And how I nearly got shot up by the U.S. police.
‘Twelve Hundred?’ the man in the discoloured overalls said without much conviction when I asked how much he wanted. He was pretty hopeful because the ex-rental van he was trying to sell me had just started first try. Two months ago it would have been up to its headlights in snow with its oil frozen solid, dwarfed amongst a jumble of heavy machinery all labelled ‘General Truck Rentals’ in an industrial area of Edmonton, Alberta.
The long sunny days and open highways of a glorious summer were beckoning me and I needed wheels.
‘How about Eight Hundred cash?’ I offered.
He wiped his hands on his overalls and adjusted his thick glasses and said with an air of resignation
‘Geez Louise, Alright then, I’ll take Five Hundred, I just want to get it out of here and make some room.’
I think it was the first time I was grateful for not having to repeat myself because a Canadian had misunderstood something I said.
Because The General was an ex-rental van it had endured a pretty hard life. I took it away and gave it some love by furnishing it with all the necessary appurtenances it would require for a life of adventure. But there was no hiding the fact that The General was, well, pretty ugly. Not just because it had a few dents and a badly fading paint job but as my sister described it when I showed her a photo- ‘It looks like a kidnappers van from an American horror movie’
And that’s exactly the same thought that someone else must have had as I drove through the unpretentious town of Whitefish, Montana after a week of camping and hiking around Waterton- Glacier National Park. I was feeling pretty serene after exploring some of the most extraordinary landscapes that straddle the Canada/US border.
On my way through a construction zone the lady with the stop and go sign starts pointing at me excitedly and fumbling with her handheld radio. She went up ahead and put the stop sign up and soon after a truck pulls up about 20 metres in front of me blocking my path. Maybe he needs to unload something I think, but the look on his face tells me there is something wrong.
This strange feeling is soon amplified when after a couple of minutes more vehicles arrive and surround my van, two of them marked police cars. At first I think maybe these guys are here to arrest someone in a vehicle behind me but a quick glance in the rear view mirror discounts that theory as there is a cop car now parked behind me also.
I realise that everyone’s attention is focused on me and so is that policeman’s gun as he approaches my passenger window.
I’d like interject the story with the sound of a record scratching and recollect for you how at about this point in time, all those episodes of Cops I’d watched morphed into one slow motion incident with me as the principle character.
‘Keep your hands where I can see them’ yells the young plain clothes guy in front. I don’t know whether to hold onto the steering wheel or put my hands up but all I can think is ‘Don’t make any sudden moves Benny or this guys gonna fucking shoot you.’
Next thing a uniformed officer is yelling in my drivers window and before I know it he has my door open and I’m out on the road, arms clasped up behind my back and being led past a crowd of astonished onlookers as the traffic on both sides of the road has steadily built up.
Even though I don’t know anyone, I’m kind of a little embarrassed but mostly bemused by the whole experience, wondering feverishly what naughty deed I might have done to deserve this kind of unwarranted attention.
‘What’s going on guys, what’s this about?’ I ask.
All I get in response is peppered with questions I’m struggling to answer –
‘Where are your weapons/ Where did you cross the border/Where are you going?’
A stocky, bald gentleman with an air of authority takes over the questioning. His gun is packed away in a shoulder holster pinned to the side of his neatly pressed shirt. Behind me is the uniformed officer who extracted me from the drivers seat. He looks to be of Native American decent and he is tall and wide like Andre the giant. His huge hand hovers close to his pistol and when I look up at his face he stares through me like I’m a dirty window.
I lay on the Aussie accent nice and thick as I try to recall the name of the border post where I came into the United States.
‘I can show you my passport,’ I offered and this seems to please the burly Assistant Chief of Police even more than the fact that I don’t appear to be armed.
He’s flipping through my passport looking for my visa entry stamp and quickly concludes that I am not the villain that they are on the hunt for. One officer takes my passport away to have it checked while Assistant Chief goes on to explain to me that an amber alert has been issued involving a cold-blooded murderer who shot someone dead and then kidnapped a young girl less than 24 hours ago in a Canadian town just over the border.
A public notice was currently being broadcast on television and radio for an armed killer driving a white van with Alberta number plates anywhere within a 200 mile radius. The General just happened to fit the description.
The mood seems to lighten a bit when I tell the officers they are welcome to search my van, which I assume they could do automatically. But apparently they need just cause or my explicit permission which I gladly sign away hoping it will expedite the proof of my innocence and thus liberate me from this uncomfortable predicament.
Assistant Chief can sympathize with my situation and he begins telling me about how in another life he was a sub-mariner and about his fond memories of the time he visited the port of Fremantle in Western Australia.
Deputy Sheriff returns from his search of the van and looks at me quizzically. In reference to the big green one seater couch I’ve bolted into the General, so whoever is riding shotgun can observe the passing countryside in absolute comfort – he asks
‘Is that a um…… a lazy boy you have in the passenger seat?’
‘Yes sir’ I reply.
He looks at Chief and Chief just shrugs his shoulders and looks at me with a bit of a wry smile.
We have a bit more banter and a bit of a laugh as I tell the officers that as soon as I get to Missoula I’m going to paint the van some crazy colours so it doesn’t look so conspicuous.
I also let slip that this scenario is going to make a great story one day and I wish I had some photos. The Chief asks me if I’d like a couple of happy snaps with my shirt off and handcuffed face down on the pavement. In retrospect I probably should have done it for a laugh but one look at Andre the Giant convinced me it wouldn’t be such a humorous idea.
After all the official checks were done my new mate hands me back my passport along with his card.
‘This card has my number on it. If you get anymore hassle on your travels just hand this card over and tell them to call me.’
I got to Missoula without any trouble and whilst staying with a friend of a friend I procured some sample paint from the hardware store and turned one whole side of the General into a giant mural depicting the silhouette of two trees kissing.
Still not pretty but surely not a killers van anymore.