An Ode to Balou


An Ode to Balou                                     Photo by Hayden Carmichael

In his last charge up a hill outside of Longview Washington, Balou did what he had done for the last ten years. He was doing his best to safely get me home. He had dodged butterflies in Mendicino only to get broad sided in Montery. He had steered his way in and out of relationships and been bumped and attacked by mindless folks in parking lots. After several trips through out BC and multiple adventures to places like San Francisco and Portland, and Bend Oregon, wear and tear got the best of my humble PT Cruiser. I must confess that while I did make sure he got routine checks each year, one factor did escape my attention. It seems that things these days are designed to fall apart. For example this machine I am now writing upon may have a shelf life 8 years and then some video card or memory bit will go “pffft”. and I will be left with this task of magically down loading my photos, files into this magical place “the cloud”.

I liked Balou’s simplicity. He was curved and round and spoke of a time where your actions had to match your words. His shape reminded you of a time when you kept a broken down vehicle for spare parts for your next purchase. I liked the analog features like a clock with arms verses digits. I liked the fact the radio had knobs verses buttons. These features had appealed to my step Dad, the wise and noble “wrench”, who chose to pay off the mortgage verse indulge in a modified time machine. For me, what Balou provided was a unique indulgence to make the move between analog to digital life styles. Like his name, I was looking for something to handle the bear necessities, which included moving my kids, soccer and lacrosse gear and a portal to take me to new places both in body and mind.

Balou was rather humble in his ways. A few times, a light would light up on the dash and I would refresh him with fluids. His battery wore out and I made the effort to replace it my self. Thankfully I have befriended a few mechanics that I trust and so there were routine replacements of brakes and plugs seemed to keep him happy. There was always the same question when I rolled out of the garage “so when are you going to replace that car?”. Yet Balou continued to roll up the miles. He seldom over heated even when I filled him full of camping gear and set off for hot and hilly climbs.

So when I first noticed a yellow light and heard a rather calm ding, my first impulse was to simply get to the side of the road and let him cool off. Now with each trip around the sun, you learn a few things that seem to pop up in your head like that light that was flashing from my dashboard. Some may call it common sense and others may call it pure instinct or dumb luck. I prefer to call it “Plan B”. It is your fall back position, your safe harbor. It is perhaps an imaginary checklist for when poop hits the fan. Alive? Check. Broken Limbs? Nope. Odd sounds or large bodies of air going by your head? Negative. Take for example the simple conclusion that any object propelled by an engine will purr along until you turn it off. Should an engine shut down without your consent or a flip of a switch, you now need to have a plan B. On a sailing vessel you can always hoist the sails. In a plane, you have few moments to find a place to crash. In a fast moving vehicle passing a transport truck in the fast lane while going up a hill, when the engine dies, you slow down and begin to roll backwards. This situation simply becomes a physics question about velocity and gravity. What not considered in the equation are all the other vehicles on the said highway and the affects of an ncline on that highway.

Thankfully, as I made my way to the side of the road. Balou and I found a path unobstructed by trucks, camper vans and ecologically conscious pieces of light alloys and low fuel consumption. Instinctively, as a yellow light flashed and the rpms went to zero, I remained unnaturally calm and weaved backwards through the throngs of summer traffic to get both Balou and I to the side of the highway unscathed. Yes, my humble stead had been to the repair shop for minor prangs. It was one of the selling points as to why I bought the vehicle in the first place. Balous had been wounded by accidental hit and run folks in a parking lot, twice! Above his “Marines” bumper sticker I had recently jury-rigged a red and silver duct tape combo until I could afford the deductible to replace a three hundred dollar piece of plastic. He had been side swiped by a new driver who quickly launched of a green light, putting my son into a state of shock when the police officer said I might have to go to jail.

Over more than a decade, my wounded ally had made what was to be his last drive with me. He had left me near a row of trees where I found shade and made my calls to roadside assistance and to my guardian angels. I popped Ballou’s hood and saw no smoke. Secretly I was hoping for a simple hiccup and sputter and he would be rolling again. Yet as I stared at Balou’s motionless engine, I recalled a film that shocked my whole third grade class. Yes, in some Disney movies, they shot the dog.

