Friday, August 20, 2010

Michigan (March, 2004)

These are some fleeting impressions from the first trip I ever took across the land border between the United States and Canada. I actually haven't done it since, that's how keen I am (though I've had to pass through a lot of U.S. airports--never fun). I wasn't able to take many photos on this trip, equipped only with my somewhat bulky Minolta, and 400-speed film (which was more limited than my current digital camera in terms of what it could "capture").

I've written before about the weirdness of crossing a border where obvious boundaries are missing. The US-Canada border is odd because it's used by citizens on both sides for casual, evening long trips as well as for longer stays or journeys through the U.S. to some other destination. So it feels like a slightly scruffy bus station, except for the cubicles and the questioning, the fingerprinting and photographing. "Security" also takes time; our entire bus had to empty, and everyone went through the same procedure with variations--including being asked the same set of questions by two border cops standing about 10 feet apart. Hopefully that wasn't supposed to be a "grilling"; if so, they were slacking a bit.

To me, Michigan looked a lot like Ontario--but as John Travolta notes in "Pulp Fiction", "it's the little differences" that suddenly jolt you with the reminder that you're not in Canada. And when you didn't grow up with the "Elephant Next Door", including shopping trips across the border (in Canada this is taken for granted), it's surreal even just visiting. Some of the things I failed to photograph include the roadside billboards replete with crazy advertisments for Christianity, and America. I expected those--but only in the sense that I had an unreasonable expectation of the U.S. living up to the naive impression I had of it at the time. It did and it didn't, as usual.

Sometimes I wonder if I could even have a "normal" view of this place, the image of which has been repeated or echoed around the world for so long and in so many ways (yet always, somehow, the same way). The further you are from it, the more exaggerated that image becomes--but you have an image, no matter where you are: everyone knows what America looks like. I think of it this way because of having grown up in a place quite isolated from anything other than the inflated-by-distance, TV-show/movie world that was projected out to us, quite distinct from "real" life and "real" place as we experienced it in our small corner of the globe.

All my pictures of Detroit were taken from the windows of moving vehicles (you can see the flecks of dust on the windscreen, like little chunks of debris floating in the sky). It seems appropriate somehow. The pictures from previous posts are more interesting, but these ones reflect other aspects the impression I formed of the place, showing the glimpses of mundane things that caught my interest. Lots of highways, endless highways cutting across all the things that stand still and don't move and creating a kind of alternate, parallel dimension (things that move--the very space of movement itself, with no other purpose--and things that don't). I remember thinking about that as I watched the houses and farms and trees and small, low-quality local back-country restaurants flick by.

In the picture above you can see the sign directing drivers to downtown Flint, Michigan. That's another of those places that I've heard of but never visited (thanks, Michael Moore). The novelty of this kind of thing never wears off for me, perhaps because I don't do a huge amount of travelling. There's just something interesting about seeing mundane road signs pointing you to locations with names as familiar as that of your own town or city. In fact Saginaw also falls into that category for me--the name can never be separated from this fantastic song, which is probably one of my all-time favourites. I remember having it stuck in my head for hours during this trip.

Speaking of travelling--I'm moving in about a week, and finding the organising is tiring me out. Please excuse the uninspired quality of today's commentary! Writing this post also makes me wish I had taken a lot more pictures on the Michigan trip (it was only a few days and I was working with films--so I suppose it makes sense). Sadface.

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