We can’t find Neptune. After four hours I want to give up, but my husband Jim is a shadow on the snowy trail ahead of us and he’s not quitting.
The setting sun is a pale orange stripe over the mountains on a January day that never quite reaches daylight. The temperature: somewhere near twenty degrees. The snow: like loose grainy sand. I think of Jack London’s story, “To Build a Fire.” That’s how my mind works: expect the worst and wait for it to happen. An ordinary task, complicated by a series of small but crucial missteps that lead you to the point of no return, which in the context of winter in the Far North means you freeze to death.
Jim’s shadow disappears. He’s an unstoppable force hurtling forward.
“We’ll walk ten more minutes, and if we don’t find it we’re turning around,” I say to my thirteen-year-old grandson Cason for maybe the fourth time.
What I’m thinking is: We’ll never find it. We started too late. It’s not worth fifty science points. We should turn around.
It started as a fun project, a chance to spend the day with our grandson. Now Cason and I trudge through the coarse snow in our heavy winter boots. Beside me, his red stocking cap nearly reaches my cheek. Soon, he’ll shoot past me. He’s changing so fast I feel like I meet a new version of him each time we get together.
Lately, we mostly bicker. Quit treating me like a baby, he complains. Quit acting like one, I scream back when he refuses to wash his hands or set the table or feed the dog or perform any of the ordinary tasks a boy becoming a man should be able to do.
Leave me alone, he says. Don’t talk to me like that! I return.
In calmer moments I understand that he’s only testing his power, wanting to grow up, be on his own. Other times, I want to slap his face.
Now, walking silently in the semi-darkness, I sense a bond that might still hold us together, in spite of daily squabbles, in spite of Cason growing up and me growing old.
When he called I said yes, of course we’d help him with his science project. How often does he ask to spend time with us in his world of hockey, school, skiing, friends, video games, TV shows and movies? He still needs us. He called us instead of his other grandparents. They’re not tough enough for this project, while secretly—he would never admit such a thing—he must think us smart, adventurous, and fit. Never mind that he had all two weeks of Christmas break to finish the project, and he’s waited until the last day to get it done. His Mom and Dad said no way are they helping him, meaning that we in fact may be the gullible grandparents. The suckers.
The mission: locate, photograph, and record data on all of the planets stretched out in stations from the center of our town to the end of the trail that runs alongside the treacherous mudflats of Cook Inlet, an earthly distance of a little over ten miles. In the summer I’ve breezed by the brightly colored planetary stations on my bike, riding the ribbon of asphalt that snakes behind neighborhoods and along cliffs high above the glacial gray waters, cutting through virgin birch and cottonwood forest, skirting airport runways, then making a steep climb to connect with a vast network of skiing, biking, and hiking trails.
But it’s now winter, and cold, and growing darker by the minute. So our plan has been to drive as close as we can to each planetary station, make our approach on foot (photographic evidence is required), then dash back to the car. In less than an hour, we reached the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. A quick drive and a short tromp to Jupiter. A brief stop to grab coffee, cookies, and cocoa before moving on to Saturn. To check off Uranus required a two-mile jog, round trip. Another drive, and we found Pluto, tucked beside the porta-potty next to the ski chalet in Kincaid Park, a maze of cross-country trails.
We had only Neptune left to find. According to the map, it is an hour and fifteen minute walk from Pluto. There are no GPS coordinates, no landmarks. The sensible thing was to ask directions, and being the sensible one, I ventured inside the ski chalet, where no one on the parks and rec staff could remember exactly where to find Neptune.
When I emerged, Jim and Cason had vanished. Fighting panic, I studied the three ski trails that diverge from the chalet. I can’t trust my sense of direction; it’s usually wrong. The little directional gyroscope in my brain is haywire. Simply finding my car in a parking lot can be a major undertaking.
I squinted into the faltering light. Ruts from fat-tired winter bikes. Foot prints on top of ski tracks. The main multi-use trial. I followed down the hill, walking briskly, so I wouldn’t second-guess myself. After ten minutes, fifteen, there was still no sight of them. I decided I’d better call Jim, but on the screen of my cell phone there was a big zero with a slash through it. No cell coverage. I walked ten minutes more, less briskly. Sweating, I unzipped my coat as I considered backtracking to the chalet. Damn them.
A couple advanced in my direction, holding hands. This is how it should be. People who love each other should stick together on the trail. Especially in winter.
“Have you passed a man and a boy?” A foolishly generic question, but the woman pointed, and there they were, two dark figures against the snow, the skinny one almost as tall as the heavier one.
Reunited, I resisted venting my irritation and anger. We still had to find Neptune.
Almost immediately, Jim surged ahead again. This is how it goes between us. In the thirty-odd years we’ve been together, I’ve never been able to hold him back on the trail. Before cell phones, we carried walkie-talkies so I could let him know if a bear attacked me and he could let me know—By his silence? By an uncharacteristic scream?—if he’d fallen over a cliff.
So now it’s the two of us, Cason and me, hunting down Neptune. A skier approaches—perfect glide, weight shifting from side to side, no wasted energy. If we had skied the solar system, we’d be done already. But Cason the snowboarder has no cross-country skis. I interrupt the skier’s stride to ask if he’s seen Neptune, explaining in response to his stare that we’re doing the planet walk and Neptune is our last planet. He informs us that if it’s where he thinks it is, it’s another mile or so down the trail, and notes the obvious: it’s already past sunset. As in, are you nuts?
