I still remember the first time I heard him say that, eight years ago this month, September 20, 2001. I heard the audio clip again today, sampled at the end of a hiphop track, and it gave me chills.
There was the America I lived in before he said that, and there was the America I lived in after. I am still trying to figure out what changed.
journal, 10 September, 2001. day off today, decent weather. decided to have a try at making the hike-climb to Camp Muir. Left Guidehouse around 10:45 or so and began trudging up the cement trails to Pebble Creek. Around Panorama point, I reflect on an orderpad (brought along cuz its lighter than the journal) “the breezes coming off the mountain are cold from the glaciers, and sweep away everything that lingers.” felt an incredible sense of peace and singleness of purpose as I passed through subapline meadows and hiked up into the fellfields. Notice for the first time that the waterfall coming off the Wilson Glacier disappears entirely into the loose rock above the Nisqually Glacier, as if it is funneling into a chute. No snow on St. Helens, but a fair amount on Adams. The Cascades stretch out in front of me to the ocean, ridgeline after bluegreenpurple ridgeline, like the shapes left in the sand after a giant wave has receded back into the sea. On that note, notice that the waterfalls coming off the mountain sound exactly like the ocean roar, and the occasional icefall or rockslide sounds much like the breaking of larger waves.
September 11 came at the end of my twentieth summer, which I spent living and waitressing in Paradise, the small employee village/tourist destination on the southwestern flank of Mt. Rainier.
The mountainsides were turning fall colors, and I was reading a lot of Beat poetry, and picking a lot of huckleberries, having figured out where the tastiest ones grew from a Gary Snyder poem: “Delicate blue-black, sweeter from the meadows, small and tart in the valleys with light blue dust.”
I was cynical about the new Bush administration, angry that the country had just laid down and let him take office when it was clear that something was rotten in Florida. I was unnerved by the prospect of a political dynasty, and the administration’s potential for doing harm. But I wasn’t afraid of them yet. Resenting corrupt national leaders seemed in keeping with being twenty and enamored of the Beat poets and living in the mountains. I figured they’d do some damage, and get voted out in four years, and we’d go to some rallies and make some good art about it. I didn’t understand yet all the ways people could get hurt. Would get hurt.
On September 10th, I set out to hike to Camp Muir, the primary base camp for mountaineers attempting the summit of Rainier. I’d been eying the hike all summer. None of my friends had the day off to go with me, so I went alone. Its no easy day hike— you ascend nearly five thousand feet in less than five miles, and the last portion of the hike crosses the Muir snowfield, which is prone to frequent whiteouts. That summer, enough snow had melted to expose crevasses on the snowfield, something none of the mountaineering guides could remember in recent decades. I was prepared, but also young, and bent on proving to myself and everyone else that I could. My male friends were constantly going off on solo hikes, but women were cautioned not to hike alone, and it rankled me. So I set off, with my ten essentials and my extra water bottles, on a sunny, clear-skied September day.
“in early afternoon, i finally hop over the last narrow crevasse and hike into the camp, tucked in the bowl between Cowlitz Cleaver and Anvil Rock. Sit leaning against the shelter looking out over the Tatoosh range, which seems so small now. The sun is warm, and the hiss of campstoves comes from all corners, as climbers melt snow for their water bottles. Most will leave sometime tonight to attempt the summit. We’ve watched their lights from Paradise before, nudging up those last four thousand feet in the dark, and its strange to be here now, looking out across the world from ten thousand feet. It was work getting up here, but I’m not really tired or sore. Steep slopes of snow angling down before the rest of the lowlands, crevasses cutting through the snowfield and the glaciers all around. Take a small nap on the little plateau, and talk with a few climbers, then slip slide back down the snowfield and trudge back down to Paradise.”
That night, I was sitting in the employee dining room, eating some food-service-of-america-brand dinner, writing about the hike in my journal. Two of my coworkers came in to make pb and j’s for a hike, and told me they were setting out to camp on Pinnacle Peak. Within twenty minutes, I’d traded my September 11th breakfast shift for someone’s lunch shift and re-packed my backpack. We drove down to the Pinnacle Peak trailhead at the foot of the Tatoosh Range, just below Paradise, parked the car, and turned on our headlamps.
ten percent of the time, we are hiking on the trail, and 90 percent of the time we are winging it, navigating scree slopes by Petzlglow beneath dark peaks silhouetted against a sky absolutely overflowing with stars, clambering down rockslides and cutting mountaingoat style across rockfaces. we find a spectacular little plateau on the backside of Castle Peak and unroll our sleeping pads. the plateau is on a saddle between two of the Tatoosh mountains, which means we can see the small cluster of lights on Rainier that is Paradise behind us, and the small cluster of lights downvalley which is the town of Packwood before us. We pass around a bottle of Sammy Smith oatmeal stout, and watch the moon rise. For a time, it is an eerie shade of red, as it passes through the more chemical-laden slice of our atmosphere, then it fades to yellow and then bright white as it ascends. The night grows cold, and I don’t sleep much. Crazy sunrise in the morning, like laying under a heatlamp by eight. We eat pb and j and pick huckleberries for breakfast, then clamber straight down the side of Castle and bushwhack our way to the car, talking about vagabondage and Merle Haggard.
