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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Author: Trevor Marc Hughes

Trevor Marc Hughes is an author and travel writer. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife and two sons. He rides a Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle. If he can help it, he doesn't ride his motorcycle in Vancouver; he takes it out of town, where he enjoys exploring the province of B.C. and beyond, and writing about his adventures. He has written for magazines such as Canadian Biker, Rider, Motorcycle Mojo, Inside Motorcycles, and RidersWest. His two books are "Nearly 40 on the 37: Triumph and Trepidation on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway" and "Zero Avenue to Peace Park: Confidence and Collapse on the 49th Parallel".