A photo of Denali – North America’s highest mountain - sits on the shelf beside my bed. It is the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before I drift to dreams. This is not just a photo of a pretty mountain – it is a reminder of the day that changed our country.
Since turning 19, I have spent every birthday doing what brings me peace: backpacking in a wild place. The week of my 25th birthday in 2001 was no different. For 4 days, I was going solo buried deep in Denali National Park and this trip was turning out to be particularly spectacular. Already, I had seen a herd of sheep scamper gracefully up a rocky cliff to evade certain death at the teeth of a pack of hungry wolves. I had found a garden of sparkling geodes the size of my head and I had tasted the first really sweet rosehips of the season (they only get sweet after the first frost).
At 4 am Alaska time on my birthday, September 11, the call of nature pulled me from sleep. I stumbled out of my tent and sleepily emerged into the darkness. After shining a light to make sure there were no eyes lurking nearby, I assumed squat position. Eyes half shut, I looked up and my jaw unhinged, the way a snake’s does when swallowing a mouse. The sky blazed with streaks of green, red, purple and white dancing against the black like sparklers on the 4th of July.
I had seen the Aurora before, but this time I actually HEARD them. Native elders had told me that the Northern Lights sometimes speak and now I knew the soothing, and somewhat eerie whispers for myself. I enjoyed the show until my fingers began to freeze and then dove back into my warm sleeping bag to catch some more zzzzs. I was oblivious about the chaos that was, at that very moment, opening up on the East Coast.
When the sun made its way above the horizon, I roused. The mountain – the Great One – shone with greater clarity than I’d ever seen it in my years in Alaska. Most folks who visit the Park get an obscured view of Denali, but today she was out in full force; sun shining, yellow aspen leaves glowing, snow sparkling. It was the perfect day….here anyway.
I lingered a bit, reluctant to return to life that isn’t so simple. I soaked it all in and felt so grateful for having the luxury and health to be able to celebrate my special day in this way. I hiked to the road, stopping here and there to munch blueberries along the way, and caught the bus back toward Kantishna, a tiny spot at the end of the Park where I was working as a guide for another summer.
The bliss I felt from time in the backcountry shattered without question at our first stop, the Eielson Visitor Center. The sign that usually greeted tourists with an inspirational quote and a weather forecast said, “Two planes hit the Twin Towers. Another crashed into the Pentagon. Many dead, more missing.”
My heart stopped and I floated above the scene, the way people do in movies when they’re having near death experiences. Although I don’t play the part (no accent, no big hair and no nails), I am a Jersey girl. My brother, sister and dad sometimes go to the Trade Center for work and my other brother lives in Washington, DC. The park ranger had no more info. That stupid sign was it. The 3 hours that ensued were perhaps the longest and most frustrating of my life….
I curled up on the grass and looked at the mountain through a river of tears. I was so angry. How could the mountain shine so bright and look so brilliant when the world was so ugly? Why was I here, feeling the warmth of the sun and surrounded by such beauty when so many were suffering? Could I operate in a world where my dad didn’t exist? Somehow, amidst all of this, I snapped an incredible photo.
When the bus finally concluded its bouncy journey home, I jumped out, abandoned my pack and ran the length of the dirt driveway. Half way to the lodge, I fell into my boyfriend’s arms who – knowing my ties to my family said nothing but, “Dad called. Everyone’s alright.” My family survived, however, for months they attended funerals for fallen friends and colleagues. My sister never could bring herself to go back to work in the city.
My life has taken many twists and turns in the 10 years since this fateful day. I have lived in 6 different states, visited 10 countries, earned a master’s degree, loved and lost more times than I wish to admit and I have done so many things I didn’t think possible. I live hard and love harder because this day – once filled with candles and cake for me – was a call to action. Not a call to be fearful or angry or vengeful, but a call to live, to celebrate life, to soak it all in because we really never know. The only constant amidst all this change has been the mountains; my most faithful companions who always and without fail serve to soothe my soul and remind what is right with the world.
I still have not seen the footage of the planes hitting the Towers. I recognize this makes me somewhat odd- statistically speaking. At first, it was lack of opportunity. I stayed at the end of the road in Denali for another month with no TV, no radio, no computers. Once I returned to a place with creature comforts, I didn’t think I was ready to see it. I can barely watch movies with any violence so I didn’t think I was ready for the real thing. But eventually, it became a conscious choice. In a world so full of pain, I don’t need to see more destruction, more misery. I know what happened and I felt it (and continue to feel it) with all my being. The northern lights spoke of it before I even understood what they were telling me and I mourned the great loss – in my own way - crying and curled up on the tundra staring at a beautiful peak shine high above it all. So, instead of focusing on the ugly, the past, the bad, I keep a photo of this day on my desk to remind me that even when part of the world is falling apart and even when humans fail – nature stands strong –shining with beauty ….
So, this September 11 – a day which no longer warrants celebration with cake and candles – I will once again be in the mountains honoring the life that I am still fortunate enough to live. I will remember those who fell that day and those since who have sacrificed so much to protect our country. But, I will not sit in a dark room to memorialize them – I must climb, smell the flowers, touch the trees, shed sacred sweat and breathe it all in.... for them and because I still can.