#TT: Trouble From the Start

Since flying out of South America and returning back to “regular life” in Australia, Murphy and I have been tossing some ideas back and forth on how to keep this blog’s pulse beating until the next big trip. One approach we’ve decided to take is to dive deep into our memory banks for travel stories from the past. This is the first one of those.

While rolling back my mental chronometer numerous stories leapt out at me as potential starting points, but I’ve decided that the best place to start is at the beginning, so this is a story about the first time I left Canada as an adult; and in fact, with the exception of New Brunswick, it was also the first time I’d even left Nova Scotia as an adult.

The year was Nineteen-diggity-nine. Bill Clinton was topping the Billboards with his hit album “Sax on the Beach“, Adam Sandler had stolen our hearts with his award-winning performance in Big Daddy, and we had to use the word “diggity” because Slobodan Milosevic had stolen our word for “ninety”. I was an unemployed eighteen year old home from university for the summer, staying at my folks’ place in Colchester County and occupying my days with a copious amount of jack shittery.

On one weekend morning nestled amongst several weeks mostly defined by laziness of heroic proportions, I managed to wake up early and borrowed my father’s 1988 Chevy K1500 (350 V8) to drive over to a buddy’s place about five miles away. Since I don’t know whether he’d appreciate me using his real name here (you’ll see why later), I’ll call him Elton John. We were both pretty broke but we figured it’d be a good use of a day and the truck to find a logging road or a poorly-maintained gravel road and do some ripping around off-road. Having covered many of the nearby areas previously we jumped on the Trans-Canada Highway 104 and headed to New Brunswick.

An hour or so later we crossed the NB border but decided to keep rolling. We passed Moncton and kept on heading for Saint John. The truck wasn’t the best highway vehicle, especially when one’s wallet was light, so I chose fiscal responsibility in favour of safe driving and followed 18-wheelers dangerously close in order to draft them, NASCAR style. The combination of the drafting and the unusually low 100 km/h speed actually made us fairly optimistic about our range, and somewhere before Saint John – despite seeing numerous dirt roads with promise – we had the brilliant idea to cross into Maine and see what their logging roads were like. A secondary benefit was that we weren’t that optimistic about our range, so filling up with cheap American gas would be a good way to ensure we had enough cash and fuel to get home after having partaken in some off-roading.

We reached the border town of St. Stephen and rolled up to the bridge into America, excited and grinning from ear to ear. There are several key facts that you have to keep in mind at this point in the story: First, that this was before 9/11, Homeland Security, Dubya, The PATRIOT Act, all that horseshit. Second, due to a combination of point number one and the two of us being naive teenagers, we didn’t see the American border as a real thing – we pictured it more like a county line from Dukes of Hazzard, something you could cross at will but the sheriff couldn’t. We didn’t even have passports because you simply didn’t need them back then… So when I brought the truck up to the gate and the US border guard asked me if I had anything to declare I truthfully said no, and when he followed that up with “Where are you going?” I truthfully replied “I don’t know, we’re just going to drive around.” That seems really stupid now, but in 1999 I swear it didn’t! We were immediately asked (read: ordered) to pull over into the parking lot and enter the small, adjacent border post.

At this point we were still easy breezy, sure we didn’t know where we were going but we certainly didn’t mean any harm and we were confident that with a bit of friendly banter the border guards would understand our position and wave us through. I’d dealt with a fair number of dickhead cops back home and I’d typically given them as much shit as I thought I could get away with but I wasn’t thinking of these guards as cops and was intent on being as polite as possible, a gracious foreigner, a good ambassador, all that jazz. They were stern but didn’t really give off an asshole vibe until after they ran our IDs and starting demanding answers about Elton’s criminal record.

Now a quick bit of clarification here: Elton hadn’t actually been found guilty of any crimes. The previous year he’d been falsely accused of a crime and subsequently charged, but those charges were dropped because there was zero evidence. Everything associated with that was supposed to be off the system, but for reasons unexplained charges that came to nothing were perfectly visible to a foreign law enforcement agent. (Makes you feel real good about our sovereignty eh? I don’t want to get into all that but just imagine how many orders of magnitude worse it is now.)

Sitting side-by-side on a bench we tightened up a bit when the charges were brought up but not too much – the guard had come around from behind the desk and was standing in front of us, speaking in a serious but controlled voice, asking Elton when the charges were filed. I’m positive they were on the computer but I’m guessing this was an honesty test and one that Elton couldn’t pass because he couldn’t remember exactly. He was thinking, humming and hawing so being the helpful fellow I am, I piped up “I’m pretty sure it was early last November.”

