In the darkness we started along an icy ledge that dropped off into some unseen black depth. The night and the darkness had come quickly—too quickly for me. Our only source of light now came from a hazy moon rising up between the horizon and a ceiling of storm clouds.
“What am I doing here? What are we doing here?” I kept asking myself. It was late November, the day after Thanksgiving, and, as is almost always true of high places in the Northeast, in winter, there was a hard, icy wind blowing. I was with Scout Troop 235 from the Westchester Ward in New York State.
“Nor far now,” one of the leaders ahead of us shouted. “You won’t want to miss this.”
But I did want to miss it. What I wanted most was to be back in the camp we’d just set up, back safe and warm and dry in my sleeping bag. We’d come a long way since morning and were all wet and tired. The Scouts and the leaders ahead of us stopped and were forming a line on the ledge.
“This is incredible,” I heard someone say. What I saw was incredible. I forgot the cold and the wind and found my heart beating faster. In a lifetime a few scenes, a few images, have seared their lines and shapes and colors indelibly into my memory: there was a lightning storm rolling over the Grand Canyon, 50-foot waves crashing into rocks on the northern coast of California, the moon at midnight rising over El Capitan in Yosemite Park. This was such an image. It was as if the universe had been tipped upside down and we were looking down into a clear, star-filled night sky.
These were no ordinary wilds. These were the wildest of the wilds, a place of legends and dreams, the capital of the new Byzantine Empire. These were the wilds of the Big Apple, New York City; and the Milky Way galaxy we were looking down into was the east river, and the stars, the lights of Manhattan Island.
The place where we were standing—the place that, beyond the railing, dropped straight down 107 stories—was the top of the World Trade Center. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are the tallest buildings in New York City and the second tallest in the world. We—Troop 235 plus 150 other Scouts and their leaders, all from the Yorktown Stake, New York State—were to be the first group to camp out there.
The camp-out on the World Trade Center began that morning when we arrived at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery district of Manhattan Island. Good weather had been forecast, but the night before the camp-out it started raining, and by morning the rain turned to snow. By the time we had started on a seven-mile hike that was to end at the World Trade Center, a hard wind was blowing, turning the storm into a blizzard. What had started out as an easy hike down Broadway became a test of survival just like any winter camp-out can become. On a regular winter camping trip we would have been able to find temporary shelter from the storm in caves or in quickly constructed lean-tos. Here we had to improvise, stopping at laundromats and restaurants. The stops were short. One hundred and sixty Scouts and their leaders in a laundromat doesn’t leave much room for customers.
The rain and the snow and the wind gave the city a kind of iridescent beauty. The streets were a black pearl color reflecting the bright reds, yellows, and greens of street lights, stop signs, and taxi cabs. “It even made the graffiti look good,” John Merrick, 13, from Poughkeepsie, said.
Like bulbs from Christmas trees, in the alleys, against fences, and in the gutters, umbrellas, some of them with broken spines and some that had been stolen by the wind from unsuspecting hands, were piled like tumbleweeds.
The Scouts followed the Old New York Historical Trail, visiting China Town, St. Paul’s Chapel (George Washington worshipped there during his presidency), Wall Street, Trinity Church, Battery Park, and Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington said farewell to his troops after the Revolutionary War.
Manhattan Island is rich in history, beautiful buildings, and parks, but for Rich Poccia, 15, from the Westchester Ward, they weren’t what he found most interesting about the city.
“The people are the most interesting thing here,” he said. “You can stand on any street corner and in just a few minutes see people from a dozen different countries.”
Even though the wind was blowing at over 40 miles per hour and the snow was coming down hard, most of the streets we passed through were crowded. It was business as usual for the Hasidim, wearing full beards and long, dark wool coats; Indians with colored turbans wrapped around their heads; and businessmen with heavy trench coats and copies of the Times held over their heads.
In the city, where almost nothing is surprising, people stopped and stared as they watched 160 Scouts and their leaders march down the streets.
Hiking through Manhattan and camping on top of the World Trade Center was unusual enough to be front-page news in the Reporter Dispatch of White Plains, New York. USA Today and the Poughkeepsie Journal also covered the story.
