Sunday, July 13, 2014

Road trips to sacred, somber places

August 04. 2013 9:34PM
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We had no agenda — which usually makes for the most adventurous trips.

The first was to New York City earlier this summer. Our daughter suggested we take the trip with one of her fellow-student friends who lives in central Pennsylvania. The young woman’s one previous experience was the Times Square which isn’t really New York at all. As we drove along I-80 we shared conversation and our guest told us about her life and educated me about silage and haylage and other farm things. She’d brought along her favorite country music which is not my favorite but we were off the agenda so I was going with it.

On a rest stop I ate a doughnut: Why not break every rule in the book?

A trip to “the city” is familiar to many people from Northeastern Pennsylvania. New York is so close many people take for granted the relative ease with which we travel there. On this morning in June we weren’t headed to a show, museum or game. There wasn’t much of a plan after the first stop. We parked in the Flatiron District and walked to the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace which is not his birthplace at all. The original brownstone was razed but his ardent supporters rebuilt a facsimile on the same spot and it is a marvel to tour. Despite all my time and visits to New York there are many places I’ve yet to see and this was one.

We continued on, wandering through the morning and the neighborhoods, walking and weaving past the fences of Grammercy Park, the throngs on Union Square, past a spruced up Washington Square and a Bleecker Street fair. Noho, Soho, Tribeca and south until we till we arrived at the World Trade Center site.

We walked to one place to get tickets, another place to get in line. We walked through security that had more scrutiny than an airport and then snaked through makeshift corridors along the street until we popped out into an expansive courtyard and the 9/11 Memorial. I gasped. People were gathered around the footprints of the two towers, now two open square-shaped pools, each with waterfalls dropping 30 feet into a center pool and then dropping into another dark void in the center. The names of the victims are inscribed in a simple bronze parapet that rims each pool. As we stood at each name - so many names - water flowed away and out of site, at once evoking falling and eternity. It was beautiful and sad and worth the effort.

We took our time and circled each pool, looking for familiar names, pausing for people we knew, names familiar from new coverage through the years and names that just stood out. Names, for example, of pregnant passengers and their unborn children. It was sobering, evermore.

Then a week later, again by chance, my wife and I were driving toward home from a visit in western Pennsylvania. At a crossroads we took a route we’d never taken before. A road sign indicated the Flight 93 Memorial and we said, why not, so we took another new road.

The approach to the site is rural, expansive reclaimed coal field, now a green and rolling pasture with open horizons. It couldn’t be more different from congested lower Manhattan. As clearly as the 9/11 Memorial drew my thoughts into that eternal waterfall, the Flight 93 Memorial drew my attention to a wall of 40 names - crew and passengers of the aircraft. The wall describes the path of the descending airliner, from the west, toward the impact site near a cluster of hemlocks. A gate is at the wall closest to the impact site: Visitors can see through the gate to the site but they can’t pass. Only family members of the victims and park rangers have access.

Within a week we visited both — the 9/11 Memorial and Flight 93 National Memorial — really by chance. New York as an open book; Somerset County as a detour. Each of these significant memorials are relatively close to Northeastern Pennsylvania and both are worth visiting.

We take a lot for granted. By chance I’m grateful to be reminded about the lessons of our recent history.

Joe Butkiewicz is Executive Editor of The Times Leader, email


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