adventures with Henk the Buell

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Celebrating people, ideas & things that make the world a better place. Kitchen Chemistry, Social Alchemy, Adventure Activism.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

There’s a trucker in a tavern in Prince George tonight telling a good story over a couple of Molson Canadians. None of his buddies are going to believe him, though. I wouldn’t believe myself it if it hadn’t happened to me. Those Rockies sure are beautiful but they sure can heave some weather at you!

I got a lift yesterday (Monday) with Peter from BC Parks and his adorable golden retriever-husky, Kaya, from Liard Hotsprings to his hometown of Fort Nelson. The sun finally came out in the morning and started steaming off the cold wet highway, and finally, Henk and I could be on our way. Between the hotsprings and the litres of water I drank while soaking, and the rivers of rain that came down while there, I’d had my fill of water. I was contemplating riding when a camper arrived at the hotsprings around nine and told Moon Eyes he’d woken up to four inches of snow at Summit. Peter loaded up Henk along with two quads he was delivering back to the shop, and I had a wonderful sunny ride for four hours, happy and grateful to be dry and warm.

That stretch of the Alaska Highway, just coming into the Northern Rockies, is magnificent in the sunshine. The peaks were freshly snow-capped and the sky was clear blue, giving a beautiful contrast to the golden leaves shimmering in the sun. All the animals were happy the rain had stopped, too. Sheep, caribou, elk, wild bison, free-roaming horses, deer, and poodle-sized ravens were all out playing by the side of the road. We stopped at a roadkill that Peter’s colleagues had found the day before with a three-year-old grizzly attached. They were telling us they’d watched from inside their truck as the grizzly rolled the elk or caribou around with its snout like it was a playtoy, devouring the flesh, while keeping a close watch on the truck. It must have had its fill, because there wasn’t much left but furry bits when we pulled up, and the grizzly was nowhere to be found.

By the time we arrived at Fort Nelson, Henk and I were vibrating with anticipation. The sun was still out, Peter had gotten us over the snowy pass (of course the snow had melted by the time we passed), and most of the sharp, jagged, rubber-chewing chip seal was behind us.

We put in another four hours and got all the way to Taylor, just north of Dawson Creek, Mile 0, with only a few raindrops. I found myself at the end of the day wishing for more daylight so we could continue. The land of the midnight sun is far behind us now and sun sets around eight thirty.

I packed my tent and hit the road this morning around ten, stopping for a soy latte at Hug a Mug in Dawson Creek. The young redhead behind the counter said she wanted to go on an adventure too. “That’s so cool!” she said when she asked if I was alone and where I was coming from. She’s 17, born and raised in Dawson Creek, and still has a year of high school. I told her to go the minute she graduates.

The sun was out again today, but there was a strong wind that kept changing from a headwind to a crosswind as Henk and I wound our way west and south. I knew there was something brewing by the strength of the gusts, but I had no idea we were about to ride through the mother of all Rocky Mountain hailstorms. After coming across a curvy and picturesque valley southeast of Chetwynd, we rounded a long bend on an incline and got spat out onto a plateau with an ominous view of our near future. Henk and I both gulped. Miles ahead, the sky was a black wall.

For a few minutes, my first reaction was fear. Holy shit, I thought. Chetwynd is miles behind me and Prince George is at least an hour and a half ahead. There’s not much in between if I need to take shelter. (If?! Like some miracle would lift the whole wall out of my way?!) I kept riding because where Henk and I were, the sun was overhead, and for now, anyway, we were fine. It’s a strange feeling knowing this certain inevitability exists and there is not a damn thing you can do about it. My shoulders started tensing up the closer we got to the wall. I tried to calm myself down. My eyes caught a movement in a grassy hill to my left and for a brief moment, Henk, myself, and a beautiful full-grown black bear locked eyes. A strange calm descended. The calm before the storm.

I saw a flash of lightning and immediately thought of Lightning Bolt Pete. What are my chances of getting hit by lightning? I asked myself. Better than I ever would have thought, considering the fact that two of my new biker friends had. I didn’t like those odds. Well, I told myself, you’re either going to die, in which case there’s nothing to worry about, or you’re going to survive, in which case there’s nothing to worry about. There was nothing to do but ride on.

I hit the wall. Within a second or two I was drenched. The duct tape on my left boot couldn’t keep out this deluge. Neither could the two-dollar rain pants, four sizes too big that I picked up at the church thrift store in Dawson. I carried on in low gear with low visibility thinking I could just ride through. The next thing I knew, I was in the eye. Lightning flashed close by. It took all my willpower to continue riding but I rode, thinking of the bear and Lightning Bolt Pete and not wanting to die. That’s when the hail started. It took a few seconds for my brain to register what that sharp pelting was on my helmet and what that white stuff was accumulating on the highway. So now I was in the eye of the storm, miles from cover, with lightning all around and pea-sized hail striking me on all sides. I approached a rest area where two cars and a semi were parked. I pulled in and got off my bike, not knowing what else to do.

I walked over to the semi and knocked on the door, feeling a little bit like a “lot lizard.” (My brother, Colin used to drive truck long distance and has some hilarious and disturbing stories of the women who service drivers at truck stops.) All I was thinking was I need to get out of this lightning. The door opened and I yelled up from inside my helmet, you got room for a wet traveler?

If I were writing a horror movie and this was the point at which things went from bad to worse, the two guys in this truck are exactly who I would cast.

I climbed up into the driver’s seat and handed one of them my helmet. The driver had been taking a nap in the bed behind the seats. His greasy brown hair was plastered to his forehead and he had about six days’ growth on his face. He was petting a hairy little lap dog, and looking at me through coke bottle glasses. His companion in the passenger seat was about four hundred pounds and had long curly blond hair. Although I didn’t get the creeps as in “this is dangerous,” it was definitely creepy.

“Pretty nasty out there,” said the passenger, after I’d settled in to the driver’s seat in a puddle. “You travelling alone?” Yeah. So are you guys heading north or south? “Prince George,” said the driver. “Just took a load up to Fort St. John last night.” Uh huh. Any idea how big this thing is? Any weather forecast on the trucker line or anything? Strangely, I wasn’t scared. Not until blondy turned on the radio and the very first item on the news was of a prisoner from Prince George who’d escaped and was probably heading to his home in Chetwynd. “Call 911 if you see him,” said the reporter. Shit. Cellphone’s back on Henk.

I didn’t stick around long enough to get their life stories. The eye moved north within five or ten minutes and the hail was replaced by a steady rain. That was good enough for me. I bolted and hopped back on Henk. They rode past and waved. I laughed because I was way beyond tears.

About twenty minutes down the road another gigantic thunderhead threatened to turn Henk and me into roadkill. I saw a gas station and pulled in, leaving poor Henk in the open. It poured. I hung my rain gear over a chair and bought a copy of yesterday’s Vancouver Sun. A guy on a cellphone near me was talking to his wife about the “golf ball sized hail he’d driven through.” If he’d come from where I had, he was grossly over-exaggerating. If he’d come from where I was going, I was in big trouble. I hung out and did the crossword puzzle waiting for a break in the storm. Finally, the sun came out and there looked to be a narrow alley between thunderclouds. I went for it and made it all the way to Quesnel where the sun was setting, wreaking havoc with the sky. Directly to the east, an enormous fuschia thunderhead was raining purple rain. I pulled into a campground/motel where the owner wouldn’t let me camp. He gave me a cheap room, saying I’d freeze in my tent tonight.

Now that I’m showered, and I’m safe, dry, and warm, I can laugh at the day’s roller coaster of emotion from elation to terror and back again, knowing that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Nothing like a close encounter with death to make you feel very much alive.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I guess my dilly-dallying days are not over. The rain has not let up for a minute since yesterday morning and I just heard that it’s snowing at Summit, a high elevation pass two hours south of here. Peter, the park superintendent, just offered to drive Henk and me to Fort Nelson tomorrow if the weather hasn’t improved. At least that would get us clear of the mountain passes and hopefully into a new weather system. It’s frustrating not knowing what the weather’s like south of here—or west of here. Perhaps if we’d taken the Cassiar, we’d have had nice weather… When we pulled in here on Friday night, it looked so promising. We were going to experience the Alaska Highway in the sunshine!

Today (Sunday) is a day of practicing patience. I’m still a long three-day ride from Christina Lake (in good weather) and my friends Rick and Jim are expecting me. I told them I was leaving Dawson on the 22nd and that it might take me a week to get there. That would put me there tomorrow. Poor Henk is sinking into the ground in front of the cabin, puddles growing around him threatening to swallow him whole.

Rick and Jim are two of my closest friends from Toronto. I met Rick about sixteen years ago when we both worked as flight attendants for Canadian Airlines. He invited me over for dinner with his “cousin” Jim, who served me “smokies” from the barbecue, which I actually ate (I still have no idea what a “smokie” is). Not long after that, I confessed to being a vegetarian and they confessed to not being cousins. We’ve been friends ever since. They’re two of the most stable guys I know and I love them for being everything I’m not. They make their plans a year in advance—something that I can’t fathom doing—and their million-dollar home in Toronto is paid for. They’ve been together so long that any individuality they possess is only apparent to me in the context of the two of them as a couple. They’re predictable, dependable, responsible, reliable, comfortable—and a lot of fun. I look forward to spending a few days in the sun with them on the lake. It’ll be a bit like coming home for a breath of fresh air and some belly laughs before heading back into the great unknown.

I’ve turned on a television twice since leaving Toronto. Once the night before the ladies’ poker tournament in Dawson to study the old pros in the World Series or some such Vegas tournament with a million dollar prize. Then the next night, I caught a CBC documentary by Chris Landreth called “Alter Egos,” which still has me deep in contemplation a week later.

Chris Landreth is a brilliant Toronto animator who won an Oscar last year for his amazing short animation, “Ryan,” about another brilliant Canadian animator who also won an Oscar and is now panhandling on a Montreal street. “Alter Egos” was the story of the making of “Ryan” from a very objective point of view, airing all the dirty laundry by way of live interviews with Landreth’s subject and people who both knew and still know the person they call a “tortured genius.”

