The Pig Roast

The leaves have begun to turn color, and the leaf peepers, foreign and geriatric, are arriving by the tour bus load full. The Equinox has passed. We rise and retire in darkness again, and the evenings are turning colder. But it feels as though autumn is still holding back.

The sun shines bright and fierce during the afternoons. We had three miserably hot days last week. At least they were miserable by the standards of people for whom air conditioning is a profligate waste of money and electricity. Cold showers and afternoons naps got us through the worst of it until the humidity broke and the thundersqualls overwhelmed our gutters and threatened our vintage electrical grid. It was odd, standing outdoors in shorts and cracked Tevas, watching red, purple, and gold leaves floating down rivulets in the street and clogging up the street drains. I hardly know what to make of such weather, and I still don’t know quite what season we are in.

Bonnie arrived Wednesday in her car with a new basket of fresh organic vegetables from her farm and a promise of autumn. She is a young woman, perhaps 30, with dark hair and eyes that will be the first part of her face to wrinkle from all the smiling that comes naturally to her face. With her husband Seth, they run Worcester Woods Farm (pronounced “Worster”, as in the comparitive superlative of “bad” – worse than the worst). We have a weekly subscription from their CSA, a symbiotic scheme that provides them with a base income and provides us with a weekly selection of random, organic vegetables. 

Seth spends all day at the farm, and Bonnie supplements their income by working at the food co-op. After work on Wednesdays, she makes the deliveries, and as we are at the end of her run, our produce arrives just as we are getting the children ready for bath at night. Bonnie is in no rush. She stops to chat and enjoys our children showing off for her. She might sit for a slice of cake if we have any, as we paw through the greens, potatoes, carrots, fennel, tomatoes, or whatever she has brought that week. For a couple of weeks we even got fresh eggs, but this stopped once the chickens, which are free-range, starting laying their eggs in the woods.

This week’s haul included an invitation.

“Yeah, we pushed the pig roast back a couple weeks this year. We are SO rushed to finish off the last of the harvesting and get the soil ready for next year, and we just thought, you know, it will be so much easier in a week or two.”

“So, what can we bring? … Rose, give that book back to Samuel… It doesn’t matter if you were reading it twenty minutes ago. You left it on the floor and he started reading it. Wait until he’s done… Be patient. He’s two years old, and it has no pictures. He won’t be reading it long…I’m sorry, Bonnie, what did I just ask you?”

“Bring a potluck dish and drinks. We’ll have snacks and vegies and of course one of our own pigs. Not that you care.”

A joke. She knows we’re vegetarian.

Days later drove down. Just as we were about to head down Main Street from the top of the hill, I saw the hills surrounding Montpelier. There was definitely autumn color splashed about, though there was also a lot of leafy green left too. I could see the gash in the hill side above Elm Street where a large chunk of cliff collapsed a year ago, blocking the road, knocking out power, and fortunately harming no one. I had never noticed it from this vantage before which made me think that there must have been some newly bared trees opening my view, but I couldn’t tell. Would someone tell me what season it is?

We drove down Main and cut across to Elm St which carried us miles out of town. In no time, we were traversing a river valley between the hills that skirted the eastern edge of the Green Mountains. There were horses out in paddocks and small farms between the little towns all following the course of a river small enough to wade across. Small business and fancy homes were taking up land that used to be covered with collapsing barns and farm houses. But it was still gorgeous. Beyond the fields and copses, the trees stretched on up to the top of the hills as far as we could see.

By the time we reached the farm, the valley had narrowed so that the surrounding hilltops must cut off an hour or more of daylight. The farm house itself was twenty feet from the road, built when cars passing by were rare oddities. Like most working farm houses in Vermont, it was weathered and rambling. The original house was extended up and back as the family grew. Another fifty feet behind the house was a white barn built into the side of the mountains and nestled among the trees. The trees stretch up and up the hill. All the arable land, not counting the stones and rocks that breed in the soil, lay in a swathe along the road, never gets more than a long stone’s throw from it, though trees blocked most of it from the road.

