Remembering Ken Tomilson (aka Luke Warmwater)
I’m extremely nervous about writing this piece. I’ve been putting it off now for just under a year. I don’t feel ready, but I’m writing it anyhow. I’m nervous because I don’t feel confident or capable of being able to adequately or effectively express the beauty of my dear friend Ken. While I know only a few will read this piece and that those that do won’t judge me for it I just wish I could write something that could do justice to his absolutely radiant beauty and the incredible life that he lived. Before I share a bit about him and my relationship with him though I want to give some context for how this wonderful human being entered my life.
The story begins in late October of 2010 when after what felt one of the worst years of my life just kept getting worse. At the time most things in my life felt like they weren’t going right and I really felt like I needed something, hell ANYTHING positive to happen so I could pick myself back up again. I was having a pretty rough time with my mental health, I was single and just a few months out of completing my Master’s degree which was easily one of the most emotionally, mentally and physically destroying experiences of my life. I was living off bits of my student loan, money from my car accident and working a casual part-time job supporting a student at McMaster with essay writing, exam preparation, and most things school related. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a break from anything academic related, but the job paid well enough and the hours were flexible so I kept doing it. Knowing something needed to change for my mental health I went to a massive bike sale in Toronto and somewhat spontaneously dropped around $1500 on a bike and panniers. I was not in a financial position to do so, but I did it anyway. On top of that, I knew practically nothing about bike touring or bikes. Still, though I got this crazy idea in my head that I was going to ride to Halifax, NS so here I was with a brand new bike and bare necessities to start a several thousand kilometer bike ride halfway across the country. I was scared but excited. Was it even possible to ride to Halifax in the fall? I had no idea, but I had every intention of doing so. And then… a mere 30 hours after I bought the bike and after riding it only twice it was stolen in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon at McMaster University despite having a very expensive lock on it. I was absolutely heartbroken.
A few days after my bike was stolen I noticed news of a contest being put on by my favourite band, Tegan and Sara. The contest was for a chance to attend a private concert and be part of their film screening and was set to take place in Vancouver, BC. The contest was set to open in a few days and was organized in such a way that after 300 people submitted applications it would close. Knowing how intense the Tegan and Sara fandom can be I knew the 300 applications would be submitted within minutes of it opening so I started to prepare for it in advance. It was a simple application that required only your name, where you lived and three questions you could Tegan and Sara when meeting them. I remember exactly where I was and who I was with when I submitted it. I was sitting in Bridges (the vegetarian cafe at McMaster) with my friends Tania and Denise. I had typed out all my information already so I could quickly copy and paste it into the application once it opened. The simple fact that I managed to get the application in fast enough was an amazing feeling. When I found out a few weeks later that I had been one of the 75 fans selected to come to the concert I actually started crying. I remember I was in my friend Jim’s apartment at the time and that I was checking my email eagerly waiting to see if I was selected or not. I was told I’d know by 9pm that day if I was selected and when 9pm came around and I wasn’t chosen I was feeling pretty disappointed. Couldn’t anything work out for me? And then around 10:30pm the email came confirming that I’d been selected. Finally, at last, something went in my favor. Sure, I still had to figure out how I’d get to Vancouver and back, where I’d stay and how I’d pay for it all, but at least for that brief moment, everything felt so good.
When it came time to start figuring out the logistics it looked like flying out there and back were my only options since my parents wanted me to be back in time for my graduation. I couldn’t have cared less about my graduation ceremony, but they both said it was important to I planned my trip to come back just in time for it. Hilariously, they both ended up forgetting about the graduation and not even showing up. Anyways, since the only other time I had been out west was back in high school I wanted to spend a bit of time there so I needed to find a clever a way to do so as cheaply as possible. As I hunted for cheap hostels to stay in Victoria (it was always a place I wanted to see so I figured I might as well go now) and Vancouver I also remembered hearing about a website called Couchsurfing. With loads of experience using it now, I can say with confidence that Couchsurfing is a super incredible way to meet up and even stay with locals while you travel and explore new places. With millions of people using it all over the world I’ve come to absolutely love it as a way of connecting with people as primarily a traveler, but on a few occasions also a host. The website helps keep things safe with a great reference system. At the time though it was completely new to me though and I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I remember making a profile by adding a few photos and filling it out as thoroughly as possible. From there I searched for hosts in Vancouver with similar interests/passions as me and send out a few thoughtful requests. It wasn’t long before I heard back from Josue who agreed to host me for a few days near the end of my trip and then Ken who agreed to host me for the final few days of my trip. Josue would go on to blow my mind with his generosity and kindness as my first Couchsurfing host. Despite not having much time to hang out with him for the few days he hosted me he was so good to me.Josue even took me out for dinner on the first day I stayed there. I knew after staying with him that Couchsurfing was something I was really going to like, but it was only after getting to meet and stay with Ken for a few days that I absolutely fell in love with it.
