I'm sitting in a church basement in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island,
the elk steak is stewing in a pot on the stove,
the band, barman, and butler are off catching fish for tonight's feast,
the school bus is parked out back,
and there is only one small stretch of highway left leading out to the Pacific coast and the magnificent beach that stretches along the coastal rainforest from Tofino to Ucluelet.
Here is how it came to pass.
On the 11th of July I left St. John's Newfoundland in my beloved Mildred, both of us 5 months into this never-ending "Wild Life Sketches" tour. My engine was still firing on all cylinders but I had no idea how I was going to fit a band of friends and gypsies from all over Europe plus all of their stuff into my car for the 9000km trip back to the West coast. In Halifax, I begrudgingly left Mildred behind and started West in Henry, a big old Ford van, the cheapest of its kind available on Kijiji. Arriving in Montreal, I had grown to enjoy the luxury of a bit of space, having spent the better part of this year touring the country in a compact car. I took in the evening fireworks with my sister and her dog and then set off to find Paolo, Antonio, Stephanie, Florent, and Raffaele. The band, the barman and the butler were scattered along Boulevard St. Laurent celebrating their arrival in Canada in varying degrees of inebriation but everyone was located eventually and after sleeping off the madness of the night, we left town towards a chapter of this story that was only getting started.
Since Paolo and I hadn't played together since last November and the trumpet player was forced to cancel at the last minute, Morgan Yew helped me to assemble a last minute all-star band for the opening night of our tour at the Cameron House in Toronto and make sure Paolo wasn't the only one who didn't know the arrangements. The rule was any instrument except guitar and after inviting new special guests onto the stage every two or three songs, we ended the night with 8 people who had never played together playing the traditional Pizzica music of Salento. Before the age of doctors and psychiatrists, Pizzica was used to lull the ill into a state of trance that made them dance away their maladies. Now it's the music of summer celebrations and you can feel it immediately when the tambourellos start shaking. A dear old friend agreed to find space for 6 in her house and we set to work on the bottle of Calvados while we watched the raccoons clamber over the rooftops downtown.
In Guelph the next day, our concert moved from the Cornerstone to Jimmy Jazz and ended again with a crowd of people cheering and dancing along to the pizzica rhythm. Another dear old friend put us up for the night and after an incredible pH-neutral breakfast we were headed north to make the long trip around the great lakes. Arriving in Bracebridge with a hitch-hiker called Yann who tagged along for the evening, Owen and Mike Warr greeted us all as family at the Old Station and we celebrated the end of the Calvados with Christmas in July around the campfire. After leaving Yann in the big nickel, we carried along the northern coast of Georgian Bay and lake Huron, stopping for Clarence's Smoked Fish in Blind River and enjoying it with the Four Sands beach all to ourselves before being greeted by Tom Carnahan's long open arms at the Auld Kirk in Thessalon. It was both of our birthdays and everyone else's, too, so we celebrated the first day ever and after the concert we sang around the piano until late with nothing but the sound of the blender buzzing away in the background.
On my birthday, we arrived in a hotel/restaurant/gas-station/convenience-store/bar on the Northern shore of lake Superior. It was called "Drifters" and seemed to me like a fitting place to grow older. We ate hand-made gnocchi and meatballs over a bottle of Amarone and when we finished the bar was packed full for a birthday concert to remember ending in cake, champagne, fireworks and, of course, Pizzica. The next day, the Tricholo family who owns and operates Drifter's invited their Calabrese parents over for lunch and after still more meatballs and gnocchi, we sang to them the music of their Italian homeland before heading off to Thunder Bay. When we arrived at the Apollo, Sheila's mom put out an endless array of snacks and Alex plugged us into a sound system built for shaking mountains and it was a pleasure to see a crew of friends from my last adventure through town. We played around at the town busking festival the next day and started north in the afternoon as I drifted slowly off to sleep in the back of the van.
I woke up to the sound of organized panic as Henry rolled slowly to a stop. 100km north of Thunder Bay and a further 27km away from the nearest town, we were lucky to see a gas station just up the road and pushed the big broken van up the hill while the butler snapped photos. A mechanic on his way to the prairies appeared on the scene with a smirnoff ice and a home-made water-pipe which he puffed on while slowly dismantling the car's electrical system as a big black bear circled near. Urged on by his family, Les hit the road and we waited for the teetotaling 16 year-old gas station attendant to finish mopping up before he came to help drop the starter and ward off the scavenging bears while the night set in. At 10:30, Gary put the operation on hold and kindly put us up in a wooden cabin for the night. For the past week I had been telling everyone how nice it would be to spend that night (our first off-night) in a wooden cabin somewhere in Northern Ontario but this wasn't what I had in mind.
