It was to be a journey of self-discovery, a four-month cycling trip through rural America with pit stops in the country’s musical heartlands.
So on May 15, Toronto’s Iain Gerrard packed a patch kit, campfire grill and other bits and bobs and left his home on the South Kingsway on his 18-speed Brodie racing bike.
For Gerrard, it was to be a trip to help him decide what he’d do with his life. Would the 23-year-old with the shock of brown hair and grey eyes pursue a career in music? He had a reputation for pulsing DJ mixes that would enliven home parties and raves.
Or would he pursue a career in journalism after years of walking the streets of his west-end Swansea neighbourhood, peppering neighbours with questions and sharing oddball quotes from Mark Twain, his favourite writer.
For Gerrard, like so many youth today, there was a frustrating uncertainty when it came to thinking about his future. He had a diploma in audio engineering from a local Toronto school, but he still lacked a decisive direction.
So after several years spent washing dishes in a Toronto restaurant and working in a local juice factory, with cash squirrelled away for the odd motel and shower and bike repair, Gerrard — 6-foot-3 and rail-thin — charted his route. He planned stops in Detroit, the home of Motown; St. Louis, a blues hotbed and the former gateway to the U.S. Midwest; and Memphis, where the likes of Elvis Presley got his start.
Other layovers were scheduled for New Orleans and Nashville, cities steeped in the roots of rock ’n’ roll, gospel and soul, before returning to Canada, hopefully with a clear-eyed vision of his future and a better understanding of a polarized country where, in cities such as Memphis, the battle flag of the Tennessee Confederate army is still hoisted in a public park.
“It’s not all about the music, the south also has an incredible history,” Gerrard wrote on a journal entry on his blog, Round Trip. “Since its (sic) been colonized by the Spanish, French, and the British all those each left a little bit behind resulting in a diverse culture that is rich in all measurable ways.”
What better way to travel through America, Gerrard figured, than through small towns and hamlets on a bike, digesting the sights and smells of a road less travelled.
Iain first found his way into my own home as a six-year-old scamp, picking up small five-pound weights and trying to impress his friends with feats of strength. More than a decade later, I was on assignment in Afghanistan, feeling alone, wondering whether the stories I was reporting were worth the risks of the job, when word came from Toronto.
An avid news reader, Iain had been smitten by a story I filed about an upstart school in Kabul that was teaching kids how to skateboard. He sent a message through family that he’d loved the story and was desperate for more information about the school.
The spirits of a supposedly seasoned foreign correspondent were lifted by an 18-year-old teenager.
Gerrard’s father William said it’s no surprise that his son would take off on such a cycling trip by himself.
“Iain was always challenging himself to face his fears,” he said.
Last year, during a family vacation to a cabin in rural Quebec, Iain told his parents he wanted to spend the night by himself on an island across the lake from his family, despite the presence of bear, moose and wolves.
“He had his guitar and sang as loud as he could to keep the animals away,” William said. “He did it, and went to sleep for a bit. He only came back across the lake to the cabin when he woke up with a bullfrog sitting on his face.”
Perhaps the first lesson Gerrard learned this spring after crossing the U.S. border in Detroit was that while the U.S. might be the battleground for venomous political debate, it’s still a place where a visitor can find kindness from strangers.
He knocked on the door of a home on the shore of Lake Erie, asking if he could pitch his tent on the property.
“The family said, ‘Absolutely not, come inside and stay with us,’ ” Jean Gerrard, Iain’s mother, said Thursday morning in her backyard. “Iain stayed there for three days, the second day the family gave him their Jet Ski to go out and have fun on the lake. He was the kind of guy who really clicked with people he made a connection with.”
After Detroit and St. Louis, Gerrard navigated his way to Memphis, visiting Elvis’s grave and the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. He stopped in a music store to buy a cheap ukulele.
“He was writing a song a day on the trip,” William said. “He was saying he wanted an instrument to start putting his lyrics to music so he got that guitar.”
On a quiet stretch of highway outside Memphis, headed south to the Louisiana border with the ukulele strapped to his rucksack, Gerrard’s journey was cut short. He died instantly on July 14 when he was hit by a transport truck.
A night before his death, Gerrard wrote his final song, “Kentucky Rain.”
Rain keeps on blowing, Mississippi River keeps on flowing, and I just keep on travelling by and by
Storm clouds filled with thunder, but they won’t get me under, Ill just sit here and pray for clearer skies
I can’t stand the pain, when I’m dreaming of Tennessee sunshine but I’m stuck with Kentucky rain.
Pain it tests me, my woman left me, cried so hard now my eyes are empty, so I hit the road and headed for the coast.
I didn’t leave too much behind, just a couple of friends, an empty bottle of wine, maybe we’ll meet again someday.
For his grieving family and others in Swansea, the past week has been spent remembering Gerrard, whose love for composing original electronic dance music, writing, and mornings spent fly fishing may only have been eclipsed by his attachment to Glasgow’s famous Celtic soccer team.
At visitations on Tuesday and his funeral the following day, Gerrard was remembered by friends and family as a youth who never stopped asking the fundamental question of journalism: Why?
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