Under the trees, I set up a folding chair and watched a few butterflies fly from nearby flowers. I listened to my phone on hold and the load rumble of route 5. Like others, I was now that guy with a car that would not start. I smiled at Balou. Folks sometimes called him a hot wheels car. With his Marine’s Bumper sticker,bright red paint job and accent pinstrip, my humble stead now baked in the hot August sun. If this was his last gesture it was a good one. He was an indulgence that I had picked up from a Budget dealer over a decade ago. I wanted something bigger for my kids. Ballou volunteered to move us about with his perky style. My Dad had always wanted one. He liked “the style” and as a mechanic he had fixed a lot of vehicles with style. Secretly, I wanted a touchstone to link me with my Dad.

As I looked at Balou, I wondered what my Dad would say. Of course there would be the factual remarks about semi erratic maintenance and the shelf life of a timing belt. Yet he had also remarked more than once that despite the situation “it is a lovely day, the sun is shining and you are more than welcome to enjoy this day with me”. He and I had traversed across the United States twice in vehicles that had panache to break down. Thankfully he could fix many things including my own life. In Salt Lake City, while the vehicle was in the shop, he amazed me with odd facts both about American and Utah History. Like Balou, my Dad was always up to take me to any destination. Either with his odd stories and miles behind the wheel, I pieced together some clues as to how to become a man. Like Balou, he had a special sense of flair yet practicality. He took me places off the beaten road and showed me how to enjoy the simple things in life. So as I sat and ignored the roar of highway five nearby, I let a weeks worth of travelling merge into ten years of rolling down the highway with Balou.

If the flapping of a butterfly’s wing can affect a turn of event, then what can be said of thousands of miles rolling down a highway? On my fourteenth birthday, my Dad and Mom delivered my birthday gift to me at my camp in Cape Cod. I had signed up to be a caddy for the whole summer. In the back of what would eventually be my first automobile was a brand new red and silver Schwinn 10 speed bicycle. My Dad had picked out the colour and type of bike. I would remember this when I put the silver pin stripe onto my candy apple red Balaou. Five years later, that bike and vehicle crossed the country to take me to University in Ontario. Like other road trips, my Dad shared his wisdom including driving at night to avoid airplanes in Nebraska and finding fantastic lemonade and ac in an amazing museum in Minden.


I must share that my “Dad” was on of two fathers in my life. He was the next man to marry my Mom. I had made the odd decision to move to California leaving my true father and his wife behind. I cannot explain the jumping of ships no more than I can rationalize why I bought a vehicle that I could barely afford. It seems that there was something there that offered a different path to follow. Each weekend, we, my step Dad, Mom and I plus a faithful hound name Mike would set off on adventures. The road and a vehicle was always involved. When I started to ask about engines and how they worked, he steered me away to other paths. One path was what I am doing now, following his footsteps by sharing a yarn with no particular destination. Having survived a sinking of his ship in the North sea, a marriage that separated him from his two kids and two cross country journeys to find another job fixing machines, I think he wanted an easier path for his new child s. That being said, when I first introduced to my new “brother in law” the Marine , there was a hidden understanding that my Dad had advised him to toughen me up.

While I waited for the tow to come, I made a list of lessons learn and options to follow. This making of list was an effort to “put my best foot forward”. In his neat block writing my Dad used to outline both bills and later lesson plans. While he patiently taught me how to drive a fickle clutch, he was giving me lessons in how to engage in life. With my stepsister at my side, I was tested to see if I could drive a clutch on the hills of San Francisco as I was being followed by my parents. I learned simple lessons by simple mistakes. I learned with tough love and accountability. Somewhere in the mix, I grasped the concept that it was not always about you. There was always a time and place to indulge in ego play yet having a simple plan and initiating that plan sent you off in a new direction and sometimes that was not a bad thing.

