An inch of ash hangs off his cigarette and the man lets it drop to the ground, landing close to the gas pump. His faded red plaid shirt strains to hold his belly above the belt line. He looks at me passively in a way that seems to say: “Yeah, I know where I’m smoking, and what are ya gonna do about it, city boy?
It’s 7am; too early for the second near-death experience of the morning. The first was a stare down between a porcupine and my overburdened jalopy of a motorcycle – lucky the porcupine blinked first. It seems funny that I find danger around every corner on the longest motorbike ride of my life, especially when the ride is in the name of safety.
My father passed this gas station roughly 15 days ago, halfway through his quest to ride the length of Canada from south to north. My mother would only let him tackle the second longest cycle tour of his life if someone agreed to ride with him along the Dempster Highway, the most remote dirt road he would travel on between Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory, and the town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
Riding a bike is as natural to my father as breathing or wearing a beard. Cycling is in his blood. At age 12, my grandfather, Kees, rode from his family home in Culemborg, Holland, to Paris on a single speed bike – a distance more than 1,000 kilometers. My father followed this example at age 18 and rode 1,800 miles from his home in Calgary to the Pacific Ocean and back. In 2006, he cycled 7,125 kilometers across Canada from west to east and he thought it might be fun to try turning 90 degrees and going south to north. And that’s why I’m here. For better or worse, I’m playing chaperone on a portion of my father’s trip.
I step past the man in the red plaid shirt and enter the gas station. I order coffee from the owner who also wears plaid, a similar pattern but this one with vertical blue stripes. Naturally we exchange pleasantries about the morning’s rain and he hands me coffee with tired, steely eyes. The conversation turns to my journey through the far north reaches of the Rockies. He questions the motivation for my solo 3,000-kilometer south to north motorbike ride. I mention that my father may have passed by earlier. His eyes transform, and a broad smile awakens his tired expression. Up here on the Alaska highway, I’m starting to learn that my Dad Gerald, is making a bit of a name for himself. His ravenous cinnamon bun appetite, unabashed introductions to strangers and a genuine optimism towards the people he meets mid road trip means that I’m simply a second-rate shadow behind the man I aim to catch.