Note: Potential trigger warnings for talk of suicide risk and detainment
There are a handful of stories that I haven’t shared publicly about the cross country excursion I took 3 years ago. The original plan was create a book out of it, but for potential libel reasons I can’t. Not in the way I would want to. We’ll leave it at that.
But there’s no reason for me to keep some parts of the adventure in my pocket. I figure there’s one FUBAR one I’ll start off with and I guess Canada Day is as good a day as any to try.
Stop #2 on the trek was supposed to be Toronto. I had plans to connect with some friends up there, had tickets to a Blue Jays game, had a few days’ worth of plans. Toronto was a bucket list city, and I was pretty excited to check that off the list.
I left from Vermont, the plan was to head across upstate New York, then from there cross the border and head toward Toronto.
Not really being nuanced in the concept of border crossings, I committed a number of blunders.
1. I had (if I remember correctly) 3 trash bags full of stuff I realized in Vermont that I didn’t need, and I planned on donating along the way that could have looked shady AF to the wrong eyes. I completely forgot because I was preoccupied most of the day with #2.
2. I managed to get a speeding ticket in a really bizarre way near the Vermont/ New York border. There was a space where the speed dropped 10mph and the border that my not-caffeinated brain didn’t process that was ¼ mile at the most. Somewhere in between was a cutout that a cop was just pulling into. Plus, an added bonus, he was on a traffic enforcement grant where he had to write the ticket (I found out much later when that when I requested an appeal that he never turned it in). I was pissed at the combination of crap luck and brain cramp across much of NY (to be fair, I was mostly on the Thruway and there’s absolutely nothing else to focus on).
3. I had a not-so-well-thought-out plan to cross Ontario after visiting Toronto and return to the US in Detroit. If I had to plan this now, I would have just dumped everything else I had in storage for a few days in Buffalo, and just taken a bag of clothes and my laptop with me. Driving through Ohio really isn’t that bad (although to be fair I’ve never been in Ohio when it wasn’t absolutely pouring out so I don’t have definitive evidence).
4. When I was looking up things like “what to do in Canada” I maybe should have been looking up stuff like “what are my rights at the border?”
Let’s get to WHY I now know these things I did not know then…sigh.
I’m approaching the border at Lewiston/ Queenston (near Niagara Falls) after crossing maybe 4 bridges…this will come into play later.
I approach the border and was asked if I had anything to declare. I naively just told the truth, that I was visiting friends, showed the guard my reservation (I booked an Airbnb). Didn’t think I had anything to hide, and figured I was probably the 1000th person to do the exact same thing that day at this particular border crossing.
I realized the guard was asking a lot more questions than I was expecting, and my gut was like “we got a problem”. Almost immediately I was told to move over to the side and wait.
Then like 3 guards came and ripped my car apart and demanded passwords for my phone and laptop. This was when I wish I knew what my rights were. I knew if I was on a traffic stop, I could tell them to piss off and get a warrant but I figured it didn’t work like that here.
They then had me go inside their facility and had me sit in what looked like an interrogation room, all metal all around, and I was locked inside. This was the point where I was flat out terrified. I had no way to get hold of anyone, not that anyone could do anything about it, and nobody knew where I was. Were they going to lock me up? Was I in trouble? What could I possibly be in trouble for? I didn’t even have anything remotely resembling contraband on me!
Finally, a guard came in and started asking me if I was okay, if I was healthy, was I having any urges to self-harm. I was like “I’m wondering why I’m being detained in a metal box but otherwise I’m okay.”
“Well, we were looking at some of your writing and you talk about a lot of dark things and it’s setting off red flags”
“It’s what I do, I write about self-help and mental health. If I’m going to have any credibility I need to talk about my past experiences and use those to show others, they aren’t alone”
From there we actually had a great chat about mental health and law enforcement…mostly how there isn’t anything close to enough support with that stuff. Felt like we were clicking. Didn’t realize he was just playing “good cop”.
He left and another guy came in. Apparently bad cop, or at least his mission in life was to prove that some Canadians are in fact dicks.
“So yeah, you’re not getting into Canada today”
“Are you going to explain why, because you really have no good reason”
“Because we think you’re s suicide risk and we don’t want that in the country”
“If I was going to do that, I had easier options, like the 4 bridges I just drove across, why the hell would I leave the country to do that” (okay, not the best call there)
“And we don’t want you taking advantage of our healthcare” (okay, valid point there). And since the election in 2016 we have plenty of you coming and not leaving (fine, also valid) and we’re wasting too many resources on that. Besides, what if you meet someone and fall in love and decide you aren’t leaving? Enough with you Americans draining our system (damn, that was an option? You’re a hell of a lot more confident in my game than I am!”)