When the question of exploitation came up, Landreth defended his position as an artist and said it was his way of honoring the man. He only wanted to help. It was a beautifully complex documentary that touched on a lot of deep questions about art and the reasons for making it and the lives that get interwoven in the process. It showed the subject and filmmaker sitting together for Ryan’s first viewing of “Ryan.” They were both painfully uncomfortable as they watched Landreth’s perceptions of who Ryan is and was and his projections of who he could be, given the right set of circumstances.

Chris Landreth’s mother died of an alcohol-related illness. By making a beautiful film of this artist he identified with and so obviously admired—perhaps worshipped—he thought he might somehow be able to lift him out of his sad existence of beer, cigarettes, and begging for change. “Let him face himself,” said an old abandoned friend, encouraging the camera use and the interviews as a form of therapy, and explaining that Ryan had destroyed his own career with cocaine abuse. It caused my mind to race. Does anyone have the right to interfere in someone else’s life, even if they’ve given consent? In the name of art or in the name of religion or in the name of politics, do we have the right to impose ourselves on another human being? The same questions could be asked in another way: Should we not help our fellow human beings whenever and wherever we have the opportunity, with the understanding that they are not always capable of asking for help? Do we not have an obligation toward our friends, family, and fellow human beings to hold them responsible for the fulfillment of their highest potential?

Chris Landreth spent two or three years of his life making this 7-minute film about Ryan Larkin. Their lives will be forever intertwined. I wonder if he has any regrets. “I want you to consider quitting beer the way you beat cocaine,” Landreth begged Ryan. “I love my beer,” Ryan defied. “I won’t quit.” In the end, I believe in the art. But in the end, Ryan said, “I just want out of this picture.”

I’ve heard that before from my subject and friend, Mai Spring, whose life story I wrote out in a screenplay. Mai is a Vietnamese war orphan who grew up in New Brunswick in a white adoptive family. We met in Banff when she asked to trade floor-mopping for food. I loved her adventurous spirit and we bonded, quickly becoming like sisters. She went on to literally become a sister, ordaining as a Buddhist nun in Plum Village in France with Thich Naht Hanh. She left the monastery after three years and went on a solo “peacewalk” with only the robe on her back, a tent, a sleepingbag, and a begging bowl. Her peacewalk was cut short when she was raped at gunpoint by two hunters in a field in France. She returned to Canada, disrobed, and became a prostitute. She was still working as an escort in Montreal when I completed the third draft of “Disrobing.”

It’s a very difficult thing for someone to have his or her life story exploited. All the temptations of fame and money are hard to resist, but the person has to be willing to face her demons, otherwise the smoke and mirrors can be impossible to overcome.

At one point well into the project, Mai had a meltdown and refused to have anything more to do with it. I left her alone for a few months to face her demons, feigning indifference, and she eventually came around. She admitted that it was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do, read someone else’s perception of her, but she was ultimately able to laugh at the fact that in many ways, I knew her better than she knew herself.

My motivations for doing the screenplay were very much like Landreth’s. I adore Mai and I “wanted to help.” I thought I was honoring her and her life by writing it out for the world to admire. I now realize that most people don’t admire. Most people judge. Most people criticize. They punish and complain and blame. The responsibilities that go along with putting someone else’s life “out there” are enormous, and I need to remind myself that such an undertaking should never be undertaken lightly. The person doing the exploiting ought to be as willing to face his or her demons as the person being exploited. If we, the audience, desire stories to inspire and stories to learn from and stories to entertain, then perhaps we, the audience, ought to become the authors of our own fiction…

Chris Landreth made an earlier film called “The End” in which God comes down and tells him he is now the author of his own fiction, so stop writing all these other characters outside of himself. I haven’t seen the film but I love the playfulness of the idea. While discussing the premise for “The End” in “Alter Egos,” Landreth told an interviewer, “If you take on the idea that you are the work of your own fiction, it kind of gives you a bigger canvas to romp around on.” On that thought, I tip my helmet to Mr. Landreth and say hee haw!

Today (Saturday) is a day to pause and be thankful. It’s pouring rain out there but I am comfortably ensconced in a propane-heated cabin at Liard Hotsprings. Stuck, once again waiting for the sky to lift. But like Tommy G, the Mayor-elect of Bella Coola, I can smile, shrug my shoulders, and say there are worse places to be stuck.

Yesterday Henk and I had one of those days we were both created for. We left Whitehorse around two in the afternoon in a drizzle. By four, the sky had cleared and the pavement was dry. There was no traffic, so we took over the road. I had a hard time reigning Henk in under 140. Both of us were thrilled to be rolling again—moving into a new chapter, wide-awake, fully alive, excited. With Henk newly rubbered-up, oiled-up, tuned-up, and loved-up, we were unstoppable. By the time we came to junction 37 for the gravel-peppered Cassiar, the verdict was in: Henk wanted pavement. Henk wanted curves. Henk wanted to go fast. And the lure of the hotsprings was strong, so we carried on in absolute bliss down the dry and deserted Alaska Highway.

The sun was setting in Henk’s rearview mirrors as we neared the hotsprings around eight and we rode toward fire-orange clouds spilling their pillowy pink centers from themselves over the emerging peaks of the northernmost Rockies.

When we pulled in, the campground office was closed and the sign saying “campground full” was up. That sign goes up around four pm every day from May through September. I went across the highway to the lodge and inquired about camping there. From behind me in the dining room, I heard a familiar voice say, “Whatever you do, don’t give her a campsite.” Bo, the friendly park attendant with whom I had become acquainted on my last visit, was having dinner with his roommate, and decided I needed to be “paid back” for an article I had just written quoting him as my sensitive informant. “You owe me, big time,” he said, trying to look pissed, but actually beaming. The article on the Liard Hotsprings ended with a quote from him saying “I can’t even describe to you how beautiful it is up here on a fall night, soaking in the hot water watching the northern lights dancing around the sky…”

I did not misquote him. He said exactly those words, with a dreamy expression on his face. Perhaps I took a tiny bit of poetic license to emphasize his words, but really, I did not misquote him. The article was printed in the Vancouver Sun, then picked up and featured two days later by the Victoria Times-Colonist, his hometown paper. He hasn’t heard the end of it. For two weeks in the campground, Bo’s colleagues have been calling him “Moon Eyes.” His boss regularly calls him up on the two-way and plays “Moon River,” howling over the crackle of the radio. Friends and family from home have been phoning to give him a hard time about the “motorcycle chick he was trying to sweet talk.” Apparently, I’ve destroyed his reputation, although I can’t imagine what his reputation might have been. He’s got the size and stature of a grizzly, with red hair, long ample sideburns framing his rosy face, and a long, thick, red, horseshoe-shaped mustache groomed nicely over his top lip, then cascading onto his fleshy chin. He keeps a baseball bat at the ready in his park office in case any drunken teenagers decide to get out of hand. But that’s where the tough guy image ends.

He insisted I stay in his cabin because there are bears in the area, and drove across the highway ahead of me to change the sheets on his bed (which, as I found out, is covered with a teddy bear blanket). I tried backing Henk up to follow and got stuck for a full five minutes in the gravel parking lot, by myself, doubled over in a fit of laughter. Moon Eyes!

So Moon Eyes gave me his teddy bear blanketed bed and he and his roommate each took a couch. The park superintendent came over and invited me on a canoeing trip down the Liard River in inflatable canoes. I begged off, saying my dilly-dallying days are over. He told me to keep in touch and he’d set me up next year with some great free trips in exchange for writing about them. Of course, everyone here is thrilled with the article and the exposure and I’m being treated like a queen. The pay for freelance work is “paltry,” as one editor says, but the perks can be nice. I’d have been soaked through the skin in my tent tonight in this rain that’s been coming all day in a cold, constant drizzle, but as it is, Moon Eyes and crew have made it their business to see that I’m dry, fed, and happy.

I soaked last night and searched for northern lights between clouds, then again today for three hours in the rain. Despite being anxious to turn the page and get on with the next chapter, I’m grateful for a day of rain so that I can take a day to pause and be thankful.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Henk has more rubber on his butt than ever before, and I’m loving rolling around on it. Jon at Yukon Honda replaced what turned out to be a construction-paper-thin back tire with a big fat Bridgestone Battleaxe. When I inspected the old tire, I knew I had done the right thing by getting a lift to Whitehorse with Sue. Jon said I’d have gotten twenty miles out of Dawson. The Klondike Highway would be a lonely road to break down on. I either have one incredible guardian angel working massive amounts of overtime, or god has employed an army of extras who otherwise would be assigned to people sitting at home on their couches and not much in need of their services until, perhaps, they choked on a popcorn kernel.

Now Henk’s in the capable hands of Rudy over at Yukon Harley-Davidson getting an oil change and an air filter check. He’s running like a dream, but with all the smoke in Dawson, he’d been getting little baby asthma attacks in the mornings. An air filter change will probably cure that. Henk’s medical program is definitely more expensive than mine. A handful of vitamin C once in awhile and a daily soy latte is all I need to stay healthy on the road. But then again, Henk’s doing all the work. He’s a star.

Henk attracts ogles wherever he goes. Mostly from men. No, correction. Entirely from men. I’d be parked in front of the Riverwest Bistro in Dawson sitting in the window sipping the best soy latte in the Yukon and within minutes, someone would be circling Henk, coffee in hand, with wonder and curiosity. I’d sit back and smile, enjoying from a distance Henk’s celebrity, like a proud partner.

A couple of days ago before leaving Dawson, I ran into Richard, the wandering Buddhist from Toronto. He’d hitched a ride into Alaska with a handsome New Age musician from England who wanted to practice “eye gazing” with him. He said at first he was uncomfortable, but after ten minutes something profound happened: the man’s face "transformed into light" and their "energies merged." He later hitched back to Whitehorse, then up to Tombstone for a night in the campground. He said he stood out on the Dempster the next morning for 45 minutes before he saw one vehicle. The first car to arrive out of the colored hills stopped and a nice British couple picked him up, drove him all the way to Dawson, and dropped him at the Riverwest. He was as surprised to see me still there as I was to see him back. He told me my reputation preceded me back to Toronto. Apparently he’s been writing letters home about the woman from Toronto on the funky motorbike “attracting men like flies.” He’s got it backwards, though—it’s the funky motorbike who’s magnetized. The woman from Toronto just happens to be along for the ride.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a group of women lamenting the fact that there are “no good men left out there. They’re either married or gay. Blah blah blah.” I’ve always thought that was a blanket excuse to avoid intimacy, but the next time I find myself in that discussion, I will make the suggestion that they head to the Yukon.