Well sir, that remark blew the floodgates wide open. No longer was the guard standing several feet away and keeping himself cool and collected, he was now right in my face and screaming “I DIDN’T ASK YOU! I ASKED HIM!” Whaaaaat?! He yelled so hard his pornstache was quivering. I was shocked, completely taken aback, but I didn’t have time to process it because the next thing we knew he was calling for backup and we were quite literally hauled off to separate rooms for questioning. I couldn’t even process it, what the fuck just happened?

I was alone inside the room for a bit and got a grasp on what was happening. Once again, there are some contextual details I’d like to convey before continuing – as I alluded to previously, at eighteen years of age I wasn’t much inclined to take shit from authority figures, and I also had a pretty decent temper back then, and I could feel it winding up as my face grew hot.

When a guard – a different one from the one who’d yelled in my face – entered the room they proceeded to ask me pretty much the same old questions you’d expect, except they did so over and over, presumably to see if I’d slip up and change my answer. I stayed honest and I tried to stay respectful, keeping in mind this was a different guard, but I was starting to get pissed off at having to dump my pockets, get a full pat-down, all that. After some more time alone they let me out and brought me up to the desk where I was face-to-face with Captain Dickhead again.

Dickhead: “We’re going to search your vehicle and we need to ask you some questions.”

Me: “Alright.”

Dickhead: “Do you have any sharp objects?”

Me: “No.”

Dickhead: “Syringes? Are you sure?”

Me: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.” (Getting more pissed off, since it seemed like he was strongly suggesting I was a junkie.)

Dickhead: “How about tobacco products?”

Me: “There are some butts in the dash but you can have them if you want.”

So yeah, that was the point where I said fuck it and started giving him the attitude full bore. I reckoned he was a major league asshole but I was no slouch, either. Things rapidly went downhill as the questions continued. At one point they asked us about our lack of cash, which I easily explained away with our debit cards (and Elton’s credit card). “How do I know you have any money?” the officer demanded, to which I responded “How do you ANYBODY has any money? What would you think if I came through here with pockets full of hundred dollar bills?” Of course we actually had well less than $100 between us but fuck him, he didn’t know that. Eventually the questions ceased and Elton and myself were left on the bench – with an officer eyeing us from across the room – while douchebag and one of his buddies went to check out the truck.

To be 100% honest, I was struck by pangs of fear at this point. All of a sudden I remembered hearing stories of border guards tearing vehicles apart, shredding seats, tearing the dash off and leaving it on the sidewalk, that kind of shit. Ohhhh fuuuuuck, I thought to myself, thinking my dad’s truck was about to get seriously fucked up. Without making too many sudden movements I tried to keep an eye on what was happening outside but it wasn’t much use.

Elton and I tried to share what just happened to us during the questioning while keeping the decibels low enough that no one would get crunchy. He got grilled by Captain Fuckface and after the pocket-emptying his asthma inhaler was disassembled and rendered useless, supposedly in a search for drugs. Isn’t that some vindictive shit? What kind of fucking idiot would run such a tiny amount of drugs over a border in an inhaler?

The guards re-entered the building after a short time, removed their rubber gloves and Captain Cocksucker went behind the desk and started pulling out paperwork. After a couple minutes of scribbling chickenscratch he called me up.

“I’m going to give you this piece of paper and you’re going to drive back across the border and give this to the guards on the other side.” I looked at the paper, with Department of Justice iconography at the top and several rows of strange numeric codes. “It says you were denied entry because of lack of funds, but that’s not the only reason. You’re not entering because I don’t think you have any money, I don’t like you, and I think you’re a punk.” I nodded slowly, grabbed the paper and walked out.

A little shot of relief hit me when I saw the truck had only been ransacked and not completely dismembered, but that was fleeting and quickly replaced with rage. Fuck THAT guy, I thought. Calling me a punk? Accusing me of being broke, even though it was true? What. An. Asshole. I felt like my head was going to burst and I may have been shaking – it sure felt that way. I looked past the border zone and saw a gas station a few hundred feet ahead, then turned to Elton and said “I’ll show him who doesn’t have any money.”

