OK, so first things first. We were leaving Toronto and heading to a place called Stirling, about 3 hours drive away, to WWOOF on the Kupecz family farm (http://www.harvesthastings.ca/local/producers/kupecz-family-farm). But you can’t embark on a 3-hour drive if you don’t have anything to drive, right? And seeing as our journey is to include a driving trip around the States, the most key of key ingredients is, in my opinion, something drivey. Now, for those of you not in the know, not part of the knowers or just not well knowey, let me explain our journey. The plan is, we drive from Toronto to Vancouver, not from Eastern Canadia through middley Canadia to Western Canadia but from East, to South, to West to North…… of the United States of America, the good ol’ U.S.A, home of a massive white house, lots of guns and more burgers than the family of Gerhard Burger. Our aim is to head for: Ithaca, New York State to see my old WWOOF friends Marjorie Daws and Chris Blisstopherson. Then, after a Christmas spent in New York with the newest member of the Abbotts, li’l Archie, we’ll dash off to the South as quickly as possible to try to escape the clutches of a North East American winter and its potential 20 below temperatures. So, first we’ll hit Asheville, then Knoxville , Nashville, Memphis, home of Stax/Sun Records and Elvis Costello, somewhere in Alabama, then to New Orleans for a li’l someone’s birthday, over to Austin, Texas, then through to the Grand Canyon, onto Vegas, through Death Valley, over to Joshua Tree, down to San Diego for a touch of sunshine that will have been missing from our lives since God knows when, then up the California coast, through L.A, over to Yosemite, back to ‘cisco, up to Sequoia National Park to see the Worlds tallest tree and to drive through one, then all the way up the amazing Highway 1 to Portland, Oregon, check out some hot springs and then to Seattle to meet Frasier Crane and finally through the border controls ridiculous questions to Vancouver. After that, who knows but something spesh will sure happen. And so to the big hunk of metal that’s gonna help us to do this Adventuro Magnifico. Its big, green and handles like a massive metal jelly. And although it isn’t the tank that I just sort of described, its about as metal as one. And so without further ado, ladies and gentleman, I give you, our home for the next 8 months, Miiiiiiss Trixiiiiiiie Beeeeeeeeell…
Complete with not one but TWO gas ring hob, refrigerator, thermostat, swivel cockpit chairs, a sink, two fuel tanks, loads of propene, a ceiling fan, some very manky yellow curtains (since dyed wonderful hues of pink and purple), lots of utensils and the smallest double bed that isn’t a single bed in the known Universe. It’s a hunk of love that will either make or break us on this Grand Voyage of the North Americas. I for one am willing to take the risk. Aint got no choice really!!
And so, onto Stirling, for our last Eastern Canadian experience at a farm in the final throws of a Canadian Autumn and the onset of a winter that for sure will be the coldest either of us have experienced (apart from 2 months living in a car park in the Alps). We bought a bundle of thermals, long johns, big pants, thigh-length socks and terry toweling hats from Honest Ed Mirvish (www.honesteds.com), an oil heater, a pair of fur-lined wellies for the lady and a pair of fur lined flip-flops for the me, packed up Trixie, said goodbye to those new friends we made and with no car insurance (cos in Canada it costs more for 1 month than it costs for a year in the States, 4000 Canadiadian bucks annually and they made me surrender my UK licence for a poxy Ontario one), drove very gingerly for what seemed like an age, to our first WWOOFing experience together (that ends the longest sentence you’ve probably ever read!)
