Wordcarpenter Books
Road Sailors

3

"In his errors a man is true to type.

Observe the errors and you will know the man." - Confucius

In the morning I sip coffee from my thermos as I sit on the bench at the bus station watching latecomers arrive. Some stand impatiently stuffing their faces with fast food and doughnuts and cups of coffee the size of a pint. Their droopy overweight bodies scream for exercise but they don't seem to hear. One seldom sees that in Greater China: across-the-board obesity from an insatiable appetite for fast-food. A man's chubby fingers poke more food into his mouth as his wife talks with her mouth full. She complains about the government that I'm sure has given her enough money to become so fat. Her cynical barbs spare no one. Everything and everyone is cut down, like a chain saw hell-bent on destruction. I shake my head in disgust for what Canada is becoming. Something in me wants to scream. For a second I wonder if I have made the right decision to return to Canada, but then I see the gum and cigarette butts on the pavement around the benches and it calms me because I am comforted that it's like any other bus station in the world. And most of all it reminds me that I'm now on the road again.

I bury my head in Pierre Burton's The Last Spike - required reading for the journey along the railway to central BC. I am the last to board the bus but am still able to find a free double seat behind a young girl with headphones blaring music from a Sony Walkman. She has it cranked way up.

The Greyhound moves through Abbotsford and Chilliwack east along the Trans-Canada Highway to Hope where we turn north onto Highway 97 up the Fraser River Canyon. In the town of Hope the bus stops, which leaves the inside of the bus completely silent except for the loud rock music coming from the girl's headphones in front of me. The bus driver speaks into his microphone.

"For the sake of mutual comfort on the coach, please turn down any music devices that may be too loud for your neighbours. It's also considerate for me on this drive down the Fraser Canyon. Thank you." People look at her but she smiles defiantly without any expression of remorse. I disembark with the passengers to stretch my legs. The air is different here along the Fraser River. Already I can smell the richness of the red pines and cedars. The perfume of Mother Nature.

Soon we chase the railroad tracks north where we hit our first of many tunnels around Yale. I learn from The Last Spike that Yale was built as a railroad town in 1882. During that time had more saloons per acre than any place in the world. It is said that there was a saloon every third building "overflowing with men in various stages of intoxication," but today there is no one on the dusty streets. It's almost a ghost town. The railway tracks cut across the vertical rock cliffs along the Fraser River scaled by protruding lips of tunnelled track overhanging the swift-moving ice-blue water scarred by past avalanches and rockslides. Bulwarks and railings hold steel tracks against the canyon wall along a sixty-mile stretch of track that is considered the most difficult railway construction on the continent with 17 tunnels. Some parts are so spectacular I feel I'm passing through a life-size train set on location of some science-fiction movie. The cliffs soon change dramatically from straight vertical drops to slightly angled grades that are covered with sand-coloured soil where pine trees grow in the most unlikely places. Some of the sixty-odd wooden trestles holding the track to the cliffs look so decrepit that they would fall if I threw a stone at them.

Past Spuzzum there's an old sign for an approaching tunnel that reads:

HELL'S CAVE

The bus is suddenly lost in darkness as we drive through the side of the mountain along the canyon. The light at the end of the tunnel can be seen and the only thing I can hear is the sound of the canyon winds urgently whispering through the cracks in the windows. This part of the track on the way to Lytton cost the CPR the most money per rail laid on the entire Trans-Canada line and also had the highest death rate. There's a reason it's named ‘Hell's Cave.' Many of the deaths were Chinese labourers. People make a big deal that the CPR was built on the backs of Chinese labour, but it's erroneous. It was the small size of the Chinese that proved advantageous for this stretch of track along the Fraser Canyon. Despite the anti-Chinese sentiment at the time, which was captured by the Prime Minister's outdated statement at the time that the Chinese were "an alien race in every sense, that would not and could not be expected to assimilate with our Aryan population," Canada imported 10,000 Chinese for this part of the line with another 4,000 coming north from the States. There was a higher death rate among the Chinese, but they proved worthy builders. They ingratiated themselves with the hard-drinking, hard-living railway workers with an alcoholic concoction that the tracklayers called ‘Chinese gin.' I can only guess that this Chinese gin was their beloved rice wine, which I have sampled in China on several occasions. Very harsh. Pure firewater indeed.

