That time we took a wrong turn into NASA

nasa goddard meteor

GREENBELT, Md. — We knew we’d made a mistake as soon as we turned in. This was not the NASA we were looking for.

There were two layers of barbed-wired-topped fence and uniformed men carefully scanning badges at a checkpoint that might have been borrowed from a Hollywood set. Beyond that, where the Goddard Space Flight Center’s manicured lawns and giant Hubble banner could be seen, were a dozen NASA-branded security cars.

I swung the car into the visitor’s lot and left it running while I bolted through the dense Maryland heat into the glassed-in office to the side of the checkpoint.

According to the space agency, “Goddard scientists stare into the sun, grind up meteorites for signs of life’s building blocks, look into the farthest reaches of space, and untangle the mysteries of our own changing world.”

The folks at Goddard are so enthusiastic about their work, it’s hard not to get excited with them.

But standing in line in the glass box, waiting to ask how that checkpoint was going to affect our touristing, there were big-screen reminders that the fun they were having on the other side of the fence could have unintentional repercussions.

It wasn’t a big room, but there were two big TVs advising guests of emergency and evacuation procedures. The lists detailed which sirens would sound and how to proceed safely, cautioned 911 callers to not hang up until the dispatcher did, promised that directions would be given over loudspeakers—that one comforted me, because the damn heat was making me forget things as soon as I read them, but I was still pretty good at just doing what I was told.

I was asked to step forward into a little kiosk. I tried my damndest to not look like a tourist, even though I was saying, “I was looking for the visitor centre, and I don’t think this is it.”

She didn’t roll her eyes; she was kind when she told me to keep driving. I don’t think she was annoyed with me, she probably just thought a bunch of rocket scientists should have better road signs.

Me? I was just happy to get a little farther away from a potential Ground Zero.

Here is the sun.

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In which we are welcomed by Maryland Unitarians

Chalice art at the Goodloe Unitarian congregation in Bowie, Md.
Chalice art at the Goodloe Unitarian congregation in Bowie, Md.

BOWIE, Md. — As teenagers do, Trevor spent his Saturday night on vacation surfing the Internet for Sunday-morning church services.

He narrowed his choices to two Unitarian Universalist congregations near our hosts in Maryland.

“All Souls in Washington is really big,” he said, estimating the size of the youth group. “Goodloe is, like, a mile from here, but they only have 70 members.”

“Small is cute,” I said, thinking about the 1,700 kilometres I’d already driven that week and how a walk in the spring weather would be awfully nice, especially since it was snowing back home. I hadn’t really thought it through, though, because I sometimes suffer from crippling shyness and when two fresh faces walk into a tiny congregation … well, it’s hard to fly under the radar. We arrived just minutes before the service was to start and as soon as we walked through the rainbow-flag-topped doorway, we were greeted with outstretched hands, welcoming smiles and jovial voices.

The space was small and comfortable, with Unitarian-themed artworks on every wall, from quilted creations to a chalice collage.

The announcements that herald the start of any church service were delivered with humour and camaraderie. Two minutes in and I got this sensation that we’d just walked into a family gathering.

We weren’t the only guests in the house. Visiting pastor Lisa Ward was introduced and boldly led the congregation in creating a rainstorm by snapping our fingers, clapping our hands, stomping our feet and even yelling, which Unitarians hardly ever do. As we reached the crossroad where Trevor could stay put or join the youth in the back room, he hesitated, rocking back and forth indecisively. Then he eased back into his chair and said quietly, “I want to see what she does next.”

What she did next was tell a story of walking her dog on iced-over snow. She’d glanced back and saw her footprints had made no mark—what would we do if we knew we would leave no trace?

“When most people walk their dog in the snow, they want it to shit and go back inside,” Trevor wrote on his program so I could see. “Only a UU minister would get all existential.”

The sense of being in the living room just before Sunday dinner deepened during the Joys and Concerns portion of the program, when members were invited to share whatever was on their mind. In many congregations, part of the ritual is the lighting of a candle, in true Christian fashion. Here, a stone was dropped into a bowl of water, to my mind a more gentle action.

A member thanked the congregation for the music, and for standing by his side while his mother battled cancer. I cried with everyone else.

“The pope visits the White House next week,” a 95-year-old man got up to say. “Just wait. And listen to what he says.”

A lady who had shared my hymnbook earlier stood and said she’d heard from her son. “It was a short conversation because he didn’t have much time and I guess he had a lot of people to call.” The woman sitting in front of me leaned back to explain, “He joined the military.” I blubbered a little then, too.

A man with a booming voice had a joy—more or less. “My wife and I are celebrating 47 years of mostly blissful marriage. Oops! I mean—blissful marriage! … Don’t tell her I said ‘mostly’.”

“You should hear what she says about you!” came a voice from the peanut gallery.

As the laughter subsided, Trevor got up and made his way the three rows to the front.

“I’m Trevor,” he said in his giant man-voice, which filled the room. “My mom and I are visiting from Montreal. My joy is that I’m here with you people … because the snow back home is, like, up to here!”