We parked on the grass where a half dozen adults were already drinking wine and milling about uncomfortably, too early for the party proper. They were dressed in jeans, casual collar shirts, and old shoes – standard, liberal, white-collar, professional attire for visiting a farm that you do not intend to work on. A few children are scampering around, but they were quiet as clouds compared to the two dogs who came running up to the minivan. My children were instantly terrorized. “I don’t like the dogs. I’m scared of the dogs. The dogs are making me nervous,” they repeat insistently, like some magical incantation that would cause me to suddenly announce in a dreamy, stupefied voice, “No. This isn’t the farm we’re looking for. I must have made a wrong turn. Let’s move along now.”

Dawn and I got out to calm the dogs, a large retrieverish mutt and a small houndish mutt. They sniffed our hands, read us the riot act, and then ran off to chase the childish already scattered about. By the time the coast was clear and we got our own children out of the car, Bonnie appeared from the house.

“Welcome. Are the kids ok? Did the dogs scare them?”

“They’re fine.” I say. “This is nothing compared to last time two years ago. Rose wouldn’t get off my shoulders the entire time.”

“You were here two years ago?” Bonnie asks.

“Wasn’t it last year?” Dawn asks in turn.

“Well, we missed it last year, right?”

“My knee surgery,” Dawn adds. “I missed it. You came with the kids.”

“It couldn’t have been last year. We were here with your Dad.”

As is the habit of married couples, we had to debate this until we got it right. Lots of “Don’t you mean…” and “Wasn’t it that…” and “I thought it was …” which was better than “Of course that’s not right, you idiot.” And this wasn’t just good manners on our part – Bonnie had already left carrying our faux-chicken salad inside and the other guests were too far away to over hear. I suddenly realized that Dawn’s memory is absolutely right. It had to have been last year, because this is only our second year with this CSA. This put me in a sixty-second funk. Not because Dawn was right and I was wrong; our marriage would never survive if I couldn’t handle that sort of humiliation on a regular basis. Rather, it was the proof, like a cream pie in my face, that my long term memory is not reliable for even as recently as a year ago. I don’t like the idea of becoming senile in my forties. But soon we were taking the kids on a tour of the farm and I forgot all about it (about what?).

Because it is an organic farm, run by a couple, do not imagine the enormous Cartesian grids of monoculture that you might see along the Kansas interstates. Picture instead a large amorphous clearing extending back two football field lengths with random patches of sod converted to garden rows. At the end of the first football field, there was a small rise, just high enough that you cannot see over it, and above was the other football field. It was the end of the season and most
of the gardens are covered in weeds where they weren’t bare, but there were still some rows of brussel sprouts, carrots, and onions. One square plot was an enormous pin cushion of six foot cedar stakes that once held tomato plants; the stakes were now bare but the soil was littered with the carcasses of tomatoes that were too rotten or mildewy to eat.

There were other odds and ends. A few small, hand-built, green houses cloaked with milky white plastic housing seedlings and ducklings. A large square plot of sunflowers. A 335-gallon, not-quite-stainless steel tub for washing vegetables; large enough for my children to swim in, though we did not allow them to wet their feet in the inch of brackish rain water inside. A pile of lumber castoffs and palettes would soon be burned for a bonfire. An odiferous pig pen with a dozen hogs not quite as long as I am tall; the smell and grunting kept both Rose and Samuel a respectable distance away. There was no order or plan to any of it that I could discern. Everything was set off wherever there seemed to be room for it, with lots of grassy lawn in between. It was orderly after a fashion, like a big rambling Victorian house in which no two rooms are the same size or shape. Small holes with flag posts sticking out of them could be found everywhere, and I didn’t get their purpose until I learned that Seth was an avid golfer.

Outside the barn we found the world’s largest grill, a black metal contraption shaped like a tube. It was eight feet long and two or three feet in diameter, that split in half and opened on hinges, something like a round coffin. Smoke leaked out of it carrying the scent of pig fat, which hopefully dispersed over the hills before it could carry to the upper field where the live pigs were chewing weeds.

