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August 2004

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ZipUSA: 98281

By Erla Zwingle

Neatly drawing the border between Canada and the United States along the 49th parallel was a fine idea, except for one thing. When the line reached the ocean just south of Vancouver, it cut off a tiny lobe of Washington State, which was left hanging out into the Pacific all by itself. A few people almost immediately noticed that it would make more sense to assign this appendage to Canada, but somehow that never happened. Therefore, sometime in the 1850s the hardy residents of Point Roberts—Icelandic farmers and fishermen, cannery workers, and now a good number of retirees from as far away as Florida—began living on this five-square-mile fragment of the peninsula as if it were an island colony of some distant mother country. The scenery is gorgeous, and thanks to the guards manning the checkpoint on the border, life is ridiculously peaceful. But it is also riddled with inconvenience.

"This is a wonderful piece of heaven," said cheery, endlessly energetic Terrie LaPorte, owner of the Maple Meadow Bed & Breakfast, "but you can't buy a bra here. You can't buy shoes here. There's no dentist."

If Point Roberts had a national anthem, this would be it: Ten verses outlining the hassles, drawbacks, and handicaps—some of them rather serious, such as the lack of a pharmacy or doctor. Some are merely tedious, such as the need to drive around 45 minutes to leapfrog across the border twice, once at the Point Roberts checkpoint to cross from the U.S. into Canada and then at the Blaine checkpoint to get back to the U.S., simply to buy your license plate, fill a prescription, or go to school past the third grade. But after each stanza everyone would join the rousing chorus, "We're here because we want to be here."

The adoration that the 1,300 year-round residents lavish on this piece of land is matched only by the foibles and feuds that flourish among them. If you sit on the porch at Maple Meadow in the summer evening with Terrie LaPorte and her husband, Keith, you'll hear the main points as expressed by a cross section of their friends who drop by. As the breeze rustles the stately trees and twilight falls, they drink their wine and marvel yet again at their good fortune, the natural beauty, the pods of killer whales frolicking off Lighthouse Point, the peace and tranquillity.

Those gatherings also usually cover the flip side. This being a small town, everyone knows everyone, or close enough. "I took the truck to the shop today," Terrie's husband was telling her. The shop is in Canada, of course. "When I got back, this kid asked me, 'How's your truck?' " Things like this make Keith burst into wild laughter. "That's Point Roberts for you! I don't even know the kid, and he asks me, 'How's your truck?'"

But this is typical of small towns everywhere. Point Roberts's twist on the tie between closeness and comfort is that so many people move here as if to a sort of bucolic fortress. Almost everyone's first compliment to the "Point" is safety. "It's the greatest gated community in the U.S.," they like to say. In exchange for this security they struggle to adapt to inconveniences that go beyond the picturesque. The nearest hospital is in Canada, so if you have a heart attack, it's better for you to be Canadian. If you're a U.S. citizen, you need to hope either that your insurance will cover you in Canada, or that the EMTs can get you on a helicopter to St. Joseph Hospital in Bel-lingham, an hour's drive from Point Roberts. If you're one of the few local merchants, the exchange rate with the Canadian dollar looms over your daily well-being, since shoppers on either side of the border tend to go where the prices are lower. And even though 60 percent of the year-round residents are U.S. citizens, Canadians own nearly half of the property, most of it for summer homes. This means a large number of the property owners, being foreigners, can't vote on any municipal issues, which does sort of skew the whole democracy thing and strain those neighborly encounters.

Still, people like it this way. "Come to Point Roberts, step 20 years back in time," Terrie LaPorte told me blithely. "We're behind and we're glad." Just bring up the subject of installing a municipal sewer system. This issue is one of the most controversial because it could attract development. "There are two primary groups," explained Henry Rosenthal, a soft-spoken California retiree. "Those who want to stay in the 19th century and want no growth. And those who want some logical and sustainable growth."

As for diversion, there is a thousand-boat marina and a golf course, but bingo at the fire hall is about as wild as the entertainment gets, if you don't count karaoke night at Kiniski's Reef Tavern. Jobs are scarce, and there isn't even any downtown, yet when residents look down that long, pine-scented road toward the border checkpoint and see the Canadian strip-mall hell that is Tsawwassen just beyond it, they shudder. If that's development, they'll be at the barricades to stop it.

You can experience the benefits of this attitude at places like Lighthouse Marine Park, where everyone comes to wander the stony beach and watch for whales at play. Ben VanBuskirk, the blond, bearlike park manager, finds the sweeping vistas across the Strait of Georgia toward the mist-draped bulk of Vancouver Island balm to the soul. Still, he has been here 15 years and was beginning to feel a slight need to expand his activities. So in 1999 he and a college friend decided to invent a two-player board game that reflected something of Taoist philosophy. The result was a deceptively simple game they dubbed Dao. When I visited him, his cluttered basement was awash in boxes, boards, and pieces as he labored to keep up with the orders. "I sold my first game on December 10, 1999, and by December 13 I'd sold 130 of them," he recalled. "I'd come home and find notes stuffed under my door. There was a steady stream of traffic—people must have thought I was running a crack house."

Dao won the Mensa Select games award in 2001 and has since gone big time. But it remains the perfect Point Roberts game. Everybody in the town plays it, and after the first try I could see why.

"We said, Let's create a game that rewards balance," Ben explained as he set up a sample game for me to try. "It has the simplicity of tic-tac-toe and the strategy of chess. You don't remove any pieces, and if I trap my opponent in the corner, I lose." Best of all, long-term strategy is impossible; the game's shifting permutations give you hope of winning till virtually the last move. It's all very Point Roberts.


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