Every year in August, a convention catering to fans of video and board games as well as geek culture in general occurs in Seattle. The event is called the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) and it is a sort of gaming Mecca for fans of games. As gamers living in Manitoba however and being too adventurous/cheap to fly, my friends and I have always elected to drive on an automotive pilgrimage that we have repeated three times.
The first trip occurred in the summer of 2007 following High School graduation. To celebrate our graduation, my friends and I decided to go on a road trip. Our destination was Seattle, an American city on the west coast that was hosting the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), a three day game convention for geeks of all types. Being the geeks and bad/dumb asses that we were, my friends and I decided to drive nearly 2500km from Manitoba to Seattle over a two day period. After stuffing as much computer equipment into my friend Nickel’s CRV as humanly possible, we were off to our dream event.
The trip began with a bump, Nickel forgot to renew his car insurance, resulting in a mad scramble in the early morning as we narrowly avoided attempting to leave the country with an uninsured vehicle (border guards typically don’t like that type of thing). Aside from this initial licensing issue, however, the rest of the day proved to be an gorgeous journey over the sweeping American landscape and a great deal of banter and joking…mostly around Star Wars.
As night fell however, our adventure took a turn for the worst. To get to our first hotel in Billings, Montana, we took to increasing our car’s speed to the tune of twenty or thirty miles above the posted speed limit. My friend Matthew, who was behind the wheel, assured me that we would not be ticketed, pointing out that until recently, Montana had posted speed limits of “reasonable and prudent.” No sooner had my friend Matt finished his rationale than the distinctive lights of a police cruiser illuminated the darkness behind us. Seeing as there was no other motorists on the interstate on either horizon, we accepted our vehicle as the intended target. Matt kept his cool and pulled over the side of the deserted interstate. “Just let me do the talking and everything will be fine,” Matt reassured us as he rolled down the window, his calm attitude restraining the panic building up inside of me.
That cool demeanour shattered in an instant as a state trooper screamed, “Driver, put your hands out the window.” Well, it wasn’t so much the scream as the fact that looking back, we saw to our abject horror the officer had his gun drawn. We all went white and Matt quickly obeyed. “Now put your hands on the weather stripping,” came the next order as the state trooper circled around the car to the driver’s window, his pistol trained on the cab the entire time. Here a problem arose, as no one in the car knew what weather stripping was, resulting in Matt hopelessly touching various parts of the car window while the rest of us sat dumbfounded. We were broken from our befuddled state by an order to put our hands on the seats in front of us. Matt’s floundering was likewise ended by a statement of “close enough” from the trooper.
Next, Matt was promptly grabbed and, in one smooth motion, dragged from the car and pulled into the darkness by other officers materializing from behind the car. As we sat in pure fear, Nickel and I now faced a series of questions: “Do you have any firearms in the car”, shouted the officer? “No officer,” I replied meekly.
“Do you have any incendiaries or explosives?” “No officer.”
“Bow and Arrows?” “No.”
The listing of every conceivable projectile weapon continued for some time. Eventually the officer stopped, seemingly satisfied before dragging us out of the vehicle and beginning a new line of questioning. “Do you have anything in your pockets before I search you” the officer stated? I began to stammer and spit out the long list of contents within deep pockets. “In my left pocket, you will find a pocket watch, cell phone, two keys, passport and spare batteries while in my right, you will find a camera, wallet, and I.D holder, and Kleenexes…some of them used”. An officer searched my pockets in silence, save for a slightly disgusted grunt when I mentioned the Kleenexes.
After feeling satisfied in their search, Nickel and I were ordered to the ditch under guard of the Deputy Sherriff. A broad shouldered man in his mid-thirties who, despite an intimidating Kevlar suit, became quite talkative once he realized we were from Canada and in his words, “not going to be carrying any guns.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I would normally prefer a talkative individual over a silent one any day of the week. These were exceptionally unfavourable circumstances however and I would prefer to be left to my own thoughts. Additionally, aside from mentioning that he was also the volunteer fire chief of Billings County,, our conversation was dominated by the deputy explaining his talent with firearms.
