I was kind of hoping for just a little more sleep. I had the Lincoln parked behind the gig in what turned out to be the Salvation Army parking lot. Well before dawn, a crew turned up to install new signage. The view from my windshield was startling, to say the least. Not to mention the roar of the crane, crew trucks banging, and operators calling out in godless language for me to move my fucking car. Ah, the word of God. Hope for the new day. Just down the road I find an iconic Tim's sign, and slink into the bathroom of this familiar coffee joint for a shave. Then, a massive coffee and a breakfast biscuit while I watch the sun begin it's work, burning off the haze. I'm down today, so I drive around Chilliwack, BC, looking for pawn shops, thrift stores, looking for signs of life, looking for the heart and soul of the place. I had a good crowd at my show last night, so I know there are real folks living here- good ones, too- but in the early morning this town is tight and quiet. I park and walk around a bit to kill time. No rush hour here, at least not downtown. As the sky is bluing, I've gassed up, got a car wash, bought some groceries, and visited two thrift stores. I've checked the tires, polished the windows, changed my clothes. Behind the bowling alley, a young hooker knocks on my window. She's carrying a suitcase. She wants a cigarette. I don't smoke. She looks like death. She wanders off, toward the bank machine across the parking lot. Other cars. Other cigarettes. At least I had a place to sleep last night. God was watching over me, or at least His signage was.
Leaving the lush, Fraser valley behind, I'm taking the smaller road up into the mountains. There's not much traffic on this road today as I pass through First Nations lands. Rough lives documented by the rusting steel totems of broken cars and trucks, torn siding, and salvage built homes. A roadside plaque tells me that a village was once here, out in the mud and the bogs. There's no sign of it now as I point the car towards Hope, and beyond.
Once you hit the tunnels, you've started to climb. These passes are all about tunnels and trains squeezing their way up and down the steep valleys. It doesn't take long to leave the soft lines of the Lower Mainland behind. There are fewer people up here. Fewer towns. It's all about coming and going. Goods moving east and west on giant trains that run through these mountains like massive snakes: miles long: competing lines roaring through this wild territory in all weather, at all times of the day or night. Again, the TransCanada Highway. A thin band of blacktop. How wide? Twenty feet? Wide enough for two trucks. Wide enough for this Lincoln on a sunny day. I climb through places with names like Boston Barr, and Hell's Gap. Soon this road will be crowded with RVs, families on holiday, mad men on bicycles. Bands on Tour, looking for the big time. Itinerant musicians looking for something, anything. Every Canadian band you've ever heard of has driven over this road, stopped and pissed in the same places, taken the same pictures of the river. Quite a few have died here as well. I know some of the spots along the highway. You are seldom closer to heaven or hell than when driving this road. Gotta make Vancouver. Gotta get this gear to Banff. Gotta get home. Gotta get somewhere, anywhere but here. What kind of life pumping coffees by the side of the road? Do you dream of the lights on the coast? Of the Big Top? Dylan's bus stopped here one time. What would it take to get sucked up, into the traffic, and swept away forever? Swept away from this sun stripped diner with it's cracked and dusty windows, swept away, as if waking from a dream.
The road keeps climbing. Once beyond the tougher parts of the pass there is a little, but not much more room for settlement. Today, I'm not due anywhere. I could slip from this cliff, and not be missed for days. Long swallowed by the raging river, or picked by the crows. I guess somebody would find the car, and figure out what might of happened. Or I could just park it and walk away, waking up in that cafe, serving coffee to somebody who might of been in a band one time. You think strange thoughts sometimes, when you live alone in a car for months on end, when you spend a lifetime dancing on this blacktop. I should be writing songs for my next album instead of drinking wine in a cemetery.
That rusty sign, half covered in brush by the roadside. How did I see it, and the two ruts that served now as a side road? In the heat, just beyond the condoms, the soiled diapers, the empty beer cans: people who lived next to this road: Built the tunnels, serviced the trains, strung the wire. Worked hard, played secret games. They were handsome. And pretty. Once. Missed, once. And now, names worn away by weather, like youth worn away by work and sorrow- now they hide in this little clearing. Did they, too, dream of lights along the coast?
Along here the Canadian National Railroad runs one side of the valley, and the Canadian Pacific runs the other. At night you can watch them roar in from the blackness, hear them fade away again into the distance. Is it warm in the cab? Does the engineer drink coffee as he peers ahead, watching for something, anything to break the beam, catch the signal? Does he dream of voices, mixed with the squealing and gnashing of the wheels? I do. But I can't always figure out the stories.
I roll into Spences Bridge, BC, in time to visit one of my favourite cowboy cemeteries. It might seem like a theme, but if you don't look, you don't find. Spences Bridge is high desert country. The best apples in the British Empire used to come out of here. Orchards were irrigated by hand cut, wooden pipes. Apples were shipped to the Royal Family from what is now the Packinghouse Cafe. The first World War changed all that. Young men marched off and didn't come back. Those who did soon found that the old ways were beyond repair. Plenty of dreams broken down, right here.
