“Pull over! We’re searching your vehicle!”
Thus began the adventure of re-entering our own country.
It was a balmy July night, and my buddy Z and I were in the midst of an epic road trip out west. After almost getting t-boned by a rogue taxi driver in Seattle, we were on our way to Canada. As the world slept around us, we headed north to the land Homer Simpson once dubbed “America Jr.”
Earlier that day, our afternoon began with surviving the race track known as I-5 and then almost getting into a fight with a gas station attendant (well, not really, but man was that dude pissy). Once we hit Seattle, we rolled into The Green Tortoise, a hostel just blocks from the famed Pike Place Market. We had reservations at the place… and once we walked through the door, we had reservations of another kind.
In retrospect, there was nothing wrong with The Green Tortoise. But we were two guys from rural Iowa, and suddenly the thought of sharing a room with four strangers in a big city didn’t sound as appealing as it did weeks earlier when we reserved our spots. We checked in at the front desk, then headed back out to tour the waterfront.
One of the Seattle highlights for me was wandering through Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, a storefront on the pier that displays oddities such as shrunken heads, a “mermaid,” and mummies named Sylvester and Sylvia. Other highlights included finding some foreign coins near the waterfront, giggling at a sign for Tillicum Village (because all men still have a 10-year-old’s sense of humor), and witnessing Z pull off arguably the greatest parallel-parking job in the history of mankind.
As we headed back to the hostel, it became clear that neither one of us wanted to stay there that night. So instead of just being honest with the guy at the front desk to get our deposit back, we opted to concoct a wild tale. We told the guy that our friend had been in an accident and we needed to stay with her at the hospital. We gave the whole story our full effort. We researched the nearest hospital, plus I even rubbed my eyes outside the hostel to make it look like I had been crying. The man at the front desk was incredibly nice and refunded more than just our deposit. We walked down the stairs and out the building, feeling like we had just performed an act of Shakespearean proportions. Were we dumb asses for our dishonesty? Most definitely. But we were in our 20s, we were still a little immature, and every dollar counted on this trip (to this day, I still remember I spent exactly $440 on this whole epic journey).
In the spirit of disclosure, I should mention that The Green Tortoise wasn’t even the first place on this trip where we finagled our way in or out of lodging. A few days earlier in Missoula, Montana, we rolled into town late at night and discovered that most places had no vacancy. The one remaining hotel with openings was a wee bit out of our budget, so Z, being the master negotiator that he is, told the lady at the front desk, “Look, you can either give us a deal on a room or you can feel guilty when you see the news about two guys from Iowa getting murdered while sleeping in their car overnight.” She gave us the room.
After fibbing our way out of The Green Tortoise, we were now two wandering travelers in Seattle late at night with nowhere to stay. I vaguely remember stopping at multiple gas stations in an attempt to find a restroom and then almost getting t-boned by a taxi driver who blasted through a red light. We’d had enough of Seattle and it was time to leave. We were wide awake after getting pissed off at the taxi driver, so we figured why not just head to Canada now? We jumped on a much quieter I-5 and booked it north toward the Canadian border.
Sometime in the middle of the night, we passed the mammoth Peace Arch and crossed the border. In scientific geographical terms, we were now “way the hell up there.”
At that point in time (2004), you only needed your driver’s license and birth certificate to enter Canada. We presented our documents at Canadian customs and breezed through with ease. We stopped at the first gas station we saw in Surrey, British Columbia. Like a couple of dorks, we marveled at how they sold gas in liters instead of gallons. We bought a few odd-sized cans of Coke and struck up a conversation with the clerk, hoping to hear the famed Canadian accent. To our great disappointment, she spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. After spending a mere 30 minutes in The Great White North, we headed back to the border.
We rolled up to U.S. customs in our vehicle which, in hindsight, must have looked extremely suspicious. Z’s Honda Civic (fondly nicknamed the “Oregon Explorer”) was undoubtedly reliable. She hauled us up to Mount Hood. She delivered us to the Pacific Ocean. Her brakes worked wonderfully when a bear sauntered in front of us in Missoula. But she had seen better days. Among other cosmetic deficiencies, the side mirror was held up by duct tape and the driver’s side window wouldn’t roll down. You can imagine the apprehension on the customs officer’s face when Z cracked his door open to quickly yell, “THE WINDOW’S STUCK!!” Oh, and did I mention it was only three years after 9/11, so strange travelers seemed even more unusual than normal?
The customs officer peppered us with a standard line of questioning: Where are you from? How long were you in Canada? What was your purpose for traveling there? Z answered the questions calmly through his open driver’s side door.
“We just wanted to visit Canada.”
“We were there for half an hour.”
“We grabbed a pop and wanted to hear someone talk with a Canadian accent.”
The officer’s brow wrinkled with confusion.
“So you’re telling me you guys drove all the way from Iowa up to Canada just to get a pop, when we’ve got alllllllllll this pop here in the U.S.?”
After multiple varying questions about the car’s make, color, and model, Z jokingly commented, “”We wanted to experience life under the metric system.” That was enough for the customs officer.
“Pull over! We’re searching your vehicle!”
Z parked the Civic and we were guided inside a building for continued questioning while officers searched the vehicle outside. They asked if we had any narcotics, legal or illegal, to which Z replied, “What exactly is a legal narcotic?” One of the officers just shrugged and grinned. We answered the questions to their satisfaction and were told to go sit on a bench while the other officers finished searching the vehicle.
During the vehicle search, the officers removed every single item from the Civic, then hurled it back in with the reckless abandon of a farmer shoveling horse apples. If you’ve ever seen a bin at a Goodwill outlet store, then you know exactly how the trunk looked with its pile of contents.
We were allowed to leave after proving we weren’t terrorists or smugglers. From that point on, finding a specific item in the trunk was like trying to find a teardrop in the ocean. It was a jumbled mess, but we were thrilled to be on our way.
I wasn’t mad at the officers; they were just doing their jobs. We smelled awful. We looked haggard. The car looked a little haggard, too. And we had stayed in Canada for a grand total of 30 minutes. It’s no wonder we almost got mistaken for drug mules.
We trekked on through the night, stopping at a rest area somewhere near Spokane. Z conked out in the driver’s seat as morning began. I donned my sunglasses to fight the glare, and my eyelids went down as the sun came up. The trusty Civic would eventually carry us back home, where all kinds of pop awaited us, just like the officer said.