Monday, September 10, 2001 - Sunday, September 16, 2001 - Lost in America
I left Cheyenne early Monday morning, doing the usual things that I do to get ready to depart a town - get last minute groceries and bags of ice for the ice chest, check the oil level and coolant level, fill the tank with gasoline, ease onto the interstate - in this case, I-80 East - and keep an eye on the oil gauge, the temperature gauge, speed increasing to a comfortable 65 miles per hour.
I've been thinking about moving to Cheyenne, but I was leaving town to head back to New York City with a full schedule ahead of me beginning on September 19th, including two weeks in the city doing promotions for my new book.
September 11, 2001 - Tuesday
On September 11, 2001, a Tuesday, I woke up and turned on the TV in the RV to watch the Today Show as I made some hard boiled eggs and tea. Local news was on and I waited to hear about the weather. It was around 7:45am Central Time.
Suddenly, the local news was interrupted and I heard the familiar voices of Katy Couric and Matt Lauer. Then I saw the image of one of the towers of the World Trade Center smoking.
"A commuter plane has hit the World Trade Center," Katy Couric was saying. I didn't realize she was speculating. The explanation seemed plausible. Ironically, I have always had a fear of small planes, vowing never to be a passenger in one of them, having heard of too many accidents. A commuter plane hitting the WTC? Horrible, but it could happen.
I immediately picked up my cellphone and called my good friend, Kevin, who was also my business partner when I founded Cybergrrl, Inc. in 1995. I had left the company in 1999, and he continued to run it, recently having moved offices from Broad Street, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, to uptown. I knew at 8:55am, he was probably still asleep, and I listened as the phone rang and rang and rang.
As I stared at the smoking tower's image on television, I began hitting redial over and over again. I had to tell him what was happening or see if he knew. I could hear Matt Lauer say something to the effect of another plane possibly hitting the second tower. Then I heard Katy Couric's voice again, this time, with a slight tremor of emotion, something I had only heard in her voice when she had thanked everyone for their support when her husband had died from cancer. The second tower was clearly on fire.
Then the image was rewound to show, clearly, another plane veering into the second tower. Someone commented that there could be an air traffic control problem. I gripped my cellphone tightly and continued to dial Kevin's number. Now I couldn't get a signal. I ran out of the RV and headed to the KOA office to use the payphone. I calmly punched in the myriad of numbers for my calling card, only to hear strange busy signals or eerie recordings.
I ran back to the RV to send Kevin email using my cellular modem. The images and voices drew me back to the television. They now feared that the Pentagon had been hit, but didn't have confirmation. What was happening? I was listening less to their words but the voices of Katy Couric and Matt Lauer, those familiar and friendly voices, now filled with fear and confusion. But they continued to calmly relay the facts as they could find them.
Nothing seemed more important now than to reach my friends in New York. I began to send more emails, then ran to the payphone to dial numbers that were not going through. What else could I do? I couldn't continue driving East. I had to go somewhere safe. I called Kevin's mother in Kansas, and she hadn't heard from him yet. She pointed out that I was near SAC headquarters, between Lincoln and Omaha, the underground facility where nuclear weapons could be launched.
Go West, a voice inside my head screamed. Go back to Cheyenne, to something at least slightly familiar, to a place at least farther away from the horror on the East Coast. Unfortunately, it was far from my family. My sister, Leah, was less than two hours drive from the Pentagon. I began frantically dialing her numbers, leaving her voicemails, telling her to get in her car and drive West, to meet me out here where it was vast and wide and safe.
Part of me was torn by thoughts of my responsibilities. What was I doing thinking about work and book promotions and speaking engagements at a time like this? I felt guilty to be thinking about how I was going to meet my work obligations and then guilty for knowing I couldn't figure out how to meet them without heading to New York City. I was not going to New York City right now.
After several more hours riveted by the news on TV, I forced myself to shut it off and checked email one last time. There was email from Kevin saying he was alright. Then my cellphone rang. It was Kevin calling from outside. He assured me he was fine, he told me how unbelievable everything was, and then he was cut off as the cellphone signal went dead.
I had to make a decision. I had to decide where I was going. I had to be rational, sensible, smart, calm - everything I didn't want to be. Okay, okay, okay. Drive West. Drive away from the terror. Drive away form the violence. Worry about obligations later. Life isn't the same right now. Business wouldn't be "as usual" right now. There is nothing you can do right now. Go West.
By early afternoon, I was back on I-80, this time, heading West. I stopped at a rest area and asked the woman behind the tourist information counter if I could use a phone line to check my email. I wanted to see if anyone else had emailed me to say they were alright. The woman - Janet Magnuson - said yes, bring your computer in here, you can use whatever you need.
As I downloaded emails, Janet told me that people are in a state of disbelief, she was in a state of disbelief. Everyone was talking about it as they stopped along the interstate. They asked her for news, if she had a radio or a television. When they saw me logging into the Internet, they asked if there was anything online. Before I left, I gave Janet a copy of my new book to thank her for letting me use her phone line.
I kept driving West. I stopped again at a Texaco station and they let me use their phone line to log in again. More email from Kevin and a few from other people I know in New York, all saying they were alive. CNN was blaring in the gas station's convenience store and people were gathered around it. Suddenly, someone said we were bombing Afghanistan and I ran to the television to see missiles searing through a dark sky. But as I listened, I realized that we weren't at war...yet.
