I was a twenty-year-old college student nearing the end of my semester abroad in Vienna when I booked a seat on an inexpensive extension trip to Moscow. Russia seemed a worthy capstone to months of Eurail country-hopping, and in 1993, the fluid political climate lent a glint of glamour to the itinerary. By this point, my open embrace of adventures in Europe also signified a continuous shedding of my fearful childhood skin. As a little girl, I spent hours debating whether I should I close my bedroom door at night to keep the inevitable house fire from consuming me, or open it wide to evade the burglar waiting to climb through my window. No matter which direction my thoughts took me, I felt trapped.

Underneath my brain-whirring anxiety, though, a romanticism of risk lay dormant. Living in Europe, I fell deeply in love with the adventure of travel. I had never left the US before that semester and I brandished every American-living-abroad cliché: clunky black oxfords, a blunt, cheap haircut just severe enough to look foreign, and the ability to sleep on any floor, couch or bunk that offered up a tale to scribble on faded blue airmail paper and sail back home.

Days after signing on for the trip, I climbed aboard a fume-filled, sticky-floored bus, which promptly got lost on its way to the airport. Our group easily missed our first Aeroflot flight. I stretched out on my battered backpack to wait for another delayed flight to arrive from Moscow and fly right back again. Boarding a Cold War-era jet around midnight, I shunned the late dinner of fat-speckled meats in favor of free vodka. Our guides eventually translated the pilot’s Russian introduction as we finally ascended into a black sky. I mostly feigned sleep, with the tiny, cold airplane window pressed against my cheek.

A few hours into the flight, it was impossible to ignore nonstop Slavic messages spitting out of the speaker. I hauled my thoughts from dozing to consciousness as the guides relayed stunning news: Moscow’s air traffic controllers had turned off the runway lights and left the airport for the night. Our approach began after 2 a.m., and no one had alerted ground crews that a flight was still on its way. This was incomprehensible news—row after row of disoriented passengers spoke anxiously to each other in high-pitched tones, a desperate airborne Babel. I realized how little our group knew of each other as I struggled to establish meaningful glances with anyone. Still, I felt that my breathing was collective with all of these passengers, coordinated in shallow gulps.

Not to worry, the pilot assured us: he would dump the remaining fuel and line himself up with the dark runways from memory. This was his final message, and he delivered it quickly and matter-of-factly. Flight attendants blithely gestured to us to prepare for a hard landing, heads in laps. The harsh scene was unfolding faster than my own processing speed; I was still more confused than panicked as the pilot brusquely hurtled the jet toward the ground. I hit my head on the tray table as I awkwardly leaned forward to cradle my skull in my hands. Bile rose in my throat, mixed with that vodka, as the plane found asphalt, wobbled back and forth, and eventually screeched to a stop.

Stepping onto the chilly runway minutes later, I felt jelly-legged. Punked. The terror so intense, yet bluntly resolved, that it seemed like a tease. I was used to being uncomfortable after spending weekends in various countries, but this unease was distinct—an incorporeal as opposed to a cultural disconnect.

We were immediately funneled into a pitch-dark customs area—the customs workers had gone home earlier, too. The darkness of this space enveloped me as thoroughly as the reality of what we had just escaped. I stood speechless, my body covered in goose bumps. I felt my nubile veneer of sophistication melt into a liquid yearning to find my own bed—in Missouri—rather than another blank hostel mattress. Twenty minutes later, the inspectors returned, flicked on the fluorescents, and joked heartily with our guides about how they had noticed the lights of our plane while driving home from the airport.

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I walked away from the Aeroflot trip with a resounding wariness of plane travel. My childhood anxiety resurged. In the years that followed, I found myself obsessed with air travel’s close calls and crashes alike—unable to pull away from the coverage, enthralled. My dread mimicked an old-style funicular, ratcheting upwards with each flight toward an unseen peak. Nevertheless, I held onto an equally strong yearning to travel. The restlessness that led me to move far from my midwestern hometown for college, to study abroad from that Pennsylvania college, and to resist moving near either place after graduation, followed me doggedly into adulthood. I craved juicy adventures that demanded I fly—to China, Costa Rica, Peru, on prop planes, double-decker planes, and ultimately for a legal career that required regular business travel. I couldn’t stop flying lest I abandon the stimulation and freedom I craved, yet I was lugging around a nauseating, inflammatory, and self-inflicted fear.

For almost ten years, each time I sat through takeoff and landing, my breath grew audibly quick as I convinced myself something was wrong with the plane. Whenever I could, I chose a window seat near the wing, scrutinizing bolts and rust spots on the exterior while I noted the pilot’s takeoff speed, angles and turns. In 1999, a few months after I was married, my brother-in-law lost his mother when her plane exploded on a Taiwanese runway. I felt convinced that I was unsafe in the air.

