Saturday, June 4, 2011

To the Places Where Things Changed Forever

The Somerset Milling Company building, white and clean and standing proud along Stoystown Road, seems decades removed from the Pennsylvania Toll Pike. Further down, past the Somerset County Airport, through the sleepy town of Friedens and toward Indian Lake the gentility of yesteryear plays hide and seek with passersby. A white trailer stands in the tall grass, ‘Funnel Cakes’ in red carnival script across the side. A small hand-painted sign pokes out of the weeds around a bend: Maple Syrup. Rivers amble free of concrete diversion. Signs of innocent times persist all the way to Shanksville and the crash site of United Flight 93.
In the beginning there were no fences, no signs, no information pamphlets. 
‘People in the community began showing visitors where the site was,’ explained one of the two National Park Service rangers charged with keeping watch over the makeshift visitor center and the gravel lot sitting a stone’s throw from the crest of a hill overlooking a wide open field. ‘They set up a fence, kept track of visitors. Basically they became a kind of task force.’
Construction is now well underway for a sweeping, basically crescent-shaped memorial that will arc around the southwestern edge of the vast swath of empty grassland sitting amid the widely scattered farms and homes. A macadam footpath leads from the parking lot to a spot from where one can imagine the path the plane took, flying in forty feet above the hill to the left and down into the sprawling field below. A chain link fence bears tokens of sorrow and remembrance: notes, photographs, American flags alongside a couple from other countries, flowers and trinkets to comfort those leaving them behind.
Marlin Knisley was driving a school bus when the plane flew overhead. ‘All I saw was a plume of smoke rising up over the trees,’ he said. He had already dropped off his kids. Nancy Zigment was one of a dozen or so motorcycle riders we saw pull into the lot. She was working in Philadelphia when she got a phone call; minutes later she was on her way to Lancaster – her first grandchild was about to be born. ‘My daughter was going into labor, I heard something about a plane crash and the twin towers but I didn’t pay any real attention to it.’ Only at the hospital did she and all the other family around see on the news what was happening. ‘My grandson was born as one of the towers was coming down,’ she said. ‘We were just stunned, watching it happen. Don’t you know I’m giving birth here? my daughter screamed at us. But we were just in shock.’
Every year the Red Rose Riders of Lancaster, PA do a 9-11 memorial ride. This year they estimate ten thousand riders will make the trip from Shanksville to DC and up to New York City.
On our way back to the toll road we passed again the house with the wrap-around front porch and the funnel cake trailer; another maple syrup sign beckoned meekly the traffic heading the other way; a detour brought us past an old billboard advertising Keystone Beer and along a ridge rising up over the lush hills, the quiet farms, the gentility of a place interrupted once and, perhaps, forever.
With a relatively short drive to Washington, DC we figured on spending a couple hours enjoying our national monuments at sunset. However, a stop at a certain writer’s sister’s home in Northern Virginia turned into a much-needed three-hour respite from the road. The Saturday sun was already high in the sky when we reached the Pentagon Memorial. Walkways line geometric gardens of stone, young trees placed to eventually provide shade to the 184 stainless steel memorials, marked with the names of those lost in the crash of Flight 77 and adorned with pools of gently flowing water. Memorials are arranged according to the ages of those lost, from 3 years old to 71.
In the heat of the early afternoon we would make our way through the downtown traffic, driving past the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, viewing the Jefferson Memorial from across the Tidal Basin, stopping for a quick and possibly ill-advised photo in front of the capitol building and generally regretting the fact that we had not planned ahead for this penultimate leg of the journey. The installation of the cross in New York city would not be for several weeks though; in the interim we would see our families, Jon would work the cross into its final polish and we would plan the last steps of a cross-country trip that, just as we thought back in Los Angeles, would turn into an adventure replete with moments and encounters we could never have dreamed up.
Thank you all for coming with us on this journey.
Stick around – the best is yet to come.