The morning of September 11, 2001, I was in a hotel room in Breckenridge, Colo., in the beautiful all-American Rocky Mountains. I was taking my first vacation in a couple of years with one of my best friends from high school, Tim, who lived in western Kansas. We had not spent any time together in a while and felt that hitting the mountains was a good idea for some R&R.
Hour by hour was how we planned it. No reservations. We landed in Breckenridge the end of the second day, September 10. We pulled up to the best-looking hotel furthest up the mountain. Being early September, just after Labor Day, the town was desolate. We asked around to find the best local seafood joint on a Monday night. We were waited on like kings and had the place to ourselves. The waitress was talkative and helpful. We asked, what does one do for excitement on a Monday night at the height of the off-season in Colorado? Go to Jacks at midnight for disco night, she advised.
Jacks turned out to be a small basement pool hall in a strip mall in the middle of town. There were six people in there by 11:30 pm. We began to feel like we had been duped by 11:50 pm, as the sign on the door said “closed at midnight.” As Tim sunk the eight ball for the last the time, a tall young man walked in with a milk crate full of record albums. He walked over to the adjacent wall which was actually, to our surprise, a big door that slid open like a barn door on rollers. He walked into a large dark room as more people began to pour in behind us. They were all talking like they worked together and knew each other as if from a small town.
We walked into the room and as the rows of lights began to flicker on, we found ourselves standing on a black and white checkerboard dance floor about half the size of a basketball court. By 12:15, the tall young man turned on the PA system and confidently spoke, “Welcome to disco night,” and the Bee Gees began to blare from the speakers. By now there must have been 30 people, mostly in their 20s, either dressed normally, dressed like a disco queen (or king), or some wearing their hotel, bar, even grocery store work uniforms, complete with nametags. We had stumbled upon a community within a community, in the middle of the USA.
To date, I have never had so much fun in two hours as I had right then. We were obviously the out-of- towners that someone had slipped the secret to. This didn’t seem to be a problem as the girls asked us to dance one after another, and since Tim and I actually grew up in the 70s, we knew how to disco. The air-conditioning was not on and the heat generated from everyone dancing created a slippery floor, perfect for my leather-soled cowboy boot to slide around on. We listened to all the greatest disco hits of the 70s until the DJ said, “Last dance, we gotta shut down at two, people.” I remember walking outside, completely soaked in sweat, and flopping down right there. I was flat on the sidewalk, just outside Jacks, staring up into the sky. I recall saying to Tim, “There are no clouds, not even an airplane, just the universe.”
The next morning I was taking a shower, my ears ringing and my feet aching. I walked out of the bathroom in a big towel combing my hair. I saw Tim sitting on the edge of his bed staring at the TV and knew something was wrong. He said, “A big airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” I sat down next to him and in silence we watched CNN as the story unfolded. We stared in horror as the second plane hit the other building. At first we thought it was just a rerun of the first one from another angle. The reporters were as confused as we were.
After what seemed like hours we decided we both needed to just get home. We quickly packed our stuff and headed down to the lobby. Hardly anyone was staying in the hotel and the few vacationers we did see were hurriedly shuffling out the hotel–likely headed home as well. I remember there was no one at the front desk. Looking around we found most of the hotel staff and some visitors in the bar, not for drinks but for the big screen TV running CNN on full volume. The desk manager said, “Just go, don’t worry about it,” when we tried to settle up. We saw a few people from the night before. No smiles this time, just that same look of confusion and fear everyone had.
Tim and I got on the road and tuned into a public radio station to try to understand what had happened. We did not talk most of the trip. A few hours down the road we began to understand terrorists had done this and a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania and another had hit the Pentagon. At one point, we needed to take a break from driving and came to a small park that consisted of a long narrow stream one could drive up to the end of where there was a small dam and a lake on the other side. As we drove up the narrow gravel road we saw a few people fishing with no radio or outside information. We thought about telling them what had happened, but decided to not spoil their day. We simply moved on.