At least I got out of the room, but I had to sit in a waiting room. I was told I had two options. One was to voluntarily leave and have the option to return another time or to be recorded as denied and “good luck ever coming back”. So I signed the paperwork voluntarily leaving and then I asked “so, am I getting my laptop and phone back?”
“Yeah, give us a bit. Go watch the hockey game. The Bruins are in the Cup, go watch the Bruins.” Yeah, it was the Stanley Cup finals (which they would go on to lose in classic Bruins fashion in 7 games) but honestly, I was too freaked out, pissed, aggravated (mostly because I lost the Airbnb money and needed to come up with another last minute lodging plan) and totally in my head to give a rat’s ass about the game at that point.
As I was sitting in this waiting area, I had a couple of observations. One was that I was the only non-guard person that was in the area that didn’t appear to be Middle Eastern, which I had some questions I wanted to ask but figured it probably wasn’t the best time to ask. The second was that they went through my car, my laptop, my phone but absolutely nobody searched me. Nobody. I didn’t go through a metal detector, no pat down, nothing. I could have had the good stuff on me, and they would have missed all of it. I figured I wouldn’t ask about that either.
Eventually the “good cop” came out with my stuff and in true Canadian form, said sorry. A lot.
Put my crap back together in my car, and figured I’d just find someplace to park back across the border and figure out what I was going to do instead of visit Toronto.
As I crossed, the US Border guard was a complete dick and just mocked me for my experience.
“Figured someone like you would like the Mexican border better with that personality”
“What did you say?
“Nothing, have a nice day”
As I was crossing the 4 bridges in between singing the “Blame Canada” song from the South Park movie I kept looking down and thinking to myself “yeah, so much easier than crossing the border. What the actual fuck…”
I ended up finding an only slightly shady place to stay near the Buffalo airport for a couple nights. Dropped my stuff and walked to a nearby Anchor Bar (where apparently Buffalo wings were invented. Swoon) and after sending a whole bunch of “so plans just changed” messages I handled the situation the way I handled frustration and disappointment in so many past occasions.
I got drunk off my ass. After about beer #4 I started making friends in the bar. I heard a lot of “you’re actually not an asshole, are you sure you’re from Massachusetts?” (Backstory: Buffalo=Bills fans, and Bills fans REALLY hate Patriots fans, and by default anyone with any sort of New England accent. Back then, when the Patriots were still winning Super Bowls and the Bills sucked it was funnier than it is now that the Bills are actually winning-but let’s see them actually win a Super Bowl first although this year they may have a shot.)
Anyway, Happy Canada Day, I guess. I’m still bitter even though I did learn a lot from the experience about what not to do next time. I also have a firsthand view of what it feels like to be on that side of authority and I never want to experience that again.
The getting booted part was a kick mostly to the ego, but the hardest part for me was just having my whole life ripped apart like that for no real good reason (even with knowing what I should have done better, it still feels like it was arbitrary bullshit. I don’t care.)
I may talk about some vulnerable stuff, sometimes. But even with that I’m still a pretty private person, and there’s parts of my existence that I don’t share and don’t trust the world with. I’ll share what is necessary for my audience to know I see and understand their struggles. But I’m not interested in having my life be a low-budget reality show on social media. I like having that wall, I need to have that wall. Some of that comes from having nobody I could trust for most periods of my life, but I think I would be that way even if that wasn’t true. Do you, but for me, not everything is for everyone’s consumption, period.
It really felt like I was ripped open against my will to have my life torn through like I was some animal undeserving of privacy. I don’t think I realized this until well after the fact, and I certainly didn’t realize how much that experience triggered for me emotionally. I still feel that impulse to run and hide and push the world away just recalling it now.
I’ll take another shot at the border someday. I mean, Toronto is still on the bucket list. It’ll likely work out a lot better because I now know what I know that I didn’t know then. And it’ll be a huge release to get across. I look forward to that day, whenever it comes. I look forward to that moment when I’m sure I’ll be celebrating poutine, Tim Horton’s coffee, and back bacon while having some Rush song blasting as my internal soundtrack. Probably going to sound a hell of a lot better than “Blame Canada”.
Thanks for reading, if you’re enjoying what I create please consider checking out my Ko-fi and throwing a little something in the bucket.