This summer I spent a week in New York, and one sunny day I had a couple of hours between meetings and took the number 9 subway from Midtown to the World Trade Center. Not surprisingly, the station at the site is closed so I got off at Rector Street and walked back. It’s impossible, or I found it so, not to get a tightening in the gut, a looming sense of dread, when walking toward the site, wondering when it would appear. I passed Trinity Place and the church, peaceful beneath its trees. The bells tolled. The sun scorched the sidewalk. Horns honked. Friends called to each other. Shopkeepers shouted to deliverymen. The world was doing its commerce on a normal summer day, and then it appeared, the gaping expanse, a huge concrete hole crossed with ramps and tracks.
I was overcome with sadness as I approached the fence enclosing the site and stopped to read the interpretive signs, to look at the photos of the site’s history. Memories of that day came inevitably, but also memories of the last time I’d been there in the 1980s. And the longer I lingered, the longer I watched the others there, tourists like me, coming out of curiosity or to pay their respects, the calmer I began to feel. Fresh breezes wafted off the harbor. Shrubs and trees rose above the rubble. The whole scene began to take on the feel of history, the sense that we were standing at a place where something of great magnitude had happened but life was reasserting itself, expressing its positive force, finding the impetus to move forward. It was not unlike walking the beaches of Normandy or strolling the prairies of Wounded Knee.
I did not lose family or friends in the destruction of the twin towers, and those who did would no doubt experience different emotions than I did. But I found it surprising to see how quickly history claims a place. For the dozens of people milling about this was now a historical site, a place to reflect on the nature of our time and lives. Across the street the peaceful grounds of St. Paul’s Chapel invited visitors into the shade. The chapel was an oasis of healing and grief after the incident, and today it’s another place to meditate on our world. The cemetery in front of the chapel has headstones dating to Manhattan’s earliest years, and before I made my way back uptown I strolled among them. The one that forced me to stop and ponder the cyclical nature of life read: “In Memory of Mary. Wife of James Miles = Died Sep.br 11th 1796. In the 37th Year of her Age.”
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.