The shortest route between Niagara Falls and Hillsdale, Michigan, runs through Canada.
I could stay in the U.S. by swinging around Lake Erie to the south, and going through the north end of Ohio. But I have been through Ohio before. I’ve never been to a foreign country, and though I’m not sure Canada qualifies as such, it still seemed like a good idea to include it on the trip. Even if the people there can’t tell the difference between bacon and ham.
I didn’t know what might be required to cross the border, but I had always gotten the impression that traveling between the two countries was not a big deal. It’s basically the 52nd state, right? And if 20 million Mexicans can cross a guarded border without citizenship papers, surely I can make it into Canada, eh?
I decided to give it a try. If they turned me back, I would just go through Ohio.
It was still raining—this would be the fifth straight day of rain—when I crossed the toll bridge and pulled up to the customs booth.
The female mountie in the booth was all business.
“Do you have a passport?”
“Uh, no, sorry. I wasn’t sure what would be required to get in.”
“Can I see your birth certificate?”
“Um, no, I don’t have that with me either.”
I can only assume that I do, in fact, have a birth certificate somewhere. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never been too concerned with seeing it, because I’ve never really understood the point. A piece of paper to officially say that I was born? Well, I’m moving and talking, so I would appear to be alive, right? Isn’t that proof enough of birth? You don’t really think I am Adam, do you?
And I am guessing that a birth certificate is not a form of photo ID. Even if it were, my baby picture wouldn’t be much use for identification now. So how would a birth certificate prove anything useful?
I handed her my Texas driver’s license, since it was the only form of ID I had other than an expired health insurance card.
“I’m just looking to pass through,” I offered, “since I need to be in Hillsdale, Michigan tonight.”
“Eh? What’s in Hillsdale?”
“Some friends from college I am going to visit.”
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
Purpose? That’s a rather complicated question. “Well, I’ve had this goal of visiting all 50 states, and…”
“Business or holiday?”
“What is your occupation?”
Not again. “Right now, I’d say that freelance writer would probably be the most…uh…freelance writer.”
“Who was your previous employer?”
Geeze. I was reminded of that scene from the movie “Goonies”, where the bad guys ask a kidnapped kid to tell them “everything”, and he starts recounting his life story in excruciating detail. Is she going to want to know who my 4th grade teacher was, too?
“What’s in the back of your truck?” she asked, after a few more personal questions.
“That’s a kayak,” I replied. “I also have a suitcase back there, and an ice chest that just has water in it, and a couple of tents.”
She stared at me expectantly.
“Uh, I also have the things that go with my kayak, like the oar and the seat, and a camping chair, and a cot, and a crowbar…”
Drat, I thought, she wants me to list everything. And I had brought everything with me, since I knew I would be living out of my pickup for three weeks, and I like to be prepared. About the only worldly possessions I did not have with me were my large furniture and some of my clothes. It doesn’t look like I’m trying to spend 3 hours in Canada. It looks like I’m moving in.
I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to turn back and go through Ohio. I wondered if I would have to pay the bridge toll once, twice, or zero times if I just made a U-turn.
The mountie handed me a yellow piece of paper. “Drive over to the customs building and hand this to the officer inside.”
I parked at the nearby building, and was met by another female officer.
“What’s that big thing in the back of your truck?”
“That’s my kayak.”
“A kayak, eh?”
This woman’s task was to inspect everything in my vehicle. Everything. Oh dear, I thought. This will take all day.
As she strip-searched my pickup, I carried the yellow sheet of paper inside.
The inside of the building consisted of a string of rooms, each of which had a string of counters, like bank teller stations. None of the stations were manned, though, as the officers walked from room to room apparently on their own business.
One of the mounties finally stood still long enough for me to hand him the yellow paper.
“Do you have a passport?”
“No. Sorry, I didn’t know what might be needed.”
“Do you have a birth certificate?
“Not on me.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Detroit, basically. I’m just passing through.”
“What is the purpose of your trip?
“What do you have in your truck?”
Good grief, I thought. Do I have to answer everything again? Did the first officer not write any of this down on the piece of yellow paper? I had neglected to look at it closely.
After giving my life story a second time, I was sent to the next room and told to wait. I sat in one of the chairs along the wall. The walls were covered with signs about regulations and reminders, such as a poster with the friendly tip to declare everything I was carrying with me. Each sign had a duplicate, written in French, which apparently asked me to do the same things again, Frenchy-style.
At one end of the room, a woman stood in a booth marked “currency exchange”. After 10 minutes of waiting, I got bored and thought that maybe I should get a little Canadian money. Just in case, or perhaps to use as a souvenir.
