“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”
— Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), “North By Northwest”
We ALL know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001, when the physical and psychic walls came tumbling down. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, and people began reliving and rehashing the events in bars and restaurants, at work and at the gym, on the trail and on the ski lifts, I noticed that everyone seemed to have a well-honed tale relating to that day and how their lives fit into that day. This was more than just, “I was at school when I heard Kennedy was shot.” The scale of 9/11 was so massive that almost all of us are able to make some sort of six-degrees-of-separation-type connection with the events that unfolded that tragic day. We knew someone who once worked in the Towers. We knew someone who was stranded in Boston for two weeks, unable to get back home to Colorado. As I was verbally test-driving this edition of Smoke Signals, I was astounded by the richness and resonance of the stories I heard as a result of me bringing the subject up, sometimes to chums, sometimes to perfect strangers, by way of asking simply, “Where were you when the planes hit the Twin Towers?”
Par for my personal course, my 9/11 experience was a bit off the mainstream radar.
My wife, Gay, late dog, Cali, and I were happily ensconced in a motel room at Mile 0 of the ALCAN Highway, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, ’96 Outback pointed toward the Northwest Territories, which we planned to ingress that very evening.
It had already been a sorta weird trip. Several days prior, with Gay behind the wheel, we left U.S. territory at Sweetgrass, Montana, and approached the Canadian border crossing at Coutts, Alberta. As we neared Coutts, my mind predictably wandered back 21 years, to the last time I passed from the Big Sky State into the Sunshine Province.
My amigo Ed and I had procured an ounce of red Lebanese hash somewhere along the line and had been doing our damnedest to get rid of it over the course of a journey that had already seen us meander our way from Georgia to Montana. Though we had made an impressive dent in that hash stash, it had not sufficiently diminished in size to the point where we stopped referring to it as “The Big Chunk.” We still had a lot of hash left on the day our extremely disheveled selves were scheduled to cross into Canada.
The unspoken unthinkable was starting to get thought and spoken: We had too much hash! — which marked the first time those words had ever visited my young cranial mainframe. Alas, we were going to have to either modify a travel itinerary that was months in the making or we were going to have to … to … dump … that … hash … before crossing the border. That was a mighty depressing proposition. Rather than toss The Big Chunk unceremoniously into a ditch, however, we hoped to find some wayward hitchhiker(s) or fellow backpacker(s), and bequeath The Big Chunk to him/her/them.
Stunningly, Ed and I cold not locate anyone appropriate to give our hash to, which shocked us, given that, in those days, you could scarcely throw a rock in the woods without hitting some variation on the partying freak theme.
So, as Ed and I approached the Canadian border, a “plan” started gestating within the bowels of thought processes that were without a doubt extremely dulled by massive doses of THC. Rather than give our hash away, and rather than attempt to smuggle it across the border — which, even stoned nitwits such as ourselves knew better than to try — we would just smoke it all before leaving America! Great idea! The only flaw was, when we made that decision, we were only 30 miles from the border. Not much time to inhale what by then was probably 10 grams of moderately strong hash. So, we loaded bowl after bowl and smoked as fast as our respiratory systems would allow and, by the time we passed a highway sign that let us know Canada was a mere half-mile away, we were obliterated, and we still had probably eight grams of hash in our possession. The Big Chunk would not go away.
What to do? Three choices: Pull a Bat-turn, throw the hash out the window or plow ahead, consequences be damned. Of course, we opted to follow the path of least wisdom, clear up to the point of no return. The hash was stashed in the pick compartment in my guitar case, which was in the back seat, on top of Ed’s guitar case. Not exactly a sophisticated smuggling operation, but there we were. When only a few cars separated us from the Canadian border authorities, I looked over at Ed and pretty much dookied my drawers. Not only did he look as wasted as a person possibly could be, but he was also sweating profusely, fidgeting uncontrollably and coughing his lungs out. He might as well have had the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his forehead. We were doubtless doomed. So, under the pretense of making sure the hash was secure, I surreptitiously moved it from the pick compartment in my guitar case to the pick compartment in Ed’s guitar case. That way, if — when — we got busted, I could at least pretend I was totally innocent, completely unaware the man I was traveling with, someone I thought was an upstanding citizen, was in fact an international narcotics smuggler!
