If you follow U.S. Route 1 north to its very end, you'll find yourself next to a chamber of commerce signpost that marks the spot at the center of a small town called Fort Kent, Maine, 2,209 miles from Key West, and a short walk from a bridge to Canada. It isn't the end of America, tar-wise. State Road 161 continues another 30 miles or so into the dungeon-like forest of the Allagash, and logging roads snake off much further like so many graveled hydras, in whose coils getting lost amounts to last rites. I tasted a whiff of my own perdition three winters ago when I drove on and on through those roads, looking for that First One I'd always imagined began at the country's edge, but then wizened up and raced against dusk, back toward less mythological signposts.
What had led me there in the first place was the U.S.-Canada border, that 3,987 mile stretch of tranquility that manages to be at once physical and non-existent. It has its share of custodians and their need to dress it up (and themselves) with the preposterous trappings of border crossings, including flags, uniforms and serious-sounding questions about that box of cookies in the front seat and that vacuum cleaner in the trunk. But clutter aside, the border speaks more eloquently of the possibility of coexistence than any tract of philosophy or political science from Plato to Thomas Friedman.
Fort Kent doesn't have the feel of a border town. It isn't watchful, harried, dirty or hazy with contraband, because there really isn't a border, at least not one the locals recognize. The St. John River -- not to be confused with Florida's St. Johns -- should be it, but it is more popular with snowmobilers and boaters than with illegal aliens. The presence of a Border Patrol station hints at a political boundary, but patrolmen look and act more like maitres d's than federal sentries. They might wish they were taken seriously, but they'd look even more out of place in a valley where the worst cross-border smuggling had to do with margarine and beef in the 1920s and 30s (scarce commodities in Depression America) or beanie babies in the 1990s, and where 99 percent of the alerts triggered by motion sensors spread across the valley are the games of moose or deer with a sense of humor. The last large group of people who sneaked across the St. John were the Acadians, the French-speaking settlers booted out of New Brunswick 200 years ago. Some of their descendants season the linguistic lushness of Louisiana to this day. And some of them consider themselves part of what they still call the Madawaska Republic, along the St. John. A border to them is an inconvenience, a quirky invention, but nothing so respectable as a fact.
A borderless world isn't so imaginary. The European Union is trying to make a go of it within its community of 15 nations. Last week Canada's Council of Chief Executives, a Fortune 500-like collection of CEOs, called for virtually eliminating the U.S.-Canada border and making a jointly secured "perimeter" of the continent. The news wasn't reported in the United States, where Canada remains less a country with a voice of its own than a big nameless space on weather maps. But up there it's been the national debate of the month. When the idea does cross the mind of American lawmakers, it is swiftly dismissed in the form of paranoid pieties such as Sen. Hillary Clinton's, who just finished railing at the "real deficiencies in security along our northern border." She was upset that five Pakistanis supposedly crossed the border with forged documents. Instead of being relieved, she was even more upset that the story was a hoax (a different kind of moose tripping those neurotic border sensors), because it undercut her emerging notion of Fortress America. Fort Kent may again live up to its name after all.
A few months after visiting the Madawaska Valley I traveled the length of the southern border from Brownsville to El Paso, where the Border Patrol is all black shades, floodlights and skull-crushing boots, where the rhetoric about illegals, fences, slums and coyotes (the hired smugglers, not the animals, who are gentler) is as arid as the landscape, and as filthy. Getting lost north of the Rio Grande is border-hoppers' whole aim. But Texas is no Allagash. It is an armed camp. The border is a failure of policy and imagination, a scar on a continent's relations with a neighbor, who keeps sending his millions prying north only because the United States has never really bothered looking south as more than a one-way swindle of cheap labor, cheap oil and cheaper stereotypes. And that was before the bin Laden days.
North and south give a picture of the two possible futures of the nation's border-minded mentality. The border with Canada creates the impression of an America as one country among others. The barricade-like southern border, which looks at Mexico as a nation of brigands, projects an America as one country against them all. In America's outward look on the world, the border with Canada should have been the model. But if the likes of Sen. Clinton and President Bush have their way, the border with Mexico is the future, now that Bush has adjusted the national motto to e pluribus-versus-them. Score one more victory for bin Laden, whose borderless terrorism thrives on incinerating symbols of coexistence while feeding on the fears that undercut them
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2003 News-Journal