Photo by Nicolas T.
At Sea-Tac Airport, settled into a coach seat over a wing, I opened a newspaper while the plane sat, not yet freed from the boarding ramp, with noises emitting from below of the sort that prompt nervous eye contact between passengers. Is that luggage being duly shredded or the squalling of a damaged something-or-other essential to flight? Should we inform the captain, describe the caterwauling from the hold? This was before 9/11 – though less than 24 hours before it – and we were only worried about the normal things then, which nevertheless sufficed.
We flew. A simple arc, one of those smooth, monotone flights devoid of turbulence. Outside, weak, whitish sunlight on the ailerons and aged-looking rivets. We landed at Dulles.
My purpose in Washington was literary. I was to hobnob with my fellow NEA panelists for four days over manuscripts. And so, on the morning of 9/11, I walked toward the Old Post Building. We had not convened for more than a few minutes or moved past name tags and the rules of the game when a NEA representative arrived on the scene to remark from just inside the door, ‘As you know, there has been what appears to be an act of terrorism at the World Trade Center in New York.’ But none of us knew this, and it didn’t seem important. We were more concerned about the air conditioning, for instance.
There was shortly a second mention of terrorism that included such specifics as airplanes and the Pentagon, and a calmly urgent and controlled imperative that we evacuate the building. We looked out. A smoke cloud rose from across the Potomac. What was going on this morning? Clearly something of decided import. At the hotel, I called home and offered the news I had. At that point the phones were still working.
By early evening I was dedicated to finding my way out of Washington. My ticket from Reagan to Kennedy was useless – neither airport was open – and my plans in New York seemed irrelevant. I had a dark, journalistic interest in Ground Zero but also, apprehension. Our panel did its work as if the work was solace, though clearly we were preoccupied. No one flagged, or suggested giving up, so we carried on until the end of the day, when it was time to face facts again. The people on the street seemed not free of concern but also not adequately distraught or aggrieved. There might have been pigeons to complete the scene, a detail complicit in the impression I had of an unwarranted degree of normalcy.
At some point I walked to Union Station and bought a rail ticket to Pittsburgh, where my brother lives. I’d devised a plan to hunker down with him until such time as Bin Laden was defeated, which suggests how compromised my thinking was at that point. Standing in the ticket line was oddly therapeutic; though I sensed the station was imminently to be bombed, I was also voyeuristically stimulated. Everyone had a story of woe or complications. The Amtrak clerks seemed liberated by tenderness and treated every comer like an orphan. The conventional animosities of class didn’t exist. On the contrary, the light is terrible at the Union Station Amtrak office and terrorists lurked behind every pillar. And so we were sad together.
Back in my hotel room, I reversed course psychically and struggled to procure a cross-country rental car. I priced a U-Haul, an expensive means to get my toothbrush home, though not outlandish in view of the circumstances, which could accurately be described as unprecedented.
An hour later, gouged myself – the eventual bill was \$793.76 for four days use of a ’00 Ford Taurus – I settled in for more insomnia. Finally, the 13th dawned. Our NEA deliberations came to an end and our farewells devolved into a scramble to get home. Traveling parties coalesced. I visited a bookstore with Cristina Garcia and Rikki Ducornet for the purpose of buying a road atlas. Sure enough, Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle weren’t points on a line and Garcia, noting this, jumped ship. Ducornet and I set out in time for rush hour. Our atlas suggested a course northeast on Connecticut Avenue towards Chevy Chase, though in retrospect we might have been better off following the Potomac for a while. Ducornet, as it turned out, was legally blind and couldn’t drive or read a map. I turned onto a side street momentarily and examined a chart on the atlas’ back flap. Only 2,769 more miles.
On the road, Ducornet and I immersed ourselves in an exchange on God and evil, preferring the safety of these abstractions to the particulars of the moment. Ducornet’s thick glasses made her eyes seem gelatinous as darkness began to settle in and she injected into my teeming brain the rudiments of gnostic theology. She had an erudite, teacherly comprehension of the subject – the emergence in 1945, at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, of papyrus books in an earthenware jar that would come to be known as the gnostic gospels; the political dimensions of early Christianity; the Buddhist influence on the Gospel of Thomas; the zeal of the church against gnostic blasphemy; the Jung Codex; the Apocryphon of John; the Hellenizing of Christianity; the influence of Zoroastrianism on early gnosticism; the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Ducornet recommended that I read Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels and books by Hans Jonas and Jacque La Carriere; these titles and others she committed to scratch paper provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, each depicted as a figurative branch on a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil drawn in her competently flowing hand, replete with a serpent and a single orb of fruit, three leaves fast to its stem.
