Long drive to understand how country has changed

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The open road has long defined America. It brings us together and keeps us apart. We travel it with independence and purpose. Reporter Alex Tizon has taken to the road to cross America as it faces a new day. This is his first report.

SEATTLE to ELLENSBURG — Beware visions that come in the middle of a headache. Especially when the headache is part of a bigger ache that you can't put your finger on.

It hit first in the stomach as I watched video of the World Trade Center collapsing like a mountain caving in on itself. It cut through the heart as I saw pictures of men and women leaping from the top of what at one time were the tallest buildings on Earth.

By the end of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, my head was so crowded with impossible images that it hurt. A voice said Go East. So I am, not entirely sure why.

I'm driving to New York City. The journey feels right, even in its vagueness. I'm a pacer. When I need to process something, I get up and walk. This will be my form of walking, only I'll do it in a rented Ford Expedition and cover 3,000 miles.

Many of you are in the same mental and emotional space I am, and I invite you to come with me in spirit across the country. Like true Seattleites, we can process this thing together. We'll visit with people along the way, find out who they are and how they're doing, and whether anything has changed for them.

Early Wednesday morning, a radio DJ who typically is obscenely chipper, greeted his listeners with the solemn pronouncement that "Wherever you woke up today, you got up in a new America."

He's right, of course. But I don't think any of us know what that really means yet. What does this new country look and feel like?

We'll detour onto some back roads, stop at a few greasy spoons, visit a bowling alley or tattoo parlor or church. We'll go high and low. Fate will have a say in who we meet and what we find, as we gauge the mood across this, our new America.

When I get to Manhattan, where it was given its violent birth, I hope to stand at the lip of the chasm and see how far down it goes.

Maybe the image will be the final punctuation at the end of a staggering sentence. Maybe it will be like the silence at the end of a prayer. Maybe I'll fall in and never come back out, which is a florid way of saying that I — and some of you — may not ever be the same.

We will have company on the road. The guy who rented me the Expedition said that, because of the closed airports, and because of a new fear of flying, Americans were taking to the road like he's never seen. The Expedition was the only vehicle left.

Not five minutes after I got in the truck, a woman who called in to a radio talk show said she was driving from her Midwest town to Manhattan in search of her brother, who worked at the World Trade Center.

Maybe the cars in the other lanes were listening to the same woman.

It was a late start out of Seattle on Wednesday. The Expedition sailed up the Cascades, crossing to the other side as the sun was beginning to set. The colors went from verdant green to brown, and the forests, from vast to spotty. I was now east of the mountains, in the "other" Washington.

Caught a quick night's sleep in Ellensburg. Yesterday morning, I chose a school at random to watch the pledge of allegiance.

I was met by a straw-haired, blue-eyed man named Rod Goosman, principal of Lincoln Elementary School.

Goosman's office is filled with geese — painted geese, plastic geese, ceramic geese. One goose wore a hat and tie. Goosman is also a weekend cowboy.

Here was a guy who, under other circumstances, would probably be a kick in the pants, but on this day, like everyone else, he was busy "processing."

He looked tired.

He had awakened to the news New York City had requested 6,000 body bags. He got the urge to dig out an American flag from a closet — "I almost never put it out" — and stuck the flag onto his porch. Then he drove the 10 blocks to school, reciting a prayer out loud the whole way, fighting back the urge to sob.

"There's been this overwhelming feeling of helplessness, that there's absolutely nothing we can do. What can we do?" he said.

Goosman walked me over to Mrs. Harrell's first-grade class. After the usual good mornings, the teacher herded her students to a corner of the room where hung a small flag. They recited the pledge. They were still learning it. The words were printed on a large poster.

"What does it mean to be indivisible?" Mrs. Harrell asked afterward. Blank faces looked up at her.

"It means that it cannot be taken apart," she said. "The United States cannot be taken apart."

The freeways are full of blank faces.

Two thousand, eight hundred and ninety miles to go.

Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or atizon@seattletimes.com.