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 is no real difference, I could still be in Canada. After crossing the American frontier it feels a little anticlimactic. There is not the razzmatazz that you get flying say into New York or LA. These are tourist destinations not mundane border crossings where people routinely commute or hop across the border. Gradually I begin to notice little things, road signs and speed limits are in miles not kilometers, just when I was getting used to the metric system. On the highway the traffic is much more aggressive with, not surprisingly, lots of trucks. That said after leaving Greater Vancouver this feels like a bit of a backwater, maybe a little rustic even, which is nice.
There is a certain bustle though which springs from the fact that thousands of Canadians cross the border every week to take advantage of the variety and price of American goods. 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 gallons 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 find that the Canadian invasion has changed in nature. In days gone by a driver’s license was all that was required, sometimes just a nod. These days however 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 Vancouver as a steady stream of Asian immigrants flood into Canada. They have a keen nose for a bargain so you will find yourself in a long line for petrol as the 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, mainly Marijuana crosses through this border. The vast majority of it is smuggled in container ships which makes sitting in line for up to one and half hours to cross in a car rather frustrating. However 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.
America is commercially savvy of course and the chamber of commerce encourages Canadians to come over. 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 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. 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.
Another thing that you cannot fail to perceive is the uneven dispersal of wealth or even just the plain lack of it, i.e. 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 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 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 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.
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. 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.
Getting away from the human aspect of this area never forget that Washington is called the Evergreen State for a reason. Much of it is actually temperate rain forest, in short it rains a lot here. The undeveloped pristine wilderness of the Northern Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula dwarf the parts that man has developed. Mother Nature dominates most of this State. Take a quick look on Google Earth and you will soon realise that man holds sway along the coast and along the highway but the rest, is untamed wilderness. Ironically this huge and wild border with Canada can be easily crossed on foot in many places. However those foolish enough to make the attempt are unlikely to survive the ordeal.
Everything here is on a grand scale, vast. You may be tempted to head straight for Seattle but there is much here to explore and marvel at. Take some time and get to know the area, you will be well rewarded.