A US Odyssey – First Impressions…..
Washington State – As I work my way south from the Canadian border a first impression begins to form. At first there seems to be no real difference, I could still be in Canada. After crossing the American frontier it all feels a little… anticlimactic. There is not the razzmatazz that you get flying say into New York or LA. But these are international tourist destinations not mundane border crossings where local people routinely hop across the border to work or shop. In a strange way this is more exciting, it’s an insight into the real United States.
Gradually I begin to notice little things, road signs and speed limits are in miles not kilometers, the highway the traffic is much more aggressive with, not surprisingly, lots of trucks. That said after leaving crowded Greater Vancouver this feels like a bit of a backwater, maybe a little rustic even, which is nice. Washington State stretches out into the distance on every side. This is the Evergreen State, every US State has it motto and flag. If you do a little research you soon realise just how huge and wild Washington is. It’s easy to get distracted by human development because we tend to stick to the roads, towns and cities. This is far from the reality .
The Cascade mountains and the Olympic Peninsula dwarf human endeavours in their sheer, tractless wilderness. Much of it is temperate rain forest, in short, it rains a lot here. The border with Canada can easily be crossed on foot in many places but you’d probably die from exposure or starvation before you found a 7/11. Mother Nature guards the border well. Most of it has no road access, mostly dirt logging roads. Not a side of America that we pay much attention to and yet once you get away from the coastal strips, many states are vast and almost empty. There is also a long term, relentless move towards the cities with rural America, especially in the middle states losing population fast. With their tax bases dwindling, investment in infrastructure is limited and whole communities are dying on their feet.
There is a certain bustle in this area of rural America though. Thousands of Canadians cross the border every week to take advantage of the variety and price of American goods. Visiting America is also, for most of the world, an ambition. It’s an exciting novelty that Americans can’t appreciate because they live here and naturally take it all for granted. Canadians line up for gas and gobble up everyday staples like milk for example. I spoke to an elderly American lady as we watched a Canadian Sikh commandeer a whole pallet load of fresh milk that a bemused young worker was trying to put on the shelf. He just took it all and none to politely at that.
I explained to the American lady that milk was twice the price in Vancouver. She was amazed as we waited for the young man to bring another pallet. He kindly brought out a couple of jugs and handed them over in person. Bellingham and the surrounding area is small town America, the pace is measured, people are…kind. They call me sir which makes me uncomfortable but they call everybody sir or ma’am. They are warm and polite, gentle by nature but they are a little perplexed by the recent Canadian invasion. They are well used to Canadians coming to visit but something has changed the mood. In days gone by a driver’s license was all that was required to cross the border, sometimes just a nod. These days however security and the threat of terrorism loom. Everything is much more rapacious and downright stressful, especially for small town America.
American buying power and lower taxes makes the price differential irresistible. At the same time the population demographic has changed enormously in Greater Vancouver. A steady stream of Asian immigrants have flooded into Canada, they are much needed and very welcome but they do have a different approach. They might be from Iran or China or India and they are inevitably on a mission, to save money. Likely the whole family will be there for a days shopping and a visit to the United States. They have a keen nose for a bargain so you will find yourself in a long line for petrol as the fresh minted Canadian guy in front fills his tank and half a dozen fuel cans. Personally I think it ridiculously dangerous but curiously the Canadian Border Service Agency overlooks it. Just pray you don’t get in an accident with one of those mobile fuel dumps.
Many Canadians also cross the border to take advantage of cheaper flights from Bellingham International airport. A flight to Vegas for example can be a couple of hundred dollars cheaper from Bellingham than from Vancouver. It’s an hours drive but a family of four can save $800 on their holiday. The difference is in local taxes but the BC government seem unwilling to do anything to stem the flow. It all adds to the attraction for Canadians as can be seen by the numbers of motels and airport parking companies. The only other factor that makes a difference is the exchange rate. With the Americans in recessions Canadians have been taking full advantage.
The sheer numbers involved make it impossible for the Canadian Border agency to do much without bringing the whole circus to a standstill. However if you were foolish enough to try and cross the border with a blueberry or a potato, well brace yourself. There are certain things that they will not tolerate. There is a steady stream of outraged Americans at the Canadian frontier, mainly retired people, driving RV’s and going on vacation They watch in disbelief as their potatoes, fruit (and firearms) are politely removed. Oddly enough Americans often show up carrying firearms, in all innocence. The idea that they might be breaking the law is so ridiculous that it never occurs to them. They are allowed to transport guns en route to Alaska, but they need to fill in a triplicate form and pay $25. Don’t look for logic or common sense.
