The Astral Log

27 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 6: Miles of Minnesota

After making my exit from the clutches of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, I drove as fast as I could into Minnesota to put some distance between bad experiences and I. From that point on, the drive was pleasant but uneventful: Occasionally a freakishly alien piece of farm equipment two lanes wide would appear over the horizon, but otherwise for mile after mile there was no excitement nor any relic of civilization to see but for the road itself.

Eventually I came to the town of Thief River Falls, where I happened upon a strange, non-taxpaying reuse of what appeared to be an old Conoco station. The less said about their doctrine, the better: Near as I can tell, their members think they're deluged in original sin and are salivating for the rapture to arrive.

Thief River Falls was also home to my single best "roadside artifact find" of the trip: A downtown JCPenney store of 1950s or very early 1960s vintage, bearing no fewer than three generations of signage on the building...including the incredibly-rare "funky P" symbol of 50 years ago.

Another random Minnesota observation: License plates on passenger cars are replaced every 7 years, but license plates on other types of vehicles may never get replaced at all. As if to prove the point, here was a Recreational Vehicle plate in the pre-1987 graphic style with a current 2016 sticker.

I couldn't stay put for long, though. Minutes later I was back on the road, trying to cover as much ground south and east as I could...when I heard the single most satisfying news of the entire trip. Governor Voldemort was ending his presidential campaign (no, I'm not going to use his real name...hearing it is enough to make me smash my fist into the wall), and the United States had escaped a bullet from the foremost source of my life's anxiety and fear.

Dusk fell somewhere in Otter Tail County (how did they name these things?), and I started idly looking for a motel. Accommodations were a little tough to find, though, and I didn't finally stop for the night until I had driven all the way to Saint Cloud...and acquainted myself with the lumpiest mattress and the noisiest air conditioner I had ever endured.

It was luxury.

23 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 6: Border Hell

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest, The World In Which We Live — Andrew T. @ 23:44

My time in Canada may have been four days of bliss...but I'm an American citizen, I live in the U.S., and I had to get over a little something called an "international boundary" before I could have the pleasure of returning home. There was one tip ingrained in my mind: Do what they say, and ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. The truth might be awkward, but lying is worse. If you lie at a border crossing and they find out, you might never be allowed to cross.

Weeks before when I was planning out my trip step by step, my relatives tried to ease my concerns about the border crossing by giving me reassurance: "It's a busy crossing, so there will be lots of cars. They can see your Wisconsin plates; they know you're an American citizen coming home; they won't ask many questions. They want to get people through as fast as possible." Bullshit. Maybe that was true in the halcyon days of the 1990s (pre "war on terror" et al), but it isn't true any more.

The border crossing near Pembina, North Dakota was about six lanes across, and there was not a single other car anywhere in sight. I rolled up in my red car, sticking out from the grey scenery as conspicuously as a sore thumb. That was probably strike number one arousing attention for myself. I rolled my window down and flubbed the next line. That was probably strike number two. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Good mor...uh, afternoon. How are you today?"
Agent: "Your identification?"
I hand over my passport. No surprises so far, though I resent how the days of getting by with a driver's license are over for good.

Agent: "Where are you coming from?"
Me: "Winnipeg."
Agent: "How long have you been out of the country?"
Me: "Four days."
Agent: "When was the last time you were previously in Canada?"
Me: "The summer of...uh, 2002." In all honesty, it had been far too long.
The invasiveness begins. Still no surprises about the questions, though.
Agent: "Where were you staying?"
I give them the name of the hotel I had checked out of earlier that day.
Agent: "Why were you in Canada?"
Me: "I was on vacation, sightseeing and attending a conference."
Agent: "What conference was it?"
Me: "It was the River City Reason Fest conference."
Agent: "What kind of conference is that?"
Me: "It was on the topic of...uh, secular issues and current events." I feel red-hot...I'm in rural North Dakota, and I feel on the verge of having to defend my godlessness to an unsympathetic ear. The conversation turns on a dime, though...and the agent starts delving into topics I hadn't rehearsed for.

