Sins of my Father...

With my eyes, I cannot see you.  In my dreams, you live again.

Lately, I've been dreaming of my father. Since his death 16 years ago, I occasionally find myself in various dream scenarios, wherein he and I have some sort of strange emotional entanglement. The scenarios are always different, but a couple of themes are present each time I am visited by him in a dream.

For one, it is always just the two of us. In real life, the most pained and awkward moments I can remember of him were the moments when it was just the two of us; usually driving somewhere. I don't want to give the impression that he was some sort of bad guy or an asshole to me. He wasn't. We were just VERY different people. I was 22 when he died, so the majority of the time I knew him, I was a child. We only ever had one real conversation in my life, and that was maybe about six months before he died. Pretty much every other time we “spoke”, it was awkward, and I was as uncomfortable and ill at ease as I can be.

Another constant in these dreams is that he is somehow alive, or at least, able to interact with me in the world of the living, or I am interacting with him in the realm of the dead. Sometimes, we are in a house together, sometimes we are in the woods, and sometimes it seems as if there we are nowhere at all.

The final changeless aspect to these dreams is the deep sense of sadness and loss I feel at some point in the dream. Typically, it will be at the end of the dream, and I will wake up with a lump in my throat like I've been crying. However, there are times when the powerful emotions are universal throughout the dream experience, and I wake up feeling drained and a little depressed.

So why, in a travel journal, am I telling you about these dead-dad dreams? I promise there is a connection. I'll sketch that out as we go, but I'd like to pick up where we left off last time; on top of the world.

The crotchless panty of the Klondike!  Dawson City, YT

The “Top of the World” highway dumps you into the Yukon river like one of the many stones we sent careening down the great cliffs as we slowly bumped our way along that wild road; mad with gravity's fickle attention, and too fast for comfort. At the bottom of the last hill of that highway, the road abruptly ends at a ferry crossing. There is no bridge, for good reason. The Yukon River would likely destroy it.

The ferry, which runs 24 hours a day, picks up as heavy a load as it can on either side of the river, every ten minutes or so. As soon as river conditions are “safe” enough to do so, the ferry begins its season of operation, thus opening the “top of the World” highway. It stops crossing the river as soon as it impossible to do it any longer, thus closing the highway for the season.

So, what is on the opposite bank, you ask? Dawson City, of course, the crotchless panty of the Klondike!

Dawson City is one of those incredibly charming, gold-rush era places that still feel a little bit wild and crazy. It has very little of the Disney vibe of Skagway, and more of the Latin Quarter, or Bywater feel in New Orleans; full of history, possibly a little dangerous. Visitors are charmed by the gravel streets, the wooden sidewalks, and the stilted buildings, resting precariously above tundra and permafrost. The town had lots of bars, restaurants, bistro's and Cafes, but for us, the main attraction was from Miami, via Brazil.

We did not come to Dawson City to catch the late Can-Can show at “Gertie's”, we didn't come to drink, and we had no intention of drinking the “sour-toe” shot...seriously, you pay like $30 and sign a waiver to take a shot of whiskey with a mummified toe in it.

Nope, we were there to talk with a guy we met in Chicken, AK. His name is Ricardo Serpa. Ricardo is from Brazil, but has been living and working in Miami for decades, as a photographer. When we met him, like us, he was just beginning his long journey south, via motorcycle, to return to his home in Miami. While in Chicken, we made plans to meet up in Dawson.

When we arrived in town, I was slowly getting over something of a rage-hangover from a childish reaction to the previously mentioned highway. I was struggling to get my head in the game. I wanted to make myself available for this potential new friend, and I didn't want to be moody.

Tiff and I saw him outside of the hotel where he told us he would be staying. He was clean and wearing a bright white T-shirt. We both noticed this and felt even grubbier than we normally do. We chatted with him for a moment and agreed to meet back there in an hour and go for a meal.

Ricardo Serpa..so fresh and so clean!

This was perfect. We parked the van, leashed up our little pal Pelé, and took a walk around Dawson. We looked at some old buildings, read some historical markers, marveled at the Canadian cleanliness of the public toilets, and internalized the impact of the town's appreciation for its own woebegone and wistful, whore-housing past.

When we met up with Ricardo again, I was in a much better mood. I knew we had stumbled upon an interesting guy who was fully committed to doing fun things, but I wasn't prepared for just how cool spending time with him would be.

Simply put, Ricardo is an amazing guy with an incredible story. His tale includes some great advice, strategically placed honesty from key family members, having the wisdom to take good advice and ignore the rest, a near-death experience, and some beautiful analogies for dealing with the existential angst felt by anyone who does less than fulfilling work.

In addition to the many aspects of his tale which are inspiring, Ricardo also shared something which resonated with me in an powerful way.