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On September 10, 2001, an ordinary Monday about a month before our second wedding anniversary, my husband Dick and I had an argument. The longer my first pregnancy went on, the more often we fought. I hated just about everything about our move to Atlanta from Philadelphia two years earlier, primarily for his career. Fresh out of our intense graduate school experiences, we almost immediately felt out of place in the New South. I can be bellicose, and I often found myself interrupting people whose linguistic cadence was so much slower than I expected. Dick was excelling at work, but he spent an inordinate amount of time participating in a glaze of social sweetness that belied his natural candor.

By contrast, we had loved Philly for its shabby, layered, truculent personality. Our years in Philadelphia were also the last time we felt connected in every way—on equal footing in our achievements, in our relationship, in our decisions. In Atlanta, it was clear I was the trailing spouse. I felt cornered, and maybe this was wrapped up in being married, being pregnant, being six figures in debt for a law degree I was ambivalent about.

That particular fight hid itself in something related to money or dinner or parents, and I climbed into bed early, facing the wall. Neither of us acknowledged that I had an overnight trip to Boston the next day for work. I had begged for this trip; some of Dick’s family was there, and Boston was a city I grew up idealizing after a single childhood vacation touring New England. I wanted to get to know Boston as an adult. Also high on my list of reasons to escape, I had grown to resent fall in the South more than other seasons. The immeasurability of it bugged me—hardly any leaf season, no chill in the air, days when temperatures still reached ninety, and everyone’s swimming pool in full use. There was no cycle of life, no edges along which to gauge the progress of a year.

Sensing I was tired of driving to rural Georgia counties for inconsequential client interviews and lunch in a quiet cafeteria, my senior colleague deferred the trip to me. He and I had recently bonded over our love-hate relationship with travel; he introduced me to a website called amigoingdown.com, and I wasted a lot of otherwise billable time checking the odds of meeting my maker on China Air or ValuJet. Even so, I preferred this trip out of Atlanta to one more day in it.

The morning after we fought, I was quiet as I got ready. We were still pretty newly married, but we’d been together for many years, and I knew by then his recondite habit of falling firmly asleep after a big fight. While he was deep in a conflict-fueled coma, I dragged myself out of bed and struggled into the cheap maternity suit that I’d been wearing all that long, sweaty summer. I grabbed my nearly dead cell phone and huge leather briefcase (a gift from my parents when I passed the bar exam, it quickly became an albatross because it was so heavy), and drove to Hartsfield. Depositions and document review waited for me in Boston: the bane and staple of my job as a young associate in a large, cold law firm.

I parked on the roof of the short-term garage, and with my purse over one shoulder, my briefcase, and my belly, awkwardly made my way to the terminal. I breathed in the pure blue sky that seemed to reach all corners of the country on that September morning, and boarded a Delta 767. It was a remarkably big plane for a domestic flight, with two aisles down the middle, and I settled into my assigned seat in the center section.

As we took off, I was immersed in my takeoff ritual of scrutinizing a crossword puzzle to beat back anxious thoughts. I’d recently picked up a mantra from a television newsmagazine on combating a fear of flying: I repeated “The plane is going to crash” dozens of times in my head, which—with twisted logic—was supposed to be calming. It was effective in that it gave me something else to do. Eventually we were in the air, and I could breathe normally again. When the pilot introduced himself, it was the kind of day he sounded excited to fly in. I listened closely for any suggestion of a problem with equipment, weather, or even just his tone of voice, but there was none.

Sometime around 9:20 a.m., a couple of hours into the flight, I realized the volume around me was expanding. Not unlike the Aeroflot flight, this murmur had a nervous edge. More than a dozen passengers now moved from their seats and stood in small clumps on the left side of the plane, craning their necks to see something on the ground. Chatter quickly gave way to quiet tension—none of us spoke to our seatmates, or to the passengers standing beside us. I told myself this was some misplaced reaction—there was no turbulence, no drunken passenger trying to open a door, no oxygen masks dropping from the ceiling to signal a mechanical problem.

The pilot soon came on the speaker, in a very different voice, breathless and barely audible: Yeah, I wanted to confirm that it is actually smoke you are seeing out of the western-facing windows of the aircraft. There has been an incident…. a crash… a plane flew into the World Trade Center this morning. We don’t have more details yet but we will let you know when we do. He paused, as if he was considering how much we could process in the back of the plane. I also want to alert everyone that no passenger will be allowed to unfasten his seatbelt or get out of his seat until we land at Logan Airport. Lavatories are closed for the duration of this flight.

