Surviving the city
After living through 9/11 Sean Doherty found a different path
Sean Doherty says that if he had not run away from the city he would be “a very different, miserable person.”
New York City was fun for him in his mid-20s, but it would not have been sustainable. It may have taken years or decades for him to realize that he just did not quite fit. He was in the wrong environment.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he headed to his office building in Times Square in Lower Manhattan. From the 23rd floor he and his coworkers watched in horror as people leapt from the first tower hit in the coordinated terrorist attack – and then they watched it fall. “People lost their minds,” he said. An evacuation order then came over the intercom and they all rushed for the exits. Shoulder to shoulder walking down the major streets, with many people covered in dust, everyone sought escape. Doherty stood with strangers and gazed up in disbelief from street level as the second tower was hit. An even greater sense of urgency came over the crowd. He joined the legion of survivors and headed for the quickest way out of the city – Grand Central Station. With Manhattanites packed in like sardines, officials worried about a secondary attack on the subway system. So, they were ordered to vacate and exit the city as quickly as possible. For many, that meant walking for miles.
In the middle of it all, in the madness of it all, Doherty sat on a park bench on 23rd Street by the Flatiron Building. It was there, as he observed a harrowing day in American history and the displaced and desperate people of the city that his Existential crisis began.
“If I die today, what has it all been for?” he asked himself.
The city was resilient and quickly functioning again. He went back to work and rode the subway everyday, noting the missing faces of the people he had come to know – people who likely died on Sept. 11. Then, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens shortly after taking off from Kennedy Airport just two months and one day after 9/11 – resulting in America’s second deadliest plane crash. Blamed on pilot error, it caused trepidation for many 9/11 survivors – Doherty included.
He chucked his big city life, his intense days of running production for major magazines like GQ and Vanity Fair, the glamour and stress of working with artists and celebrities. With his savings, he returned to the comfort of his childhood home in upstate New York. There, he found footing in familiarity and started volunteering and helping area youth by teaching basketball at the local YMCA. On weekends he pushed to the wilderness. Through trial and error, with his trusty pup by his side, he snowshoed further and further into the Adirondacks and winter camped. It was in that snowscape that he realized that he was actually never meant for the city.
“Too many people have no idea how it feels to be out there in the woods, in the mountains. The sights, the sounds, the smells – it’s pure,” he said. “My goal is never to ‘conquer’ a mountain or trail. I want to be in harmony, one with [the wilderness].”
The call of the west grew to a fever pitch. The mountains changed his life.
He first settled in Park City, Utah and worked at the Canyons Ski Resort, then he headed to Jackson, Wyoming and worked at Jackson Hole Sports. After six years, he felt frustrated.
“I grew tired of selling overpriced gear to over privileged people,” he said, so he found another path.
Lorien Gabel, an entrepreneur and regular customer at Jackson Hole Sports, had become a friend. They became business partners and Headwall Sports, a store to “buy and sell high quality new, consigned and recycled outdoor gear” was born.
After skiing Big Sky Resort for years and developing a real affection for the community, they decided to expand to Big Sky – to the Big Horn Shopping Center in a space down from Cafe 191 and Ryan Turner Photography.
Expected to be open in early January, the store will buy and sell skis, snowboards, snow gear, camping and climbing gear, hiking equipment, bicycles and kayaks.
“My job allows me to assist other people to get outside and enjoy life the way I do,” he said. So he has found “quality of life, meaningful purpose” and knows that he is actually living.
“It makes me feel alive to be outside enjoying nature,” he said.