The mountains become steeper and the valley grows colder as the bus passes through Cache Creek and Clinton onwards to 100 Mile House and William's Lake. The Thompson River Valley is severe and barren despite its rugged beauty. Narrow walls of mountain block the sun making me feel hemmed in, but off the rock I can hear echoes of the old song the tracklayers used to sing:

For some of us are bums, for who work has no charms,

And some of us are farmers, a-working for our farms,

But all are jolly fellows, who come from near and far,

To work up in the Rockies on the CPR.

After Quesnel we climb higher towards the plateau of Prince George. It's fast approaching so my thoughts turn to my brother. I think about how Remy has been road-tripping Canada for most of the last decade, from Vancouver Island to the tidal fluctuations of the Bay of Fundy in the Maritimes. While I have worked in Asia, Remy has been chalking up thousands of miles exploring Canada. Like me, he has lived a gypsy life, living out of a suitcase for years. Even during university he would take a year off to travel and then return to school the following year over a span of seven years. But there was a reason for Remy's restlessness. He turned his back on a conventional urban life after he was hit in the eye with a beer bottle back in high school. I know he blames me for it since the assault happened when he was defending me in a fight. It wasn't much of a fight, but when he stepped in to defend me he was hit from behind with a beer bottle by the guy's brother. The full, unopened bottle smashed on his head and cut his face, eyelid and eyeball. 270 stitches and two operations later, he had some of his eyesight back in his left eye. He has a blind spot around the lower corner of his eye, but it's the long pink scar that runs below the eye and down his cheek for all to see that is the real legacy of that night. There is no question that the assault was a turning point in both our lives. In a way we were no longer identical twins: people could tell us apart because of the four-inch scar running down his face. And Remy changed. He grew his hair long and traveled to South America and Europe. He couldn't play hockey anymore so he began to smoke and party. Throwing caution to the wind, he moved into his fraternity during his first year at university just after our parents divorced. The money he received from a lawsuit enabled him to live the kind of life he wanted to live. When his money began to run low, he stayed in Canada and traveled because he was adamant to live his own way. He lived his life by putting himself where he wanted to be, and by doing this he had slowly become rootless.

When the Greyhound bus finally reaches the welcome sign to Prince George, I can smell the pollution in the air. Three pulp-and-paper mills spew thick smoke out of massive smoke stacks a few hundred metres from the roadside on the outskirts of town. A terrible unnatural odour hovering between the mountain peaks to the east and west. Cancerous and dry, an air-born powder foreign to the palate and lungs.

As the bus pulls up to the station I immediately spot Remy walking along the sidewalk. I can tell from his loping gait, beard and long hair that it's him. Seeing the bus arrive, Remy quickens his pace as he crosses the street. I'm the last passenger to exit the bus. There, just outside of the affray in front of the luggage compartments, I see Remy smiling at me. He looks taller than before in his Kodiak boots, and bigger as if he had become Dutch. A thousand thoughts flash through my mind, and an avalanche of memories mar any hope of catching the words to voice any of them. What I can't help thinking in this mental flurry surprises me: Is that what my beard looks like?

"Heyyyyyy" we both say at the same time, embracing as brothers do.

"Trapp my brother! How're ya doin?"

"Remyyyyyy." We both laugh as we look at each other, him with his full-grown beard and his Indian beads around his neck, and me with my Nietzchean moustache and ponytail. I have never seen Remy with a beard so I am intrigued to see how my own beard looks. It's a very strange feeling. He slaps me on the back and grabs my shoulder, pushing and pulling me - manhandling me like a bear would a cub.

"You madman! All the way from Hong Kong. I didn't think you would come back after - what? - a decade?"

"Almost."

"Nice one!"

"I'm back my brother. It's time to find a homestead," I say, unable to wipe the smile off my face. His smile stretches into newfound wrinkles - the same, I'm sure, as the ones I have earned overseas. His hands look huge when he picks up my big bag from the luggage compartment. I stand there gawking at him after so much time. His movements reflect the way I always thought I moved but more than that, he's filled out so he looks larger than his six-foot two frame. After so long apart, these similarities jump out at me with more force.

Something about him is lit up as we walk away from the bus station.

"So that's what my beard looks like," I say.

