I had been optimistic as I’d set off from the deformed Douglas Fir tree. A week to travel thirty miles or so into Canada on foot and then hitch a ride to Vancouver. No problem I’d thought but the weather and the terrain conspired to make life as hard as possible for me. I was assaulted by snow storms, hail, wind and rain, interspersed with short periods of brightness during which the temperatures plummeted. I estimated, taking into account the rise and fall of the land and the detours I had to make around impassable obstacles, that I was only gaining seven or eight miles a day at the most towards my goal. At one point late on the third day of my journey I stopped to try and get my bearings as visibility had become so bad. Spreading my map before me on a boulder and peering into the gloom through my binoculars I thought I could make out what I presumed was Windy Joe Mountain to the east of my position. I appeared to be on course but then a rogue gust of wind took my map before I could fold it away. I went after it, lost my footing on a patch of ice and tumbled down a steep slope, cartwheeling for about twenty five yards before coming to a rest in a wet gulley at the bottom, totally winded and soaked to the skin. I never saw my map again. Disgusted with my carelessness but thankful I hadn’t added to my list of injuries I swore to myself I’d be more careful. During the past three days I’d begun to feel so much better and the various scrapes and bruises which I’d acquired, even the more serious ones had faded considerably. The loss of my map was no big deal now as I calculated that I was over the border and already in Canada but I could easily have sustained a serious injury. The thought of the possible consequences once again served as a well needed wake up call. Concentration was proving difficult to maintain and as darkness was approaching fast I decided I’d had enough for the day. I made my camp then and there in the gully, sheltered by overhanging shrubs and tree roots. I lit a fire, got myself a hot drink and a bite to eat and felt my spirit recover slightly once refreshed. I anticipated that as long as I continued north then I’d reach the highway sometime the following day.
An owl kept me awake for most of the night, hooting away up in the trees close by but remaining invisible in the blackness. Some time in the early hours I got up and hurled an unopened tin of beans in the general direction of the noisy bastard, only for him to resume the racket a few minutes later from even closer than before. Lying there in the darkness, alone with my thoughts I contemplated everything that had happened to me since leaving the army just a few months before. In fact since Ireland I seemed to have blundered from one crisis to another, making the wrong decisions at every opportunity. I was lucky to still be alive and couldn’t help but ponder how different things might be if I’d been the sort of person who thought more carefully about things rather than always jumping in with both feet. I concluded that it was just the way I happened to be and there was little to be gained by regretting any of it but I missed the army life I’d left behind and the precious friends that went with it.
With only a few fitful moments of sleep behind me I decided it was pointless to lay in my sleeping bag any longer dwelling on events I couldn’t alter. Before first light, breathing plumes of steamy breath into the surrounding air frost I got my stuff together and set off on what I hoped would be my last day of trekking in the wilderness. Sure enough, around midday I found myself sliding on my backside down a steep slope of loose scree, exiting the trees and stumbling onto the sandy banks of the Similkameen River. A surge of excitement blossomed in my chest and I couldn’t stop myself from letting out an ecstatic whoop. The river was shallow and clear, running in lively rivulets across pristine shingle banks interspersed with boulders. It was easy to traverse and just a few yards beyond the opposite bank, after a steep scramble up an almost vertical slope I emerged onto the shoulder of the Crows Nest Highway. I’d made it!
Sitting on the Armco barrier which protected traffic from going over the drop I’d just climbed and crashing into the river below, I thought about what to do next. Nothing was moving on the road, it was deserted although there were obvious tyre tracks in the snow so at least this stretch of the highway appeared to be open. On the opposite side of the carriageway and a hundred yards further along I could just make out a road sign so I walked over to read it. ‘Manning’ it said. Looking around I couldn’t see anything obvious to suggest a community of any kind but ‘Manning’ was where I appeared to be.
