I have chosen to live life to the fullest and without fear. I’ve not been completely successful, but I feel that I’ve managed it pretty well. Today I encountered a soul that helped me to understand that no matter my efforts so far…compared to some I’m only a bumbling amateur.
Northwest bound and cruising in extreme northern British Columbia I realized with a start that the beautiful scenery and sweeping, lonely roads had managed to put me into some sort of trance. I was riding, safely and in full control, but had lost the situational awareness required when traveling this desolate place with limited fuel. I glanced at the map on my tank-bag and wondered just exactly where on it I actually was. Another glance at the trip odometer on the bike told me I’d better figure it out pretty soon, I only had a few miles left before my main fuel went dry and I switched to reserve. Once on reserve 30-40 miles is the limit of my range and while that may sound like a lot, out here it is not. Fuel stops can be as much as 100 miles apart and if I had skipped a needed one, I might not make the next. If I needed to backtrack, that was something I’d better determine now.
I pulled off onto the shoulder and cut off the bike, sighing as I removed my helmet. Once again the complete lack of any man-made noise—no airplanes, no cars, and no muted city noises—hit me with an almost physical force and drove home just how big and isolated this land is. Only the gentle swish of a breeze and the woodland smells it carried tickled my senses. Absolutely nothing else stirred. Even the bugs were silent, kept away from the road and other open spaces by the light wind. I sat there a moment absorbing the silence, feeling the loneliness, and trying to rein in my soul. It was still flying down the highway.
I stared blankly at the map for a moment and then had to dig the receipt out of my wallet to remember the name of my last stop. With that information, a quick reference to my trip odometer and the map told me exactly where I was. Ah! Excellent, another twenty miles and I had a choice of two places. I took a couple long deep breaths before donning my helmet. Gravel scattered and the big cruiser grumbled as I flew on down the road.
The bike was fueled and ready, but a break for lunch seemed just the thing. Sitting in the small dining room in the Liard Hot Springs Lodge I quietly munched my cheeseburger and pondered the trip so far. One thing I was really enjoying out here was the food. Due to the distances and difficulty in delivering supplies, most places bought in bulk and actually cooked food from basic ingredients, as opposed to pre-packaged goods or the pre-cooked stuff I had apparently become used to. For example, simply ordering a cheeseburger resulted in at least half a pound of nicely spiced, hand packed meat, fire-grilled to juicy perfection, with hand-sliced cheddar cheese bubbling on the top, and served on a home-made bun with fresh cut fries or battered onion rings. Most stops had some sort of stew or soup on, and these were from scratch, cooked for hours on end, and inevitably excellent and served in generous quantity. Dessert was nearly always a homemade pie, cake, or an unbelievably rich cinnamon bun.
Situated directly across the road from the Liard Hot Springs Park, the lodge was comfortable and staffed with genuinely friendly people. The hostess was a shapely and bubbly twenty-something gal that took care of the patron’s needs with infectious enthusiasm. I had been staring at her for a while (ok, so, I’m a guy) when I finally actually managed to read what was printed on the front of her t-shirt. “Liard Hot Springs Lodge, mile 497, Alaska Highway”.
It took a moment to sink in.
Mile 497? I blinked. What? I had passed through Dawson Creek just this morning. Dawson Creek is mile “0” on the Alaskan Highway. Dawson Creek is where it starts. I frantically glanced at the time and then back at the tight t-shirt to make sure I had read it right. The enticing soft shapes filling out that shirt required extra concentration on my part, but it was the mileage; I just needed to read the mileage. 497. Yep, I had read it correctly.
Slowly it dawned on me that I had already made some 500 miles for the day. The strange hours and near continual daylight that I was starting to encounter from the far northern latitude were throwing off my sense of time and distance. Glancing at the clock again and doing a reverse calculation I made a rough guess that I must have left Dawson Creek long before four o’clock this morning…and I thought I had overslept. 500 miles. It was now only a bit after noon.
The wonderful meal finished, I straddled my machine in the parking lot looking at my maps and planning the rest of my day. With luck, I could easily make Watson Lake, and perhaps even further. That was a lot of miles, but why not? A sudden back spasm as I twisted in the saddle to check my gear made me gasp for breath and soundly answered that question. Caught up in the riding and wide open spaces I had failed to notice any signs of weariness or discomfort until they hit me hard. I groaned in agony and wiped my forehead with the back of my arm, covering my eyes as I waited for the spell to pass. I was breaking out in a cold sweat from the shock.
