This article is an essay of the trip down. For reservation/planning/hiking advice in the Grand Canyon, try here: Grand Canyon Planning.
Grand Canyon Trip, September 11, 2001
For two years I planned my second trip to hike the Grand Canyon. Along for the long walk: my husband; my cousin, John; brother-in-law, Jerry; his son and my nephew, Toby.
We all trained diligently and Toby being youngest at eighteen, was determined to be “first” to arrive at every location. My cousin, being foolish and old enough to know better, was determined to keep up.
We arrived at the North Rim on September 10th and hiked about the top of the rim, watching the haze from various wildfires color the canyon and change its voice. Standing at the top, it is hard to imagine hiking all the way to the bottom. It looks quite perilous and inhospitable, even impossible.
My husband and I hiked some of the short rim trails, stealing some time for ourselves. We talked about the first time we hiked the canyon, the wildfires and our current entourage. These quiet moments are precious to me; a time to reflect the mission at hand and a time to rest from the rigors of daily life.
Unfortunately, many of the other memories of this trip will always be overshadowed by what happened in the real world while we, unsuspecting, began hiking down the canyon on September 11. In retrospect, the canyon was remarkably quiet that day.
On our first trip here years ago, planes and various light craft flew overhead. On this day, nothing broke the silence of the canyon save a few other voices; our ham radios when we checked in with our relatives that ran far ahead of us, and the very occasional happy chattering of other hikers.
At Roaring Springs, five or so miles in, the waters still thundered into Bright Angel Creek and the caretaker’s dwelling offered a welcoming table, chairs and water. Cousin John, Nephew Toby and Jerry were waiting impatiently for our arrival so they could regale us with their adventures thus far and then scoot off into the next phase. Other hikers on their way back out from Cottonwood Camp warned us that it was a bumper year for rattlesnakes down by the creek.
The weather was warm as we started on the flatter part of the hike that winds alongside Bright Angel Creek. We found pictures we had not taken before and again appreciated the hugeness of the canyon and the overwhelming size of the boulders, mountains, cliffs and indelible features. The swallows that we had seen on our last trip were nowhere to be found this time around.
Ribbon Falls, a mile past Cottonwood Camp, was a wonderful respite. We met the boys and Jerry already trooping out of the area. My husband and I released our tired feet from our shoes and soaked our feet. The falls were a tad crowded this year as a group of seven or so women hiking together were swimming in the falls, but we enjoyed the rest.
About an hour past the falls, I had to stop and doctor some nasty blisters that had swelled. Most likely this injury occurred because I foolishly hadn’t dried my feet well enough. The moleskin protected the blisters well and though my feet weren’t entirely comfortable, I was able to continue on without any real trouble.
We reached Phantom Ranch perhaps an hour after the others in our party, and we jumped into Bright Angel Creek to soak away our various muscle ailments. It wasn’t long before news of the attack on the towers filtered through the camp.
Disbelieving at first, checks with the rangers proved that something indeed had occurred, although in the canyon getting news was slow. There is one pay phone and it was in constant use as people checked with their family members and tried to piece together a coherent story.
Ah, instead of getting away from it all, the world’s despair sent its fingers after us on the trail. Cousin John is a reserve in the Navy; with so little news and so few facts, he began to wonder if he should begin hiking back out immediately in order to be ready should he be called. News that National Parks were being closed left us wondering if we would be stuck in the canyon or worse, forced to hike out in one direction or another, possibly away from our parked car.
As the day passed, we shared news with other hikers. At dinner, the ranger read the latest news as it was understood at the time. More trips to the phone booth, more reassurances and more worry from those above.
The next day we wandered aimlessly before hiking to the Colorado River. The great carving machine is about a mile from Phantom and once there, we tried to enjoy the solitude. We knew that we would not have to walk back out of the canyon today, but when we did go, we were not certain we would be able to fly home. Planes, except for emergencies, were grounded.
On our way back to Phantom, with a storm brewing overhead, just such a flight emergency was underway and we were stopped on the trail. The ranger requested that we remain clear for several minutes and stop other hikers because a rescue helicopter was on its way.
Within moments, out of nowhere, a giant yellow bird edged around the canyon wall, filling empty space just above the trees, rushing ahead of the threatening rain. The chopper landed, but could not take off until the storm had subsided. When it did, we waited on the other end of the trail, watching it lift and curve in the narrow side canyon, cheating the walls of any victims. We never learned the fate of its passenger, but we assume that the talented rescuers made good on their mission.
Again in the evening more news was read by the ranger. The facts were looking even bleaker as the number of planes hijacked was confirmed. What had swelled as rumor from various phone contact became harder fact.
Cousin John was again consumed with frustrated energy, wanting to be somewhere, wanting to do something, wanting to help. None of us could imagine what was going on above the canyon. The ranger had an internet connection, but there were no televisions or radios for news purposes; we learned things slowly. As the facts trickled in, they were printed and posted in the canteen.
Though we hiked and relaxed throughout the next day, there was a taint in the air. The discussions surrounded the attack and what it all meant. There seemed to be little enough time for discussing college plans for Toby, future career plans for the rest of us, and never enough time for day dreaming. Always, there were the news checks to see if further developments had occurred.
Even as we began the journey back out on Friday, we did not know when we would be flying home. The last news we had heard was that commercial flights were still grounded. My husband and I hiked slower than ever, not wanting the vacation to end and not quite sure it had ever begun.
Cousin John and Nephew Toby did reach the top before the rest of us; Toby managed to save just enough energy to sprint ahead of Cousin John as the trailhead came into site, winning bragging rights for all time and probably a pulled hamstring to which he will never admit. Jerry was out next and the three of them showered and changed before my husband and I made it to the top.
Tired and disheveled, we were still essentially without news on the North side, but we slept peacefully in our cabins before heading back to the real world the next morning.
We all made our flights and had no real problems. Television sets showed the surreal destruction over and over and many days after returning, Jerry discovered that an old friend had been a passenger on one of the planes.
The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most magnificent wonders and well worth the trip if you’re able to spend the time and energy planning, training and walking. It is arduous, and while it may not be possible to leave the world entirely behind, the depth and isolation are worth exploring. Plan well, travel safe and may the world not intrude on your adventure!
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