On the first anniversary of the 9-11 attacks I was on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, pretty much removed from the rest of the world. I’d been walking for five months–almost 2,000 miles–and was less than three weeks from completing my hike. Even so, I carried the memory of the attacks with me. I’d stopped in a town a few days before and saw some of the run up to the anniversary on television, so it was on my mind as the one year anniversary approached.
One of the things that struck me on the day of the attacks was how important it was that I hike the Appalachian Trail in the coming year as I had planned. On September 11, 2001 I thought of all the people who had put off important things that suddenly would never be done. This hike, that I’d thought about for almost three decades and had seriously planned for the last eight, suddenly became even more important.
So now it’s a year later. Each morning between eight and nine, I think about planes, buildings, explosions and death. It’s out of character for an Appalachian Trail hike but the images and thoughts are there, part of the consciousness seared into my brain the year before. Strangely enough, on the actual anniversary, those thoughts are superceded by my more immediate concern with an oncoming storm. If I remember the attacks at all, the memory is fleeting and disappears completely when the rain finally hits. After about an hour walking in a downpour, I reach Sabbath Day Lean-to with my hiking partners, Red and Gary. It’s not even noon but the day is dark and cold so we decide to hole up in the shelter there. Not long after, another hiker, Rocky Top, pulls in.
Out of the rain, we spend the first anniversary of the Day That Changed Everything watching fall blow into the Maine woods on a chilly storm. Despite the wet and cold, I am dry, comfortable and content. Falling leaves fly past the shelter on each gust of wind. Water drips off the roof. Fall in Maine is really coming on now, more and more leaves are turning color. The woods are dark and somber. A feeling of change is in the air.
The four of us trade stories and wonder what the next few weeks on the trail will be like. I’ve known Red and Gary for years and have hiked with them all the way from Georgia. I met Rocky Top back in May in southwestern Virginia and have encountered him occasionally along the way. Today is the first time I really get to spend any time with him. Today we are a small, close community of shared experiences and hopes.
I bring this up on this fifth anniversary of the attacks because it reminds me of what is truly important in this world, namely the human connections that link us one to another, and the dramatic reminder that life is uncertain. Because life is uncertain, those links–family, friends and even passing acquaintances–are so very important. They create a unique and special place for us in an all too anonymous world. Also important making time to do the things that are special to each of us. I think often of the many people who went about their normal lives on the morning of September 11, 2001 thinking they still had time to hug a child, tell a partner of their love or take that once-in-a-lifetime trip.
The 9-11 attacks offered many lessons to America but amid all the geo-political and strategic policy debates, this is the one that rings most true to me.