When Ray Taylor’s daughter Jennifer last talked to him, he had just finished riding his Harley Davidson over San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.
The sun was shining, the salty sea breeze was coming in off the Pacific — and Ray was in his element.
When Ray died only a few days later, everyone could agree that he had died doing what he loved.
“My husband and him are riding together again,” said Barb Van Grinsven, widow of Frank Van Grinsven, Ray’s lifelong best friend.
A row of motorbikes lined the parking lot outside Heritage North Funeral Home last Wednesday, as dozens of friends and family streamed into the increasingly cramped main hall of the building.
Leather, tweed, wool, cotton and silk stood shoulder to shoulder.
Ray’s six-month-old granddaughter Keira punctuated the still air with restless cries.
Ray, 58, the middle child of five, was raised on a farm in Chatham, Ontario.
At 16 he left to join the Canadian Army Signal Corps and served for two and a half years.
While still in his teens, a chance encounter at a roller rink changed Ray’s life.
That night, after rushing back from the rink he woke up his mother and proudly told her that he had just met the woman he was to marry.
His prophecy would inevitably come true, after Debbie accepted his wedding proposal — in a ditch during a walkathon.
Dukes of Hazzard analogies drifted through the assembled crowd as many remembered Ray’s many automotive shenanigans.
“You look in the dictionary under individual, and there he is,” said Rick, Ray’s youngest brother.
“He was into motorized anything,” said his oldest brother Blaze.
His siblings were hard-pressed to remember a time when Ray drove away without screeching the tires of his Comet Bandit at his parent’s farm.
A favourite trick at his country house was for Ray to speed down the driveway, quickly slam on the brakes and do a 90-degree turn onto the road.
Debbie remembers looking out the window one morning and noticing that a slight miscalculation in Ray’s stunt had taken out the neighbour’s mailbox.
Off the road, Ray was equally incorrigible.
He once lost his job at an Ontario Chrysler factory by sleeping in so late that he missed the afternoon shift.
He was a guard with the Yukon Correctional Services, and the Whitehorse jail was often plagued with Ray’s pranks.
For instance, he was known to smear a telephone receiver with honey, go away and ring that phone’s number.
In the prison’s lunchroom, employees had to reach a high shelf to retrieve their coffee cups. By filling them with water, Ray created impromptu morning showers for unsuspecting employees.
But behind the wild tire-screeching prankster individuality of Ray Taylor was a man of irrepressible gentleness and generosity.
“He had a heart bigger than this couch,” said oldest brother Blaze, pointing to the large three-person couch in the main hall of the funeral home.
“I still owe him about four cartons of smokes,” said a man who knew him from Yukon Harley Davidson.
“He was always giving people money. ‘Loaning,’ he called it, but it never came back,” said Debbie.
When Ray took to the roads, an unturned hood was always a signal to pull over and see if he could offer any help.
Days before his death, Ray was pulling over to help wayward travellers on the roads of the western United States.
Once, in a Whitehorse restaurant, he once came upon a man from Georgia, shivering and nursing his swollen hands.
He had come underdressed for the harsh Yukon winter when his car had broken down — in attempts to fix it he had spilled gasoline over his exposed hands.
Ray quickly took the man to the hospital — covering the bill as the man had no health insurance.
He invited the man into his home, outfitted him with a new set of warm clothes and a parka, and housed him until his friends arrived to pick him up.
“He never forgot a birthday, holiday, anything,” said Ray’s daughter Jennifer.
Once, when Ray was in Inuvik on business, separated from his wife during their anniversary, she received a single rose through the mail
Indeed, special occasions were always unique opportunities for Ray’s practice of obscure gift-giving.
Ray’s sister Joan had never hid her aversion to his hunting trips — so he once sent her a rug fashioned from the skin of a teddy bear — complete with a ear tag affixed to the teddy bear’s head.
In Northern California, Ray was killed after his motorcycle plunged into a deep roadside culvert, where he remained obscured by bushes until discovered by road crews about five days later.
“By remaining hidden, it was like almost like he didn’t want people to know that he was gone,” said Jennifer.
“It’s very much like him not to want to hurt you or make you sad,” she said.
Ray’s legendary generosity and zest for life never wavered even in the face of near-constant pain due to incessant headaches suffered in the last 16 or 17 years of his life.
At the memorial service, photos of Ray were posted all around the gathering hall.
A faded 1970s-era photos showed him sporting a large bushy black beard and holding up Jennifer.
As the decades wore on, his signature facial hair became closer cut, giving him the look of a wizened university professor.
As his beard turned to speckled grey and finally — to white, the look was only enhanced.
Barbers and family alike remember that it was always unexpectedly soft.
At the end of the memorial service, as friends and family gathered to exchange hugs and stories — the stereo of Heritage North Funeral Home opened up with Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild — eliciting nervous giggles among the crowd.
Right after the eulogy, Joan read a poem she wrote immediately after learning of her brother’s death.
Look for me where the road meets the sky
Where the horizon disappears like a shimmering pearl
I’m riding a road that knows no bound
That knows no ending in the world