The children seemed more interested in the golf balls scattered everywhere than in anything else. So Dawn tried to teach them how to use a golf club, putting small yellow balls into the weeds. Then we heard a sound, a familiar sound that we had been waiting for ever since the crows had begun mobbing and cawing and screaming two weeks earlier – the sound of geese honking. Looking up we saw the uneven checkmark of two dozen birds flying across the sky, their dark silhouettes gilded by the setting sun, the first flock of migratory birds we had seen. It must be autumn after all.

We managed to find the snack table and get some potato chips for Rose and Samuel before they were all devoured by the children assembled around it. More people kept arriving and the dogs barked and some children got into the one of the green houses and terrorized the ducklings. The sun dipped below the hills leaving us in shadow with a pink sky pink above us. We brought out fleece jackets for Rose and Samuel as a small fire was started in a ring of stones and benches circled around that.

Rose and a friend of hers from school went exploring. He carried a piece of split lumber as a sword that his father insisted (with good reason) that he not wave around, so Rose got one too and carried it like a walking stick. At one point her friend noticed it.

“Hey, your stick is even better than mine!” he said in an admiring tone of voice. In fact, it was longer and sharper, having been only carried and not banged against dirt and stones for ten minutes like his.

“Do you want to trade?” Rose asked.

He blinked once. “Sure!” he answered, unable to believe the good luck of befriending such a sucker as my daughter. But Rose knew what she was doing. Even though he was a four-year-old boy and even though there were other bigger boys around to play with, he spent at least half of the evening with her. He even showed her a hidden stash of “rabbit eggs” under an rusty, overturned wheel barrow – a clutch of chicken eggs Bonnie had missed.

At 6:00 they brought the pig out of the roaster, laid it on a table, and unwrapped several boxes worth of aluminum foil from around it. It’s pink carcass had been skinned and decapitated. It seemed a fortuitous educational opportunity.

“Rose! Come here. I want you to see this.”

“What is it, Papa?”

“It’s the pig they roasted.”

I held her up so she could see. The head had been disposed of, or at least was not visible from our angle, but the legs and feet still stuck straight up in a rigor mortis fashion. Seth proudly exclaimed the virtues of the bacon and chops, stuffed with apples and onions and basted with maple syrup, to a small assembly of grilling aficionados, while Rose watched silently. When there was an opening in the conversation, she remarked, “I don’t think it looks very good.”

There was a smattering of laughter from this, even from Seth. He was used to squeamish children when it came to their pigs. “You don’t think so?”

“Well,” I intervened, “she’s vegetarian, so nothing you could do would make it look good to her.”

More good-natured laughter, but Rose had seen enough, and I walked away with her knowing that any curiosity she had about eating meat was probably satisfied for at least another year.

Dawn’s allergies were acting up, progressively worsening, and Samuel became obstreperous, deaf to our warnings and calls. Dinner was to be at 6:00, but at 6:30 I overheard Seth calling Bonnie and telling her that the pig was still not ready.

“What do you mean ‘not ready?'”

“As in ‘still raw.'”

He said this outdoors surrounded by several dozen families, all CSA subscribers who had come to enjoy the bounty of the harvest, and who all realized that they would not be eating dinner for at least another hour. As we were not planning to eat meat at all, it became clear that we would be leaving soon. Samuel was riding on my shoulders, saying “Papa. I’m tired. I want to go home.”

While Dawn rounded up Rose, I took Samuel down to the road looking for the river that we could hear but not see. Samuel pointed out a chicken on our right disappearing furtively into the woods. We crossed the road without it and walked along a guard rail overlooking a tree covered slope. From somewhere below, I could hear water rushing, but the trees blocked our view.

“Papa, I hear the rain.”

“You do?” The sky was perfectly clear, blue with tinges of pink and red in the west. “You have very good ears.” I told him.

Just then a car appeared around the curve of the road to our north with an elderly couple inside driving sixty-five miles an hour. They passed within two feet of us pressed up against the guard rail. I saw the tints in her hair and the arthritic grip of his fingers on the wheel. The breeze of their wake embedded leaf litter in the bristles of my beard.

“Oh silly me!” said Samuel. “It was a car. Not the rain.”

