After a not-entirely pleasant night’s sleep, we ejected our cold, stiff bodies from the tipi and dragged our belongings back to the van. We made it to the Val Marie visitor’s centre right at 9am to drop off cots and thermarests and stopped for a coffee at the local museum slash coffee shop across the street.
Ten minutes after I’d ordered our lattes, I was still standing, empty-handed, despite the fact that we were the only customers in the place. ‘The espresso machine is taking a long time to get warmed up,’ the less-than-perky barista explained, ‘can I make you a coffee?’ ‘Sure,’ I relented. For what choice did I have, I was many miles away from the next Marzocco.
More minutes passed before she handed me two Styrofoam cups and I walked back to the car, ready to be restored to civilization. One taste of the hot liquid in my generic cup, confirmed the suspicions I’d formed while watching her technique: swill.
The professor returned from filling our car with gas and reached for his coffee. ‘You’re better off drinking yesterday’s cold coffee from the cooler,’ I sighed, before walking to the trash can to say goodbye to the hot brown liquid. We walked the half block down to the town grocery store, which also opened at 9, and I selected their smallest container of milk for the boys’ cereal.
After a delicious bowl of cardboard-esque healthy cereal and skim milk, we made our way to the border.
It’s always a slight rush of excitement, arriving at the border. Because even though we will spend 2 or 3 or more days in the car to get to our destination, it feels like an accomplishment to say ‘we’re in America!’
As in, ‘one country down, only one more to go!’ Practically halfway there.
We pulled up to the designated line and waited for our official summons to move forward. We were the only car there and I was quietly thrilled at how quickly we’d zip through: hand over some passports, answer a few questions, likely relinquish the 2 bananas remaining in our cooler and we would be in America.
After waiting several minutes, two guards walked into the booth – clearly having been on break from a busy day’s work – and summoned us to pull forward. The duo bore a very slight resemblance to that old television show, Jake and the Fatman. Purely because one had black hair and the other was somewhat heavyset. The dark-haired man was no Joe Penny and the heavyset man with the buzz cut turned out to be the antithesis of a cantankerous genius.
I handed the professor the stack of passports and he rolled down his window. As soon as I heard Jake bark: ‘pull all the way up to the line’ I knew, simply by the tone of his voice, that we were not going to breeze into America after all.
There are law enforcement agents who are professionals, who do their job and speak with even, bordering on pleasant voices. And there are law enforcement agents who have lower than average IQs, who thrive on abusing their position of power, and often end up in youtube clips and newspaper headlines.
Jake and the Fatman obviously fell in the latter category, and our ability to cross into the land of milk and honey in a timely manner rested in the hands of this wonder-duo.
They began with the standard line of questioning.
Where are you going? Indiana
What are you doing there? Visiting family.
How long will you be there? One month.
Do you have any fruits or vegetables? Two bananas.
Any citrus? No.
Are you traveling with any currency? Seven dollars. Actually two – we spent the $5 on the swill back in Val Marie.
How are you going to get to Indiana with $7? Silence.
‘Why do you have emergency passports for two of your kids,’ the Fatman suddenly piped up. Of all the questions I might have anticipated, this was certainly not one of them. It was the equivalent of asking ‘why do you have legal, accepted-everywhere travel documents for your children to cross an international border? What kind of stunt are you trying to pull?’
We explained that their passports hadn’t been ready on time and they were issued emergency passports instead.
‘Well you don’t need passports for any children under the age of 16 to travel between the U.S. and Canada. You only need them to cross the Atlantic.’
To say this line of reasoning took us aback would be an understatement. We were dealing with a man who spends his days looking at passports, asking us why we had passports. Perhaps his most recent buzz cut had removed more than he’d anticipated.
‘Why are you crossing [the border] here?’ He changed tactics, asking the second least expected question of the hour. Clearly our unfashionable minivan with its Griswold-esque roof topper and family of five had raised some serious red flags.
‘We spent the night at Grasslands National Park,’ we explained.
