds. Fortunately the carnival was in town, one
week only. We looked desperate and the boss man agreed to let us make
balloon animals on the fairway for 10% of the take. We pocketed $200.
On our way out of town we stopped and camped; a stranger stopped and
got us high.
Everybody agrees that time is money; the question is what the exchange
rate is. Like other exchange rates, it floats; in our case, we had
little money and plenty of time, which gave what money we did have
extra value. It was our custom, if we had made any money, to spend
some time on ourselves. In this case we took it at a small park
called Monte Lake, which had the key property of basically being right
on the road we were on anyway. There is another exchange rate
equation between distance and weight; we carried much weight and
consequently tended to regard distance as if we were using not
internal combustion but rather conestoga, or travois.
Kelowna is a pretty town sitting on one side of a long, skinny lake,
really a wide stretch of the Okanagan River. I had seen part of the
Washington state Okanagan basin and had not been impressed, for there
the river sits in a deeper gorge, the country it flows through is
mostly dry and rugged. Here, however, the land was a bit more gentle;
the floodplain wider, and the river pooled into skinny lakes of clean
cool water. The town was fringed by apple orchards; perhaps at worst
we could find work picking fruit. There were various lakeside places
to inconspicuously park and camp; as usual we used our bikes to get
around, with the dogs running along. They were getting pretty good at
it by now; staying on the sidewalk, not allowing themselves to be
distracted by the big barking dogs or the little yapping dogs that we
passed. As the weekend approached we scoured the newspaper seeking a
crowd. The duck races sounded promising, so on Sunday morning we
saddled up and rode out to investigate. Indeed, there was a crowd
watching people float their marked rubber duckies down the creek, but
it was an inappropriate crowd for us. The people were most
inconsiderately spread out in decentralized, hustle-resistant lines
along both banks of the creek, rather than in a compact mass. Worse,
it was a charity event, so people naturally assumes that the
entertainment was free. We watched a few races and left.
Our second choice was some event mentioned in the paper supposedly
scheduled a few miles out of town. It was a beautiful ride-- the dogs
loved it too-- but when we arrived at the location it was nothing but
a country crossroads gas station. We coasted back down the hill
toward town. At a shopping center on the outskirts we found a lively
little flea market. A little negotiating and we were in position to
provide the valuable-- necessary! -- service of entertaining all the
little kids whose parents were shopping and swapping. It was a nice
little scene; useful but unflashy stuff sold at reasonable prices. We
It was a nice town, but there seemed so little prospect of making any
real money that we decided to push on. The carnival master in
Kamloops had mentioned the location of their season finale, in the
town of Agassiz. It was over 100 miles and we had only 2 weeks to get
there, so we got gas and groceries, packed it all up, and headed out.
It's steep driving between the Okanagan valley and the coast, and
right away we were on a remote highway with a climbing lane. We
anxiously watched the temperature gauge-- would it make it? -- but it
stayed in the normal range. We climbed perhaps several miles of grade
at under 10 mph, watching the dash, listening for engine trouble,
crossing our fingers. The road started to level out. The climbing
lane ended; the bus began slowly, lugubriously, to pick up speed.
We'd made it! The speedometer passed 15, passed 20, was heading for
Boom! a loud noise. Black smoke, deceleration: we headed for the
breakdown lane. A road sign tantalizingly advertised an exit, the
first since leaving town. We coasted as far as we could and pulled
onto the shoulder. Tim got out, looked underneath. The oil pan had a
gaping hole in it where the engine had thrown a rod through. No
question of trying to put the pieces back together this time. Good
thing we had that spare engine, still blocking the door, leaking oil.
Again, the exchange rate. If we'd been loaded with money or
traveler's checks, had a credit card, perhaps in a hurry to get back
to school or a job, we'd have flagged down the first passing motorist
and started to discuss tow trucks, mechanics, and lodging. But time
was cheap. We pulled out some comic books. Also a care package with
chocolate had arrived that morning from Emma, general delivery. We
knew from plentiful experience there was only one important thing: get
off the road before somebody made us get off. We knew one way to do
it-- wait until someone with a truck that could tow us came along.
That someone came along after an hour or so and stopped to see what
was wrong. The exit was 100 yards ahead. He pulled us off and left
us, as we requested, on a dirt road just off the highway. It was
perfect. There was nobody and nothing; some logging roads, taiga
forest, ponds; no sign of civilization. The forest floor was putting
on fall colors. We were off the road, and nothing could force us to
move on until we were ready. Victoriously, we went mushroom hunting
with the handbook Maggie had included in the care package.