The Other Equinox

Rose is spending more and more time away from home. She wakes at 7:00 in the morning and is gone to Kindergarten by 8:00. I do not see her again until 3:30 but there is always gymnastics or Hebrew school or the odd playdate (somehow they are always odd) or something that diverts her attention if not her physical presence. I should not complain, because my work requires concentration. But I only have two brief hours with her in the evening during dinner and cleanup and bedtime, and we spend most of it negotiating.

Samuel wishes he were at school too and doing all the fun things Rose is doing.

I am bothered. It isn’t just that my children are growing up. Although they are, and it is bothersome. I wish they would get over this biological drive to mature. I tell them that being an adult is not all bedtime-at-midnight and cookies-whenever-you-want-them, but they seem to have inherited my selective hearing.

No, what bothers me at the moment is that there will be a day, not too long in the future, when they are both busy with their own lives, and I might actually have time for my own life again. Not just time to finish the long list of neglected projects. I mean time to spend with Dawn, time to spend on my own, time for pursuing some interest or ambition other than work and meals and laundry and children. It’s a rather frightening thought. I am somewhat out of practice in the art of overt selfishness. In the past five years, my talent for covert selfishness has blossomed – the last night book affair, the illicit cookie purchased on a downtown errand alone. However the idea that I might do something like gardening or learning the harmonica or reading the entire Harry Potter series from front to back, that I would have time for it and that no one would think it outrageously selfish if I did, that is simply astounding.

But that day has not yet arrived. Back to reality. Today instead, was a day to try one’s patience. Not my patience. Dawn’s.

She took Rose to her first Hebrew school class after Kindergarten today. Thirteen children plus their Moms and younger siblings came together to sing songs and play games and make human Hebrew letters on the floor. Dawn is never comfortable in a noisy, Brownian-motion crowd, and this qualified as one. Apparently the excitement of so many friends in one room wreaked havoc with Rose’s concentration. The children rolling on the floor pretending to be dogs, and the younger siblings climbing up into the loft did not help much either. Dawn became quite frustrated keeping an eye on Samuel and continually refocusing Rose’s attention to the class. When she tried to talk to Rose about it in the car on the drive home and discovered five minutes into the conversation that Rose was reading a book and not paying any attention, she lost her temper.

They got home late, around 6:00 pm just as I got off work, and they entered the house with tears and commotion. Rose took herself off to her room to wail loudly. Samuel wanted attention and, finding none immediately available, began to make mischief. Dinner had not been started, Dawn was spent, Rose was out of commission, and Entropy Boy was dumping toys on the living room floor. Things looked a little dicey.

Somehow Rose calmed down enough to return to the living room in a quiet mood, and Dawn calmed down enough to begin by apologizing. Pretty soon the two of them were hugging together on the couch which did not improve Samuel’s mood one bit. I retired to the kitchen to whip up pasta with sauce a la jar. On the way, Dawn asked me a favor. She had been cooking all morning and took her exercise walk and went grocery shopping with Samuel and picked up Rose at Montessori and went through hours of Hebrew school. All she wanted right now was a nice steaming cup of aspirin. I made her tea instead.

“Today is the Equinox!” Rose announced at dinner between mouthfuls of penne pasta.

I paused to think about that. Once upon a time I was aware of all sorts of natural events, but over the last few years, they’ve slipped my notice, along with the Federal holidays and Income Tax Day and such. “Um, no,” I finally decided. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Yes it is!” she insisted.

“Look at the calendar.” Dawn suggested. It was conveniently behind my head. “It says the 23rd is the Equinox.”

“No, it’s wrong. Today is the Equinox. Kathleen told me at school.” Kathleen is one of the teachers at Montessori and, therefore, infallible.

“Maybe she means some other Equinox,” I said, suggesting a Peace Treaty.

“Rose, do you know what the Equinox is?” Dawn asked.

“Yes. It’s the day that’s as long as a year.”

There was a second of silence as we digested this, and then both Dawn and I burst into laughter. Rose stared at us uncomprehending, not certain if she was being teased or if she really said something funny.

“Oh, that equinox. I’m sorry, honey. You’re absolutely right. That would have been today.”