I sat there in the saddle for a few minutes until the pain lessoned and I could breathe regularly again. Five hundred miles of motorcycle riding on challenging roads is very physically demanding and with my recent injuries even more so. Once I realized how tired I was I could feel every bruise and bump. In particular, my right shoulder, lower back, and leg were throbbing and stiff. Those injuries weren’t anywhere near gone yet, although I thought I had been coping with them pretty well. I looked around at the rustic lodge and the gorgeous surroundings and thought of the hot springs across the road. Executive decision coming…that was it. I was done for the day.
The lodge was happy to sell me a room for the night. Like all the small operations I had encountered in Canada, the price was reasonable and the accommodations pleasant and clean. I settled in, changed into some cotton shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed a towel provided by the lodge for the purpose, and hiked across the road to the hot springs.
Liard Hot Springs consists of a series of several huge pools progressing further back into the park. Large wooden decks, changing and shower rooms, and walkways throughout the park provide easy access and pleasant surroundings. I selected the middle pool due to the walking distance and a warning from the cute gal running the lodge that the upper pool was way too hot in the current weather. There were a few people in the pool, but I paid little attention once I began anticipating how soothing the hot water would be for my pain and stiffness.
I found a place to drop my things and with exaggerated care removed my shirt. I managed not to further aggravate my back but with the stiffness in my leg could not walk forward down the stairs into the pool. I turned sideways, grabbed the rail, and stumbled my way in. I groaned in pleasure as I immersed myself in the hot water right up to my chin, finding additional relief in the occasional very hot currents wafting through the crystal clear pool. There was a slight sulfur smell to the warm humid air and I closed my eyes, breathing deeply while waves of relief washed over me. Oooooh, yeah!
Shortly a woman’s voice roused me from my bliss when she asked, “Who’d you piss off?”
My eyes snapped open to view the speaker. I guessed that she was in her 70’s, but really wasn’t sure. Thin and white haired, she defied the “little-old-lady” stereotype by wearing her thinning hair long and in a braid that trailed into the water behind her. She was also sporting a red and black one-piece swimsuit with large side cutouts and no shoulders that was definitely not “old lady” fare. On her it was actually quite flattering. There were several stone benches immersed in the pool and she was perched on one of them, her head thrown back and the steaming hot water up to her breasts.
I stuttered a bit, “Pardon me?” I was a little startled at the question. That particular query is just not one I expect out of petite older ladies.
She smiled and that took the sting out of her words as she repeated herself, “Who’d you piss off? You look like you lost!”
I was shirtless and in shorts, and even through the water the sickly yellow and purple bruises were remarkably clear. I hadn’t thought about it in advance, but I must have been quite a sight when I entered the pool. More purple had been showing up over the last few days, but in general the pain had been lessening so I wasn’t too worried about them. The stiffness and my back spasms were a problem though.
I looked her in the eyes as I flexed my left hand under the water; the soreness in my fingers and wrist lending unneeded emphasis and stark realism to my memories of the near disaster a few days past. Two fingers and a thumb. I shuddered and decided I wasn’t ready to talk about it. As a response I laughed out loud and shot back in a very dry tone, “You should’ve seen the other guy.”
She smiled gently and nodded without a word, somehow clearly conveying that she understood there were things I had not yet come to terms with, and that it was okay. I found my own bench and soaked in silence, pondering that it was interesting to be in the company of people that did not require me to fit into some predefined mold or to be readily apparent, shallow, and easily examined by all. For the most part these folks were willing to read the book to understand the plot and the depth of the characters, rather than having it all clearly laid out for them in a hopelessly shallow summary on the cover.
Most up here had traveled their own journeys—their own road in life—and had depths they did not necessarily show. Most up here did not demand to know everything about who I was, rather; they were content that I simply…was. They could understand fellow travelers even without knowing their particular circumstances. An odd and refreshing feeling, that.
Eventually, bone-weary yet remarkably refreshed, I made my way back to the lodge and showered in my second-floor room. In a pleasant exhausted fog I lay on the bed with my hands behind my head and the afternoon’s freshening breeze blowing across my bare skin. My last coherent thought as I slowly drifted into slumber was of the older woman I had met at the hot springs. Dreaming of my travels, future, present, and past, I briefly saw her face, not as it had been today but much, much younger. I wondered why her face was twisted in pain and revulsion. I wondered why she was screaming.
