Junction 37. It was appropriate that it didn’t have a real name. A gas station, a seemingly abandoned but still overpriced motel, a saloon with boarded up windows, a sign that read “Junction 37”. It was a depressing place. The winters here were rough on any type of enterprise and we were being continually warned that there was another one coming. We’d spent the last couple of days as the sole inhabitants of the campground, huddling around a fire in the rain, praying for a break in the weather. There was a well established looking RV parked nearby but there was definitely nobody living in it, but possibly somebody dead in it. The chap at the gas station appeared to be running the whole junction although this didn’t appear to be an overwhelming job at this time of the year. He was softly spoken and friendly, had plenty of hot coffee, and seemed to enjoy our company. When the wood was too wet to burn we would spend our time in his little shop, discussing things like the viscosity of motor oil and likelihood of being attacked by a grizzly while out jogging.
The motel. Don’t expect mints on your pillow.
The junction itself would be the start of our next leg, the Stewart-Cassiar highway. This 700km long piece of road would take us directly south and was considered the scenic alternative to the ALCAN. The ALCAN was considered a reckless route as it was but “The Cass” was shorter and had been described to us as a “real wilderness highway”. On top of this it was apparently packed full of wildlife, to the point that you might see 30 bears while driving it. It was the obvious choice.
Snow blanketed the mountains around us and the air temperature was still in the barely tolerables, but it had stopped raining. The conversation in the junction shop had deteriorated to the topic of mid-cycle bear attacks on women. Our new friend was using the word menstruation like it was coming into fashion and we were filled with an overwhelming motivation to get our show back on the road.
The locals recommended we get out of the Yukon while we could.
The first 100 miles gave us a taste of what we were in for. The road was a patchwork quilt of different surfaces and it wound like a rollercoaster through the mountains. Light rain became heavy rain and then snow. Riding in conditions like these is far from relaxing. There is a certain body position that needs to be maintained to minimize the amount of freezing air and water that enters your riding gear. Tuck up, sit still, watch for bears, aim for the smoothest pieces of road.
BANG. When you are riding a scooter in the middle of nowhere, this isn’t a good sound. Either a part of your bike has exploded, or you’ve just been shot at. I managed a panicked and inexplicable glance at my crotch, moments before the rear wheel locked up and started to zigzag wildly like a Tux Wonderdog mid-slalom. Left, right, then very left. Then it was all over.
Perpendicular. The point of no return.
I always imagined my first high-speed motorcycle dismount would be like the ones I’d seen on TV. I’d slide down the road like a lubed ice-cube, gently washing off speed while warming my back pocket. But apparently this takes practise. I hit the road like an imploded building, pummeling myself stationary in the space of about ten metres. Pieces of gear and scooter sprayed down the road like confetti at a wedding. Our tires were made out of luck, we’d ridden them until it was all used up.
I was awake. This was a good start, Tim would be pleased. Legs. Still there, functional, I decided to get to them. One of my arms was quite tender. I started to backstroke wildly to make sure nothing was wrong. Everything seemed to be relatively in order.
Tim had skillfully avoided me and my cartwheeling bike and had come back to gather my remains. I hopped to my feet for a high-five, unaware that an ex-paramedic in an emergency response vehicle who happened to be following us had already started to cordon off the road behind me. With the amount of crap strewn about the place he probably thought we were celebrating a successful garage sale.
Cam had clearly been to a few motor vehicle mishaps before. He quickly got to work checking my vital signs, my movement and my level of sobriety. His initial concerns about my inability to walk, bend or see properly were alleviated when I explained some of my medical history.
“You going to faint on me? One of your pupils is crazy big!”
“No, that’s normal. I had a run in with a fork as a child. I’m fine.”
“You sure? You hit your head?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
My helmet told a different story. Paint from both sides had been donated to the pavement. The visor had been ripped off and my helmet camera was somewhere in the bushes. Cam kept a concerned eye on me.
“Put your jacket back on man, you don’t want to be getting cold.” I couldn’t remember taking it off. As I lifted my arm up through the sleeve, something clicked and pain exploded through my shoulder.
Cam was pretty keen to get me to the medical centre at the power plant back down the road, and by this stage I wasn’t going to argue with him. It was 30km back the way we came and he was more than happy to give me a lift in his truck. As we drove from the scene I wondered if this was the end of my trip. There was a large painful protrusion at the top of my chest. I figured it was half of my clavicle.
“Cool! Did you have your GoPro on?”
