This is what I wrote for the Jackson Hole Guide 10 years ago…
Seven Days to Think About the American Way
After two weeks of being pummeled by whitewater, overcoming fear, team strife, and an African strain of Montezuma’s revenge (and having heaps of fun), I just wanted to be home. I wanted to sit in my cabin in the Tetons dressed in woolly fleece on a stormy November night and talk to my husband over a glass of warm red wine. I wanted to watch the joy in the eyes of the high school volleyball players I coached as they celebrated their victories. I wanted to be pulling blueberry muffins out of the oven at Shades Café. I wanted to shed my tears of grief on top of Teewinot as I looked over the Grand Teton. But for the first time in my life, I couldn’t get what I wanted. It was a staggering glimpse into the lives of the millions of people around the world who are captives of borders, race, religion, social status, and power.
At noon on Monday, September 10, 2001, I was meant to leave Victoria Falls, Zimbawe on a two-hour commuter flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. From there I was bound for an overnight flight to Atlanta, followed by a quick flight to Salt Lake City. I was returning from Zambia, where I was racing with the USA Women’s National Whitewater Rafting Team on the Zambezi river for the 2001 Camel Whitewater Challenge. In Victoria Falls our plane was delayed three hours. The mid-day flight was “overloaded” and could not fly because of high temperatures and fear that the fuel could explode. As the plane baked in on the runway in the 100-degree heat, we waited for the African sun to set and the temperature to drop the ten degrees necessary to take off. I missed my connecting flight to Atlanta by thirteen minutes. I was rescheduled for the next flight departing Tuesday evening, September 11.
I was set up in a hotel with six members of the USA men’s team who were scheduled to fly to New York. I was flicking through the channels on the TV in my hotel room ten minutes before heading to the airport for my rescheduled flight when I stopped on CNN and watched footage of the first World Trade Center tower set ablaze. I saw the second plane hit the next tower only an instant later than the New York cameraman did. I checked my watch to see if it was something like April Fool’s Day. I thought of the HG Well’s War of the Worlds. I heard the screaming come through the TV.
I dashed in circles around the room looking for my key. I considered the phone, and then just ran down the hall to find my countrymen. I rushed from room to room banging on their doors before taking the stairs two-by-two to the lobby where I found them piled in an airport shuttle van.
“Did you see the news?” My voice was cracking.
Their quizzical looks assured me they had not, and I heard the words for the first time myself as they left my mouth. I described what I had seen in what sounded like someone else’s voice—like when you hear yourself on an answering machine. By the time I got back to my room to grab my bags and rush to the airport, the third plane had hit the Pentagon. My reality then became a blur of breaking stories of horror, cancelled flights, standby lines of hundreds of people, phone calls, and confusion.
Johannesburg has the esteemed reputation of being the most dangerous city in the world. 96 percent of the population is black, and the entire infrastructure is run by the remaining 4 percent. The week before the terrorist attacks, the USA had walked out of an international conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa. Although the South African president publicly denounced the attacks on the USA, a televised meeting of the divided South African Parliament showed some leaders cheering the demolition of the “American way.” The belief that we got what we deserved was not uncommon here. We were warned never to leave the hotel except to go to the airport.
Although I was not in the heart of Islam, I was in the hearty of the problem. For centuries the wealthy white had suppressed the blacks and manipulated a system to keep them poor and helpless. Everywhere I went people working for less than one dollar a day bowed to me and called me Madame under the watchful eyes of their white bosses. Everywhere I turned I saw a struggle over religion, power, and money. No wonder the world is angry.
I surveyed with contrition the American missionaries at the airport who nervously stroked gold bars the size of tootsie rolls engraved with the word Jesus hanging from shiny chains around their thick necks. I watched with sorrow as a young Arabic-looking American college student was roughly hand-searched by security guards. I cheered when the black flight attendant, five days after the attacks, turned to the arrogant business class client (who was making a scene because he hadn’t had a drink for over an hour) and said “Look buddy, can’t you have a little compassion here. We’re three flight attendants short and we are dealing with the loss of co-workers. I don’t want to hear any more of your crap right now.”
Over the many hours alone with my thoughts I realized I must take responsibility for quietly living my life in the American way of “excess I the name of comfort.” How often do we contemplate how our lifestyle affects the rest of humanity and the environment? This week we found out how much it hurts to see the truth. The USA declared war to protect our way of life, to pit good against evil. But have we looked closely at our own evils—greed, class conflict, and religious hypocrisy?
On day five in my hotel room I finally read something that made sense in an introductory book on Buddhism. The Buddha was asked by a village people, the Kalamas, how he could know which among the many religious teachings and teachers to believe.
“ The Buddha said they should not blindly believe anyone—not their parents or teachers, not the books or traditions, not even the Buddha himself. Rather they should look carefully into their own experience to see which things lead to more greed, more hatred, more delusion, and should abandon them. And they should look to see what things lead to greater love, generosity, wisdom, openness and peace, and should cultivate those things.”
I finally left Johannesburg on Friday evening and made it to Salt Lake City Sunday at midnight via London and Miami. Like the rest of America, I resolved to show the evil ones that business can go on as usual. But I resolved to consider the morality of “business as usual” and how deeply intertwined we are with the rest of the earth.