September 11, 2001. I had just turned 20 years old. As a junior at Columbia University in New York City, I was studying in a “semester abroad” field science program at the Biosphere 2 Center in Oracle, AZ. In this case, “abroad” was still within the continental US, but it felt like I had landed on Mars.
It looked like Mars, too.
I had arrived at the site about a week before, with my hiking boots and brand new backpack full of preconceptions. I woke up early, my body still adjusted to Central Time from my home in Kansas City. Everything about this semester had so far been disorienting, exciting and overwhelming. That morning, I was thrilling over the idea that we had our own compost pile where I could deposit fruit and veggie scraps from our kitchen.
Outside our dorm, the desert was waking up. I brought out what we had for compost to the designated spot, when I noticed the largest, brightest, most jewel-like grasshoppers I had ever seen in my life. Red and green and yellow, they hopped and glowed and mated in the organic litter, like a benevolent alien arthropod welcoming committee. I was completely enchanted. I can’t tell you how long I sat there entranced by the grasshoppers in the compost.
When I finally pulled myself away, I ran back to the dorms and threw open the door of our house. “Guys,” I chattered excitedly, “You won’t believe the crazy bugs I just saw…”
My voice trailed off as I noticed that all of my roommates and the RA were gathered around the TV set to news coverage. The RA wordlessly indicated the TV screen, which my confused brain resolved into images New York City and the first tower billowing smoke. I remember screaming and racing for the phone, because my sister had just started her first week of college in New York City. I tried to call her dorm number, but all the circuits were tied up. I imagine most of the world watching television at that minute were trying to place calls to Manhattan.
I don’t really remember the rest of the day. I know we spent a lot of it glued to the TV, unable to move. It felt completely unreal: The news coverage, being so far away in the middle of nowhere, the sense of shock and denial.
The only thing that I remember clearly were the grasshoppers.