I’m not sure what possessed me to watch The Today Show on the morning of September 11, 2001. I rarely watch any television in the morning especially when, as in this case, I was busy trying to get ready for work on the western end of Las Vegas. Nevertheless the television was on when I heard that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Like thousands of others in that moment, I figured it was some kind of bizarre and unfortunate accident…until I actually saw the second plane crash into the second tower just a few minutes later. The rest, of course, is ingrained American history. The horror. The uncertainty. The dark settling cloud.
When I reached my office at the Bureau of Land Management headquarters a few miles away, everyone was glued to the television set. By then the towers had collapsed and all hell was breaking loose in New York. Suddenly federal offices everywhere were being perceived as primary targets. I was told to drive out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the 190,000 acre park that I managed at the time, to evacuate the visitor center, and to close down the 13-mile Scenic Drive. Paranoia was so rampant that I remember checking underneath my government pickup truck for car bombs before starting it up.
I drove west to Red Rock in a kind of fog as the late summer dawn was just illuminating the sandstone cliffs. The Visitor Center was easy to shut down as there were few visitors that early in the day. Likewise the Scenic Loop. I found myself driving past Joshua trees and creosote-flecked hills on an already empty road. At the apex of the loop, I stopped the car, got out, and sat on a lone boulder where I looked out over a surreal landscape of complete and utter silence. No airplane noise. No contrails over the imposing Las Vegas skyline. The silent desert for once was not sublime but somehow sinister.
To complicate the events of the next several days, not only did I have to contend with the alleged threats to federal facilities and the random nature of the violence, but my family and I were in the midst of trying to leave Las Vegas for good. I had accepted a job in Grand Junction, Colorado and we had already sold our house. But because of the tragic events on the east coast, our escrow was being held up as banks temporarily closed and the financial markets wavered. All we wanted to do was to get out of a city where we had never felt comfortable, and which had now become even more oppressive.
In another ten days we finally made the break. Most of our material goods were on a Bekins Van heading east. We made a rapid exit from Nevada and camped out the first night in Snow Canyon near St. George, Utah. Soon after that we were ensconced in a residential hotel in downtown Grand Junction. The horror began turning into hope. Amy and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary at a downtown Italian restaurant. A few days later we held a small birthday party (her fifth) for Lindsay in our fourth floor room. We drove up to Grand Mesa to hike amid autumn aspens. And I began my new life as manager of a slickrock wilderness of plateaus, canyons and the Colorado River.
Not long after that we found the little house on 9th street where we still live today. We came to know and love our community and to feel connected in some way in spite of the political and social upheaval that was occurring on the national stage. So 9/11 for me will always be a symbol of hope and change. On this tenth anniversary of the event, I don’t need the ever present media to show me the replays over and over again, to wallow in the sadness of it all, or to attempt to ignite unfettered patriotism. I need family, friends, and a quiet street in western Colorado where I can watch the beginning of every new day.