- Luke Eastman
This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.
I had considered the possibility that my passport might have expired, but I didn't bother to check before my partner and I set off for the Eastern Townships of Québec to do some high-stakes reporting on the local sauna scene. You might call that bad planning, but I prefer to think of it as self-preservation. If I had known that my passport expired at the beginning of this year, I would have freaked out, and then we would have had to cancel the trip, and then I still would have had to find a way to write the story, minus the exciting spa material. Better to forge ahead in ignorance, I thought, and let them spurn me at the gates!
When we arrived at the border checkpoint, I gave our passports to the customs agent and braced myself for the big reveal, as if this completely predictable event were the unboxing of Schrödinger's cat. The agent looked at my passport, then at me. "You know this expired in January 2021?" he asked with inscrutable Canadianness.
"I didn't know that!" At least I didn't have to feign surprise. My partner shifted uncomfortably in the passenger seat.
The border patrol agent's facial muscles gave no quarter. "Do you have any plants, fruits or vegetables with you?" So we'd moved on to the horticultural part of the inquisition! Passage might yet be ours!
"None!" I replied cheerfully. And then I remembered the enormous sack of mulch in the rear of my car, barely concealed beneath my bagged summer tires, which were visible through a window. Fuck.
The agent pointed at the tire bags. "And what are those?"
"Oh, just tires," I said, trying to affect a casual tone that only managed to sound deeply unconvincing. The whole disaster was already unspooling in my mind: He'd ask to inspect the trunk, and then he'd find the mulch, and this reporting operation would be quashed because of my own idiocy and, for the love of God, mulch.
The agent handed back our passports. "Safe travels," he said. We drove on with my expired passport and organic contraband, feeling like the smallest of small-time outlaws.
It seemed futile to dwell on what we would do if the U.S. customs agent didn't allow us back into the country; now that I'd chanced detainment in Canada so that we could have an evening at a spa, the only sane choice was to enjoy ourselves. A few hours later, we rolled up to the checkpoint again, fresh as newborns after two hours of sweating and cold-pool plunging. I handed my passport to the border patrol officer and tried not to think about when our next showers might be.
"What did you guys do in Canada?" the officer asked, studying our documents.
"We went to a spa."
"And what did you do there?"
"At the spa?"
"Yes, at the spa."
"We, um, relaxed."
Miraculously, that was good enough for him.