My friends Steve and Paulette have invited me to spend my down days at their farmhouse on the Nicola River, just outside of town. Here, I will spread my papers out on their big, farmhouse table and finish my already late taxes. It's as good a place as any, I suppose, to do the math proving that the Tour is no longer sustainable. I go at it for many hours every day. I pour a glass of red wine. Little Penguin, a cheap and cheerful south-east Australian I've taken a fancy to. Because I can. The financial picture may look bleak, but at least I can still have a glass of red while I contemplate the columns. I take my National down to the river- just behind the house- and sit in the sun. What a joy to just hang out and play guitar, and work on some new songs. As the small shows get smaller the survival model- my survival model- will need to change as well. Booze no longer fuels the whole thing. Being legendary to a demographic audience which increasingly does not want to drive at night is not helpful, either. But this is my life- this road, these almost secret spots along the way- and I'm not willing to let it slip away so easily. A good, long run may help generate some new ideas.
I've wanted to run the old rail bed along the Nicola River for some time now. Today, I'll do just that. I change into my running gear, load my water bottles. As a concession to the heat, I wear a brimmed Tilly hat instead of my usual baseball cap. You can tell I've adapted well to Canada by the silly, white hat. There is some sun going on out there, and it's hot, so I want to be prepared. I've forgotten to pick up the bear bangers I wanted to add to my gear, but I'm going anyway. I'm living a little bit dangerously, yes- and I will also be running alone through a fairly remote area. But- as I remind myself- my chances of being taken by a bear or a cougar are a little bit like getting hit by lightning. After a visit with my friends who run the HooDoo Ranch, near the trailhead- I'm off. I have no fixed plans other than to go for 10 or 15 km along the river.
From time to time signs of the old railway can be seen. A sun shower sweeps in and soaks me- not a bad thing. All is dry and hot again in a few minutes time.
It's a wonderful trail. Running is one of the only sports not requiring wealth. It's a poor man's meditation. It's a musician's pension plan. I need to stay healthy enough to keep working. And I like it. I'm not as fast as I used to be, but I'm always glad to be out there. My GPS quits, but I figure I've done about 15 km- about 10 miles, along the river. Not a soul out here except me. As I run I watch for signs of old farms along the way. Artifacts. Eagles fly overhead. Strange birds cry. Once, above the hushing of the water, I hear dogs barking somewhere in the distance.
Back at the farm, the boys are soaked in sweat, too, and I immediately feel guilty over my own indulgent condition. These guys work hard at a seemingly impossible job- and they've been at it all day. The farm is a small, rock filled depression between the heat reflecting hoodoos. The river that flows next to it provides the elixir of life to the whole thing. Windmills, pumps, PVC pipe, drip lines, plastic covered beds. It's amazing to me that this gravelled soil can grow anything. But some back breaking work, plus water produces remarkable results. The fruit trees are already looking good. Plastic is going down to facilitate the ten thousand tomato plants now waiting in the greenhouse. People have been fighting this land, and dreaming over this land for a long time. Steve and Paulette are the latest, but certainly not the last farmers to settle in this beautiful spot. After thirty years, Steve now has a young partner to help work the land, to help dream the dream: to help fix the pumps, lay the drip line, feed the dogs, and take the odd break under the fruit trees.
It's not rich farming. It's two hands on the wheel to keep this old tractor and it's old tires straight on down the row.
After we shut down for the day I play a few tunes for Steve. When he goes into town, I go back to my taxes. Finished! I email my old pal and former partner, Colin Linden. Time to make another album. Can we do at least part of it this fall when the Tour heads south? Nashville is a busy place. I've got to work on the logistics, and work on figuring out how to pay for it. Due to the high cost of financing, I paid for my last album many times over, over many years. It's also quite clear that I can't continue to tour Canada without a greater number of festivals on the schedule... But right now, the National Steel Blues Tour is rolling along as it has for the last ten years. I'm outta here in the morning! Let's hope Alberta is good.
Eastbound on the smaller roads.
I love this high desert country and the people who live here. I wonder when I will see it again? Over the last decade I've played 100 Mile House, Kamloops, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge, Cache Creek...
The dry, desert towns quickly give way to high, ranch country...
Crowsnest Pass. Good-bye, British Columbia. Hello, again, to Alberta. By afternoon the mountains have once more faded behind me. It's all badlands now. Coal country. Ranch country. The Lethbridge Folk Club will be presenting me in concert in the back of a motorcycle shop. It's a rough area of town, across from the Harley dealer, not far from the tracks...
It's a very nice little room. With the sell-out crowd there are perhaps fifty souls here for the show. There's a reasonable cover, I sell some CDs, raffle a tour jacket... Thank goodness. I was wondering if I'd have gas money through to the next province.
A nice show, too. With a standing ovation and a couple of encores. Here's the tour jacket winner! Tonight I'll sleep behind the loading dock, and in the morning I'll make a break for Saskatchewan.