Ricardo is 56 years old, tall and handsome. When my father died, you could have said the exact same sentence to describe him, by substituting Allen for Ricardo. When Ricardo was 22, and full of wild ambitions, his father passed away unexpectedly. At age twenty-two, the same sentence could have been used to describe me.

When Ricardo told me of a very meaningful conversation he had with his father, only a few months before he died, I was reminded of the only real conversation I had with my own father, shortly before his passing. The parallels to his tale and the loss of my own father were sufficient to shake me a bit off my goal in speaking with him; to listen intently to a fun and interesting person, and record his tale. However, there were enough key differences in how we handled the time before and after our father's passing, that I was able to stay on track with my line of questioning.

For instance, Ricardo and his father had a close relationship. They had the type of relationship where the two of them could sit at a kitchen table, drinking wine, and chatting until the time was right for deeper subjects to emerge. In my case, I couldn't imagine sitting at a table alone with my father for any reason, let alone having a frank discussion on the nature of happiness. Another serious point of divergence was in the way Ricardo dealt with his father's passing. Instead of diving off the deep end of every crazy venture/adventure/misadventure, as I have, Ricardo did his best to stay the course with his career track, and only shifted gears to pursue his passion after a near-death situation of his own caused him to reexamine his choices.

In other words, Ricardo has been acting like an adult, and I have been acting like a giant child. One of us has taken the time to hone a set of skills to a fine point, while one of us has bounced around from job to job like a stone thrown from a tire-tread.

One of the benefits of recording these conversations is in the editing process. As I work on the episodes with these fantastic people, I get the chance to experience them all over again, and can really take my time with the subtext and personal relevance of what they told me in the initial interview. In the case of Ricardo's interview, it not only made me think about how a measured adult might react to the exact situation which happened to me, but what types of changes I could make in my own life.

From Dawson City, we had a few goals in mind. One, we wanted to soak in the hot springs in Laird River, BC, and we wanted to see Jasper, Lake Louise, and Banff national parks in Alberta. At the exact point where we finally connected our last circle (where the Alaska Highway meets the Cassiar Highway), I noticed some unmistakably familiar clouds in the distance. These were the type of clouds you only see when there is an enormous fire in the distance.

We pulled over to a petrol station and asked the attendant if he knew about any fires ahead. “Do I know about the fires!? How do you not? It's all over the news!”

As it turned out, he was regrettably 100% correct. At the time of my asking about “any fires ahead”, there were nearly 500 wildfires burning in British Columbia alone. Many of them were west of our destinations, but the places on our list were all sitting in the thickest smoke they had seen in some time.

I thanked the attendant and was about to leave when he offered one last piece of news. “At least we don't have it as bad as the poor people in California! It's even worse down there!”

With this, we hopped back in the van and made our way to the hot springs. On the way there, we began smelling the rather fragrant, but still disconcerting smell of thousands of trees burning over 100 miles away. In the midst of all of this smoke and haze, the landscape opened up to softly rolling hills, grasslands, and some fairly unique road-side signage - “Caution - Bison Herd next 100 Kilometers”.

Caution, indeed!

We were desperate to see some bison! Fortunately, we did. We came upon several groups of them, slowly mowing the grass along the highway, some with their young, others, it seemed, just hanging out with their pals. We did see one gigantic dead one, legs locked out in rigor mortis, lying unnaturally supine. We then saw another one, limping horribly, trying to catch up to a much larger herd about 400 yards ahead of him. We knew we were looking at another dead one.

Should you find yourself in Laird River, you will have done well for yourself if you then stopped and soaked in the steamy perma-fart waters of the hot springs. The waters of that spring are delightful and, like everything maintained by the Canadian Parks system, the environment surrounding the spring is awesome.

A beautifully built wooden boardwalk leads you gently over a boggy, warm-spring marsh, to a lush and tree-lined area with a covered pavilion. Below the pavilion, which is built from spruce and birch lumber, the upper and lower pools of the hot-spring lazily fan-out before you. Situated at a distance great enough to not offend the senses, yet not too great as to strain the bowels or bladder, even the bathrooms project an unexpected, graceful elegance. While bathing in these luxurious waters, you might even forget for a moment you are sitting in a large soup of strangers, whose personal aromas blend with the fragrance of the spring to achieve maximum fart-potency.

We then made our way south through a few other towns, Fort Nelson and Fort St. John. In Fort Nelson, we stopped for the night above a beautiful river valley, at a dead-end street used mostly by locals. Before sunset (which I must note that we are still getting accustomed to the fact that it is getting completely dark before 2 AM), we spent some time chatting and sharing a joint with four men from the large worker's village in the valley.

The men were building steel buildings which would house tools and equipment for many other workers on an enormous dam building project. They told us the worker's village below had a population of over 1,600 people.

