Friday, February 19, 2010

Crossing the Border

Crossing the Border

When I was twelve my family and I drove to Canada for a picnic. I was excited. Crossing a true international border! Going all the way to Canada ! Oh, man, I couldn’t wait! I had never been further from home than Chinook. I had devoured my cousin Jim’s issues of “National Geographic”. I read my copy of “Around the World in 1,000 Pictures” a thousand times. I memorized the pictures. And now, a trip to a foreign country! I was almost afraid to breathe for fear my Dad would change his mind.

I had boundless expectations. I would hear a different language. I would see onion-domed palaces and golden minarets. I dreamed of jeweled exotic costumes, lush terrain, jungle animals and palm trees.

We crossed the border at Turner and drove to Climax, where I faced one of the huge disappointments of my twelve-year-old life. Because nothing changed. Canada had the same rolling terrain as Montana . Same prairie. Same wheat fields. Same cattle. The same Levis and Stetson hats. We slowly drove up and down the street in Climax. We could have been in Hogeland, Harlem or Dodson. We chose our picnic spot beneath the shade of a cottonwood tree. Same mosquitoes. Same unrelenting wind blowing grit into our food. An afternoon in a foreign country. We might as well have stayed home.

Since that trip, when my youthful expectations were crushed, I have had the opportunity to cross many borders, cultural and geo-political, north, south, and across the big waters. I have been to China . I’ve been to India . I’ve been to Japan . And I am fortunate to count numerous trips to visit friends and see the sights in the countries of our nearest neighbors, Canada and Mexico . I’ve experienced exotic architecture, dress, food, customs, and most of all, beautiful people. My travels have changed me.

Today, I frequently choose to satisfy my passion for international travel with a short jaunt into Saskatchewan . I drive through lush Montana prairie, where the deer and the antelope play, where meadowlarks warble on fence-posts, where red-tailed hawks and eagles criss-cross the sky, where a coyote slinks along the highway, unafraid.

I cross the border at Turner/Climax. At customs I declare nothing more dangerous than imagination. I continue a few kilometers north and pull my car off the road onto the edge of a bluff. Far below, the Frenchman River threads a glacier-gouged gorge through the lush Canadian prairie.

I look around me. Nothing has changed. It is still the same landscape, same wheat fields, same wind, same mosquitoes, same small towns with wind-scoured buildings pinned to the map by lofty grain elevators. Same geography. Different me.

So if you want to see what I see today, you have to stop. Here on the bluff is a good place. You must get out of your car. Put on a hat with a big wide brim so you don’t get sun-burned. Walk away from the car. Find a nice big rock and sit down. Plan to stay at least an hour. Breathe deeply. Let your eyes scan the vista. Pick an area. Notice the colors. Isolate the details. Imagine the sound of the water far below. Listen to birdsong. Feel the wind on your skin. I guarantee you will change your perspective. It is like getting a new pair of glasses.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why not join me? We’ll pack a picnic lunch, load up paints and canvases, c-clamps to secure the canvas onto the easels, sandbags to keep the easels to the ground and a case of “Death to Mosquitoes!” And let’s make this is a two day trip. So grab a book or two for the night in a motel in Shaunavon.

When we cross the border back into Montana we’ll have a lot to declare. We’ll have captured all the subtle shades of the Frenchman Coulee, identified birds, painted tiny prairie wildflowers that people whizzing by on the highway never see. We’ll have made friends with a gopher or two. And yes, we’ll take back mosquito bites, despite our best efforts with sprays and ointments.

And, if the light is just right, we will feel compelled to unload our canvases and set up the easels again, to paint Woody Island Coulee. Then, instead of a picnic, let’s grab a bite to eat at the Border Bar in Turner.

We’ll be full of our adventures. Maybe one of the Turner residents will saunter over to our booth and say, “Mind if I join you? Where you been?”

“Oh, man, wait till you hear. We just returned from a foreign country. It was great, really beautiful. You ought to go there sometime.”

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