The following weeks were the highlight of the trip. Camped in the
woods, with food, water, all the tools we needed to do the job, and no
place to spend money. A Mountie spotted us from the highway and came
to check that we were alright. We explained about the spare engine.
He offered to check back in a week.
Neither of us had changed an engine before, but in many ways it seemed
more direct than trying to fix a broken one. We started next day,
disconnecting the auxiliary devices-- alternator, starter, etc. from
the old engine. We had a come-along, or winch, that could handle the
weight of the engine, for lifting it out. Nearby was a pile of slash
with some skinny, longish tree trunks; we dragged them to the bus and
made a tripod over the engine compartment. Attached the lift chain
from the spare engine to the broken one and called it a day.
Next day we lifted the old engine out. Of course there were a myriad
of details; it took all day to do it, and by dusk-- which was already
starting to seem kind of early-- the engine was hanging in the air in
front of the windshield. We had a great view of the hole in the oil
pan where the rod had blown through. I had specifically wanted to
avoid leaving the engine in the air for very long on general
principle, but by that point in the day we were spent. Also, oddly,
it really seemed alright. We decided to leave it hanging and let it
down in the morning. My bed was in the front of the bus so I spent
the night only a few feet away, sleeping rather lighter than usual.
One of the trickiest parts of the operation had to do with the fact
that the come-along was made for winching things in, not letting them
out. Normally the tension had to be removed from the mechanism to
release the ratchet and let it out again. We worried over this,
because we needed to get the engine onto the ground. We solved it
this way. The crux of the tripod had a chain wrapped around it to
keep it closed. Over the top was another, longer chain with the
come-along suspended from one end. The chain was closed with a nut
and bolt, and we figured that even with the weight of the engine, we
could unscrew the bolt, take the free end of the chain, and let it
down under control, with the wraps of the chain around the tree trunks
providing enough friction to allow us to handle the engine's weight.
This was to be a dry run for dropping the new engine in; obviously we
wanted to make any mistakes on the first engine.
There seemed a possibility of something giving way and flying out
under the pressure, so we released the bolt cautiously, standing where
we hoped was clear. The weight of the engine caused the bolt to hug
the chain links as it passed through; we unscrewed it with a ratchet
and it gradually threaded itself out. The pressure stripped each
circle of thread off the bolt as it passed. When it came out it was
smooth and polished, without a thread on it. I still have that bolt
We were concerned that the friction of the chain on the crux wouldn't
be enough to let us manage the weight, but decided to try anyway; the
two of us weighed almost half of what the engine weighed and we
figured we had a chance. We needn't have worried; it turns out that
wrapping rope or chain around something gives a surprisingly leveraged
position and Tim handled the weight easily as I guided the engine off
to the side of the bus.
Next day we shoved the new engine out of the hallway. We couldn't
lift it, of course, but we were able to slide it and more or less ease
it down the steps. We put plywood on the ground to slide it into
position; hoisted it up with the winch and let it down as we had the
broken one; some finesse required to get it into position. Used the
plywood as ramps to get the old engine up the steps into the bus; he
pulled, I pushed. More difficulty getting the peckershaft (really
called that, for the obvious reason) from the transmission into its
hole in the engine. The transmission is itself quite heavy; not
intended to be manually heaved around. Fortunately Tim is quite
burly. He kept trying and finally succeeded.
There were details to attend to, but time was running out to make the
carnival in Agassiz. Tim stayed to finish the job; I got cleaned up,
packed a bag, and stuck my thumb out on the highway.
It is a truism that the fewer cars there are on a highway the
easier it is to hitch a ride; imagine trying for a ride in New
York City. The logic held true. I was soon in Agassiz and
located the carnival. They weren't exactly happy to see me.
The guy who invited me-- well, he wasn't really in charge, now
was he? The guy who really was in charge saw me as competition
and was more interested in running out his stock of little
doodads than in taking the 10% of what I would have told him I
would have made. In Kamloops it was different; we were
desperate, they didn't know if we really made money anyway. I
begged and pleaded, but the answer was sorry, but... no. He
suggested I try and work the harvest parade next morning. The
town was decked out, cornstalks tied to every streetlamp and
parking meter. I ate some; it was good. I found a quiet corner
of town to camp. It wasn't too wet although I was back on the
west side of the mountains.
