Part of the on-going project Back To The Land
There I was sitting in a cafe in Campbell River, sipping a freshly brewed coffee with the ocean no more than a stone's throw away. A paper map stretched over the table, eyes wide and looking for another small town to visit. That's when I noticed the name Zeballos in the middle of nowhere. At first glance, I assumed it was only accessed by boat given it's location directly on the Islands North Western coast in a small inlet, looking closer there was some type of road giving me hope that it was accessible by car; still chuckling trying to pronounce the town phonetically as if learning to read for the first time. But the humour was short-lived due to the few random stares from other customers realizing the laughing was not in my head. I quickly flipped to another section of the map sipping my coffee in hopes of not attracting anymore attention. Feeling good about this little find, I thought what the hell and decided on visiting "Ze-ball-loss", finishing my coffee, grabbing another for the road and getting behind the wheel.
I headed North on HWY 19 looking for any sign that would give me a reference as to where the possibility of the Zeballos turn off might be. Two hours later, I noticed a small sign with an arrow turning left off the highway signalling Zeballos which brought me onto an active logging road. The moment the truck entered the trees, the forest growth was noticeably dense, the light faded and immediately the road went from fair to rough, however there were small stretches allowing the taco to reach a top speed of 60km for a few seconds then back to a 40km pace because of pot holes that could easily eat a small Civic. After about 30 minutes I could see remnants of past logging sections with burn piles every five kilometres of various tree debris that reached 20-30 feet in height. The cliffs off the side of the road became steeper and you could sometimes catch a glimpse of the Spring run-off creating crystal clear turquoise pools on the valley floor. The view was short lived as your attention needed to be on the crater infested road or you were taking a nasty fall off the road.
An hour or so later I had finally made it to the small town Zeballos. There's not much to the town and quite similar to other remote towns from the prairie provinces I had visited earlier in this cross Canada project; one main street, two maybe three side streets and a couple other random roads that lead to dead ends. That's it. After doing a couple laps, I found the local campground along the rivers banks with nothing more than a couple outhouses, a large open area with no defined boundaries on where to camp, all surrounded by large trees that covered the few picnic tables and fire pits. There was no one in sight and this made me happy as long drives seem to create an appetite for peace and quiet. Since this was a coastal town I decided not to set-up the tent, instead, sleep on the therm-a-rest in the back of the truck. In my experience, rain has a funny way of showing up at the worse possible moments. Once settled, I made my way to the main street to see if I could get an insiders perspective and possibly meet someone. I walked into a building with a big sign overhead that read "Hotel", made my way through a dimly lit corridor and into a room that resembled any ordinary small town cafe'. Although, Instead of your typical acrylic painted mountain landscapes on the wall, this place had various types of Mexican artifacts that looked as though they were purchased at an airport at the end of a Riviera Mayan vacation. Within seconds a man sitting at a computer in the corner of the room turned around with a bright and curious smile and said "Hello.... you're not from around here are you?", My response was obviously "No". The friendly man's name is Wayne and after a brief introduction we chatted as to why I was in Zeballos, his history with the town and we made small chat about the area and the people who lived here. I stayed for lunch and after, Wayne offered to introduce me to a few of the locals as well as the law enforcement. I took him up on his offer and off we went.
Wayne suggested I meet Thomas. We headed down one of the back roads, crossed a bridge and down a road I had not yet visited. We came upon a faded yellow mobile home that looked border line inhabitable with chopped wood strewn amongst the property along with rusted vehicles, car parts, appliances and other random debris. At the front of the home, there was an open window and Wayne stood about 3 feet away and shouted "Hey Thomas, you awake?... hey Thomas you there pal, I have someone here who I want to introduce to you...?" a few seconds went by and then we both heard a bit of a forced grumbled "Ahhh yahhh... I'm a little hung over there Wayne. Was a late night.... come back around 4pm." Wayne and I both looked at each other and laughed slightly. Once 4pm came around, I made my way over to Thomas's place again to see if he recovered from the previous nights shenanigans. There he was out front, beer in hand and my first impression of Thomas was of curiosity and comical relief because he was so full of humour and joy even after the first hello. I introduced myself and right away he became very comfortable with the idea of having his photo taken. The more questions I asked, the more animated and honest he became. I like to believe he enjoyed the attention.
I took my time with Thomas and asked if I could record our conversation just so I had a reference for later, also I had a gut feeling we were going to have a lot of fun just shooting the shit with each other over a cold beer. Thomas grew up in Chilliwack, then moved to Blue River (North of Kamloops) and in 1979 moved to Zeballos and has not left since. I asked how he supports himself in such a small community and right away he went on to provide his very large list of skills which included block cutter, tree-faller, shingle sawer, commercial fisherman, working in the mines, road blasting, heavy equipment operator, mechanic, surveyor and at one point even drove a taxi in Zeballos. "That's one of the reasons why I live out here, there's always work for me and I have not once been without any work in 15 years". This was, however, short-lived as Thomas got into a horrible work related accident getting caught in some chains, crushed and then catapulted 15 feet in the air while tree falling. This nearly broke his back and left him in the hospital for weeks. From there, his ability to provide for himself and his kids suffered. He's now on disability but still seems to make light of a dire situation, supporting himself by cutting and delivering wood for locals, returning any recyclables he can get his hands on, paints when anyone in the towns needs it and any sort of random job that will help him earn a buck or two. The state of his home would make anyone gasp due to the living conditions, but not Thomas, he's optimistic and jokes with me that he sleeps with a family of squirrels, mice and birds. "I had one squirrel, then this little critter showed up with his old lady and now there are two younger things running around, shit man I got FOUR squirrels now". With only a wood burning stove to stay warm in the winter, Thomas laughs and jokingly admits he's balancing on the poverty line and that things do get challenging, but immediately goes back to his glass-is-full attitude, "It works for me and I don't mind... want to see the go-cart I'm building?"