“I haven’t seen someone sleeping in months.”
“I haven’t been beside a sleeping person. I’ve been alone. I go to bed, I wake up. I don’t see myself sleep. I don’t see anyone sleeping.”
I wrote that in my journal at the beginning of the month. It’s an inconsequential joy, to see someone sleeping, but it’s a wholesome one. Given that it’s been almost one year of various quarantining protocols, I’m sure that I am not alone in my limited sleep-watching experience. It is a metric of loneliness: are you seeing someone sleeping — eyelids daintily sealed, breathing steady and calm, their trust of you evident in slow pulse of their neck; or is the pillow on the left-side of your queen bed unmarked with the weight of a head? It is a simple vignette of shared living that should be cherished, good reader.
Three weeks ago, I received this comfort in a way I had not expected. I went north with my uncle, from Burnaby to his sixty-two acre property midway between Williams Lake and Quesnel, on the west side of the Fraser River. We went for eight nights and it was a welcome departure from the city. The plan was to have very little of a plan — to eat and sleep, to read and write, and to be seven hours outside of the city. In these objectives, we succeeded.
What was a rustic retreat for me, was a homecoming for my uncle Doug. He lives between three homes: his own cabin in Quesnel proper, my aunt’s place in West End, Vancouver, and the cooperative acreage whereat we stayed. My uncle is a hippie — I think that is fair to say. He’s 60, 6’5”, with long hair, typically braided down to his mid-back, and a soothing seventies-reminiscent dialect. I love the guy. He and my aunt maintain their relationship through his intermittent visits to the city, and in other times, through international travel together. When he goes north, my uncle maintains the properties, cultivates organic crops, gathers chaga to later sell, and works at the many projects that come with rural living. I have written about his lifestyle before, in an informal essay from high school, linked here. The depiction of him within holds true. On this trip, the bed of my uncle’s beat up Ford truck was loaded with countless Craigslist ‘treasures’ —free items offered by the denizens of Vancouver— which would be unloaded and used in future projects. We left Vancouver around 5:00 AM. It was bitter in the city and my fingers went numb helping Doug fasten the remaining winch straps.
I had heard much over the years of the co-op, called Spirit Dance Cooperative Community, but had never been. I had never seen pictures. I didn’t have any expectations of the place but if I had, they would have been spot on. After a long meandering morning of travel, a pit stop in 100 Mile House for donuts, and a grocery run in William’s Lake, we plowed through the fresh snow on the lengthy driveway around 4:00 PM. The wooden shed, house, and barn were snow covered. The fields around the house showed tufts of dead vegetation in the whiteness, and knotted crabapple and apricot trees stood sentinel around the low log cabin that would protect us from the cold spell that was settling in in the Caribou Region. The cinderblock chimney showed no sign of warmth within and it was our first priority to change that. We shovelled, unloaded the necessities, and set the wood-fire stove raging.
Having no opportunity for a nap in the car, my uncle cozied into his near fifty year old Camp 7 sleeping bag on the couch around 6:00 and fell asleep in close radius to the fire. Here’s what I then knew to expect for the coming days: it was cold, and we were living simply. A broken heating coil meant no hot water and a leak in the piping meant no running water at all. The rain barrels held what we would need for dishes and hand-washing. The grocery store jugs held what we needed for drinking, cooking, and tea —a necessity with Doug Gook, tea. As for sanitation, I was happy to participate in my uncle’s process for composting human waste, out of the Humanure handbook, which I will do you the favour of not detailing here. But this was all that I wanted. I admire my uncle. I wanted out of the city, I wanted to channel the humble, mindless, and pleasurable living that my cottage in Ontario provides, and I wanted to do as Gook does. And this is what he does. Water is heated on the wood stove in two kettles — one for drinking needs, one for the rest. As they whistled atop the firebox and my uncle slept, I read and wrote.
The morning brought evidence of a losing battle. The progress we’d made before I sheathed myself in my sleeping bag at 11:00 had been undone in the night. From my vantage point on the floor in front of the stove, through the face slot of my irresistible bag, I could see the logs had been spent, the flames had gone out. Where we had forced the frost on the single-paned windows to retreat, they had made a counter-attack in the -35°C darkness. They now held the bottom half of the glass. Doug moved swiftly from his sleeping spot on the couch beside me, and in his union suit, loaded more spruce into the firebox before returning to the warmth of his bag. We may cocoon at night, but we would fight in the day.