I did work the parade crowd, but it was kind of like the duck races;
not too successful. Once the parade actually started, it was
hopeless: uh, hey, people, over here! I made a few bucks; it was over
by 10:00 am. I realized that there was enough time to hitchhike back
to Kelowna and work the flea market that afternoon. When you travel
by car, distance is annihilated. A trip that couldn't have taken the
bus less than three days was done in a couple of hours, including
waiting for rides. I saluted the bus as we passed. Worked the flea
market, made about $50, and headed back up. Got a ride from a couple
of guys in a compact car; they were willing to give me a ride but had
only enough gas for one way. I couldn't offer them money, but we did
still have gas in the gas cans on the bus. I was tired and wanted to
go, so I offered it. "Great," one guy said. "we don't need much--
just a couple of liters." Something about that surprised me.
Actually they probably got farther on two liters than we did on the
whole 5 gallon can.
It had been a busy weekend and I was glad to arrive back in the middle
of nowhere. The bus was almost finished. Tim had broken the head off
of a bolt; to get it out involved hitching to town and renting a
generator. The guy at the rental store wouldn't let it go without a
credit card. Fortunately he had a couple of buddies who were just
hanging out, who offered to take responsibility for the generator by
riding it up and back, if Tim would buy them a six pack, which
actually is kind of expensive.
With a generator he could use his electric drill to drill out the core
of the bolt. Once the bolt was hollow he could pound in a tool he had
known as an EZ-out. It is a small tapered square-pointed hex-headed
tool, intended to be pounded with a hammer into holes drilled into
bolts whose heads have broken off. The bolts are then removed by
unscrewing the hex head. It was the last thing to do and the only
thing that had cost any money. We sent the generator people on their
way, finished up, started the engine. The moment of truth. It lived!
We put the bus in gear. It drove! The next morning we drove straight
down the dirt road farther into the woods.
Time passed even more easily with no work to do. We also were no
longer preoccupied with the event in Agassiz, so there was no
deadline. When the weekend arrived Tim rode his bike to the highway
and hitched to the flea market, returning after dark. His bike was
loaded down with a huge bag of dog food and all the groceries forty or
so dollars could buy. At the moment of his arrival I was trying to
calm down one of the dogs, who had appeared moments before with nose,
face, and gums bristling with porcupine quills.
The next week was much like the previous. We biked by day; when we
found a camping spot we liked better than where we were, we moved the
bus. The woods were lovely-- dry enough that there were only
occasional mushrooms, but a nice variety of rolling wooded hills,
clear but shallow ponds, grass clearings where ponds had silted up,
and occasional rocky outcroppings. Though we were ostensibly on
logging roads, the forest wasn't prime because the trees were kind of
skinny. Thus the damage was not severe; most of the area was virgin
wilderness. The nights were getting chilly and the ground tundra
continued to turn.
It was getting close to time to move on. Our coffers were low and the
days were getting shorter. I hitched back to the flea market one last
time. I sensed people were getting a little tired of us. We were
there every week and the kids expected to get balloons every week. It
worked for us, but still, I sensed we were outlasting our welcome.
Something new was waiting for me this weekend, however. Across the
way from the flea market I could see a ferris wheel setting up. When
the market ended I went to investigate. Turns out it was one of the
underlings from the carnival; he remembered me from Kamloops. They
were there to celebrate the Grand Opening of the new Overwaite
supermarket. They were paid for the duration and he had no objection
to me working the crowd. They were starting Sunday-- tomorrow.
There was no way to let Tim know I was going to be a day late so I
didn't. I slept out in an orchard nearby. This was what I'd been
waiting for- instead of the flea market, which was diminishing to
about $35 a day, I was able to work another day in fresh
circumstances. Obviously people were pretty excited about the new
store. I made $160 and went in to do my own shopping, including some
While I had been in Agassiz Tim had met a guy named Andrew who had
been up in the woods hunting. Andrew had gotten Tim high and given
him his phone number, so I called him to see if he was free to get me
high. In fact he was going to go hunting again and offered to pick me
up. We made a couple of stops-- he dropped a $20 bill on gas, another
on a couple of six packs. We drove one of the dirt roads out of town
into the hills.
He had brought his baby son, who sat between us in the truck seat.
