A few weeks ago, my husband, Stephen, and I took our kids (Laura, 19; her boyfriend Sam, 19; Connor, 17; and Caroline, 13) to the Grand Canyon. We were backpacking there as a family for the ninth time, spending five nights below the rim, off the grid, in the wilderness. Typically, after each of these trips, I relish sitting down at my computer for a few solid days. I don’t bother changing out of my PJs, and I let dishes and laundry pile up. I wade through photos, selecting my favorite hundred or so from the thousands we’ve taken. I weave our pictures into my writing about every day of our trip, working hard to capture meaningful moments, challenges and trials, and funny stories. I do this to share the tales of our adventures, and I do this so we won’t forget the details.
This trip was different.
While we were gone, something unthinkably tragic happened in our little town. Ironically, when we are disconnected from everyone, we wonder what bad news we are missing. In August 1997, pre-kids, Stephen and I were below the rim of the Grand Canyon when Princess Diana died. We didn’t find out about it for days. Since then, on each trip, we worry a family member could have fallen ill or had something awful happen in our absence. We sometimes brainstorm about what the news headlines might be while we are away. What unfolded this past March was unfathomably devastating.
We dropped into the Grand Canyon on Sunday, March 21. The next day, Monday, March 22, at 3:30pm, back at our home in Boulder, a gunman ended the lives of ten people. We were oblivious, focused on managing rain leaking into a tent, filtering water, drinking freeze-dried coffee.
On Thursday, three days after the shooting, we were at the Colorado River.
The sky was threatening to shower, and we were bummed out about the gray weather. We had pushed through a solid day of rain the day before. The air was humid, and we were cold and wishing for sun. We had flattened our waterproof map on the damp sand, dumped the food bag of goodies onto it, and we were eating lunch. I was offering up “choco tacos,” spreading a mix of peanut butter and Nutella onto flour tortilla shells and handing them out. Caroline had moved away from all of us and was making cakes, meatballs, and sand-snowmen out of mud and water.
A whitewater rafting crew approached from upriver. We typically see a single rafting group during the course of a backpacking trip. Unlike backpackers, they travel with cold beverages, music, and portable toilets and bring with them a connectedness to the outside world. I braced myself, not enthusiastic for the interruption to our retreat.
It was a small crew, six people total, and two of the women in the party were chatty and warm. One of them asked, “Where are y’all from?” After I replied with, “Boulder, Colorado,” she got quiet and froze in place. Big tears filled her eyes, and she said softly, “I’m so sorry.”
We were confused, so she continued. “I’m so sorry about the shooting, the shooting that happened in your town.” All of us were gobsmacked. Then she explained. “We ran into a group of rafters up the river. They had their flag at half mast, so we asked about it. They are from Colorado. They told us ten people had been killed in a grocery store on Monday.” We stayed silent. There were no words. She continued, “Ohhh, you didn’t know. I’m so sorry. I’m just so very sorry. I shouldn’t have told you. It wasn’t my place. I’m just so sorry.” We stammered out some questions, wanting to know where the store was, who had been killed, begging for more information. But she had told us all she knew.
Another rafter from their bunch had scampered up the trail to eyeball the rapids they would be traveling and returned with a review of, “Well, we’re gonna get wet.” They loaded up and were back on the Colorado, leaving us with the load of this heavy news.
Laura cried, worried for friends back in Boulder, wondering if any of them had been killed. I thought about our own King Soopers grocery store, but I told myself that I thought of that store because it’s the very one I know like the back of my hand. Then I spent energy convincing myself that it couldn’t have happened in our store. That was just impossible. The kids peppered me and Stephen with questions to which we had no answers. We did our best to comfort them and each other. We agreed that the news would wait for us, and it would be there as soon as we left the Canyon.
Throughout the next two days, the idea of this tragedy hung over us, and each of us spent time thinking, wondering, and worrying. At one point, I convinced myself that the rafter had probably been mistaken, that she had probably mixed things up, that there was no way a shooting had happened back in Boulder and we hadn’t heard about it. Laura shared a similar thread of thinking with me, and we consoled each other, leaning further into this possibility.
