The road to Shanksville leads to some of the most beautiful country in rural southwest Pennsylvania.
The hills are never-ending — rolling country filled with thick forests interspaced with farms scattered across the lowlands in between. Idyllic country.
I was on my way back from one of the trips across America I take every few years.
Earlier in the morning, I’d visited the chocolate factory in Hershey, and was meandering along Highway 76 more or less in the direction of Pittsburgh, with the eventual goal of cutting down to visit the site of my grandparents’ farm just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio.
It was early September 2016, the next presidential debate would be in two days, but that was far from my mind when I spotted the turnoff to Shanksville, the site of the Flight 93 National Memorial.
With the sunset not too far away, I decided to spend the night in Shanksville. The town is small, with a population just under 250, the type you’d pass by without a notice.
Fortunately, I found a motel for the night, enjoyed a relaxing dinner, and retired early enough to be ready to visit the memorial in the early morning light.
The Lincoln Highway
The memorial is not far from the Shanksville, but getting there requires a roundabout drive, first along Lambertsville Road, five or so miles along the Lincoln Highway to the Memorial entry, and several more to the crash site.
The highway, the first of the early transcontinental roads built across America, stretches 3,389 miles from Lincoln Park in San Francisco to Times Square in New York. The drive along this section is spectacularly beautiful in dawn’s light, so much so that it’s almost impossible to prepare for what’s ahead.
It had been 15 years since the Twin Towers went down and the 40 brave souls perished as they fought to overcome the highjackers who had commandeered the Boeing 757.
I still remember vividly when my wife Yvonne called me from her teaching job at Roosevelt School.
“Turn on the TV,” she told me. “There’s something really bad happening in New York City.”
For hours I watched, horrified, as the towers were engulfed in flame, and one by one crashed to the ground.
A third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, causing further death and devastation.
“What was happening to America?” I wondered.
Then came word that there was a fourth plane involved, and it had crashed somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. The report came soon after that the aircraft had been headed in the direction of the White House.
The Memorial Site
Surprisingly, the memorial site is open, rolling country, with the main visitor center perched on the top of a hill overlooking the crash site. Below that, in the distance, you can see what looks like a serrated wall, its polished white surface gleaming in the sunlight.
I soon learn that the center and the wall are perfectly aligned along the path that Flight 93 took on its way down to the ground.
From above, it is a bit difficult to comprehend the enormity of what the memorial represents, so I continue on down to the lower part of the site.
The entry point to what I’ve more or less come to call the “Wall of Giants” leads for several hundred yards to the serrated wall I’ve seen from above.
Near the entry there is a panel with the images of each of those who died in defense of their country, personalizing each of them in a way that brings home the horror of those final moments and the magnitude of their bravery.
The wall itself is constructed as if someone had folded an 8-by-300-foot-long sheet of paper to create a series of individual panels, with each of the crew and passengers’ names etched into their own panel.
As I walk along the wall, I stop at each of the panels to give a silent thanks to those who perished. The walk brings back painful memories but also uplifting ones as well — dueling emotions on a morning that otherwise is as beautiful as can be.
At the far end of the wall, as I begin walking back along it, I realize that I am aligned perfectly with the planes’s final destination.
The crash site itself is off limits but in the distance near the end of the meadow, a simple stone marker notes the spot.
It is 19 years now since the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I’m not sure I understood how much it has impacted me and our country until I visited the Flight 93 Memorial site.
As I drive back up to the Lincoln Highway and continue my drive home, I’m thankful for the opportunity to share my gratitude for the 40 of our American heroes who sacrificed their lives to protect our country that day.
— Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.