‘You’re coming from Calgary, and instead of going down through Montana, on 15, you come all the way over, driving the worst roads possible, and cross here.’
He framed the question like we were playing poker and he’d just laid a royal flush on the table: Aha! Now I have you! You are clearly up to something, what with your passports and driving on these gravel roads, hoping the fine border guards near Val Marie will be too consumed with road construction concerns to care. Bet you weren’t anticipating Jake and the Fatman, super-sleuths who keep America safe from riff-raff and would-be terrorists.
There was a brief moment of silence and I fully expected them to order us out of the car so they could search it, or at least demand we hand over the two bananas, but instead Jake said, in his perpetually unpleasant voice: park the car over there and come inside.
Again, not where I thought this was going.
As previously stated, the professor is the yin to my yang. If left to his own devices, when dealing with stupidity of the mind-blowing variety, his voice will get an unpleasant edge and he may use words that are not wise to use in the company of people who could easily say ‘no America for you!’ Being a people pleasing immigrant, my strategy has always been to answer questions politely and be my most helpful self, in an effort to keep my exchanges with such people as brief as possible.
In the 30 second drive to our parking spot, I exhorted him to keep things pleasant and we climbed out of the car to wait in our video and audio recorded waiting room.
They conferred and emerged, asking more of the same questions.
What do you do in Calgary? Why do you have passports for your kids, anyone under the age of 16 does not need a passport. Why are you coming this way?
‘I’m from San Diego,’ the Fatman told us, ‘and if I’m going back there, I’m not going to drive to [Bismarck/Jamestown/some random town used to illustrate he would be driving east to go west.]
‘But we’re heading in the direction we need to go,’ I spoke up, thoroughly irritated.
Nonplussed, he continued, ‘I mean you’re driving on the worst roads possible. There’s construction starting on this road, a few miles away, and when there’s traffic – there won’t be today because of the holiday – you will be lucky if you’re going 35 miles per hour. And there’s a two foot drop off on either side. So if you go off the edge….And it’s a good thing you’re not on a motorcycle because the road is covered in oil. You’d have to turn back.’
We stared back, dumbfounded. What was there to say?
They retreated to their glass-walled office again. Either to confer, or pass sufficient time so as to give the appearance that they were pouring themselves into our ‘case’. The Fatman emerged again at some point and disclosed a rather embarrassing change of heart about the whole passport matter. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you lived in Canada, that’s why you need to have passports for your kids.’
Yep. People who work in a particular country tend to also live in said country.
‘Do you have any other identification?’ Jake asked, to let us know we were not yet off the hook. We handed over our drivers’ licenses.
‘Why do you have Canadian drivers’ licenses?’ Because Canada requires it.
There was more conferring behind their glass walls and I watched while they appeared to scratch the licenses, presumably to verify their authenticity.
They emerged from their fortress, having – seemingly – exhausted their repertoire of questions.
‘So,’ Jake looked at me, ‘You’re from South Africa? How did you get your U.S. Passport?’
Scratch that, this was the most unbelievable yet.
I stammered a little, completely caught off guard,’ through permanent residency.’ ‘Yeah, but who sponsored you to come to the United States,’ he insisted.
‘Nobody. I was 12. I came with my parents.’
‘Yeah, but who sponsored them?’
‘Nobody, they went to graduate school.’
I didn’t realize I’d have to explain my emigration circa 1986.
Nearly forty five minutes after we’d first arrived, we were finally dismissed. ‘Goodbye,’ they took leave of us, which the boys reciprocated with polite goodbyes while their incensed parents remained silent.
We got in the car and I sensed the professor was about to explode. But I had to assume we were still under some kind of surveillance.
‘Not yet,’ I cautioned.
And we drove for several miles until it felt somewhat safe to dissect the experience.
‘We should have said we were doing some work for ISIS, when they asked us what we were going to do in Indiana.’
‘Or said we were doing an internship with the Institute for Specialized Information Studies.’
We approached the construction zone and looked for the ‘two foot drop offs’ on either side.
We’re still looking.