Despite our best efforts to change the conversation, the deputy insisted on describing his absolute prowess with a shotgun and a rifle, but lack of accuracy with pistols. “That’s why I attach this here laser sight to the pistol” he declared, proudly displaying the handgun to our paling faces. Desperate to derail the deputy from the subject of firearms, I timidly asked “well, I guess you don’t have to use those guns too often, right officer?” “Are you kidding me” retorted the deputy; “I got to use it this s’morning.” My heart and lungs stopped functioning in unison upon hearing this statement.
“Why, I had a wounded deer in these here woods that I had to finish off with a shotgun earlier today,” the deputy continued proudly. I stared blankly, swaying back and forth before finally resuming normal body functions as my brain processed the explanation.
From here on out, the conversation gradually improved. I managed to bring the subject of gun control into the conversation, a concept that much to our surprise, was given strong support from the deputy. Eventually, our conversation was interrupted by the return of Matthew accompanied and the original state trooper. It was at this point that I had my first inkling to look at my surroundings, a choice that only compounded my horror and confusion. Barricading the interstate behind our car sat two police cruisers and a police van, with brief glimpses of officers outfitted in Kevlar and shotguns revealed by the scattering of red and blue lights on the otherwise pitch black interstate. Flanking either side of the interstate was a thicket of obscuring trees, with ourselves and the officers the only human beings on either horizon.
At this point, I began to have flashbacks of the movie Deliverance, the dueling banjos theme bouncing around the inside of my head.
Registering utter confusion on my face, the state trooper’s face softened and in a tone far more apologetic than the one exuded previously, he began to explain the circumstances of our predicament. Apparently, earlier that day we passed one of many semi-trucks due to our…above average speeds. A problem arose however, when a rock flew off our tire without our knowledge and struck the side mirror of the semi-truck, shattering it in the process.
Now a typical driver, while understandably upset and aggravated at having his mirror smashed, would see it as an unfortunate and faultless fluke. Not this driver. This wonderful human being decided to call the police and report it as a shooting. After getting this report, the officers were understandably on guard, what with the threat of rampaging Canadians tearing up the fine county of Billings. Not wanting to take any chances, they brought a squadron of officers outfitted in Kevlar and a full ballistics array to meet the Canadian menace.
After finishing his explanation and receiving sombre nods from the three of us, the officer brightened slightly. “We hope this here experience doesn’t tarnish your view of the fine state of Montana,” the state trooper declared, a sheepish grin creeping across his face. “Not at all officer”, I replied quickly, not wanting to be rude and wishing to end the conversation as quickly as possible. “Can we go now officer?” I continued after a brief and awkward pause. “Absolutely boys,” came the quick response.
We began to shuffle back to our vehicle, our legs feeling and functioning like stilts under the residual shock of the whole event. We got no more than ten paces from the officer before we froze to the trooper’s command of “Wait a minute boys”.
My brain went into overdrive as my fears came flooding back. Oh God, this is it. Everything from Deliverance, Wrong Turn, and the Blair Witch Project are about to come true. Is that officer in the distance holding a banjo? Oh God, we are going to die and I never even got to see PAX.
“I had to drive damn fast to catch up with you boys,” the trooper announced. “In the state of Montana we take driving very seriously.” At this point, my mind went blank as a stress limit was achieved and blissful shock set in. “At your peak speed you were going twenty miles over the speed limit and in the state of Montana, that equates to a forty dollar fine and a possible demerit”. The trooper paused, wearing a combination of pride and authority on his face before continuing. “Given the circumstances however, I think we will let you off with a warning this time”. My mind returned, the stress melting away and I began to thank the officer profusely. Swelling with satisfaction from my praise, the officer wished us a safe trip and we returned to our vehicle. As we entered the vehicle, we sat in silence for five or ten minutes. I finally asked my friends, “did I mishear him or did he say forty dollars?”