Alan Wharmby: Engineer, Adventurer, and Free Spirit
There were untold numbers of fascinating things in that vintage automotive museum in Elkhorn, MB, but the one thing that captivated the eye of my friend Alan Wharmby (Mechanical ’96, MSc Mechanical ’00) was the steam tractor on the front lawn. Alan turned and told the museum curator about a course he had taken in pressure-vessel design, and the two men eagerly debated the wonders of steam-powered vehicles. I couldn’t make much sense of what they were saying, except for a comment that the tractor’s internal pressure would be enough to blow the entire machine nearly thirty meters into the air.
The steam tractor was interesting, to be sure, but it doubled as an excuse to procrastinate. The previous day had seen us ride 163 km from Wolseley, SK to the Manitoba border, and we were still tired. But it was passing 11:00am on May 1, 2000, and we had 100 km more to ride that day before we would reach Brandon.
The two of us were cycling from Edmonton to upstate New York, where we would part ways and Alan would continue riding around the world. Yes, that’s right, around the world—on a bicycle.
This was Alan’s trip; I was just a lucky partner. I knew him as the most prolific of the photography volunteers at the Gateway, the UofA student newspaper, where I was employed as an editor. Since he knew I was a cyclist, one day early in the year, Alan came to show me his new bicycle pump. He told me of his plan to ride around the world and I quickly decided that I would accompany him east across the continent.
We left two days after I finished my last English exam, and there we were—riding in 25-degree heat on the first day of May in southern Manitoba. We had come about 1000 km down endless prairie roads, so it seemed as if we had been riding forever. Nevertheless, the reality of our destination was still a long way off; Troy, New York lay another 3000 km and nearly a month’s riding to the southeast.
And so as much as we disliked the idea of leaving behind the museum and its ancient machinery, we knew that we had ground to cover. There were friends in Brandon—friends with beds, and we had not seen beds since Vegreville. Soon, we bid the curator good-bye, and he followed us outside to our bikes. As I stopped to repair a flat tire, the curator warned us to be careful on the highways—apparently, a woman in her fifties had been hit by a truck while cycling along the same area of the road just five years before. It was a fair caution; that section of the Trans-Canada has only one lane in each direction and no more than a foot of shoulder. But we rode on.
We stopped to rest again in an hour. Alan had been thinking about the curator’s warning, and he asked me what I thought of our chances of dying on the trip. I ventured a guess of about five per cent—a random figure to acknowledge that the trip was somewhat dangerous. That percentage was greatly exaggerated, however—the proportion of cyclists killed while touring is many orders of magnitude less than one in twenty.
But the curator and I proved sadly prophetic; on June 3, Alan’s second day of riding after we separated at our New York destination, he was struck and killed by a car outside Greenfield, Massachusetts. Alan was on a stretch of Highway 2, a moderately busy country road with wide shoulders and gorgeous hills. He was hit by an elderly driver who allegedly swerved onto the shoulder while reading a map.
Alan, 25, had spent two years planning the bike trip—the latest in a long series of seemingly crazy goals which he had never failed to achieve. This was to remain the crowning victory for the time being, though. He had completed his Master’s thesis on the strength tolerances of composites shortly before we left, and a year cycling around the world was to be his last great luxury before accepting the somewhat alarming prospect of a full-time job in engineering. After we split up at Troy, he was to ride on to Boston, fly to Ireland, and ride south through Europe and east through the Middle East and Asia. Various friends would join him for stints along the way.
The trip wasn’t dissimilar from Alan’s previous pursuits—it was just on a larger scale. Alan had skied the Birkebeiner, run a marathon in Calgary, teamed up in a 24-hour bike race, played competitive ultimate frisbee, and could out-dance anyone in the Power Plant. He would happily list off his physical accomplishments for anyone who suggested that a vegetarian diet doesn’t provide a proper nutritional balance. Alan’s boundless energy carried nearly as great a reputation as his infectious grin.
“He was always the first person on the team to show up for our games, usually two hours ahead of everyone else,” recalls Karla Summers, captain of Alan’s T-GOAT (The Greatest of All Time) ultimate-frisbee team. “By the time the rest of us straggled in, Al was always dripping in sweat and exhausted from ‘warming up.’ … He never had a problem outlasting any of us during the games because he was so psyched to be playing.”
Alan’s enthusiasm was his way of displaying his happiness with life. Although he was humble and polite to a fault—he would eat whatever meat was proffered whenever he forgot to mention his vegetarianism—Alan truly believed that he could make a difference in the world, and he quietly grieved for every ambitionless person we met on the road.
Karen Liebel, was the Entertainment Editor at the Gateway when Alan began volunteering. She recalls the fascination Alan showed for what others would take for granted. “It was hard not to give him what he wanted because he acted like anything he received was the most amazing thing he’d ever gotten in his life. He might have been as excited to get a piece of pretty paper as he was to get dibs on photographing a live show that he thought would be cool.”
As a consequence of his boundless interests, Alan was forever gathering knowledge. His inquisitiveness ensured him a place with other top-flight engineering students in Dr Fernand Ellyin’s Advanced Composite Materials Engineering research group. The research group’s most prominent memories are of Alan’s inventive concepts both in and out of the lab. “There we were in an Asian restaurant,” explains doctoral candidate Garrett Meijer, “chopsticks in hand, soup in front of us but no spoons!” In a moment of inspiration, Alan invented the Strawpstick—a hollow chopstick that would also be a formidable weapon against soups and beverages. “Perhaps someday it will be a commodity on the markets Al liked to play,” Garrett says.
Alan was positively famous for that crazy friendliness. The team shirts for the T-GOAT team were emblazoned with the phrase “I’ve been touched by Al ‘Night-Long’ Wharmby.” The nickname was in reference to Alan’s staying power both on and off the field, but was originally coined at a season wrap-up party for the team. They had won the league championship and were celebrating at a local bar, and Alan refused to leave the dance until everyone on the team joined him. This was typical of his spirit for dancing: whether it was celebrating victory on the field, congratulating a fellow engineer on successfully defending his or her thesis, rejoicing in the completion of his own Master’s, or breaking it down with the Gateway crew, Alan would dance for hours. He put so much energy and uniqueness into his moves and grooves that it became impossible to refuse his offers to dance. Alan would sing the words to any song at the top of his lungs until his voice was hoarse. One song in particular would get him charged up: “Sweet Caroline,” he sang, “Good times never seemed so good … ”
And so it was that the only time I ever saw Alan looking unsure was the morning I left Troy for New York City. We had been on each other’s nerves plenty during the previous month, and we were each looking forward to some time alone—or so we thought. As I stood on the stoop of the apartment that belonged to Alan’s ex-girlfriend Nicki Dusyk, Alan and I looked at each other and realized that we would miss each other’s company greatly. We put on brave smiles and promised to write; Alan said that he would send periodic installments of his adventures for publication in the Gateway. We took a bunch more photos, and then I rode south to Manhattan. Alan would leave Troy the next day, on June 2.
Eventually, Alan banished his anxiety. “The morning he left Troy,” Nicki recollects, “we sat over a cup of tea discussing how essential it is to not let our fears dictate the paths we choose in life. … My memory of Al setting out that day is one full of strength and hope; it’s of my courageous, smiling friend who was not afraid to make the journey, wherever it would take him.”
Dan Lazin is a fourth-year English major and the Editor-in-Chief of the Gateway. Sarah Haddow is completing her BSc in Occupational Therapy, volunteers as a photographer at the Gateway, and was Alan’s friend and roomate.