It’s true, girls. If you want to meet a man, go to the Yukon on a Silver Buell 1997 Lightning S1 by yourself. That’s it. No makeup necessary. No designer clothing, no eyebrow plucking or hair-brushing, no leg-shaving or underarm waxing, you don’t have to have a job or be even remotely interesting, or interested—enough projections will be hurled your way to elevate you to goddess status within moments of your arrival.

The men here are not wood ticks, either. They’re dynamic, adventurous, individual, strong, well traveled, intelligent, capable, social, spiritual, and interesting. Interesting, then, that I find myself thoroughly disinterested.

As soon as Henk’s ready, I’m going back to the Robert Service Campground to pack up my tent and hit the road south. I can’t wait. I’m still not sure whether we’re taking the Cassiar or the Alaska. I’ve heard the Cassiar is gorgeous, but there are several long stretches of gravel. Now that Henk’s got rubber, I’m ok with that. But the Alaska has Liard Hotsprings and it’s been awhile since I’ve soaked my bones… I’ll let Henk decide when we come to the fork in the road. Henk’s decisions so far have been brilliant.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Beware the fiercely independent woman. She is likely the one most in need of care. Feminists would have my laptop right now, but in my case, it’s a fact. I’ve spent my life, since taking off at sixteen for a year in Paris, zealously declaring my independence. Ironically, I haven’t been out of a relationship for more than five minutes since then, even though, paradoxically, most of my time in all my relationships has been spent trying to get out of them. It’s caused me to consider that perhaps I do (doth?) protest too much. Why am I so afraid to depend on someone? What is so "bad" about needing someone? And why, instead of always fighting to re-program old patterns do I not instead take the path of least resistance and groove them deeper? Day after day, season after season, year after year, the same patterns occur in nature; and nature never ceases to marvel at the depths of her own beauty and complexity within those patterns.

I’ve been asked recently what I want out of life. That’s a pretty immense question, but what better place to contemplate it than here in the vastness of the Yukon. Yesterday I sat for awhile by the muddy Yukon River and watched it flow at its steady 8 or 12 nauts northward. The sun danced diamonds off the surface and once again, smoke muted the colors on the mountains, focusing the eye toward the distinguishable sharp gray outline of tall lean spruce and rough peaks.

I think the Yukon is masculine. Everything about it feels male. It doesn’t embrace like some of the feminine places I’ve been to, like Lonavla in the lush green rolling hills south of Mumbai, India, or Pai in the dense and humid Himalayan foothill jungles of Northern Thailand. Instead, the Yukon stands aloof, like the King of the Beasts, fully aware of his own magnificence, and entirely indifferent to your admiration.

It’s a place of struggle and conquering and energy expenditure. Men (and women) first came in 1896 to dig gold from the gravel—hard and heavy physical labor. (Some of the women spent time on their backs in labor digging gold from the pockets of the men who dug gold.) Some struck it rich in legendary Klondike grandeur. Others died trying. Just getting here is a battle. The landscape is rugged and cragged, like so many of the unshaven and unkempt men that inhabit it—but it’ll be your friend if you don’t underestimate its power and give it its due respect.

The Yukon doesn’t nurture like a mother; but it provides like a good father. It provides limitless resources and limitless potential—and a lot of pleasant surprises; and in that way, it offers a haven for prospectors and outcasts and adventurers and those of us needing a little time to heal.

Ron did that for me. He provided a safe haven for me when I just needed to rest and soften. He was a great provider. I didn’t worry about a thing when I lived with Ron. He took care of everything, right down to paying the vet bills for my kitty and restocking the toilet paper when it ran low. "Mr. Make-it-Happen," I affectionately called him. He is a man of action, and if something needed doing, he did it on the spot. "How do you eat an elephant?" he would tease if I got overwhelmed by writers' block on page one of an empty ninety-page screenplay in front of me. "One bite at a time." And that was the methodical way in which he would chew through his business day. He is aggressive, and in spite of always begging him to be less demanding and less controlling and less contentious, I secretly enjoyed it because it meant I didn’t have to be.

Our relationship in the last couple of years had evolved into a sort of friendship of convenience for both of us. In many ways we were great companions, but ultimately we both knew we were holding each other captive, bleeding each other for something neither one of us could provide—becoming our biggest fear.

My affection for Ron has not faded with time and distance. In fact, it’s grown. Expanded. Perhaps transformed. Maybe transcended. Certainly solidified. The magic of travel...

As I leave this vast and healing male land called Yukon and head out alone again with Henk on the twisty road south, the only answer that comes, strong and resonant, to the question 'What do I want out of life' is in the form of a question: What does life want out of me?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

You’re not going to be seeing me in the World Series of Poker anytime soon. I’m just not aggressive enough. But that’s actually what keeps me interested. It’s not the hours at a poker table waiting around for a pair of aces that intrigues me. In fact, if I do any more poker playing, I’m going to have to take up knitting in order to justify the time spent in a chair. The psychology of the game is what fascinates me. There are hundreds of variables in a poker game. The cards will fall where they will, but it’s the human element that makes the game exciting. To see someone play fearlessly is fascinating and I’m willing to bet that the way someone plays poker is the way he or she does everything. I’m easy-going to a fault and I let people walk all over me at the poker table. I’m using the practice at the table to hone some of that killer instinct that the lesbians from Whitehorse who came first and second in the tournament so obviously possess.

I won the very first hand at my table yesterday with pocket jacks and a third on the flop. It was a nice pot and I doubled my twenty dollars' worth of chips. I thought that was a good omen. I was chip leader at my table with 1350 when we broke for lunch. The stakes had only gone up to 25/50 by then and everyone was still in the game with extra buy-ins.

After lunch things heated up quickly with the blinds and bet limits going up every half hour. With the bets at 100/200, eight or nine hundred bucks in chips doesn't last very long... We had a table shuffle when three players at ours went out and I lost my edge. I'd spent the morning feeling everyone out and getting to know my table. With new players in the mix every ten or fifteen minutes, I was quickly out-bluffed, out-bet, and out-handed. I went out just before they made the final two tables--"on the bubble" as John says, which I think means just before the money. Things got very quiet and very serious after that.

Alberta, who wore a t-shirt that said "I've got the nuts," and played two seats to my right until I went out, dominated until the end with a mountain of chips. Everyone was glad to see her win as opposed to the cocky Carla who won last year and, according to the women at my table, went around bragging for a year. She was, in fact, my demise. I went up against her all-in with an ace/six or something pathetic. She had two pairs and looked with great pride through her sunglasses at my remaining two or three hundred she was adding to her pile. Ah yes. Knitting is a nice idea, isn't it?

Every rider who sees Henk’s mangled rear tire tells me to take it easy. “Sounds scary,” said Blaine at Yukon Harley when I told him the cord was just starting to show through down the center. “I wouldn’t even do the trip to Whitehorse on that.” Seeing as how the road from Whitehorse to Dawson is what mangled it in the first place, I’m going to take everyone’s advice and get a lift in a truck on Thursday with Sue, forth place finisher in the tournament. Maybe I’ll pick up some of her aggression by osmosis over the course of the five-hour drive.

Thanks to Lightning Bolt Pete, aka “Captain 90” of the X-Riders, I managed to find a tire that’ll work for Henk at the Honda parts place in Whitehorse. It’s 10mm thicker than what he’s got now, but it’ll fit. Yukon Harley was out of stock, as was their supplier in Toronto, and they said it would take a couple of weeks. I panicked and went crying to Pete, who has a wallet full of numbers for parts suppliers all over the Yukon and BC because of the predicament he’s in with his dented 1800 from the accident. He’s now working demonstrating panning for gold to the German tourists out at Claim 33. Says the sifting action is good for his broken collarbone and the Germans love him cause he speaks their language—sure looks the part of a grizzly old gold prospector too. You’d never know it was just a few weeks ago he was struck by lightning and thrown from his bike. He’s out dancing at The Pit every night (so he tells me: “My equilibrium is off a bit today. Late night at The Pit again. Think I need another cigarette…”) he’s got a job, and he’s actually riding his motorbike around town. Crazy.

Dawson has been good for me. It’s been a great end of the road resting place; a good place to sit still and sift through the muck. I’ve had a lot of unwanted emotional residue floating on the surface in need of a thorough sluicing. I’m still trying to distill the gritty sands into something useful and precious. I’m hopeful... As evidenced by gold nuggets found in muddy rivers, or brilliant colors erupting from rocky rolling tundra, or Lightning Bolt Pete still walking around smiling his electric toothless smile for all the world to witness, miracles happen every day.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

John threw me in with the lions Thursday night at Gertie’s. Yup. Handed me six hundred bucks and said, “Go play.” I panicked at first, then went in for four, not prepared to lose six. I wasn’t prepared to lose four, either, but I had no choice but to sit down and pretend to know the game.

Two weeks ago, if you’d told me I’d be telling poker stories, I’d have laughed, but yesterday I couldn’t wait to see John to fill him in on the drama of the night before.

I started out on what they call the “feeder table” which is where people play while waiting to move over to the main table—where John occupies seat 8 when he’s there, and where the heavy hitters play. I folded almost every single hand for hours, just going in for the blinds and one or two rounds of high cards. I kept getting 9/3 or 5/2 or Q/4—all garbage hands, especially when you’re just learning. In order to hang onto John’s money, I had to keep it reigned in very tight, but I saw some great hands go by that I’d missed from lack of experience and lack of guts. You can play for a long time in a 5/10 game if you’re not betting, so I managed to hang onto about 200 bucks (or you could say I managed to lose about the same but poker players don’t discuss their losses) over the course of two or three hours. John went home without checking in on me, so I assumed he was comfortable with me just doing my thing with his money. I’m not sure who’s more insane between the two of us.

