April 25, 2004

The Kindness of Strangers

By Richard Bulkeley © 2004

It was 5am and my mouth was as fuzzy as my head. The flat grey light of dawn was reluctantly revealing the town. *

A disheveled young man yelled a greeting at me from the other side of the street. He wore a ragged grey coat that looked like he had looted it from a German soldier on the retreat from Moscow. Although he hadn’t shaved for a few days, he looked sane enough. Besides, he was waving a familiarly shaped glass bottle in a friendly manner. He sprawled back onto his throne made up of small items of soft baggage, and waited.

As far as company went, he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Sitting on a duffel bag to one side of him was a fairly attractive girl in a much more presentable condition. Perched on the kerb on the other was a longhaired, vaguely French-looking, guy. I crossed the street.

They faced me, like a panel of disreputable judges.

“Where you going?” The chief justice spoke. He sounded somewhat tired, but then aren’t we all when seeing dawn the hard way?

“I thought I’d walk to the edge of town and then hitch to Dawson.”

“You don’t want to do that” Frenchie gave himself away as a Quebecois the instant he opened his mouth, and I was reassured that my prejudices were as accurate as ever. “It is 5 am, there will be no traffic for several hours. Sit.”

I swung my backpack onto the road, and sat on it. Before he introduced himself, the pirate chief handed me the bottle. Johnny Walker, three-quarters finished. I raised the bottle in salute to his hospitality.

“I’m Curtis. Welcome to Whitehorse.”

I took a polite swallow and felt the familiar burn in the back of my mouth. I had not had any liquor for a month, since an event filled Wednesday night in Toronto’s gay district, and that was only tequila. Whiskey, whisky, and their American cousin, bourbon, were all old friends to me. Not frequent friends, but good ones. I remembered as I handed the bottle back just how seductive alcohol was to me.

We made our introductions, and I found out that Curtis’ friend was called Julia, and that Felix was a pseudo-local. He had arrived a few weeks ago to work as a translator, doing his bit for the Yukon’s official bilingualism. Curtis and Julia had come to find mushrooms. Not the magic kind as I first assumed, but the gourmet kind. Apparently, the mushrooms that grow in the aftermath of forest fires are much prized by foodies.

Curtis’ brother owned the cyber-café we were waiting outside. The three of them had taken his “jeep”, a rough map, and a shotgun, in the hopes of finding a mushroom patch unexploited by the increasingly industrial operations of the big buyers. I would see the vehicle a few days later, brown and cream, it resembled a station wagon that had escaped directly from the seventies more than an off-road vehicle, and the losing entry in a demolition derby more than either of the options.

The jeep had expired midway along the old logging road that was supposed to lead them to a land of ash and wealth. Julia noticed the preponderance of grizzly bear tracks around them while the guys stared in blank defeat at the faithless engine. Before long, the bear returned, and they had to shelter in their jeep.

Over the next two days, they discovered that they had parked directly outside the home of a rather territorial bear. They also discovered that birdshot, while it creates a loud and impressive bang, merely gives ursus horriblis a bit of a tickle (and that he doesn’t really like being tickled). When they made their third, and least pleasant, discovery, that an angry grizzly bear is heavy enough to dent the roof of a 1974 Chevy Something-or-other, they decided that they should make a break.

The grizzly obliged them by wandering off to do whatever it is grizzly bears do and I was truly thankful. Not just because it demonstrated that the god of the impetuous traveller was doing his job, but also because Curtis had just pulled out a small wooden box. He rolled a joint without ceremony as he finished explaining that his brother was still up in some little town with the newly rescued jeep, trying to arrange for the surprisingly minor repairs to be completed.

The conversation lasted another two joints and the rest of the Johnny Walker before exhaustion overpowered inertia. It was the perfect anecdote to lengthy bus travel. The weed was pretty welcome too. By the end of the conversation, Curtis had lined up a place for me on his next adventure and Felix had invited me to sleep on the couch of the basement suite he was living in for “as long as you want buddy, no problem”. I did take Felix a little too literally on my visit, and ended up squatting there after he moved out until a surprise encounter with his upstairs neighbour convinced me to move on.

The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing. Karma is usually pretty good at weeding out those who abuse it too. But that, as they say, is another story.

Richard Bulkeley is gentleman scholar from Auckland, New Zealand.

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