(james benedict brown) on the road

Borderline personality disorder

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 29 September, 2007

A humble roadside chapel built in timber catches my eye as it flashes past. Up here, in the northern extremities of the state of Minnesota, there aren’t many things that catch your eye. A few enormous eagles have flown off at the sound of the car, and the odd deer has been sighted darting into trees, but otherwise there hasn’t been much to see.

Pressing hard on the brake pedal, I only think to check my rear view mirror as I come to complete stop. I need not have worried. In the small mirror I can see on the road that I have just traveled over stretching off to the horizon. I have not needed to make any input on the steering wheel for some 10 or 15 kilometers, the road has been dead straight. One hand resting lightly on the leather rim is all it takes to counter the bucking and swaying motions induced by the rough pavement, broken at regular intervals by fierce winters and sweltering summers.

I’m able to make a turn and drive back to the chapel.

Stepping out from the car I am greeted by near complete silence. A few rows of tombstones with Norwegian and Danish sounding names sit in solitary order at the back of the graveyard. There is room for at least another couple of centuries of death in this remote rural community, unmarked on my road map.

A few days earlier I had heard Garrison Keillor reading his weekly News From Lake Wobegon as part of his live broadcast radio show A Prairie Home Companion. I’ve seen the show before, at an unrecorded show in Vienna, Virginia last year. This time I’ve been able to make the trip from Chicago to Keillor’s home state of Minnesota, and on Saturday I was in the audience for a sold out live broadcast of his show at the programme’s home theatre, the Fitzgerald on Exchange Street in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota (you can listen to the whole show, and download Keillor’s News From Lake Wobegon segment as a podcast here). As usual, much of Keillor’s meandering opening to his monologue about life in a fictional northern Minnesota town was to do with the weather. Minnesotans like to talk about the climate, because the climate does a lot to make their life interesting. Autumn has arrived in northern Minnesota. Whereas I left friends in New York City last week who were planning ‘leaf peeping’ trips to see the New England autumn colours in the next couple of weeks, the trees in Minnesota are in full autumnal blaze.

A few days later I overheard a man in a diner lamenting that “it won’t be long now until the lakes are frozen over.” Autumn is not so much of a season in this part of the world, but a brief transition. But the further north I’ve travelled on my road trip from Chicago, the further it seems to have progressed. By the time I get back in the car and reach Roseau, Minnesota, it’s raining hard. The few remaining trees with any leaves on them don’t have much to be colourful with. A leaden grey sky has finally given up trying to be optimistic, and rain is pouring down upon the near featureless prairies of this remote region of the northern United States. After a healthy night stop in Bemidji, one of the last ‘big’ towns in the northern half of Minnesota, I’ve followed dead straight roads of broken tarmac and loose gravel to the final settlement of any notable size close to the border between this part of the USA and Canada.

Borderlands fascinate me. I’ve lived in or close to three border regions in my lifetime: that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (a once heavily surveyed and militarised dividing line, which now can be passed without a mark at 110km/h); that between upstate New York and Vermont and the predominantly French speaking Canadian province of Québec; and most recently in the city of Strasbourg, a city of mixed cultures and languages that has been German as many times as it has been French.

My reason for diverting so far north in Minnesota on this trip has been a passing interest in a simple but utterly baffling political cock-up… the Northwest Angle, a small chunk of the USA that has been cut off from the rest of the contigous states by a lake and Canada. Wikipedia does a good enough job of explaining how…

The Treaty of Paris (1783), concluded between the United States and Great Britain at the end of the American Revolutionary War, stated that the boundary between U.S. territory and the British possessions to the north would run “…through the Lake of the Woods to the most northwesternmost point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi…” The parties did not suspect that the source of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca (then unknown to European explorers), was south of that point. A factor in this mistake was the use of the Mitchell Map during the treaty negotiations; that map showed the Mississippi extending far to the north. Consequently the Northwest Angle is the result of 18th-century ignorance of geography. In the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, the error was corrected by having the boundary run due south from the northwest point of the lake to the 49th parallel and then westward along it. When this north-south line was surveyed, it was found to intersect other bays of the lake and therefore cut off a portion of U.S. territory, now known as the Northwest Angle.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_angle#Origin

Compared to European countries, Canada and the USA have a rather fraught relationship across their border. Whereas the EU countries have agreed certain principles about free trade and movement between member states, Canada and the US still spend a lot of political energy determining trade limitations and travel restrictions. Although it is impossible to police the several thousand kilometers of the 49th parallel between the USA and Canada, much of which runs through remote and uninhabited land, border controls still exist, and the traveler needs to be aware of them.

Having said that, the closest border crossing to Roseau, Minnesota, isn’t on a particularly busy road. Above is the Canadian checkpoint at South Junction, Manitoba. It’s a wholly appropriate image of Canada to those who seek to enter the country… a small country cottage with a flag flying outside.

The border guard asks what the purpose of my visit to Canada is. Strangely, for a man who’s just arrived from America, I tell him that I’m going to Minnesota. He understands.

After an hour or so driving along increasingly remote Manitoban roads (both on metalled and unfinished surfaces) this sign appears. Read it closely, because this is indeed the only US Border Control point that operates on an honour system. A couple of miles further down the gravel road that leads into the Northwest Angle, you reach a junction, and this little shack.

That little shed is indeed an immigration and customs reporting station. Inside is a grey metal box.

And inside the grey metal box is a video phone with two buttons. One is labeled with an American flag, the other is labeled with a Canadian flag. Upon entering the Northwest Angle you need to press the American button to contact US Border Control. When you leave you need to contact Canadian officials by pressing the other button. You need to have your paperwork ready to hold up to the video camera.

I only spend about an hour in the Northwest Angle. Tony the Mustang leads me from one end of the small settlement to the other. Dreary cabins and trailers serve a small resort popular with golfers and fishermen. The lake that cuts the Northwest Angle off from the rest of the contiguous United States is a popular destination for anglers, and there’s also some hunting in the thick forests of the Angle. But with little else to distract me or give me reason to camp here overnight, I decide that going through the rigmarole of four border crossings (two via telephone) in one day is more than enough entertainment. The Canadian customs agent sounds unusually unfriendly when an immediate return to the USA is proposed. But with most of the border control budget of the US Department of Homeland Security going to other more pressing concerns, I’m able to slip back across Canada and into Minnesota without too much hassle.

On the road back from the Angle I briefly forget where exactly I am. It’s only the (metric) Canadian roadsigns that remind me of the strange differences in these indeterminate borderlands.

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4 Responses

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  1. Rich said, on 30 September, 2007 at 08:09

    Nice blog entry about the ‘Angle. On my first trip up from Minneapolis, I entered Canada right there at South Junction on a bitterly cold (well below zero) January day in ’04. The Canada Customs guy came out of the shack, opened my passenger door, huddled behind it to escape the arctic breeze and asked the usual questions before inquiring whether I knew my way up there. I said I wasn’t quite sure as it was my first trip and he gave me directions that were spot on. The officer was just as friendly as your picture of the shack might suggest. Perhaps he was the same guy you met…

  2. Marlene said, on 2 December, 2007 at 03:09

    well I live in Roseau, but have never been to the Northwest Angle…I find that interesting…I really need to make the trip one day…just may be easier by boat.

  3. chris said, on 18 January, 2008 at 17:15

    In the US, the fast lane is on the left, cruising lane being the center and the rightmost lane being the entering/exiting lane. This sometimes doesn’t apply in urban areas because of the amount of traffic.

  4. Brian said, on 14 July, 2008 at 05:42

    Very interesting journey. Some day I’d love to make it up there myself.

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