In one sense, Shanksville is a tiny village far from major cities and cultural attractions. But the crash of Flight 93 in a field there on Sept. 11, 2001 has brought visitors from around the world to the national park site that now marks the spot where the hijacked plane came down.
And some of these visitors are finding other things to do while they're in the area. They're combining a pilgrimage to the Flight 93 National Memorial with trips to attractions like Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece Fallingwater or the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, 90 minutes away by car.
The Flight 93 Memorial is located just off a tiny country road lined with old wooden farmhouses that could fit right in a Norman Rockwell painting. It's shielded by trees, but much of the park is surprisingly open, in part because of the site's former history as a coal strip mine. The Park Service has done extensive landscaping work, with more planned; two huge mining cranes were on site the day of the crash.
"So it wasn't virgin land," said Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, who added that some have exaggerated the wilderness aspects of the site. The cranes are gone, but a new chapter in Pennsylvania's tradition of mixing wilderness with industry is on view in the distance: large wind turbines stretch along a nearby mountain.
As many as 150,000 people a year visit the site where the plane — headed for the U.S. Capitol — was brought down through the actions of its 40 passengers and crew. On a recent week, a sign-in book for the memorial listed visitors from California, Arizona, Missouri, England, and the Czech Republic.
Visitor numbers are expected to grow, said Ron Aldom, director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce. Next month the Pennsylvania Turnpike is scheduled to add signs for the memorial reminding drivers that the crash site is only about 20 minutes from the Somerset exit.
The park is shaped like a circle. Visitors walk along a dark concrete path finished so the surface looks like tree bark, past the woods where the plane crashed, until they reach the Wall of Names, which consists of vertical slabs of white stone featuring names of each of the 40 victims inscribed on a separate slab. Fundraising continues for another phase of construction that will include a so-called "Tower of Voices" to mark the entrance to the park, featuring 40 large wind chimes. In total, the park will consist of about 2,200 acres, though some areas will not be open to the public, such as the actual crash site.
Aldom has noticed a trend of people creating their own itineraries combining the memorial with other attractions, especially Fallingwater, considered to be one of the masterpieces of modern architecture. One church group advertised a "Falling Waters and Heroes Trip," and one blogger created a site titled "Tina's Wedding, Flight 93, and Falling Waters" to document a week-long trip to the region. The nearby Quecreek Mine site, where nine miners were rescued in 2002 after being trapped underground for days, is also popular.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is a land of hills, streams and rivers, so nature lovers will find plenty to do, from hiking, to whitewater rafting, to skiing, to fly fishing. Pittsburgh, the nearest major airport, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) away, has transformed itself from Steel City into a destination with a wide variety of restaurants and cultural institutions, such as the Andy Warhol Museum.
If you go ...
FLIGHT 93 MEMORIAL: http://www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm . Located about a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh, three and a-half hours from Washington, D.C., and five hours from New York City. Take the Somerset exit (No. 110) off the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I- 76), and the toll booth operator can give you directions to the Memorial, which is off a small country road. Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m., April 1 to mid-October (winter hours, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.). No entrance fee.
FOOD AND LODGING: Shanksville has Ida's General Store, a local gathering place since the 1940s. The homemade egg salad sandwich is tasty and an unbelievable deal at $1.99. "I'm not your typical convenience store," said owner Rick King, who also serves as the assistant fire chief. More options for food and lodging can be found in Somerset and other nearby towns.
TIPS: Construction is ongoing at the memorial, which currently has only temporary restroom facilities. Huge crowds are expected for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and scheduled visits that weekend from President Obama and Vice President Biden may add to traffic woes. Groups wishing to schedule a visit should contact the park office in advance at 814-893-6322. Programs or ceremonies require a permit, which is not guaranteed.