The Journey Back: remembering the gas station experiences

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a frequent filler-upper.

 

Regular stops at gas stations, I’d say every 150 kilometres, are where it’s at for me.

 

Sure, my F650GS has a digital fuel gauge, and I could surely make it to 250 kilometres and beyond without stopping for fuel.

 

But I like to stretch my legs, use the washroom, maybe have a cereal bar and a sip or two of water, and make some human contact.

 

I’ve never been a big fan of the card-reading automaton when I pay at the pump. It just beeps and whines at you like a second-rate R2D2. And it’s always demanding things: your PIN, what octane fuel you want, whether you want a receipt printed. You can’t small talk about the weather or comment about the wonderful road you’re riding. If you did it would be a very one-sided conversation.

 

So in this blog I’m choosing to remember the gas station attendants I met when I went inside the station building to make a human connection. No matter how brief. I’m always saying how riding a motorcycle allows me to connect with people, not connect with machines.

 

East of Castlegar, 139 kilometres from my starting point at Nakusp, I pulled in to the quiet Glade Esso. It’s to be found on the west side of the Kootenay River, just before the hydroelectric Brilliant Dam. I dismounted to find the pump actually was not card-operated, nor did it indicate which octane it dispensed, forcing me to make human contact to make enquiries.

 

I found two young ladies wearing sunglasses, seated and chatting in the early morning sun at the deserted fuelling station. I could have very well been their first customer of the day.

 

“Morning. Is it 87 octane fuel it pumps?” I asked.

 

“Sure does,” a young lady with a nose ring and long sandy blonde said coolly as she stood up and opened the door for me to go inside and pre-pay.

 

“I just need an amount to authorize for,” she said as I handed her my credit card. I thought about that a minute. “It’ll only charge you for the amount you pump.”

 

“Ten dollars,” I said. “Could I also use the bathroom?”

 

“Mm hmm,” she handed me a key attached to part of a wooden handle.

 

I did my business, fuelled up then walked my bike away from the pump where I parked it and tucked into a cereal bar and a few sips of water, aware the two ladies were curiously watching me. Even though it was just a small interaction, it was the most I’d spoken to another person that morning, and it actually charged my brain up a little bit, the side not focused on riding the bike and taking the twists and turns of Highway 6 from Nakusp.

 

The next stop was Grand Forks at a Petro-Canada station. The day was warming up. I had just made it over the big climb at Bonanza Pass, ascending to just over 1500 metres’ elevation before descending into the old copper town. The August day was really starting to warm up and the landscape becoming more arid as I wound my BMW around curves past ranches and slowed down to enter the quaint town on a Sunday. I could see people entering churches for the morning services.

 

It was good to stretch my legs after fording the Monashees. And I needed another bathroom break (I had anticipated needing hydration on the expected hot day and drank much orange juice and water that morning). After paying for my fuel at the pump I proceeded inside.

 

The middle-aged, bespectacled woman at the till was helping another customer. I patiently waited in my riding gear, holding my helmet. Anticipating my needs, almost as though she could read it in my face, she handed me the washroom key with a smile.

 

“It’s just around the building to the left,” she said conspiratorially with a wink.

 

I was impressed. The gesture gave me something to think about for the exit out of town. How had she known? What a kind exchange.

 

The next stop would be in Osoyoos, at a Petro-Canada station at the foot of the steep switchbacks leading down into the Okanagan Valley. During the steep climb out of Rock Creek earlier, I had noticed with some alarm just how hot it was getting. I needed some refreshment, stat.

 

After once again fuelling up at the busy multi-pump station, I pulled the bike around to park next to some leather-clad Harley-Davidson riders. Proceeding inside I searched for fruit juice, choosing a bottle of orange juice and filtered water. I went up to the till to pay.

 

“Hi there. Just these two please,” I said in as friendly a way as my dehydrated self could.

 

“It’s a hot one out there, isn’t it?” My attendant was of First Nations ancestry. I was right next to Nk’Mip Resort and the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, a place I’d stayed a few summers before with family that I knew demonstrated the culture and history of the Okanagan people.

“Keep cool out there,” she said with a look towards my riding jacket.

 

“I will thanks,” I said, making eye contact. It’s always nice when a stranger takes a genuine interest in your wellbeing.

 

“I’m looking forward to end of my shift and relaxing in the sun,” she extended to me.

 

“Enjoy it,” I said. “And thanks…”

 

 

As it would turn out, I managed to have my first bout of heat exhaustion I would discover as I stayed at my hotel for the night in Princeton. Silly me, I also took it upon myself to hike downhill into town then uphill afterward to see the museum and have dinner. I overdid it, even though the museum and meal were wonderful. I needed to take an extra day to recuperate.

