Don’t mess with Alberta

I had never much considered Canada before I decided to go there. I mean, I knew it was there, but somehow it was always strangely unfathomable to me that there were all these people up in the hat of America, eating Kraft Dinner and going about their business. If I ever thought about the place, it was with the sort of fondness you’d feel for a much younger sibling. Look, they even have cities! How cute!

Accordingly, I had been under the impression that the border existed mostly as a formality. I imagined a Mountie resembling Colonel Mustard sitting on his horse next to a sign that said “WELCOME TO CANADA,” snoring as ex-cons hopped the fence, disgruntled Democrats vaguely waved their driver’s licenses before getting the hell out of America, and teen-agers sped right under his nose with clouds of pot smoke billowing in their wake. When I quit my job at a Utah ski lodge to go to Cranbrook, B.C., for the winter with my boyfriend, it never occurred to me that Canada would be anything less than honored and delighted to have me.

Imagine the shock to my system, then, when looming out of the 6 p.m. January blackness I saw a prison-like cluster of steel and concrete buildings blazing with lights and warning signs. We eased to a stop by the entry booth. A guy in a dark uniform sat there with the surly expression of someone whose current lot in life is working the night shift on the Montana-Alberta border. His eyes settled on Evan, in the driver’s seat, and his scowl deepened. A knot formed in my stomach. I felt like the girl who shows up at a crowded frat party in a hoodie and expects to get in. Idiot! I should have worn a low-cut shirt!

We were asked a few curt questions. Our passports were whisked away. We were directed to park in a nearby garage and wait in an adjoining room. The car was searched, every one of our bags rifled through. When they told us to enter the main building to retrieve our passports, we exchanged relieved grins. All clear!

Inside, our misguided feeling of well-being evaporated as an officer with a mustache, beady eyes, and a Napoleon complex commenced interrogating us. Evan had enrollment papers for the timber-frame class he’d be taking, which the man studied before turning to me to probe about (gulp) my financial situation and (double gulp) my employment situation. He told us to sit.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said, “and we’ll discuss this some more.”

I had realized from the moment we’d arrived that no one was going to welcome me with open arms and give me a polar bear to ride, but only now, with my fate in the hands of this Albertan pipsqueak, did it hit me that I just might not get in. Evan had a concrete reason for being in B.C. But me? I was just along for the ride, and these guys probably had a sixth sense for identifying people who intended to look for under-the-table work. Not that I was planning on doing that.

I shot Evan a look of dread, and we took our seats like condemned prisoners.

He came back to the desk. “I have some good news,” he said. “And some bad news.”

An hour later, after a tense standoff during which I thought for a minute that Evan might punch the guy and get himself rejected, too, we were sitting in a nearly empty restaurant in the border town of Shelby, Mont., drowning our sorrows with 16-ounce glasses of Moose Drool. Shelby was one of the most godforsaken towns I’d ever seen, and we asked our waiter, a native, what there was to do around there.

He shrugged. “Get drunk and shoot shit.”

In our increasingly loopy and emotionally unhinged state, it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. We launched into our sob story, barely able to get through it for our hysterical laughter. He was sympathetic.

“Dang, they wouldn’t let you in? They let me in to go titty-barring on my twenty-first birthday!”

Later, as we lurched to our feet, Evan threw another dollar on the tip.

“I want that man to have some ammo,” he said.

Upon hearing that the Alberta border was notoriously difficult to cross (“Alberta is the Texas of Canada,” said the woman behind the desk at our Shelby motel), we drove west through Glacier National Park to another Montana border town. Eureka was slightly more prepossessing than Shelby, though not by much. I holed up in a motel while Evan crossed the border alone to start his class. I made phone calls and arranged for more documentation of my ties to America, but mostly I spent my time shaking my head over my situation, drinking PBR and watching “Crocodile Hunter.”

In a couple of days, Evan swung back south and we gave it another go, this time armed with previous pay statements and contingency plans. I don’t think I breathed on the way to the checkpoint, which, I was heartened to see, consisted of a solitary booth occupied by a solitary man. Still, if I was red-flagged in their system, it wouldn’t matter how casual their operation was.

The man scanned Evan’s passport while asking the usual questions about his class. He looked across to me. “And what are you doing there?”

Wasn’t he going to ask for my passport? I tried to keep my voice even. “Freelance writing for some papers back home.”

“Have a nice day, folks,” he said, sitting back.

I could have kissed him. We contained ourselves until we were a little way down the road, then the whooping started. We were in Canada! We passed houses and people and animals. Who knew? It was like discovering a secret society of Others.

Once in Cranbrook, we stopped to change money. The woman at the counter smiled at hearing that we’d come from Colorado.

“Oh, I’ve spent some time down there. It’s beautiful. But those Rockies are like molehills next to the ones up here, eh?”

Now, the Canadian Rockies are lovely and big and everything, but clearly this was a ludicrous statement made by a deluded individual. Being new to her country, I refrained from saying, “Lady, show me some 14ers and we’ll talk” and just looked at her fondly.

Oh, Canada. I’ve used your currency. I’ve met your people, and they are (almost) universally friendly and wonderful. I’ve seen your might for myself and I won’t underestimate you again.

But sometimes, you can be so cute!

–Emily Johnson

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