Every so often Andrew would lean over to him and say, "hey, Boo! How
ya doing?" We discussed current events. I had been reading the papers
all summer and Canadian politics were new and different. Most
interesting was the impending plebiscite on the latest proposed
constitution. Canada is governed under the provisions of the 1867
British North American Act. In 1982 Great Britain granted full
autonomy, and there have been numerous attempts since then to adopt a
constitution of its own. All so far have failed, apparently due to
the 'ain't broke, don't fix it, eh?' philosophy of the voters.
For its population, about a tenth of the US, Canada is extremely
culturally diverse. The country has since its foundation been
composed of various groups in addition to the French and English. The
Canadian indians have retained more cultural integrity and political
power than in the US, partly because settlement of the country
proceeded much later. In addition to the southern tribes the Inuit in
the sub-arctic regions compose a distinct group. the Metis, a mix of
French and Indian culture, have their own culture; then there are
recent immigrants from all over the world, especially former British
possessions. I was astonished on a future trip to Edmonton, Alberta
to find that the cultural mix was similar to an eastern industrial
city like Cleveland. There are even homeless on the streets, despite
the fact that winter temperatures settle well below zero.
All this diversity has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. The
breakaway tendencies of the Quebecois are well known. Meanwhile, many
of the English-speakers resent the requirement of learning French,
especially in the west, where almost nobody actually speaks it. There
is also considerable tension in the west over the claims and
privileges of the natives, such as special fishing rights. As Andrew
said, "this is our country now."
The various proposed constitutions have been attempts to balance the
rights of all these groups, and that seems to be their failing. The
smaller groups fear being absorbed, assimilated, or expelled. The
majority resent special rights and privileges for the minority. The
various proposals have been carefully negotiated; none were in
themselves extremely unfair or bad documents, as far as I could tell.
On the other hand, I never saw a compelling reason in their favor
either. The status quo has endured because there never seemed to be a
reason for the majority of voters to take a chance on any of these
carefully crafted compromises. The result of the plebiscite on this
proposal, as with all the others, would be a polite "no, thanks."
We were driving a rough dirt road through the woods. A pheasant stood
in the road, facing us, making no attempt to escape. "look, Boo, a
chicken!" Andrew said, stopping the truck. He got out and aimed his
rifle. The first shot separated the head from the body but for a flap
of skin. With the second shot he hoped to sever the head completely,
but the bird was in death-throes and he missed. "hey, Boo, chicken
for dinner!" He brought the bird to the truck and set it on the
ground. "watch how I clean this," he said to me, stepping on the tail
feathers, pulling on the legs. The body separated cleanly from the
mass of feathers on the back and he tossed the body into the truck.
The ferris wheel was going to operate again the following Sunday, so
that was Tim's turn. It was the stroke of luck we'd been waiting for,
and he did even better than I had. We took another day to relax and
prepare and pulled out to the highway. We ran trouble free through
the mountains, retracing my route of almost a month earlier. We
arrived at the town of Hope, the upstream extent of the river valley,
and the road to Vancouver was clear, the mountains all behind us. The
area was still thinly populated and quite beautiful; we dawdled. We
camped at a local park where the fish flopped noisily on the river
night and day, eagles flew overhead, seals splashed in the river. Two
days later, as the rains started, we pulled into Golden Ears Provincial
Park and learned that camping was free for the off season. No-one else
was there. We stayed another week, tweaked the engine, slept, hiked,
played chess, and hunted for mushrooms. It was so dark in the bus we
had a lantern on all day. One afternoon Tim got the radio working and
we turned it on in time to hear the five o'clock traffic report from
End of the Line
We drifted closer to the city. We reached the suburb of Maple Ridge
and pulled into a mall parking lot. The brake line was dissolving,
and it was still raining. An gentle man with a wild woman companion
invited us to park at his house nearby, if we could make it. He
hosted a household of characters, mostly alcoholics, living on
disability. We stayed and played cribbage, worked on the bus. The
weekend came. It was the end of the line-- anyway, the end of the
city bus line, so I rode the three hours to Vancouver to work at the
markets. It was halloween and not raining; for the time of year, good
conditions. I made $40. I was however deluded when I thought I could
work a second shift on the streets downtown. On halloween people
don't realize you're dressed up because you're trying get their
attention for reasons of work. I stood in the doorway of a closed
business with a balloon hat on my head figuring this out.
