We're on our way to Calgary after spending last weekend in Squamish, which makes me think: for an American these days, going to Canada is surreal, and a little bit painful.
The two countries have always been similar enough that the border crossing is normally a bit Twilight Zone-ish. It's like you're in the same place, but different. You recognize the McDonald's, but what's with all of the Tim Horton's and A&W's? The landscape looks similar, but how'd all of the public parks get so nice? The accent is familiar, but something's off. And how come everyone seems so polite and healthy?
But since November 9th, 2016, things seem particularly weird. Since about that date, life in America has seemed problematic as Hell. Anger, fear, anxiety, disillusionment, disbelief. They're just part of the standard American emotional landscape these days. Hate, political conflict, overanalyzation and catastrophizing, it's just what's happening below the 49th Parallel, with some new outrage tweeted daily.
But cross the thin line into Canada, and strangely, everything is fine. People's concerns barely involve reality show presidents or fake news. It's like my life was in America, circa 2014. Just people living their lives, mildly politically aware, but not particularly stressed.
When complaining about this to Canadian friends, it's a pretty standard response for them to suggest we just move north. And I'll admit that every time we cross the border, I daydream about finding work and sticking around. We're both nurses, it would be so easy. So much less government assault on our deeply held values. A more just society. So much wilderness there, so many beautiful places to explore: we'd never run out. It could be a beautiful life: the Canadian Dream.
On our way to Calgary, we're also midway into a trip through some of the most beautiful parts of the American West. I'm writing this from a cafe in Missoula, Montana, in fact, killing a rainy stretch in between a spectacular couple of days of hiking and camping in the strange mix of desert, lake and river that is the Grand Coulee area of Northeastern Washington, and another spectacular couple of days we plan to spend in Glacier National Park.
And every time we've ventured into the wilderness - on this trip, and throughout the year - I've dreaded coming back. The trips have taken various forms: paddling, trailrunning, hiking, backpacking. But every time we've experienced a sort of high - a reminder of how much there is to love about America, and a renewed sense of home here.
Then, we'll get in the car and start driving. We'll hit the highway, and the passenger will check their phone. And the high is immediately over, because look at what the Hell happened in America while we were gone. Today's no different. Tomorrow likely won't be either.
Like Canada, dreams of disappearing into the Wilderness - or at least moving away from the city to a place where we could ignore problematic social realities - pop up every time we head out of cell phone range.
But there's also a thing in the US, where the break from the anger comes not just from retreating into the wilderness or taking trips to bizzarro lands where all of our outrages don't matter. It also comes from interacting with other Americans. Not all of them, but most.
In my mundane little life in Seattle, it comes from working with my peers on the psych unit, and patients and families. People taking the nightmare scenarios you see on the news, and doing the messy, impossible work of trying to figure out how to cope with them and move forward. These are the people who live with the consequences of cuts to government funding for mental health services, drug treatment, and the social safety net, and with the personal consequences of violence and abuse. Interacting with people in that world isn't "inspiring". It's heartbreaking and infuriating in it's own right, because it's almost always true that we could be doing better by them. But what it is, is evidence that people can, and will, get through a lot. It's a trigger for resolve, and a reminder that resolve is as American a trait as any.
And traveling around the country, it's experiences like visiting Soap Lake, WA - an out of the way small town in the Eastern part of the state that's been trying to be a tourist destination for years but has mainly just succeeded in being weird. The Pacific Crest Trail connects a string of such places from Mexico to Canada, so we felt at home there immediately. Following a series of historical accidents that couldn't have been predicted, the main cultural representations there are American farmer, Hispanic immigrant, burned out hippy, and Russian/Ukranian medical tourist. The kindest face in town on our visit was the old lady who speaks no English at the "European Food and Deli" next to the gas station next to the downtown that's hibernating for the winter (or more). The best deal was the $5 homemade borscht. The weirdness was beautiful, and distinct evidence that America is, even in unexpected places, the cultural melting pot that it sells itself as to the world.
Those kinds of experiences are reminders that the country we live in isn't just the thing that's an outrage at the moment. It's a place we love.
Thinking about America in that light, the idea of not coming back once we get to Canada again in a couple of days feels analogous to a thought about trading out a spouse you love in the middle of a serious fight. It's appealing to think that you could end a painful conflict with a sweeping decision, but it ultimately doesn't address the problem. The problem isn't that you don't love them, or want to be with someone else. The problem is that you want them to be different: maybe better, or maybe just more like you.
And the idea of moving away, into the wilderness or away from the city, feels analogous to proposing divorce in the same context. It's giving up at a time when you should be getting to work.
Isn't it true, after all, that people change precisely because other people that care about them stay committed when they're acting shitty? Countries too: if you believe in social progress at all, you have to think that it's only come through the commitment of people who recognize problems and figure out how to fix them.
There are of course relationships where she should've left the guy years ago, and so maybe for a lot of people America is more like the abusive family member that you grew up with and don't have a choice but to deal with. But in any case, travel along the border in times like these is more thought provoking than it has been in the past: a reminder of the things we hope for from our country, I guess, but also a forced reflection on the things we already value about it, a reminder of what we're fighting for.
And it's pretty likely that when we get up to Canada again in a couple of days, someone will ask if we want to stay. The answer, in part, will be yes, but the more complete answer will be that no, while we understand the appeal of the Canadian Dream, the US is a place we love, and the place we'll keep working on.