I left the sticker on the stucco wall below the bronze plaque at the Hillcrest Inn, on Fifth Avenue between Robinson and Pennsylvania Streets, in San Diego.
At that time, the Hillcrest Inn was still a mixed vacation and residential hotel. I had been staying there since September 4. I had decided to relocate to San Diego from Seattle, and my stay was dedicated to looking into neighborhoods and housing options.
On the morning of the 11th, I had a mid-morning flight. I hit the snooze on the alarm clock a couple of times, then finally rolled over and reached for the remote to turn on the TV. I saw the image of the first tower billowing smoke from the gouge near the top, and heard Katie Couric say, “There are reports that a plane has hit the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.”
I jumped into my clothes and ran next door to David’s Coffee Shop to get my wakeup coffee. No one had heard yet. I told the baristas and two other customers at the counter. A few other people came in, talking about it. There was no TV at the café. I went back next-door to my room and watched coverage from there. I saw the second tower hit, and went back next door. My packing was forgotten.
Someone had a TV device attached to his car, which was parked in the café driveway. A number of us were watching it and saw the first tower collapse. By now the street was full of shocked citizens, all talking about it. Some wanted to hurry and get to work. Others were afraid to go anywhere but home.
After a couple of hours, it was apparent that my flight home to Seattle would not be departing that morning, or anytime soon. It was also apparent that no other guests at the hotel would be arriving to keep their reservations. The manager extended contracts on a 24-hour basis. I called my rental car company, and they were doing the same.
As the reports came in that all air travel in the country was suspended, and all planes grounded, I pondered other options. After being stuck on hold for an extended time, I drove down to the Amtrak depot. All trains were booked for the next ten days. No hope of getting home by rail. I returned to the hotel.
I stayed in touch with my rental car company. By then they had decided to waive drop-off fees, and were allowing contract-holders to leave with their vehicles and head for home. Finally, on the morning of the 14th, I left San Diego and headed north through LA traffic toward the Grapevine and on up the Central Valley toward home.
I kept the radio on for news updates. It was all depressing: the death toll kept rising. All sense of panic seemed to have settled into a steady level of anxiety. Reports of the heroism in New York, Washington and Shanksville were repeated over and over. There were also some reports of shameful behavior by Americans. In Texas, the Pakistani owner of a convenience store was shot dead.
As I approached San Francisco’s latitude, I looked out uneasily to my left and hoped not to see or hear of any further disaster. The radio reported that a Sikh learning center on the Peninsula had been vandalized. Several men in a large pickup had rammed the locked gate. They had gotten out of the truck and urinated in the sacred fountain. All these men wearing turbans are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists—right?
I made it to the small town of Willows, not far south of the Oregon border, driving through heavy rain. I stopped for the night. TV coverage showed no new developments. In the town, I noticed that nearly all homes and businesses displayed American flags. Many cars flew them from the radio antennas, or even from a partially open window. It was a Dickensian experience: the best of times and the worst of times.
Next morning, it was on to Oregon City to stay overnight with a friend, and phone ahead to another friend at home in Seattle to meet me at the Budget office and drive me back to my house. The third day was a short day of driving. As I passed Sea-Tac Airport, the first planes were starting to arrive, and the first departures as well.
John met me and drove me back to my house, and I settled in feeling secure for the first time in days. I had new empathy for the hermit crab, which feels safe only in a borrowed shell.