As I was going to leave some guys who looked like frat boys ran
up the street yelling 'Stop! Police!' They apprehended a fleeing
woman about 5 feet away from me. She was apparently
"where are you from?"
"how long have you been in the country?"
"this isn't your name!" (oh, it is.)
To me-- I was really right there-- one said, "smell her perfume
and tell me what you think she does for a living."
To each other they said, "Good thing I spotted her. I saw her
drop the (credit) card in the mailbox. Get that mailbox
When the credit card wasn't found in the mailbox they said, "oh,
she crotched it. Take her down and skin her. Call the nurse,
To her they said, "We'll send you back to wherever you came
from! This is zero tolerance. We're not taking it any
Finally they finished and left. I fled.
There was a trombone player under the bridge. I tried to sleep on a
park bench but it was just too cold. I was not willing to crumple
newspaper into my clothes. I may have tried covering myself with it.
After an hour I gave up and went to the 24-hour vegetarian restaurant
to drink coffee. It was about 1am. Somehow I was talking to
someone-- unusual for me. John and Michelle had just arrived from a
party where everyone was taking mushrooms. As they were leaving the
party the police arrived in force. They had no idea what had
resulted. He invited me to crash at the house they were renting until
November 1st, which technically it already was. When we arrived we
joined a lone refugee from the party who had apparently been there for
hours in the darkness muttering "where is everyone? Why am I the only
Perhaps an hour later another escapee from the party arrived. She
came in and said hello, checking us out. Apparently the energy was
too weird; she fled. John and Michelle and I sat with the first guy,
trying to reassure him that he was ok and so were we. When I was so
tired I couldn't stand it anymore I slept in a walk-in closet that was
split vertically to make two sleepers. I had it to myself and took
the top bunk.
By the next weekend we had abandoned the house of alcoholics and
managed to drive into town, parking in our previous spot by the park.
I brought Tim to meet John and Michelle. who were by now staying at
the Hotel California downtown. Outside it was dark, but inside the
lights were bright and we watched John and Michelle make prints. John
was a local Indian, and they were businessmen artists, making
indian-style art. The current run of signed and numbered prints might
make them a couple thousand. He drew, she cut, he screwed up, she
fixed it, he did the signing and the talking, she was silent. He
worked, she worked, and Phil sold them, and they all made money.
Phil was missing some front teeth but had a great smile and a friendly
demeanor. He said he could sell almost anything and I chose to
believe him. Tim said he told a story about selling art to a blind
man. Phil was big, round; almost as tall lying down as standing. He
sat in the corner, downing beer. Tim and I are skinny. We passed a
joint. I offered it to John; he replied, "always."
The phone rang, the front desk announcing a visitor. The visitor was
Reiner Etwas-oder-Anders from Germany, a buyer and representative of
other collectors. Knock, and enter a slight but solid-looking man nearing
middle age, wearing a suit at ten in the evening. He stood stiffly
but spoke slightly accented english warmly.
John opened his portfolio and the two talked animatedly for a while,
discussing the market, the work, and the taste of collectors.
American Indian styles were vogue in Europe and what John showed him
was both sellable and collectable. Reiner was obviously already
interested in John's work. John tried to sell him his friend David.
"David and I studied together for five years," John explained. "We
had the same teacher. He's very good. Do you want to see some
Everybody in the art world likes looking at pictures, so John pulled
out a portfolio-- not the one they had already looked through, but an
older one, from his student days. Most of the pictures were of his
own early work, but there were also friends' pieces and other
memorabilia. There was a photo of a car-- I forget what kind, but
vintage, a classic, fully detailed. I saw Reiner's eyes light up.
"I myself had one of these," he said. "It was my first car. How did
you get one here?" I imagined a younger man racing at 180 down the
autobahn, a small, satisfied smile on his face, his short hair
slightly less grey rustling in the wind. Possibly in short sleeves.
Seeing his interest John launched into the full history of the
vehicle, and the dialect shifted from arttalk to cartalk. I believe
that one of the reasons John is successful at what he does is that
he's a good talker. Entertaining, likable, and energetic, he waxed
poetic on every aspect of the car's story: how they found it at
auction, the difficulty of finding original parts in British Columbia,
the technical specifications and interior detail.