Late in the afternoon, the fury of the storm began to slow until the wind and the snow stopped. The evening sun dropped below the dark clouds, and golden light spilled in long rays onto the city. The effect was magical. The city was transformed into the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. The buildings and sidewalks, the water in the bay, and the people were turned into a bright, warm, gold color. The air was cool and clean. The city was at its best. In this golden light the Scouts took a ferry to Governor’s Island to eat dinner.
Because of the work the leaders put into organizing the trip, costs for the Scouts were kept to a minimum. Discount rates were obtained for meals, ferry and subway rides, and admission to museums. Several food companies donated hot dogs, drinks, and snacks. A national sporting goods company donated eight basketballs to give away as awards. The U.S. Olympic Committee donated 160 U.S. Olympic pins.
“What we have learned from this event,” Doug Jackson, a Yorktown stake Scouting leader said, “is that people and corporations are very willing to help the Scouting program.”
After dinner the Scouts returned to Manhattan and took a subway to the Natural History Museum. The rides on the New York subway were among the most exciting events of the trip.
Imagine, if you can, a group of 160 Scouts waiting in a subway station, the subway cars rattling and groaning with the sound of a flood roaring down the tunnel, then screeching to a stop. Amazed passengers watch as leaders hurry Scouts onto the cars. The doors slam shut as the Scouts get on. Then the subway cars groan again, shake, rattle, and start off with a jerk. The ride has the smoothness of an old-fashioned buckboard wagon and makes a roller coaster seem smooth. Lights flash off and on. Through the windows other stations are seen—a blur of lights, people, and graffiti. The leaders are studying the subway route, schedules clutched in their hands, with worried looks.
Erik Anderson, 12, from the Poughkeepsie Ward, said the subway was great but that he wouldn’t want to ride it every day.
Tired and wet and hungry, the Scouts finally arrived at the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
We had planned to sleep on the roof of the number two tower. But when the leaders found the decks were iced over and there was a 30-mile-an-hour wind blowing, it was decided the Scouts would spend the night one floor down in the warmth of the observation deck. The Scouts were able to go up onto the roof to see what is one of the most spectacular views in the world.
“Nothing beats this,” said Warren Moon, 14, from Pawling, as he looked down at the city lights.
Elder Robert L. Backman of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and a member of the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America, joined the Scouts at the World Trade Center and spent the night with them on the observation deck. Among the highlights of the trip for many of the Scouts, along with the views of the city at night and the sun rising up over the city the next morning, was the talk Elder Backman gave.
“This morning when I saw the sunrise and light started to hit all of the buildings up and down Manhattan,” Elder Backman, dressed in full Scout uniform, stated, “it occurred to me that none of us better limit ourselves as to what we can accomplish. Just look at this engineering marvel we’re in, 107 stories up. It’s breathtaking. I’m convinced that if we really understand we are sons of God, and I know we are, we can accomplish even greater things. Being sons of God, we can even become like him, and there’s nothing more exciting than that.”
While he was packing his gear and getting ready to leave the building, Brian Fields from the Newburg Branch said camping on the top of the World Trade Center was something he would never forget.
“Camping here overnight and having Elder Backman with us—well, it’s the kind of thing I’ll tell my grandchildren about. We were the first people to ever camp up here. It’s history.”
During the night the storm blew out to sea, leaving the sky cloudless and a deep blue color.
We visited the Statue of Liberty, watched a recreation of a Revolutionary War battle, and explored the aircraft carrier Intrepid (now an air and space museum).
Then it was time to go home. While we waited for our rides, tired and happy, we sat watching the city. The air was cool and still smelled of the rain from the night before. Sea gulls circled overhead. There was a rushing sound, like the sound of a river, coming from the city. A lone man moved along a street pushing a hot dog cart.
“Hot dogs. Get your red-hot hot dogs here. Pretzels, hot fresh pretzels,” he was singing the words.
“It’ll be hard to beat this one,” Douglas McEldowney said, biting into a pretzel covered with mustard. “But I can’t wait to try.”
We all agreed.