Up until this point Cam had been all business. Not only had he completed a detailed scene analysis, got me to sign a piece of paper listing the procedures he’d done and the number of times I’d declined an ambulance, but he’d also gone over all of it again with the registered nurse at the medical centre. When Tim produced the footage from his helmet camera he became very excited, to the point that most of the staff at the centre stopped what they were doing to take a look, including my nurse Maurie.
“Woah, you really absorbed a lot of energy with your body!”
I wondered if I would use my new energy for good or evil. Maurie was impressed that I was in as good condition as I was and accredited a lot of it to the gear I was wearing. I had to agree. My Macna jacket bore the brunt of the impact and had ripped in several places, but it had done its job and restricted my gravel rash to an area smaller than a 50c piece. As for my Cactus pants…the side that hit the road just looked cleaner than the other. Maurie looked excited to have a traumatic injury to deal with and I wondered what ailments his typical patients complained of. By this stage my left shoulder had developed a significant droop and raising it even to a right angle was out of the question. Maurie had no doctor and no x-ray machine to consult. He advised a trip to the nearest hospital, an hour back in the direction we just came. It seemed like my only option. Luckily Maurie saw an opportunity to get out of the office for a couple of hours and offered to drive me to Dease Lake Hospital in his truck. Hitchhiking would have been the only other option. I gladly accepted his offer.
While I was getting to know Maurie, Tim was getting to know Dave, the Cassiar’s one and only “Towing and Wreck Recovery Specialist”. My bike was still lying in a ditch 30km down the road and Tim had landed himself the responsibility of retrieving it. Dave was a mountainous man with a handlebar mustache, a self described redneck and a gun enthusiast. Tim had caught him on a busy morning and conversation in the cab of his truck was kept to a minimum. Three local lads had taken on a grizzly bear with their car the night before and written it off. They’d slept the night in the wreckage waiting for Dave. Another punter had planted her car in a forest 150m from the roadside and Dave would have to de-forest a good portion of it to get it out. However he wasn’t going to turn us down. From the description of my vehicle by whoever it was who called him, he probably thought he was off to pick up a toy that a child had abandoned. I suppose this wouldn’t have been too far from the truth.
“Yes it’s definitely broken, you can feel the break right here.” Dease Lake’s only available doctor was stabbing his finger knuckle deep into my shoulder, seemingly in an attempt to make muesli out of anything left in there. Thankfully Maurie declined a turn.
“Well, do you want an x-ray?”
“I’m not sure. Do I want an x-ray?”
“No you don’t want an x-ray. They’re expensive and we wouldn’t do anything more for you anyway. I don’t think there’s any nerve damage. You don’t have any strange sensations, do you?”
“No, all my sensations feel relatively appropriate. How long will this take to heal?”
“It’s a bone just like all your other ones, so about six to eight weeks.”
“When can I ride again?” I hoped I sounded like Steve McQueen.
“Whenever you want. Why do you need two arms to ride a scooter?”
This was my kind of doctor. He didn’t even give me an aspirin. He did find me a chest strap that looked like a combination of a gun holster and a sports bra, and with that I was out the door. Maurie even managed to get his hands on some surplus tube gauze that he could smuggle back to his own centre. It was turning out to be a good day for everyone.
Orange, white and yellow.
While I’d been away playing patient, Tim had subbed in as one of Dave’s employees and helped him extricate my broken motor-pony from the ditch. When Tim asked to have it delivered to the nearest place we could pitch a tent, Dave took pity on our pitiful situation and offered us the use of a log cabin on his property. When I heard this news it was like a heavy burden had been lifted off my broken shoulder. I’d been dreading doing my recuperating in a freezing tent in the middle of the wilderness and although I still didn’t know if our trip was over I’d be able to dwell on it beside a toasty wood burner.
Dave and his wife Merrilu lived in a house on the same property as the cabin with their three adopted children, Kory, Danielle and Alexander. Kory was sixteen, the oldest of the three, and the one that was giving up his cabin for us. He showed us how to operate the Playstation, heat the cabin to an intolerable temperature, and kept us entertained with stories of hunting and hockey brawls. Danielle was very intelligent and joined us in the assessment of our broken bikes, offering her insights into what we might need to do and what tools we might need to steal from her dad’s garage. Alexander was the youngest at four years old. He would come into the cabin each morning and deliver our wake-up call and was always keen and able to get hold of my camera and snap some photos.
Dave and Merrilu.
“You know I used to be as skinny as you, then I met this lady.” Dave pointed in Merrilu’s direction at the dinner table and I laughed at the preposterous idea that he wasn’t always so well built.
“I’m serious! She can cook a birthday cake on a camp stove!”