Reiner was rapt. He followed John's entire narrative, building it in
his mind's eye, as though inside he had a fantasy garage where the
labor of months was duplicated in the time of speaking. His real eye
may have held a tear as a fantasy mechanic conjured up his old flame,
the clean, beloved, performance engineered machine he remembered,
fully outfitted with each of John's details. Original engine (Reiner:
"it's no good with anything else") original interior, and hi-fidelity
stereo for Strauss and Brahms, right down to the leather bag on the
gearshift. Back to his youth he went, with a custom paint job and
freshly-cleaned windshields reflecting a bright sun into his face.
"Yeah, that was half David's car and half mine. We worked on it for
more than a year. After we had it for about two weeks it was trashed.
Drove it too hard, back roads, rocks. Eventually David ran it off a
cliff into a ravine. It almost made it to the bottom. We barely got
out in time. It was totally wrecked-- we couldn't even get to it to
get the plates off. I would have taken a picture but I didn't have my
camera. David got a Harley next..."
Reiner was no longer listening. The accident was spelled out in his
expression as his dream car drove out of its dream garage and off a
cliff. I could almost see the moment of impact. It rolled and slid
down the hill and rocks bounced off its perfect finish, each dent like
pain in his heart, like I was watching him watch it for real. The
culture divide was real; his buying mood passed. He asked no more
questions about David and soon left.
South of the Border
It was November. The weather-- damp, gloomy-- encouraged us to move
south. Tim had had a job in Oakland selling Christmas trees and he
wanted to return and do it again, if we could make it in time.
Election day approached. I was still registered in Seattle-- my last
place of residence-- and I felt like voting. I figured it was so
close, why not? I hitched to the border with the traffic going to buy
gas in the US; caught a ride to Seattle. I still had friends to stay
with. Went to vote the next day, feeling pretty responsible.
Getting back was harder. I got a late start heading north and got
dropped just before dark 15 miles south of the border, in the middle
of nowhere. I always had confidence that something would happen to
save me, but after darkness fell I realized that I wasn't going to get
a ride, and there wasn't so much as an all-night coffeehouse nearby.
It was just some suburban-type off-ramp. I noticed a bus stop and
hung around, wondering if the bus was still running. Amazingly, it
was, and I rode into the center of Bellingham, 5 miles farther south.
I checked the Greyhound station. There was still a bus leaving for
Vancouver that night and I bought a ticket. At the border check the
authorities informed me that I couldn't cross because I had almost no
money and no form of credit. The bus driver returned my entire fare,
which at least meant that I'd gotten a free ride to the border.
The officials offered that if I had someone inside Canada to vouch for
me I could cross. I called information and got the number at the
Hotel California. John and Michelle were still there. By 1am I was
through and waiting for a ride north.
Tim was ready to drive and we crossed the border once more. Seattle
was gloomy. We left before Thanksgiving dinner.
By this point the bus was failing. Every hour in motion had a
corresponding hour fixing. The brake line was corroded and the
driveshaft was sagging. The electrical system was failing. The
solenoid broke. A tire blew. We limped through Oregon, Shasta,
Sacramento. People gave me dirty looks when I tried to make balloons
at rest areas while Tim fixed. We consoled ourselves that it was
still faster than walking.
Approaching Vallejo, California the driveshaft fell out in five lanes
of traffic. I raced out to retrieve it. Tim stuck it back in and got
us to the hilltop rest area above the bridge; we could see San
Francisco gleaming in the distance. We would never make it.
We were found by Leo on his way back from the Vallejo junkyards. He
brought us across the bridge to Crockett, the abandoned C&H factory
town, where he lived in the speakeasy under the hotel. We were within
the Greater Bay Area Flake-Out Zone. We were safe.
We made it to Alaska the following summer, in a brand-new used school
bus that Tim bought with his settlement from being attacked by a pit
bull years earlier. The new bus, which was actually older but from
California instead of New England, was slow but broke much less
frequently. We made balloon animals from Fisherman's Wharf to
Fairbanks. I had one heady day in Whitehorse where I made $400,
camped out that night with a splitting headache, and arrived back in
town just in time to see Tim pull out, assuming I had hitchhiked on
ahead. Instead I hitched behind, thereby avoiding an unpleasant
We made it to Fairbanks, Denali, and Anchorage; returned through
Edmonton, Banff, and Calgary. Our luck ended at the border, where
another aggressive search turned up a roach in a matchbox that Tim had
thoughtlessly picked up a week earlier and never opened.
If nothing happens, you have a really boring trip.