I guffawed with everyone else and thought—my not-church-going self—that I was pretty joyful to be there, too.”

Baltimore and a day of almosts

This beautiful Ukrainian Catholic Church was across the street from Patterson Park.
This beautiful Ukrainian Catholic Church was across the street from Patterson Park.

BALTIMORE, Md. — Sunday was a day of almosts.

We almost went to the National Zoo, but it had taken us so long to get out of New York on Saturday that we slept in ridiculously and were still crazy exhausted.

I almost made it to Target without getting lost. I could see it, but it took me three U-turns to get there.

Borrowing from Friends' Central Perk, this little place is across the street from Patterson Park.
Borrowing from Friends’ Central Perk, this little place is across the street from Patterson Park.

We almost ate at the Papermoon Diner, but the lineup was so long and thick were couldn’t get close enough to find out how long the wait would be and we were already very hungry.

We almost visited the gravestones of the inventor of the Ouija board and of Edgar Allan Poe, but the St. Patrick’s parade was just getting started and we couldn’t get close.

I almost lost my cool when we got stuck in the St. Pat’s traffic for the fifth time, but a cop diverted us down a neat little avenue where we discovered a roundhouse and dozens of big old train cars. We almost visited the attached railway museum, but it was exactly 4 p.m. when we found the entrance. The museum closes at 4.

Somewhere in behind the B&O Railroad Museum.
Somewhere in behind the B&O Railroad Museum.

I almost took a picture of the stunning, gigantic Chesapeake Detention Facility, but the correctional officer encouraged me not to. She almost slayed me with her glare.

Fortunately, although Baltimore has tons of fun-looking activities, it’s also a neat city to drive through.

There are beautiful old row houses and gorgeous but abandoned homes, boarded-up buildings next to lovely parks. It was a little like St. Louis and a little bit like Portland, a little bit like Chicago and a whole lot of something uniquely Baltimore (just add hipster wannabes and stir).

baltimore mckim community centre

Fossil-hunting between the storms

CALVERT CLIFFS STATE PARK, MD. – The rain arrived at Calvert Cliffs about five minutes before we did. We sat in the truck and listened helplessly as giant drops pummeled the roof and greyed out everything beyond the windshield.

We’d just dropped our $5 into the honour box at the entrance and didn’t want to miss our chance to hunt for fossils, especially since a good rain washes them off the cliffs and onto the beach, where treasure-hunters are permitted to scavenge. We waited. And waited. And once it tapered to a sprinkle with the promise of slightly less dark skies blowing our way, we set ourselves to it.

Preparing for a rainy hike through the forest – with a couple of north-of-40 moms who aren’t going to strap on a baby for four miles – is quite an ordeal. Mel and Trev slipped on beach shoes and put the rain cover on the stroller. Baby crackers and bottle-fixings went in a Ziploc; my purse in a plastic bag. We switched the SD card into the crappy camera. With thunder rumbling in the distance, we decided against the tall metal umbrella.

It stopped raining.

There are several paths that lead from the duck pond to the ocean – we chose the red because hikers before us had seen stroller tracks – “Hunting strollers in the wild!” I’d said, but they didn’t find me funny – so we figured it would be smooth sailing. But those humourless trailblazers didn’t warn us of the tiny lakes the rain had made over the trail or about the ancient roots that snaked across the path along the way. We have, thank goodness, the jeep of strollers and a very good-natured baby.

We didn’t see any wildlife on our way to the cliffs. Our constant nattering and joking at each other might have been a factor. But when the land beside the trail got boggy, the forest got louder. Even our bad puns couldn’t drown out the frogs. I recorded this video in all its Blair Witch glory, to share the symphony.

It was high tide when we got to the water, leaving us a narrow strip to sift through rocks and shells, to navigate away from jellyfish in the warm water. It was beautiful and quiet and calm and worth every step we’d taken and every stumble I’d made in my bare feet and worth the clay between my toes.

Of course, the muscles in my legs realized what I’d put them through when it was time to head back. Two miles in means two miles back, but it seemed a lot longer – and it absolutely was a lot quieter – on the march back.

The growling thunder kept pace with us the entire way, but the rain held off. Thanks, Mother Nature. You rock.

Ocean City: An awkward love child

Ocean City, Md.

OCEAN CITY, Md. — Atlantic City and Virginia Beach had a love child. They called it Ocean City.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but certainly not the mindblowing panorama that is Ocean City, when approached by the bridge over the bay. The buildings spread the length of the inlet and seem to be floating on the water. It’s very pretty, but looks aren’t everything.

Get a tan, find Jesus.

The boardwalk is crowded with arcades and kitsch-crammed souvenir shops; the beach is as scent- and personality-free as Myrtle Beach.

Ocean Gallery has a Michael Jackson memorial wall and a Batmobile covered in hair dryers and fans and things.

But, hey, Spider- Man likes it, so it must have its charms.