Just then I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle, some way off but definitely coming my way. I wasn’t sure what to do but my instinct told me to get out of sight so that’s what I did, jogging a few yards into the trees on the north side of the road and ducking down low. Peering from my hiding place, in the distance I could make out a bright red vehicle slowly motoring towards me, taking great care on the slippery surface. As it approached I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass, gaudy chrome glinting in what little sun filtered through the watery sky above. Surely it couldn’t be. This would be ‘outwageous!’
It wasn’t, but I swear if it had turned out to be ‘Hawwy and Wose Cooper’ returning from their ‘twip of a lifetime’ I would have been tempted to run back into the wilderness before they spotted me.
As the garish car drew level with me I flattened myself on the ground until it had rumbled past and disappeared around the next bend. It got me thinking. Although I was certain that the manhunt was well and truly behind me and I hoped that I was no longer a fugitive, it would be a bad idea to attract any attention to myself at this point by trying to thumb a lift. In my current unkempt state I reckoned that anyone who spotted me would suspect that I was some sort of vagrant if not a desperado. I couldn’t imagine anyone stopping for me anyway and they would be very likely to report me to the cops if they passed me tramping down the highway out in the middle of nowhere. That sort of attention I definitely didn’t need. I decided to set off along the road in the direction of Manning and to get out of sight quickly again if any more vehicles came along. Once I was there my first priority would be to do something about my appearance and secondly to find myself some transport. I had plenty of money in my pocket so I could easily afford to hire a vehicle, otherwise I was prepared to steal a car if I thought I could get away with it.
I set off in the direction that the Oldsmobile had gone. Even though covered with a blanket of snow, walking on a firm flat surface after travelling across country for so long felt strange and unnatural to me. Around the bend I spotted a lone single story cabin set a few yards back from the highway. There was no sign of life around the property but further on I could see there were some more houses sited along a narrow drive which sloped back up into the forest and then ran parallel to the highway. I passed by the turning nervously, keeping watch in case I was spotted and continued on until I crested a small rise where I was immediately presented with a panoramic view of the remainder of Manning. It consisted of about a dozen more cabins and a small store. Overlooking the village and further back from the road there was what looked like a saw mill and lumber yard where several large articulated trucks were queued up. Some of the low loaders were stacked as high as a house with massive logs perhaps forty feet long, obviously brought in from the surrounding forests. Others had already been unloaded. Men were working with chainsaws and some heavy duty lifting equipment. I could hear shouts and light hearted banter as they beavered away, debarking the enormous tree trunks and manoeuvring them into the saw mill sheds. It seemed a long time since I’d heard any laughter at all. I wondered what my chances of obtaining a ride in one of the empty trucks might be but I still felt too nervous about approaching anyone.
As I watched, a big bearded man wearing a baseball cap and checked shirt over moleskin trousers climbed into one of the trucks, fired up its motor and with a crash of gears, eased his way down the track and out onto the main road. The driver paused to make sure it was clear and for a brief moment our eyes locked. Instantly I turned away, my nerves and confidence were shot to pieces but the guy didn’t seem to pay me any mind. It was a tight manoeuvre for such a massive vehicle but he coped expertly, spun the wheel to the right and trundled slowly through the village. To my surprise, once clear of the houses rather than accelerate away the trucker indicated left, crossed the highway and drove into another side turning. I heard the loud hiss of air brakes as he came to a halt and realised that he’d driven into a petrol station on the far side of the highway. It took me about five minutes to reach the entrance where I stood and looked the place over.
In many ways it reminded me of the Kirby place but without the accommodation chalets. There were several small buildings, one of which was a kiosk occupied by the pump attendant who came out and spoke to the truck driver as he unscrewed the fuel cap and pushed the nozzle of the hose into the tank to fill up. While the pump groaned, rumbled and pumped away, emitting a rhythmic ‘ding’ at regular intervals, they both walked back into the kiosk. Soon afterwards the driver reappeared, walked around the side of the largest building and entered a door with a sign on it. It was the rest room. I stepped unseen around the back of the complex and waited behind a tall stack of old tyres. Moments later I heard a toilet cistern flush and the trucker came out, still zipping up his flies as he strode purposefully back onto the forecourt. I was in the bog before the door had time to close behind him.
