Here be dragons

1552 Comet Illustration

(Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 28, c. 1552)

The drive from Toronto to this patch of land in Vermont takes about nine hours when you follow the “northern route,” which skirts the northern shore of Lake Ontario, follows the St. Lawrence River east, and then bangs a right at Montreal, south to the US border.

At least half of the drive is on a single road, officially called the Macdonald-Cartier freeway, but which we grew up knowing as Highway 401 (“the four-oh-one”). You don’t need a GPS or even a map to get from Toronto to Montreal. And, really, you can make it all the way to Vermont by just following the road signs (even if they are all stubbornly in French only once you enter the gravitational pull of Montreal).

We turned the GPS (affectionately named “Garmina”) on as we approached the border between Ontario and Quebec. Just in case. We followed the signs that said “Vermont.” Garmina concurred and ticked off the kilometers and kept steady watch of our estimated arrival time.

And this is how we passed the day, singing along to E.L.O. and The Eagles, until we came to a fresh highway, a highway that neither we nor Garmina knew, a highway with no signs (not even speed limit signs) and no exits. It was freshly paved, clear and empty, bordered by shivery shorn November farm fields. Not a tractor or cow in sight.

Garmina’s screen cleared. It showed the lonely icon that represented our car, and nothing else. She patiently recalculated and recalculated as we traveled, her internal maps older than the terra incognita we traveled through. Her compass read South. The sun, hazy behind thick clouds, was to our right. We were reasonably sure we were headed in the right direction.

And yet, even with all that evidence, we were nervously giggly with uncertainty. Where were we? Where would we end up? We were lost in clouded daylight on the only road that could possibly have been right. And then, maybe 20 miles later, signs appeared pointing the way to the border crossing and the highway home.

It doesn’t take much to be lost. Or found. You can be driving down a seemingly unknown street in your own city, turn a corner, and then suddenly the whole scene resolves, snaps into place and you know exactly where you are, the map in your mind completed in a new way.

This morning, the lander Philae undocked from the Rosetta spacecraft and touched down on comet 67P (Churyumov–Gerasimenko). Rosetta traveled 10 years to rendezvous with that comet.

She wandered her way through space, following the mathematical road map she’d been programmed to follow, somewhere, but nowhere, for years, while we rose in the mornings, ate our breakfasts, commuted to jobs, met friends for lunch, watched our children grow up, attended funerals and weddings, cried through long nights, watched the fire until it was just embers, forgot our keys, said the wrong thing at the wrong time, showed up just when we were needed, made plans for uncertain futures.

Ten years and now we know where we are. For at least this split second. And then we move on.

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