By Michelle Carriere –
Picture this: Yankee Flats, a wide ridge above the Salmon River Rd. On either side of the long gravel road are fields, farms, and woods. Mid-way, you come upon a large, old farmhouse that stands out in its field. There are a few rickety out buildings and a noble, old barn. This is the base and launch pad for the Little People’s Caravan. We are a motley crew of people, come to community to create a unique lifestyle and theatre that packs into three wagons and runs on horsepower. Indeed, on magnificent horsepower, whose warm breath tickles and smells of sweet hay.
Picture this: There are already some draft and riding horses on the farm. One late afternoon, we all gather to welcome the new comers. What a sight, as five beautiful Clydesdales stomp off the loading ramp. They have a good run around the farmhouse. Manes, tails, and horse feathers kicking up dust. On the other side of the fence the resident horses gallop and neigh in greeting. Over the next few days the herd sorts itself out. Now for the training. The teamsters start with ground driving, then hitch to a stone boat, then hitch to a wagon. There is much to learn.
Each of us is assigned a draft horse to care for. This a new experience for me, as I have never been even close to a horse before setting foot on the farm. So, along with everyone else, I learn to feed, water, clean hooves, and brush coats. In all circumstances, the horse comes first. My horse is Joy. She is the matriarch of the herd. She calls the shots. She and Bonnie pull the Vardo. Joy is a big, wide-girth mama of at least 1,500 lbs. That’s what it feels like, when she slightly leans into me, as I hold up her foot to clean and hoof goop. Oh, she loves to do that. I hover at a 100 lbs at the time. I am trained to be an outrider. That means I ride a horse, wearing a fluorescent vest and carry a STOP sign. My job is to keep the traffic in behind at a safe distance from the caravan. I direct the vehicles around the wagons on the signal from the front outriders. My horse is a taciturn palomino, Geronimo. I care for him, too. We hold up the rear for many a mile.
People power. There are many forces at play here. Energy fields, star alignments, fate, luck, dreams, visions, and passions, all conspire to attract some 20 souls. We bond together to embark on a wondrous, challenging life experience. Our main goal is to get this show on the road. So, for three weeks, we are to “discover our inner clown,” in an intense clown workshop. As there is no rehearsal space on the farm, we rent the Silver Creek Community Hall. It is down below Yankee Flats, next to the Silver Creek General Store and across from the school. It is also known as the bright shiny buckle of the local Bible belt. Now, for a company so rich in horsepower, we are very poor in the motor vehicle department. This means we ferry the troupe in a couple of commandeered personal cars. There is always a debate about whether it is better for the car to drive fast or slow over the endless washboard. This was a moot point, as we always had to race to get there on time. We were never early.
Picture this: A bunch of artsy-fartsy hippies, horse and garlic smelling gypsies clowning around. We are madly rehearsing not one, but three shows. Our main production is Bill Moore and the Dragon (an adaptation of a medieval tale). Then there is the Clown Extravaganza and the Punch and Judy Show. That hall is witness to many a crazy clown turn (skit), music, and storytelling. Oh, the laughter and tears. But to this day, I think the locals consider their buckle quite tarnished after we left the premises. It would be one of many times the caravan would challenge the status quo. Along with our “inner clown,” we develop our “outer gypsy.” We learn to pack our life, work, and play into three wagons. There are a bunch of bench boxes in the Vardo and Sally wagon for our personal belongings. The set, poles, banners, costumes, props, ropes, and bedding are packed into the Medicine wagon. Staples, such as rice, beans, millet, lotsa coffee, etc. are packed in the Vardo and Sally. We have cast iron pots and pans, tin cups and plates, and a big blue enamel coffee pot. The great grate (our road hearth and home) hangs under the Vardo. Bales of hay ride on the roof of the Sally. There are two goats, Cayenne and Celeste, to provide fresh milk. In exchange for their valuable contribution, the girls get to ride on a bed of hay, on the back stoop of the Vardo. That hay is a good incentive for the Sally team. They would nudge up to the back and nibble on the hay snacks (much to the goats’ consternation). As with all gypsies, we live in close harmony with nature and the elements. We sleep in and under wagons, or under tarps and in tents.