Stepping inside seemed quite an alien experience after living rough for so long. My face reacted to the sheltered warm air and lack of wind by prickling and glowing like a Belisha beacon. I’d entered quite a bright room, illuminated from above by a large skylight as well as a small slit window which ran along one wall just below the level of the ceiling. There were two cubicles side by side, a couple of filthy urinals next to them and on the opposite wall was a small washbasin that didn’t look as though it had been used since being installed. The first thing I did was remove my pack, dump it on the floor and then wriggle out of my parka. I moved over to the wash basin, turned on the tap and took a long drink of water before steeling myself to look in the mirror on the wall above the sink.
The haunted, stubbled face that stared back at me wasn’t a pretty sight. Even though I’d taken the trouble to wash regularly when opportunities had arisen on my journey most often in streams and ponds that I’d happened across, my face was grimy with dirt which had worked its way into every line and crease. It had the effect of ageing me by ten years and I looked totally knackered. The effect wasn’t improved by the whites of my eyes which had taken on a yellow tinge verging on bloodshot. There was still a hint of bruising around my nose and under my eyes as well as a nasty graze on my temple that although beginning to heal under a scab, still oozed a little watery blood. Time to get cleaned up.
Stripping down to my waist I washed as thoroughly as I could using the contents of Loopy’s toiletry bag. All sorts of debris was flushed from my hair as I dunked my head in the washbasin filled with cold water and worked at it vigorously with my fingers. My small cake of soap had all but disappeared by the time I finished but I used the last of it to make a lather and give myself a good close shave. Outside I heard the engine of the truck fire up again and pull away. It appeared to turn east, back through the village the way I’d come so wouldn’t have been of any use to me for a lift even if I’d had the confidence to ask. Once I’d finished shaving I stepped back and reassessed my appearance in the mirror. Not too bad. I certainly felt more human. The bruises on my torso and ribs were past their most colourful and had faded from the livid purple and red hues from when I’d last looked. Now they had faded to far less dramatic pale browns and yellows. My shoulder was still stiff and painful but there were no obvious outward signs of the injury. I sorted through my clothing and dressed in the freshest items I could find, stuffing the rest in my rucksack to be disposed of later.
Once I felt ready I eased open the door and peered outside to check if the coast was clear. Immediately I heard raised voices coming from the forecourt.
“Go on! On your way you dirty faggot.”
“Aw come on man, all I want is to use the Goddamned telephone. I’ll pay for the call.”
“I won’t tell you again boy, on your way.”
I crept to the corner of the building and peered around it, still keeping out of sight. The petrol pump attendant who was a scrawny but tall middle aged man in a filthy sheepskin jacket, was yelling right into the face of an equally skinny man of about my own age with extremely long blonde hair and a droopy moustache. He was dressed in an Afghan coat and flared purple jeans, his colourful outfit topped off with a broad brimmed hippy hat. The attendant was repeatedly shoving the younger man hard in the chest, driving him towards the road. With every push the hippy’s long hair shook like the mane of a horse and small bells attached to the sides of his hat jingled. He wasn’t attempting to fight back, just struggling to maintain his balance on the icy forecourt. Eventually, after a particularly vicious shove the floppy hat became dislodged and tumbled to the ground.
Before the hippy could retrieve it the pump attendant stamped on it, grinding it with his heel into the wet snow. Not giving up, the hippy continued.
“Aw, come on man, it’s just a phone call. We need some help here.” He stooped to pick up his hat and at that point the other guy drove his knee into the hippy’s face, grabbed him by the collar and threw him down to the ground beside the hat.
“I told you to fuck off|!” he bellowed. “We don’t want your kind around here.”
With that he kicked the side of the hippy’s head, knocking him sideways and leaving him spread eagled on the ground. He was lining up for another shot and I’d seen enough.
“Hey!” I shouted and stepped into view.
