You see, Layla and I are HUGE roller-coaster fans, and with the dearth of high-ranking thrill rides in the Sunshine State despite having numerous theme parks, we planned a two-week excursion to ride as many top roller-coasters as we could, starting with Kennywood in Pittsburgh, interspersed with trips to local vineyards and wineries. Once we discovered “twilight fares” (something unique to the Northeast and Midwest: arrive late in the afternoon, and admission price is reduced by as much as fifty percent!), we condensed our attraction-hopping to wine tastings in the morning, followed by thrill rides in the afternoon (which seemed much wilder for some reason)!
This permitted a couple extra days to take in other attractions that weren’t originally on our loosely-planned itinerary. Shanksville, Pennsylvania happened to be one of them (point “H” on the map). It apparently was destined that we would visit this site. Early in our trip, as we traveled along Highway 30 between IdleWild in Ligonier, PA to Hershey Park in eastern Pennsylvania, we saw a simple, hand-carved wooden sign that read “United 93” with the silhouette of an airplane on it alongside the road.
Mind you, we had no idea we would pass so close to this site; we were a thousand miles from home and a million miles away in our own little world during this trip. The phrase was somewhat familiar, but the design of the sign suggested there was a business nearby that adopted that name. (In Florida, we have a t-shirt shop called “Last Flight Out,” and that was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the sign.)
We drove on.
We continued to Hershey Park, Dorney Park in Allentown, then proceeded south to Kings Dominion in Virginia. While at Naked Mountain Winery in Virginia, we were told about a multi-state Wine Festival just a few miles away. BONUS! The event took place on hundreds of acres of farmland at Historic Long Branch Farm, with a “If you build it…they will come” sort of atmosphere. On our third wine tasting of the day, we were chastised for tasting the wines in the improper order, to which Layla responded, “at this point in the day, does it really matter?!” The food, wine, hot sauces, music, car show and 30-degree apple cider were an absolute treat, but caused us to bypass Busch Gardens, and we headed back north towards Cedar Point, a roller-coaster enthusiast’s Mecca, in Sandusky, Ohio.
Our care-free zig-zag route northward placed us on highway 219, and late at night, we checked in at a hotel nearby the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was a haven for over-the-road truckers (I felt like we were at some sort of 18-wheeler G8 Summit)! While enjoying our Continental Breakfast the following morning, I picked up a map from the hotel’s “local attractions” news-stand, and among the locations of every covered bridge in Somerset County (of which we drove a few), there were two large badges emblazoned across the top noting the sites of the Quecreek “Nine for Nine” Mine Rescue of 2002, and the resting spot of passengers from the hi-jacked United Airlines flight on September 11th, 2001.
We put two-and-two together, and that hand-made sign we saw a few days earlier was put into context. We headed along a shell-covered, unpaved path through a landfill, past a mountain of discarded Pepsi vending machines, to a 20-foot wall and portable shed. A kind man was standing guard, tucking mementos placed on the wall and greeting guests to this memorial. He had many stories we had never heard of our most recent “day of infamy,” including the supportive nature of the community as multiple state and federal agencies worked on the site for the ensuing days and weeks.
Shortly after we arrived, dozens of large, bearded, leather-clad individuals on immense American motorcycles arrived…you know, the type that, when you see them, the first thought that goes through your mind is, “Where is a cop when you need one?” As the volunteer continued to talk, I activated my video camera…discreetly. I did not want to disregard the solemnity of this memorial, but I was so moved by these powerful stories, that I wanted to share them with my loved ones back home. The large, intimidating-looking bikers were reduced to tears by the stories, as you can see in the video.
Hearing the stories today on television, I searched for this video taken in 2005, so you can hear what I heard that Summer:
We continued from there, changed. Our experiences at Cedar Point, Geauga Lake and King’s Island were incredible and adrenaline-infused, but the most memorable moment of our trip was the one that was un-planned, and took us to the site of one of the most significant events in American history.