I was initially attracted to Ken’s profile because of our shared interest and love for cycling, but also because he came across as incredibly open-minded and had an amazing collection of positive references from people that stayed with him from all over the world. In his time on Couchsurfing, he hosted hundreds of different people and never once had a negative reference left for him. When I finally arrived at his condo I was greeted with his big smile and mesmerized by some breathtaking stained glass art throughout. I quickly learned that making beautiful stained glass art was one of his many talents as I asked about the different pieces and he told me about them. Talking with Ken honestly couldn’t have been easier. It felt like I’d known him for all my life. The first night I arrived we stayed up talking for hours. We talked about music, his participation in a group called the radical faeries, cycling (including his INCREDIBLE 49-week bike tour from Portugal to India), our philosophy’s on life and pretty much everything you can imagine. The next day he had to work so I went to explore Vancouver more and when I returned he had made dinner for me. I remember feeling so grateful for his kindness. That night we played Settlers of Catan and stayed up talking more. The next day I slept in to wake up and find him still home as he took a sick day. We chatted more that day before it was eventually time for me to leave to catch my flight home. After spending an amazing few days bonding with Ken I remember reaching to shake his hand and his laughing and pulling me in for a hug. Ken somehow despite hardly knowing me knew I needed and wanted that hug. I left his place for the airport so grateful to have met him, but not before promising to stay in touch and one day come back to visit him.
And stay in touch we did! Ken and I for the next 7 years became ‘pen-pals’ exchanging emails regularly with each other. I knew from the first email reply from it that we’d be in touch for years when he expressed his gratitude for staying in touch and insisted that we didn’t apologize to each other when it took longer than we’d hope to reply, but instead just accepted that we’d write when we could. He was always so understanding and a role model for how to effectively practice gratefulness.Over the years we’d share many long and lengthy emails with each other. Every email left me feeling closer and closer to him. We emailed about so many things it’s impossible to list them all, but some of the things included work, my cycling, his changing health, our families (mothers mostly), film (he absolutely loved the Queer Film Festival), Couchsurfing and other times (read: most times) crushes and love interests. I think one of the reasons why Ken and I got along so well is that we were both the kind of people guided by our hearts. Ken was always there to listen and often share some good advice. Perhaps most of all though he was there to help lift me up and boost my confidence. On top of being so supportive, he was profoundly impactful in helping me grow more comfortable with expressing my love for my male friends – something I wish I had thanked him for before it was too late.
Fast forward to 2017 when Wade and I began our preliminary talks about the bike trip and it really started to get real. Having just got back into a regular back and forth email period with Ken I remembering emailing him about the trip and being so incredibly excited about finally getting to come see him again before I left on the bike trip. Apart from the bike trip itself, there was nothing more in 2017 I think I was more excited about than seeing him and few other friends in Vancouver that I hadn’t seen in 2010. When he first heard the news about me taking the trip he shared in excitement about getting to see each other and also given his own wealth of knowledge about bike touring shared some wisdom and suggestions with me. Responding to his email with thanks and more excitement a short while later since things officially were in motion with my work approving the trip I eagerly waited for his reply. A reply finally came on April 10th (just 10 days before my mom would pass away), except it wasn’t from him. The message came as I was leaving my friend’s place to meet with Wade to do some trip planning. I remember opening it quickly out of excitement when I got the notification on my phone and getting only as far as” Hello there, our beloved friend Ken Tomilson, also known by many as Luke Warmwater, left the Earth on March 8, 2017″ into the email before bursting into tears. I couldn’t believe it. Life felt so unfair. After years of wanting to visit him, I was finally just a few short months away and it was taken away from me. Given the somewhat unique nature of my relationship to Ken, when he passed away I felt really alone in having no one else in my life that knew his beauty. Fortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly Ken had some great friends back home willing to give some of their time to connect with me and help me gain some semblance of closure. The truth though is that even as I write this it’s still hard to accept that he’s gone. It was Ken’s best friend Danzante that emailed me about him in the first place and the one that agreed to take some time to talk to me about him. Talking to Danzante about Ken passing away while helpful, certainly wasn’t easy. I remember calling him from just outside the room where my mom was in palliative care. Among the things we talked about was the beautiful celebration of life held for Ken or as he called him Luke in Vancouver and also a special global community celebration he was helping to organize for Ken’s friends scattered all over. The idea behind the global community celebration of his life was that part of his ashes would be sent to people all over the world for them to participate in a ‘ritual release’. On top of this, a website was being made so people could share on a map where they spread his ashes. I was immediately interested in participating.
A few weeks later a package arrived for me in the mail and without thinking about what it might I immediately shook it. I remember hearing the ashes move around immediately getting chills as I realized a little bit of Ken was now physically here in my home with me. I thought for days about where I might spread the ashes and then decided I wanted to bring them along with me on my bike trip. This summer when I went on my bike trip I brought them along with me for ‘one last ride’ and at the time thought I’d spread them somewhere beautiful along the trip. When it came to it though it just didn’t feel right spreading them somewhere I couldn’t easily return to when I wanted to go back and ‘visit’ him. Today, his ashes still sit in my living room. I haven’t quite got a place where I’m ready to spread them yet, but I hope I will soon. When I do I’ll be posting about it on the website dedicated to him.
Despite the fact that Ken left the earth a little over a year ago, I know that deep down part of him will always be with me. I’ll never forget his big smile, great sense of humor, seemingly infinite wisdom, brilliant mind, and most of our all his profound kindness and mission to bond with the world. Even after his death, he left almost all of his estate to the Rainbow Refugee Network and Queer Film Festival that he loved so dearly.
Love, peace and bike grease,