Monday, May 23, 2011

Common Ground in a Beautiful Place

The men and women at the Grand Canyon Fire Department came from all over. Dave Van Inwagen, who was gracious enough to allow us to stop by ‘whenever you can get here,’ came from Maine via New York and California. Donna was from New Hampshire; Kyle came from Seattle; Paul grew up in Los Angeles, not far from Culver City. They’d moved around too, some of them having worked at five, six, seven National Parks. Paul summed up everyone’s response to the events of 9/11 in a single word: traumatic.

In the parking lot near the Grand Canyon Visitor Center some of a large group of Americans of Asian Indian descent came over to ask ‘what is this for’? Jon, in an explanation he’s already given countless times but continues to do so with sincerity and humility, explained that this cross to him was a symbol for all people, all races, all backgrounds and religions. ‘How does this represent all religions?’ asked a young Hindu man named Malind.
‘Different parts come together to make this piece,’ Jon explained. ‘On 9/11 all these firemen, and other people too, were running around trying to help other people. It didn’t matter who was what color or race or religion, it was just people sacrificing themselves to help others. It was people coming together. And I guess that’s what this piece means to me.’ Malind and a few of his friends wrote notes and put them in the cross before leaving with their group.

At a lookout point Robert Serrano glanced out over the Grand Canyon, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses. ‘Everyone was huddled around the radio when I got to work that morning.’ Robert, an employee at defense contractor Raytheon in Tucson, wasn’t listening to the radio in his car on the way to work like he usually did. ‘One of the twin towers just fell,’ someone said. Moments later they all watched the second building collapse, and Robert had just one thought in his head: Who’s next?

‘Things were real tough in the following days.’ Robert reached over and put his hand on the cross. ‘This will help us heal.’

I asked one woman if she recalled the moment she heard the news. ‘I was babysitting my first granddaughter,’ she said. She put one shaking hand over her mouth. ‘I was watching TV, and saw that plane…’ Her eyes filled with tears; she couldn’t say any more before she began crying quietly.

Six people from Moscow took turns asking questions and writing notes and taking pictures. ‘God bless,’ they said, full of spirit. ‘Good luck.’

We continued our drive through the desert, the dusty brown land turning a bright, thick orange as we made the turn for Tuba City and Monument Valley beyond. Modest buttes rose up all over, narrow crevasses and canyons running among them. Mount Humphries stood tall, snow-covered in the distance. For miles we gazed at the beauty all around us, wondering how many people would never have the chance to see it.