We rocked up 2 hours late to Larry and Judy’s farm and about 3 seconds before they were carving the chicken for dindins. It felt a bit like going on stage at Butlins for Tuesday nights talent competition with a brand new spikey hair-cut, some C&A threads and the wrong legs for sticking in the ‘okey Cokey what with everyone staring at us and waiting for us to stick our 3rd leg up instead of in. Its pretty strange turning up to a bunch of strangers’ house for dinner when they’ve been waiting for you for ages and thought ‘Sod it, lets start anyway’ and then ‘Oh, for fucks sake’ as we turn up just as they’re aiming fork to gob. But I smiled and me lass lifted up her skirt and all was forgotten as we got down and dirty with a roast chicken, some roasted spuds and nowhere near enough wine to stop me guffawing WAAAY to loudly at even a sign of a quip from anyone of the 7 people staring right at me eyes at the table. ‘Taxi for the stander-outers’!!! The farm, aside from the creatures, consisted of Larry and Judy, husband and wife, internal and external farm know-it-alls,
Steven and Amy, Larry’s 87 year old and 92 year old parents respectively and 3 fellow WWOOFers, in the form of Chris and two girls who’s names I have purposefully forgotten for reasons I will explain on page 383! And, humanoidians aside, it also consisted of Max and Lee, two Candiadian sheep dogs, Jake, a jaded old deaf dog who just wanted to trot up and down the wooden floors at 4 in the a.m., Jesse, a blind dog who’s fat had taken the shape of a Rhomboid and who bumped into things with her nose to find her way around but could still pre-wash a dishwasher bound plate better than a Latino pot washer, 4 cats, one who looked EXACTLY like Tigger and 3 others, one of which lived in a plush Penthouse Barn suite, shit loads of sheep, quite a few chickens, a number of pheasants and a lot fewer South American ducks. Oh yeah, and one son of a bitch mouse that decided that in a bid to skip the stamp duty and asking price, he’d move into Trixie and gorge himself, again free of charge, on our food staples. Bastard…
Its funny how after a month with all of these living beings, they become like extended family members, aside from the 2 German lasses who couldn’t have been lazier if they sat around barking orders at us all while rubbing crisps into their faces and getting poor Africans to breath for them. You spend so many hours in the company of these people that you really do build a deep rapport with them. Not just a rapport even, but a real caring for them as people and animals. I say except for the German girls for many reasons, but chief among them was this: when you WWOOF, you are subscribing to a way of living that includes selflessness, respect and compassion, among others. None of these did the girls show. The problem was that Larry and Judy felt the same but failed to make it known and I think therein was the problem. Its one thing if your WWOOfers feel aggrieved about fellow workers. Its another entirely if your hosts feel the same but don’t do anything about it because it helps feelings of resentment harbor, specifically resentment towards the WWOOfers who aren’t pulling their weight. So somebody decided to take it upon themselves to let the wasters know what was what and that someone was a fiery little Italian and boy, did she let ‘em ‘ave it!! So much so that after a few days they disappeared to some other poor bugger and left us to do what they should have been doing.
Now, it was pretty easy going as farm work goes, although there wasn’t a designated day off and, rightly or wrongly, if you fancied a day off, you kinda felt guilty because as those who own a farm will tell you, there is no day off when you own a farm. Just ask anyone who owns a farm….. they’ll tell you…… there isn’t a day off….. if you own a farm! So, my day would start at around 8.30, when I’d fill my bowl with Porridge, drenched in unpasteurized, fresh from the cows muddy udders milchen and fresh from the bees…. uddees…. Honey. Then, dressed for a force 8 gale, looking like Geoff Cape’s in the ‘Carry 4 cows up a tractor round’, I’d march up to the sheep’s enclosure ready to give them their first feed of the day, which consisted of loads of hay and some grain. Now, they’re a funny bunch, sheep.