Something fell with a crash outside my open window and I awoke alert but completely disoriented. I stretched luxuriously as I gradually remembered where I was. A female voice outside exclaimed, “Grab it, quick!” and after finishing my stretch rolled out of bed and moved to the window. There was a campground behind the lodge and our shapely hostess and another young lady were corralling the lid to a small barbeque that had blown across the yard. The winds had come up while I was sleeping and they were whipping the large trees frantically about and whooshing through the branches.
I glanced at the clock and then back out the window. According to the timepiece it was six o’clock, but since it was light here most of the time I wasn’t sure if it was morning or evening. I decided I was hungry and it didn’t really matter. People and food could reasonably be expected to be about either way. Obviously I had slept hard. I dressed and headed downstairs for the small dining room.
I had almost decided that it was morning, as there were only a couple people in the room. I took a table as our hostess entered the room with a cheery, “Hi!” Remembering what I had at lunch she went straight to the cooler and fished me out a diet cola.
I was still wondering about the time but the menu offered me no clues at all. Everything they serve except the specials and baked goods can be gotten at any time. Dammed if I was actually going to ask. I handed the menu back to the hostess with a raised eyebrow. “What’s the special?”
“Chicken roasted on the grill and basted with butter and garlic, mashed potatoes, and fresh corn on the cob…you’ll love it!”
I blinked. Definitely not breakfast. “Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll have that.” I smiled up at her, hoping I didn’t look as confused as I had been feeling.
As she bounded out of the room she was almost singing, “Oh yeah! And ice cream! And a pie! We’ve got some kind of a pie!”
At least I now knew it was six in the evening. I ignored the nagging voice in my brain that was asking, “On what day?” and just decided that I had only been napping. I chuckled and shook my head several times as I realized I was grinning ear-to-ear. That young lady’s enthusiasm was certainly infectious.
In remarkably short time the small dining room was nearly full. I nursed my drink and watched out the window at the trees swaying in the wind. Shortly I spied the older lady I had spoken with at the hot springs standing near my table. She was dressed in slacks and a tank top, and her gray braid reached to the small of her back. She was alone and looking for a seat. I stood and indicated the bench across from me and nodded, “Please.”
As we sat down I smiled at her and said, “I’m Daniel.”
She returned the grin. “Lou.”
I paused as my dinner was delivered. I’d never go hungry here. Fully half a chicken and two complete ears of roast corn on the cob were tucked around a huge mound of steaming potatoes. My mouth watered at the aromas. Yum!
I eyed the woman across from me and couldn’t help asking, “Lou?”
“Yes, it’s short for Louise,” she laughed, “But that’s a nickname anyway.”
“Okay…” I didn’t really understand the statement, but it wasn’t important. ‘Lou’ was what she wanted to go by, so ‘Lou’ would do just fine.
She placed her order and motioned to my dinner. “Go ahead, eat up! It smells delicious and you don’t want to let it get cold.” At that she pulled out a small book and began reading. I grinned as I noted that it was a science-fiction novel. Not standard “little old lady” fare at all.
Politeness and hunger battled for a moment, and hunger won as I dug into my meal.
Her dinner arrived midway through mine, so naturally I finished first. Minutes went by as I stared out the window and about the room while waiting on my “some kind of pie” As usual on these trips I was pondering life and some of the amazing things I’ve encountered in it.
Again she brought me abruptly out of a reverie with a gentle voice. “I’ll bet you don’t know what that is, do you?”
I jumped. I hadn’t realized I’d been staring and experienced a sharp chill when I understood just what it was I had been staring at. I stammered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…”
She held up her arm so I could see more clearly. She eyed me carefully and said reassuringly, “It’s okay. I don’t mind. But do you know?”
The chill hadn’t lifted, even at her warm tone. I knew. Hell yes, I knew.
Out of all my teachers from grade school to college, very few stand out. Most had little knowledge of their subject and no passion at all, but there were exceptions. The most remarkable was a history professor I had for several courses throughout high school and again years later when I was putting myself through college. History was never my favorite subject but this man had a passion for it. He knew his subject and truly loved his vocation. It showed in his ability to get, and keep, even me interested in the past.