"You like the duddy?" he asks. I laugh at a piece of the old twin language. It's strange how much one word can do for memory recall. Ten years just like that. Who else is there in the world who knows that expression? No one else knows our secret language except Remy and me and some of our old friends. A childlike excitement hits me at the thought of resuscitating our language after lying dormant during our years apart.

When we reach his truck and camper, Remy looks purposefully into the front seat and says:

"Goooood doggie..." I see a fluffy-haired dog looking at us from the passenger seat.

"You have a dog?" Remy keeps walking towards the back of the camper.

"Yep. That's Blue. She's a medicine doggie." I look closely at the dog under the streetlight; the dog's hair has a distinctly blue hue.

"It's blue," I say loud enough for him to hear.

"That's why I named her Blue." He opens the back door and places my bags on the floor of his camper. "Picked her up in Manitoba after the Sundance two summers ago. Best dog I've ever had. Bought her for 50 bucks from a Native. She's a goooood doggie." Remy closes the door of the camper, securing it with a small bungee cord. I sit beside Blue in the passenger seat, who is frantically wagging her tail and licking my face, excited to see a face so similar to her master.

"So I was thinking we could go to uncle Peter's land instead of going to a bar," he says. "Too much testicular atrophy here in PG." I haven't heard that expression before but I immediately know what he means. "I'm low on cake and besides, I bought some plan Z." It has been seven years since I heard any of the plans. Identical twins are known to create their own secret language and Remy and I are no different. We have plans for almost every letter of the alphabet invented over the years. And here is Remy using one of the plans as if it were just another word that everyone in the world knows. It's the twin language and the choice and combination of words he uses that reminds me most of how similar our minds work.

"Good. Have you seen uncle Peter's piece yet?"

"I stayed there the last two nights in my camper. Cold as a witches' tit up here and it's only the first of September. But it was strange experience. I had some unusual dreams last night and this morning I woke up with the driest tongue I've ever had in my life - and that's saying a lot." Always relishing a sense for the dramatic, I regard it as exaggerating so I shake my head and wave my hand, dismissing it as hyperbole.

"You'll see, pilgrim," he says.

On the way out of town we pass a camper and pick-up truck with a ‘FOR SALE' sign in its window.

"See that truck?" he says, pointing at it. "I've checked it out. It looks very solid and the camper's the same as mine - the best that exists for mobile living. But it's a Ford. And you know how I feel about Fords." I do know about his robust distaste for all products Ford. "It's an ‘87 or '88 and it's all ready to go. You don't need to get it certified here in BC unlike Ontario, so you can buy it as is as long as she runs. Very unsick."

"I was thinking more in terms of a van," I say. But the idea of sleeping in a camper is more appealing to me than sleeping in the back of a van, especially so high up in the mountains.

"Hmmmm... Not sure if a van is the right calibre for the terrain we'll face mon frere. Pick-ups are the best road buggies. Trust me."

"But a pick-up truck? I don't know, man." Buying a pick-up truck had never crossed my mind.

"You've been in Hong Kong too long my brother. I know what you mean because that's what I thought: I'd never buy a pick-up truck. But a pick-up is really the only suitable vehicle for the real Canada that we'll be seeing. And listen, the guy selling it is a mechanic. It has good tires and suspension. He's asking three grand though, for both truck and camper combo. But if you can take the hack with the cake, then you'll have yourself your own home on wheels. It'll be better than sleeping in a van."

Once we're out of the city of Prince George, Remy reaches into a case of beer below his radio, pulls out a bottle and hands me a beer. Then he opens one for himself.

"To our journey," he says.

"To our quest to find a homestead," I reply. We clink bottles and drink, looking ahead with a twin twinkle of mischief in our eyes. Reincarnation of Loki in a multiple of two, unleashed and fully cocked with nothing but time and open space.



 
 

4

"The gentleman helps others to realize what is good in them; he does not help them to realize

what is bad in them. The small man does the opposite." - Confucius

  10km outside Prince George, British Columbia

From the road I can see the property is surrounded by rocky mountaintops and is separated from his neighbours by a thick patch of forest with a stream running through it. Protected and safe. A corner of the world to call your own. Along the foot of the mountain there is a big field that has a few years' worth of alpha-alpha to harvest and several broken-down log sheds and a barn behind a cluster of trees protecting a wood cabin.