All they do is eat, shit and shleep!! They don’t actually sleep like most other animals. They may ‘zone out’ for 10 minutes or so but that’s for about as long as it happens. Its because they’re so shit scared of being killed. And yet, as I understand it, they are the only animals, lemmings aside, which have a predisposition to suicide. Now, I’m not sure if I buy this but I was told by Larry, who knows about everything there is to know about sheep and pretty much most other farmy things too, that they will literally try to kill themselves if they feel that life is getting a bit much. And whilst we were there, four of the buggers died, albeit of various ailments, although one of them did seem like it just laid down and gave up but then I think I would too if all I did was eat and poop and stand in a minus fifteen blizzard for a quarter of my life. And on that particular morning, as I was dragging the dead sheep out of the pen, a thought hit my massively cavernous cranium. Those of us who live in towns and cities have a very different understanding and maybe even appreciation of life to those people who live on a farm, especially with livestock. As Judy once said to me, where you’ve got livestock, you’ve got dead stock. And as I’d finished dragging that sheep away to be composted with the rest of the organic waste, I said to Larry something about how on a farm, you have to deal with the reality of death from a young age whereas in a city, you’re protected from it as much as possible. And in true Buddhist style, or druid as Larry believes himself more to be, he nonchalantly returned ‘Deaths a part of life’ and I felt immediately like a fool from the city who’d just come face to face with his first death experience. And it wasn’t at all my first death experience, I’ve seen a few dead bodies, human and other, in my time and I’ve read various Buddhist texts which explain the need to understand death as a part of life and not to fear its impending encroachment but it hit home at that moment how much I have tried to ignore it in life. And I’m not saying that now I’m gonna embrace it in all its glory!! But being surrounded by animals everyday certainly gave me a strong sense of my own mortality, of my own part of the huge puzzle that is life on Earth and more than anything, how David Attenborough probably has a stronger sense of the fragility of life than anyone else in the World!
Anways, as well as feeding sheep 3 times a day and chickens and pheasants and sometimes even humans, I got down and dirty with my practical self in the form of building twelve lambing pens. This very rewarding project took me about two weeks from start to finish and involved lots of drilling, banging, sawing and banging, plus a little kicking and loads of banging. And now, when the sheep have babies, they can book themselves into their all n’ewe’ version of a ‘Ram’ada hotel, for a few weeks of being waited on haa’aaa’nd and foot…. tee to tha hee!! (I had to fit them in somewhere, I’ve been trying for 3 hours to think of how I can sneak in a joke using ‘Lamb’ert and Butler, so gimme a break!)
Yeah, this was certainly a very rewarding farm experience and I saw and learnt many useful and interesting things. Such as finding out, due to my weird fascination of bottoms and how they work, what a ‘cloaca’ is and how probably all but definitely most birds ‘woo’ and lay eggs out of one hole therein named. I also learnt what the word ‘ruminant’ means and that sheep as well as cows are of that persuasion and that Zen is not a word included in the Scrabble dictionary much to my chagrin. But as I was clearly THE Scrabble champion of the farm for winning a hat-trick of games, including one with a score exceeding the 250 mark, even though my travel companion liked to use the dictionary for unfair advantageous means (yeah, like anyone would know to look up the word Xebecs for a 58 point score) it was of no consequence! Why isn’t there a Scrabble game show come to think of it? Probably because it would be fucking boring Saul…
I also saw a calf being born, which gave me a newfound respect for the ladies. Seriously, this poor Heifer was going through seven levels of hell until the wonderful Colin decided to tie a rope around its calfs front hoofs and literally, tug-of-war style, pull that thing right out of the stretchiest fanny I’ve ever seen (apart from a Nigerian lass I once chanced upon!). And then the next day, I saw the other side of pregnancy when I found a dead 2 or 3-month-old sheep foetus lying on the floor in the sheep enclosure. Weirdly, it looked like a cross between a baby alien and a giraffe. Work that one out.
One morning there was a flood in Larry and Judy’s basement, which is also their living quarters. This was of special annoyance to me and my lady as it was the first time in what felt like weeks that we were ‘enjoying’ each others company. Then just as we were out of the blocks we heard a knock on the camper and were told we needed to go and scrape up carpet underlay for 3 hours whilst breathing in deadly methane.
But this wasn’t the worst job we had to undertake as WWOOfers. I’d say digging rocks out of the ground made me feel more like I was working on the chain gang than anything I’ve ever done. Although I did get to realize one of my life’s dreams when I got to drive a big red tractor!!
