Ten years ago today, Amy and I were in the middle of a vacation at Yosemite National Park. Amy had stayed there before. It was my first visit, and I was marveling at the gigantic granite walls that rose above the valley. I grew up in a valley, but the mountains there were neither as close nor as imposing as El Capitan, Halfdome, and the other mountains in the range.
Early one morning, as I was walking from the communal restrooms back to our tent in Curry Village, I noticed some men standing around a TV sticking out of the ranger's station, watching some news coverage intently. When I asked what was going on, one of the men told me that airline jets had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center; that one of the towers had collapsed; and that another was about to collapse. We stood in the forest, early morning bird calls filling the air around us, and watched a steel tower on the other side of the continent buckle and give way, filling the streets around it with a cloud of dust. Someone else approached us and asked what was going on. When we told him, he scoffed: "There isn't enough TNT in the world to take down those towers." He did not want to acknowledge that a jet airliner aimed at the center of a tower could generate enough heat and energy to melt the infrastructure and allow gravity to triumph over engineering.
Eventually, I tore myself away from the TV and stumbled back to our tent. Amy woke up, noticed my ashen face, and asked,"Are you all right?"
"No," I said.
For some reason, I could only express myself through statistics. "You know how Pearl Harbor was the most deadly foreign attack on American soil?" I asked. "Well, it isn't anymore."
Later that morning, we joined other folks who had gathered in one of the dining halls in Curry Camp, watching the endless loop of airplanes hitting towers. The first time the news replayed the footage of the airliner hitting a tower, and the ball of fire that spewed forth, people gasped. After a few replays, the shock wore off.
We couldn't help noticing one of the men in the crowd. He wore a windbreaker emblazoned with the FDNY logo. He was speaking frantically into a cell phone.
When we stepped out into the sunlight, I looked at the granite walls surrounding us. Like so many Americans that day, I wondered if we would be the victim of the next attack. I wondered if nature's fortresses of granite would protect us.
Not knowing what else to do, I spent most of that day in my tent, reading. Up to that point, I had read half of one of the novels I had taken on vacation, Will Shetterly's DOGLAND. That afternoon, I read the rest of it, in one gulp. I wanted to be in another time, in another place, and the book took me there.
The event cast its shadow over the rest of our week-long stay at Yosemite. We attended a hastily-organized memorial service at the park chapel for those who had died. I bought a newspaper the next day, and was so horrified by the photos of people captured mid-air as they plummeted from windows toward concrete that I had to look away. And although we had flown to Fresno and driven a rental car to the park, we ended up driving the rental car all the way back to Los Angeles.
We all know what happened afterward. The sense of national unity, which soon splintered. The wacko conspiracy theories. The two wars. People using the horrific event to their advantage as they pursued the things people always pursue.
But for me, the event was about standing between walls of granite while watching the fate of towers of steel, and all the fragile people within.