“What is the exchange rate here?” I asked.
“You’ll have to go to the bank. We don’t exchange currency here,” replied the woman at the currency exchange counter.
At that moment, another officer called me up to the counter. Yellow paper in hand, she went through the procedure again: do you have a passport, do you have a birth certificate, why don’t you have a birth certificate, next time could you please bring your birth certificate? Then, as the inspector walked in having completed her strip search, I was given the OK to continue onto Canadian soil.
Huh. They let me in after all. Now I just hope they will let me back out.
When I started up my pickup, the radio threw up a CD and displayed an error message, refusing to take the CD back in. Oh, poor thing. I don’t blame you. You’ve been violated.
I paid the toll—$2.50 U.S., $3.50 Canadian—and headed off into Canadia.
Canada was, as I expected, pretty much like the U.S.
Most people speak some form of English, and instead of the random Spanish radio station on the dial, you run into French radio stations. They have their own currency, which is kind of like real money, only cheaper. Probably for this reason, they seem more than willing to take U.S. dollars in payment.
The most noticeable difference is the use of the metric system. Instead of the measly 65 mile per hour speed limit in New York, here I could legally drive 100 kilometers per hour! Wee!
I was somewhat surprised to see gasoline listed at truck stops for 79 or 89 cents, but then I saw that the price was per liter.
Oh, and they had ketchup-flavored Lay’s potato chips, which were actually touted as now having “more ketchup flavor!” Ew.
The Ontario landscape was flat, and not all that interesting. The one interesting thing I did come across was an old sailing ship run aground in shallow water, in Lake Ontario right next to the interstate. There was no explanation for it, and no way of knowing how old it was. Having such a large sailing ship there, abandoned by the side of the road, was a good reminder of how large and great the Great Lakes really are.
The toll bridge into Port Huron, Michigan, had one lane for commercial trucks and another lane for passenger vehicles.
The passenger-car lane had sparse traffic. The truck lane was backed up, and basically at a standstill, for a couple of miles. I feel sorry for any trucker who has to cross the border.
The man at the U.S. customs booth seemed perturbed that I did not have a passport or birth certificate.
Well, the Canadians let me in without it, and I’m not even a citizen of their country. Surely they’ll let me back in to my country, right?
He motioned toward the duct-taped front end of my pickup. “When did that happen?”
“A few days ago. In Connecticut.”
“Do you have any paperwork on the accident?”
“Like a police report.”
“No. Nobody called the police.”
He frowned as he stepped out of the booth, and made a circle around the back of my pickup. When he reached the crumpled front corner, he smiled and shook his head.
“You have something like the Terry Labonte look going here. Well, go on, get outta here.”
I took off toward Detroit, back on friendly American soil.
I saw a Detroit news story once about a prank road sign.
Someone had gone to the trouble of making an official-looking government road sign, and attached it to a real government road sign along the interstate, presumably in the middle of the night. The sign was so subtle, and such a good replica, that the highway department did not notice it or take it down for several weeks. The sign was very simple, as are most messages of truth. The plain-text message simply said:
Welcome to Detroit
We hope you survive
I did not stop in Detroit, but continued on to Hillsdale.
Hillsdale, MI is the home of Steve and Tanya, two college friends of mine who lived in the Dallas area when I first moved down there. They had since moved to Michigan for Steve to take a job as a young adults pastor.
Hillsdale is a fairly small town, but is home to Hillsdale College, a conservative private school that is, surprisingly, not a Christian college.
Steve and Tanya were kind enough to let me stay the night at their place. They gave me a tour of the attractions in Hillsdale, which include the post office and the grocery store. It does not include a Wal-Mart, or almost any chain store of any kind, due to city rules about local ownership. As a result, the town 2 miles down the road does have a Wal-Mart, and chain stores, and most of the sales tax revenue from Hillsdale.
As they drove me around the small college campus, they pointed at one windowless brick building and said, “That is the Virgin Vault.”
As they understood the story, the man who donated the money to build the Virgin Vault did so in memory of his daughter, who had been assaulted and murdered by someone who broke into her college dorm room through an outside window. A terrible story, to be sure. Because of this, though, the women’s dormitory that he funded was built with no exterior windows, and only one exterior entrance. In the center of the building is a courtyard, and the rooms that face the courtyard are the only ones that have windows of any kind. Due to its prison-like design, it had been nicknamed by the students—including the girls who lived there—as the Virgin Vault.
Back at the house, the continuing rain had turned into a very light snow. Good. As long as I was up in the north, I at least wanted to see some snow. Hopefully, before I headed south for Thanksgiving, I would find enough snow to pack the ice chest full and take back with me.