All of these people and many of our experiences will stay with me for all of my days. Memories such as Amy’s stories of her life back in the 1930’s and 40’s when she used to have the ladies round for afternoon tea, dressed in their white satin gloves and Sunday best, gossiping about the local community or baking a cake at midnight for Judy’s birthday listening for footsteps that might ruin the surprise, playing fetch with a dog that literally will go hour after hour after hour after a stick until you were crawling on all fours like him, begging him to stop bringing it back ‘PLEASE, PLEASE STOP BRINGING IT BAAAACK’ or the always grateful Larry extoling his thankfulness at a ‘…fine, fine lunch’ or a ‘…splendid, just splendid’ dinner. And the meeting of the Mennonites. Oh, the meeting of the Mennonites!! Now, for those of you who don’t know what a Mennonite is, a) shame on your ignorance and b) check this out… http://www.mennoniteusa.org
Ok, so one day Larry, my good lady and I go off to a Mennonite farm to pick up two-dozen or so bags of sawdust for the new sheep pens. Now usually when a Mennonite is introduced to a female, said female is EXTREMELY lucky if she gets any change out of Mr Mennonite as generally Mennonite men will only deal with AND converse with his fellow male brethren. And there is CERTAINLY to be no dealings by a young Mennonite teenage boy with a female or ‘harlot’ as i’m sure they are taught that females are, from the ‘real World’. Anyways, today was to be the lesson as to why… So, we rock up and exchange pleasantries with Michael, the Mennonite farmer and a very pleasant man and it just so happens that his young teenage son Daniel is there at the saw mill with him. I dont know how many girls outside of his own community Daniel has had dealings with but suffice to say, it probably cant be many… if any. Another thing i must tell you before i go on is that Mennonites are not aloud to read anything but the bible, watch t.v or listen to a radio or any music that isn’t Godly. So, in meeting Daniel, my cohort, who’s name is the female equivalent, says high and to break the ice says to him immediately, just as the poor lad is thinking lascivious thoughts ‘Do you know what our name means?’, to which Daniel, not knowing how to respond as he isn’t even allowed to be in her presence let alone speak to her, replies by way of silence and stricken fear. ‘It means’, she goes on, ‘Only God can judge me’… The sound of a distant stream rippled in the fresh morning air, birds tweeted in nearby trees and the soft caress of the young days breeze unfolded itself whilst all around, humans stood in petrified silence as man gazed at Mennonite and Mennonite thought ‘What the Fuck is she talking about’ and the next thing you know, i’m telling them all about how George Foreman once told me the story of Saul on the road to Damascus and how his hands were like pillows, ignorant of the fact that they clearly had no idea who George Foreman was or why these two English satanists were talking to them about their beloved God!! This was eye-wateringly funny at dinner that night, pant-wettingly cringeworthy at the time. Still, i’m comforted by them sitting around the family dinner table at night trying to work out what a man with pillows as hands looks like!!
And as for the farm itself? It’s set in 200 acres of extremely beautiful Ontario countryside. Even in the beginnings of a winter that will see temperatures plummet to minus 30 or 40 degrees, the surroundings are just stunning. Having seen the photos from previous WWOOFers’ visits during the summer months, I wish that we could see it in all its splendor. There’s nothing more beautiful to me then the scene of a countryside in the throws of a balmy summer. Nature seems to be at piece with itself and so us with it. And to me there is no more positive feeling to be had then when all of us, all the living things on this wonderful planet, are at harmony with ourselves and each other. But that’s not to say that spending the last month feeding sheep in a minus 15 blizzard, sawing into cold-numbed fingers or whacking my head on the solid barn beams on an almost daily basis hasn’t been a wonderfully enriching experience because Godammit, I’ve enjoyed every waking moment of it. How could I not? Being surrounded by life in many guises, even if many others are lying dormant. ‘Bootiful, just Bootiful’ as one late, turkey Farmer would have put it.
Though, alas, we must move on, out of this country of conservative and sometimes strangulation-like control and onto the meat and bones of our journey, into a country where you can buy a gun at 18, but not a beer until your 21!! To drive its length and breadth, awing at its natural beauty and wincing at its vulgarities. To paraphrase (and massacre!) an over regurgitated quote from a revered and God-like Beat idol, ‘…Our battered Trixie waited on the driveway. We had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life… well, that and Route 66!