At around midnight, they combined the two tables to make one big fat game. Holy shit, I thought. I’m sitting here with eight guys and one woman who practically live at Gertie’s, trading money back and forth night after night. But I still had chips on the table and I was interested, so I kept playing—and folding.

A crazy Greek named Tony, who owns Back Alley Pizza, joined in and within twenty minutes had blown through five or six hundred bucks. He just sat down and started raising out of the gate with ace/nines or pocket fours, and kept losing. The pots were huge and everyone was excited. The game quickly seemed to be getting out of control. I didn’t dare get in on a hand even if I had something.

Finally, I got pocket jacks. The bet was on the other side of the table, so I simply called for ten bucks. Jim, the guy sitting to my left looked at me like I had just set off a bomb and folded, announcing to the rest of the table, “She never calls. She must have something.” So everyone except the woman, Linda, folded. Two jacks came on the flop and she checked. I raised. She followed. Nothing else came and I raised again. She followed. Of course I won the hand, but it was too small a pot to make much of a dent in my losses and it gave me a reputation at the table for playing nothing but pocket high pairs. Bummer.

A few hands later, I got pocket queens. This time I tried being a little quieter and managed to get into the betting without anyone really taking notice (except Jim, who folded). Bob, a guy two seats to my left, raised out of the gate. Everyone followed, including myself, making for a nice pot before the flop. The flop was junk and he raised again. Everyone followed, including myself. The turn was garbage and he raised again. We all followed. The river was nothing and he raised again. By now the pot was enormous. It was eighty bucks to call and I got to thinking he must have pocket aces. I lost my nerve and folded. Bummer. He had pocket queens.

I stayed til the bitter end, two in the morning, just to do it once. I suppose that’s where each one of those nine sitting with me started. There was one big winner of the night--the casino manager. He’d started with two hundred and raked in a thousand. Said it was his biggest win in four years. He was giddy and drunk. Some of the others, despite large piles of chips, were probably even for the night. One or two had gone completely broke. I had lost two hundred and sixty of John’s bucks. That brought my total losses to five hundred bucks. That’s the exact amount the mayor elect of Bella Coola was unable to pay back in time to make it home before winter…

I went back to watch last night and John insisted I jump on the other table again. I went in for two this time and within an hour had turned it into three with a couple of nice hands. The crash course in outa-control-chips-flyin'-everywhere-poker maybe paid off. I left the table a hundred bucks up and gave the chips to John. I’m done losing. John’s coaching me for the ladies’ tournament on Sunday. Says he's gonna feed me some meat to give me the needed aggression. It’s only a twenty-dollar buy-in so I’m more likely to get stuck here because of a gnarled tire than a poker debt. (Yukon Harley Davidson in Whitehorse is on the hunt for a new rear tire for Henk. Looks like it has to come out of Toronto.)I intend to give it my best effort, hopefully make it to the money to pay for the tire replacement, and leave this crazy place Monday or Tuesday...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Yukon is slowly working its magic on me. Not in a flashy, abracadabra kind of way, but gently, like a skilled and unhurried lover. Two nights ago, I finally went to Tombstone Valley. It took my breath away. Even with a wall of smoke from fires still burning in Alaska obscuring the view to infinity, it was still mind-blowingly beautiful.

I made the acquaintance of local (by way of Slovenia) art photographer, Igor P, when he asked to take a photo of me and Henk. He’d overheard on the street a British motorcycle magazine journalist making an appointment with me for photos and just showed up with his camera at the agreed upon time and location like it was a public session. I’d seen him around town several times and thought I should probably know him. He looked about as authentic a local I’d find here in this John Wayne town with the shoot ‘em up façade: Long gray hair in a ponytail, ballcap, mustache, goatee, big chunky hand-made gold hoop earring in his left ear, thrift store overalls and shirt, and an attitude that says, “Don’t mess with me, I’ve been here since the gold rush days,” even though that would make him about 130 years old.

Igor told me he was going to try and get up to Tombstone to do some shooting, despite the smoke, and I imposed myself along. He’s an old biker who understands my concerns with taking Henk up the Dempster Highway, although he’s the one who suggested I could probably make it. (I met a rider from Toronto today who had a back flat on his FLJ or FJL or some other combination of letters Yamaha or Kawasaki or some other Japanese 1300 just south of the Arctic Circle due to all the gravel and sharp rocks. He advised that I carry one of those cans of inner tire sealant you can pick up at the hardware store for $9.95. Said he didn’t know how the hell he would’ve gotten out of that mess without it, but as it was, he was grinning from ear to ear, loving every minute of his adventure. “I was gonna go to Colorado but Toronto was so fuckin’ hot, I quit my job and said ‘I’m goin’ to Alaska!’”)

Igor wanted to catch sunset at Tombstone, so he picked me up around 4:30 in his van, which doubles as his accommodation and solar-powered photo print shop. The road was definitely rough, but definitely doable if you have good tires. We met an Enduro speeding along in the opposite direction seemingly doing just fine. It’s just over a hundred kms to the park, but because of the road, it took a couple of hours.

Igor seemed happy to have my company and talked nonstop the whole way there. I think he described in intimate detail every single photo he’d ever taken in Tombstone; and he’s taken tens of thousands. He talked about the light at different times of the day and different times of the year, the colors of the hundreds of different species of moss and flowering shrubs, the caribou run in the spring when hundreds of thousands of caribou are grazing in the valley, fireweed in early summer transforming the entire valley into a blazing pink carpet, sunset on the lakes, sunrise on the mountains, northern lights in the night sky, wildlife like grizzlies and black bears and moose and eagles and ravens and foxes and wolves, the snake road curling off into the valley between layers of mountains that go on forever, the Klondike River that starts as a trickle high up, then empties into the Yukon just south of Dawson City…

Suddenly we were there and all I could say was ‘Oh. My. God.’ We climbed a gravel road to a ridge and got out to take some photos, walking off in opposite directions. The moss underfoot was soft and spongy and my feet sunk in deep with each step. I squatted to get a shot of some red shrubs in the foreground with just the mystical smoky outline of jagged peaks in the background, and my nostrils were filled with the strong fragrance of Labrador tea and spruce moss and other unknown and wonderful smells. I got the sense that the valley was teeming with life, yet all I could hear was utter silence and all I could see in every direction was rolling red and green tundra dominated by the smoky sentinel peaks of the Tombstone range. It was achingly beautiful. And oddly apocalyptic. I have no reference point in my mind to accurately translate such incredible vast beauty.

I wanted to stay for a month and soak it all in. I wanted to watch the reds and greens get gradually gold, reflecting the midnight sun, magnetized and energized. I wanted to stay up late under the night sky and watch aurora borealis dance with bursting stars and flashing neon ribbons. I wanted to wake up at five to magnificent dawn and marvel all over again at god’s abstract masterpiece.

Ah, but I was with Igor, the talkative photographer from Slovenia, and instead, we went to the campground where he knew everyone, and pulled in for a short chat that turned into a four-hour visit. Another local photographer, Ed Vos, and his hiking-guide-book-writing brother, Curtis, were hunkered into a site with a roaring fire, an old sled dog, and their friend Anne, the hoola hoop girl from the funky jazz concert, who works at a fire lookout on a mountaintop in southeastern Yukon. They’d set up a sleeping tent, complete with a wood stove and a futon, and had a full kitchen going on. They welcomed us to their fire and took orders. I jokingly asked for a soy latte and was served Labrador tea and a toke.

Igor is quite the storyteller, and dominated the campfire conversation with his unique versions of Yukon mythology. I heard tales of “The Pit,” the Dawson City bar where locals start drinking at nine in the morning and a good night, in the day, used to be judged the next day by how many bullet holes were in the ceiling. I heard “Cave Man Bill” lives in his cave all winter long and it’s the warmest pad in Dawson in January. “But don’t get any ideas that it’s palatial or anything. It’s a hole in the side of the hill.” He also posed for a sexy “Men of Dawson” calendar that Ed was putting together—naked, frizzy-haired, bearded, wild-eyed, and holding a chicken by the neck over his privates. It didn’t make the calendar.

I know it’s sick, and he was only trying to inspire us, but Igor’s stories of the no-legged motorbiker from Quebec he’d met in Baja and the blind sheep farmer who rode his bicycle from Whitehorse to Dawson had us all in stitches.

Around three in the morning, Ed pointed to the darkened sky. It was faint, but unmistakable. The northern lights had begun. In a few weeks winter will arrive in the Yukon. Despite falling senselessly in love with this land, like Stockholm syndrome, Henk and I are ready to move on. It’s time to head south. But I’ll definitely be back. I'd love to make the trip with Henk's wild cousin, the new adventure Buell XB12X Ulysses.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I lost a couple hundred of John’s bucks last night at Gertie’s. I entered the early tournament and went out just after the stakes were raised the first time. There was some excitement, though, near the end of the tournament. Terry, the choreographer for the cancan show, was still in when she had to go to work. She asked John to take her place to finish off, but John knew the table would not be ok with that. Instead, he convinced her to let me play for her. We cleared it with the pit boss and the table (everyone was glad to see me back to get more of my chips) and I sat down with barely enough of her chips to enter one round. The stakes had gone up to $50/$100. She told me to just play super tight and not bet on anything other than a high pair. I went a few rounds like that, folding low cards, just hanging in the game, then John called me over to let me know only 10 minutes remained. He said to take one of the next two or three hands and just bet like I’ve got pocket aces. Nothing to lose. So I did. I got a ten, queen and went all in even though I have no idea how to do that. I think a queen came on the flop, then maybe the ten showed up on 4th street, so I just pushed in what chips I had left and bet. Three or four people followed, increasing the pot substantially. I won the hand, then managed to follow it up with almost exactly the same thing for a second place finish in the tournament. Because of the circumstances, though, we split second and third with another woman who was close behind. Terry and I split $114 bucks between us. She was happy. Then, in true Klondike form, I sat down with John to play the free game that followed and proceeded to go through 200 bucks in a couple of hours. Luckily he held his own and managed to break even for the night.