There was one segment that he covered very completely, and not to put too fine a point on it, extremely graphically. His lectures had stunning emotional impact, as well they should have, but sometimes it was a little strong for some students. He would not excuse them. “We should never,” he said, “forget who we are, or the paths we’ve traveled to get here.” On further questioning, he would occasionally boom into the classroom the old adage, “Those who do not know history,” there was always a significant pause here while he made sure he had our attention, “are doomed to repeat it!” Given the subject and his graphic and disturbing coverage of it, that was a sobering thought.
I learned a lot. More than I ever wanted to. More than I’ll ever forget. I learned of things that could not be, I learned of things that never should have happened, and I learned in horrifying detail of things that must never happen again. The subject was World War II.
Lou dropped her arm back to the table and looked me carefully in the eyes. “You do know, don’t you?”
I eyed the crudely tattooed number on her arm and shuddered. Yes, I knew. Lou had been in and somehow survived a Nazi death camp.
I swallowed and spoke softly, “Yes, I know exactly what that is.” Images from books and films came flooding back to me and due to her—a survivor’s—presence they came with an impact they had never quite achieved when I was in school. I briefly wondered if I was going to be sick.
She smiled again, lifting the mood a little, her eyes catching and holding mine. “You wonder why I have not had it removed.”
It was more a statement than a question. In truth I had wondered briefly, but actually thought I knew. I said nothing.
Her smile faded and she looked at the table. “My whole family died there. Parents, grandparents, brothers, aunts and uncles and their children too. My entire world. There were so many I don’t even know all their names. I survived because I was entertainment for the guards. I was twelve.”
Despite my choice to view the world with a positive light and occasional wide-eyed wonder, I am not the least bit naïve. Those were truly evil men in a world gone completely insane. They slaughtered millions. I knew what entertainment would mean in those circumstances and I shuddered again.
She sighed and looked up. “At the time, I wished they’d just kill me. Now I am glad they did not. They had the power and took what they wanted, when they wanted it. But I,” her eyes flashed, “never surrendered. They forced me, and could have killed me, but they could not defeat me.” She paused for a moment. I truly had nothing at all to say and she continued as she again held up her arm and looked at the tattoo, “I keep it because some don’t believe. I keep it because we must never forget.” She looked me in the eyes again. “We must not forget. Even when we want to.”
My mouth was dry as I found myself promising hoarsely, “I won’t.”
Stuffed to the gills, a large number of folks from the dinner had reconvened at the hot springs. We ranged in age from about twelve to maybe 75 or 80, and we were all listening to Lou. She was telling stories about her life, some terrible, and some wonderful to the extreme. It seems almost if she had made up for the darkness in her youth by living the entire rest of her life to the other extreme, full of happiness and adventure.
Lou and her husband had been making an annual trip from Florida to Alaska since their children, all six of them, were grown and on their own. They had a reason, one of their children had moved to the rugged state, but they long ago learned of the value and significance of the journey itself. Later, when they retired, they extended it to touring Canada and the United States for the entire summer; starting with the trip up north as spring advances and working their way back home as the winter weather settles to the south. Her husband had passed away a couple years ago, and when spring came she still packed up the car and headed north. She guessed that she would travel 15,000 miles this summer alone.
“Our journey goes on, no matter what.” She said to us that night. Of her husband she said, “He understood the journey, and he would have wanted it this way.”
Her past was filled with darkness and pain. Her journeys were stories of hope and discovery, and when one of the younger listeners spoke up, a girl of perhaps fourteen, it was simply to ask of Lou’s trip through the Canadian wilderness alone, “But aren’t you afraid?”
I saw Lou’s troubled gaze as she recalled something in her past, but she answered with clear eyes and a firm voice, “No child. There is nothing in this world for me to fear.”
She looked at her hands for a moment then slowly raised her head to look at the sky. In a quiet voice she said, “There are lots of things in the world that people are afraid of. Some people build their entire lives and their experience around the things that they fear. Those things are not worthy of it…” she looked back at us, “Not worthy of it at all.”
There was nothing left to say.
Yes, there is evil in the world, and sometimes it is overwhelming, but we need only fight it, never fear it. It’s simply not worthy of it.
Funny that it took a little old lady in a red and black swimsuit, in a hot spring in the middle of the wilderness, to remind me of that.
I’ll not soon forget.
I’ll see you on the road.