When I woke up I had no idea what was coming.
It was a wonderful September morning in New Hampshire. The kids were in school, the campgrounds were empty and the tourist traffic had almost disappeared. An ideal riding day.
It had rained like God was trying to wash away our sins the day before and we managed to find a motel just before the Kankamagus Highway, one with a surprisingly large room and a hot tub to rid the last of the chill that settled over me after riding in the rain.
I laid in bed, sipping the coffee Keith had made me and listened to the sound of the shower. That's my quiet time when we travel. I know that once he's out of the shower I have to get my butt out of bed or Action Man gets antsy. I snuggled under the covers and watched the muted weather channel. The temperatures on the screen were on the cool side, but the forecast promised warmth by lunchtime.
It was going to be a perfect day for riding.
We hit the Kankamagus early, and the twisty highway through the White Mountains did not disappoint. We saw very few cars and could set our pace as we meandered in a westward direction. It's always hard to head home after a good trip, and we were definitely taking the long way.
I remember taking a curve that curled up and around and over a large hill, and a feeling of joy hit me. THIS is why I ride, I thought, this one moment of grace that overshadows even a full day of rain and cold. Around the hill was a lay-by, a place where you could pull over and look out over the valley and mountains. The first thing I noticed when I pulled off my helmet were the many, many shades of green before us, from the dark green of pine to the yellow-green of the willows that grew along the valley floor. Dotted here and there was the scarlet of a maple that had changed early. As promised by the weatherman, the clouds had begun to break up. The lay-by’s elevation was high enough that we could see the shadows of the few that remained slide over the valley below.
It was late morning when we stopped for gas on the far side of the Kankamagus. As I was filling up, a man with wild hair and angry eyes pulled up in a white panel van on the other side of my pump. He started talking to me even before he had the nozzle in his hand.
I couldn't hear what he was saying through my full face helmet. I tried to ignore him at first, but it was obvious that he was trying to initiate a conversation and I was not raised to be so obviously rude as to ignore him further.
I took the helmet off and said, “Pardon?”
“Do you two have radios on those things?” he asked.
I thought he meant two-way radios. We get that question a lot, people want to know if we chat to each other on the road.
“No, no,” I said with my stock answer. “We don't talk to each other as we ride.”
He looked impatient, and a warning bell went off in the back of my head. Be nice to the crazy guy.
“No, not those kinds of radios! You don't know what's happening? You haven't heard?”
He became completely still, tense and motionless but for a facial muscle, a tic from clenching his teeth. He took a deep breath and said in more quiet and controlled voice, “Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Centre and knocked it down.”
Holy shit, I thought. Crazy guy has been alone in his cabin in the woods a little too long.
Not wanting to deal with Mr Angry-Eyes on my own anymore I turned to Keith, filing up his bike behind me.
“Hey Keith, did you hear this?”
I know my voice had that same tone I use to describe things I am truly skeptical of, like angels, good airplane food, short lines at government offices, and perfect test scores from teenagers who have missed half the unit.
“Hear what?” His voice was cautious; he had picked up on my tone.
I repeated what Mr Angry-eyes had said to me.
“Really? That's tragic.” He had picked up on my skepticism and used the same humour-the-crazy-person tone that I had used.
Mr. Angry-eyes had finished filling up, and as he replaced the nozzle back on the pump, he said, “You bet your ass it's tragic, and someone's going to pay!”
With that, he collected his receipt from the auto-pay pump, got into in his white panel van and drove away.
I looked at Keith.
“Do you think that might have happened?”
“Not likely. The World Trade Centre? Have to be a pretty big plane.”
He went into the store to pay for the gas since auto-pay pumps wouldn't accept Canadian credit cards. He came out a few minutes later looking grim.
“What's up?” I asked.
“He was right.”
“The guy, he was right. But it was two planes.”
I stared at Keith while I tried to process it.
“Two planes. What do you mean, two planes?”
“It's on the TV in the store. Two planes. Were hijacked. And flown into the World Trade Centre. Which collapsed. Both towers,”
“Fuck” I whispered.
