“A dusty road that smells so sweet
Paved with gold beneath my feet
And I’ll be dancing down the street
When I get to the border.”
– Richard Thompson
Hugh MacLennan once said that Canada had the same relationship to the United States that Scotland did to England: we’re to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior, and we go south to be successful. I’m not so sure about the last part, but I do know that the American border looms large in the minds of many Canadians. Most of us live within a hundred miles of it, and it is far more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. Although the people and the streets look much the same, they’re brasher south of the border, and more conservative. Because of such differences, for many Canadians, to cross the border is a major step, no matter how often we do it, and many of us have stories of our misadventures when crossing.
I remember that, as a child, I took many holidays south in a trailer. Whenever we crossed back in Canada, I would always feel a relief. Now, I would tell myself, if anything happens, we are not so far from home. Or, if we were, breaking down would seem less of a disaster, simply because we were in Canada.
When I was a young adult and newly married, we had a succession of rust bucket cars. It was exactly the sort of car that raised suspicion in the eyes of American border guards, who are often ex-Service types. Never mind that drug mules were most likely driving late model cars to divert suspicion; we were always grilled closely about our reasons for polluting America with our junkmobile. Often, we would have our trunk open, and, although we never had the car ripped apart, we were often given to understand that could easily happen.
The only time we were spared such ordeals was when we were on our way to visit a friend in the veteran’s home in Bremerton, Washington. As soon as we said where we were going, the border guard stopped glaring at us with suspicion, and waved us through. He didn’t give us a salute, but I thought he was considering doing so.
Another time, we were heading south for a Society for Creative Anachronism event in a car driven by a young, not very bright hothead. After pulling up to the American customs both, our driver seemed inclined to argue with the customs guard. Mindful of all the swords and other medieval weaponry in the back, the rest of us in the car cringed and silently prayed we wouldn’t have to explain what we were doing with all the metalwork crammed into our packs.
But the worst crossing we had was on our way back into Canada. I was in the front passenger seat, and, just before we pulled up to the customs booth, the driver stuffed a brown bag under my seat.
As we were pulling away from the booth, I asked the driver what was in the bag.
“My stash,” he said.
We felt strangely silent until we were dropped off. Afterwards, we stopped hanging out with the driver, and to this day, I doubt he knows why. Very few of my generation worry much about marijuana, even if we don’t use it, but, had the car been searched, the customs agent would probably have assumed that the bag beneath my seat was mine – and, given that I had to be bonded for the work I was doing then, I could have ended up unemployable.
Right about then, we stopped taking rides with people we didn’t know very well.
Strangely, all these episodes took place before the September 11th attacks, when Americans wanted tighter controls at the border (that is, measures whose main result was to make the lineups longer and those waiting unhappier). In fact, the last time we crossed in the United States, when we realized we had forgot our birth certificates, the American guard let us by. No doubt he thought that anyone so hapless couldn’t possibly be a danger to his country.