The four men were of mixed ages. Two of them were 19, one of them was in his 40's, and the other was about 50. The two younger men were in relatively good health and did not seem to have any noticeable scars. Both of the older men were in quite a different boat. The oldest of the men was missing the better part of one of his thumbs. When I asked how he lost it, he told me, 'It got caught in a metal press...it just got pinched off.”

I asked if he ever thought about that moment or the trauma of it. “No, not really. Hell, I was about his age when it happened.” He said this, pointing to the young man across from him. “That's my son, by the way.”

I couldn't help but think of how at risk those two young men were. I guess we all are, if you think about it...one man's risky business is another man's job, I guess.

We didn't get a chance to ask the other older guy about his scar; a jagged white gouge spanning the top and bottom of his left forearm. The guys had to get back in time for something unique to me. “If you don't have your card filled out by 7:30 tonight, you don't get to order what you want on your sandwich for lunch tomorrow, so we gotta go. Have a nice trip, be safe!”

Damn, I love Canadians!

That evening, while editing in the van, Tiffany pointed out the window to a small group of people with a little birthday cake and candles on it. The group consisted of one woman, who we learned was turning 63, one young woman and two young men. After blowing out her candles, we stuck our heads out of the van and called out “Happy Birthday!” The group was very friendly, and we all shared a smile and wave, before heading back into the van.

About five minutes later, there was a knock at the van door. A beautiful young woman with a plate full of an equally beautiful slice of birthday cake was standing there when I opened the door. “Please, have some cake. We didn't bring any utensils, so we just ate it with our fingers.”

We accepted and thanked her, and she walked off. We were touched by this act of kindness and wanted to reciprocate. We had nothing to give as a gift. We do have running water though, and where we were parked, there was no place to wash off birthday cake from sticky fingers, so we offered this little service as a thank you. Fortunately, they accepted.

We chatted with these sweet people for almost half an hour. They are a Sikh family from Northern India. The birthday girl spoke no English, but the three kids (One was a granddaughter, one was a great-nephew, and one was just a friend) spoke perfect English.

The three younger ones had been living and working in Canada for several years, sending a great deal of their personal income back home to family. I asked if they could tell us how to say happy birthday in Hindi. They told us...twice, and we could not repeat it. We all laughed. I asked if there was a “Happy Birthday song” in Hindi. They said yes. 'Great, can I hear it?' No laughter. “We are good at the English one, we like English.”

The following day, I looked at the GPS and saw what I thought was an Asian food market. We arrived and realized it was not. Fortunately, there was a Tim Horton's (a Canadian coffee franchise) next door, so I walked over to get a cup. As soon as I opened the door, I saw one of the young Sikh men from the night before.

We were not close to where we had seen them, and we only stopped at this coffee shop by chance, and yet here was this young man who had been so kind to us. “This is my second job. I leave here at 2, go home and eat, then work another 8 hours at a sporting goods store, you should go there!” The young man was completely earnest and genuinely enthusiastic about his work. He loved that he could work nearly 80 hours per week, sending home nearly two-thirds of his paycheck to his family, and having more than enough to “visit the city of Las Vegas next month!”

I don't know why I ran into that kid again, but I'm incredibly glad I did. I want to believe that there is some sort of lesson to learn here, but I'm inclined to agree with Mark Twain, “Sometimes a fishing story is just a fishing story.” Either way, regardless of when you are reading this, someone, somewhere is working way too hard...there is a really good chance that person won't be me.

Throughout this leg of our journey, we noticed an almost daily increase in the amount of smoke we would encounter. We were heading to Jasper National Park. All reports told us to expect more smoke in the direction we were heading. The reports were sadly correct. In Jasper, Lake Louise and in Banff, the amount of smoke in the air at all times was considerable.

I'm certain we would have found the area even more beautiful than we did, but I have to tell you, even when the mountains and sky are obscured by a smokey haze, there is no shortage of beauty to be found. I'm not sure if everyone would agree with me, but perhaps living in a town like Memphis, TN has strengthened my imagination to the point where I can find beauty in almost any city. I believe, if you are paying attention to your surroundings, and look for beauty in tiny spaces, you will never be bored with a landscape.

In any case, I have no complaints. We lost nothing, and we were never forced to flee for our lives. Smoke beats fire, in my opinion, and we never saw one lick of flame.

Be greateful for smoke, when there is no fire.

We did manage to take a couple of small hikes, one in Jasper on the Pyramid Lake Trail, and another in Banff on the Tunnel Mountain trail. Neither of them was very long or difficult, but they at least got us out of the van, and into some beautiful country.

In Jasper, we found an incredible business though, it is a coffee shop, a laundromat, and a shower facility called Snow Peak Coffee. This place, unsurprisingly, claims to have the best coffee in town. Surprisingly, the place was packed with locals who were not doing laundry. More than one local recommended the place to us. We needed to do laundry and shower, so we treated ourselves to some coffee drinks and were pleased by how delicious they were. Score one for word-of-mouth advertising.