The Canadian customs officers took one quick look at us and asked that we park in the Special Assured Imminent Arrest Area, where several uniformed officials, all of whom were wearing latex gloves, stood smiling. They pulled every item out of the back of the car, wincing as they rummaged through piles of crusty skivvies and malodorous hiking socks that had not been washed in weeks. They went through the glove compartment with a fine-tooth comb. They looked under the hood and in the console and under the floor mats. The ONLY place the customs officers did not look was in the two guitar cases there in the back seat. They likely thought, surely, even obvious stoners such as Ed and I would not be so stupid as to hide the drugs in a guitar case! After an hour of searching, they welcomed us to Canada through gritted teeth. The Big Chunk made it all the way to Vancouver Island.
As Gay and I approached the border at Coutts, my home- and business-owning, long-married, semi-responsible self could not help but smile at those memories. I could not help but look at M. John through the prism of time. It would be inaccurate to say I miss that irresponsible pack-toting hippie who used to bear my name. After all, I have plus-or-minus grown up to be the person that young hippie wanted all along to be (mostly). Still, it’s hard sometimes to overcome nostalgia, to wonder where all that youthful innocence went.
Little did I know.
Little did any of us know.
It was Saturday, September 8, 2001.
“Have either of you ever received a DUI?” the immigration lady, who looked like an orc, asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I responded from the passenger seat.
“Then I can not allow you to pass, because, in the eyes of the Canadian government, you are a felon.”
Utter instantaneous deflation! Vacation plans mixed metaphorically torpedoed before they ever got off the ground.
Just as we were about to turn around, the orc said words to the effect of, “Well … we might just be able to make an exception for people who look as responsible as you two.”
Gay and I have done enough traveling that we instantly understood the words, the inflection with which those words were spoken and the words that were not spoken. We glanced at each other and prepared for a border dance we never expected in, of all places, Oh Canada. I was pointed toward an upstairs room that was already populated by several dozen forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, I came to learn, had, like me, answered honestly when asked about their DUI history. One by one, we were led into a small office, where we heard the exact same obviously well-honed spiel from the orc: For $200, we could pass into Canada. Cash only. No receipt. No guarantee that, the next time we tried to enter the country, the same “opportunity” would be available. Understand? Yes, I understood fully. The entire process took four long hours, which totally screwed up the rest of our travel day. It was dusk as we approached the first town in Alberta, Milk River, which had a public campsite, which we ended up sharing with most of those same forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, like us, were $200 poorer.
By the time we arrived in Dawson Creek, a beautiful little college town, the bad taste of the border crossing experience had begun to dissipate. We were finally feeling like we were on the road, unfettered and free, with nary a care. We found a bar with a TV that had upon its screen, of all fortuitous things, a Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and the Giants. The Donkeys kicked ass, 31-20, and we returned to the motel happy about the result of the game, happy about the fact that, here we were, way the hell up in British Columbia, happy about the fact that, before we left the bar, one of the rather surly locals, who we’d been chatting with, told us that we didn’t seem to suck as bad as most Americans.
The only down side was that we heard a cold-weather front was moving down, and, when you’re that far north, that’s news you pay attention to.
It was September 10, maybe 11 p.m.
Next morning, with Gay in the bathroom enjoying what was supposed to be her last interface with indoor plumbing for quite some time, I turned on the TV to check out the weather report.
You all know what I saw. Same thing we all saw. Even as I was trying to reconcile a mild hangover with the images flashing on the screen, the second plane hit. “Uh, Gay, I think you’d better check this out.”
We watched for a few minutes before going down to the motel’s breakfast room, which was filled with people staring slack-jawed at the images being replayed over and over. All eyes fell upon us when we entered the room. People started saying how sorry they were. We don’t know how they knew we were Americans, but they all did.
It is fair to say we were a bit shaken, but, man oh man, I wasn’t going to let even the biggest attack on American soil in history stop me when I was six hours from the Northwest Territories. We lit out, passing by the last vestiges of civilization, fast getting to the point where the world was defined by wild. We saw bears, moose, raging rivers, endless lakes, thick boreal forests and vistas that did not end till they reached Hudson Bay. We were cut off from the outside world, and the last word we heard before even the AM band went totally dead was, “War.”
