Twenty years ago today we were poised to go North to Grass Valley on a mini vacation, to visit friends and do some mountain biking around Lake Tahoe. I was loading the ice chest when my mom came from her granny flat in our back yard to tell us that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airliner. Mum lived alone and kept her TV on for company and so learned of the attack as soon as, “We interrupt this program…” grabbed her attention.
The deep, visceral horror of watching the news report footage of the plane smashing into the first tower over and over, and then hearing the shocked confusion in the anchor’s voice as a another plane disappeared into the second tower, left us dazed, terrified, and mentally crippled. There was no way to process the events and the impact they would have on the people at the sites of the attacks, and we couldn’t begin to imagine the changes that would follow for the entire country. We sank into chairs, in front of the TV, immobilized, paralyzed, stunned, stomachs churning, minds trying to find equilibrium.
By the end of the day, it appeared that the mayhem was finished. The authorities quickly determined that it was a terrorist attack, not an act of war by another country, but the President quickly took action (though some found fault with the fact that he finished the story he was reading to some per-preschoolers when he was informed) closing all of the country’s airports and stopping all commercial interstate transportation.
Those who know me at all, know that my life revolves around vacation. And acting with complete and utter self-interest, I determined that we were incapable of doing anything to ameliorate the suffering of the victims. And so, the next morning, I repacked the ice chest and we set off.
We traveled up Highway 395, a normally hair-raising stretch of road that snakes along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In those days, twenty years ago, it was a two-lane road with a sandy shoulder, few passing lanes, and HEAVY truck traffic. But on this day, with no trucks and few passenger cars on the road (sane people were at home glued to their TV sets, watching the planes smash, and the towers crash over and over and…) the journey was surreal. We were in the sheltering bubble of our car, with nothing to remind us of the crazy world outside, except for the dystopian empty road ahead and behind our cocoon. The road passes through a few small towns, Lee Vining, Bridgeport, Walker, all of which looked like ghost towns. We were yanked back into 2001 when we approached an overpass near a larger town (I can’t remember what it was called) where the locals were gathered on an overpass waving banners and flags, and proclaiming American unity.
Now normally, I am not a fan of nationalism. Don’t take this wrong: I love my country and most of my countrymen. But I fear nationalism, seeing it as an instrument of war and I am vehemently opposed to war. But this spontaneous display of unity, unity against terrorism, unity in support of the people who risked everything to save others, and unity in our grief, moved me. For that moment we were one nation.
So, today, September 11, 2021, looking back on that day and the two decades of war that followed, I took the girls for a walk in the hills. I know, here’s your surprised look, right?
We climbed Flag Hill, one of my favorite mountain bike descents.
We descended Fire Bell Hill Trail in memory of those heroic fire fighter who did their job with courage.
And then we headed home for a well-deserved breakfast.