After confirming that that there was not a duck but my cell phone ringing inside of  Balou, the tow driver towed me into town. He was in the middle of working a 20 hour shifts, had a cold cup of coffee and a pack of unopened cigarettes. I sat and listened as he told me about his local neighbors and the two vets who celebrated the forth of July and how they never talked of their times in Viet Nam. I told him that wars are seldom understood. My Dad survived a torpedo and then strafing kamikaze bullets and yet his country as a merchant marine was never acknowledge until after his death. I shared that it was good to listen to tales that made no sense, that sometimes a voice just needed an ear. While this young man was launching back into his work, I gave him my Dad’s patented strong handshake and looked him in the eye and thank him for his service. No matter what the situation, troubles will pass. Folks always appreciate a smile and bit of giddy up even in the oddest of situations.

I was recently told that you have to focus on those things you can control. I was not able to control the damages for Balou nor the tapping of the keys as the estimate was being made. It was now four in the afternoon; the water from the jug tasted great and my bank was pondering my financial demise. Weighing the options, I could fix Balou, tow him back to Canada or sell him to the junkyard. A mechanic ,who sounded too much like my Dad, introduced the final option. He spelled out simple facts; the car’s blue book value was less than the money I would have to put into it. Some where in those miles between here and there, I do recall a few folks saying you needed to learn when to cut your loses. Now remember, this is from a generation who survived wars, depressions, financial woes and fair to midline marital bliss. Yes, in the old school blue collared world of nuts and bolts, sometimes you had to shot the dog. I paused to give Balou a salute and to thank him. As I rolled out of town the next day, I counted at least thirty PT’s rolling down the road. I also found three bridges in nearby trees so squirrels to could safely navigate through traffic. Balou would appreciate the humor this place had to offer and I could sense thumbs up from my old man. “Cut your loses kid, move on and rebuild”.

Sometimes stories come to abrupt endings. When you least expect it, the road curves and you find your self at a dead end. I remember a bug once hit the windshield and my Dad said, “bet you he cant do that again”. If my journeys with Balou were about anything they were attempt to capture a few brief moments of joy: Those sunsets my son took after attempting to body surf in the pacific, The laughter of one of my players putting on a clown nose in traffic. As the road rolled by, was I actually taking the time see what was in front of my face?

Each year, I retreated to the road to bring back the unpredictable. I launched into assumed plans knowing full well that it was the pieces in between that would make the puzzle fit. I was told “never to take things for granted” and as I held a cheque in my hand and passed it over to the bank clerk, there was an emptiness that passed over me like the surf that I had seen on the coast. Waves travel across oceans only to crash upon the shore. While they are stlll part of the same ocean, each has its own potential. Among the phones calls and text that followed my roadside retreat, I had the good fortune to have a new found friend offer to rescue me. Perhaps that old car was still up to his tricks. Yes, I had failed to replace his timing belt yet now I was being rescued by a lovely lass who thought nothing of picking up a wayward sailor four hours away. Instead of cutting my loses perhaps I was now casting off and setting off on a new adventure.

Now, I am safely home. In the parking lot is remnant oil stain from Balou. I still have my Ford Explorer and so I have a plan to restore a set of wheels that is neither plastic and up to roll a few miles. I will pay attention to maintenance and I will share the wit of my father each day. Some folks wonder why you name an automobile. I figure that after the warranties wear out and the oil starts to leak, the vehicle has earned it’s stripes to have a name. Face it, automobiles are part of the fabric of any person’s life. Those who mend the gaskets and sigh when a maintenance check has been been ignored have the challenge of putting the pieces back together. Blue collared and with greasy hands, they attempt to clean up messy situations. Common sense seems to be in short supply these days. Enough of sending pictures off to illusionary clouds. We need more tales of road trips and bad decisions that make great stories. We need drivers who know where the oil goes and how to bail out of traffic. We need to listen to lessons of the past and move them into the future.