When we finally anticlimactically arrived at Fort Liard, NWT, people streamed out of houses and businesses to ask us for the latest news, like somehow we had a proprietary cosmic communications connection to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. A French-Canadian, whose English was poor and whose accent was thick, told us that he had heard via short-wave radio that the President was unaccounted for and that most high-ranking government officials had already been taken to their secret bunkers.
We stayed at a community campground by a lovely lake that night. Ours was the only tent; everyone else had a hard-sided camper or motorhome. The campground host came by at dusk to warn us that there had been some recent bear activity in the campground. He suggested that we remain constantly vigilant. “I’m really sorry,” he said before departing. I don’t know whether he was sorry about the bear situation or what had happened to New York City and Washington. Maybe he was sorry that we lived in a world that required constant vigilance.
On September 12, we arrived at an end-of-the-world outpost called, of all things, Checkpoint. The café had a small black-and-white TV with a grainy image and scratchy sound. We could barely make out the face of Donald Rumsfeld. He looked like shit, which I guess is understandable. He was also incoherently babbling something about the media being at least partially responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers. It would be inappropriate to turn this into a political diatribe, so suffice it to say that, with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove with access to the Big Red Button at that particular moment, our nerves were not exactly calm. When we got to the intersection of Canadian highways 1 and 3 — so close to the Mackenzie River, Yellowknife, the Great Slave Lake and Wood Buffalo National Park — names I have been uttering since I was a child — that we could almost touch them, we sighed and, instead of taking a much-desired left, we took a reluctant right and pointed the Outback south, toward a home we hoped would still be recognizable upon our return.
Since the border was closed, we had conscionable opportunity to dilly-dally in Jasper and Banff on the way down. Not Wood Buffalo National Park, but not too shabby either. Everywhere we went, people would eyeball our license plates and go out of their way to express heartfelt sympathy. On the Icefields Highway, we parked next to a herd of scary-looking Canadian motorcycle enthusiasts. The biggest, ugliest, smelliest one walked over, extended a brotherly hand to me and said, tears welling up in his bloodshot eyes, “I hope you guys bomb the living shit out of them.” I thanked him, but 1) I did not know who “them” was, but 2) I knew we would indeed end up bombing the shit out of someone, somewhere. It often seems that is the only thing we know how to do anymore. What happened to us?
By the time we got back to Summit County, the vitriolic barroom arguments were already commencing full bore. I remember one lady in Pug Ryan’s shouting me down after I mentioned that, maybe, we ought to have our ducks in a huddle before we start sending troops abroad to who knows where in a masturbatory attempt to avenge the 9/11 attacks. She was of the opinion that people like me ought to just shut our traps and get with the national goose-step program, whatever that program might be. My response was, predictably, that, in times of intense jingoistic flag-waving, getting with an undefined program just for the sake of national unity is the absolute goddamned worst thing a person can do because, at such times, that’s when crazy shit like the Patriot Act gets passed by a compliant and inept Congress.
And so it went. For months. For years. Clear up until the wounds started healing and people started composing their personal 9/11 stories and telling those stories to each other in measured tones-of-voice.
With two 9/11-based wars still raging on the other side of the planet, without the slightest hope of positive outcome, I opted to pull up stakes and relocate very near a completely different border, the other side of which can be found the most-dangerous cities in the world — which was not the case pre-9/11. Two weeks ago, while passing through an airport security checkpoint manned by TSA people, I had my toothpaste confiscated. Last week, while driving down Interstate 10, I was pulled by Border Patrol for no other reason than … who knows why? The National Guard is deployed south of my home. There are people seriously talking about permanently deploying regular military troops along a border that is now seeing erected upon it a 50-foot-high, million-dollar-per-mile wall that will never, ever work, and anyone who thinks it will is deluded.
Ten years after 9/11, it has come down to this: The higher the walls you build, the deeper your prison becomes. And that is no way to live.
I’d like to hear your 9/11 stories, especially if they have any connection whatsoever to the mountains or life in the mountains. Send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.