British Columbia·Photos

Man, 68, living in tiny house on 1946 classic truck

John Burn's 110-square-foot, shingle-sided, truck-mounted shack is heated by a wood-burning stove. The retiree is living on the streets of East Vancouver as he tries to complete his first album.

John Burn's 110-sq.-ft., shingle-sided, truck-mounted shack is heated by a wood-burning stove

John Burn says his truck house is usually met with approval, but he occasionally gets complaints and tries to move it each day. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

It's about 11 a.m. on Wednesday and John Burn is heating up a pan of tahini on a wood-burning stove in his 110-square-foot, truck-house in East Vancouver.

The smell of wood smoke wafts out of the little chimney and drifts through the neighbourhood.

The beige sludge in the pan is a little chunkier than your average tahini.

"This is John's special recipe I've never made before, but I hear tahini has garbanzo beans and sesame seeds, uh, lemon," said the 68-year-old. "I made it yesterday and I didn't eat it. I had something else to eat yesterday."

Burn's home turns heads in the neighbourhood around Grandview Park.

John Burn leans on his shingle-sided truck house. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

It's a stylish shingle-sided shack built onto the back of a classic green 1946 International two-ton truck. The vehicle, with Saskatchewan licence plates, is parked on the street next to the park.

"I would think that about 90 or 95 per cent of the people who pass by like to see the truck in the neighbourhood; it adds a little something," he said.

The classic truck attracts attention, but John Burn said if he were to make a new truck-house, he would use a modern truck and chassis as his foundation. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"There are a few people — some of my neighbours object to noise and sometimes there's gatherings of people around near the truck, and we can get a little rowdy."

Burn built the truck-house about 15 years ago in Saskatoon. There's a little sketch of a strikingly similar vehicle he claims to have drawn 30 years earlier when he was in jail on a drunk driving charge.

Checkered past

Burn says he's been to jail a few times — he was once charged with uttering a death threat. The mellow retiree chalks up all of his run-ins with the law to his alcoholism, but he says he's been sober for a couple years. 

John Burn sits in the driver's seat of his 1946 International truck. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Some of his art pasted to the truck-house's ceiling was inspired by acid trips, though he says he mostly put LSD. behind him in the 1980s.

Burn was born in Vancouver and grew up in the neighbourhood around Gladstone Secondary School. He had planned to become a doctor but couldn't get into medical school.

"I kept getting thwarted, so eventually found myself making artificial arms and legs, which suited my talents pretty well," said Burn. "I was a prosthetist, a fitter."

John Burn's artwork covers the ceiling of his shack-on-wheels. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He settled in Saskatoon. He recently separated from his wife and says he isn't especially close with his son, 18, and daughter, 21.

"Long term frustration isn't good for anybody. That's the simplest terms, plus I'm also an alcoholic, so I never really did learn how to associate with people in a good way ... communications skills," he said. "But I'm not the only dysfunctional person out there."

"That's the first good starter this thing has had," Burn says of the 70-year-old truck. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Mechanical talent

Despite his challenges, Burn has many skills. He's a talented craftsman and a constant tinkerer.

His charming truck-house is well built and features all sorts of amenities he's put together — there's an electric pump for the running water, a rudimentary recording studio and the entire back wall of the shack is designed to lower by cables at the flip of a switch.

Though bearing a beat-up guitar case, the back wall of the shack is designed to lower down and turn into a stage for performing music at the flip of a switch. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Burn is a musician. At 68, he's trying to complete his first album, a collection of country-folk songs he's written over the course of his life.

"It's called a Season for Dreaming, and this is definitely a season for dreaming, another one of many I've taken in my career," said Burn, who explains the back of his house lowers, so he can use it as a stage to perform music on the road.

"If I ever happen to find a group of musicians I can play with, maybe we'll go on the road and sell some CDs and have fun."

The house features a sound board and PA system, along with Burn's other musical instruments and recording equipment. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Slow on the road

Burn said the vintage truck-house is roadworthy. He's installed a new starter and smiles when the engine smoothly turns over.

"That's the first good starter this thing has had," he said of the 70-year-old truck.

"Oh, this is a great little truck, and I've driven it back and forth [to Saskatoon] about three times, so far, and well it's really slow. I'm sure I've really annoyed a lot of people," said Burn. "I try to pull over when I'm holding up people on a hill because it's not the most powerful engine,"

John Burn keeps his 1946 International two-ton truck in great shape. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"So far, so good. I'm really grateful that I'm still on the road. Let's just say that."

Burn is living off an inheritance and a pension but balks at the the idea of affording rent in Vancouver's hyper-charged housing market.

"A person can live incredibly cheap in one of these things," he said. "I don't think the whole under-housed population of Vancouver could live in one of these. It would clog up the street."

"I have a wood stove here. It’s way too big for this house, but it’s good for the morning," said John Burn of his wood stove. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"You see a lot of vans and stuff around. But you don't have a mortgage payment, and there are facilities in the community. You can have a shower. You can go to a gym, then you can afford to spend your money on yoga and weed if you want to."

Burn dreams of getting his album polished up and finding a cheap rural property to permanently park his shack on.

The bed is no wider than two feet and as hard as a board, but John Burn finds it comfortable. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He's comfortable in his cozy truck-house with its toasty wood stove, and he doesn't seem to mind the narrow, hard bed he's built. But Burn does lament the lack of a bathroom.

"I feel a lot like a bowerbird," he said. 

"It's a little bird that creates this little fantasy home, and he collects little rocks and pebbles and he decorates it ... Then these females come along, and she snoops and snoops. The bowerbirds around here like toilets and showers, so if you're going be effective in attracting anyone, then you've got to have toilets and showers."

John Burn sits near his music equipment and laptop inside his truck house in East Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker


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