I am not sure what the future will bring. From the past, there are the wise words of FDR who said “what we have to fear most is fear itself”. A generation grew up with curved fenders and rounded hoods. Being in the middle of the road worked for Ike and being some where in the middle worked for a whole class of folks. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffet, There was always a fine line between Saturday night drive ins and houses of faith on Sunday morning. I heard tell that they also spoke of heaven as a place where all the dogs you have owned come to great you. Well it makes me smile to imagine Pop finally driving Balou , his strong and weathered hands admiring the silver pin stripes and at least a few hounds poking their head out the back window flapping their ears in the passing wind. What song will the radio be playing? Will the lyrics be changed? Pop and Balou, can you hear me?

‘Put your best foot forward

but don’t be so stubborn to ignore the prickly pears.

Always take the time to look under those rocks for the unexpected

and be thankful for the surprises you may find

Make life beareable

By be loving and kind

A good set of wheels and a full tank of gas,

and some wisdom from the past

and you may get the chance to explore

the rare destinations of life.




















And the waves roll in

Recently I was informed that some one had started an early morning trend to climb to some mountain summit and take a. Canada Day Sunrise .“What a great idea” I said, quickly grinning because I have been up to this mischief for many a year.

Just prior to finishing high school, I was asked to provide my younger uncle from Yorkshire, a truly unique San Francisco experience. We drove to Mount Tamalpais, hiked up the road (the gate was closed prior to sunrise) and caught the first rays of sunshine rising over Mt Diablo.

A few years later, as a canoe guide, I convinced young adults Michigan and Ohio to paddle through the mist into a new day in Quetico Park in Ontario. I even started a family tradition and navigated the inconceivable morning traffic of Tiburon just to watch the sun rise above Mt Diablo.

So when I finally parked my truck in the early hours of the morning at a stray parking lot north of Qualicum Beach, I had no need to rationalize the long drive from Victoria. After a few ackward hours of attemptin to sleep inside my crowded Ford Explorer “Ataboy”, my phone alarm went off.




I crawled out to great the day. It was still quiet and dark. The beach was empty and so was the parking lot. I was in the process of seeking out a viewing spot when a car pulled up. “Who was this person?” I wondered and felt my own private moment was about to be invaded. What could lure another out of a peaceful slumber? I went over to my truck, said hello and the man, who was somewhat alert, told me he was about to get wet. Quietly, I wondered, “Was he a paddler like my self? Was he going for a sunrise swim? What was he up to?”.

I decided to sit down and just accepted the fact that watching sunrises was now simply a new fad. I looked to my left and noticed that my parking lot partner was now rigged up in his gear of waders, fishing vest and fly rod. He marched into the rising tide and took up a spot right smack in the middle of my field of view. Soon he and several other anglers created a phenomena of fishing heaven prior to my first click. Yes, here was the first true early morning dawn watchers. Long before a note of “Oh Canada” was sung by the masses, there was whispers on the phone about about this random piece of beach that was a secret hot spot. How I had found it was just a fluke. Was it fate? I didn’t consider this since the first cup of coffee was at least an hour away and I was just wondering how a pair of toddlers goggles had been left behind on the log I was sitting on. The sun was slow in rising and my enthusiasm for paddling waned as I entertained thoughts of flying hooks going into my inflatable board. So I quickly took some snaps and sought out breakfast. I decided to keep the photos to share but I promise  to keep the location a secret.


In a tourist town, the hours of operation are relative to tourist hours. Besides my fly fishing enthusiast, who probably had been smart enough to bring a thermos, the cup of Joe was not even being sold at a Tim Horton’s. So I drove around, found some bunnies who had already found their breakfast and waited for a local coffee shop to open. As one of the first customers, the local staff was content to just share information. Yes. they paddled boarded and the best spot was a lake name Spider lake. I dove into a truckers breakfast, read the local paper and wondered how this day would evolve. Could I follow this tidal flow of events, from morning anglers to a a lake named after an arachnid? I had planned only to visit a surf shop, Island Surf. I had read that it was one of the first both to get paddle boarding happening in BC and perhaps Canada. I was lured in to a desire to meet the big Kahuna, Colin Kearns, and learn the ways of the paddle from one of the front runners. Yet at seven in the morning, his shop was not yet open and neither were my eyelids. A few more cups of coffee, a fruit salad and eggs and I decided to find Spider lake. It was right there on the map, just off the highway and nestled in between some coastal mountains.


