When a powerful intuitive impulse prompted me to turn left into the US instead of right toward the Transcanada Highway and Winnipeg, I couldn't know that not only would I not be returning to my native Canada, but that 21 years later I would be on my way to becoming a US citizen; a dual Canadian/US citizen, to be precise.
Today, on the 21st anniversary of my "accidental immigration," I recount how I got here all those years ago, in a story excerpted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir.
Sioux Narrows Provincial Park sits on one of the thousands of picturesque inlets that comprise Lake of the Woods, a vast lake system that straddles the Ontario-Minnesota border west of Thunder Bay. In the summer its shores are lushly green, and haunting loon calls from mid-lake usher in its otherwise-silent dewy mornings. That’s what I woke to on the morning of July 9, 1997 — unknowingly, my last as a Canadian resident.
After scribbling a few postcards, I broke camp and drove five minutes south into town to mail the cards. My plan was to return to the Transcanada Highway and head toward the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which was to open a few days later. My car had its own plan. Without fully realizing what I was doing, I turned right instead of left out of the post office parking lot. My new direction was south — toward Baudette, Minnesota and, unbeknownst to me, my new country.
Even after I crossed into the US (after a touch of border-station drama), I considered this a temporary detour. America was a great place to visit, but why would I choose to stay? Even if I wanted to stay, it would not be legally possible. Better to keep to my folk-festival plans and find my way back up to Winnipeg.
Before leaving Baudette, I consulted my road atlas and found a series of back roads west of town that would loop me back into Canada within a few hours. Soon, though, I found myself driving under a dense canopy of trees along a right-angled maze of Forest Service dirt roads, roads not mapped out in my Rand-McNally. Ninety minutes later, to my surprise, I wasn’t ninety minutes west of Baudette. I was back in Baudette, without knowing how I got there. In that moment, the same intuitive impulse that had pushed me across the border now urged me toward southbound I-71.
The signal from CBC Radio, my constant companion on this open-ended road odyssey, still clear and strong in Baudette, grew weaker and weaker as s I continued southwest toward Bemidji until, finally, it stuttered into solid static.
Canada was gone.
In that moment, I knew that I was, too — for good.