Halloween. What a bizarre holiday. I contemplate this with a cup of coffee one morning at the farm stand while studying the pumpkins like Thanksgiving turkeys waiting to be carved. I feel the chill in the air and watch the vibrant leaves drop to the ground against the pale autumn sky. The tent is filled with the earthy and orchard aromas of apples and pumpkins which line the walls with shades of moss, evergreen, rust, burgundy, and smoke. I feel like I’m being watched and peer into the woods of Rock Creek Park. Could he have made it this far?
Halloween celebrates our fear and wonder of the unknown. The mystery of the supernatural. Although literature and film have given us many characters, I am haunted by just one. He is the Creature to my Frankenstein. The Moby Dick to my Ahab. Let’s journey back through the pumpkin patch and the meandering trails of farm market folklore to the not-so-distant past. It lurks deep in the woods and meadows as reclusive as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. This is the tale of the Beltway Goat.
It all begins with a corner farm market along Route 7 in Reston, Virginia. What began in the 1970’s as a VW Bus selling pumpkins along the side of a road culminates into an agrarian version of Chicago’s 1892 World’s Fair. The market’s founder, Hal Kern, is a cross between Ernest Hemingway and John T Barnum. He must have gazed the undisturbed western horizon and imagined something unique, and original. His offbeat imagination, and snake-oil salesman’s charm catapult the roadside market into a bizarre cultural tribute to Americana. During the month of October, the hills are topped with teepees and the countryside echoes Native American drums. Processions of straw people march up Baron Cameron Road while barrels of cider, (sometimes kegs of beer) flow, and pumpkin forts tower in the sky.
Years later the farm that surrounds the market is sold to developers. The pasture becomes a subdivision, with its cash crop being single-family homes. The free-spirited market is fenced in and bound with chain link, ordinances, and regulations. Its spirit crushed like that of a wild mustang captured and forced into captivity. It could only peek a glimpse of Route 7 between the bars of a convenient store and a car wash. Hal Kern disappears and with him so does the market’s inner spark. It declines into a sorry state. A mere exhibit of itself. An artifact of its hay day.
A few years later, it falls under new ownership. The lease is signed by a youthful trio of brothers, the Normans, eager to restore the market to its former days of glory. To my brothers and I, the two acre lot seems immense and full of promise. Our roadside markets have flourished and we develop a gypsy lifestyle of setting everything up, then breaking it down each day. It is exhausting work. The prospect of a mailbox and a roof over our heads is extremely tempting. To me, the rundown old market feels sacred and full of character. It is the Sistine Chapel of farm markets. Its beams bow beneath a splintered sagging roof rattling in the wind while the plywood floor sinks beneath our feet. You can almost smell the stories of its past saturating the walls like the smoke from its woodburning stove.
I have an article from the Washington Post I have saved about the closing of the Reston Farm Market and its eccentric founder. His pioneering spirit shows me we can take this business as far as our imaginations will carry us. To get there however will be a challenge. The veteran crew seems scarred, wounded, and skeptical like abandoned orphans echoing the state of the market itself. The new owners are young, unproven Marylanders in the strange land of Virginia. There are mountains to climb and shoes to fill.
One beautiful September morning, while reflecting on the market’s history, I imagine mountains of pumpkins and pyramids of straw. I imagine musicians playing on an old flat bed truck for a stage. There are hayrides, moonbounces, ponies, straw slides, and caramel apples. An elaborate haunted house filled with rivers of blood and chainsaw wielding lunatics comes alive after dark.
This will be our spin on the old tradition of Fort Pumpkin. To escape the frenzy, a relaxing retreat will be needed, and what better theme than the slapstick of goats. The Charlie Chaplans of the animal kingdom. I have an affinity for goats and have in fact been living with one over the past year. This makes me somewhat of an authority on their behaviour. Or so I think.
