Looking Back: 20 Years Ago This Week

KODAK Digital Still Camera

  My lungs burned as I headed out of the dark canyon I had ventured into earlier that day. One foot clipped the top of a log as the other one landed squarely in the middle of the hard-packed horse trail on the other side of it. 

  Looking at my watch, I knew the darkness would engulf the light within the next half hour. Could I make it to the top of the hill without having to break out my headlamp? I wasn’t sure, but I continued up the trail while feeling the burn in my calves and quads. Gritting my teeth and looking at a few trees about 50 yards ahead, I made small goals to help me keep moving. It had been a long day without any encounters, well unless you count the cow elk and her two calves that I spotted on the edge of the quakies at first light.

  Finally, I crested the hill and saw a forest road on the other side of the meadow. The light had been overtaken by a starlit sky. Looking up, my mind wandered to the first time my father had brought me to the woods and let me hunt by myself. 

  He dropped me off at my stand and returned in the darkness to pick me up. We walked quietly to the truck that night. I could hear the geese in the sky above me. Without breaking stride, Dad told me winter would be here before we knew it, and we should make a point of enjoying every day that we could take a trip to the forest. At the time, I had no idea how true those words would ring as I aged. 

  When a coyote shrieked on the ridge paralleling the road, the noise brought me back to the present. Looking up, the stars sparkled in every direction, but an eerie, quiet sky accompanied the tiny glistening objects. There were no blinking lights from planes crossing through the airway that linked the East Coast to the West Coast. Almost every night, more than 50 planes could be seen, and I always wondered if pilots noticed areas in flight as we notice turns in roads that we regularly travel.  However, the sky was void of red, green and white lights… nothing to be seen. 

  Although, I noticed the emptiness above me, I didn’t give it much thought. When I got back to the tent, my father had dinner ready to serve. I gobbled down my pieces of chicken after dipping them in my instant stuffing and called it a night.  My mind and body were exhausted. 

  As I drifted into sleep, the mountains along the Continental Divide welcomed my soul and allowed me to quickly fade into a land of unicorns dashing between bugling bulls. I saw them charging in after hearing my calls. Snot flew across the air in the high-country meadow, and two bulls screamed back and forth, but neither of them were willing to commit to the battle. Then, the lights went out, and I was gone. 

  Upon waking two hours before sunrise, the sky was still quiet. There were no blinking lights… still no planes. Although I had noticed it the night before, it was becoming more apparent. Dad commented about it being concerning that no planes were in the air. However, being 15 miles from the nearest marked road, we didn’t have a care in the world. 

  After gathering our gear and heading out for the morning hunt, we approached it with cautious optimism. The worst hunts can become the best ones in a matter of seconds. As one hour led into the next, we found ourselves getting warmer and warmer as the sun climbed to its peak for the day. Realizing the animals were inactive, we headed back to camp, where my buddies Gene and Mike decided to go into town to call Mike’s parents and get some supplies. Dad and I decided to stay at camp with Brian, a guy whom we picked up in Ohio to join us on the hunt. He had relatives in the area, and he had some familiarity with the surrounding mountains. 

  As the afternoon wore on, Dad and I decided to head out behind camp to hunt for a few hours. While still-hunting through meadows along the edge of an aspen grove, we spotted a bull on the shelf below us. I quickly got in position for a shot and drew my bow. When the string snapped forward, the arrow was on its way. Watching it sail through the air, I knew it had a chance. Suddenly it lost its energy and arc and whistled under the elk’s belly behind its front shoulders. I had missed. 

  We went down the hill, gathered my arrow and headed back to camp. As we walked down the forest road, we saw Mike and Gene pulling into camp. They quickly jumped out of Dad’s truck and told us that two big buildings in New York City had been hit by planes.  Although it was hard to make sense of what they were saying, Mike was able to relay to us that the officials believed a man named Osama bin Laden was responsible for the planes. They went on to tell us the buildings had collapsed and many people were dead. 

  Being from upstate New York and having been to the city a number of times, it was hard to fathom what he was saying. How in the world could those two buildings have collapsed? I began thinking he may have misinterpreted the news reports. 

  After getting the news out, they also told us that someone kept calling Dad’s cell phone, so they picked it up, and it was my mother. She was confused when neither Dad nor I answered the phone and she was told that neither one of us were available to talk because we were still in the mountains at camp. Mom became concerned because she had never met Gene or Mike, and she couldn’t gather why we weren’t in Dad’s truck. 

  After sorting all of that out, we made dinner and quickly drifted off to sleep. It’s impossible to understand the weight of something if you don’t see it firsthand, so we went about our business as usual. 

  The next morning, Dad and Mike headed onto Haystack Mountain in search of elk, while Gene, Brian and I all went to different areas. Once again, it didn’t take long for the temperature to climb into the upper 70s. I’m still not sure why or how it happened, but we all ended up back at camp around noon. 

  After a brief discussion, Dad and I decided we needed to head home. Although we still hadn’t seen a lick of coverage on the events of Sept. 11, we knew it couldn’t be good if the Twin Towers were no longer standing. Living north of New York City, we knew we had to get home to be with our family members, so we packed up and headed east. It would take us a few days to get home, but it was where we needed to be. 

  The ride home still stands with me as one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed in my travels, and I have traveled to many places. The tires hummed over the pavement, and flags greeted us everywhere we went. People stood on bridges and waved flags. Small towns had flags from one street end to the next. Big cities had flags on billboards, and flags draped off road signs. Men had flags painted on their bare chests, and a few women donned American flag bikinis. Trucks had flags sticking out of both ends of their beds. People were united. Everybody joined one team, and Americans stood tall. 

  We dropped Brian off in Ohio around 5:00 p.m. and continued toward home. We would drive all night to be home the next morning. After we rolled into the driveway, Mom welcomed us with a hot breakfast. As we began eating, she filled us in on the events that had transpired and told us that my nephew, Anthony, was worried that the bad guys were going to come up I-87 out of the city to get him. Listening to the background noise on the TV, I knew that life as we knew it would never be the same.  The devastation was beyond my wildest imagination, and I had been at 11,000 feet a few days earlier without a care in the world. 

  Now, 20 years have passed and the world is a different place. I have lost a few friends, but I have gained a few others. Brian would go on to join the military a few years later and lose his life in Afghanistan, and Mike’s parents would pass away.

However, my desire to live a good life still remains.  I’ve seen a lot of changes in 20 years and watching coverage of the events last weekend reminded me that life does not slow down for anyone. Life also has no favorites. You may know people who have gotten to places without deserving it, and you may know others who have struggled through life and deserve more, but you also must realize that all of that is really insignificant. That is why I’ve tried to live a good life and do as many things as possible. I’ve made it a habit to dive into the things that bring me happiness, and I pursue them with unbridled passion. I live to enjoy life… and the world that is in front of me, for life can change in a matter of seconds.

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