"I didn't think there were any buildings on the property," I say as we drive past the open field.

"There are actually. Maybe six or seven buildings but they're all derelict. The barns and sheds have been submerged by a beaver pond." Remy pulls into the driveway under overhanging branches of birch and spruce that protect the entrance. The roof on the main cabin is full of holes and part of a wall has been dismantled. He can see me looking at the cabin in hope that it can be salvaged.

"It's pretty harsh," he says, jabbing his thumb toward the cabin. "It's full of mildew and mould. There's stuff growing out of the floors." We park behind the cabin next to a half-torn-down shed. It looks like no one has been here in a decade. Weeds and bushes dominate the property. Planks of wood strewn across the land haphazardly behind the main cabin. Half dismantled and abandoned. Nature taking over, selfish for more. For a moment I wonder if my uncle has ever been here.

"Did he buy this place over the Internet?"

"Who knows. It's a pretty big 16 acres. It goes all the way over there to the trees." Remy points to where the tree line stops at the base of a small mountain. "To that mountain over there and then to the edge of this overgrown pond." When I get out of the truck I can see the pond eating up the main barn, which is partly submerged in water.

"The beaver pond?"

"Yeah, I'll show you." We grab a couple of beers and I follow Remy through the pine and cedar trees along a trail that he has recently forged. Foliage and undergrowth, completely protected from cars driving along the road. A world unto itself. Ducking through a network of shrubs, we reach the pond where there are two massive birch trees beside the water. Same height and breadth; identical.

"I was here at night for the sunset," he says. We sit there both looking at the pond and the setting sun in the west and there is so much I want to say, so much I feel right now being with my brother after so long that I don't know where to begin.Overwhelmed, we have seven years to catch up on. Looking at Remy I can see he is experiencing the same overload. Both of us drinking and smiling.

"The resident beaver swims around and flaps its tail to talk with me," he says. "There's a beaver dam at the end of the pond right on the edge of the property. It's flooded the land and taken those sheds with it. Too bad we don't have a canoe." Water like glass reflects the reddish orange of the setting sun, so calm that in a canoe we could glide across it with one stroke of the paddle. Howling coyotes in the trees by the foot of the mountain and other muffled sounds of wildlife. An unexpected fear stirs somewhere deep within.

"Are there bears around here?" 

"You could say that. Black bears and Grizzlies, but I've only seen black bears so far." I feel exposed sitting here in the woods by a pond with nothing between us and a bear attack. Exposure and the chill of oncoming darkness send a spasm of cold down my back. 

"You know that I don't have many fears, but there is one animal that scares me more than anything else and it's the bear. I don't know why. I can't really explain it. I had this dream once when I was living in Taiwan of you and me running away from a bear. Did I ever tell you that dream?" Remy shook his head.

"No, but I've dreamed of bears too."

"In my dream we are running away from a big black bear. As it's catching up with you, I run over to the bear so it begins to chase me instead. When it's gaining on me I find a mountain bike on the hill so I hop on the bike and pedal down the hill. You are safe but the bear is now determined to get me. As the bear is catching up to me and just about to nibble at my heels, I pass across the border onto American soil and the bear stops. That's when I woke up. It was so vivid I wrote it down and gave it to my students to study. I even gave them a test on it. Even now, six years after having the dream, I can still remember it vividly."

"That's interesting because bears are one of my totem animals. Bears are heavy-duty medicine. Spiritually I'm a black bear; that's why I need my space. I have no fear of them." He lights a cigarette. Since you've dreamt of a bear, it's an animal that will protect you, not harm you."

"I mean, are bears common here? There weren't any in Hong Kong. Over there I had to watch for bamboo snakes and six-inch spiders."

"You don't have to worry about snakes and spiders in these parts. It's way different here. Canada is like Africa if you look at it from a west-as-south and the east-as-north perspective. Different terrain, different climates, different wild animals and even different peoples in the different geographic time zones, just like Africa. But one can only really know this by living the semi-nomadic life I live."

"So you're saying we're in a bear zone?"

"Oui."

"So how do you protect yourself against a possible bear attack?"