We took on fuel west of the Piedmont. Patrons at the gas station/mini-mart cash register appeared distressed, but also less aghast than I was, and it dawned on me in the throes of this observation, simultaneously internal and external, that people were still about their everyday business, buying beer, Cheese Twists, and Camels, not as if nothing terrible had happened but as if they hadn’t quite let it all in, and as far as I was concerned just then, they were wrong and I was right.
I had questions for Ducornet in western Pennsylvania. Gnosticism perturbed me because it seemed, at the moment, compelling and on some level true, a cogent explanation for the fall of the trade towers. I wanted to make sure I grasped the particulars and compelled Ducornet to bear with me about them while I rubbed my chin and pursued a long inquiry.
At Zanesville, Ohio, we stopped after midnight and took rooms at the Red Roof Inn. Introduced again to sleeplessness, my mind worked over the problem of gnosticism with its disturbing vision of a God, Yahweh, who was out to entertain and vindicate Himself at the pageant of our suffering, where He was master of ceremonies. This God was the one and only God, but He cast a powerful suspicion on that by proclaiming Thou shalt have no other gods before Me and propounding Himself as a jealous deity who fretted about Baal and golden calves. Ducornet had described a God who was evil as the explanation for the existence of evil – a sub-deity off in his corner of the universe, goaded by a solitary male ennui, discontent with His minor divine status, a cosmic black sheep with a malicious tenor, a Stephen King-ish ten year old boy playing with plastic figurines. That was the gnostic vision of the guy insofar as I’d digested it, and it made vivid sense on 9/14, in the wee hours, in my room near Zanesville. It explained everything perfectly.
At dawn we picked up Nancy Quitsland somewhere in leafy Ohio. Quitsland was among a group with whom I’d shared a car to the airport on that distant morning of 9/10 in Seattle and, knowing her to be as stranded as I was – and capable of sharing driving duties – I located her in the Buckeye State.
Quitsland, a social activist, had come east for a conference. She appeared not sad but galvanized as she described her volunteer work on the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe and a recent visit to Vietnam with a troupe of adolescent swing dancers. For my part, I drove like an automaton, aware that changing the subject to gnosticism would appropriately be seen as rude. By Indiana I’d done so anyway and forced my fellow travelers to indulge my pathology as far as Terre Haute, where we stopped for Chinese food. I have a photo of them in line at Fast Wok, Ducornet wearing enormous hoop earrings, Quitsland with the road atlas folded open to Illinois, and it’s clear they’re already friends.
Sleepless miles, even as co-pilot. We listened to NPR obediently, wherever it cropped up on Corn Belt radio waves, but the tone of NPR left me irked. And so I drove with two companions – or was driven by Quitsland with my head against the window – through the beleaguered and worried heartland. In the vicinity of St Louis we were slowed by traffic and, finally stopped altogether, made jokes, if listlessly, at our own expense. Didn’t these drivers understand that we were hurling pell-mell across the country as if chased westward by the horsemen of the apocalypse or the sparking scythe of the hooded grim reaper or Osama Bin Laden himself? For the most part, though, I was silenced by events. A strange light fell across the world, a sere and leavened light. Try as I might, I couldn’t restore the Midwest to its former, humble lustre. But I was seeing everything through a lens at this point, honed from truths borne of Ducornet’s gnostic revelations. Missouri, indeed, looked strange through these glasses, and as we passed from Warren to Calloway County I began to feel the terror in all those flags pasted to the glass of cars.
Our highway conversation gained in intensity and I was increasingly impressed by these unfamiliar women, the one with her Apollonian social conscience, the other with her Dionysian muse. At another strata of consciousness, I worried that the chemical tankers sharing our road would eventually join in a well-planned phalanx manned by Al Qaeda martyrs. But well into the night we made Topeka, and it too looked shrouded in gloom. We sat down where visitors to Kansas’ capital were eating nachos and drinking tub-like margaritas. In the restroom mirror, I caught sight of myself – a washed out doppelganger, wan and ill. A simulacrum, and paltry. By midnight I was bivouacked in a Topeka motel room with CNN served up full-tilt to goad me deeper into paranoia. A parade of consultants from think tanks was trotted out to make sense of it all, but I knew, despite them, that no sense could be made that didn’t incorporate the message of gnosticism. How bleak the world was I knew already, but had my knowledge been this visceral before, this deeply felt and damaging?
