In September 2001, I was working for a federal agency in Flagstaff, Arizona. It is absolutely stunning there in September – deep blue skies, wispy clouds, and aspens starting to turn gold in the warm afternoons, before the nights grew cool. I fell in love with hiking by myself there, and would spend most afternoons and weekends exploring and just being in nature.
This is a picture I took shortly after September 11, 2001 on one of my favorite trails.
I don’t know what you see when you look at that, but what I see is what is absent. Because what I remember so vividly from that specific day that I hiked that trail was that the skies were still empty of planes. All air travel was still halted. There were no planes to see, no engines to hear, and no contrails leaving their trace across the sky.
That picture has been above every desk that I’ve worked at since we moved to Phoenix.
One of the most unswallowable-bitter-pills about living in Phoenix for me is that I can’t just skip out my door to go hike amongst real trees. Even if I bothered to get in my car, I’d have to drive for hours (literally at least 2 hours, and that’s without traffic) to get far enough away from this hot-ass desert dirtscape to see any “real” forests and trees. So I keep that picture above my desk to remind me that someday, maybe, hopefully, I’ll live somewhere that beautiful again. And that itself, in part, reminds me why I work my ass off at sometimes senseless work – to try to save enough to get back to a beautiful four-season place.
But every time I look at that specific picture, it makes me think of how quiet and empty the skies were.
And now, a couple of weeks in to this stay-at-home thing, we’re taking advantage of the beautiful weather and taking multiple walks around our neighborhood every day. It’s surreal. I’m out and about during weekdays, during the work day, with my kids. Our neighborhood actually has a number of different large, mature trees, so I try to play mind games to pretend I’m in nature, instead of the suburbs. I listen for quiet, which is easier, because the elementary school that is directly across the street from my front door is vacant, not to be used again until next school year.
We don’t see too many other people, but when we do, we just give a 6 foot berth and keep going, just like I would on a trail. Their only playground “equipment” is a couple of trees at the park that I sometimes let them climb so I can stare at the trees and sky a little longer than they’d otherwise endure. And while they stand on the low branches, looking skyward, I, too look skyward. And I take note that here, directly under the flight path to one of the nation’s busiest airports, I see no planes. An occasional private plane out of some small airport, but almost no commercial planes of any kind most days.
So here I am, walking, under an empty sky, yet again. During another national crisis.
When I get home, I’ll get my kids settled, walk to my dining room table, pull out my plastic chair, flip open my work laptop, and sit down. Across from me, I’ve got that picture of aspens taped to my wall so I can still see it above my “desk,” just as it has been for every job I’ve had since we’ve lived here.