On Sept. 16 nearly a decade ago, yet another Western family formed at the base of Mount Royal. They gathered to carry timber, steel and an American flag to the summit of Peak 1 to erect a memorial for those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Michelle Foster was one of those gathered for the original Hike for Freedom, which brought roughly 40 people together not only in their love of nature, but for their love of country. She was also one of about 20 people who came together Sunday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the hike and the 9/11 tragedy.
“I read about it in the paper. I didn't know a lot of these guys then,” she said. She now knows many of them well through work and the close-knit community. “It was a big event for everybody, and I wanted to take part in it. Everyone was united and came up here... These guys did a good job of bringing the community together.”
Between that day and Sunday's hike, Foster has visited Peak 1 at least twice.
“It always holds that meaning,” she said, referring to the first time she summited, just days after the trauma rippled across the country.
Others involved in that first hike returned to the summit on Sept. 11 each year until about 2005, said Kurt Kizer, a mastermind behind the memorial. They'd replace the flag, which is weather-worn after a winter on the blustery peak.
Visits dropped off for a few years after the Forest Service opted to remove the flag in 2004, said Dave Simmons, another original organizer. The Peak 1 site has been the center for other political statements — like the 2003 incident where the flag was burned, presumably in protest of the war in Iraq, based on handwritten notes and computer printouts left behind.
While it lasted, though, scores of people ascended the 12,805-foot peak to contribute to the memorial or just to take it in. Tim Putz, who was also on the hike, said he's encountered New Yorkers who climb the peak just because they'd heard there was a flag on its summit.
Though revisiting the site dropped off when the memorial disappeared, Simmons and Kizer felt they had to revive the event on its 10th anniversary.
“Neither of us wanted to make the hike. We're fat and out of shape,” Simmons said. “But this is what we do. Kizer and I started brainstorming (a decade ago). We gotta do this because this is what we do and we gotta pay our respects. And it's gotta be something unique — Summit-County style.
This time around, it attracted a few more folks who, through their 2011 Peak 1 experience, have joined the family. For many of Sunday's hikers, it was their first time ascending Peak One. It was also a chance to reflect for several hours.
“I wanted to commemorate the event and think about the friend I lost,” Denver's Susan Harrington said, her voice choking up and tears welling up in her eyes. “It's just peaceful to be in nature and have a lot of time to think while hiking,” she added.
Kenny Cubas had become like an older brother to her when she moved to Boston for work. He and his wife befriended Harrington, inviting her over for dinner and just to make her feel at home. They'd vacation on Martha's Vineyard, and stayed in touch when Cubas and his wife moved to New York City. Harrington said Cubas had made it out of the building safely, but because he was a designated safety person for his area of the building, he went back in to help.
“He didn't make it out,” she said. “So many amazing people were lost. Can't we stop the fighting and have peace?”
Ray Anderson wore a New York Police Department T-shirt he purchased on a visit to Ground Zero sometime during the last decade.
“It was a very solemn experience,” he said, adding that he chose to do the hike to “be in nature and be closer to some of those we lost.”
Remembering the day most of us can't forget, the electrical engineer said he heard something unclear about planes hitting the World Trade Center on the radio as he pulled into his office in Golden that fateful day 10 years ago.
There's also the stories of the college students who left a class their teaching assistant didn't cancel to watch what was happening across the country.
And the stories from high school seniors, who were confronted with the news as they walked to class and thought the news was a bad joke — until their friend didn't smile or deny that it was true.
“It's been a heck of a decade,” Anderson said. “Everything has changed for us. Everything will change from here out.”
Despite the ripple effects of 9-11, including altered personal philosophies, political strategies, security measures and war on an ambiguous threat, people across the country found ways to re-unite over their patriotism on Sunday — and Summit County was no different.
Overlooking the Earth below, Kizer and Simmons pulled a tattered American flag from a pack, calling to the family of about 20 to come together for a photo. Everyone held a corner of the flag or each other, snapped a photo and became quiet for a moment of silence.
“It's simply amazing,” said Johnny Welsh, who runs Peak One regularly to train for competitions, of the hike. He added, “Out here, we're family. We stick together through thick and thin.”