I learned of 9/11 on the morning it occurred as I drove to the landfill in Monte Vista with a load of concrete remnants from our house construction. Bob Edwards, at the time host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, delivered the news through my truck’s radio. I was horrified by the violence, destruction, and depravity of the event. Still, despite marinating in the event via television and the internet, I felt quite disconnected from it, the Valley so greatly removed from New York City, Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania, the Valley’s tallest structures grain elevators and sand dunes.
However, in the days that followed, the horror manifested itself in a subtle way in our sparsely-populated neighborhood south of town, and a deep, if narrow, way in my imagination. 9/11 shut down civilian air traffic in the United States for several days. This meant no noise coming from Alamosa’s little airport, a quarter-mile east of our house: no activity among the small private planes and the occasional private jet; no loud buzz of the propeller-driven commuter planes that connected Alamosa with Denver several times a day. It also meant no soft roar, faintly blinking lights, and contrails some 28,000 feet above the Valley floor: the large commercial jet airliners that regularly flew over southern Colorado between far more important destinations than Alamosa.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t look at aircraft, or even our vast and normally tranquil Southwestern skies, in the same way. Not that I’d ever swooned over human flight, but aircraft of all sizes and designs were suddenly no longer one of our crowning achievements of applied science; no longer things of grace and speed, but rather weapons, predators, death deliverers. And the skies over southern Colorado and northern New Mexico were no longer the benign home and playground of light, cloud, wind, and precious rain, but rather potential battlegrounds, cielos del muerto.
In time, however, aircraft in the Valley became friendly again. And so, too, the skies over the Valley, aided, for me at least, by a cosmic event some two months after 9/11. At two o’clock one November morning, I awoke to my alarm, put on four layers of clothing, and, wrapped in a comforter, sat in a folding chair in our backyard in 16-degree weather to watch the southern Colorado sky bristle with meteors―the November Leonids, dust- and marble-size debris from the comet Temple-Tuttle entering the earth’s atmosphere at 155,000 miles-per-hour. Under normal circumstances, the night skies over the Valley―especially in the dry, crackling-cold late fall―presented a glowing net of stars that fairly shouted. Meteors were an added attraction, and, just as the newspapers had predicted, the Leonid shower of 2001 was the most abundant in three-and-a-half decades. I watched the Leonids tickle wildly the southern skies. Some flame-outs were the briefest pale striations, others were slushy green belts that seemed to hold forth for several long seconds. It was as if these emissaries from an incomprehensibly older and larger world were reminding American skies: You are not home to hijacked airliners, F-16 scramblers, suicide bombers, and scud and cruise missiles; you have been, are now, and will always be predominantly home to us.