Planet Walk

The rear of the minivan sagged under the weight of provisions. The diaper bag was restocked with clean cloth diapers, extra clothes for both children, Rose’s epipen, various medicines and creams and unguents. There was a book for each family member and a stuffed animal for each child. We brought bug dope, sun block, sun hats, first aid kits, and I haven’t even started on the food: crackers, humus, grapes, cabbage salad, vegetarian fake turkey slices, string cheese, homemade shortbread cookies, and for a special treat, two large bags of Lay’s potato chips. There were other delicacies, more than we needed or could possibly eat, and lots and lots and LOTS of water. Bottles of H2O stashed in the diaper bag and the purse and various cup holders throughout the minivan. It promised to be a very hot Labor Day, and we expected to be gone all day.

The Montshire Museum of Science sits in the middle of a hundred forested acres on the banks of the Connecticut River just upstream of White River Junction. It takes a good hour of driving to get there from Montpelier. From the top of the museum’s five story observation tower, you could probably lob a golf ball over to New Hampshire, if you jury-rigged one of the vacuum-powered air-cannon exhibits from below.

By the standards of modern urban cities, Montshire is not a large museum, but neither is it small, and what it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality. They have soap bubble engineering and handcrank marble habitrails. They have fossils and bird songs and insects under powerful magnifiers. They have exploded gears and cams and levers. They have visual physics and mechanics games. They have a working bee hive enclosed between two plates of glass with a glass tube that leads outdoors through a window frame.

The exhibits outside were just as engaging, including a human sundial (you are the gnomon) and an artificial stream for studying the dynamics of water or just cooling your feet on a hot day. And there are miles and miles of woodland trails, the most famous of which, and our key goal for the day, is the Planet Walk.

We left Montpelier in good time, but when we arrived at the parking lot in Montshire, the children were hungry. So we set up a picnic snack, which we then had to move because of yellow jackets. Then Rose needed to use the bathroom. Then we had to buy tickets.

As we headed from the parking lot to the main entrance for the fourth time, Rose decided that if Samuel was walking on the wood benches, then she needed to walk on the benches too. Only she couldn’t let Samuel lead the way, so she ran and forced her way in front of him, knocking Samuel sideways off the bench in the process, fortunately unharmed. Bad form, as the English would say. Rose would have walked off, leaving Samuel behind, but Dawn plucked her off the bench before she could escape and sat her down on the ground.

I did not have a stop watch handy, but I would guess that we went from calm, stable, happy, about-to-have-fun-at-a-museum children to crying, incomprehensible, banshee-screaming protoplasm in 2.03 seconds.

I suggested that Dawn take Samuel into the building, while I sat outdoors with Rose on the bench. Our standard discipline technique on the hoof. Find a quiet, safe place for her to let her tantrum run its course. Then, when she is calm enough to talk to, briefly review what happened and why it was wrong, decide what steps to take to amend the situation – apologize, share toys, animal sacrifice, what have you. The museum had just opened and the parking lot was mostly empty of people, so it seemed a safe, quiet place. But before Rose’s sobs had wound down, a dark-haired woman of maternal age appeared from nowhere and propositioned us.

“I don’t know if she wants it,” she directed to me, “but I happen to have a lollypop available.”

I was dumbfounded. Wasn’t she watching? My daughter just shoved her 2-year-old brother off a bench onto a concrete sidewalk, and you want to reward her for it?

“I…uh…no. No, thank you.”

There are children in the world who have learned that if they cry hard and loud enough, they can be forgiven for all sins and get a cookie (or in this case, a lollipop) in the bargain as well. THANK GOD, my daughter is not (yet) one of these children. She can cry quite dramatically when she’s upset, but the most it has ever won her from her parents is some quiet alone time in a cozy spot in her room with her Snuggle Bunny. In this case, Rose clearly understood the situation, because she let the tears run their course without whining, drama, bargaining, or any words at all for that matter. I sat next to her, quietly waiting for the storm to pass. Soon her eyes were wandering around, seeking distraction. A few effete sobs escaped, but she was clearly thinking ahead.

“Papa. Mama scraped my leg on the bench.”

“Is it bleeding?”

“No.”

“Where did it scrape?”

She pointed to a part of her leg that was covered by her shorts.

“Does it hurt?”

“No, not really. Why did she grab me like that?”