It turned out Dave was serious. After an excellent meal Dave showed us photographic evidence, not only of a cake baked in a tent but also of himself looking a little undernourished, much like myself. Food was followed by drink. Beer for Tim and me, “redneck tea” for Dave. In the lounge stood a large wooden cabinet that seemed to take precedence over the television. This housed the family gun collection, and what a collection it was. Dave produced from it firearms of all shapes and calibers and allowed us to arm, disarm and generally wave them around his lounge.
“When I drag your car or motorcycle or whatever the hell you might have crashed out of a ditch, I’m going to charge you for it. That’s my business. But afterward, if I want to bring you home, give you a bed, a meal, some of my beer, that’s my business.” The Stewart-Cassiar highway was lucky to have Dave and his family, and so were we. We stayed up late, drinking and chatting. Dave disregarded the hour and called another of his sons in Terrace and before we knew it we had been invited to watch him play in his band, King Crow and the Ladies from Hell. Tickets would be waiting for us at the door.
We spent the next morning assessing our situation. My shoulder was tender but tolerable. The sports bra was doing well to hold things in place. My bike was a sorry sight but given the fact that I’d essentially rolled it at top speed, things could have been a lot worse. The headlight had evaporated into a mist when I went down, a wing mirror popped out and was never recovered and the rear rim had folded in on itself. Most of these items I guessed I could live without. We had a spare rim, wing mirrors only really give you a good view of your shoulders and we shouldn’t be riding at night anyway. We’d taken our sick day and we were ready to go again.
Luckily it was only some of the safety features that were destroyed.
Dave appeared with a suitcase and a band of children in tow.
“You boys still want to fire some guns?”
We’d be delighted.
We’d forgotten about Dave’s offer of a hands-on handgun experience. Neither of us knew a thing about guns. It was about time we learned. Dave opened the suitcase and produced a small arsenal of sidearms. There was a single shot .22 caliber pistol with an ivory handle to get us started. It looked like something a cowboy would keep on his mantlepiece. From this we rapidly progressed to a 9 shot revolver, then on to a 9mm Glock.
“Now remember, this thing is good to go again every time you pull the trigger.” Dave was a stern advocate of gun safety. We took this as a good excuse to make sure the Glock was emptied and made safe again as quickly as possible. There’s something quite uplifting about spraying a semi automatic weapon at a pile of plastic bottles in someone’s backyard. Tim and I proved we could at least hang on to the thing, which was probably more than Dave and his children expected. We would graduate to the Dirty Harry. The first time you fire a .44 Magnum it’s a bit like holding onto a hand grenade as it goes off. Your eyes water, your ears ring like sirens. Your broken collarbone realizes it has had its day in bed.
Dave and Kory.
We rolled out of Dave and Merrilu’s with white noise dominating our hearing spectrum. Dave had come to our repair party in a big way. Not only did he straighten out my warped rim for me, but he dug up an old headlight out of his garage that we were able to wire up and hold in place with duct tape. Our best guess is that it is off a snowmobile. Regardless, it works better than the original and generates enough heat to dry a pair of gloves on. We still had at least two more days on the Cassiar and the flurries of snow suggested it might prove to be a test of endurance more than anything else. We’d been looking forward to this stretch of road for some time but the physical, mental and meteorological beating we had taken over the last few days had left us craving for a more temperate environment.
Three days later and we were in Terrace, a stone’s throw from the southern end of the Cassiar. Dave had convinced his daughter Tanya to put us up for the night and chaperone us to her brother’s gig. The sun was out, we had a roof to sleep under for the night and our clothes were being laundered. The two previous nights had been spent camping in a woodshed and under a large road sign. We’d both been deprived of sleep. I had a broken collarbone to deal with and Tim had me to deal with. On top of this the more conversational people we had spoken to insisted we would be killed by bears if we camped where we had just pitched our tent. It was great to be able to finally relax.
Dave’s daughter Tanya and her son and Batman.
Dave’s son Bobby was King Crow’s lead singer and guitarist. We met him before the gig and he displayed the same type of friendliness we had received from the rest of his family. Some of the more senior locals had inquired if we were going to the “dance” and we were a little worried we might have misinterpreted what kind of event we were attending. However the nine piece Celtic/folk/rock band didn’t disappoint. They pulled out an energetic performance that had the community hall shaking and the seniors out of their seats. Check out some of their music at www.kingcrowandtheladiesfromhell.com
Our journey on the Cass had not gone as expected. We were expecting bears and moose and elk but the only wildlife we saw was a partridge that bounced off the front of my bike. We were worried that we might run into a gun-toting redneck tow-truck driver in the middle of nowhere. I hate to think what we would have done if we hadn’t. It was the road itself that had bitten us and there would be plenty more of that to come.
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