I arrived and started inflate Clarity. Even my own board was reluctant to inflate or what it the guy at the pump. I was beginning to rationalize the investment of an electric pump when a family showed up, unloaded their plastic kayaks and went quickly off to the beach. I continued to pump when another couple showed up to walk their dog and the park attendant went by picking up evening party folks waste. By the time I got onto the water, the quiet of the morning was still a distinct possibility.


I was able to sneak up on a family of geese who were just loading up on shore grass and had a little chat with an aging kayaker who was wondering if he could adapt to a paddle board. I was content to share all the great things about my board and it wasn’t even eight thirty yet! Who were all these morning people? I sat down on Clarity and decide to just let the clouds drift across the mirror surface of the lake. This was the reward of waking up prior to the sun. I smiled and recalled my parking lot partner catching the first fish of the day. There was the arc of his rod and the slow methodic reeling in of a salmon to the shore line. Due to the low rivers, anglers were having a field day of catching salmons staging to return to their home rivers. Meanwhile, a canoe went by with a fishing rig absentmindly set in it’s stern. This was fishing with just the intent to get out on the lake. The calm of the morning was the key thing luring folks here.

After circumnavigating the small lake and a few more pics, I decided it was time to find Island Surf and learn more about this notion of why folks were now taking up paddle boarding. After driving through town and stopping at a few stores, a young women said “oh yeah, that is the place next to the Texas Rib place outside of town Coombs, just take the highway like you are going to Tofino. Fortunately the coffee and paddling had woken me up enough not to foresee an absent minded detour to the west coast of Vancouver Island.

I traveled by a  butterfly museum in Cooms and a tie dye t shirt spot, saw the goats on top of Coombs general store and sure enough, there was the billboard, I had found Island Surf.

Why have a surf shop miles away from any beach? The logic did stump me just a bit until I realized this was the only road leading to Tofino. The strategy was sublimely two sided. Not only could surfers find a new board that may have been munched by an eratatic waves in Tofino, now there was an option for tourist and newly retired folks in Parksville and Quilicum beach to invest in a paddle boarding. With my windows down, I could just sniff the Texas rib place firing up the morning fire. This was Vancouver Island, you accept the juxtaposition of odd ventures side by side. This was a road where goats ate off the roof of a building covered with grass.

It is a place where Artisans have their own wares advertised not only with billboards but also with government road signs. To expect the unexpected was normal. A surf shop was just another roadside attraction and I was off to meet the Kahuna. To me, it made total sense.



As young family was looking at boogie boards, a newly wed was rationalizing purchasing a new board for him self. Some how he just knew and trusted that his new spouse would understand. A mother and her two kids looked at a redpaddle board like my own. I could not help my self. I smiled and started pitching the merits of the board. Lorne, the store manager, just grinned. Sure, folks just randomly come in the door and start yakking about how great paddling is. We swapped smirks and I backed off and started looking at all the Mexican furniture, which I just expected to find in a surf shop. The A frame building housed everything from surfboards, wet suits, surf gear and more to metal statues of dogs riding bicycles and Mexican ponchos. Still some what numb between the ears due to lack of sleep and early morning ramblings, I looked around and just soaked in all. It was was a treasure chest for ADHD mind.  I mentioned my email to Lorne and he said..”yeah..we got want to talk to Colin” and that is when I met the Kahuna.