Wrangling with these unorthodox restraints, I stared hard to my left for a long time, trying to pull into focus the view out of the windows. I could barely peer past the towering man nearest me in that seat section, but saw thick black and grey smoke pouring out of Manhattan in amounts I’d only ever seen in footage of erupting volcanoes, or mushroom clouds. A fresh, intense wave of alarm billowed and burrowed inside my stomach. I tried to piece together what could be happening below, listening to news spreading from a few people behind me who had secretly dialed out: My husband said there was a terror attack. He said there are planes crashing all over the Northeast. He said they have no idea what is going on. I grew stiff and motionless, while my chest threatened to explode, for another thirty minutes as we made our way closer to Boston. As the plane descended, in total terrified silence, each of us seemed to be clutching a powerless phone, simulating connection to the family and friends we were desperate to reach.

The pilot came on one more time: This is the pilot again. We will be landing at Logan Airport shortly. Logan has been shut down and is under intense security. When we land, you will not be allowed to retrieve your baggage, nor stop at any point in the airport. Authorities will be waiting to escort you outside immediately. Our fear was practically tactile as we filed off the plane in the most orderly manner, onto a dark jetway. Déjà vu flooded me, stirring memories of the dark Russian runway and the vacant customs office.

This day, just past ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, we emerged into a Logan that was dimly lit and silent, every storefront firmly gated. The only people remaining in the terminal wore camouflage and carried huge, unfamiliar automatic weapons. Two heavily armed men stood at either side of the jetway as we disembarked. I had boarded a plane in Atlanta with the luxury of national stability, and landed in a country rapidly assuming the mien of combat. I reached Dick on my dying cell phone. This was the same phone that never had battery life, about which we had had endless arguments that I needed to carry it, charge it, turn it on, answer it. I resisted all along, for no reason I was willing to acknowledge, and that single bar of battery life underlined my lack of concern for connection:

Yes, I’m okay; I’m in Boston—what’s happening?

Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center, and one into the Pentagon. No one knows what’s going on but they think it’s a hijacking.

We didn’t say that we were over the residual anger we had left each other holding—it was enough to know that we hated to be 1,100 miles apart at such a profound time, and our physical distance brought some emotional resolution. Our quarrel seemed vague and silly, at least for a while. Feelings of displacement in Atlanta were already open between us, and I knew he wished he wasn’t there. But now we both felt rootless—unsettled in any place we could imagine being that day. Clearly, it was no longer that we simply needed to leave Atlanta. The world we knew had just turned inside out, and it wasn’t clear how it would take shape again. Our most reliable community was in each other.

I hung up shortly, after we agreed I would focus on getting to my mother-in-law, Mimi, who lived on the north shore of Boston. I found myself outside on the sidewalk without knowing I had moved at all. The only movement I was aware of was in my confused mind, my roiling stomach, and my sinking, pounding heart. I stood outside the revolving doors of the airport: bewildered, disoriented in the squinty mid-morning sun. Set off like a wind-up toy, I boarded a rental car bus and sat across from a group of college-aged kids who were incongruously chatty, laughing.

The Hertz lobby was packed with others focused on what I knew I was now seeking, too—visual confirmation. We watched the towers collapse in miles-high clouds of dust, and I burst into tears. By now, my phone was dead. When the manager let me use his landline in the back room, I called my sister-in-law, Laura, and she offered to drive in from her house in Brookline and pick me up: Will they let me into the airport? Eager for a plan, I assured her: There are no more rental cars available so people have to find other rides, but you can’t get close so I will meet you at the entrance ramp. I limped through the lot to wait, briefcase ricocheting off of my hip like a pinball flipper.

Once in her car, I felt grounded on some level—still reeling, but with a known person. As we drove, I called directory assistance from her car, trying to update my colleagues in Atlanta, and the operator repeated over and over: I can’t believe this day is happening. We drove through the unperturbed natural beauty of Marblehead Neck—ragged cliffs rising above the filmy surf, leaves beginning their ascent to peak autumn color, a genuine chill, and the heavy smells of ocean and leaf decay in the air.

My in-laws’ house had always seemed stark—drafty and shrewd within its gorgeous setting—but I collapsed gratefully on the short couch in front of their box television. Familiarity and shock blanketed me, and we sat together absorbing waves of accurate and wildly inaccurate reporting. Gradually, more family drifted in: my brother-in-law Ted, Laura’s sister who was visiting from Toronto, and Consuelo, the cook who lived with my in-laws for years. I felt infinitesimal relief seep in as I grasped each family’s coordinates. Dick had gone home—all high rises in Atlanta were empty. His two sisters were in northern Manhattan, but decided to remain in the city. My sisters had met up in Virginia, far from their workplaces in DC. And my parents were back in St. Louis, a city far from the catastrophic events, but which was executing its own emergency protocols in the government building where my mom worked. The whole country seemed to be evacuating.