Once the house was warm, I would move from the floor to my chair — a commute of approximately two feet. I would read and write. Doug would make tea. He’s doesn’t drink coffee —neither do I— but where I would typically take my tea clear, Doug’s Irish dairy farmer heritage would demand a generous dose of milk and cream in the mug. He froths the milk with a little bit of maple syrup to make a sweet insulator for the liquid. It looked tempting and I began to ask for my tea the Gook way half of the time. Doug would drink maybe between a litre or two of tea each day. I drank a cup. Because of our warmth-induced dreamsttates in the bag each morning, after tea, it would be lunch. My uncle, generously, was chef. We are both vegetarian for the most part and lunch was tasty. In his union suit, he made quesadillas, nachos, tofu dogs, and one day, a surprising savoury porridge that was hard to stop eating. The meals featured onion, peppers, frequently tofu, always nutritional yeast on top. Doug eats every meal with chopsticks. I knew this and bought a set for myself years ago (I’ve been a fan of his for a long time). Even the porridge —or ribstickah! as Doug would say— was shovelled down (by me) or savoured (by him) with the simple utensil. Plates were always licked clean —another trait of my uncle’s that I’ve adopted— and dessert would follow. Auntie had packed some treats that we delighted in as we readied to face the elements.
There was nothing that needed to be done outside, but going out was part of the experience. We shovelled more of the driveway one day, unloaded the bed of the truck the next. I was shocked to see Doug had picked up nearly $500 worth of free two-by-fours in the city. We stacked these and some cabinets in the shed. One day we drove to the river to see the ice-sheets building up along the banks. The next day we toured the lower, main part of the property. There are two school buses converted to campers, one short and one long. They need some restoration work but are nonetheless very cool. There’re more sheds, a chicken coup, as well as the small barn. Doug has two beehives on the property. Reaching them, we discovered they hadn’t survived the sudden cold spell, and later we would drink to their demise. Part of the ritual each day was feeding The Dalai. She is an old peaceful black llama that Doug has. We would feed her alfalfa pellets as a protein-rich treat. In the later days, she would gently baa at me upon arrival, knowing I brought the familiar shake of the alfalfa can. On my last day, I saw the some of the upper land too. Untouched conifers are there. Solid and dampened from the snow, walking among them was to return to ancestral ways. Their eminence could only be observed for so long before it was time again to cower from the cold.
Afternoons were to touch the past. There is no cell signal at Spirit Dance so Doug has a landline phone —a new one now, free from Vancouver— that he uses to call those in his life while he’s North. My aunt, his son, his daughter, one of the two other remaining co-op members, and friends in the Caribou Region. I would read and write, while keeping half an ear on his conversations. Landlines seem to bring about more calls that aren’t for something, and that is another enjoyable aspect of being there. This culture isn’t completely foreign to me. I did experience having a home phone for a time. Listening to Doug, I remembered that calls weren’t intrusions on our time then. They were blessings from our loved ones, connections to our greater network. Cells might have ruined that, for all they’ve given us otherwise. For a forty-eight hour period during the week, Doug had to go to his Quesnel house to revive it from the cold, leaving me alone at Spirit Dance. My job was to keep the fired stoked and to treat the Dalai Llama once each day. Isolation became apparent all too quickly in these hours. I ended up making some six calls on the landline. To my parents, to my brother that I’d seen a few days before, to my friends in Ontario, and to a friend in California. Thanks to the long-distance plan, I was heavy with my dialling finger. It was lovely.
In the evenings, we ate more vegetarian food. Feta and tomatoes, naan and hummus, salads, salads, and then after salads, dessert again. Doug made two rhubarb crisps over the seven days. We delectated in these slowly and with spoons. After Doug brought back ice cream with him from his venture away, it joined the bowl. Over dessert, we’d converse. We talked a lot that week. I like to talk, but if you’ll listen, I think Doug likes to talk more. I learned a lot about him, his upbringing, the co-op, his ideals. Doug is an activist, a forester, and a green party member. He and I share many views, and we don’t as well. Twice when our views were misaligned, it led to a longwinded and drudging debate that was “good though,” in Doug’s eyes. I wouldn’t take them back either, I suppose. To try and learn the shape of someone, you need to push against them and force them to return the push on you. Never did debating satellites and optimism ruin the warmth of the fire, the capture of good readings, or the pleasure of our shared company.
My uncle would go to bed before me. We checked in on CBC radio regularly, and sometimes a final check would happen before bed. Then he would nestle into his Camp 7 and snooze. I would get in my last allotment of reading and writing in my chair, with only the light of the fire and either my reading light, or the light of my computer screen. I wrote:
The concerns of the waking. Gone, while I watch my uncle sleep on the couch in our shared chamber. Sleep and snore. The snoring keeps my concerns —of the noises of the night, of the cold, of the room beyond this room, of the rooms I’ve known and the people that have been in those rooms, of the things that those people’ve said, of the things I’ve done in those rooms or thought in the smaller room of my mind, of the weights that those thoughts have carried and that those actions or inactions have thrown or haven’t thrown at those people in those rooms and the noises that were made— well at bay. That’s why I came up here. To be lulled awake by snores.
So I saw my companion sleeping and it was all the wholesomeness that I could have wanted. It was a trip up North to a place I’ve never been. And it was time with my uncle in the Caribou.
The cold spell ended. The frost retreated fully. The plates were licked clean one last time, and the Dalai was fed an extra helping. We drove home in extended periods of quiet. The mountains passed us and the city lights replaced them.
Retreat, good reader,
B. F. Greeno, aka
Without Shower for Seven Days