“Who the fuck are you?” replied the pump attendant, turning to me and stepping forward threateningly.
I didn’t reply but took a quick pace towards him and drove my fist as hard as I could into the man’s midriff. He gasped and doubled up and using my momentum I swept his right ankle from beneath him with my booted foot. A sharp backward jab with my right elbow to the side of his neck sent him sprawling onto the slush covered tarmac beside the hippy. I had a lot of pent up frustration inside me that had been building for weeks and in that moment it was released like steam from a pressure cooker.
There I was again, jumping into a situation with both feet without thinking it through. The bully just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time but it felt good to take it out on him. He was of no further threat, coughing and wheezing on the ground. He looked up at me in fear, no longer so brave and I considered giving him another clout, one for the road just to teach him a good lesson. Just then a loud voice came from the kiosk. An enormous ugly woman whom I’d failed to notice before, stuck her head out and yelled.
“Leave him alone. I’m calling the cops!” then she ducked back inside.
There was nothing for it, I reached down and helped the hippy to his feet.
“Come on, we’d best get out of here,” I said.
“Wait, I really need to use the god damned phone,” he replied, doing his best to brush wet snow from his crumpled hat. Just then another big articulated lorry pulled into the petrol station behind us which confirmed to me that legging it was almost certainly the most prudent course of action.
“Fuck the phone, let’s go,” I said. I didn’t much fancy mixing it with one of these tough looking lorry drivers and it appeared to me that everybody knew everyone else around Manning. I grabbed the hippy’s elbow, propelling him across the forecourt towards the exit ramp. He saw what was going on so relented and together we trotted up the road and away. Once clear and out of sight of the petrol station we slowed down to walking pace and I turned to my new friend.
“What was all that about mate?” I asked, slotting naturally into my broadest Lancashire accent.
“Aw, we get that all the time. Them red necked bastards don’t think much of us travellers. I wouldn’t bother going near any of them at all but my bus has broke down up the road and we’re stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. I need a tow truck.”
He was rubbing the side of his head with his hand but there didn’t appear to be too much damage done.
“Thanks for stepping in by the way. I reckon that bastard was going to work me over real good. So. You’re a limey eh? What are you doing out here? Where are you heading?”
The questions came thick and fast, not surprising I supposed given the circumstances.
“No problem. My names Frank. Frank Woolf.” I stuck out my hand and he took it.
“You’re right I am a limey. I’m on leave from the British Army. I’ve been over here for a few weeks visiting relatives and seeing a bit of the country before I head back to my unit in Germany. I’ll be flying out from Vancouver in a few days. Do you reckon that woman really will call the cops?”
“Skip Stone.” he replied. “Call me Skip. Our bus is about a mile up the road here. Nah. I don’t think she will.” he went on. “The nearest decent sized place is back in Eastwood. There’s a ranger station there but I don’t think they’ll be interested in coming all the way out here just because of a fist fight. Besides, he started it.”
I had to hope he was right and I tended to agree. We walked along in silence for a while until I became aware of faint strains of music in the distance. The simple strumming of a guitar carried on the breeze as someone gave a passable rendition of the Mamas and the Papas version of ‘Dream a Little Dream Of Me’. It was actually very pleasant if a little surreal, floating gently in the damp cold air towards us.
“That’ll be Cass. Not far now.” said Skip and quickened his pace a little.
“No, ’course not. Cass is my girl friend is all. But she sings like an angel, man.”
She certainly did. As we turned a bend, in a lay-by at the side of the road I spotted an ancient beaten up VW camper van complete with hand painted flowers, colourful swirls and peace symbols. The side door was open and on the step sat a beautiful young girl in a thick fur trimmed coat, strumming on a gaudily decorated acoustic guitar. She continued to play and sing as we approached with eyes closed, seemingly oblivious.
“Stars shining bright above you;
Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’
Birds singing in the sycamore tree....”
It had to be one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard and I felt the hint of a tear well up in my eyes. Mentally I was obviously still quite fragile but the moment was destroyed as Skip chimed in loudly with a rasping flat voice,
“Dream a little dream of me.”
