Oct/Nov 2004 ´ Travel

The Rucksack Letters: September 11, Salem

by Steve McAllister

In July of 2001, I left Florida with a backpack and a journal. I had a few good pens and came equipped with two standard sized thumbs. What else to do but hitchhike and write? What followed were 44 letters, written to an ever-growing group of friends whom I met along the way.

I just realized that there's going to be a lot of painful times in life, so I better learn to deal with it the right way.
           —Stan, South Park

I don't want to sound Pollyannaish, but I hope that out of a tragedy like this something good will come. I hope we understand we're one family.
            —Madeline Albright, "Making Sense of the Unimaginable"

I was in New York yesterday. After picking Nora up at the airport, a gritty smile on my face after my evening of infamy due to the malfeasance of botanical possession, we crossed the George Washington Bridge just before noon. I remember distinctly that, from my vantage point, too consumed with my own survival through New York traffic and a midday fog over the city, I could not see the World Trade Center.

I remember the vision of the Twin Towers standing watch over Lady Liberty on my first and last trip to Manhattan with Kevin a few years ago, as we drove in from the south, up the Jersey Turnpike. I wasn't even aware of the purpose of the structures other than the symbol of a city I may never fully understand—a faster pace than I've ever traveled, a deeper mystery of politics, commerce, and business than my mind could ever comprehend or my soul ever desire. The towers were my first true vision of New York City. Yesterday, I missed my last chance to ever see them again. I remember how Kevin and I paid the seven dollars for an elevator ride to the top—penny-pinchers wondering why anyone would bother to pay ten for the Empire. Kev took a picture in every direction, not trusting postcard photographers to ever see things the way he sees them. And then we just stood and stared at the action below us, at how peaceful all of that hustle and bustle seemed from so far above. It was like visiting a museum with only one painting, the Life of the City, at which you could stare for hours and never run out of new things to see. None of us will ever see that painting again.

Nora and I stopped in Rhode Island last night for her first night of camping in her entire life—a fact I wasn't fully made aware of until she started hearing the noises in the night. What I've learned to hear as music, the soothing call of the wild, she hears as the soundtrack to a Friday the 13th movie—every sound the prelude to a serial killer wielding a quick-start chainsaw. She did pretty well though, for a girl from Chicago, making it the entire night without whimpering, screaming, or clawing me to death in her nightmare-filled sleep. Before we drifted off, I assured her that she was safer in the middle of nowhere than in any city. After packing up camp in the morning, a gas station attendant told me that the Twin Towers had been attacked. Nora and I watched over the shoulders of grease monkeys and locals who were instantly our family as the towers flamed and smoked like a Hollywood special effect on the nineteen-inch TV, and my previous night's assurance was proven true.

We continued heading north, stunned by the events, scanning for information on various radio stations, listening in large part to Howard Stern, hearing the voice of a proud man humbled as the most honest on the radio. Scanning the skies in Boston for further retaliation from whomever we'd managed to piss off, we eventually stopped in Salem.

There is an eerie silence in the small, coastal town. Half of the businesses have closed their doors for the day or never opened them at all to stay home with family and comprehend this ordeal. The other half have become places for updates, where radios and televisions tell us of the scenario. There is a feeling of peace among the people though, supine and loving looks from those I have never met. It's almost as if any person I come across will let me cry on their shoulder if I need to. And they could do the same.

I sat on the lawn in Salem and watched the flag at half-mast through the pavilion arches in front of me. Though I held my pen in hand, wanting to write, to release the emotions pent up inside me, to engage in some idea of what this all meant, all I could think was that it happened. And suddenly, my problems weren't that grand anymore.


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