Today on the 12th, I will tell you about the 11th.


{This post originally ran on my blog in 2006. It tells of my far-removed experience of September 11th, 2001. I haven’t run it since; there are more important stories of the day to be told, I figured. One year, an European reader hopped on my site and mocked me and the rest of us who wanted to recount what we were doing that day. “You Americans can’t get past anything,” he’ds said. And so I stopped talking about it, in embarrassment. I alluded to it last year but that’s it.}

After a full day and night of weary travel, the train pulled into the station in Vancouver, Washington when the announcement came over the loudspeaker.

They told us that the country was under attack by terrorists.

Some people were too frightened to continue on the train to their destination of Portland, just a few minutes away, because they did not want to cross the long bridge for fear what might happen. They left the train. It did not occur to me to leave the train. I had nowhere else to go, but forward. I was traveling alone, with just my backpack.

My September 10th trip of the day before had suddenly changed within a few moments.

amtrak train trip

Me, early morning on September 10th, 2001, at the Amtrak station in Devils Lake, North Dakota.

The station in Portland lacked televisions, so I was unable to know exactly what had happened back east. Each time a new edition of a paper came out and was put in the newstand, the rush of ever-growing people meant I hadn’t a chance of hearing the news. I heard much hushed whispering between travel partners; I saw grainy photos of fire. We were several hours late leaving Portland.

The train crawled south through California vineyards, packed to overflowing with last-minute travelers who had been stranded in non-functioning airports or hadn’t been able to get close enough to the front of the line at the car rental counter before the vehicles were all gone. Despite the firey death of yesterday, they still demanded that their needs be met. They demanded it in a way that embarrassed me.

In Sacramento, the California Zephyr pulled out of the station, groaning under the weight of the fullest load it had probably ever hauled, and headed east, towards Denver. The usual train travelers, those like me dressed in faded cargo pants and T-shirts, an Army backpack our only luggage, were unseen by this different class of business traveler. I walked down the rocking aisle unnoticed, to the snack car. I was hungry. Coach was an uncommon experience for them in any mode of travel. They made this known, their hands always busy with cell phones that could not connect in the winding Rockies, their mouths constantly complaining about the slowness of the train, the toughness of the food at dinner, the inconvenience of it all.

The woman sharing my seat was in her sixties, I guessed. She had the quiet elegance, style and confidence of Katherine Hepburn despite all the clacking of the train and its passengers.

We didn’t speak to each other much. Brief introductions found one to be from New York City and one to be from North Dakota; one to have planned a train trip and one to have not. We sat in silence for nearly two days, the comfortable silence of similar spirits who don’t have to fill the air with noise in order to bear each other’s company.

Sometime in the night the California Zephyr eastbound passed the California Zephyr westbound. Sometime in the night, when I was sleeping against the window, the wild west flying by my head, the California Zephyr westbound derailed.

I was still wondering what was happening out east and now I wondered what had just happened out west. There was no news. Was it terrorists? Were we next? The derailment brought us back to Salt Lake City for a track and train inspection, our first taste of a post-9/11 world. My seatmate washed her hair in the sink of the bathroom.

The small television in the station gave me my first glimpse of an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center, nearly two days after it had happened. For the first time I felt the weight of my backpack. For the first time I saw what the rest of the country had been seeing.

The noisy business travelers, busily forming groups, busily complaining about wasted time and uncomfortable seats and the unavailability of sleepers and all things that meant they were still alive while 3000 others were not, decided to get off the train. They argued with the Amtrak employees. They insisted that their bags be retrieved. They rented U-Hauls and pooled money to buy used cars to drive across the country to shave a day off of their time.

I felt no connection to these people. I wished they hadn’t stolen from me by turning my sorrow into anger. I went back to the train car and sat down.

“Foolish people,” my seatmate said to maybe not me but at least herself. “Too scared to be quiet, stop moving and think.”

I nodded slightly. She turned back to her book and I to mine. I still did not know all of what had happened a few days earlier on the 11th, but I knew that whatever it was, she was right.