Remember our first two profiles, Arno and Gavin? Like many advocates in this community’s relatively short history, Gavin and Arno are both independently influential, and also have a bit of a shared history.
They have The Purple Pirate to thank for that.
It’s hard to fully describe what it’s like for two of the more influential people in Vancouver's cycling community to tell you, somewhat offhandedly but consistently, that you have to meet the Purple Pirate.
I got a bit more of the story over the years, but not enough to satisfy my understanding of how a Purple Pirate relates to the advocacy scene. So I had to finally meet Dustin for myself.
It was well worth the wait, and less about the story of how he introduced Arno to Gavin.
What I got was some very deep, philosophical ideas about cycling, and about advocacy, from someone who makes a career out of sheer personal magnetism and creativity, one that must be pulled out of thin air and continued shaped and reshaped.
I got some serious spiritual depth, in a discussion that had nothing to do with cycling, but everything about being human.
And I also got, to be perfectly honest some of the really cool pull-quotes that few non-seafaring entertainers could give me.
For the Purple Pirate, a friend of mine from the movie industry painted the sides like a wooden ship, and I had a PVC mast with a purple sail on the back. And I made a bubble cannon that poked out the back.
I ask you to picture in your mind a vehicle matching this description on East King Edward, on its way to a party for a bunch of 9-year-olds. Even better, to a corporate gig downtown.
A lot of thought that went into this colourful persona.
My thought was to launch myself nationally. At that time I thought my destiny was to be famous. So it was either active living, or the environment. That the Purple Pirate would represent, that I was connected to.
I didn't feel like Canada was ready for an environmental message. I still think it's sort of distracted.
And I had a pivotal moment where I saw this young girl who was a huge fan of the purple pirate. Quite overweight, like six, seven years old, probably 150, 160 pounds. And when mom brought out the candy, her eyes went 'bling', and it was like an addict.
So I thought - active living. I developed a show based on that. And I decided to commit to being car-free.
Anyone who thought like this, even just 15 years ago in Vancouver, was someone ahead of their time.
Being an iconoclast in this way is a feeling common to many in the cycling community. You look around your workplace — or even reflect on conversations, some of them difficult, with friends or loved ones about your cycling lifestyle — and you wonder, is it just too soon? Is this wave of popularity in cycling still just part of the early adopter stage, and we still have a long way to go?
The shift from that stage to the one represented by broader social acceptance and adoption is famously called crossing the chasm, in the technology sector at least. It's an almost imperceptible gap, but an enormously difficult one to navigate. Dustin witnessed this first-hand.
I thought, if I lead by example and cycle everywhere I go, then people will connect to how committed I am, and it will take off.
That's not the case. When you cycle from Vancouver to Langley to do a show, people are weirded out that you cycled, first. Even now I think it's probably the same, that people think you're an eco-nut.
And when you ride on a recumbent bike that has a purple pirate ship on the back, it's just not a great business move.
I was invited to perform at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa. I said to my wife, "Let's ride there!" So I got sponsorship. My wife faced backwards on a recumbent tandem, all the way to Ottawa.
And I thought this is going to launch me nationally. Not the case. Too weird.
Way too off the mainstream. If you're cycling somewhere, it just eliminates you from that guy, that guy, that guy, that guy, that guy — everyone driving a car.
For someone who escaped a difficult childhood, who grew up redneck (his word), and whose career began as a bicycle courier (“I loved ripping in and out of the city. I was young, I was angry, and I was full of testosterone.”), it’s amazing to listen to Dustin explain his transformation from activist to advocate. Or perhaps simply from one kind of advocate to another.
I think the approach is about including and befriending our neighbours who don't understand why we do what we do. It's about education on a personal and on a human connection basis.
I think that building a bunch of infrastructure is great for a certain part, but at some point you have to make people feel comfortable. Because the nature of humans is they feel safe in their vehicle, [and] there's an adversarial element a lot of times on the streets.
I think resources should be allocated to marketing. And not marketing in the green sense, but encouragement, promotion. You have to get in the mindset of a suburbanite.
In recognition of the need to broaden the appeal of cycling, Dustin took over the Bike Shorts film festival for four years, taking it from a an almost exclusive focus on young, outside-the mainstream activist events like Critical Mass and its art scene offshoots, to a series of films that could appeal to broader segments of the community. People who engaged in road cycling for fitness, mountain bikers, people who lived beyond East Vancouver.
His last event was a 2-show day at the Vancity Theatre, a decidedly mainstream venue. Was this a rejection of his roots, or a recognition of a new reality in Vancouver?
When we were all doing Critical Mass back in the early 2000s, there was a real adversarial energy to it. And in the beginning I got it, and I was involved, but then when Gregor got voted in and all the infrastructure started going in, we won.
And I went, as a voice, on the chatrooms, and I was like, "We won already. There's no need for this." And it was like, "Oh this and this and this." At that point I gave up, because there was this angry, older element that just doesn't want to let it go.
Critical Mass was easy — show up, get angry, block the streets. I think the tougher part is to get to know that person in the yellow car who has invested tons of money in their image on the motor vehicle, and get to know them, and let them know you.
Without the, "Hey man, climate change." It takes time.
While you may sometimes see Dustin’s branded van in East Vancouver on occasion, he lives in Nanaimo these days, and is on the verge of a year-long sabbatical.
But he does intend to return, and to continue performing. And when he gets back, he plans to go car-free again.
Maybe cycling will have crossed the chasm. And it will be Dustin’s time to go national.