Yesterday afternoon, while sitting on the patio of the office having a glass of wine with the staff, the woman who’s doing bookkeeping “zapped” a wasp with one of those electric tennis racket insect killers. I asked her what the wasp had done to her and she replied, “It might've stung me.” I said that’s exactly how Bush behaves. She denied having voted for Bush, (I have yet to meet an American who did) and we narrowly avoided a heated political debate. Gail laughed, saying she sees why I get along so well with her sister.

One of the waitresses at Gertie’s was showing off a photo to the guy two seats to my left at the poker table. I peered over John’s shoulder to see an enormous, muscular white mountain sheep with iridescent blue eyes, laying down on the ground, a young guy standing behind him holding him by his magnificent horns. How beautiful, I said. “Yeah. He’s really proud of it,” she said. Somewhere in the next sentence, I heard the word “hunting” and it quickly became sickeningly apparent that this beautiful animal was, in fact, a trophy. I was horrified. “Bush is everywhere,” John joked. I laughed hard so I wouldn’t cry.

Monday, August 15, 2005

“You’re either crazy or you’re an angel,” said Marcello when he dropped Henk off at two pm sharp as arranged. Oh I’m definitely crazy, I said. “I think you’re an angel,” he said. He and Henk got within fifteen minutes of the Alaska border. If he’d had Henk’s papers, which I forgot to give him, and enough gas, they might have gone to Chicken. I don’t know what possessed me to lend my bike to a travelling musician but I’m glad I did. We now have a friend for life. Marcello said the fact that I trusted him with my motorbike moved him as much as the ride. (I think Henk actually became a ‘she’ for the day.)

I honestly didn’t worry for a second. I was too busy cleaning rooms with Gail, the hardest working woman in Dawson. I have a newfound respect for hotel room maids. Whatever they’re getting paid, it’s not enough. Gail and her right hand gal, Vicky, tear through forty rooms in a whirlwind of sheets and towels and chemical spray cleaners and toilet brushes. It’s hard physical labor—and these girls are not kids—and Gail owns the motel.

I was making beds and came across a double A battery under a mattress. While stripping the bed beside it, something sleek, banana-shaped, silver, and electronic peeked out from under the sheets. I contemplated for a moment whether the owner(s) would actually return to collect such a forgotten item, or would he/she/they drive as fast as he/she/they could back to Whitehorse, never to return to the Bonanza Gold Motel. Then I contemplated how I was going to remove said item from the bed with bare hands. A closer inspection (carefully) revealed that someone had gone to bed with his shaver; and yes, he did return to collect it.

I now know two Klondike adventurers who have been hit by lightning and survived to tell the tale. Pete, aka “Captain 90” of the X Riders, from Sault Ste. Marie, was riding his 1800 cc Honda VTX or XVT or some other combination of letters, hauling a baby tent-trailer up to Inuvik last week when a storm hit 80 miles south of his destination. He hunkered into the handlebars, head down, and pushed through the rain. Next thing he knew he was in the Inuvik hospital with a plasma burn on his left butt cheek, a hole in his right elbow, and his right collar bone broken in five places. They figure the bolt went in his butt cheek, through his leg, shorting out the engine, at which point he would have had quite a spill. Good thing he doesn’t remember. I asked him if the lightning took out all his bottom teeth, too, and he said, “No, that was the last accident.” He’s recovering in his tent-trailer here at the RV park, waiting for his fellow X Riders to send parts for his bike, and basking in his celebrity.

The entire town turned out for the bog races. People actually do this. They make a mud pit over several days or weeks of watering and stirring so the consistency is just right. The spectators gather en masse on the hill overlooking the bog and cheer for their favorites. Guys (and a girl or two) with regular Ford or GM trucks along with jacked-up and suped-up four wheel drive “mud-boggers” then race two at a time through the bog. Inevitably, one would get stuck and one would make it through. I have no idea how they determine the ultimate winner. All I know is there was a whole lot of unleashed testosterone out in the sun under the rock slide of Dawson City this afternoon.

I was much more interested in listening to my new favorite jazz ensemble on the dyke by the Yukon River. Luluk & the Helsdingen Trio. If there were angels in Dawson today, these four were them. They are truly musical alchemists. They’ve known each other and toured the world together for 18 years and it shows. Their long meandering musical tapestries would wander into the impressionistic in wonderful synergistic chaos, then they’d slide effortlessly into incredible sweet spots where they would all four ride a wave in synch, completely open, playing from their hearts.

It was during their second set that I felt the magic drop in. The piano player painted a picture of Indonesia with its rice fields moving as one in a gentle wind like the warm breeze we had by the Yukon River. He said the fields are alive, and told of the locals picking rice with little knives on their fingers one grain at a time for Nasi Goreng. As he spoke, his wife sounded these marvelous Indonesian percussion instruments to represent the humming birds in the fields, the women cooking rice, the wind in the reeds. They went on to play their piece, using all these delightful sounds.

My heart was joyful and light. I was in Dawson City, at the end of the road, listening to a fabulous international jazz band. I had just happily worked a few hours making beds and cleaning bathrooms. My belly was satisfied after a delicious Mexican wrap from the Riverwest Bistro. And I’d given Henk away for the day without even the slightest concern over the “what if’s.”

A particularly hilarious transition in the music caused me to spontaneously burst out laughing. I don’t remember how it went or why it tickled me, but it was in that moment that I had a revelation: my fear was gone. With fear gone, I realized, I was free.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Dawson City just went from “good” to “sensational,” like shifting from first to fifth without stopping at second, third, or forth. I stumbled into an improvisational jazz set performed by a four-piece ensemble from Holland who’ve been back and forth across Canada in a bus three times this summer on their “peace and friendship” tour performing for veterans to thank them for liberating Holland 60 years ago.

I sat on the grass in the sun and soaked up the fabulous vibe coming from the side of the tulip-painted bus, which folded out to a stage. The musicianship was masterful. There was a beautiful Asian female violinist and vocalist, a big black stand-up bass player with great white teeth, a handsome and happy drummer, and a white-haired piano player with his back to the crowd. A life-sized stuffed Huskie looked out from under the piano. Indonesian baskets and dolls and exotic percussion instruments surrounded the violinist. A girl on the dyke was hoola-hooping to the music, kids and dogs were running around, people meandered in and out of artist tents where some world-class art was on display. The scene oozed funk.

When they finished, the piano player introduced the band, including the stuffed Huskie, Henk, apparently stuffed with “supplies” from Amsterdam. He thanked the two veterans of Dawson City who’d made it out to listen and said they’d be back at the same time in the same place tomorrow.

Of course I got talking to the drummer. I told him my bike was named Henk too, although he’s a bike/horse, not a dog/mule. He got all excited and brought out his laptop to show me photos of his Ducati Monster 620 back at home in Sicily (turns out only the piano player is Dutch). Said he missed it terribly and wished he’d brought it along on the tour. As it was, it had cost the band $5000 to ship their custom bus across the Atlantic.

I’m not sure how many people could sit through a slideshow of motorbike photos with accompanying background music, but he found an appreciative audience in me. I’ve been told never to show people photos of Henk or my kitty, but my computer’s full of both.

Marcello the Sicilian drummer who lives in New York and plays in the Dutch jazz band wanted to see Henk, so we walked back to where I’d parked. Those Italians have an eye for beauty, don’t they? Marcello looked Henk over like he had never beheld anything quite so magnificent. Henk enjoyed the special attention and out of the blue invited him out on a spin. Yeah. Henk did.

Marcello had coincidentally just purchased a new helmet at a pawnshop in Edmonton. Perfect, I told him. Let’s go to the top of the world!

I’ve never been on Henk as a passenger before, but what's an adventure without trying something new? Also, I’m still trying to let go. How attached am I to my one remaining possession? We’re about to find out. Tomorrow, Marcello the Sicilian drummer from New York who plays in the Dutch jazz band is taking Henk for the day while I help Gail clean rooms. He’s in heaven and I have nothing to say about it except watch out for gravel.

The ride to the top of the world was fabulous. Marcello’s a more aggressive driver than I am (he’s a boy) and Henk enjoyed the workout. It was strange and wonderful being on the back and taking in the view. The smoke-smudged sun turned cotton-candy pink above the tree line and the entire valley that I saw last week in beautiful layers was obscured by a veil of smoke from Alaskan fires. It’s mystical and silent up there.

We dropped Marcello off at his hotel in town around 11, which felt like 7. I gave him my ticket to Gertie’s in case he wanted to catch the midnight cancan show, and told him to be ready for an adventure with Henk in the morning. I’m happy Henk’s getting out for a ride. He’s been itching to hit the pavement for a week. Marcello’s very competent, I found out, and maybe Henk will make it to Alaska without me. Wouldn’t that be a trip.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Ten in the morning in Dawson City feels like six. Noon feels like eight. Eight pm feels like four and midnight feels like eight. It’s hard to go to bed when the sun’s still shining. And it’s hard to rise for a six am breakfast shift! I guess I’ll never be a morning person, especially in the land of the midnight sun.

I almost deep-fried my fingers tonight. I was trying to fish out a stray french fry or two with a slotted spoon who’s handle was clearly not long enough. It’s my throttle hand, too, which I need to ride south. There is a one-armed trike rider here in town, though. I haven’t been able to catch up with him to check out his system.

I made an order of fish and chips for a customer and got tipped five bucks. “Give this to the chef,” he told the waitress, after tipping her too. I howled. This is the easiest thing in the world to prepare: walk to freezer, extract three frozen fish sticks, walk back, throw sticks and potatoes in the deep fryer, wait five minutes, serve with a little tartar sauce. In Banff, I would get up at the crack of dawn and lovingly (most days) prepare healing organic vegetarian food from scratch. The waiters and waitresses always complained about the tips. I can’t remember once someone handing one of them a five and saying “Give this to the chef.” Go figure.