"Blue has on occasion protected me from wild game. And if you plan to go bushwhacking then you need some sort of buffer against running into dangerous mammalia. We're right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains here cowboy. Actually we're between the Rockies and the Coastal Mountains. Prince George is in a plateau in the middle of two mountain ranges. We're something like 6000 feet above sea level right now. It's barely out of August and it may go down to zero tonight." I can see his breath when he speaks.

"I should be warm enough in my tent, shouldn't I? My sleeping bag is effective up to five below." Remy chuckles and shakes his head a little.

"You should get a rig like mine. In a couple of weeks it's going to be too cold to sleep outside in a tent. Trust me. This isn't southeast Asia." Suddenly there's a loud THWAHMP! from the pond.

"There's the beaver saying hello. He knows we're here." I look at Remy and see how at home he is in nature. With his full-grown beard he looks like a real mountain man in the tradition of Jim Bridger.

"Is it a friendly beaver?" It's a question I would never ask anyone other than my twin brother because I know he would never attack me with sarcasm. Between twins, having the courage to be honest is valued more than anything else.

"Yes, it is a friendly beaver. And this is a healing pond." We both sit silently watching the ripples on the water. Kodiak boots, worked-in denims, Indian leather jacket and a bushy brown beard make Remy look like Gabriel Dumont - the fierce and respected Métis buffalo hunter and loyal friend of Louis Riel during the Red River Rebellion 130 years ago.

"How's that?" I ask, beginning to be aware of a new reservoir of knowledge he has.

"Because when you look into the pond you see yourself."

"Why is that healing?"

"A mirror shows you that he who attacks the mirror also attacks himself. Soon the attacker will reap what he has sown." At the same time we both look to the water for the beaver. I shrug my shoulders. I can't see how attacking a reflective pond can heal someone who attacks it.

"Well, because the attacker is showing his own shortcomings and therefore can see his own faults." I look at him and then stand beside the pond. I can see my reflection only a little since the sun is now behind the mountains. I pull at the handles of my moustache but for the first time feel as though my moustache is not enough. I look at Remy's beard and realize that that's what I want.

"Well, with beavers and wolves and waterfalls and all this wilderness all over the place, there must be bears around, so I'm not liking the idea of sleeping outside in my tent up here." I look at Blue and feel the need for a protective dog.

"Especially with such a close water source like this pond," he says. I shiver. "You might think about getting yourself a dog." I realize this is another thing I miss: Remy expressing the exact thoughts that are in my head.

"Nice one. A bear protector."

 

 

With the sun now completely out of sight for the day, I tell him that I need to pitch my tent before it gets dark so we walk back along the trail to the driveway and open more beer. I pull out my tent and sleeping bag and throw them on the grass near the cabin, just out of sight of Remy's camper. But first, perhaps as procrastination, I get my flashlight to check out the abandoned main cabin. The floor of the cabin is wet and soft and strewn with organic matter. Part of the roof is exposed to the sky and there is a large pile of saw dust in the corner of the main room where part of the wall is missing. No furniture except for an old, torn-apart couch with mould growing all over it. Bedrooms are both enshrouded with debris. Too bad I think as I return to pitch my tent, the cabin is way past the point of recovery.

The environment is dictating my hand more than I expected. The tent will not suffice, and sharing Remy's camper is out of the question. But three thousand dollars for a twenty-year-old pick-up truck and camper is way out of my budget. An old van might be a better option only because it's cheaper. In the back of my mind something tells me that this one-month journey to find a writer's cabin will take longer and farther than I think.

When I'm done pitching my tent, I go to Remy's camper. There are talismans and beads and crystals adorning the walls and countertop. My eyes take a moment to register what I am looking at when I look at his bed. In the semi-darkness I see a large black-haired blanket.

"It's my bear rug," he says. "I use it to keep me warm when it gets really cold." That's when I see the bear head, complete with teeth.

"You sleep with that over you? That bear skull and the whole thing?" The only thing missing from the bear rug are the claws.

"It protects me from the negative. As I said, the bear is one of my totem animals. It's medicine for me. Here..." Remy reaches out and rolls his bear rug back to the far end of his bed, and then he puts his pillow gently on top of the bear's head. For some reason it helps me relax.

"Sit down brother. Make yourself comfortable. This is my home. Bought and paid for, no mortgage. I guess you could say I'm the only one in the family who completely owns their own home." Thinking it's a joke I chuckle, but then I realize it's a simple statement of fact.

