United States/Canada Border
No roads follow the neat borderline between New England and Canada that you see on the map. Instead, you have to traverse, back and forth, in and out of Canada–a rough stitch that has pulled the two countries together since before either of them was a nation.
This is the story of that line–a line that was sometimes called “the friendliest border in the world”–and how it has changed since 9/11. Most of what I’ll tell you isn’t about these two countries, but rather about our own, at war with terror–not about a country, but a state of mind, a very expensive state of mind. Consider, for instance, the $26 million customs station built recently in the tiny town of North Troy (population 593), Vermont. A friend who lives nearby told me, “It looks like a fortress out in the middle of nowhere.”
It is indeed a fortress, with winged roof and huge letters spelling out United States of America, which seems like an announcement to the moose who might wander by. I pull into the station. Several agents are milling about inside, and one comes out. The traffic coming through is light. He’s military in appearance, complete with combat boots and weapons on the belt. He asks me to turn off the engine and put the car into park. He asks where I’m going, where I’ve come from, and where I live. I tell him I’m writing about the border. He asks for my passport and tells me to open my trunk, which holds my suitcase, laptop, briefcase, and picnic hamper. He doesn’t bother with my luggage, but burrows deep into the hamper. He emerges, triumphant, with a big, fresh lemon I’ve brought with me from home. A lemon can improve a lot of things. He holds it up almost delicately, like an Easter egg. It is indeed a fine lemon, and it looks even finer the way he’s holding it.
“Can’t let you get by with this,” he says. “Matterafact, just so you don’t think I’m going to take this home …” And he steps to the garbage can beside the station, lifts the lid rather dramatically, and drops it in, closing it with a clash. This vigilance for fruits and vegetables, which I am to find prevalent here, is about pests and worms and bugs that might hitchhike in with the fruits. I understand. Sort of.
In Derby Line, Vermont (population 792), the houses along Main Street are grand examples of Gilded Age style. On the day I visit last July, there’s a yard sale at one of these homes just off the town green. Three white-haired ladies sit in lawn chairs, presiding over their goods. They’re all abuzz about the raid that took place the day before.
“They went right down that street,” one says, pointing. Four men were arrested for trafficking 2,205 pounds of marijuana across the border. According to the local newspaper, the police had been watching these men since the early ’90s. They’d started by backpacking small loads across the border, then upgraded to tractor trailers. Three of the men live in town, and the ladies know them. One, they tell me, is “a good-looking man, lives in a beautiful home, has a nice wife and kids. We were always told it was his wife who had the money.”
It’s probably an old story in Derby Line. The main byway up into Quebec is called, locally, “Smugglers’ Road,” and some of these ornate homes were built from the riches reaped by transporting whiskey and other commodities during Prohibition. Or so it’s said. (There was only one other big industry in Derby Line, a machine-tool plant.) In that context, I ask the ladies whether these crimes today are much different from whiskey running. “No, not really!” they chorus. “Didn’t hurt us, what they were doing.”
The library in Derby Line is perhaps the most famous landmark along this 759-mile stretch between New England and Canada: The International Boundary cuts right through the middle of the building. Lest you think that was a mistake, it was, in fact, on purpose. Haskell Free Library & Opera House was a gift of friendship from Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Horace Stewart Haskell, to the “boundary villages of Derby Line, Rock Island, and Stanstead,” as a memorial to her husband, Carlos F. Haskell. Mrs. Haskell was Canadian and her husband was American–hence the dual allegiance.
The cornerstone was laid in 1901, and this gesture of friendship between the two countries was constructed of granite (U.S.) and yellow brick (Canadian). The interior is elegant, with intricate woodwork and marble floors. The lobby is in the United States; the circulation desk is in Canada. A line of black tape runs diagonally across the reading room and through the rest of the building, too, a comical reminder of Mrs. Haskell’s charitable embrace of the two cultures. Now patrons are warned not to park on the Canadian side of the building if they’re American, or on the U.S. side if they’re Canadian. If they do, and they fail to report to customs, they may be arrested.
East of Derby Line, the town of Holland, Vermont (population 588), is a wide plain of farms and fields, stretching as far as I can see. I ask the town clerk, Diane Judd, whether there’s a crossing in Holland.
“Well, no legal crossing,” she replies. “But we have plenty of activity. There was an arrest just last week, and in the winter people cross on snowmobiles.”
As in many towns of the Northeast Kingdom, most of the roads are dirt. I drive down one road and come to a farm on a high rise, with open fields all around and a view of the town center and the hills beyond. I get out and walk over to the old farmhouse, which seems to have been partially renovated. It looks abandoned. Still, the lawn has been neatly trimmed, and the fields are freshly mown. Behind the house is the telltale obelisk–the boundary marker. A grassy road disappears into the woods, blocked by a big gate that sports a stop sign and warnings not to proceed any farther: the end of America.
Back down the road, I stop at a house where a woman is sweeping her front steps. I ask whether the farm at the end of the road is for sale. “I don’t know who owns that house,” she says. “I’ve lived here 11 years and I’ve never seen him.”
The next day, I visit Fernando Beltran, Patrol Agent in Charge at the Newport border station, about 7 miles from Holland. Beltran watches over 32 miles of the 90-mile Vermont boundary. Almost every border patrol agent I’ll speak with will feel the need to differentiate himself from the customs agents who check people at ports of entry. “There’s port entry and then there’s everything in between,” Beltran tells me. “It’s everything in between that we take care of.” That includes places like the abandoned farm I saw in Holland. “We have sensors,” he explains. “We know you’re there.”
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