I’m actually enjoying the action of the kitchen again. I never thought I’d hear myself say that. When I sold my place five years ago I was so burned out I vowed never to do another restaurant again. It’s impossible to do more than eke out a living for yourself with slim profit margins. Food costs are variable and wages kill. But it gets in your blood. I enjoy the warmth of a kitchen and the movement. If things are in synch, it can be a delightful dance around the raw ingredients and hot pots and spices and fire, and magic can happen. If things are not in synch, it can be hell. I’ve missed my kitchen and I just realized that today. Perhaps there’s another restaurant in my future after all…

It’s one in the morning and it’s finally dark. A man beside me (in the next room) is vibrating the walls with his snoring. I believe it’s an RCMP officer. Henk’s outside tucked in between two cruisers. They’re up from Whitehorse for “Discovery Days” this weekend. I have the weekend off, so between learning how to bluff at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s and watching 4 x 4 races in the mud bog, it promises to be a wild time.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Two days ago the sun came out and didn’t stop shining into the clear blue Yukon sky until well after midnight. The day reached its peak around six pm and for the first time since Bella Coola, I was in shorts and sweating. I went on a long hike over the huge rock slide that looms ominously over the north end of Dawson. I sat for a meditation on what I later found out was “suicide rock” and wished I could jump. Not to commit suicide, but to fly. On such a perfect day the thermals would be smooth and gracious and you could soar for hours over the Yukon River if you had wings.

I wasn’t feeling much like I had wings, though. I was feeling heavier, like I had awakened from a spell; and I spent the entire day in and out of extreme grogginess and vivid clarity. I struggled with the last of the hooks, wanting them out so badly and hanging on for dear life, like pulling a mouthful of rotting molars without anesthetic. When it was all done I threw the carcass into the swift current far below, knowing it would only be a matter of days before the whole mess was claimed by the Bering Sea.

Now I’m feeling clear, fighting the urge to ride. Henk and I haven’t seen days like this in our entire trip. It’s almost criminal not to take advantage of this beautiful weather and turn south. But I did get an enticing piece of information today from a local rider: Henk and I can probably make it to Tombstone. Apparently the road gets nasty north of there, but I could get to the campground on Henk and spend a night or two. The colors have just started…

I’m not sure I’ll become the shrewdest poker player ever to visit the Klondike. I can’t afford the five grand it will take to really learn the game well. Nevertheless, John generously spent some time with me yesterday going over some of the finer points, and entered me in my first little tournament at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. I wasn’t the first one out, which I thought was not bad for my first game, in fact I went out "on the bubble," but at the end of the tournament and a limit Texas Hold’em game that followed, I think I had lost about 70 of John’s real dollars. He was up almost 200 bucks for the night, so he still came out ahead even with me sucking up his chips. My only win all evening was with a pair of pocket aces and I didn’t even have to do the betting; just called and won. After that John said "Your reputation at the table is going to be that you're playing really tight. Now if you get a hand, don't scare off the money by coming out betting. Hang tight until the last round, then raise." Or something like that. It's hard to concentrate when there are ten players at the table and a woman onstage warbling about how she loves bald men...

I talked for a long time in circular hyperbole the other night with Alice the escape artist from Victoria. She’s looking for a new home and has no clue where she’ll end up. She’s not quite sure if she’s running away from something or running toward something. I think both. Running from and running toward are paradoxically intertwined.

We must’ve named every town and city in North America, then Europe, in an effort to inspire each other. What about Nelson? I asked her when she said she wanted to check out the Kootenays. “Mm, yeah, I do like it there, and I like the fact that there’s a bit of a laid back pot smoking vibe there, but mm, no, there’d be too much pot smoking there, you know?” Yeah. I know. Ok, how ‘bout Whitehorse? You’re going to Whitehorse tomorrow. “Mmm, no.” Yeah. I get it. Too redneck. “Well, it’s not that it’s redneck, it’s just that it’s mm, you know when a city has a mall and a Superstore and a Wall Mart and all that? It just reminds me of Nanaimo.” Oh, now that you say that, I agree. Ok, how ‘bout Montreal? Montreal’s Canada’s coolest city. “Mmm, no. I grew up there. I could spend a summer there, but the winters are brutal. I need a place to be intellectually stimulating, cultural, with a nice sense of community…” Ok, Toronto! “No, too big. I’ve been getting used to living in smaller places. Although I love the cultural aspects of Toronto.” Yeah. Toronto’s Canada’s great city. Especially in the summer. Vancouverites brag about rollerblading and playing tennis and skiing all on the same day, but there’s not much international flavor there. In Toronto, you can ride your bike around haphazardly and stumble into six or seven entirely different world-class events or street festivals or world music stages on a Saturday afternoon. “Yeah, no. Too big. You know what I’d love? A smaller eastern city, like Kingston, for example, but on the west coast. I gotta be near nature.” Oh, now you’re talking! Hmm, you might have to go to Oregon or Northern California. “Well, I was born in the states, so I’m actually a landed immigrant here. I don’t know how Americans live with their politics. How ‘bout you? Could you live in the states?” Hmm, I hear they have heart-stopping thunderstorms in New Mexico… And so it went for over an hour. Neither one of us came to any conclusion. Alice shrugged her shoulders. “I think I’m looking for Nirvana.” Yeah. I understand, Alice.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Summer has finally arrived in Dawson. Yesterday the sun shone all day. Not a drop of rain and the smoke that filled the valley from fires in Alaska the day before has cleared. Today looks like another fine one on its way.

A German motorcyclist who was staying at the river hostel was hit by a car yesterday. I talked to two BMW 650 Dakar riders from Toronto who got off the ferry just behind him and saw everything. He got off the ferry a little too keen to pass a truck and tried doing so at an intersection. He either didn't see the truck's left turn signal or there wasn't one. I was sitting reading three-day-old news when the ambulance went screaming down Front St. Two EMT's later told me they'd taken him to Whitehorse in one piece. He may be flown to Vancouver for better care.

Dillon, a 21-year-old mountain biker I met last week at the river hostel who'd bicycled all the way up the Dempster to Inuvik from his home in Anchorage, Alaska, was hit by lightning on a high mountain pass en route back home. A bunch of travellers sat around the campfire one night before he left telling bear stories and shark stories and lightning stories. He said he's ridden in some pretty fierce lightning storms before and they scare the hell out of him. In the mountain passes you can be right in a storm cloud and lightning can hit the pavement all around. Apparently he's ok. Dieter, who owns the hostel said he was lucky. "Who can say they've been struck by lightning?" I wonder if that experience will be enough to scare him off future adventure. He was lamenting the fact that he no longer rode with his big brother because he'd gone off and gotten himself a girlfriend. Swore he'd never become "that..."

I finally met another woman travelling alone! Alice, from Victoria, 40, and running away from home. She thought she'd like to live here in Dawson for awhile, but it's not "doing it for her." She's on a search for a new place to live. She worked at the art gallery in Victoria, had a very nice life, but wants more. She ran away from Toronto five years ago... I told her we have something in common and asked her to meet me for coffee today. I've been feeling pretty alone out here on the last stop on the road with all these male adventurers running around the wilderness. The only women I see are in tour groups or with their husbands or boyfriends. Dieter said it's as if they can't make a decision for themselves. "What's wrong with North American women?" Good question. I think we're full of fear.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

I worked my first shift last night at the Bonanza Gold restaurant. They got slammed. The cook had never seen such a busy night, so of course I was thrown into the fire (or the deep fryer) head first.

It’s been awhile since I’ve worked in a kitchen, and this cuisine is utterly foreign to me, as is the equipment, so I’m not sure if I was actually any help at all, but Gail said all her customers were happy and raving. They were all grateful I happened to be there. We served pork chops to four hungry miners. That’s their names, “four hungry miners.” They apparently come in every day, three times a day. I’ve never seen such big appetites. Each plate had two pork chops smothered in apple sauce, four baked potatoes, carrots, beets, and a cob of corn.

The cook is taking a day off today and I am filling in for him, which I find absolutely hilarious because I have no idea what I’m going to feed these four hungry miners. Lentil spaghetti? Bean burritos? Nasi goreng with tofu? Ha!

Dawson is the last stop on the road for the vegetable truck and it shows. If I’d been delivered green peppers and tomatoes this hideously battle-scarred in Banff, I’d have sent them back over the mountain pass to wherever they were stored in a warehouse for a month previous, and served rice. One really nice thing about this place, though, is that everyone is on “Yukon time,” and expectations are nothing like people’s expectations in the city. If I leave my city judgements where they belong, it’s really very refreshing.

Dawson City is one of those legendary places where staying put does not necessarily mean not travelling. In the late 1800’s, at the height of the stampede, the population boomed to 30,000. "The Paris of the North,” it was called. The year-round population may have shrunk back to around 1200 people and about 2400 dogs, but in the summer, the whole world continues to come to Dawson City.

I met an incredible man yesterday at the Riverwest Bistro where they make a fantastic soy latte. Andreas Kieling. He was having breakfast with his wife and two sons and asked about Henk when I pulled up. In a pleasant German accent, he told me he has a 1942 Harley Davidson at home in Germany that he smuggled out of Cuba in parts over a period of two years twenty years ago. He enjoys tinkering with old air-cooled engines, he said, and seemed to like Henk. He makes wildlife documentaries, living half his year in Alaska filming, and winters in Germany editing and putting stories together for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

The tone of his voice, coupled with the light in his eyes when he spoke of Alaska made me want to go. It sounds hauntingly beautiful. “Most people see Alaska in a few days,” he said. “I feel like I could spend two or three lifetimes and still not see it properly.” His business card is a 3 x 5 inch color photo of himself with a film camera on the Aleutian Coast in Alaska, perched about ten feet from two gorgeous grizzlies digging in the sand for clams – a photo taken by his 10-year-old son, Erik. The two of them spent three and a half months on a sailboat on the Alaskan coast filming grizzlies for a documentary called “The Bear Man,” which he said had won awards and been translated in dozens of languages.

