the gypsy years (pt 2)
We’ve just returned from ten days in Tuscany, where the sun is honey-glazed and the grapes are warm and silver-leafed olive trees grow in golden groves; the land of fior di latte gelato and pizza Margherita, chirping crickets and clusters of cypresses and the best damned Chianti I’ve ever tasted.
I tried to write while I was there, in the hammock, glass of wine in hand, overlooking the Tuscan hills to Florence down below. I truly did. But the sun was so warm and the hammock so somnolent that, well, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about somewhere else when I was in a little slice of paradise. Can you blame me, really?
I’m back in London now. It’s grey and chilly and I’ve just dropped mom off at the airport and I’m feeling all the feelings that come with dropping loved ones off at the airport without knowing when you might see them next. I’ve got my wooly socks on and a steaming cup of Rooibos tea by my side and it seems like now is as good a time as any to catch up on the series that I started far too long ago. So, without further ado, the Nelson years.
Lower Bonnington Road, Nelson, British Columbia
Soundtrack: David Gray – Please Forgive Me
I felt as if I’d touched down somewhere over the rainbow, in a magical land of munchkins, that permanently smelled of citrus-pine weed and patchouli incense; where hippies mingled with intellectuals, artists, snowboarding enthusiasts, back-to-the-landers, expats, outdoor adventurers, people who didn’t fit in where they used to be, some living off the grid, many weary of the system, most flying their freak flags high and proud, in this small town nestled in the mountains of British Columbia. A bubble. The kind of place where people talk about energy a lot.
Nelson was good to us from the start, like a sweet old grand-ma having you over for tea, offering you the best biscuits in her cupboard. The energy I talked about earlier meant that there were no chance encounters, that everything led to something amazing*, and we discovered just how serendipitous things could be within a day of crossing the orange bridge that led into town.
We hadn’t been in Nelson for more than 24 hours when we decided to check the community board in the local co-op for places to rent. Within minutes of our arrival, and completely out of the blue, an ex-Deadhead from Colorado asked us if we were looking for a place to stay. Her name was Laurie and she needed farm hands to help with the five acres of land that she and her husband had recently purchased on the outskirts of town. That very night, we visited her organic farm, shared a bong hit and badaboom, badabing… rent sorted.
We lived all summer without electricity or running water in the rustic pioneer cabin that sat on the corner of her land. There was an outhouse up the hill, a cooler for a fridge and a camping stove for cooking. We fixed up the cabin, built greenhouses and a chicken coop, planted peas and potatoes, picked pears and plums and cherries and walnuts, canned tomatoes, froze raspberries and pressed apples for juice. Our days were spent with our hands in the earth, nights reading by candlelight. And afternoons, you could usually find us at our secret aqua-green swim hole ten minutes down the road.
I sometimes babysat the neighbour’s son for pocket-money. The father was an artist who was supposed to be making art while I babysat but he usually tinkered in his basement, moving junk from one side of the room to the other. He called this “cleaning the basement”. His wife wasn’t impressed.
At the weekends, I spent most of my pocket-money at my favourite coffee shop: Oso Negro. Oso Negro was the town hub, with the best organic espresso on Earth (I still believe this to be true); a place that displayed a sign that read: “We want this to be a comfortable space for everyone: customers, passersby, co-workers and neighbours. Blocking the stairs and sidewalk, smoking pot, drumming, playing loud music, letting dogs run loose and littering infringe on people’s space. Please help us maintain a friendly, cooperative environment for people of all ages and walks of life.” This, in my opinion, pretty much epitomises the essence of Nelson.
Laurie had two dogs, Melvin and Harpo. K and I had wanted a dog for years but we were never in the right place, and it was never the right time. It usually isn’t when it comes to pets and babies. “We’ve wanted a dog for years,” we said to Laurie one day, probably while passing a joint (I smoked a lifetime’s worth of weed that summer… and part of the following decade). She said: “You guys should totally get a dog. What better place than a small farm out in the middle of nowhere?” Everything seems like a great idea after you’ve smoked a massive spliff. And so it is that only two weeks into our stay, we walked into Four Paws Only and walked out with a shy, grungy little dog that had been abandoned by his owners, chained to a fence in the backyard. The shelter manager had named him Shadow and although he was indeed our shadow his entire life, we changed his name to Dylan. And then we were three.