 

Pulling out early the next morning, having had a quiet recuperation day with little human interaction, I rode across Highway 3 to a Husky station. In a hurry to fuel up at the pump and get my heat-exhausted self home before the sun was once again upon me, I ignored the young men fuelling up their mini-van behind me.

 

“Excuse me,” I heard a young man say. It was a German accent. I was still in my helmet and sunglasses.

 

“Yes,” I managed as I was going through the instructions the pay-at-the-pump droid was dishing out.

 

“Could you help us?”

 

I looked at him and held up my forefinger. “Just give me a sec,” I said hastily.

 

The young man retreated to his friend who was looking confusedly at the pump.

 

What was I doing? Of course, help him. What a selfish gesture on my part. I fuelled up and went over to the young men. They were confused with the octane options. 87? 89? 91? What did it all mean? The young german’s friend had the van’s manual in his hand and was flipping through it.

 

“It’s our first gas stop in Canada,” my new German friend was saying. “We are not sure if we should put in 87 octane.”

 

“What does your manual tell you?” I tried to sound helpful.

 

“It says minimum 85,” he sounded doubtful.

 

“Well then, I imagine 87 should be enough,” I managed. “I know, they provide many options don’t they?” I gave a smile.

 

The young German also smiled.

 

“All right, we will try that one,” he said brightly. “Thank you for your help.”

 

“Not a problem,” I said.

 

I took my receipt out of the droid, hopped on, started up, and proceeded hastily west through the haze of forest fire smoke.

 

As I proceeded along the switchbacks that make up the ride along Highway 3 west to Manning Park, I though in my helmet of the help received and human contact made in the last few days. Too often, I retreat back into my big city aloofness, my defense against an unforeseen foe who may provide me with a problem.

 

I realized as I rode into the lodgepole pine forest of Manning that the human contact made on a journey is a major part of it, not to shun it, but revel in it, in whatever form it may take.

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Searching For The Authentic Travel Experience

Searching for authenticity near Oban. Dunollie Castle was built by the McDougalls of Lorne in the 15th century.

 

This was a non-fiction contest entry that failed to get awarded anything. Perhaps because it wouldn’t have fit in a mainstream travel magazine (the prize awarded a successful entry). But even though it didn’t involve a motorcycle, I wanted to write a personal story about the difference between being a tourist and a traveller. What is an authentic travel experience? I struggled with this question as a young adventurer wandering through Scotland. I hope you may learn from my experience. But take my advice: don’t put on a See You Jimmy hat.

 

The Search For Scot: a Caledonian quest for travel authenticity

 

I had a shock of red hair and a horrid tartan cap on my head as I sat on a statue of a legendary long-necked water beast. Our charismatic and enthusiastic tour guide Doug took picture after picture. The cameras were lined up on top of a rubbish bin at the Loch Ness Visitor Centre, while the nineteen of us got plenty of practice shouting “Nessie”. My patience was wearing thin.

 

I may have had enough of this extroverted gamboling across Scotland, but I was also beginning to feel like a stick in the mud. Was this the real Scotland? After all, I was sitting on a plesiosaur-shaped piece of concrete and acting like I was eight.

 

Let’s go back a month to when I booked this excursion into passionate tourism.

 

I was a twenty-eight-year-old living and working in London. My contract with a television production company was about to end. What an opportunity to stretch out and see the rest of the United Kingdom, I thought. The sudden realization that I could travel was exciting. It was also a bit nerve-wracking. It wasn’t every day I got to investigate the land of William Wallace and age-old castles. The movie Braveheart had been released just a few years previous and I knew it well. Monty Python and the Holy Grail had been filmed around Scotland too. I had read Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. I wanted to get it right.

 

Previous self-guided trips into Ireland and around England had, at times, found me wandering about somewhat aimlessly. I had the freedom to do what I wanted traveling solo but lacked local knowledge. So I succumbed to my need to have a comprehensive group experience and booked a week’s guided tour of Scotland.

 

A month later, my giddy tour group was modeling the See You Jimmy hat at Drumnadrochit. This was what Doug called them. I didn’t ask as to the provenance of the term.

 

The group was made up of New Zealanders, Australians and Germans for the most part. I was the only Canadian. I had taken the train solo to Edinburgh and stayed cheaply in a shared bunk bed dorm room in a youth hostel. After a day checking out Edinburgh Castle, wandering around Calton Hill and hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat, it was time to get down to business.

