Frelighsburg, Quebec -- for the past two weeks I've been volunteering on an organic farm in Quebec's eastern townships, yanking weeds and hauling firewood in exchange for meals and a bed. It's a pretty sweet deal, and on my day off I like to borrow my host's rusty mountain bike and tour the surrounding area.
I've made my way to the international border crossing about an hour's pedal south. The country on the other side is a really famous place called the United States of America. They always talk about that country in the movies, and this might be the last chance for a grubby farmhand on a broken-down bicycle to check in without a passport.
The scenery is really quite beautiful. The lush region's mountains are the beginning of the Appalachian range. Settled a couple of generations earlier than southern Ontario, the area has bigger and shadier trees and older and glossier houses (white clapboard instead of dark brick). The barns all sport fresh coats of paint, which must be against some bylaw in Ontario.
The main street of every village is lined with bookshops, sidewalk cafés, restaurants and antique dealers. Flowerpots dangle from verandas and lampposts. In many ways the region resembles the New England countryside you read about in the poems of Robert Frost or Donald Hall. Except for the ubiquitous signs in French, it looks like the setting for the movie The Cider House Rules.
As I approach the border checkpoint, I grow apprehensive. I haven't been to the U.S. since I was a teenager, and I'm wondering how different it will be from Canada. My goal is to get in, tool around a little bit, have a cup of U.S. coffee, gather some impressions and leave. There's only one car ahead of me, sporting Vermont licence plates and a bumper sticker that reads, "Fight Crime. Shoot Back."
I coast down the hill to the barrier, thinking it can't get much quieter than this. Here I am, a lonely cyclist in the midst of wide-open farmland, no town for kilometres (or miles). What better point from which to penetrate Fortress America? I suppose if I were on an expensive touring bicycle, decked out in fancy tights and a helmet instead of a sweaty T-shirt and long hair, I'd look less like a security risk.
I have to wave at the checkpoint window to get noticed. A tall, exceedingly clean-cut guard comes out of the booth to greet me. He reminds me of one of the young men the Mormons send out as missionaries. He's squinting at me suspiciously.
"And what can I do for you?" he asks. Is he serious? I'm almost tempted to tell him to fill her up, but I know that won't go over well.
"I'd like to, you know, visit your country."
"Are you travelling alone?" I look around to check if anybody's sitting on my fender. I nod.
"And what is the purpose of your visit?" (Yes!!! I was expecting this question.)
"Tourism. I just want to look around, have a cup of coffee and come back. I don't have a passport, but I heard this would be all right."
I whip out my Ontario health card and move forward to hand it to him. With both hands upraised, he suddenly leaps backwards a full step, as if I were a member of Hamas wearing a belt of explosives. He pinches the card from me gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, his arm completely extended. What can it mean?
"Have you ever had any run-ins with the law?" he asks, punching my details into a computer terminal inside the booth. A giant framed portrait of President George leers at me from the wall.
"None that I know of." But secretly I'm worried. What if my overdue Fido bill shows up? People have often told me I have a guilty expression, but do I look like the kind of person who would ram his bicycle into a skyscraper?
After a few moments, he returns the card, arm again extended full-length.
"You're clean. How long did you say you're staying?"
"Couple of hours, maybe less."
"There's a good coffee shop in Madison, about 6 miles east of here."
"Or you could go to West Franklin, which is the other direction. They've got good coffee, too."
As I breeze past the barrier into a new world, I'm careful to check my watch. Two hours was what I told him. I don't want to be late.