8. Not One of Those Americans

7. North to Alaska: Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 Life Out Here

Would you rather pay one million dollars or spend one year in prison? 

When the new lottery machine pulled a twenty from my fingers, I knew I had made a mistake. My gone money was reincarnated as an electric-green balance.

“I don’t know anything about that machine,” said the woman at the counter, “but I don’t think it makes change. You’ll have to play all twenty dollars.”

My mistake blazed, unsympathetic. Waited for me to make my choices. My twenty-dollars worth of choices. I felt unlucky as card after card slipped into my hands.

“All I wanted was a dollar scratch-off,” I explained to Zach as I set my stack of bitter opportunity atop my Bible and started the van. We had gassed up at the Three Mile Corner Store where almost every dollar scratch-off is a winner. Instead of turning left for Montana as we usually did, we turned right for Canada.

The world outside my window was gold rolling meadows, emerald forested hills, and old pearl-white farmhouses set like buttons on a patchwork quilt. As we gained elevation we lost cell service and the dreamer’s vistas of Northern Idaho were crowded out by roadside pines.

“Just think of it this way,” my cousin had said days before. “You’ll be in the next state over now.” But in the last miles of the lower forty-eight, Alaska seemed some mythological extension of the vast foreign country now rising before us.

A bird took flight to cross my path and the collision sounded like a rock thrown against my door. I saw her in my rearview, a lump of feathers ruffled by vehicular currents, disappearing underneath the UHaul. Zach saw the whole thing but we could say nothing about it for there was the border station, a river island diverging only dried-up stream beds.

Mid-morning and we were the only ones crossing. My fear of long lines washed away, but my color-coded itinerary and paper-clipped documents shook when I offered them up to the tattooed border guard.

He studied my masked face. Sifted through my papers. Looked at me again.

“You’re coming from the country with the most COVID cases in the world,” he said.

I wanted to say, “but I’m not one of those Americans.” Instead, I nodded. The guard read my itinerary. He asked about hotel reservations and our destination and how long we planned to take. Security cameras honed in on my peculiar mise-en-scene: my cotton star mask, my Alabama plates, my quiet dogs in the window, the UHaul behind me. They squinted, motionless and yet burning with a disconnected somewhere life. I remarked on the lack of traffic. My guard smiled. He seemed bored.

“Park under that overhang and go to the counter inside. They’ll have your papers.”

One time nineteen years ago, my mom and brother and I watched a Canadian border guard sprint across snow-packed pavement toward our car, his gloved hands and dark brows raised as if we planned to wreak havoc on the open prairie south of Calgary. He was armed. They were all armed. We had crossed a line made invisible by snow drifts. We had done a bad thing. An illegal thing. And, by the way, we were not going to make our flight in Calgary.

I was careful to ease the minivan under the overhang, to walk dutifully into the station, to obey without small talk, to make eye contact.

“Why six nights in Canada?”

She was a blond woman, perhaps in her mid-forties, who did not smile back. The other two guards, who seemed younger than us, stood a few meters down the long counter, spoke casually and eavesdropped.

“I’ve just crossed Montana in a UHaul. I don’t know the Canadian Rockies. We’ll have twenty-four hours to get through the Yukon. I don’t want to over do it. I’m nervous.”

“Why Radium?”

The truth is, Radium is beautiful country made golden by family memories.

“Calgary,” I told her, “is too far a drive for today.” The clock on the wall indicated we might make Radium in time for dinner if they did not unpack our UHaul — a bona fide fear now eclipsed by the interrogator across the counter.

She studied the colored-coded itinerary and really, you must always believe in the power of over-planning everything down to the last hour, the last mile.

“Radium.” She talked it over with the two younger guards. They were all hung up on Radium.

Hadn’t we heard the news? “They’re about to shut down all parks to Americans,” they told us.

It was all the American rage to claim Alaska as a final destination and then party up the parks with no intentions of driving further north than Jasper. Another casualty of that peculiar Macbethian arrogance which, when it was born, was the noble and righteous spirit of independence and pioneerism.

Denying my own dismay, I told her we most certainly would not stop in Banff. She asked why we had no place reserved in Whitehorse.

I couldn’t answer that one.

“What will you do for food? Do you have a cooler?”

“Aren’t we allowed to go through drive-throughs?”

She handed back my papers, at last satisfied with my answers.

Zach, ever calm and unmoved, inquired after the row of thirteen flags displayed above the long counter.

“It’s all the provinces and territories,” said the younger guards.

That snowy day nineteen years ago, my mom and brother and I made our flight to Calgary, perhaps propelled by the anger the flustered border guard had sparked. This time, I felt watched as the worn out two lane cut through the Canadian Rockies to Radium. As if every pair of eyes glimpsing our caravan kept a finger on their phone, ready to report another brash American couple up to no good. I straightened up, felt for my mask hanging on the gear shift.

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