The day I left home, 9/12/01
Forgive me if today I blog about something a little more serious, and somewhat less _Flossy, than usual. It was exactly five years ago that I packed everything I owned into a station wagon and left home for good. This is a short piece remembering 9/11's less infamous but for me no less momentous neighbor, 9/12, accompanied by photographs I took along the way.
I had just graduated from college and was preparing to move from my childhood home in Florida all the way to Portland, Oregon. I had never been to Oregon. Its main attraction for me was sheer geographical distance: the route from Florida draws an impressive diagonal straight across this country's broad midsection. I had left home many times before "“ to go to school in Ohio for six months at a stretch, to go abroad for eight "“ but now my leaving meant more, and I wanted the move itself to symbolize that.
I was busy packing the station wagon, my mom fretting over small things, when we heard the news. It was raining fire in three states, and I sat slack-faced before the TV for the rest of the day. I left the next morning, as planned, but the trip had changed somehow; now it seemed like a journey across alien territory, from a home I didn't quite recognize to places uncharted. Was it even safe to travel through cities? It was only 9/12 -- no one was sure. Yet there was nothing I wanted more than just to drive, and feel a sense of forward motion; anything but the paralysis we had endured the day before.
I took state roads so I could see the countryside. Ohio was a patchwork of little towns quilted together by cornfields, each flying a hundred flags, each with a church signboard exhorting its parishioners to pray. I put in three eighteen-hour days behind the wheel, so that when I stopped to sleep I dreamt only of driving. I felt there was safety in where I was going, but never in where I was, so I didn't stop for more than sleep until I got to Kenyon, my old college. Its bucolic campus had been a comfortable home for four years "“ but now a strange fog had settled. People seemed dizzy. There were kids whose parents were missing, who had driven to New York in the middle of the night, unsure of what they'd find; classes were cancelled, and had given way to vigils. I was a stranger in a community that had turned inward to lick its wounds, and drove away feeling like a vagabond.
I stopped next in Wyoming, to visit a friend who was working on his parents' 2,500 acre ranch in the magestic middle of nowhere. His father raised cattle and his mother pureblooded horses "“ or she had, until Leukemia claimed her life earlier that summer. I helped my friend and his father herd and groom the animals, and despite their reassurances, couldn't help feeling I had intruded on their grief. We talked about my friend's mother only once, walking on a rocky bluff that overlooked the ranch. Sometimes it was easy for him, he said, and sometimes it was really hard. So he had graduated and returned home to find his home gone too.
The next morning his dad siphoned gas into my tank and I continued on, through the strange deserts of Eastern Washington and Oregon, to Portland by nightfall. At one point while driving alongside Oregon's mile-wide Columbia River and its deep-cut banks of evergreen forest, I teared up, just happy that the most beautiful part of my drive was where I would be living. It had been a journey not only of extraordinary physical distance, but emotional distance as well: simultaneously my ideas of home and country had shifted, and everywhere along the way the people I met had been similarly knocked off-balance. I knew my track could not be retraced; the homes I left along its route would never be as I had known them.