When I asked him how he manages to get so close to the bears, he said, “I let the bears decide how close they want to get to me.” He’s known this one sow in the photo for eight years, and she lets him within feet of her cubs. A wonderful example of what adventures might await given the patience and courage to penetrate deeply...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Maybe I should stop writing “if I get stuck here…” John and Gail are desperate for restaurant help. Last night, while watching John’s poker game at Gertie’s and wondering how long it would take me to pick up some of his skill, he came over and asked, “What would it take to get you to stay a couple of weeks just to help us get through the season?” I thought about it for about five seconds and told him I’d trade him a week or two for some poker tips. When you’re at a crossroads in an adventure and a direction so clearly identifies itself, you have no choice but to follow it through. “The river knows the way,” said a German girl at the hostel the other night when I asked how she and her partner had navigated around islands and estuaries and tributaries from Whitehorse to Dawson in a canoe.

Maybe now I’ll get up the Dempster somehow in mid-August to catch that astonishing firey orange rolling carpet in Tombstone… And maybe now I’ll have a chance to meet “Cave Man Bill” who lives in a cave on the other side of the river, and “Two by Four Joe” who got the name when he hit someone over the head in a poker game with a two by four, and “Johnny Caribou” who was flattened by a stuffed caribou that fell off a wall… “If you stick around awhile, you’ll get a nickname, too,” someone told me yesterday. Ha!

I find it so amusing that I just wrote yesterday about constant movement and nothing sticking. Letting go also means letting go of ideas.

I had an email from Ron in which he tried to articulate his idea of adventure being staying steady, committing, going deep. He promised an essay on the topic. Yeah. The Yukon is so not the last frontier… I agree with him. There might not be a better adventure than the adventure of a long-term committed relationship. Perhaps all the lone adventurers I’m meeting out here, including myself, are using motorbike trips, kayak trips, and Unimog trips as the cowards’ substitute adventure, constantly moving, not staying anywhere long enough for anything or anyone to stick, happily awestruck by the views, yet unable to bear looking at the landscape inside commitment.

I just happen to believe that it should be as natural and effortless as lacing my canoe to my partner’s, cracking a nice bottle of Chardonnay, and kicking back to take in the marvelous view as the river floats us.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Travelling alone is a practice of letting go. The constant movement ensures that nothing (and no one) sticks. As the uneven pavement spreads out behind me like a shredded ribbon, the changing landscape reflects my changing mind. But I’m finding it impossible not to judge. My mind is in a constant state of comparison. Bella Coola, for instance, is much prettier than Dawson. Dawson has a much higher funk factor than Whitehorse. Whitehorse is cooler than Prince George, but not nearly as exciting as Toronto – and I miss Toronto. So I practice letting go.

I both gave and received a lesson in letting go last night. I let go of my teflon tough exterior long enough for Shai to kiss me. I don’t know why I was so shocked. I’d spent the previous night in his cabin, after all, listening to Eva Cassidy on his MP3 and talking long into the night; and naïve as I may seem, I knew some romantic thoughts had crossed his mind. It was strange and foreign, but perhaps a nice time and place to be reminded I’m free to kiss whomever I please, even if I’m not ready. “Come to Inuvik with me,” he said. “Then we’ll fly to Tuktoyuktuk and dip our toes in the Arctic Ocean.” Hmm. Sounds lovely, if cold, but I’m going the opposite way. “I don’t want to say goodbye to you already,” he insisted. But travelling alone is a practice of letting go, I said. Or something like that. “I’m Jewish for god’s sake,” he said, “not Buddhist.” Yeah, and you've got the entire Middle East peace process to negotiate. Get to work.

Gail’s husband John cleaned up at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. I watched his pile of red chips grow over a couple of hours into an impressive pyramid weighing down one side of the poker table. He started with around a thousand bucks and left after the first cancan show (no Moulin Rouge, but cute and entertaining) with almost two. I couldn’t see the cards from where I stood, so I didn’t get a feel for his strategy. Earlier in the day, though, he’d told me people come in from the mines with heavy pockets and before long they’re drinking… “You just wait and watch,” he said. He drank coffee and bought me a glass of Chardonnay but I wasn’t playing – I was riding Henk. I knew I’d break rule #1 again. My excuse is that this is a one-horse town after ten, and Henk’s it.

Gail and John have me very comfortably ensconced in a renovated motel room with a real bed, a large tv, and a shower that spews hot water when you turn the tap – no wood chopping necessary. Much as I loved the hostel and its rustic charm, I have to admit it’s wonderful to sleep in a large bed in a warm, dry room, and have a bathroom all to myself. Maybe I’ll even shave my legs; although if I get stuck here, I’ll want to get a head start on the “hairy legs competition” in February.

I saw my naked body today in front of a mirror and realized that I had exactly one month’s worth of fat reserves on my hips and thighs before leaving Toronto. I’ve shed several skins since then and dipped into the reserves somewhere on the Alaska Highway. With the energy it takes to shiver and stay warm up here in the Yukon IN AUGUST, I’ll have to take up eating caribou. Either that or start heading south tomorrow…

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I broke three of my strict rules of the road yesterday.

Rule #1: never, ever, ride Henk after even one drink.
Rule #2: never, ever, ride down a deserted gravel road behind an eccentic old miner in pursuit of a gold mining story.
Rule #3: never, ever, share a cabin with a complete stranger.

Around 4pm I was finishing up my laundry in Gail and John's laundromat when Gail brought out the wine and said it was cocktail hour. I happily joined them while the dryer went one more cycle. I'm just riding back into Dawson, about 3km, on a wide dirt road, I thought, and one glass of wine will probably make me a better driver. It's that second glass I need to refuse.

Everyone went back to work after a rainstorm blew through and I went to fold my laundry. An old man in the laundromat got to chatting: "Happiness is when all your socks match at the end of laundry day," he said. I laughed and agreed. It's the little things. "I'm doing greys today," he said. "They used to be whites, but now they're all grey." His laundry was one messy pile of grey socks and rags. "You travelling alone?" he asked. "I've got claim #1 out there. Got a cabin with a double bed in it if you want to get out of the rain." Thanks for the offer, but I'm fine over in the campground. "I'm a harmless old man. I'm 67. I'm stayin in my trailer. You can have the cabin. The offer's there if you want it. It's the old dredge master's cabin. Over a hundred years old. You should see this thing anyway. Come on. Hop in my truck, I'll show you around." Um, no thanks. How does one go about getting a gold claim around here? "You just get a map of the claims and check where there's no claim and go walk the property and stick a stake in on one side, then stick a stake in the other side, then go to the claims office and pay them 20 bucks and it's yours." Really? "Yeah, come on, I'll show you around." Hmm. I'm thinking I can take this limping 67-year-old if I got into trouble. Ok, I'll follow you. Is it far? "No. Just out by the airport. But I gotta stop at the dump first. I'll introduce you to Frank." Hmm. Now there's two of them...

I'm either naive or stupid. At least that's what a guy from Hawaii said when I got back to the hostel. But I had a good story. This guy, "Pappy Wells" has been mining gold up here in these hills for years. He comes up from Key Largo every June and camps out in his trailer on his gold claim. I followed him down a brutal gravel road for 15 minutes to his dredge master's cabin. He enthusiastically showed me around. The cabin was an authentic mess. Rusty old mining equipment still hung on the far wall. I took note of a particularly sharp looking pick in case I needed a weapon.

Genuinely happy to have company, he made some cowboy coffee in his trailer that looked as though a bomb had gone off inside, and told me his story. "You see 'Top Gun?'" he asked. "Well, you're lookin' at Tom Cruise." I howled. Tom Cruise with eye bags down to his jawline, a gimpy hip and a pot belly. "Used to fly fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force. Then flew for American Airlines for 32 years. I'm a multi-millionaire. I invest in mutuals. Just do this gold thing for a hobby. I come up here for two months and nobody tells me shit. Here, lemme get a picture of you so I can send it to my wife and tell her look what I picked up at the laundromat. Heh heh." He proceeded to tell me the history of the gold rush and the geology and geography of the area. Or at least his version. His claim is on Hunker Creek, where, he says, there's a ton of gold being pulled out right now. People are still getting rich here, but a lot more quietly than during the big gold rush.

When he was finished showing me his property and his dredge and sluice box and the panning technique, he wanted to show me around other claims. "Get in my truck, I'll show you some gold mines around here that are worth fortunes." I got in.

Dawn advised me before leaving Christina Lake that if I ever got that shiver up the spine gut feeling that things were not right, just bail. One thing about travelling alone is that your intuition is sharper than ever. I kept checking in. Here I am down a gravel mining road with a crazy guy I just met and I'm about to get in his truck. No shivers or uneasy gut. Just the perfect, natural ease that comes with sharing with another human being.

He took me to a huge gravel field where there was active mining going on. I saw an old dredge left to rust and rot in the river from the late 1890's and he told me how it worked. The dredge would dig down forty feet into the riverbed and haul up sand and gravel, then move it into a tumbler where the heavy stuff would fall to the bottom. Eventually, through a series of sifting processes, only the gold would remain.

We got lost in the labyrinth of gravel mountains and he pushed his old chevy up some steep rocky cliffs trying to find the way out. The gravel was slippery and the truck's tires spun on the edge of the steep makeshift roads. "This is so strange. I don't know which way we came in. Isn't this scary?" he asked. I refused to get scared even though we were climbing gravel hills well beyond the capacity of his chevy truck and each one turned into a dead end. He finally drove up to his acquaintance's place, a guy with heavy machinery and an enormous shed for equipment, mining several claims in the area, and apparently worth a fortune. We got out and asked for directions.

Safely back on the road, he asked me what I do. When I told him I write, he said "Well, this is a good story! Maybe you'll write about this."

We returned to his cabin and he invited me for dinner. He was going to cook up a fish. I begged off and rode back down the gravel road on Henk, laughing all the way.

When I got back to my rain-drenched tent at the hostel, Shai, the self-described spoiled Best Western guy from Israel, who'd rented a private cabin for a few days, invited me to sleep in his bunkbed. I didn't hesitate for a second.

We talked in the warm, dry, candle-lit cabin until one in the morning. He's doing his masters in Middle Eastern studies and his thesis is on Israeli-US relations and it's effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yeah. He hopes to one day work for the UN or the British or US government in the peace process. Having the inside perspective of serving in the Israeli Army and growing up with "lies" as he put it, gave him the desire to find solutions. "If I thought there would be no end to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, I wouldn't be getting into this." He's young, ambitious, hopeful, bright, has a wonderful indistinguishable Australian/South African/English accent, and he wears eyeshades to bed.