Agent: "What is your employer?"
I tell her.
Agent: "What were you doing in Canada for your employer?"
Me: "Nothing. This wasn't a trip for work, it was a trip for pleasure." Oh, but the agent keeps on digging...
Agent: "Where did you go to school?"
I fail to see what this had to do with anything...after all, I've tried to banish memories of my school experiences from my present life...but I knew what to do: ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. I spill the beans about my West Virginia high school and college days.

Agent: "Is this the usual port of entry that you cross at?"
Me: "Since I cross the border so infrequently, I don't really have a usual port. I actually came into Canada at the next crossing west because I was sightseeing in that area." That was probably strike number three, and it was my own fault: Never volunteer information at a border crossing unless explicitly asked. Coming back a different way from which you leave is a red flag of its own, though.
Agent: "How much money are you bringing into the U.S.?"
Me: "U.S. or Canadian?"
Agent: "Both."
I rifle through my wallet and count everything up. It isn't much...probably about $60 in all.
Agent: "Do you have any medications with you?"
Me: "A little cortisone for my rash" I say, pointing to a reddish patch on my palm. Never mind, that was probably strike number four.
Agent: "Are you returning with any goods you did not have when you left?"
Me: "Just five T-shirts," I say, holding up my palm with five fingers outstretched. Strike number five was more like it. The amount I paid for the shirts was well under my personal exemption and I had receipts, so I had nothing to fear. Or did I?

Agent. "Proceed to Garage 1. Your ID will be returned to you there."

Proceed to Garage 1? What was that supposed to mean? Were they going to open the rear hatch and let me go on my way, which was the most that happened crossing into Canada and the most I experienced in the summer of 2002? Never mind, I was to do what they said; they were still holding my passport, after all.

I pulled in. Agents swarmed around, and gave me orders. "Exit the car and empty the contents of your pockets. Leave any digital devices in the car." I reluctantly leave my digital camera on the car seat and dig through my pockets...the prospect of being searched hadn't even occurred to me when I had put things in them. I pull out my keys, wallet, and every scrap of paper I was carrying around with me, and lay it on a tray. The interrogation begins.

"What were you doing in Canada?" I tell them. "What are you bringing in with you?" I tell them. "How much money are you bringing into the U.S.?" Hadn't we gone through all of this already?

Then we got to the paper items, and tension builds. "What's this?" "That's just a hotel bill." "What are these?" "Those are the receipts for the T-shirts I mentioned earlier." They weren't interested in looking at them, though.

"What's this?" the agent says, pulling out a piece of scratch paper covered by addresses for everything from gay bars to Safeway stores. I turn red. "That's a list of tourist attractions in Winnipeg I was planning on visiting." "What were the places that you visited?" "May I take a look at the list?" "You don't remember?!"

I borrow the piece of paper and start going over some of the places I visited and some I wanted to but didn't...the Museum for Human Rights, the Mulvey Flea Market, the University of Manitoba, the Assiniboine Park Zoo, the Royal Canadian Mint. Twenty seconds later the issue is diffused, but a stink is in the air.

"Wait in this room," an agent says, guiding me to a detainment chamber bounded by bulletin boards and wired glass. I looked out through the window. My car was opened. The interior was searched and scrutinized. My suitcase was removed, and its contents removed and sorted through one by one. My backpack was removed, and its contents removed and sorted through one by one. The agents picked through my bag of dirty underwear and flipped through the pages of every paperback book. They found the pad of paper on which I had been writing my streams of consciousness during the trip and seemingly stared at it for minutes on end, flipping through every page and going over every line.

I lost track of the time...the wait might have been 20 minutes, it might have been 40. Was I going to be kept there for hours on end? Were they going to photocopy every page in my travelogue diary and forward them to the FBI to put in my "un-American activities" file? Were they going to confiscate my property? Were they going to let me into the country at all? There was nothing I could do but stare, whimper, and grimace, wondering what would become of me. Until suddenly, the door opened. "You can go now. Your passport is on the dashboard of the car."

