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This Ontario live music legend went off-grid for 15 years. Now he's back

Bill
Bill

When folk and country performer Bill "$2 Bill" Miles left London, Ont., in the early 2000s for the Canadian wilderness, he left a throng of fans and friends wondering what became of him.

Going completely off grid, his 15 years in nature eventually brought him back to music — and to southwestern Ontario. And with a live set scheduled at Windsor's Phog Lounge on Jan. 13, Miles says he's ready to face his past life once again.

"There's nothing like a comparative point, a secondary spot to measure from, so that you can triangulate," Miles said of his decision to disconnect.

"I went into the forest. I spent six years practising my guitar in the Dryden area. I studied the Bible a whole bunch. I probably came up with conclusions that nobody wants to hear."

A photo of Miles' abandoned cabin he resided in for six years, near Dryden, Ont.
A photo of Miles' abandoned cabin he resided in for six years, near Dryden, Ont.

Miles lived in the cabin for six years. (Provided by Bill Miles)

Leaving behind a life of playing music with friends in exchange for, as Miles puts it, "hermiting," isn't a typical move for a successful musician. Especially for experiences such as inhabiting an abandoned cabin in the middle of an island, on a remote lake, 30 kilometres southeast of Dryden, Ont.

$2 Bill busking on a street corner.
$2 Bill busking on a street corner.

$2 Bill busking on a street corner. (Provided by Bill Miles)

In his musical heyday, Miles was a regular act at the old Brunswick hotel in downtown London along with his band, "$2 Bill and His Bad Pennies." The building burned down in 2008, but was a stronghold at the corner of York and Talbot Street for years.

"Imagine a small room packed with really excited musicians," Miles said. "[It was] the kind of place with old, dark wood and a smoky atmosphere, even after the smoking ban."

Monday nights were reserved for Miles and his fellow musicians, who often packed the venue full of local music fans.

"In those days, a draft was a dollar a glass. And we used to sell $1,000 worth of draft on a Monday night."

But stepping away from the spotlight was intentional.

Bill "$2 Bill" Miles visiting the Windsor studio to record an interview with Afternoon Drive in January of 2024.
Bill "$2 Bill" Miles visiting the Windsor studio to record an interview with Afternoon Drive in January of 2024.

Bill "$2 Bill" Miles visits the Windsor studio to record an interview with Afternoon Drive this week. (Josiah Sinanan / CBC News)

"I felt like there was [a bit of] an ego trip. I thought, 'I should probably just leave people alone. [I wanted to feel] that juxtaposition, a pilgrimage of sorts.'"

Miles was unheard of for years while travelling, holding to his goal of reaching Vancouver Island by foot. He was successful.

As rumours of his disappearance spread throughout his Ontario fan base, he unexpectedly emerged in a CBC article in 2015, where he was discovered tenting with his then partner near Portage La Prairie, Man., during that year's polar vortex.

Essex County based fellow musician Allison Brown, a fan and friend of Miles, says his absence was peppered with moments of contact, including through letters they exchanged as pen pals.

But Miles eventually decided to come back.

A photo of Bill "$2 Bill" Miles imposed on a designed version of Canada's old two-dollar note. The bottom photo a picture of Miles in the early 2000s before he left for the wilderness. The photo above features an image of Miles more recently.
A photo of Bill "$2 Bill" Miles imposed on a designed version of Canada's old two-dollar note. The bottom photo a picture of Miles in the early 2000s before he left for the wilderness. The photo above features an image of Miles more recently.

The bottom photo a picture of Miles in the early 2000s before he left for the wilderness. The photo above is a more recent image. (Josiah Sinanan / CBC News)

"It was a surprise to actually get a phone call from Bill [this winter]. He was visiting Ontario for the holidays and asked me to help set up a show," said Brown.

Miles's return to stage culminated in a reunion performance at The Richmond Tavern in London on Dec. 29, 2023.

Miles had his reunion show at the Richmond Tavern in downtown London. (Photo courtesy of Scott Gregory)

"The thing that keeps me coming back to music, pure and simple, is just a love a playing," he said. "I think it was the drive to want to play music with the kinds of folks I was playing with before that's [bringing me back]."

While on his pilgrimage, Miles found a new purpose for sharing his talents by supporting school lunch programs. Most of his earnings go back into the cause.

But Miles' decision to return to the proverbial "real world" is a temporary one, as he makes plans to return to his lake cabin for next winter.

"It's arduous, but the effort is rewarding. When you're out [in the wild], there's not really something such as seasonal affective disorder. You learn [from nature], to listen to the loons to know when bad weather is coming, [you learn] to be sensitive to things like humidity changes and when it is time to get food."