In 1994 I was hit by an inattentive driver while riding a motorcycle. I catapulted over the handlebars, and my backside caved in their windshield, but somehow I walked away with only a broken arm. That night I channeled my relief and frustration into planning a long-distance road trip, heading up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver, east across the Canadian Rockies, and back down into the U.S. before returning home to San Francisco. My good friend Doug Edwards and I took that very trip the following summer.
At the time I knew a group of much more experienced bikers who were generous with their help and advice. As Doug and I prepared to embark on our trip, some of these riders warned me about the border crossing on our return to the States. U.S. border guards don’t like motorcyclists, they told me, so prepare to be hassled. I’d never had any problems with law enforcement, and I wondered if the bikers had somehow brought these troubles on themselves.
The trip with Doug rolled out just as we’d planned—it couldn’t have been any more rewarding. Long days of spectacular scenery, just enough mechanical trouble to make it interesting, and a few not-entirely-sober evenings. And as we approached the isolated U.S. border crossing near the tiny town of Carway, Alberta, I recalled the advice I’d been given.
It was a beautiful, lonely place--very similar to the scene above (a photo I took in South Dakota on a subsequent trip in 1997.) There were no other travelers at the border, and Doug and I were the sole focus of the guards’ attention. Events unfolded as the bikers had predicted. The atmosphere was tense and hostile. We were directed to stand behind a line a full arm’s length from a countertop, and to slowly empty every one of our pockets onto the counter while guards observed us from the perimeter of the room. Riding gear has lots of pockets, so this was a lengthy, awkward process.
In the meantime, our bikes were being searched. This turned up a small metal canister of mine which a guard brought triumphantly into the building, presumably anticipating some sort of contraband. But it turned out to contain nothing more than a few lucky totems, bits of metal and glass, and the guard's disappointment was palpable. The search was almost complete, but one of the zippers on Doug's leather jacket was stuck and wouldn’t open. The tension mounted as he tugged away at it, the room silent, the guards edgy. I was starting to wonder if they were going to cut open his jacket, when finally the zipper gave way, revealing…nothing. The pocket was empty.
The search complete, suddenly the mood shifted. The guards were now all smiles, making friendly small talk, and welcoming us back to the U.S. In an instant Doug and I had gone from suspects to citizens. They sent us on our way, but we needed to recuperate before getting back on the bikes, so we stopped at a small rest area just beyond the crossing and talked about what had happened.
It had been a very educational experience, and the lessons are still with me more than two decades later. I learned what it’s like to be viewed with hostility and suspicion when I’ve done nothing wrong. I learned how it feels to be powerless, at the mercy of distrustful authorities, and how easily such figures can exert their power if they so choose. And I learned how provisional my identity can be and how much I take it for granted.
In the end, nothing bad happened—we were inconvenienced, that's all. The guards did nothing untoward or excessive--they were unfriendly, but professional. And yet the experience made clear to me how easily bad things could happen in any setting where the powerful meet the powerless. These are the circumstances under which people aren't merely inconvenienced by authority but harassed, threatened, even harmed. And it's equally clear to me how little of this I personally undergo or even witness, because of the many privileges I enjoy. For a brief moment, I got a sense of what it's like to lack them.