Continental Divide; Divided Continent

When I was a teenager in school, I vaguely remember being taught about the Continental Divide in Geography class. I even remember the teacher’s name; it was Mr. Bright. As I recalled it from my school days, the continental divide was singular. Just one. On my drive through the mountains yesterday, though, I saw three different signs indicating a location for that divide, each sign indicating very large numbers of feet above sea level, and each sign being a long way from the next. “Is there more than one divide?” I wondered.

I thought that was so odd that I would check it out when I had the chance. Well, I just had a chance and it turns out there are several continental divides but the one in question is sometimes called the Great Divide and it runs north-south through Canada and the United States along the tops of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madres mountains. It is a divide because water flows on one side to the Pacific Ocean and on the other side to either the Arctic Ocean or the Atlantic.

This seemed significant to me because I saw those Continental Divide signs on the same day that the Mueller report (or most of it) was released, and it talks about how interference in the US 2016 election was intended to divide the nation. It succeeded so well that the divisions have become even greater ever since. This is sad for many reasons but mostly because Americans have a lot more in common than that which separates them.

The lineup for Canada Border Services, Coutts Alberta

So while I was pondering this continental division and political division and national security issues, I crossed the US/Canada border. This border divide is on a latitude rather than a longitude, and in comparison to the Continental Divide, this national divide is an imaginary line. It runs, more or less, along the 49th latitude and it is where the powers-that-be place the official border crossings. In Canada, these are called Border Service Agencies but on the other side of the road, going in the other direction, they are called US Customs and Border Protection Ports of Entry. As a former Communications instructor, I find those word choices significant.

The borderline on my GPS

Anyway, as I was waiting in line to cross that imaginary line into Canada, I noticed that the line exists on my Garmin GPS as a clearly defined grey line. As I sat there, though, what I saw was a series of traffic lanes similar to toll booths on bridges, but with the added decoration of flags and multiple signs about when and how to proceed.

From my post-hippy days living in the mountainsides of Fruitvale in British Columbia back in the late 1970s, I recall stories about the permeability of the imaginary line when used by hikers with backpacks full of weed. In those days, the line was not patrolled by aircraft or satellites. It was just a pretend line in the forest. If you could hike, you could cross it without anyone asking you odd questions.

Gateways to Canada at Coutts Alberta

I was welcomed back into Canada with only the usual questions about which items I was carrying.  In addition, I was asked where I went while I was in the US and I told the agent that I had been to San Jose, California. She asked “What is there for you?” and I answered “My sister”.  She smiled and said, “That’s a great place to have a sister. Welcome home.”

The continental divide is real. The border is a figment of our imaginations. The divisions caused by fake news are real but caused by imagined differences. We should all get to know our neighbours and always welcome them home.


  1. “This is sad for many reasons but mostly because Americans have a lot more in common than that which separates them.” Wow, I appreciate this observation. What a helpful perspective for Americans to consider! And really need to, if we are to move beyond our polarized stances.

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