When you need something done, Mahabir, the yard manager, is where you go. He swings a sledge hammer like John Henry, and has been around since the days of Hal Kern. His steady, resourceful, and no-nonsense demeanor has earned him a position of high reguard and respect among us. He is asked to procure a “nice group” of goats. The fact that he is from Trinidad might be of little consequence except for one small detail, …his nostalgia for Trinidadian cuisine and a different sort of fondness for goats. While I am picturing cute little pygmies performing acrobatic stunts to the amusement of children, Mahabir gets in his truck with ideas for a November feast. The cultural divide and assumed understanding between “Maha” and myself will prove tragic in the coming day.
The next morning, a horse trailer sits waiting in the crisp autumn air beside a thoughtfully constructed goat yard. Inside the yard is an obstacle course of tree stumps and a stable with a roofdeck giving the goats a great view of the sunset and the neighboring homes. I am filled with a warm feeling of excitement and joy in anticipation of greeting our new guests. This emotion quickly evaporates as I approach the trailer. Not in my worst fears could I have predicted what will happen next.
I hear a thunderous pounding on the aluminum walls, triggering a Hitchcock suspense in my chest. The rumbling thunder grows louder like an approaching storm. The closed trailer gate takes on an air of impending doom. I shoot Maha a bewildered look for answers. He returns my gaze with a dead-pan face, “What? You said you wanted goats. I got five of ‘dem.”
The plan is to corral the goats into the pen. But when the gate opens, it is Pamplona at the Running of the Bulls. Out burst five of the largest, wildest, most feral beasts. Their horns point like spears and their muscles bulge while steam snorts from their nostrils. They are built like linebackers. They’ve got bowling balls dangling between their rear legs. But what really gets me is the James Brown pompadours on each of their heads. I am completely flabbergasted. Later, I will name these goats the Jackson 5. It is at this precise moment that Michael decides to go solo.
I know that we cannot let this wild beast escape into the unsuspecting town of Reston. We surround Michael and come up with a plan to corral him. Eris is holding the lid of a trash can like a sheild at the gate and plans to bounce him into the pen. It has worked so far with the others. We close in. Suddenly the goat defies gravity by leaping into the air and twisting his body to avoid our grasps. As the dust settles I see him poised by the rear fender of Maha’s truck. I slowly approach with a comforting tone, “come here goat…come here goat, goat”. When I feel he is in my reach I dive for him. Again he leaps and I land face first into the truck. I actually see stars circling above my head just like in old Warner Brothers cartoons. The goat has gotten past us and is making its way across the parking lot. This is where my “expertise” on goat behaviour kicks in.
If there is one thing I know about goats it is that they can’t stand to be alone. They are herd animals. They need the comfort and companionship of other goats. As Michael heads for the parking lot I assure my cohorts, “Don’t worry. He won’t leave his herd. If we don’t chase him, he’ll turn back.” We stand watching, waiting for him to turn around as he makes his way closer and closer towards the back of the parking lot. Our jaws drop in unison as he leaps over the 7 foot stockade fence in a single bound and keeps going. My authority on the topic quickly vanishes along with the goat as everyone’s gaze falls on me.
We jump in the truck and race off to track him down, but deep in my bones I know our efforts will be in vain. As he lept over the fence I saw a certain look as the morning sun shone upon his face. It was that of joy at the taste of his freedom. The glorious beast is possessed by the wild mustang with spirit restored shedding the chains of his captures and returning into the wild. He will never be fenced in again.
Months later an animal control officer walks into the market. They had recieved a call about a strange animal in the woods near Reston. The animal was described as large and black with an unusual hairstyle. They had come for permission to tranquilize the animal should the opportunity ever present itself. “However,” the officer confided in me, “I don’t think we will ever get the chance. I have never seen any creature move like that. He shot up that hill and disappeared like a ghost in the woods.”
Over the years, there had been sightings and I would hear reports. Some saw him grazing with herds of deer, others saw him grazing alone. It is said that on certain nights beneath the full moon one might still hear its blood curdling bleats and if unfortunate enough may catch a glimpse of the Beltway Goat.