The weekend before, Mimi had promised a lobster dinner when I told her about my visit. Eating lobster reminds me of being in Maine on that spectacular childhood vacation, and feeling adventurous for eating the regional specialty. True to her word, we ate steamed lobster that evening; and just like the rest of the world, it felt wrong. In part, the lobsters were still filled with salty water, soaking both the table and our laps, as Consuelo rushed to cook them and take in the news at once. Mostly, though, it felt decadent in the middle of such deep sadness.

The next morning, I found a car service that would take me into Boston where I tried to squeeze in some of the assigned document review. My value as a high-priced associate in a large law firm felt steeped in a willingness to continue working. The deposition had already been cancelled, but I couldn’t get back to Atlanta by air, and I couldn’t watch any more footage: my brain threatened to freeze without new words or thoughts to interrupt its nervous circulation.

Once downtown, I thumbed through boxes of paperwork—the kind that still danced in the air around the wreckage in Manhattan that morning: email correspondence, copies of contracts, drafts of marketing decks—while the radio spoke to me in the background. My job was to flag relevant documents, but nothing in the boxes seemed relevant. I heard sirens for hours and realized that a hotel evacuated three times that day for bomb scares and suspect searches was across the street. Every place I went felt crazy with fear.

By the third day, Logan remained closed and Ted drove me down I-95 to Philadelphia to meet Dick, who would arrive the next morning by car. I spent that night under the covers alone in my dark hotel room, watching news shows highlight the people who had died that week: a popular college classmate of mine popped up on the screen, having been at Windows on the World for a breakfast meeting; another woman wept about her husband’s ill-timed arrival at his desk in the window where the first plane entered, nose first. She was expecting her first child around the same time I was.

Dick finally arrived. Tears had been pouring down my face for days, and I was so grateful for a familiar soul. Our physical reconnection offered a small slice of the elusive security everyone seemed to be seeking that week, and for months and years afterward. When he and I had last been in Philadelphia, we were students and together for every meal, study hour, and bus ride to class. We got engaged in dirty, elegant Rittenhouse Square. We treasured the city’s strange mix of culture and déclassé. Even during this surreal, short stay, Philly was itself to us: Dick’s car had a side window inexplicably smashed when the valet pulled it out of the hotel garage, which made us laugh for just a minute. That city, with its raw edges, was one place that felt a little bit solid.

On September 16th, we started our drive back down to Atlanta, pushing through in one day. On earlier trips, we made an effort to explore what we didn’t understand or know about the South, but this time we weren’t interested in quaint stopovers in Charleston or Savannah. I just wanted to know that we still lived in a country where it was possible to go from one end to the other. Once we were back in Atlanta, people seemed confused by my open grief; this was a major news event—certainly significant, but not significantly personal to many of our colleagues and neighbors.

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I got back on a plane a few months later and—unexpectedly—September 11th was the nadir of my fear of flying. I gradually shed the panicky refrain that rang in my head during takeoff and landing. It was as if the fear had morphed into a sadness that still forms an unshakeable lump in my throat when I reflect on how I flew over so much grief and death that morning. All of the planes over the years that had actually crashed were not mine, and I didn’t think I deserved to maintain a fear based on coincidence, or near misses.

I was physically unscathed by the tragedies beneath my plane, and transformed in ways that unfolded for years afterward. It was the death knell between Atlanta and me. It took us two more years to finally execute a move and we landed in Boston, but we left our hearts in the Northeast that week. It was also the beginning of the end of my short corporate legal career, which would limp along for two more years until I proclaimed it too mundane, too vapid, too patronizing.

I understand that travel is what propels me—I can’t be content to stay on one path for long. The feeling of wanderlust, first unfurled as a romantic escape from my youthful anxiety, is also deeply attached to a reflexive desire for distance. When Dick and I were arguing during those tense Atlanta years, he hurled an enduring truth: You’re all push and no pull. I have spent decades pushing people and plans; useful tactics to avoid the discomforts of intimacy. My life is a voyage of unsettledness, with a deep itch to keep moving and improving upon the last place I landed. Fifteen years on, I find that itch still burrowed in more personal fears I hope to vanquish. I have so much goodness in my life to cherish—so many reasons to abandon geographic and circumstantial excuses—and a fervid desire to stop feeling doomed.

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