The next morning, a parade of passing mechanics checked our progress, tried to turn the motor over by hand and one by one they regretfully told us to stick a fork in it as they pronounced the motor pooched, seized, fried, dead, done and junked. We gave Gary his tools back and he introduced us to Mike, a truck-driver from Hamilton who was on his way to Winnipeg with 60,000 pounds of baloney. About an hour after I had resolved myself to cancelling the rest of the tour, all our gear was loaded into the cooler and the 7 of us were moving towards Winnipeg - and still on time for that night's concert! Our indie-rocking friends Alanadale came to the rescue in a small pick-up truck they had borrowed from the drummer's work and took Paolo and I to the outdoor BBQ party where we were the entertainment. I told them we would be back in an hour and headed back across town to find the rest of the gang celebrating in the parking lot. "We have a BUS!!!" I had no idea what happened in the time it took us to cross town but when I got back to the parking lot where I had left my friends and the remainder of our stuff, the barman was pouring drinks for Big Dan's crew. Big Dan had given us a school bus. He said to take it, have fun, keep smiling and if or when the bus did break down, sell it for scrap and send him a cheque. I didn't believe it until I was driving around the industrial outskirts of Winnipeg in a 1994 Blue-bird 48 passenger bus with sun shining and the chorus of "We have a bus!" crying out from seats behind me. The next day, everyone at XL transportation helped us to take out seats, turn them around, cut them in half, re-connect the exhaust pipe and get a transit permit to get this big yellow dream-come-true rolling west. We called it Big Dan after the generous soul who gave it to us. Ever since I came back to Canada, I had been encouraging my friends in Brussels to come over and drive across this big country in a school bus and share the adventure and now by some stroke of great fortune or fate it was happening!
Still on schedule, Jamie and Dale from Alanadale hopped on the bus with us and we were on our way to Brandon, Manitoba for a concert at the Double Decker when it started raining. That was about the only thing that could slow us down. The barman had the longest arm and with a contraption he rigged up in the last hours of daylight he managed to keep us going a bit further but we only made it about 60km along the Trans-Canada highway before we were sitting on the side of the road trying to find a pizzeria in Portage-La-Prairie willing to deliver to a big bus on the side of the highway. The rain let up and we finally made it to Brandon at about 3 in the morning just as a heavy fog set in and we decided to call it a night. The next day we crossed the prairies into Saskatchewan, and after putting our minds in order with eggs and bacon, we found a garage to fix the windshield wipers and were unstoppably on the road again.
The trip from Winnipeg to Christopher Lake took about 24 hours including a few lengthy stops and when we arrived at Aandie's, Noreen laid out a spread of chilli and corn bread and everyone including me was further still and officially blown away by the incredible hospitality of everyone we had come to meet. In great spirits and joined by many good friends from Saskatoon, we played on the stage, at the bar, on the patio and eventually up on the rooftop where still more fireworks blasted off into the clear sky. The bus tour was officially ON and happening. Since that night, there have been only highlights, still too many to name. But THANK YOU to Thea, Darcy, Jared, Gemma, and Mia for the good times in Red Deer. THANK YOU to Jordy, Ally, Hanna, Seb, Seth, Ben and the whole gang at the bar yard in Canmore, for the 3-day festival that carried on alongside the Folk Festival in your incredible company. THANK YOU to Dave and Ackie at the Elk and Oarsman in Banff and if you heard rumours of a school bus full of people screaming gypsy music from a school bus parked behind your bar late into the night, I assure you I wasn't there and know nothing of it. To DJ Tiesto and the town of Kelowna I thank you for your reluctant hospitality. Vancouver, mon amour, I'll see you next week but THANK YOU Joline for continuing your role as musical tour guide in this great city. Erik, thanks for joining us in Victoria even though I told you not to. It is a great pleasure every time we play together and I look forward to introducing you to the rest of Canada. To Unicolours and Jzero, Renee, Christine and everyone at the Copper Owl THANK YOU for having us. To Phil and Dave and Joy at the Corner Bistro in Nanaimo it was so good to see you again and THANK YOU for introducing us to risotto with blackberries. And now back to the church where I am sat, THANK YOU Charlene for hosting us in your church where we are comfortable and happy and the Elk stew is nearly ready. Nothing else to say but THANK YOU to everyone I met on the way and most of all THANK YOU to my dear friends who have come from far away to join me and transform my solo trek across the country into the most insane 3 weeks of my life since I last saw you. You are brothers and sisters of the highest degree and I am blessed to know you. Now Buonappetito.