Where I Was, Where I'll Be on 9/11
"Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance."
— President Theodore Roosevelt
As country crooner Alan Jackson has so aptly sung about, this week brings about the solemn question of where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day.
For me, I was crawling down out of a whitetail treestand in the mosquito-infested bottoms of the Little Missouri River that flowed through the rugged and all-but empty Badlands of west-central North Dakota. This was just before I was getting ready to re-enter the modern world. A world that has never really been the same.
Not since September 11, 2001, anyways.
In the Peace Garden State to cover the Professional Walleye Trail championship out of Bismarck later that week, the boss and I had decided to get there a few days early with our compound bows in tow.
With deer tags in hand, we were hoping to run into a velvet-racked whitetail a few weeks before our own respective deer seasons would start much further to the south.
After several days of fruitless hunting – only a handful of nocturnal whitetails – our crew was just about out of water. Not to mention hunting time and the hope that an unfilled deer tag brings.
A trip into the nearest town – Killdeer, North Dakota, in this case – was in order so that a few final provisions could be obtained. It proved to be a trip that would forever rearrange our thoughts and priorities as husbands, fathers, workers, outdoorsmen and citizens of our great land.
As Scott Unclebach's pickup truck climbed the winding road up out of the bottomland, all that we knew about the world on that mild September morning instantly changed as we crested the Badlands' rim and gained mobile phone signal access for the first time in several days.
As our phones connected with the nearest tower, our screens lit up with many unheard messages detailing the horrors of the day.
Hearing the recorded details of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks unleashed on America from the rattled voices of our wives, friends and co-workers, Unclebach, Rodney Hutcherson and myself simply couldn't conceive of the death and destruction that had suddenly and violently found its way to our shores.
A quick stop at a bar-and-grill in town provided television images to go with the unthinkable words our cell phone messages had told of and we were quickly left sober, somber and all but silent as our eyes moistened up with tears.
If I'm truthful, I really didn't want to hunt anymore that afternoon, even with an unused deer tag in my back pocket. How could I with thousands of my countrymen dead and our nation suddenly at war with an unseen enemy?
I'm sure I wasn't alone in that sentiment since my fly fishing guide friend Rob Woodruff was in British Columbia on a salmon fishing trip and described to me how he felt much the same despite rivers that continued to flow towards the Pacific Ocean and bulge with migrating silvers.
Similar tales of hunters and fishermen feeling sucker-punched and empty emerged from other Rocky Mountain, Alaskan and Canadian camps where radio contact managed to penetrate the bush and deliver the awful news that stopped virtually all Americans in our tracks.
Of course, some wouldn't know the world shaking news for several more days, only realizing that the skies were suddenly devoid of all airplane traffic and that promised pick-ups from the heart of the bush country had not occurred.
For most, the unexpected delay in backcountry departure brought only mere inconvenience. For others, who were all but out of supplies, the delay was a bit more worrisome and ominous as water rations dried up and stomachs growled.
But even for the latter, all would be understood in the twinkling of an eye when pilots landed and handed the latest newspapers to those hunters and fishermen who angrily demanded to know why they had been stranded in the backcountry for several days on end.
Those headlines brought the news that we were a nation that was bloodied, bruised, battered and, for a moment, brought to our collective knees as we pondered what to do next.
For the nation, the answer to that question was provided a few hours later by the President, who promised justice while urging Americans to pray for the fallen and their families and to continue to go about their business.
Earlier that afternoon, Unclebach provided the motivation that I needed to do just that as I sat on the cabin's front porch overlooking the Badlands beauty not far from where one of the nation's patriotic warriors and presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, had once trod.
"Burkhead," my friend mused to the best of my recollection, "the people that did this are attacking our freedoms, our ideas and beliefs, our way of life. To give in this afternoon and not go hunting would be to let the terrorists win, even if it's just in a small way. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to do that. So I'm going hunting."
And with that, he started zipping up his camouflage jacket, shouldering his backpack and picking up his bow and arrows.
After some quick thought, I wasn't far behind him, grabbing my own gear and defiantly heading back out for a final attempt at collecting a North Dakota buck.
While I wish I could provide you with the tale of a magnificent buck that was arrowed in the trip's 11th hour on one of the most infamous days in American history, that simply didn't happen.
But as the wind rattled the early autumn leaves on river bottom cottonwoods, I came away with something that I can't help but smile at and think about every time the somber anniversary of 9/11 arrives on the annual trip around the sun.
Lost that afternoon in my muddled thoughts, that memory arrived in the form of a big and bad 6x6 bull elk that came in noisily behind my stand.
Hoping to find a cow in estrous – or another wapiti suitor to whip with his antlers – the bruiser bull angrily thrashed a tree for a good 10 minutes thanks to his rut-crazed supply of testosterone fuel. After working out some of his frustrations on the hapless tree, he then departed in a huff looking elsewhere for love and a good fight.
It's a sight , and a few accompanying sounds, that I've never forgotten, despite the horrors of the day that were going on elsewhere.
And I never will, all because I listened to the wise words of my friend Scott and heeded his call to get off the front porch, wipe the tears from the corner of my eyes and to get back into the field to see what opportunity might await.
After all, isn't that a part of the essence of America, the freedom and opportunity to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and to quickly get back after it when disaster comes?
Today, a full 13 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I plan to do the same thing all over again, albeit this time with a trip to a nearby sunflower patch to chase Texas mourning dove and perhaps the occasional whitewing.
All the while as they rocket by on a sultry late afternoon September breeze, winging their way over an America that continues to be the land of the free, the home of the brave and the best little democratic experiment that the world has ever known.
A democracy, that despite any of her flaws, continues to offer up the freedom to get out and enjoy the amazing outdoors' bounty that our land offers to all who will endeavor to get up, go outside and enjoy it.
More than a decade later, despite the great fear and alarm of that fateful September day when the world stopped turning, that much has never changed.
And thanks to the grace of God and the brave efforts of our nation's heroic soldiers – many of them enthusiastic hunters and fishermen – may that ever be so.