"That's what I am after: buying my piece with no mortgage," I reply, nodding at him. "But with the little amount of coin I have, it'll be tough to find something that even resembles a home."

"I have confidence in you man. You have a long track record of going out and getting what you want. So what do you think of the camper?" I look around and nod.

"More space than I thought."

"These campers are designed for pick-up trucks. It sleeps four: two up there in the loft and two here where the table goes." The loft, as he calls it, is packed with boxes and Native regalia. "I took out the table and sleep here all the time.  I like to keep it open like this."

"Is it warm enough?"

"I have an electric heater I can plug in if I'm at a campsite with an outlet, but when it really gets cold my bear skin keeps me warm enough." One side of his camper is a long kitchen counter with a dry sink and cupboards. There's even a closet.

"B.O. plenty of space," I say. He chuckles at the use of twinspeak and then pulls out a baggy of weed and begins rolling a joint.

"I met this guy down at the saloon the other night who was selling some plan W so I stocked up on my supply."

"I should have snagged some in Gastown last night." It's always good twin etiquette to have your own supply and never to rely on your twin's resource base.

"So what do you think about this place as a potential homestead?" I ask.

"It's too cold here, man. And there's the air issue. You'll see in the morning."

"It's not that bad here is it?"

"I'll bet you ten bucks you'll wake up with the driest tongue in the history of mankind." He uses the same words I usually use: in the history of mankind.  It gives me a weird sensation as I don't think we have ever used those words between us before. It's an expression I began to use when living in the Philippines five years ago.

"I'll take that bet matey. Ten bucks, you're on." We shake hands to make it binding. I don't think there is anything more binding than a handshake between identical twins.

"So then where are you thinking is a good place for the homestead?" I ask. Remy lights the joint and thinks for a few seconds.

"I'm thinking the land with the best geomancy in this country is in northern BC, near the Yukon in a place called Atlin. It's where the Indians believes Atlantis was once located before the Great Flood."

"You're serious?"

"Yeah, and it's called Atlin. Weird eh? And since the magnetic force from the North Pole is so strong up there, any electronic eavesdropping or surveillance from satellites won't have the ability to follow me. I have an electronic device in my arm you know." Coyotes growl in the distance and the wind knocks at the camper door. Eccentric I think; Remy is still eccentric.

"Atlin is where I think we'll find the retreat we're looking for," he says. "It's like a natural jamming force that comes from the magnetic pole and it throws off any electronic forces. My research shows that northern BC and the Yukon are the only areas in North America that one can live free of modern spying devices like satellites. I should be able to heal better up there." Remy gets up and picks out a turquoise bead from an abalone shell on the counter.

"Ah, I almost forgot. This is a gift for you," he says. "It's a turquoise rock that will give you the power of eloquence." For a second I'm not sure if giving me a rock is a joke, but I am solemn as I accept it. He also hands me a cigarette. "Whenever you give presents we, as Métis Indians, should always give a tobacco offering too." There had always been a rumour that our mother's side of the family had some native blood. Having a passion for history, as well as a degree in history from the University of Toronto, Remy investigated our family tree and discovered that we did have some Ojibwa blood from our great great grandmother. But I wasn't convinced. Neither of us looks even slightly native.

"Thanks Remy." I start to tie it onto my silver chain along with the amethyst hanging from a leather string already around my neck.

"Wait! I should smudge it first before you put it on." He takes out some dried sage from beside a pile of plants lying in the dry sink and neatly slides two fingers up the stalk of a sage branch. All the leaves end up between his two fingers, which he drops into another abalone shell beside the sink. Remy repeats this action again with a second branch and then takes his lighter and ignites the sage. Thick, fragrant smoke rises from the shell, quickly covering me in a cloud of smoke. Remy takes an eagle wing (a series of eagle feathers that have been fastened together to make a wing), and begins to brush the sage smoke at me.

"Hold out your arms," he says. He smudges me around the head and torso and then finally my feet before he does it again to my back. Only then, when the camper is filled with smoke, is my new turquoise rock ready to go on the chain around my neck. When we finally sit down, we can hardly see each other through the smoke in the candlelight, but we can both hear each other's laughter.

 

 

 

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