“Why did she…? You just …. ”

I stopped myself. Clearly Rose had no idea what was going on. From her point of view, she had been trying to walk on the wooden benches just like Samuel, but unlike Samuel, she had been unceremoniously yanked off the bench and left behind with Papa while Samuel got to go into the museum with Mama.

This is how sibling rivalry gets started.

“Well, Rose,” I began slowly. Keep it short, I reminded myself. “When you jumped on the bench just now, you pushed your way past Samuel and knocked him off the bench.”

“I didn’t knock him off the bench!”

Though insulted by the accusation, I noted that she did not deny the pushing-past-Samuel part. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “You might not have meant to, and you probably didn’t even notice, but you did knock him off the bench. And it was rude to push your way past him to begin with, whether you hurt him or not.”

“Oh.” This said without much enthusiasm and even less responsibility. But since she’s only five, I consider it proof of her strong moral character that she didn’t deny her culpability.

“I think when we go inside, you should apologize to your brother. OK?”

“OK.”

“I’m sure Mama didn’t mean to hurt you either, but maybe she can apologize too.”

“OK, Papa. But when we go inside, can we start looking at the exhibits?”

“No, we’re going to do the Planet Walk before it gets too hot outdoors. Then we can spend the afternoon in the air conditioning.”

————————-

The Planet Walk is an outdoor trail, starting at the science center, that is a scale model of the solar system. The 1.6 miles did not sound like a strenuous hike for our family, though I expected to be carrying Samuel on my shoulders before we got back. By the time we found the Sun – a three foot orange sphere impaled on a metal stake on the crushed gravel path – the family was more or less back to fine spirits. The real Sun over our heads was bright but not yet oppressive, floating in an unblemished field of blue. The path paralleled a metal fence separating us from railroad tracks. The woods on the far side of the track gave off a clean, wet fragrance that would be gone in an hour. 500 yards away, the trail disappeared into the surrounding woods. Between here and there we could see scale models of the first four planets, posted at appropriately scaled distances from the sun.

“Pluto, here we come.”

We walked to Mercury, a mere 57.8 million km from the sun, or about 100 feet down the trail. The children arrived in about ten seconds, though we took a bit longer.

“Papa, pick me up! I want to touch it!” said Rose.

“Papa, I want to touch it!” echoed Samuel.

I lifted them up but it took us a moment to find the planet. While the sun had been three feet across, all we saw was another metal post on top of which was a large, flat, upright disk about two feet across. A six inch hole had been removed from the center of the disk, like a flat doughnut held up for inspection. In the hole a single metal spire rose halfway, and at the end was a small ball bearing, about an eighth-inch in diameter. Voila. The planet Mercury.

Ever since I became a father, I have been relearning my alphabet, my numbers, my geography and astronomy from restaurant placemats, hanging mobiles, electronic toys, and occasionally library books, but now I felt cheated. None of these educational novelties had given me a true sense of the scale of our solar system. Mercury was tiny and the sun, at 60 million km away, was huge, a comparison one simply could not draw well on a single eleven by fourteen inch placemat. I stood behind Mercury and looked through the doughnut hole of its frame, imagining that the orange ball in the distance was the sun rising over the horizon, several times larger than I am used to seeing from Earth. But the children were already flying toward Venus.

Venus was larger, perhaps the size of a pea. Dawn grabbed Samuel and I got Rose, and we hoisted them to touch this planet. As I had done for Mercury, I speed-read the interpretive display for them, but they were already off to Earth before I could tell them it was a trip of 44 million kilometers.

At Earth we repeated the touching ritual, and again I stood behind it and peered through the hole to find the sun. I was pleased to see that from this distance, the orange ball of the model was the same size as the real sun floating overhead in space. Whoever designed this exhibit had paid close attention to numeric detail, though I had not yet considered, much less understood, the significance this would have on my immediate future.

Instead, I was reminded of something Dawn told me, something she had learned in college. The more senses that a human being involves in a learning process, the better he or she learns and remembers. My children seemed to innately grasp this concept, having seen the planet displays, listened to me read each one, and touched each metal sphere. I wasn’t so worried about smell, but I struggled to keep up with Samuel, before he tried to bring taste into play.