Putting the truck in reverse and then pulling out of the parking lot I took a right into Calais, Maine rather than the left back to Canada. I pulled up to the first available pump and we both jumped out, I was on a mission – inspired in no small part because without cheap fuel, off-roading was out of the question – and Elton had a MASSIVE smile on his face, laughing at our stunt. He was totally stoked, wired right up, and he jumped into the back of the truck and kept laughing.

It didn’t take long for the black Crown Victorias to show up, police lights on top lit up. Several guards jumped out and approached us hard with Captain Asshat in the front. He’d taken the time to put on aviator glasses – combined with the pornstache, now he looked like a cop. (And I repeat, What. An. Asshole.) He stared at me for about four seconds and the shades couldn’t disguise his rage, he looked like he didn’t know what to do so he turned to Elton still standing in the back of the truck and said “ELTON! GET IN THE TRUCK!” Elton kind of shrugged and said “Uhh, I’m just standing he…”, to which was bellowed “GEEET INNN THEEE TRRUUUUUCK!”, and this time Elton complied.

I was still leaning against the truck with one hand on the pump’s nozzle as Cap’n approached me. His voice lowered but it sounded like he was on the verge of completely losing his fucking mind. Guys like that don’t like to be challenged, and I didn’t stop adding fuel to the fire.

Him: “What do you think you’re doing?”

Me: “Getting gas, what does it look like I’m doing?”

He stepped up to me, leaving a mere eight or nine inches between my eyes and his glasses, which he then slowly reached up and took off (aka he Carusoed me) and said quietly and slowly:

“Finish up here and get the hell out of my country.”

He backed off, as did his boys, but they watched me finish up and pay. Still in a bit of a rage but feeling emboldened and with a full tank, I jumped in the truck and as I hit the ignition I said to Elton, “Wanna watch me leave a strip from here back to Canada?” He grabbed my arm, gave me a serious look and said, “No. They will shoot us.” It was a damn serious look and a damn serious statement from one of the least serious people I’ve ever met, so it snapped me out of my fury and I decided to ease onto the accelerator as I headed north rather than mash it through the floor.

When I reached the Canadian border post I quickly explained that we were rejected and handed over the DOJ paper. “What do these numbers mean?”, asked the lady. “Beats me”, I responded, and she just shrugged and waved us through after giving me the paper back. (Anyone who knows me well knows how much of an extreme minimalist I am, I hold onto virtually nothing. I still have that piece of paper.)

The rest of the day actually turned out pretty great, as we spent a few hours ripping around on some logging roads outside of Saint John and found a really bizarre spectacle about 10 miles back in the woods, an ancient rusted out body of a car that was about twenty-five feet up in the air, suspended by a tree that had grown right up through the middle of it. Was it placed there by a crane, or did the tree actually lift it as it grew over the last forty or fifty years? I wouldn’t have thought the latter was possible but the former seems like a pretty silly thing to do, and the path we were on was quite narrow, wouldn’t have been easy to get a crane back there. We stopped off for coffee and snacks a few times and ended up getting home sometime between three and four in the morning.

Of course the real fallout came several years later. In 2007 I was hired by a Californian company and I’d flown down for an interview without any hassle, but when I showed up at the Halifax airport with my girlfriend and a couple bags of stuff and told them I was moving down, they ran my name and told me I had to go to a room in the back. 1999 wasn’t even remotely on my mind at this point, but it was on theirs. I was missing one piece of paper that I was supposed to have and then demanded to know why I hadn’t told them about “the incident” eight years prior. “What does that have to do with ANYTHING?”, I said. Baggage pulled off the plane. Girlfriend pulled out of the waiting area and into the questioning area with me. I made a quick call to get my one piece of paper faxed in and things were soon resolved but before letting us through, the border guard took my girlfriend aside and told her (in a level that was obviously intended for me to overhear):

“You should really watch out for this guy. I can tell he has a vicious temper and doesn’t pay attention to details when he’s angry. He could get himself and you into a lot of trouble down there.”

What. A. Bitch. So even though the ’99 incident was sort of secondary in that case, there have been at least three other times when I’ve crossed the border and it’s been raised as a red flag against me. I guess there isn’t a statute of limitations on those things. Understandably, I was nervous as hell when I drove back to the Calais, Maine border crossing last August, and as expected the “incident” was raised. It took almost three hours of questioning and searching to satisfy them that I’m not a Durkadurkastani jihadist, but I got through eventually.

I’m not really sure what the moral of the story is here. Now that the Pan-Am run is over I don’t intend on returning to the US anytime soon though, so I suppose I don’t really have to think about it.

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