The one with the friendly border guard

The lovely Lake Carmi, which I might not have seen if not for the friendly border guard.
The lovely Lake Carmi, which I might not have seen if not for the friendly border guard.

WEST BERKSHIRE BORDER CROSSING, Vt. – I’ve written at least two posts on border preparedness. The rules are: Answer only the questions you are asked. Always tell the truth. Have all your documents ready.

The wait to get into Vermont from Frelighsburg, Que., was pretty long, considering it’s a teeny crossing way off the beaten path. The guard was spending at least five minutes with each vehicle, checking every trunk, peering into back windows and opening suitcases.

“This is going to go very poorly,” Melani said, and I shot her a “the hell?” look.

“Is my license suspended?” I asked her, making a mental note to double-check that we’d paid that bloody parking ticket. She takes care of these things for me and she assured me I was driving legally.

“Is there fruit in the car?”

“Nope.”

“Then why would you even say something like that? What’s wrong with you?” She knows I have issues with authority figures and she loves to mess with me.

“Good afternoon,” The guard greeted us. “How long do you all plan to be in the U.S.?” He’s from Vermont, so it’s two words rather than y’all. We told him three or four hours, and he wanted to know where we were headed for just a few hours.

“Lake Carmi. We’re meeting friends from Franklin for a picnic,” I explained.

“Your trunk open?” He was really nice, relaxed. He rooted around in the wayback and laughed, “You’re going to a picnic and you didn’t bring any food.”

Our friend was bringing lunch, and the guard was so non-threatening that I actually laughed. “Yeah, that’s just the kind of guests we are.”

In his booth, he finished inputting our information. “Ma’am,” he said in his friendly way, “Are you aware that your passport has expired?”

And that is when my heart stopped.

I mean, it wasn’t a huge deal to me if we missed the church picnic, because I get shy at those things anyway. But the humiliation of being turned away from a border! Me, who triple-checks our documents even when we’re not going anywhere … plus the cost of passports just went up, and all our extra funds are tied up for our summer road trip … through the States … in two weeks.

My hands were over my mouth. Ridiculously, I suddenly thought he was joshing me. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, ma’am. It expired February 2013.”

“Oh crap. Oh crap.” Then, because there was positively nothing I could do about it at a rural border crossing flat in the north of nowhere, I said, “Well, this is a good time to find out.”

He stifled a chuckle. “Really? I’d think this would be about the worst time you could find out.”

* * *

For the record – according to our uniformed friend, who merrily waved us into Vermont – it’s no problem driving into the States on an expired passport, though we’d be laughed out of an airport.

Nevertheless, with 12 days till Road Trip 2013, it might be the time to look into getting an enhanced drivers’ license.

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How to charm a border guard

ALBANY, N.Y. – When I was 19, I got on a train to Dallas – and was tossed off at the border.

The excuse wasn’t that I was young and had a blue streak in my hair, but that I didn’t have enough cash on me. I had about a hundred bucks – the rest was in the bank – so I asked them how much I should have had. The answer: $5,000.

I’ve never spent $5,000 on a trip, let alone anywhere near that in 1990. Anyway, I was escorted off the train while passengers looked at me with pity, or didn’t look at me at all. The conductor tried to soothe me by saying this pair of guards were notoriously hard-ass.

That rather small moment in my life led to two important things: I’ve always wanted to go to Texas, and I have an unreasonable fear of border guards.

But there are really simple things you can do to make your trip across the border stress-free. Have your passports and any other documents (like approval to take children to another country if both legal guardians aren’t in the car) in your hand. Open the back window so the guard can see clearly into the whole car. Smile. The driver is the person who talks – everyone else must be quiet unless they’re spoken to. Answer just the questions you’re asked. Tell the truth.

* * *

This is our life for the next three weeks and we’re relearning the rhythm of motel living: How to organize the groceries just so, where to leave the car key, which bags can stay in the trunk overnight. I’d love to write a little guide on how to do it efficiently, but it’s different with each trip.

My shoulders ache after the longish drive through the mini-mountains yesterday and my neck’s all out of whack thanks to crappy motel pillows and a baby who came to bed before dawn and slept in the middle – sideways.

Time to get back in the car.