I paused at Mars, which brought me up short again. Mercury had been tiny; Venus and Earth were both three times larger than Mercury in diameter. But Mars was small again, about half the size of Earth. For some reason, I had assumed it was larger, perhaps from all the science fiction books I had read in which Mars was “Terra-formed” for human habitation. I had assumed it roughly Earth-sized. But Mars was a midget of a planet.

So far, each planet was roughly the same distance apart from each other and from the sun. We had gone 230 million km so far, and Jupiter was another 550 million farther on, though we couldn’t see it. Had I been thinking, I would have turned around and headed back right then into the air-conditioned building. But frankly, the scale of these numbers was lost on me. I read them on the signs, but what with keeping an eye on two active and distracted children, the numbers passed into one eyeball and out the other. Even if I had done the math in my head, it wouldn’t have mattered yet. To get to Jupiter, we only needed to walk three times as far as we had already walked.

At the end of the crushed gravel trail, the path forked and it took us a few minutes to get our bearings, pick the correct trail, and identify the appropriate blazes on the trees. One does not want to get lost in the vast emptiness of space. We began to walk uphill into the woods, the children running off ahead of us.

About fifteen minutes later, the first perspiration breaking out on our foreheads, we found Jupiter, about the size of a baseball, floating on the edge of the trail under a tree with an irate, chirping red squirrel ten feet above us. When I picked up the children to touch the planet, they spun it on its axis, the first planet that did so. I read the description to them, ending with “Only 700,000,000 kilometers to Saturn, or about as far again as you have already walked.”

Had I stopped to look at my watch, I would have seen that we began at 11:00 and it was already 11:30, which meant that we wouldn’t reach Saturn until noon. Or probably later as we were now gradually walking uphill on a path littered with large rocks and tree roots. But I did not look at my watch. We had just eaten, we had water and snacks in a diaper bag/back pack that I was carrying, and the children still had lots of enthusiasm. Off we went to Saturn.

The woods were lovely, and we climbed up and down through different ecological niches, seeing a variety of tree species, mushrooms, and chattering squirrels. I had no idea that space was so infested with giant, larger-than-planet rodents.

By the time we reached Saturn, my back was soaked through with sweat and the children were no longer running along the trails. We made the children wait until we had drunk some water before we hefted them to spin Saturn. Everyone was still in a good mood, but quieter. Slower. Sweating.

“Next stop. Uranus. Only 1.4 billion kilometers away, or about as far again as you have already walked.”

“Wait,” said Dawn. “Read that again.”

“You heard me. We have to go as far again as we have already walked – again – to get to Uranus.”

“Well,” she said, and swallowed. “I guess we’d better get going.”

When I was a child, we used to take family vacations to the beach, traveling in the wood-paneled station wagon. We took turns sitting in the cargo area with the fold up seats that faced backwards – the punitive section of the car. My parents, stuck in traffic on the Turnpike, must have gritted their teeth at the incessant refrains of “Are we there yet?” from their four young boys. So it was with mixed emotions, a feeling of nostalgia swirled with karmic vengeance being enacted upon me, as we listened to the children chirp for the next hour:

“Where is Uranus?”

“Have we passed Uranus yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

The forest became thicker and greener, and trail edged along irregular slopes that I assumed headed down to the Connecticut River somewhere below. I had almost given up hope of find Uranus when it suddenly loomed up in the middle of a pine grove by a barbed wire fence held up with unfinished timber stakes. It was of middling size (about four times wider than earth I have since learned), but I could have hardly cared less at the time. I wasn’t exhausted yet, just feeling the tired exhilaration of having reached this milestone. It felt good knowing that I wasn’t too old to hike a mile uphill through the woods, even though it felt more like four miles. I could have cared less about Uranus at that point. Less than 2 billion kilometers to Neptune I read, whatever that meant. The numbers were meaningless to me , but I had a sense that we would not have to double our march again this time.