“Yeah,” he said. “Let's go.”
“Just a second. I have to see.”
I walked into the store, and followed everyone's gaze up to the ceiling mounted TV. There it was. Small plane sliding so purposefully into the glass wall. Cut to the angry red flames and thick black smoke erupting from the hole. Cut to the first tower pancaking in painfully slow motion, floor by floor. Cut to people on the ground, crying, screaming, running from the giant white cloud billowing towards them faster than thought. Cut to a woman, completely covered in grey dust except for the parallel tracks of tears down her face, wild eyed with panic yet still clutching her purse as she darted from one doorway to another. My emotions and thoughts seemed to split apart. I was horrified by the scope of it, I wanted to cry but I also remember thinking how Hollywood had nothing on this for effect.
I couldn't look any more. I'd had to see, and I'd seen enough, more than enough. I turned to leave, and as I pushed open the door I heard a woman exclaim to no one in particular, “Why? Why would anyone do this? Why does everyone hate us so much? I don't understand!”
As I walked out, I took a final look over my shoulder at the plethora of red, white and blue, at the t-shirt and flags that proclaimed USA forever, we're number one, at the useless convenience items that spoke of a disposable culture of consumption and waste, and at the newspapers and magazines with headlines that informed the citizens of latest celebrity scandal or how to please your man in bed with no whisper of any current events either local or global.
I very quietly closed the door behind me.
As I walked past Keith, he reached out and took hold of my hand, pulling me in for a hug. I hugged him back and whispered in his ear, let's get the hell out of here. The day was just as beautiful as it had been 20 minutes before, just as sunny, just as warm, but it seemed so much darker.
All I wanted to do at first was to just get HOME, to get across the border, to be on native soil again. There's a line in the movie Beetlejuice where a female character says “I want to go home, Home HOME!”, and the act of saying it three times magically made it happen. I must have said it three x three x three times, but it didn't work. Life is not a movie.
The act of riding performed it's own magic. Motorcycling does not lend itself to constant introspection. There are consequences if you are not continuously conscious of your surroundings. The back roads of New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York demanded that I look, that I see what is around me. The sun shone from a painfully blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. The roads twisted and curled around hills and rivers, occasionally becoming gravel with a swiftness that made the adrenaline kick in as I reached for the brake lever. A gentle wind blew through the trees that lined the roads making the branches of early-turned leaves dance and sway. We stopped by a river and made coffee by a weathered, covered bridge, listening to the pigeons murmur in the rafters while a cow meandered over to the fence to moo at us from across the water.
The horror of what had happened in the city didn't necessarily fade, but the ride gave me perspective. The countryside seemed to say that, yes, a tragedy occurred, yes, mankind has been shitty to itself again, and yes, people have died or been traumatized for life. But ultimately, in the large scheme of things, it's a blip. The sun will still shine, the crops will still grow, rivers will still meander to the sea and life will go on.
I will always be grateful that we were on the road that day. The few images that I have seen of that day haunt me enough as it is; I cannot imagine how I would have handled being bombarded with them all day, like so many I know.
We rode all afternoon, through pastoral farmland and state forests to the heart of the Adirondacks. The late afternoon grew too chilly to ride, so we turned into a private campground near Old Forge, NY. We had gotten used to the quiet of travelling after Labor Day and had stayed at many half-empty campgrounds, but this place was deserted.
There were brass bells over the door of the campground office, and their cheery-sounding jangling was a sharp contrast to the sombre voices that came from the TV in back room. A woman with red-rimmed eyes came to the counter to serve us, sniffing and clutching a balled-up Kleenex.
“People have been leaving all day,” she told us. “You'll be the only ones here tonight. Everyone else wanted to be home.”
“They're not the only ones,” I told her.
“But it's too far to ride in one day,” Keith added. “So here we are.”
We set up our tent by the lake, and after a quick dinner we sat around the last campfire of the trip, looking out over the water. Little was said. I thought about what I had seen on the TV at the gas station, and wished I hadn't dismissed Mr. Angry-Eyes, wished I could say I'm sorry, I didn't know.
