An Arizona desert highway.

A Monday in early October: sunset. I stand with my husband in the shadow of a wall inscribed with the notation 9:01. Not far away stands another wall, entirely the same but for a single numeral. It reads 9:03. Between them is a reflecting pool, the water in constant motion. Some trees to one side, a field of symbolic chairs to the other, with the remains of a large concrete and steel building framing a small part of the perimeter. . . the last vestiges of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, destroyed, along with 168 workers and children, at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995 — in what was, until recently, the most significant terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Neither of us say a word. This isn’t the place for talking. We aren’t the only ones blinking back tears.

Just how we ended up at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial at sunset on a Monday night is a long story. What it comes down to, basically, is that we just happened to be driving by. But in a larger context, it was the perfect summation of ten days spent traveling around the American Southwest in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.

My husband and I had planned our trip months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We considered rescheduling, but after weighing the pros and cons, it seemed better to get out and see some of the world rather than sitting at home worrying about the end of it. It helped that we were picking up a car in Albuquerque to drive all the way back to Massachusetts. We’d only have to fly one way.

So we packed our bags and set out to see some of post-terrorist America.

I knew that this would not be an ordinary vacation, but other than heightened airport security, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Being away from home was the perfect excuse to stay away from the TV and the radio. We got our updates each day, but it was a far cry from the near-constant barrage of information we’d been subjecting ourselves to in the three weeks prior. The news was there when we wanted it, but just the same, we had license to tune out, and instead open our hearts and minds to things other than fear and vengeance.

Not that there weren’t constant reminders — sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring. American flags were everywhere — on homes, store fronts, billboards, bumper stickers, even clothing — a reassuring sign of a country standing strong. Security was often strict — not at all a surprise at the Hoover Dam, which supplies electricity for much of the Southwest . . . but in Little Rock, Arkansas? Some places seemed blissfully unconcerned — nothing could slow down the non-stop party in Las Vegas. But especially in small towns, at the mall in Roswell, New Mexico for example, there seemed to be a “batten down the hatches” kind of feeling.

Thanks to my husband’s enthusiasm for driving, I had to good fortune to be able to relax in the passenger seat for most of our trip. I didn’t expect my patriotism to be galvanized simply by gazing out the window, but between that and all the places we visited, I found my heart swelling at the vastness, diversity and beauty the United States has to offer.

The aspens turning yellow in the mountains above Santa Fe, the winding road through the red rock to Los Alamos, the brown shallow waters of the Rio Grande. Dry deserts, old mining towns, miles of nothing giving way to the extravagance of Las Vegas. Cliff dwellings, Texas plains, Oklahoma wind. The Grand Canyon, of course. The Mississippi River, the Shenandoah Valley. Truck stops. Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Graceland.

There’s something uniquely American about a road trip — the cheap gas, the fast food, the wide open spaces. Land of the free, home of the brave, with enough apple pie and Elvis for everyone to have second helpings.

But visiting Oklahoma City brought our “new” America into perspective for me. You can’t deny it: some new threads have been woven into the fabric of our lives. Now accompanying affluence, exuberance, and the pioneer spirit are deep, dark strands of loss.

A sobering fact. And one, I hope, that will bring a new maturity.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
November 2001

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.