Cass opened her eyes, looked up and smiled an innocent smile, appearing unsurprised that her boyfriend was now accompanied by some rough looking stranger dressed in dirty army combat kit and sporting a face full of faded bruises.
“That didn’t take too long. Are they coming out?” she asked.
“Fat chance Cass. I was lucky to come away from there in one piece. If it hadn’t been for Frank here stepping in I would have been beaten to a pulp.”
At that point she finally noticed me, muttered “Hi,” then got quickly to her feet and flung her arms around Skip Stone’s neck, inspecting the damage done to his head. They climbed into the van together where she set about dabbing his face with a wet flannel while Skip gave her the full account. I was left alone standing awkwardly at the rear of the vehicle so nonchalantly twisted the handle and opened up the engine compartment.
“Hey Frank, come on in and get warm,” called Skip from within the van.
I didn’t need asking twice so got into the vehicle and took a seat while Cass lit a flame under a big pan of soup. It smelled very appetising. While it warmed through I asked Skip what was wrong with the engine.
“No idea man. Technology’s not my bag. She was running rough for a good few miles before we pulled in here for a break. Struggling to make the hills. I thought she’d make it back to Chilliwack with no problem though. That’s where we’re heading by the way. Then she wouldn’t start back up,” said Skip.
“Got any tools?” I asked.
“Not much. There might be a few things under that seat, take a look.” he replied, nodding to where I was sitting.
I got up, removed the cushion from the bench seat and rummaged around in the compartment below. He was right, there wasn’t much but I did find a screw driver, a few assorted spanners and an old tobacco tin containing at least an ounce of marijuana weed and a few decent sized lumps of resin.
“What do you think Frank? Can you fix it?” asked Cass as she stirred the cauldron of soup and served up three ladles full into three china bowls. She totally ignored the fact that I was sniffing at their stash with great interest.
“Dunno, I’ll take a look in a minute,” I replied and replaced the tin where I’d found it.
I didn’t recognise what kind of soup it was and thought it might be rude to ask but there was definitely no meat in it, just some unidentifiable vegetables and exotic smelling herbs. Whatever it was it tasted great and warmed me right down to my boots. I mopped up the last dregs of it from my bowl with a hunk of dry, rather stale bread and then climbed out of the van to take a look at the engine.
An air cooled Volkswagen engine is one of the simplest lumps to work on and easily accessible so I was fairly confident that if the problem wasn’t terminal then I’d be able to fix it. Sure enough, it didn’t take me more than a couple of minutes to identify what was wrong. After removing the distributor cap and taking out the rotor arm I was presented with a set of badly corroded ignition points. I could see that probably due to a faulty suppressor capacitor, the points hadn’t been sparking cleanly as they opened and closed, struggling to do their job of supplying a high voltage burst to the ignition coil in time with the engine revs. The points had eventually welded themselves firmly together so there would be no spark at all. The screwdriver I’d found wasn’t very sharp but it was functional enough to loosen the retaining screw holding the points in place. Once free of the distributor body I was able to gently prise the contacts apart until they opened with a snap. Then, by rubbing the surface of each point on the side wall of one of the tyres I cleaned them up sufficiently enough so that they would function again. The distributor really needed an overhaul but I reckoned that what I’d done would serve to get us going again at least for a few miles. After reassembling the unit, setting the points by eye to roughly the correct gap, I asked Skip to try the engine. It burst into life on the first rotation.
“Wow! Man you’re a genius!” exclaimed Skip, slapping me on the back and clapping his hands. He was like an over active puppy dog.
“Let’s get going before she stops again,” I said.
We all jumped into the van, Cass and Skip in the front and me stretched out on one of the rear bench seats. The ‘soup’ seemed to have had a soporific effect on me and within a few minutes I felt myself dozing. The last thing I remembered was Cass singing beautifully ‘....and the darkest hour is just before dawn,’ and me hoping that Skip Stone wouldn’t join in.