We know how to harness up, hitch up, saddle up, drive, and ride. We know how to pound stakes, set up banners and stage. It has finally all come together, and we are ready to hit the road, or as the Gypsies say, “Jallin’ the dram.”
Picture this: The day of the launch. The air is electric. Even the horses’ hair seems to stand on end. The wagons and teams are in order. The outriders in position. I tingle with excitement and trepidation as I mount Geronimo. Holding onto the reins, foot in stirrup, I swing my leg over the saddle, skim it, and keep going, right under Geronimo’s neck. I land upright on the other side, right where I started from. I’m not hurt but dazed and confused. Geronimo doesn’t seem to notice. So, I get back on my horse and there I stay. We ride out to join the Caravan as it crosses the threshold of driveway to roadway. We leave nothing behind and will not return. All goes relatively well on this initial stretch. Until, on the way down to Salmon River Rd., the Sally gets a flat tire. Our first breakdown and we haven’t gone 15 miles! But it’s under the best of circumstances, as the road is quiet and safe for us to pull over. The wagon shotgun driver jumps off and places heavy wooden blocks under the back wheels of each wagon. This is done every time we stop, and we don’t move until the blocks are out. Soon the tire is fixed. Each shotgun yells, “Blocks out! Wagons Ho!” Finally, back on the road but with a late start, we won’t reach our pre-arranged campsite before dark. We are a stranded band of gypsies.
Now, to my hazy, dazy recollection, this is what happens: somehow, someone finds us refuge at a BC Hydro camp, on the way to Falkland. They have a field for the horses and our campsite and they have hot showers. Oh, joy! As we come onto Highway 97, we are met with smiles and friendly waves, irritation and confusion from our fellow road travellers. We arrive intact to the camp as the sun begins to set. The crew welcomes us with bemusement and amusement, as they watch us roll in among their trucks and Atco buildings. In the twilight, we set up our first campsite. The wagons are positioned on level ground. Weunharness, water, and feed the horses before they are set out to field for a much-deserved rest. The cook takes down the great grate, pots, and pans and sets about to make our first meal on the road. We find our sleeping spots. We gather around our first campfire, the finest meal on full plates in hand. Weariness and exhilaration. We celebrate our successful maiden voyage with happy hearts and music and (the cherry on top) hot showers!
The following day, we are told that we are to perform that evening for the crew and a few locals. We unload the Medicine, then we reposition the wagons into a circle with the burlap and canvas banners for the world premiere of the Clown Extravaganza. It is more of a dress rehearsal than a premiere opening. By twilight, the audience enters our magic circle. They sit on blankets and a few straw bales. Let the show begin. Now, our lighting system is as rudimentary as the burlap banners. Tiki torches light up the stage area. As darkness descends, it is apparent that this is insufficient. When out of that same descending darkness, we hear motorbikes roar through the gates and down into the field where we are situated.“What the…? Are they here to rumble with a bunch of clowns?”
Well, they came to see the show and when they saw that they couldn’t see, they lined up their hogs and shone their mighty bike beams at an open-air stage of red nosed clowns. The show goes on. Success! The audience and bikers leave happy and well-entertained. We are ecstatic. Now, for another hot shower and celebration around the campfire.
The next morning, however, it’s a different story. The absentee camp supervisor arrives on site. He had not authorized our stay. We are trespassing and must leave within the hour. We were planning to leave that morning, but it would take us at least a couple of hours to load up, harness, and hitch up. He is not amused. The next thing we know, the RCMP are on site to make sure we leave and not abscond with any valuables (can’t trust those gypsies). This the first of many encounters with various authorities that would pock mark our journey. Under the vigilant eye of the law, we scramble to make our ungracious exit. Onto Highway 97, outriders, horses, and wagons roll down the road to our next destination, the Falkland Rodeo Grounds. And so, with help from the unlikeliest of sources and under our own combined power and energy, this raggle-taggle, gypsy, circus family of horse drawn magic, The Little People’s Caravan, embarks on its voyage down the road.
Blocks out! Wagons Ho!
Now picture that.
* This article originally published in Lived Experience 16, republished with permission. Copies of LE are available at the Station House Gallery and The Open Book in Williams Lake.