By Erik Dolson
We often just see the surface of things, the shapes we impose upon the world. Our filters block what we don’t know, or allow in only what we think we know already.
Early one morning waiting in Anacortes for the ferry to Victoria, I decided the broad expanse of dry, empty asphalt would be perfect to practice on my electric unicycle. I just call it my “wheel,” it’s a single wheel 16 inches in diameter with two foot plates on each side. It looks quite simple, covers hiding the complexity of motor, gyroscopes and batteries that make it a wonder of transport.
But it had not been easy to learn. An empty parking lot early in the morning while waiting for a ferry was an irresistable invitation.
The second vehicle to come into the lot was a motorcycle; the rider and I exchanged good mornings as we crossed paths. Eventually the waiting area began to fill with cars. I put my wheel away and went over to sit on benches put out for passengers, to watch the sunrise.
Motorcycle rider asked about my wheel, then we talked about motorcycles, his and the one I’d sold during the recession. His was not a Harley or a BMW, so common among those riding long distance. It was a 2014 Honda NC 700 X with a dual clutch transmission; smaller, lighter than most road warriors. “I wanted it light enough to handle sand and mud or quad trails, as well as highway speeds,” he said.
There were times, like when crossing the U.S. continental divide through a pass with a head wind, he could have wished the bike had more weight or horsepower, but those were few.
He was from South Carolina, about as far away from Anacortes Washington as it’s possible to be and not get wet. In fact, we were both headed to Victoria, Canada on Vancouver Island. He was on his way to see the sights. I was on my way back to the boat I’d left a month before.
Before long we were joined by a woman who jumped into our discussion when it was about sailboats, she’d cruised with an on again, off again lover or husband, I wasn’t clear. She was high energy, opinionated and fun, responding to my stories of working on my boat by saying there were those who worked on boats and those who cruised them. I responded to the prod that I intended to cruise, but don’t think she was convinced.
The three of us are “Travelers.” I’ve not found a better word over the years. “Tourist” is too temporary and superficial. “Gypsy” is too rootless, “wanderer” too searching, “drifter” too aimless. Travelers just go, often with a destination but not too clearly defined, just to see something not yet experienced, to embrace a new context, planning to return home but not knowing when.
Motorcycle Rider was in transition, his marriage in the process of termination. He’d visited friends and extended family on his ride across the U.S. He was on his way to see the Butchart Gardens, planned to take pictures. He was 49, 6’4″, spoke directly, seemed open, uncomplicated, vulnerable. He had no anger for his soon-to-be ex wife, saying he hoped she would find happiness.
The three of us sat together on the ferry after we boarded, the woman heading back to Friday Harbor from a trip to Alaska or Canada where she’d spent time with her partner who worked up there, maybe, memory fades. She loved apples and I gave her the one I’d brought up from my car. She was a nurse among many other accomplishments or certifications, and would that afternoon or the next day again care for someone on San Juan Island.
Rider and I continued on and across the border to Canada, paradoxically to the southwest of where we left the U.S. Once in a while, Rider would look out and say something about the how wonderful the light was in the clouds. I just saw familiar shades of Pacific Northwest gray, but he’d grab his camera and go take a photo.
I asked if he used a polarizer to enhance his pictures. He had one but didn’t use it much, he used other techniques, and emphasized exposure time. He might change photos digitally, he said, but only in ways imperceptable. He was educated as a painter, a fine artist, in what I think he described as a classical style. I was surprised by his answer, then noticed his camera was a small Leica, often regarded as the best one could buy. Rider said he liked its simplicity.
I realized the camera was like his motorcycle: very high quality, purposefully chosen for how it matched what he needed it to do and not for any external reason, not at all for how it would be perceived. I recalibrated my impressions, again.
I told him if he had no place to stay in Victoria, there was plenty of room on my boat and easy parking. He was appreciative, said he would give me a call in a few hours after he’d visited the Butchart Gardens.
I didn’t hear from him at the designated time and figured he’d headed north on Vancouver Island instead of south, that’s the kind of decision Travelers often make. But he called a couple of hours later, saying his phone had not connected when he’d tried to call earlier. That’s a problem often encountered in an international transition.
He asked if the invitation was still good, I gave him the address and he came down to Victoria, parked his bike in the lot next to the marina. Another benefit of this bike was it had a lockable storage compartment that looked like the gas tank, and would fit his full face helmet. I’d cleared boat parts and supplies from the lower bunk in the aft cabin. He’d often camped out on his trip across the continent and brought in everything he needed, sleeping bag and all.
He insisted on buying dinner in exchange for the hospitality, and we went to my favorite restaurant where he ordered a vegan meal. Again I had to readjust my bigotries, rooted as they were in his South Carolina accent and complete lack of self aggrandizement.
We talked about traveling solo and the reasons relationships fail. I’d just left a woman with many attributes, but it wasn’t going to work. It was clear the ending of his marriage was having an impact, that he loved his wife. They’d started a business together, in graphic design. She wanted more, wanted it to grow, he was content as it was.
As artists, she thought they should collaborate more. He said they already worked together but that wasn’t what she meant, she meant on the same canvas. She spent a month in Arizona, staying at an Air BnB. Rider was supposed to go, but literally the day before he was to fly out, his elderly father drove off the road and hit a tree. The injuries were severe. Rider had to stay in South Carolina.
He thought his wife would return to be with him, but she stayed in Arizona. While there, over the phone she spoke highly of her host’s qualities, often, and when she did return wasn’t off the plane for 10 minutes before saying things that caused Rider to doubt the future of their marriage. It seemed like she’d realized there might be a better match for her out in the world. She later told friends that Rider wasn’t “fighting” for her.
She said often that Rider had such great potential. It didn’t feel like a compliment. Over dinner, I wondered if she failed to see his love in giving her freedom to be who she thought she wanted to be, that she mistook acceptance for passivity, or weakness. He responded, as he always did, that he wanted her to be happy.
She may have misjudged him. When she asked for things not already given, such as money after she bought a new home before they’d sold theirs and shared the gain, he said that element of their relationship was no longer in effect. Once when she was angry and unloaded on him when they met to discuss dissolution, he told her they should probably communicate through lawyers. She did later apologize, he was careful to point out.
He defended her when I suggested she’d not realized what she had in him. It was clear he’d been wounded, but he would not lay blame. “There were many, many good times. I choose to remember those,” he said, rather than brood upon the loss. He was in no hurry for another relationship, the divorce would be final in January and in the spring he planned to hike 2,200 miles of the Apalachan Trail, possibly spending his 50 birthday at a summit in Maine.
Back at the boat I showed him how to work lights and plumbing, which are not obvious. The next morning we walked up to a café for breakfast, my treat since he’d spent more on dinner than he would have on a bargain hotel, certainly more than on a campground spot.
Rider took off, crossing on the morning ferry back into Washington at Port Angelas, to the south. He planned to visit friends or family somewhere close to Seattle. He might soon be heading back east.
We exchanged cards, if I was ever in South Carolina, if he ever came back to the Northwest, yadda yadda …
His card was very different than most, square and of a finer, heavier material, the text quite simple. It was exceptional and elegant and matched his camera and motorcycle and his attitude about life and wife and everything else I’d come to appreciate in the 24 hours since I’d met him at the ferry terminal in Anacortes the morning before.
A month later I received another thank you, and a link to a page of photographs taken on his trip across America. Of course, they were from a different perspective, and stunning.