I think: I could live like this all the time, and be really happy. love having fingers that smell like pine and are covered in dirt and huckleberry stains.
back at Paradise, I run up the stairs to my dorm room. Throw on a black skirt and the cleanest white shirt I can find, splash water on my face and hair. I am digging for a clean apron in the mess on the floor when another waitress pokes her head through the door. She says “someone flew a plane into the world trade center!” I picture the small airplane that had crashed on the lawn of the White House sometime in recent memory, and i say, “oh, how bizzare.” Realize I’m truly late for work, and finish getting dressed as I run to the dining room, picking the dirt out from under my fingernails and adjusting the knot on my tie.
8 years later, I remember how quiet it was in the dining room when I came running through the double doors. All the servers, bussers, and hosts were standing on the little platform by the bar window, peering through at the only television set in the lodge. The footage was a few hours old by then, and we weren’t entirely convinced it was real. Smoke billowing out of downtown New York. The planes, flying into the side of the towers. The tiny specks that were people’s bodies, leaping from the inferno. The dumbstruck newscasters. It was all too much like a movie. As it turned out, so was what followed.
Because no one wanted to fly anymore, out-state-guests canceled their reservations at the lodge. The shell-shocked, somber national mood dovetailed with the end of the summer season, and every morning we waited on a smaller group of tourists, refilling coffee cups and moving quietly among tables where everyone was reading the same newspaper. The air grew cooler, and the rain and fog settled in around us. We kept living the way we had been, taking hikes in between shifts and sitting next to bonfires and playing out summer romances.
On September 23rd, I copied Ed Abbey’s definition of somnolence out of Desert Solitaire: “a heaviness in the air, a chill in the sunlight, an oppressive stillness in the atmosphere that hints of much, but says nothing.”
As Bush ramped up the nation to invade Afghanistan, my best friend and roommate Erin and I ripped up a sheet and painted banners to hang out our third floor dormitory window: “War IS terrorism,” we proclaimed to the emptying parking lots.
We realized the president was asking us to take sides. His speeches, which we clipped out of the Tacoma News Tribune, reduced reality to two dimensions. There was good, and there was evil, and you were one, or you were the other. Young as we were, we were unnerved, and not fooled.
8 years later, I am married, and 28. I live with my husband and my dog in a sweet little house with a garden near the water in West Seattle. I’ve gotten a master’s degree and written a book manuscript. I am still a waitress. My life is good. Erin is 29, married with a stepdaughter in a sweet little house in Portland. She’s been the editor of a newspaper, has gotten a master’s degree, and has learned to surf. We still read beat poetry, write in our journals. The war George Bush began has lasted nearly the entire decade of our twenties.
21 September 2001, Friday. weather comes and goes today. Rained a bit. Bush says you’re either with America or for terrorism. I refuse to believe its that black and white. especially when I seem to remember laerning that America trained a lot of these “terrorists” in Afghanistan back in the 80s to fight communist Russia? So much for good versus evil. how do you mobilize against “terrorism,” anyway? Bombing the Middle East will accomplish the following, in my uneducated opinion:
1. the deaths of untold numbers of Muslims from violence, starvation, and “smart bombing” (which will be continually three steps behind the “real terrorists”)
2. More terrorism.
3. racism, rampant prejudice, alienation and violence against Muslims and brown people in the United States.
4. on the “plus” side, war is often good for the economy, and solidarity among many Americans will increase, at least temporarily, which tends to happen when you think evil people are trying to kill you. Consequence: the country will rally behind our “leader” and let him get away with pretty much whatever he wants.
8 years later, change in presidential administrations notwithstanding, Operation Enduring Freedom is still churning merrily along. America has gone bankrupt, but plenty of golden parachutes have opened, sparing corporate execs a bumpy landing in the ravaged economy. Some corporations—primarily prescription drug companies and defense contractors— have actually managed to get richer. (Bad times are good for buzzards). We’ve had other Hallmark moments; in August of 2006, American citizens drowned in New Orleans because the National Guard was stationed in Iraq and the national leadership was too busy plotting war and buying shoes. We’ve merrily ignored genocide in Darfur, installed new puppet governments in the Middle East, and made torture part of our “national security” program.
Last month—August 2009—was the deadliest month to date in the war in Afghanistan. 77 coalition soldiers died… that’s 2 people a day, and 3 on Sundays. 199 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year alone—the highest casualty rate sustained since we invaded in 2001 to root out Osama bin Laden. Who, eight years later, is reputedly alive, well, and releasing more videotapes. The Taliban now controls an estimated eighty percent of Afghanistan. 2009 set another record as well, while we’re on the subject: in the first six months of 2009, over 1000 Afghani civilians died, a 24 % increase from 2008. .
Eight years later, I realize there’s very little connection left between the people of Afghanistan and those New Yorkers who held hands and jumped into the sky. I realize there was never really much of a connection to begin with, and what connection there was got lost in the mud of a war waged in Iraq under entirely false premises.
America claims to have turned over a new leaf. I’m not sure what’s actually changed.