"Is everything repacked in my car?" "Yes." I pulled over as soon afterward as I could, and confirmed: My car had been repacked and nothing had been taken, although everything had been repacked in a different place from where I had left it and the whole exercise felt like a violation.

Entering the United States in this day and age is like entering the Iron Curtain. Is this the new normal since the people of West Virginia enabled George W. Bush to create a police state under the 49th parallel?

The scariest take-away about my experience is that it could have easily been even worse. What if I had resisted during the interrogation? What if I had brought my laptop with me, and the agents insisted on checking or confiscating that? What if I had been an ethnic minority instead of a white cis-man? The possibilities and consequences make me shudder.

18 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 6: Exit...Road Left

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest — Andrew T. @ 23:17

Monday morning began day six of my adventure, and it began much like any other. There was an air of finality in the air, though: The conference was over, and so was my time in Winnipeg.

I checked out of my hotel, drove around trying to find a Tim's or some such...and found myself unable to make left turns because the entire street layout around Polo Park was torn to hell for reconstruction and there were lane barriers everywhere. One-way traffic added to the mayhem, and at one point I became so confused by the concrete maze I was in that I actually ended up on the wrong side of the road! I was able to awkwardly dart back to the right side before any harm was done, but it was a thoroughly embarrassing experience.

Thankfully, that was all over by the time I drove south to reach one last tourist destination: The University of Manitoba. I toured the campus and spent the better part of an hour in the Elizabeth Dafoe Library, where I met a kindly if strange person at the microfilm reader who said "eh" a lot and assumed that Wisconsin was in New England. I also had the good fortune of seeing Andrew Osborne of the French department, who happens to be one of the people I know from my license plate hobby. It's funny how specialized interests always bring different people together!

South of Perimeter Highway, I just had to stop one last time and photograph a street sign commemorating my namesake. Turnbull Drive was named after a Thomas Turnbull who was active in Winnipeg politics and agriculture in the early 20th century, and whose father and son were both named...Andrew Turnbull. (A hat tip to the Manitoba Historical Society for documenting that bit of local trivia!)

I felt sorrow at having to leave Canada...four days simply wasn't enough to take everything in, and I hope to go back to Winnipeg again. But it was time to go home, and I had a lot of driving to do...if I could get across the border first.

17 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 5: Around and About the Forks

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest — Andrew T. @ 00:00

When I finally emerged from the realm of Human Rights, I still had a fair bit of parking time paid I took a look around. The rotunda inside Union Station looked as grand as ever. The Winnipeg Railway Museum was open with free admission that day...although I got there 20 minutes before closing time, so I had to hurry! A BNSF GP39-3 locomotive was idling in back, and I was actually invited to climb aboard as the engineer described the operating procedures, instruments, and controls.

The museum had a Griswold crossing signal on display with a rotating stop sign (identical to the one I photographed above in Wisconsin, sans sign, six years ago). I commented on the signal as I was on the way out the door...and the staff person I spoke to hadn't realized before that the sign rotated. Thanks to me, he learned something new that day!

A few quick steps soon brought me to the Forks Market, where I walked into the Travel Manitoba Visitor Information Centre wearing a "Wisconsin Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics" T-shirt. As I buried myself in brochures and looked quizzically around the room, I said "Good afternoon. Do I look like a tourist who's not from around here? Gee, I can't imagine why!"

Later that day back at the hotel, I went for one last walk in the asphalt jungle that surrounded it to see if I could find any engagement there. Target's Canadian experiment had crashed and burned, so they weren't open for business. Their competitors weren't any less deserted, I discovered that all stores were closed on Sunday evenings.

Is Manitoba a last refuge of blue laws, or is shutting down at 6 p.m. some unwritten rule with lockstep adherence? Either way, I wouldn't have guessed.

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