September 11, 2001: I am travelling solo on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Las Vegas, New Mexico (not the glitzy gambling hub in Nevada), a little city half the size of Taree on the NSW Mid-North Coast.
I am woken up by sun pouring in the window, viewing the gorgeous stark flat countryside and rubbing myself all over trying to ease my sore muscles as I had to try and sleep in the seats the night before.
I go on down to the smoking carriage at around 8am. All the usual suspects are there. The great thing about being a smoker and travelling by Amtrak is the people you get to meet (although I'm very glad I'm no longer a smoker).
And around me?
An elderly gentleman who is verbose and lacking social skills due to a brain injury, is annoying the hell out of everyone .
The woman I was sitting next to, who was admiring of my ability to be patient with the old guy, whispering "no wonder you do the job you do". I had a great conversation with her about racism in the Eastern states (I think in particular Philadelphia) as opposed to racism in LA.
The young couple who couldn't keep their hands off each other, berated the old guy for calling Asians "orientals" ("One of my best friends adopted an oriental girl, and she is SMART!!!" he stated, among a lot of other rather dubious comments).
The guy with the black and blue and broken face, who managed to somehow get it on with the woman who was asking everyone for advice about following the scumbag she loved south.
The girl with the southern accent and the big hair, chewing her gum like cud, who let us know how "all them Jerry Springer shows are shit ... it's all a big set up. I know cuz my cousin went on there".
I get told by the porter that the Pentagon has been blown up.
"No, it's some kind of joke - that can't happen! No-one can blow up the Pentagon. It's the Pentagon for God's sake!" I exclaim in disbelief.
No, no, no, he assured me, it's true. Then he told me about the World Trade Center.
I go back up to my smoke-free seat and tell the people in the carriage the news I had heard. The elderly gentleman, the same one with the dubious racial views, tells us his daughter works in the World Trade Center.
I sit and plug my ears up with my Walkman and stare out at the countryside passing by, disturbed.
That's the face of America you see right there.- American journalist in Colorado
The train stops. We are at La Junta, Colorado. It looks like a one-stoplight town (which, let's face it, is one more traffic light than we have where I live in Wingham).
We all end up inside the waiting room at the station, where, incredibly, there is a television. We watch as the planes fly into the Twin Towers. Over and over again.
There are line-ups for the pay phones. I panic. I line up to call the Australian Embassy. I tell the two Japanese girls in front of me they might want to do the same. The guy who's chatting them up looks at me in disgust and asks me "why would they want to do that?"
I want to know how I am going to get home to Australia. What should I do? I want to get home. Suddenly the USA feels a whole lot less safe.
I also need to call Susan, my friend in New Mexico, to say "hey, I might be a little late here, hours, days, I dunno". Apparently they are checking all of the train tracks in the whole of the US and we weren't allowed to move on until that is done.
Standing around on the platform, I see two things that devastate me.
The first is a young girl with a baby in a pram. She is sobbing, absolutely distraught. I ask one of the other smokers what her story is.
"She's in the army reserves. She only just got custody of her little girl and now she is probably going to be called up".
Then I am talking with the lovely elderly couple I had dinner with in the dining car the night before, and a guy who has hot-footed it over to the station to hand out "I Love La Junta" badges. He turns out to be the local journalist.
The elderly couple turn away, arms around each other. The look of grief on their faces is so heartbreakingly sad. The badge-toting journalist says, "That's the face of America you see right there". Words I will never forget. My heart aches for America and everyone in it.
Four hours later we finally get moving, although the rest of the journey is taken at snail's pace. I have a lot of time to thank my lucky stars that I had changed my plans and I was not in New York - I had originally planned to be in New York that week to see a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on Broadway.
Late in the afternoon I finally get off the train at Las Vegas, New Mexico to be met by my friend, to learn that another friend's husband is "missing". He works at the Pentagon.
Julia Driscoll has worked as a journalist for the Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Times for seven years. She values the deep connection with community that being a rural and regional journalist brings. Career highlights have involved environmental stories - bringing the plight of the little known endangered Manning River helmeted turtle to the attention of the public, resulting in wide-spread knowledge in the community and conservation action; and breaking the news of the Manning River ceasing to run for the first time in recorded history.
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