Midafternoon, as we drove through the series of small towns we noticed short lines at the gas stations. As we passed through each town and as it got later in the day, the lines at the gas stations grew. Just outside Garden City, Tim’s home, as it got dark, the radio news grew more frightening and you could tell panic was setting in from the tones of the voices we heard. In town, Tim needed to fill with gas and the line at the local Walmart gas pump was incredible. People were lined up for a half a mile. They were filling everything that would hold gas. One guy filled his truck, filled the boat he was pulling, and then filled many, many cans within the boat– anything that would hold gas. The lady behind him began yelling at him, calling him a selfish pig. The man ignored her and kept filling. We rolled our windows up and kept silent.
Tim lived in a one-room apartment and had a friend staying on the couch. I told him not to worry, that I would grab a hotel room, and we said goodbye. What I found was nothing. Everything was full, which made no sense to me. I made some phone calls from one lobby and finally found the last room in town at a small, somewhat run-down motor inn. There was no one in the lobby. I dinged the bell repeatedly. Finally a woman who appeared to be from India peeked out a door from behind the counter. I told her I just called; she stuck her head out and suspiciously looked around the lobby. No one was there. There was one room left.
In my room, I called my mom just to hear her voice. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I know I felt like everything was going to be OK at the end of the conversation. I walked to a Sonic drive-in next door. While waiting at a picnic table for my cheeseburger, I listened to a drunken young man sitting in the back of a pickup, going on and on about getting all his guns and ammo together and going after anyone non-American. It actually scared me a little, as I thought about the owner of the motor inn.
I slept well for some reason. In the morning I decided to head back to Topeka to see my mother, before making it home to Overland Park. I was shocked when I got to the lobby. In a small gathering room next to the lobby, there must have been 20 people all staring at a small TV running CNN. The people all looked very diverse, some crying and some angry. Standing off to the side appeared to be an airline pilot. What I soon discovered, was all aircraft in the entire USA had been grounded. This meant they had to land immediately wherever they were. Just so happens, since Garden City is in the flat open prairie, they have an unusually long landing strip at their regional airport–large enough to land a 747!
In the lobby were just a few people from just one of the flights. No one knew what was going on. They were asking the pilot, who kept repeating he did not know. All he knew was THEY were all supposed to stick together until further notice. No one had their luggage or anything. Feeling like I wanted to help, I spoke up and said I was headed to Kansas City if someone needed a ride. A young woman and a middle-aged man immediately spoke up and actually raised their hands. The man offered to pay me good money to get him to Kansas City ASAP as there were apparently no rental cars to be had. The pilot had a rather heated argument with the man insisting he was obligated to stick with his party. The young woman burst into tears and slipped into the small crowd. I now felt like I was disrupting something important. I slowly slipped away to my room to get my bags, and then out to the parking lot through a different door and to my car. With a conflicted change of heart, I pulled up to the lobby and sat in my car only to see the pilot waving me away with an angry look. I never saw the middle-aged man and the young woman was bawling on the arm of an older woman. I reluctantly drove away.
On the highway, the radio was more of the same with theories of this and that. I could not listen any more and put in a cassette tape. I drove across western Kansas toward Salina and encountered very few vehicles. I remember how nice the day was, but got a panicky feeling down one stretch of highway when I did not see another car for many, many miles. I began to wonder if I were the last person on earth. With great relief, I finally spotted a farm truck to two men in it.
The lines at the gas pump were long in Hutchinson. Outside and heading northeast, I once again saw no other cars for miles. Suddenly I could see flashing lights in the distance on the horizon. As I got closer I began to run the possibilities through my head. Was it a military roadblock and would I be detained in a makeshift prison? Was there a terrible accident, someone perhaps committing suicide deciding it was the end of the world? It turned out to be a state or county worker on a small tractor cutting the grass along the highway ditch. Maybe he had not heard the news.
I made it to Topeka by nightfall to spend the night with my mother. We sat on the back deck staring at the sky, desperately looking for an airplane to let us know everything was back to normal. There were none. My mom spoke about how bad things happen in the world that we have no control over. She told me not to worry, so I didn’t. She said she still believed in Jesus and reassured me everything would probably be all right and things would eventually get back to normal.