The View No More

How America's tragedy affected one New Jersey hiker.

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Yesterday, September 12th, I woke up feeling the need for a hike. So I drove out to Longhouse Road, strapped on a water bottle, and started through the woods on the Appalachian Trail toward Bearfort Ridge.

I’ve walked the Trail in this part of northern New Jersey often, but it was as quiet as I’ve ever heard it, with only crickets and crows, the squeaking of my boots, and the silence overhead utterly without planes.

The witch hazel, the only tree to flower in autumn, hadn’t blossomed yet, but its leaves were trimmed in yellow. I crossed a dry creek bed where there should have been water. We were 12 weeks into a drought, with some leaves already turned and fallen.

In a mile, I reached a valley that has changed from hickory forest to beaver pond in the past two years. This dry summer, the pond had changed yet again, becoming a sedgy meadow. The beavers had moved on. Without their pond there was no safety here.

I climbed steeply and reached a spot where drab gray billion-year-old bedrock gave way to puddingstone, a gorgeous purple conglomerate embedded with white quartz. Now I was on Bearfort Ridge, probably named as a last stronghold of black bears in pioneer days.

This ridge isn’t tall by Appalachian Trail standards, but is high enough. Just before I stepped beyond the trees at the summit, I wanted to stop, turn back, not see…. Then I pushed through the last bear oak and staghorn sumac. I knew right where to look at the far edge of the folded green hills. But there was only smoke and a goldfinch.

The Twin Towers were gone. On the far horizon, half an outstretched fist south of the Empire State Building, the blue sky was wounded by billowing smoke. Standing on that ridge that morning, I knew the rescue workers hadn’t even begun to count the dead. I found a spot next to a pitch pine and sat.

I had hiked to this vista with my wife Marty only the week before and seen the Towers. How could we have imagined then that we would never see them again? Memories rose with the smoke. I recalled taking my brother’s family to the Trade Center Observation Deck on a crisp December morning 15 years ago. We had looked off toward the Highlands and I had pointed to this ridge.

On another Twin Towers visit, I had watched the Dalai Lama’s saffron-robed monks make a circular sand painting, a fragile peace mandela in the Trade Center lobby. Now the unspeakable violence that drove the Tibetans to sanctuary in America had come around the world to us.

In the past, spotting most human-made structures–housing developments or transmission towers–from the Appalachian Trail had detracted from my hiking experiences. But not the Twin Towers. There was always something miraculous about them, something bold, startling, powerful.

The new vista was full of pain. New York City had now joined Beirut, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, and other Third World skylines scarred by smoke. The Twin Towers, which I once described as standing like dual tombstones, now, in their absence, marked a grave for the innocent.

As someone who often writes about the history of Appalachian landscapes battered by 19th century forest clearcutting or blasted by mining, I had always stressed nature’s ability to heal itself. How, I wondered, would we do in healing ourselves?

The smoke above the ridge didn’t speak of terror. Instead it was graceful, this language of smoke, the way it rose up, leveled out, and smoothly glided away, whitish atop, grayish beneath. The sun was fierce on the puddingstone. The flies were bad. I didn’t sit long. As I prepared to go there was a solitary call: chick-a-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

High overhead a lone military jet attracted my ear. I turned an eye up quickly to catch the third quarter crescent moon hung in blue infinity like some inscrutable haiku.

On the way home I gathered in my mind the names of local mountains from which I could once see the Towers: the basalt heights of the Palisades and Watchung Range, Wyanokie High Point, Pyramid Mountain, High Tor, Mount Taurus, Sterling Ridge, and a score of Appalachian Trail overlooks. The view has changed forever. I?ll never look from these green hills toward that city in the same way again. None of us will.

The words written in trail guidebooks now linger in the culture like ghosts. Years from now, whenever a hiker reaches a vista in our region and scans that place in the text describing where the view of the Twin Towers should be, there will come a shock, a deep chasm between the innocent past and the dangerous now. There will be the moment of remembering. Instead of ridge-upon-ridge stretching out to touch twin silhouettes, there will arise a feeling of inexpressible loss hinted at in these lines from poet Kenneth Rexroth:

This new horizon, seen from rocky crags, seems like a good place to meditate on the way through to peace.

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