There was a break in the fence through which the trail continued, and a sign by the break explaining that the land we were entering was privately owned but with a conservation easement. About a hundred yards further the woods opened on one side to a green field, and the trail skirted along the forest edge, past some poison ivy which was, fortunately, clearing marked with signs. There were several monarch butterflies busily skittering through the air. Earlier in the hike, one had nearly bounced off Samuel’s face, so now he clung to Dawn whenever he saw them. We had not realized how fortunate we had been to be hiking in the woods until the sun beat down on us from the clearing, hot and humid. Blessedly, the trail re-entered the forest soon after.

By this point, I was carrying Samuel on my shoulders as often as not. He would walk along the trail in front of us and then stop suddenly to pick up sticks and rocks without warning. More than once we nearly tripped over him or booted him off some precipice. So despite his protests, he was hoisted on my shoulders where he sat until one (or both) of us complained too much about the arrangement. Then I would lower him to the ground to walk for a bit again and the cycle would repeat.

We had not gone more than fifteen minutes when the trail was blocked. A tree had come down across the path, and though its trunk wasn’t large, it had many thick branches spread out over a wide area. We had to bushwack a good five minutes to get around it. The trail beyond was clear and obvious, but it continued to follow the ridge uphill as it had done for the last four billion kilometers. At this point the children were no longer asking, “How long to Neptune?”

“Papa,” Rose said after another water break. “I’m ready to head back.”

I love to hike, especially when I have a goal. I will walk through the woods way past the point of common sense, and I think walking to Pluto would qualify. Furthermore, as a family, we have walked a three mile round trip before, from our home to Montpelier High School and back, including the long hill up Main Street at the end.

But Rose’s simple sentence was an unmistakable shot across the bow. She has an uncanny ability, well-proven on many previous hikes, to know when she has reached her half-way point. If we turned around now, she would make it all the way back to the Sun on her own two feet without a single whine or whimper. If I made her walk one step further, I would likely be carrying both children on my shoulders down the mountain. I knew the game was over. Parenthood has matured me beyond my years.

I quickly ran up the trail alone for a short distance thinking that if Neptune was near, the sight of it would cheer them up enough to make the walk back lighter of heart, if not of foot. But I found nothing except a few polished acorns and a few surly space squirrels riotously screaming at my intrusion. They were probably not used to people coming this far. We had not met up with a single hiker past Jupiter.

If I was at all disappointed by not getting to the end of the solar system, I was at least compensated by a downhill return. Really, Uranus and Neptune are so similar, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other. And Pluto is not even a real planet anymore.

We made it back without incident, taking a slight detour at the very end on an upper trail that entered the science center on the third floor via a foot bridge. Before we left the forest, I checked the time and was astounded to find it was already 2:30 in the afternoon.

We ate a long luxurious lunch in the back of the minivan, in the shade with the hatch open, and then Dawn and Samuel stayed inside for a nap while Rose and I went to dabble our feet in the outdoor stream exhibit. On the way, though, I stopped at the front desk to talk to the seated docent, a small white-haired woman who talked no faster than she moved.

“May I help you?”

“Yes,” I began. “I just wanted to let you know that there’s a tree blocking the path on the Planet Walk trail, between Uranus and Neptune.”

“Oh, OK. I suppose I should make a note. So, you made it as far as Neptune?”

“Um… no. Uranus comes first. Neptune comes later.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I always get those two confused. Did you have to turn around?”

“No ma’am. We sort of worked our way beyond it, but we turned around before Neptune anyway. We just couldn’t make it. I’m not sure why, if it’s only 1.6 miles.”

“Oh, don’t worry young man. No one ever makes it to Pluto.”

Postscript:

For those interested in visiting the Planet Walk themselves, here is a link to The Montshire Museum of Science.

For those of a mathematical inclination, here is a chart of salient figures:

Planet Distance From Sun Diameter
Mercury 58,800,000 km 4878km
Venus 108,200,000 km 12,100 km
Earth 152,000,000 km 12756 km 
Mars 228,000,000 km 6786 km
Jupiter 778,300,000 km 143,000 km
Saturn 1,429,000,000 km 120,660 km
Uranus 2,871,000,000 km 51,118 km
Neptune 4,501,000,000 km 49,528 km
Pluto 6,000,000,000 km 2400 km

Clearly, we would not have made it to Pluto that day.