We usually like to watch the sun set when we camp, but the day had thrown us, mentally exhausted us. We made it an early night; so early that I think we were snug in the tent before the last of the daylight left the sky.
It could have been the good, long sleep or the desire to be home that had me awake and out of the sleeping bag uncharacteristically early. We decided to stop at the first diner we passed rather than deal with the mess of a camp breakfast, and we had the tent down and the bikes packed up before the sun even had a chance to burn off the early-morning mist coming off the lake.
The first diner we saw happened to be 10 minutes down the road in the centre of the village of Old Forge. It was one of those places you see in most small towns, the kind that has a bulletin board by the cash register with notices about yard sales, kittens for free, snowmobiles for sale and fundraisers for the local hockey team, the kind of place where the locals go for their coffee and gossip every morning before they head to work.
And that morning was no exception. While we ate our breakfast, we heard all about Mrs. B's addiction to scratch tickets, so-and-so's pregnant daughter and whether or not she should finish high school, and listened to two farmers discuss the merits of harvesting the field corn before winter or just leaving it as a wind break.
The one thing we did not hear about was what had happened in New York City and Washington, DC the day before. It was surreal. Keith asked our waitress what she thought about the previous day’s events.
“Oh hon, I don't know. What happens in big cities doesn't have too much to do with us here.” And with that, she slid our bill onto the table, smiled and wished us a real nice day. I'll admit to feeling a little confused by the locals' lack of reaction; had we missed something while were unplugged from media and away from world news?
We geared back up, and we headed homeward, riding in the sunshine through upstate New York. The twisting roads through the Adirondack National Forest straightened out and carried us through farmland as we got closer to the St. Lawrence River. There's a small border crossing at Cape Vincent, NY with a ferry to Wolfe Island near Kingston that we like to go through, due to my fear of heights and of tall bridges. Usually it takes no more than a half hour to board the ferry. Usually.
This time it took over four hours. If I had any confusion about the seriousness of the previous day's events, it was cleared up in moments of arriving at the little ferry dock. We talked sporadically with the others waiting for the ferry, all Americans. It was all they could talk about, and speculation abounded. It had been the work of many, no, the work of a few. A few hundred were dead, no, tens of thousands. It had been done by dissenters from within the US, no, terrorists from without, from the Middle East, North Vietnam, Africa. They had been US citizens, no, immigrants. They had crossed illegally from Mexico, no, legally from Canada. They had all watched the television throughout the day before, watched news programs that clearly had no answers for them, only questions and theories.
The border guards were questioning everyone leaving for Canada, something they never did. I could feel the tension and anger coming off of them in waves. I watched them question people ahead of us, and whispered to Keith that it seemed a little like closing the barn door after all the horses had run away. Apparently, my voice was louder than I'd thought and one of the guards overheard me. He glared at me and proceeded to search through the bike, questioning everything on it, questioning why we were crossing there. I explained my fear of heights and bridges to him.
He smiled at that, and it was a mean smile. “I could refuse you entry at this point, make you have to go over a bridge.”
Panic brought adrenaline, and I could feel myself start to shake. There was anger there too; did I look like a terrorist, did he have to fuck with me. I kept my mouth shut; I know better than to tackle anger and fear with more anger and fear. I blinked back tears as I looked across to the Canadian flag on the other shore as I waited for him to say yes or no. I was so close to home; I couldn’t bear thinking about a delay much less a delay with phobia triggers thrown in.
After what seemed like an age, the customs guard thrust my passport back at me and said, “Go home.”
I was so relieved, I had to sit down. Keith pulled out our books, and we sat under a tree and read. And waited...
It was three in the afternoon by the time we were finally allowed to board the small ferry. The Canadian Customs guards went over the bikes again, but this time it didn't seem nearly as tense. When the guard finally said we were cleared, all I could say was a very sincere thank you.
We were home.Kat Goodale is a writer from Toronto, Canada.