My sleeplessness haunted me but by Abilene or so I had the small consolation of wide, forlorn skies and of the stark, parched American west, and even from the interstate the dry bones of the past lay strewn with a secret import. There were everywhere in Kansas certain wind-bitten testimonials – the Cathedral of the Plains just east of Hays, the Fick Fossil And History Museum, The Prairie Museum of Art and History in Colby, the High Plains Museum in Goodland – and rigorously we visited none of them. I wanted to get home, where a few days before I’d left myself. So on we went until, passing into Mountain Time, we stopped for food and water in Burlington, Colorado. Ducornet was now only 168 miles from her home in south Denver, while Quitsland and I could count on approximately 1,500 more miles. In the face of this – and in lieu of eating – I bought a packet of Vivarin, an ‘alertness aid’ favoured by sleepy truckers and inundated college students. I popped one and then, copiously amped, drove toward the Rockies with Vivarin-laced apocalyptic musings, over-zealous adrenal glands, and a hammering heart.
At Ducornet’s house in Denver, we loitered over tea for forty minutes, but these were minutes I couldn’t abide despite the idyllic feel of the place, its natural light, stillness, and silence, opulent bohemian and third world appointments, and comfortable sofas and chairs. Ducornet gave us parting gifts – CDs for the road and copies of her novels – and animated hugs at curbside.
I drove, and Quitsland rode with a map on her lap, responsibly alert and awake to road dangers. Yet I took no solace from our steadfast approach and was aware of the futility of most forms of solace. I’m used to tracts of sagebrush wastes and appalling reaches of desert steppe, but I wasn’t prepared for this part of Wyoming. At this juncture in the development of my mental disease, geology was sufficient to cause me pain, and the evidence of long erosion by wind, and of the path of water across lost eras – time’s intransigence and perdurable length – seemed untenably acute to my fractured sensibility. We made Evansville, near Caspar, well into the night and took rooms at a Comfort Inn. The motel was inundated by our fellows of the moment, air travellers reduced to old-fashioned ground slogging, and in its lobby I overheard one decry the static quality of westering at a mere eighty miles an hour. I also noted the forbearance of our innkeeper and his cultivated demeanour of benign generosity: he seemed to be saying that, by speaking softly and intoning agreement to every request, a long-suffering clerk in cowboy country could do his part toward national recovery and stiffen the fight against Bin Laden simply by being hospitable. In fact I noted this everywhere: a more human formulation of professional lives and a less perfunctory public discourse.
Quitsland sought to cheer me in a booth at Applebee’s by pointing out that at nearby tables citizens went on with their lives. Equipped with this context, I ate something, exhorting myself under the rubric You better, then retreated to my cubicle at the Comfort Inn, which, compared to Applebee’s, was tranquil enough. All night my mind watched itself struggle to sleep, with digressions down the halls of doom and into the labyrinth of unfettered paranoia. This is the end, I kept telling myself: anyone sleeping contentedly tonight is a fiddling, post-millenial Nero.
At dawn I found Quitsland looking relatively hale and handed her the keys to the Taurus. I was pop-eyed and thrumming and within the hour had overdosed on scenery.
That night I drank a Guinness for dinner in the hope that this Dubliner’s soporific would lend me poetry and dreams. But no such luck of the Irish. At the Day’s Inn, I suffered not only insomnia but a fermenting headache and – a banal addiction, like picking at a scab – more CNN.
In the morning the passing country was steadily more familiar as the place I think of, expansively, as home, but I couldn’t really go there anymore. It was worrisome to me that home was no salve, since I’d pinned some hope on the futile notion that I might be resurrected by geography. Instead I sunk deeper into silent trepidation regarding the prospects for regaining equilibrium.
We traversed the Cascades into western Washington and crossed the floating bridge to Seattle. Fully incapable of riposte or barbed words – hardly capable of words at all – I engaged in hapless and losing debate with a Budget Rental Car clerk, who insisted that \$793.76 was a normal fee for four days in a Taurus. The driver in front of me had been mildly litigious but his rant had a post-9/11 inappropriateness that gave Budget the upper hand; the driver in front of him had played his aces, the patriotism and national crisis cards, also to no good outcome. Meanwhile, most of the customers queued up looked weary, rumpled, speechless, and defeated, many suggesting in their deportment or carriage the self-effacing and impractical patience I recognize as a trait of my city.
The skyscrapers still stood, but no planes rode the skies.
A few months later, George W. Bush was promoting not just one war but two. We were going to do what we’d done before: wreak havoc to shape the world to our will. If the world didn’t want to conform to our will, it was the world that would have to change, not us. Our boy-king said so. We would not change. Nothing, he said, was going to change. But of course it was too late for that.
Want to keep reading? Check out Rikki Ducornet’s essay on how an imperial past is catching up with the West.