We have headlamps, I inform him. He shakes his head, then pushes off.
The day’s meager light is imperceptibly dissolving into night. But I leave the headlamps tucked in my pack, not wanting a single beam of light to blot out our ability to spot Neptune, or Jim.
We trudge another ten minutes, then another ten. Cason announces he’s hungry, his lunch of potato chips and Gatorade long gone from his backpack. He rips open the energy bar I offer, then slowly jaws the cold, stiff mass of peanut butter and chocolate and swigs from my water bottle to wash it down.
The trail curves along the tip of the airport. Low clouds catch the runway lights, bouncing a pallid pink glow over the trail, illuminating my husband. He high-fives the skier he’s speaking to, then does a little jump and moves a few steps up the trail. He sees us, but it’s as if we had never been apart; his mind doesn’t go where mine does, toward disasters that arise from a series of missteps, the first being to separate from the group.
He jabs at the darkness beside the trail, and we know he’s found it. A hand-bump with Cason, and we’re up the trail to join Jim at Neptune, a big, opaque, sphere protruding from the blue sign with white lettering. The old god of the sea with his scepter is pictured in the corner, a picture of the real planet taken by Voyager 2, its moon Triton, and a whole panel of facts blurred in the faint light. Cason snaps a picture with his cell phone, positioning it at a slant so the flash doesn’t create a glare on the metal display. Then he hands me the phone, so I can take a shot of him next to the planet.
I’m elated but also exhausted. Worry does this, and wanting: for all of us to stick together, for us to prove ourselves the cool grandparents, for us to avoid the little wrong turns that would send us hurtling toward disaster. The exhaustion is also physical. We’ve hiked three miles since Pluto, plus three miles earlier, and now it’s three miles back to the car.
Cason wants to rest. I try to brush snow from a bench on the side of the trail, but it’s coated with several inches of ice. We plop down anyway. My legs tingle. My neck aches. Below, gray chunks of ice speed past on the black waters of the inlet, moving in and out with the tides as always, whether we’re watching or not.
“My butt’s getting cold.” Cason stands, as does Jim. With three layers of clothing between the ice and me, I’d like to linger, but I follow them, elated-exhausted, along the trail to the long winding hill that leads to the warm chalet, a bathroom, our car, dinner. Cason’s mom has promised us tacos. We’ve promised Cason a stop at the ice cream shop.
Cason pauses where a foot path veers from the trail through the snow toward a dark ridge above us. “Look, a short cut,” he says.
Jim agrees that from here, it looks like the path would cut some distance off this serpentine trail up the hill. But I’ve hiked these side trails in the summer; they’re a labyrinth of twists and turns and cross trails.
Cason starts up the foot path. I expect Jim to follow, but he trudges ahead on the main trail, in something of a trance, eyes straight ahead, one foot after the other up the sharp incline. Old snow boots and the twisting in sloppy snow aren’t kind to his aging knees.
“I don’t know if that path goes straight to the top…” I yell after Cason.
“He’ll figure it out,” says Jim, without looking back.
Cason disappears into the darkness.
He’s thirteen. Growing up, whether I’m watching or not. I can’t follow after him forever.
And I’m too tired to chase him.
I follow Jim up the main trail, the disaster wheel churning in my brain. There are too many trails at the top of the ridge. Cason will get confused. A moose will charge him, hoofs trampling him into the snow, where he’ll lie alone, staring into the dark night, the whirling planets, until he’s overcome by cold.
My cell phone rings. A few garbled words and Cason cuts out.
I call him back, frantic, but my call won’t go through. The phone rings again. “Mema,” his childhood name for me, is all that comes out before the line goes dead.
This is, quite literally, my recurring nightmare: punching numbers into a phone, trying to connect with a person who needs me (or do I need him?). The call never goes through.
The phone rings again.
“Backtrack to the main trail if you’re lost,” I scream into the phone.
I hold the image of my grandson, warm and smiling, against my fear of him lying beaten and broken in the cold. We reach the chalet, but there’s no Cason. I dash around the building, holding up my cell phone. Jim disappears again. I’m alone at the end of the solar system, Pluto—the demoted planet—hovering outside the door.
Finally a bright red Detroit Red Wings stocking cap crests the hill. “I couldn’t figure out which trail, so I walked all the way down and came back on the main trail,” Cason says, out of breath.
So he took my advice. Or maybe he never heard it. None of that matters now. “Smart thinking,” I say. I want to crush him with a hug but settle for lightly touching his arm, a brush that would bode disaster for planets, separate in their orbits, but which for us means simply yes, I’m with you, we made it.
Susan Pope’s writing reflects intimate connections to home and family in Alaska as well as a restless pursuit of faraway landscapes. Her travels range from hometown bike trails, ball fields, and ice rinks, to the Arctic tundra, the Grand Canyon, and the dunes of Namibia. She has been writing poems and stories since she could print sentences on fat blue-lined paper. Her work has appeared in Pilgrimage, Damselfly Press, The Southeast Review, Cirque: A Literary Journal of the Pacific Rim, Persimmon Tree, Bluestem, Burrow Press Review, among others. She lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska. Visit her online, here.