Star-struck: For a planetarium visit and so much more, Harrisonburg is out of this world

Stars shine during the day at JMU’s planetarium. Photo: JMU Marketing & Communications Stars shine during the day at JMU’s planetarium. Photo: JMU Marketing & Communications

Some day trips have a singular purpose (i.e., “We’re going to the zoo!”), while others consist of a medley of experiences in the same general location. My family’s recent Saturday in Harrisonburg was one of the gumbo type. My husband and I and our girls, ages 5 and 8, saw a planetarium show, then visited a couple other universes while we were in town.

We had previously been to The John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University on organized field trips, but after I found out that families can visit for free most Saturdays, we packed up and headed west. On its dome-shaped screen, the university shows astronomically themed films—such as, A Teenager’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Did an Asteroid Really Kill the Dinosaurs?—followed by student-led star talks.

Inside a nondescript concrete classroom building, we entered the planetarium and settled into our stadium-style seats. The lights went down and a 20-minute film began—a cartoon version of the ancient Greek story of Perseus and Andromeda, the couple immortalized as constellations. My children were well entertained, craning their necks to follow the story unfolding overhead.

After the film ended, a cool-looking device—like a short, fat robot bristling with lenses and lights—emerged from the middle of the floor. Turns out it’s a projector that creates an image on the dome of what we’d see in the night sky from this very spot. The projector operators can manipulate the starry vision—spin it around, whoosh it forward or backward in time, or overlay the outlines of constellations, for example.

The two students leading the post-film talk were full of interesting facts. Did you know the Big Dipper isn’t really a constellation? It’s an asterism—a smaller collection of stars. It was fun to observe college students—closer to my kids’ age than my own—commanding the room and showing off their knowledge (and also their bad jokes, such as, calling Orion’s belt a “waist of space.”)

After the movie, star show, and talk—all of which filled an hour—we needed a bite, and a short drive delivered us to Taj of India, in downtown Harrisonburg. To a soundtrack of Indian pop music, we gorged on the lunch buffet, a feast replete with hot fresh naan, savory kormas and dahls, fiery tandoori dishes, and sweet rice pudding. The tab came to $35, a great deal for four people.

Did I mention this was a day of odd juxtapositions? Uh-huh. Next stop was a dairy barn.

At Mt. Crawford Creamery, 15 minutes south of Harrisonburg, we tromped through the muddy barnyard, then slipped through a small door into the milking parlor. Ten cows were slotted into two narrow lanes, like cars lined up in a parking lot. Standing on a lowered floor, which put them at roughly eye level with the cows’ udders, were farmer Kenneth Will and two helpers.

They welcomed us in but didn’t miss a beat in their work: cleaning the udders carefully before hooking up the milking machines, keeping an eye on the milk as it rushed through tubing and sprayed into large glass tanks in the center of the room, and then driving one group of cows out and the next group in.

The farm milks 60 to 80 cows in this parlor, twice a day, and it was fascinating to witness. How often do you get to take a really close look at a cow’s muddy hooves, jutting hipbones, and big wet muzzle? The animals gazed back at us with large, soft eyes, while a super-mellow farm dog licked up stray drops of milk from the concrete floor. I was glad for my girls to absorb this experience—the earthy smells of the room and the truth they pointed to, that milk and all the rest of our food comes from real plants and animals.

After we left, we joked about what else we could add to the day to round out the agenda. Go to the circus? Tour the White House? Maybe another time. We’d traveled far enough for one day, right there in Harrisonburg.

If you go

The John C. Wells Planetarium at JMU offers free public film showings on Saturdays at 11am, 1pm, 2:15pm, and 3:30pm. It’s located in Miller Hall on East Grace Street, in Harrisonburg. See jmu.edu/planetarium for details.

Taj of India, at 34 S. Main St., serves a lunch buffet  from 11am-2:30pm daily. Call (540) 615-5888.

Mt. Crawford Creamery, at 795 Old Bridgewater Rd. in Mount Crawford,
is open to visitors M-F 10am-6pm and Saturday 9am-5pm. You can observe cows being fed around 3pm and milked a half hour later. There’s also a shop on-site where you can buy the dairy’s milk products, plus
an ice cream parlor. See mtcrawford creamery.com

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