Smuggling is part and parcel of having a border, it’s a given. Every year $7 Billion worth of drugs (more than timber and tourism combined), mostly Marijuana, crosses this border! BC Bud is highly prized, in the States, Americans like their drugs. The vast majority of it is smuggled in container ships into the States which makes sitting in line for up to one and half hours to cross the border in a car rather frustrating not to mention futile. Washington State is known for its Meth Amphetamine and lately Marijuana was legalised. It remains to be seen how this will effect the economy on both sides of the border. It’s impossible to ignore the drugs scene if you want to learn more about America so more on that later.
However for the average citizen to risk smuggling for a few dollars of wine or tobacco is foolish. You might save a little but if you get caught, every time you go near the border the computer will light up like a Christmas tree. It’s just not worth it. On the other hand I remember declaring four bottles of wine, just to be on the safe side. I was delayed an hour and learned to my horror that the local provincial taxes are beefed up by a 100% Federal tax. You expect to pay duty but come on, 100%! Stand and Deliver! Clearly they want you to buy Canadian booze and they will protect their interests (markets).
America is commercially savvy of course and the chamber of commerce encourages Canadians to come over. In the scramble the old town of Bellingham is somewhat overlooked as new development in the form a strip malls and outlet stores spring up along the highway. The old town was centred on the waterfront, it has charm and character and… good food. The strip mall is all chicken nuggets and ugly cuboid flat roofed buildings. Typically inside they are what we have come to expect while on the outside they are unrelentingly, offensively ugly! American architecture is all about utility and cost. I can understand it because ultimately you can do without beauty but I am curious. What does it say about a people and what is the hidden cost of all this …ugliness?
They have lots of space so it all just sprawls amid a forest of cheap advertising hoardings and power lines. Oh and let’s not forget the automobile. I’m as guilty as anyone but cars and trucks form a large part of that first impression I was talking about. It’s ugly, dirty, smelly and aggressive and it gets progressively worse as you approach Seattle and only slackens when you veer away from the highway and head west for the blessed relief of the seaside. Major cities, whatever the country, seem to have an almost dehumanising effect.
Another thing that you cannot fail to perceive here is the uneven dispersal of wealth or even just the plain lack of it, i.e. poverty. I suppose that non Americans perceive America as a wealthy country so it comes as a shock when you see real poverty. America is in recession, no matter what the papers say. While I was filling my car a young man tapped me for $10 for gas. He just came over and said he didn’t have enough to get him home. I gave him his $10 and watched him walk over to an ancient Ford Explorer, maybe twelve miles to the gallon. Go figure as they say here. People have suffered and are still suffering, just have a quick look online at the local property listings. Foreclosures, hundreds and thousands of them, every one a personal tragedy.
The truth is plain when you look at the state of the roads, cars, housing and also the health of the local population. Times are hard even here on the border where the economy is bolstered by Canadian shoppers. Cheap food is plentiful but ironically it carries a heavy price. Let’s just say if you buy clothes in America you better try them on first. An American butt is bigger than a Canadian butt as I learned to my cost. Everything in America is bigger but not necessarily better, the levels of obesity are astonishing, it’s not just a cliché. I have never seen so many people literally disabled by obesity.
To dig a little deeper, there is also a strong and obvious correlation between obesity , poverty and the level of education. I realise that I am on thin ice here but this is simple observation and honestly I was shocked. However remember everything here is on a grander scale and when visiting other countries people naturally tend to make unflattering comparisons. The United States is also the last super power and the leader of the world in many ways. As such it gets a lot more criticism than it deserves, it’s tough at the top. It is wise to remember that every country has its social problems, the streets in America are not paved with gold.
After mixing with the locals for a while you begin to notice that there are different tribes. There are retired people, more and more of them. There are the rednecks, the new age hippy types, business folk and what I call the walking dead. It seems unkind but you will see them everywhere you go, just observation. Huge, ponderous, sluggish zombies, poisoned by a toxic diet and no exercise. They congregate around the food mall, a depressing testament to poor education, a consumerist society and bovine passivity. It is quite alarming.
Bellingham old town centres around the waterfront where historically industry was dependent on the sea. When the Interstate highway was built the whole emphasis shifted away from the old town. New malls, gas stations and motels sprang up along the highway. When you arrive coming from Canada along the highway it is easy to get the impression that Bellingham is just a giant strip mall. It’s well worth taking the time to go visit the old town, especially if you want to eat real food and maybe meet the locals. Apart from Bellingham the local towns of Birch Bay and Fairhaven offer pleasant diversion from the more commercialised areas. Many Canadians buy property here with a house near the sea costing half as much and just an hours drive from home.
Another thing that I have noticed, there a lot of churches here. Coming from the UK and Canada where religion is somewhat redundant, it’s a surprise. People here go to church, not all of them but they are serious about their religion. This is WASP country and although cosmopolitan Seattle is two hours away the population here is predominantly white. Seems to be a feature of small town America.
Everything in America is on a grand scale, vast. If you take the time to observe it is also full of surprises which probably says more about my own preconceived ideas about America. Clearly I have a lot to learn.