 

The bus wasn’t what I pictured. It was yellow. And small. As my fellow sightseers got on board, I took note of the various accents I heard. I seemed to be the elder of the group. Many had backpacks. Some were loudly proclaiming themselves to the rest of us. Clearly we were going to have a party. I slid a little further in my upholstered seat and stared at the tiny blank TV screen above me.

 

At first it seemed we were hitting all the stops. First off was the granular and rough-hewn tower of the William Wallace Monument at Stirling built in the 1860s to honour the Scottish hero of the 13th century. I marveled at Wallace’s broadsword, encased in glass and nearly taller than me. After that it was on to Doune Castle, where John Cleese had once shouted insults at Graham Chapman in a silly French accent. Then it was on to the solemnity of the gravesite of Rob Roy MacGregor and further into the rugged scenery of the bens and lochs of the Trossachs.

 

Settling in for the evening at shared accommodation in Oban, many turned to the bar to get comfortably laminated, while I convinced a few of my newfound fellow explorers to get castled. Through the mist, I walked up a nearby hill to Dunhollie, a three-story stronghold of the McDougalls of Lorne built in the 15th Century. I was standing defiantly against the precipitation at the base of the ivy-covered fortification, eyes determinedly looking west across to the Isle of Mull. This was the kind of adventure I’d wanted, making the most of the time in this place far from home. Authentic Scotland. I was getting it right.

 

As the days wore on and castles and lochs and historical facts continued to be absorbed, wittily served up by our gifted guide Doug, I found fewer explorers to join me in my evening jaunts to local landmarks. Some were heading for a wee nip of whisky, more for just a cooler or a pint. It was in Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye where I noticed a discernable change in the mood of the tour group. Even though I marched, alone and in the dark, to the ruins of Castle Moil, continuing my quest to collect photographs of castles, talk to locals outside of the hostels and gather facts and figures and legends for later retelling, I felt more and more like the odd one out. I returned to the hostel’s pub where I found my tour group mid-party, some of which had spilled out onto the parking lot. These guys were on a separate quest.

 

I had a few wee nips myself and found myself falling from the purer faith. I couldn’t stand myself. What had I done?

 

The following day I discovered the ideal hangover remedy. Sticking your pounding skull for a few seconds into the icy waters of a Scottish river will cure anything that ails you. Dipping your head in the Sligachan will also provide you with eternal youth, if I believed the tales told by our always keen and good humoured tour guide Doug. After I shook the water from my hair like an obedient terrier, we were soon trudging up a hill past grunting hairy coos to the phallic rock formation of the Old Man of Storr, partially hiding in a stubborn fog.

 

I felt in a fog of my own, somehow wanting to break free from the group, yet too scared to know how to do it. As Royal Air Force fighter jets boomed overhead, we traveled to haunted Carbisdale Castle. It happened to be Scotland’s largest youth hostel. Gathered again in a shared room, albeit much bigger than those found in previous ones, I rolled my eyes at a very audible Limp Bizkit track coming from one of the Aussies’ CD players. I gave my excuses about wanting to explore the castle to one of the New Zealanders who gave me a look of disbelief. His patience was over. He knew what I was about.

 

I was searching for Betty. The pure white image of the resident ghost would understand. Empty halls and gold chandeliers throwing reflections of light against the hardwood floors and fading landscape paintings greeted me around every turn. Where had I gone wrong Betty? I was a traveller, now I’ve become a tourist sheep. I’ve lost my way. Please help me see the right path!

 

The closest thing to Betty I found that night were white porcelain statues in the greco-roman style standing on dark wood plinths. The impassive looks on their faces had me looking inward for answers.

 

Sitting alone in a bus filled with partying revelers aimed at Edinburgh the next morning I had realized my mistake. I had been looking for the essence of travel. What I’d been confronted with were my own expectations. They were leading me to see what I wanted to see. Amidst visiting the empty fields where a blue-faced Mel Gibson once shouted encouragement at hundreds of heavily-armed extras and petting hairy coos I had expected authentic travel and been hit square in the face with my own preconceived notions of what Scotland was and not let the journey happen. The partying revelers weren’t the problem. They were taking each day as it came, so long as there were drinks to be had in the evenings. In my quest to be a traveler, I’d become a tourist.

 

One of our last stops was Drumnadrochit and Loch Ness, where I had firmly placed a shock of synthetic red hair on my head for a group photo. In it I’m distinctively crouched down in a position of defeat, a smile covering my disappointment and wish to flee.

 

After the photo event I strolled down solitarily to the edge of the loch in the soft rain and didn’t see a single creature emerge from its waters.

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