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On September 11, 2001, I was deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon with Kathleen Jo Ryan for the first anniversary trip of her book and documentary project, Writing Down the River.  Our trip put in at Lee's Ferry with 24 passengers, the trip leader Tom (whose wife was a pilot for American Airlines), two more guides, and three swampers.  Artist and writer Barbara Earl Thomas, and writer and naturalist Ruth Kirk, also contributors to Writing Down the River, made up the rest of the honorary guest list. 


Grand Canyon, 9/11, Kathleen Jo Ryan.  All rights reserved.

Morning of 9/11.

Grand Canyon

Kathleen Jo Ryan

(All rights reserved.)

On September 10, as a cold front and thunderstorms swept through the East Coast cities and the desert sun climbed over the walls of the canyon, I wrote in my journal: "Day One: Bighorn sheep graze the clumps of grass that grow from between the rocks.  Tom talks about how bony and hard to navigate the river is because of rocks exposed by the low water level.  During the middle of the night, a ringtail cat visits me."  How naive that now seems.


On September 11, Day Two, we hiked North Canyon.  Not yet knowing about the attack on the Twin Towers, the tid-bits that fill my journal are almost embarrassing.  "Saw a mule deer buck shaded up under the tamarisk, and another one a short distance downstream."  


Kathleen would later write, "We awoke the morning of September 11th as the predawn rise of a sliver of moon awakened our camp with brilliant light.  So began the second day of a 188 river miles of immersion into wilderness, beauty, magnificence and grandeur.  Each mile brought discovery, of self and of an environment often beyond limited human perception.  It was a journey into a Place of Spirit."

Barbara Thomas reads from Writing Down the River, Grand Canyon, 9/11/2001
Barbara Thomas reads from
Writing Down the River

Day Three, a mile downstream of camp, I wrote, "Mule deer does swam the river as blue herons, peregrine falcons and osprey, swam the skies.  We played in the Little Colorado, sunbathed near the turquoise waters, and hiked up Carbon Creek to where the steep canyon walls give way to a rolling, open vista."


I found the jawbone of a skunk, and sat on a large boulder, a stramatulite colony of fossilized algae more than 3 billion years old.  Barbara and Ruth and I read our essays to the group. 

On the evening of September 15, we stood on the beach, sheltered by the canyon walls, and learned about the 9/11 attack.  Earlier that day, a motor trip (that had launched the day after us, the morning of the attack), pulled into shore where we were camped.  Their trip leader knew that Tom's wife was a pilot for American Airlines and regularly flew the NYC route.  Moments after the motor trip pulled back into the river, Tom grabbed his backpack, which held the satellite phone, and began climbing the cliffs.  A thousand feet up the steep wall, he pulled out the phone and called home.  When he returned to camp, he gathered us into a circle at the river's edge and told us about the attack.  "My wife is okay," he said at the end, "but the death toll is climbing."


Kathleen Jo Ryan Rafting Colorado River Copyright 2011

Original Photo Note by Kathleen Jo Ryan

"Rafting Colorado River" copyright 2011

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As he spoke, I felt - oddly - a sense of calm, an abiding, primeval and spiritual connection to the natural landscape that held us in its rugged heart.  Fear and hate seemed like illusions, like the disceptive images in a House of Mirrors.  Blink your eye, change your perspective, and they would disappear.  What did seem real and enduring were the ancient canyon walls, the river as it flowed toward the sea, and our spiritual connection to all these things. 


Lathrop Canyon Pictographs
Ancient Lathrop Canyon
 Rock Art, Colorado River

 Fear may be a part of the human condition, I thought, but it will not endure into infinity.  Yet the spirit that inhabits our artistic endeavors - our writing, our paintings, our photographs, our dances, our songs - this spirit, this creative energy, will endure.


"We only learned of the horrific terrorist assault Saturday evening, September 15," Kathleen wrote, "at the last camp of the trip.  The next morning we packed our gear and were transported from the heart of the Canyon to the 'Rim World' with the haunting question: Are we going to reality or coming from reality?"

Today, during the memorial ceremony in New York, the names of all 2,983 victims from the twin towers and Pentagon attacks, and those on Flight 93, as well as those who died in the World Trade Center bombing, were read aloud.  These losses are real - the pain overwhelming and ongoing for their loved ones, and for those who tried to save them, but could not.  


The community that was formed that day is real, too, and the bonds endure.  On the river, thousands of feet below the Rim World, we too became a community.  We started out the trip as strangers.  We evolved into community.  The river became our lives, allowing us to flow through each moment always in the present, while the canyon walls - history's sentinels - firmly guided our journeys, keeping each day linked to past. 

Right to Risk Kathleen Jo Ryan
Kathleen Jo Ryan, Right to Risk. View Trailer


The night Tom gathered us in a circle and told us of the attack, we held hands and sang, our quavering voices rising above the roar of the river. It was communal, and primal, and prayerful, and natural - our beseeching voices rising to the heavens as we created song out of sadness, and gave voice to Spirit.

Four years later, Kathleen would journey down the river again, this time with eight severly disabled individuals.  I think of their bravery, and of Kathleen's "Right to Risk" vision, and of the thin but resilient thread that connects us all, and I am grateful for the communities that bind us, and the art that reminds our spirits to let go of fear as we reach for our pens and paintbrushes and clay.  And in the creation of our art, let us remember to be works of art.



Has nature inspired you to create a work of art?
Barbara Earl Thomas A Fire in the Landscape
Barbara Earl Thomas painting A Fire in the Landscape
The Nature Conservancy invites you to share your
nature-inspired art with their online community.



Contact Page for a PDF copy of her

Writing Down the River essay, "Faces of the Canyon."


A little more about Page...     

Author and writing coach Page Lambert has been leading creative adventures for sixteen years, often working in partnership with organizations such as The Women's Wilderness Institute, the Grand Canyon Field Institute, and the Aspen Writers' Foundation.   Page's Wyoming horseback writing retreats were recently featured in Forbes Magazine.  Her 2013 trips include "Weaving & Women in Peru," the "Crazy Brave River Writing Adventure," and the "Literature & Landscape of the Horse" retreat.  Her featured fall writing seminar is SECRETS, with Rosie Sultan, held in Golden, Colorado, September 29, 2012.  A few spaces remain.




The $50,000 Gift of Freedom award is the largest of its kind for women writers. Inspired by Virginia Woolf's tenet that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write, the Gift of Freedom commissions a creative project by a promising woman writer/artist ready to restructure their life in order to complete their work within the two year period of the grant.  Deadline to apply is November 1st, 2012.

More Information on the Gift of Freedom Award



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