Latimer Street, Nelson, British Columbia
Soundtrack: Michael Franti – Stay Human (All the Freaky People); Gomez – Free to Run
Towards the end of the summer, K met a lovely woman named Catherine while volunteering on an urban garden in the centre of town. She had a small one-bedroom apartment for rent on the ground floor of her house. Shortly after two planes flew into the Twin Towers, as the days grew shorter and the nights got colder, we moved out of the cabin and into Catherine’s place.
It was at about this time that I was hired as a receptionist at the Nelson Animal Hospital. Incidentally, I got the job because I had adopted Dylan from their animal shelter next door and the shelter’s manager, Keira, had put in a good word for me. Again… happenstance. I’m telling you, the energy, you guys!
Our spot on Latimer Street backed up on miles upon miles of hiking trails. Dylan and I spent a lot of time up there. I once met a cougar tracker on those trails. She had a massive Redbone Coonhound for a dog. He was always taking off and she was always worried that a cougar really got him this time. She was a strange woman. I suppose you’d have to be a bit strange to go off on your own into the woods for days on end tracking cougars. But everyone was a little strange on some level in Nelson. That was part of the town’s charm.
K enrolled in a woodworking class and I took a creative writing course at KSA. I started boxing at the local gym at 6am a few days a week, went running by Sproule Creek, where I usually stopped halfway through to gorge on huckleberries (occasionally sharing a patch with a black bear), and when the snow started to fall (and did it ever fall), I learned to snowboard on Whitewater. And the festivals. Have I mentioned the music festivals? Starbelly Jam and Shambhala, where we danced the night away deep in the Kootenay mountain range until the sun came up.
In March, we were ready for our own space. Catherine’s spot was lovely but eventually we grew tired of washing our dishes in the shower and baking cookies in a toaster oven and we needed space to unpack all the boxes that we’d shipped from Montreal because we’d planned to settle down in this sleepy mountain town.
In the spring we moved into a small two-storey house with a huge back yard a short walk from town. We grew a garden. We drank lots of wine. We didn’t go out much any more. Kootenay Lake was at the end of our street and on hot summer nights, we sometimes walked down to the beach to cool down before bedtime. It was heavenly. That’s also the summer dad came to visit me.
We stayed on Kokanee Avenue until late September, when we decided to move back home. We spread all of our belongings out on the front lawn and sold them for pennies. For all the plans we’d made and all the love we had for Nelson, it was far too removed from both of our families. That year, in hindsight, was the beginning of the end of our relationship. Living in our own space had turned us into pot-smoking recluses and if it hadn’t been for our dog, Dylan, I think we would have split up long before we did (six years later).
I certainly let my freak flag fly in Nelson though, came home with dreadlocks and a lip ring, I did. Perhaps it wasn’t the most flattering look (there was no shortage of comments made about my appearance in my small hometown), but it was an experiment in exploring choices that weren’t mainstream.
In 2003, I wrote this about my time in Nelson: “I can’t thank this town enough for all the life lessons. It taught me what I didn’t want out of life. I was on the fast track towards yuppie ville and I’m so glad I stepped on the breaks and reversed. I now know that a simple life, love and nature are all I need.” Who is that woman? And how did I change so much in the past 15 years? The cynical side of me can’t help but think “Oh, what a load of flower-child crap.” But the truth is I do often long, especially since I’ve had Wren, for a more simple life. I sometimes feel like I’m disconnected from what’s real and important… too busy rushing around in the big city. I wonder if maybe I had it more figured out back then than I do now? But then again, I was stoned all the damn time. Of course life is grand when you’re snowboarding in the winter and skinny dipping in the summer and getting high every day. And I don’t want to get high every day. So maybe I just need to pluck a few of the old lessons and apply them to my life today. I think I’ll start with a garden.
*Seven years after leaving Nelson, I met a British guy named Joe and shortly after meeting, we realised that we’d both lived in Nelson at the exact same time. We like to imagine that we were both walking down Baker Street and I dropped my keys just as he was walking by, or maybe he crouched down to tie his shoelaces, and we were within touching distance of each other but I never saw him and he never saw me and Cupid, cheeky little Cupid, shot one of his arrows so that when we did cross paths again… we would instantly know. And we did.