We did manage to get up close to another glacier outside of Jasper.  We hiked up late in the evening and ended up parking at the base of the giant crazy thing.  In the morning when we woke, the smoke was so thick you couldn't see it.  

Columbia Glacier, near Jasper.

The smoke in the parks was getting so thick, we decided to leave the parks system entirely and head East and South to Calgary. Tiff wanted to get a haircut, so we headed that way. The town of Calgary is another delight. It does tend to sprawl a bit, but what bigger city doesn't. At least it is full of mild-mannered Canadians, and mighty clean for a city which was also sitting in a haze of smoke when we arrived.

However, as the day progressed, the smoke cleared, and after both Tiff and I emerged from our haircuts, we played with the dog for a bit and hit the road. Our next stop was to be our last Canadian destination, Waterton International Peace Park.

Waterton sits on the southern border of Canada, and the USA, and shares another border with Glacier National Park in Montana. We planned to cross the border in the park. When we pulled into the park, after driving through pastoral and ranch land for many miles, we were greeted by a fire ravaged landscape (a temporary tattoo from the previous year's fires), and some truly hazy skies. Our initial impression of the time which awaited us was somewhat bleak.

We spent the night not far from a waterfall, and were at least not in a crowded place, as the proximity of fires in BC had slowed the tourism down considerably. We woke early the next morning and were greeted with clear blue skies.

We made a big breakfast in a local park and planned on doing a “moderate” 6-mile hike up to some waterfalls and a lake on the Lake Bertha Trail. This “Moderate” hike completely kicked our asses. We tend to hike fast, in order to get as much exercise out of the little hikes I can take with my knee still not at 100 %. I hiked at about 5 mph and made it to the lake in about an hour or so. We were covered in sweat and breathing like we had just run a 10K. The elevation gain was not “moderate” by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not complaining though. I needed it. The tough climb was rewarded by a stunningly clear lake, by which I took a 15-minute nap. When I woke, we strolled around the lake, then hiked back down to town.

 Our view on the way up the Lake Bertha Trail.

Our view on the way up the Lake Bertha Trail.

We both got clean (a shower for Tiff, and a lake bath for me), and prepared ourselves to cross the border back into the states. One hates to cross a border looking AND smelling like a hippie. One of those is challenging enough.

Our crossing was uneventful. Just like that, our northern journey was over. Gone was the wildness of the Yukon, the spaciousness of Alaska, or the stunning beauty of British Columbia. Upon us, however, are some of the most beautiful states our country has to offer, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona!

This world is not my home, but I'm happy to be here.

I'll tell you more about our return to the states in the next post, but for now, I'll relate to you the dream I had on our first night across the border.

I was sitting in some strange combination of a house my father once lived in, and some sort of hotel. We were sitting in the downstairs kitchen area, and I was listening to him describe how he felt about having died. It made him sad to be gone from his body, and he could almost feel the weight of regret around him like a heavy coat with pockets full of stones. He seemed to be crying and laughing at the same time.

I remember trying to make eye contact with him and stare into his face (which even now, I have a hard time picturing) as much as possible. I tried to speak to him, but nothing came out. It was as if all of the weight of my own regrets and sadnesses were weighing down my voice, and it was stuck deep within me, struggling in vain to escape.

As I looked for recognizable features on his face, he was suddenly gone, and I was alone in that kitchen. I remember walking through the house, looking for him, and encountering artifacts from my own childhood, and a closet full of the clothes I had to wear when we would spend weekends with him. Clothes I hated as a kid.

I woke up suddenly, stressed out and unable to return to sleep for some time. In the time I spent awake, I looked out of the window above our heads and saw stars and darkness. I was reminded to appreciate the darkness of night in a new way, having spent so much time in the land of the midnight sun.

Wide awake, listening to the strangely poly rhythmic breathing of my wife and our dog as the two of them mixed their tones with the sounds of insects and the wind, I let my mind drift back to the dream I just experienced.

The weight of regret, expressed as a thick coat, heavy with stones, was on my mind. I'm certain I am wearing this coat. Perhaps my coat has even more pockets sewn into it, with reinforced stitching to accommodate even larger, heavier and more numerous stones.

Perhaps I should be making a point of tossing these stones from my coat, the way our tires tend to do as we transition from gravel to pavement. I don't think I can remove the coat entirely, but I can do my best to make sure the pockets are filled with artifacts of my own choosing, memories, and experience which I can wear any weekday or weekend of the year, without concern for judgment or reprisal.

As we make our way south, and our experience is enriched by the many people we meet, I advise any motorists or pedestrians whom we may pass, to keep an eye out for stones of varying size, as they are jettisoned, or blocked from my oddly stitched coat.

Andrew CouchComment