I kept driving West. The sun was setting ahead of me. I didn't know when I had left Grand Island, I didn't know how long I had been driving, but I seemed to be several hours away from Cheyenne. I was exhausted in a way I couldn't comprehend, beyond anything that even a full day of driving would cause. I couldn't think straight, I didn't know where I was anymore. I was forgetting who I was or why I was driving.
Finally, I pulled off the interstate at Chappell, Nebraska, into a small, sparse campground. I went through the motions of checking in, then took a long, hot shower. Where was I again? What was I supposed to do?
Maybe I should go back East, get a little closer to my obligations in case everything returned to normal in a short time and I had to be responsible. My friend Lisa lived in Indiana, a good destination that led me East, but not too close to the coast, where I could be with friends and regroup.
I left Lisa a voicemail, asking her if I could stop by for a few days on the weekend. Then I waited for a reply. I had already spoken to my Dad in the morning, to my Mom in the afternoon, and in the middle of the night, after I again forced myself to turn off the blinding, glaring television images and fitfully tried to sleep, my cellphone rang out. It was my sister who had spent the entire day crying. She had decided to stay in Virginia, she said, but she couldn't stop crying. We talked for about an hour, and then I had to sleep. It was a dark sleep that smothered me, full of heaviness and unclear images.
September 12, 2001 - Wednesday
I awoke the next day in a daze. It can't be true, I thought. I turned on the television but could only get PBS and a children's morning show. I turned on the RV radio. The news was on every station. I got into the driver's seat and got back on I-80, this time, heading East once again. Was I crazy?
I stopped again at the same Texaco to check email. Lisa had emailed. This weekend wouldn't be a good time for me to stop by, she said. She had an all day event on Saturday and was preparing for a trip to Germany. I read the words carefully. Was there really going to be an all-day event on Saturday anywhere in the country? Maybe things were so far removed that business would be as usual in the MidWest. Was there really going to be a flight in a few days to Germany for Oktoberfest? I couldn't imagine flights would be departing as normal. But there were the words in email. A friend was turning me away. My one familiar contact in the MidWest was not available. I couldn't understand.
Kevin got word to me that I should go to Salina, Kansas and stay with his mother. At first, I hesitated. I didn't really know her and didn't want to be an imposition. If a good friend of mine didn't want me around, why would a virtual stranger? But finally, I couldn't make any other decisions and picking up Highway 81 from I-80 seemed like an easy thing to do.
I stopped at a rest stop along I-80 East, hoping for a cup of coffee. I'm not a coffee drinker anymore, but suddenly, I wanted to drink big cups of coffee and cream, certainly not a good thing when trying to stay calm. As I approached the rest stop, I saw a woman who looked familiar. It was Janet Magnuson, from the rest stop on the other side of the interstate. She recognized me.
"I've been reading your book," she told me, then we spoke about the people passing through the rest stop. Many people were in rental cars from different parts of the country, trying to get home after being stranded at airports. Two men were close to tears when they told Janet that they worked at the Pentagon. Four men told her they knew people in the World Trade Center. The country was converging on the highways of America, at rest stops, truck stops, diners, trying to find their way home.
September 13, 2001 - Thurday and September 14, 2001 - Friday
I spent Thursday and Friday in Salina with Kevin's mom. I sat in her dining room and living room with maps spread out around me, trying to figure out where I needed to go, what I needed to do. I was scheduled to be in New York City for two weeks of speaking engagements, but first, was flying to Atlanta and back for a speaking engagement. Then I had a ticket to fly from New York City to Los Angeles for a week in California and more speaking engagements. After that, by mid-October, my promotional booktour picked up in Pittsburgh, headed down the East Coast, across to Texas and we were still planning the MidWest dates up to St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis.
What do I do? I felt stupid emailing people to see if events were still happening in New York City. Business is stupid. Work is stupid. My book is stupid. Promoting it is stupid. I just wanted to return to Wyoming or Montana, to Cheyenne or Bozeman, get a job, get a little apartment, live simply. Be safe.
I made a decision - finally - to drive to Atlanta for the speaking engagement on 9/20 which was not yet cancelled. Then I would drive to Richmond to see my sister. Then I'd either stay in Virginia until I needed to drive to Pittsburgh to pick up that leg of my booktour. Or I'd drive to New Jersey, park the RV, and take a bus into New York City to meet some of my obligations, if they were still happening.
September 15, 2001 - Saturday
Saturday morning, I was now on I-70 heading East. I was able to get NPR on the radio for most of my drive, listening to the commentary. Someone said that there would definitely be a second strike, most likely chemical or biological. Why was I heading East?
I camped outside of Columbia, Missouri and found out that one of Bin Laden's associates used to live here. Is there no safe place?
September 16, 2001 - Sunday
Sunday morning, my RV television is on again, distracting me with voices, images, human beings in pain, human beings trying to make sense of everything. And news that we will be going to war. We are going to war.
I need to get on the road. I am being responsible and heading to Atlanta. I feel like it is all a big mistake. Everything. Nothing makes sense. I want to be safe. But someone said that terrorism's intent is to destroy and disrupt, and that by returning to your routine, your life, your business, you are thwarting the aim of terrorism. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. I can't think of words anymore.