Northern Montana

Glacier National Park; wild and rugged country for which I have no words, only a few inadequate images.


I drive Going-to-the-Sun Road from west to east, and when I exit the park I swing north and stop in a little town called Babb because I see a small building with the word CAFÉ painted on the side.  There’s not much else in the town.  Inside, I sit down with a cup of coffee and chat with the friendly waitress, trying to figure out what to do now.  I mail a letter at the post office just down the street, and while I’m eating pizza that has been reheated by the sun on my dashboard, a van pulls up beside me.  “Hey!”  Calls a man who leans out his window.  We chat for a couple minutes, and then he asks if I normally sleep in my car.  “Yep.”  “You got a sleeping bag or a mattress or something?”  “Yeah, I’ve got a bag.”  “Well, you can sleep in that white tent right there if you want.  There’s nothing in there…but if you just need a space, you can leave your car here and let yourself in through the gate.”

I return to the café and the waitress keeps dutifully attempting to refill my mug, but I keep forgetting to drink the coffee (I have this problem).  I write my way into the evening, promising her that I’ll kick myself out before she needs to close.  As I’m packing up to leave, she brings me a delicious slice of cheesecake and a brownie that I happily save for later.

The wind howls as I unlatch the man’s gate and lay my sleeping bag out beneath the tent, beneath the sky.

In the morning I head north to the Canadian Border.  There are ten empty miles between the last outpost of civilization and the border post, and the road is golden in the morning sunlight, slipping up and down across the rolling pastures.  I begin to slow down when I see the gates ahead, and I feel a pang when I see the sign that says “YOU ARE LEAVING THE USA,” followed by the one that reads “NOW ENTERING CANADA.  WELCOME TO ALBERTA.”  When I am beckoned forwards, I pull up to the window at a spot just between these two signs.  The empty golden rolling road stretches away into the vast hills of the Canadian landscape.

I roll down my window and hand my passport to the Canadian border officer.  He riffles through my paperwork and begins to ask me questions.  Here I begin to make mistakes.

“Where do you live?”  “Well… Northern Virginia, but I’ve been traveling for about a year.”  Oops.  “What are you planning to do in Canada?”  “I’m not really sure.  Probably visit Calgary and Edmonton, maybe keep heading north.”  “How long do you plan to spend in Canada?”  “Oh, maybe a few weeks.”  He pauses.  “You say you’ve been traveling for a year; how do you support yourself?”  “It depends where I am.  Sometimes odd jobs, sometimes I play guitar on the street….”  Oops.  “Please park around corner, step out of the vehicle, and meet me upstairs for further questioning.”  “Ok.”

Upstairs, he stands in front of me at a counter and harangues me with questions.  Do you know anyone in Canada?  When was the last time you were here?  Have you ever been denied entry into Canada?  Where are you going?  Why do you want to come to Canada?  What are you doing here?  When was the last time you had a job?  Do you have a criminal record?  Not even a DUI or something?  Have you ever been arrested?  I sit for a long time.  “Ok, sir.  I’m going to be denying you entry into Canada.”  My heart drops.  “You don’t have much money, your trip sounds unfocused, and you have no real ties in the U.S., no reason to return.  You say you do odd jobs, but you’d need a work visa to do that legally.”  I swallow.  “I don’t have a job because after graduating college I decided—”  It’s too late for that shpeel.  “Yeah, you have no ties, no home, no bills, no mortgage—”  “All the things I deliberately avoided so that I could travel?”  “Yeah.  You have no reason to return to the U.S.”  “No reason that you see.”  “That’s right.  No reason on paper.”

He escorts me downstairs and passes me off to another officer at a desk.  “Ok sir, I am going to need to take a look in your vehicle.”  “Wait.  You’re denying me entry and you’re searching my car?”  “That’s right.”  “And what exactly is the purpose of that?”  “It’s in your best interest, sir.  The U.S. is far more strict, and if they find anything, any paraphernalia, even a container that smells like pot…I need to know, am I going to find anything, any firearms, weapons, illegal substances—”  I cut him off.  “I already told him I didn’t have anything.  Just do whatever you gotta do.”  He starts going over the different penalties for different amounts of marijuana.  “And if it’s at least eight grams—”  “There is nothing in my car!” I snap.  “Go search and find out for yourself.  Do what you gotta do so I can get out of here.”  “I WILL!  GIVE ME YOUR KEYS AND SIT DOWN!”  I give him my keys and sprawl out on the chair.

A few minutes later, he returns with a lighter and a pair of tweezers from my glove box.  “These test positive for THC.”  What?  I think.  “How is it even possible for a pair of tweezers to have THC on them?”  I ask.  “Some people use them to hold the roach and smoke it down to the end.”  “Ah.  I didn’t even know that.  Apparently you did, but I didn’t.”

He’s not happy.  “If I find one more thing in there,” he threatens.  About 15 minutes later, he storms past me carrying the brownie the waitress at the café gave me last night.  I hear him in the back room, spraying something, clicking some THC sensing device.  He calls in someone else and I overhear them muttering about the brownie.  After like 30 minutes, he finally comes out and sets the brownie down on the desk and dangles my keys from his finger.  “Ok, I’m not gonna rip apart your car.  I don’t think you have a large quantity of anything on you.”  I let him stand there dangling my keys.  “Oh, you don’t.  That’s great.”  “But I’m calling ahead to the US border to alert them that you’re coming through and your vehicle has not been fully searched.”  “Ok.  You do that.”  He thrusts the keys towards me, and I just sit there.  “Take your keys,” he says irritably.

When I pull up to the US side of the border, I hand the officer my passport and a sheet of paper I have been forced to sign saying that I have voluntarily withdrawn my application for entry into Canada.  “Ah, they didn’t let you in,” he says.  “Nope.”  He thumbs through my passport.  “Yeah,” I say.  “My opinion of Canada was only mediocre before.  But now.…”  He chuckles as he hands me back my passport.  “Have a safe trip.”

An hour later, I stop at a café and the barista gives me a free coffee.  Not knowing what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go, I start driving back towards Whitefish.

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One Response to Northern Montana

  1. Kathi says:

    That’s pretty bizarre to say the least……they let the criminals through but not the honest guy! Love Montana and embrace it! Go on toward BC and enter there.

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