I'm at a "crossroads" as my wise sister, Lara, calls it. As far away physically as I'm going to get from my life in Toronto with as many options in front of me as I can imagine. I sometimes feel that just living this adventure is my obligation, my purpose. Whenever I get back on Henk after a few days of rest the feeling returns. What's around the next corner? I'm a three year old learning the world all over again. You can call me naive or stupid and I'll probably just giggle a silly giggle that only someone with a three-year-old's sense of wonder comfortably intact could giggle.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Leave it to the Germans to make the bath house into a sauna. A couple of kayakers came out all rosy and smiling and when I asked if the water was still warm, they enthusiastically motioned for me to go off and enjoy. The fire was blazing and the water was hot. Aaah. I love that bath house.

This morning, the fire starter promised he'd make another one tonight. It's a real highlight here - almost makes up for the cold weather. A young traveller from Israel arrived last night just when I'd finished bathing. I told him how wonderful it was and he asked if I was being sarcastic. He'd just spent ten days in a Best Western in Whitehorse and couldn't imagine bathing in a rustic wood cabin. I ran into him this morning and he's a changed man. Well, maybe not quite that dramatic, but he did actually enjoy it.

I took Henk for a ride to the "Top of the World" yesterday. It felt like the top of the world. If you follow that road, you'll cross the Alaska border and eventually arrive at a place called "Chicken." Everyone says "You gotta go to Chicken." But really, I have no desire. What's there? "Oh, about 7 people and a bar where everyone from all over the world and all walks of life congregate." Hmm.

I turned Henk off at the top and we sat in absolute silence looking out at the Yukon River valleys and layers upon layers of rolling mountains and changing weather. A huge black raincloud hovered on the Alaska side, threatening to move east as they all tend to do. A couple of adorable baby foxes peeked out from the ditch. I called to them in the voice I use with Willow Green Eyes and one actually started toward me, but turned back when he got within 20 feet. I don't know what I would have done had he come right up to Henk. Pet him? Can you pet foxes? A loud American from southern California travelling with his son the other night said I'm "sooo Orange County." I think that means I'm prissy or something. I didn't want one of his son's smores that he was so proudly distributing around the fire. Too much sugar right before bed, I said. I'd be climbing my tent walls. But then he said I made up for it by doing this trip. "It's not every day you see a woman biker out here by herself." Yeah. Back off.

I went to introduce myself to the sister of my friend Dawn from Christina Lake. Gail and her husband John run the Bonanza Gold RV park and Motel. I was planning on leaving in the morning and heading for warmer climes, but they're insisting I stay here in a warm room with "a real bath" for a couple of days. John is a professional gambler and promises that tomorrow night at Diamond Tooth Gertie's there'll be some good action. Maybe I'll pick up some pointers. Maybe I'll make a fortune. Maybe, in typical gold rush fashion, I'll make a fortune, then lose everything. Those guys risked and spent and went wild with adventures and made fortunes and lost it all, and at the end of their lives, when someone asked if they'd do it all again, ten out of ten said in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

I had a dream last night that Henk's tires had been completely stripped bald and I was stuck up here in the Klondike with all the other crazies who winter here. The roads here are horribly uneven and the sealcoating and gravel picks apart Henk's rubber like teeth. Permafrost. They can't pave over the permafrost. It just heaves and breaks up and there are potholes that could swallow Henk whole.

I'd never seen a Unimog in my life until yesterday. My friend Kevin dreams of driving around the globe in a Unimog on a great adventure of a lifetime. Now that I've seen two of these houses perched atop huge mining truck tires, I get the idea. Next time I come this far north, I, too, will be in a Unimog. I'd love to travel up the Dempster in late August when the wildflowers cover Tombstone Valley like a sprawling firey orange and yellow carpet as far as the eye can see. You'd get the aurora borealis by then, too, if you were lucky... and a stop at Liard Hotsprings would be a must to catch the northern lights at midnight from the hotsprings.

I met a woman from Inuvik last night at the hostel campfire. She'd come to Dawson with a couple of friends in search of the sun. Tough luck. Seems they've had a brutal summer and this is their "southern" vacation. She's originally from Ontario and one winter over 20 years ago, a friend invited her to Inuvik for a couple of weeks. She went home and quit her job, then returned to the north and hasn't looked back. She chain-smoked and drank from one of those ridiculously enormous gallon mugs the size of her ample belly. When I was going to bed, she invited me into her cabin for a moment to give me a candle to take the dampness out of my tent. By the smell of her cabin, it wasn't just the bucket-sized ceasars that were helping her cope with life in the north.

Dawson is a crazy little city. I'm not feeling at all touristy and feel no great need to tour an old mine or listen to a Robert Service poetry reading. Yesterday, I spent a good part of the day with Greg, who'd just lost his grandmother while paddling the Yukon River and found out only two days ago. We had lunch at Klondike Kate's, talking softly and listening to Jack Johnson on the patio. He's an incredible person. He teaches "developmentally challenged" high school kids in Oakland, a suburb of San Fran, and supposedly one of the roughest neighborhoods in the states. He says most of "his kids" are just lacking in some sort of a role model, and he strives to establish a stable, grounding relationship with them. He works intensely from September til June, giving the kids everything he has, then heads out for a solo adventure by bike or by kayak to recharge his batteries. He keeps a journal and shares it with his class, hoping to inspire one or two of them... Another high quality human being from the U.S.A. They're all running away to Canada.

I met a wandering Buddhist guy from Toronto today over coffee. He lives a sort of monastic life "begging for rides," as he put it. He had some interesting stories, but the day was getting away on me so I excused myself and moved on. You can easily spend days in these places just chatting with people passing through. We all seem to have nothing but time.

I told Ron on the phone yesterday I can't imagine doing this for the rest of my life and he laughed at me. He said, "You've been doing it all your life, what are you talking about?" Hmm. He's always so aggravatingly accurate.

Monday, August 01, 2005

I wish I had a webcam on my helmet so I could share this ride... The Klondike Highway north from Whitehorse to Dawson is magnificent and remote. I rode for ten or fifteen minutes at a time without seeing another vehicle. The weather was good when I started out, sunny with clouds, warm-ish, dry pavement, perfect riding conditions. Within an hour, though, the clouds had moved in from somewhere over in Alaska and my knuckles, knees, toes, and nose began to freeze. Had I left ten minutes earlier, I'd have been riding in heavy downpour most of the way. As it was, the pavement was wet and the black cloud that had dumped had moved east.

A beautiful lone wolf ran out in front of Henk and into the ditch beside us. I got to thinking that if I happened to go off this lonely narrow two lane road, I could easily disappear into the ditch and not be found for days...left for the wolves. I suppose that's one way to go. I've always thought the most efficient way of dealing with human corpses would be to hang them in trees and let the ravens and eagles devour them...

I read the Saturday Vancouver Sun on Saturday night in Whitehorse. There was a story of Luna, the killer whale in Nootka sound, who has actually become a bit of a danger and a nuisance, "playing" with small boats in his bid for interaction with their humans. A couple of scientists are offering to give him a human family until his pod comes by and takes him "home." Daniel Quinn has a theory that other animals are beginning to become self-aware. (Why wouldn't they? Where did our self-awareness come from?) It sounds as though this orca is more self-aware than some humans I know, and more social...

I'm camped across the river at the Yukon River Hostel, "Canada's most northern hostel." The owner said that if someone else goes and builds one in Inuvik, he'll scream, then change his sign to read "one of..." He's from Germany, "I was lucky enough to run away," and has built a very very funky place. It consists of several shared cabins and a few private ones, a lovely campground looking back across the river at Dawson, and a wood-fired bath. I went for the wood-fired bath. When I left Whitehorse, the campground showers were not working, so I was a filthy frozen mess when I arrived.

Greg, an adventurous high school teacher from San Francisco who'd kayaked solo from Alaska, showed me to the bathouse and explained how it worked. First, you have to chop your wood, then you light a fire in the stove below the barrel of water, then you wait half an hour for the water to heat up, then you mix it with the cold to get just the right temperature, then you stand in the bathing area and ladle the warmed water over you. Mmm.

It really comes down to: How badly do you need to bathe? I grabbed a saw and started in on a log. A gentleman bmw biker held the log for me as I sawed. Someone said, "You're holding the saw backward." Oh. By the time you've sawed a log or two for the fire, you need a bath!

I finally managed around midnight to have a very luxurious private bath in the wood-warmed bath house. I couldn't help thinking, though, what a romantic ritual that would be for two. A new requirement for my dream home in my dream life.

I woke up this morning (yup) to the chorus of the young couple in the tent next to mine having sex. Half an hour later, all the guy could say was "Oatmeal! Oatmeal!" His girlfriend went off to chop some wood to boil some water and I came out and winked at him. "Pretty good stamina for a young buck just out of high school," I said. "You think so?" he asked, proud of himself. "Yeah," I said. "But you should always, always, make sure the woman is happy before you finish. Makes for good harmony in the home (tent)." "Thanks for the advice," he said. Ok, I didn't actually see the young lovers when I finally got up around 10.

Dawson City is about as far away from Toronto as I'll be able to ride. I can feel the ropes that hold the hooks pulled taut like a bungy cord. This is the place where I usually snap back into the same old patterns only to start again. It's difficult being this far away. I miss my kitty. And I miss Ron. Ron's having a hard time moving on. I thought he was the lucky one, staying in his place where a whirlwind of business and activity takes place daily and he gets to sleep with Willow Green Eyes and life goes on as before. But he emailed yesterday that he feels as though a light has been snuffed out. I think, perhaps, he's been thinking until now that I'd be back. Why wouldn't I? I've run away from home before, six or seven times, only to return.

I remember running away from home when I was 11 or 12. I packed a lunch of crackers and cheese and hit the woods. I went for a skate on a pond and when it started getting dark, I got scared and ran home.

"You're so brave!" I keep hearing this over and over on this trip. But really, it's not true. I'm still that scared 12-year-old out in the woods contemplating running home when it gets dark.