You know there are those who talk and those Colin Kearns didn’t have to say a word. His body and physical stance just gave the message. Yes..I may be in this store yet I live on waves. His smile was contagious and his enthusiasm as he showed me paddle and surf books soon had me wanting to join him in the waves. “Sure, you can surf, you just need to find the right board”, he said. There I was a newbie and fresh to paddling and now I was actually thinking of going out into the cold west coast surf if only to be there with the Kahuna. We swapped tales about places we had been and things we had done. Yes I had surfed but it was in a seventy four foot yacht south of Australia. As usual, tales always get fun when you are yarning about who did what first.  “ Hey I sold that dude his first paddle and board” Colin said when I mentioned folks I had met in my travels. This was the Kahuna and he had seen the wave of prospective paddle boarders coming. “It is the soccer moms and the new retirees who want to stay fit that started the trend here”, he shared with me. He had seen the wave of wind surfers, “oh those are the guys who want to know all the stats about the board, what is the volume and more..and heh I just tell them to just find a board that suits you”. I was already intimately aware of this form of surfer logic. I was once told how to surf the waves of Tofino in a kayak..”Just lean to Japan”. Simple facts and no heady stuff..just be in the moment and do not let your head get in the way. If was simple and to the point. It was dude wisdom.

Colin told me about his store, his endeavours to bring Mexican furniture back after a few winters avoiding the rain and how he had done a full circle on owning and then reowning a business that rose like a phoenix from the ashes. It, the store, was an extension of a person who was happy to play in waves, no matter if it was in South africa, Mexico or the cooler climes of the BC coast. For just a sec, I recalled the young geese following the older and wiser ones into the water as I attempted to take a snap at Spider lake. “Follow me grommet, you will find both joy and safety in the water and waves. Unlike the calm of Spider lake, the waves of the coast are a force that can seriously mess you up. Yet here I was, happy to just listen to a person wordly wise enough to truly understand what it takes to be full goose bozo. Here was a person who definitely had the right stuff to lure folks into the ocean. Ride the waves. Feel their force and find the board that suits you. It will come, just like putting a ankle cord in a boogie board. Colin’s pearls of wisdom came forth like perfectly smooth beach pebbles, “All you have to do is point into the wave, bail out and get your paddle hooked in”. He looked me in the eye and set the hook,  “ You have to come out next August and we will go out there together”. Just like the morning salmon that my parking lot angler had caught, I was hooked. We swapped wares, I convinced him of the merit of “sore no more” and he gave me a Island Surf team t shirt. We even posed for a picture by “ATABOY” as the smell of Texas Ribs filled the air. “Texas Ribs in Vancouver Island, I just do not get it” Colin muttered. I even convinced Lorne that Qualicum beach needed to form a paddle board water polo team and that they should sponsor a tournament. I have no doubt it will happen sooner than later.


After putting a new sticker on the window and shaking Colin’s bear paw hand again, I got behind the wheel and headed south to my next mission, a desire to climb a mountain. It was a long ride. The whole way, a stoic grin remained on my face. I was stoked. I wanted to share my story with my friends. I wanted to share with the world what treats an early morning sunrise can bring forth. It seemed to me that my only sole desire was to celebrate the what a sunrise and a few extra hours of the tides of time can bring. I looked at my oversized  extra large t shirt and cracked up at how I had lost forty five pounds. Now, I was rationalizing paddle surfing in the waves. The hum of the wheels and summer wind teased my ears. Why get up early to dabble in the waves? Why seek out those odd moments in time? Why solitarily pursue something other than kudos in a job or finally purchase that one special item for the household? Is it nobler to seek out your own  life experiences verses dreaming about more possessions? Is there wisdom in riding the products of wind and tides? What if you accept the fact, that even though you know that you may fail or fall off,  there is the lure to just say bugger it all and go for it? These thoughts and more drifted in and out of my mind. Out of my rolling meditative state a past solitary song came to mind. Hands on the wheel, I arched into to a winding path down the highway and began to sing. Looking in the rear view mirror, I saw the ocean hidden between the mountains. I realized that to insure a good past, you had to recognize the gift of the tides of time. Yes dawn watchers, cherish the oddities and lures of time well spent in the present.

New version of “Everyone is talking at me”

“Everybody’s Talkin'”
(originally by Fred Neil)

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

People stopping, staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

Wah, wah wah-wah wah
Wah-wah wah-wah, wah wah-wah

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

Everybody’s talking at me
Can’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

I won’t let you leave my love behind
No, I won’t let you leave
Wah, wah
I won’t let you leave my love behind

Link for Island Surf

Link for Spider Lake Provincial Park