The hike out of the Grand Canyon with heavy packs was as challenging as it ever is. The thousands of feet of steep, loose trail seem to climb indefinitely. And as with every other trip to this favorite place of ours, just when you’re convinced that you’re going to have to trudge on forever, all of a sudden the trail ends, and you’re out of the Canyon, back in the real world. We were elated, hugging and high-fiving each other. We tossed our gear into our vehicle and drove to a fancy, official sign that said “HERMIT’S REST,” which marked the trailhead where we had begun our journey six days earlier. After flagging down masked strangers to snap a few pictures of us, we were back in the car, driving towards hot showers, greasy gooey pizza and icy drinks, and cozy beds.
Within minutes, we crossed into cell service, and our phones blew up like never before. The dinging as messages and emails flooded in across all of our devices was shocking. At once, the reality of the murdering that had taken place in our absence was all-consuming. The shooting had actually happened in the very grocery store I shop at every single week for our family; the grocery store our kids have been to with friends countless times to pick up sodas and junk food; the grocery store I visualized when the rafter mentioned a shooting in Boulder; the grocery store that is the hub of our small community. Ten innocent people died, gunned down by a paranoid, angry, white man with an assault weapon. I had shopped there three times just two days before the incident. I run into at least two people I know every time I’m there.
Three employees, whom we recognized when we saw their photos, had been killed. One police officer – father to seven children – had been shot to death. And six innocent shoppers from the neighborhood, friends of friends, had also lost their lives. Trauma was inflicted on dozens of employees and shoppers who ran for their lives or hid and waited desperately to be rescued. All of this was difficult to fathom, truly impossible. We shared an immediate, deep sense of gratitude that we had been gone and had missed this in its entirety. But we also shared some guilt around this fact, and we were sorrowful for having been relieved when we had discovered none of our friends were on the list of victims.
I didn’t want to go home. I felt an eagerness to scurry back into the wilderness, where there are no gunmen trying to murder innocent people, no cell phones, nothing but us and the elements.
The drive back to Boulder was solemn. When I was at the wheel, I felt no desire to push past the speed limit, to get my family home any faster. When I wasn’t driving, I texted with friends and family and read news articles, frantically gathering up all of the details that could be found. I had been warned by friends that the area outside of the grocery store had been turned into an intense, emotional memorial, to be ready for that when we went by. Even so, as we drove towards our house, past the scene of the massacre, I looked over at the heaps of flower bouquets, signs, candles, photos, and I couldn’t breathe momentarily. My foot slowly lifted off the gas pedal, and we were barely moving as our car rolled past. We were silent, except for the sounds of our own quiet crying.
For the next two weeks, every time I left the neighborhood or returned home, driving past the King Soopers surrounded by a fence decorated in messages of love and loss, the scene left me breathless. As a family, we discussed the shooting at most dinners and any time we were gathered together, working to process what had happened. I met with a few individual friends to catch up, where I found myself doing the same with each of them.
At one point, Laura said, “The shooters have really changed it up. It used to be that we knew to be ready for a shooter only when we were at school. We knew that’s where it happened, and we practiced for it, and we were ready for it. You kind of expect it when you’re at school. But the grocery store? I always felt safe there, like I didn’t need to worry about getting shot while I was there, grabbing snacks. It’s like we no longer get to feel safe anywhere.”
I struggled to find the right words to respond, because everything she said made my heart hurt. There isn’t a place remaining where we can feel relief in knowing that our children are protected from harm. The reality is that this is the world our kids have grown up in – they’ve never known a world without shooters.
Caroline had asked to visit the memorial, but we both agreed we didn’t want to go down there with throngs of people milling about, that we’d feel more comfortable seeing it all by ourselves, if that could be possible. So early one weekday, on our way home from an orthodontist appointment, I looked over and saw the area was mostly deserted. I parked the car, and the two of us walked slowly from one end to the other, soaking up all of the notes, signs, flags, flowers, gestures of love.
I hadn’t expected this to be emotional, after having driven past the memorial at least 20 times by now, but grief swept over me. My legs felt weak, and I thought my knees might buckle. My chest was tight. I breathed slowly and deeply. About twenty minutes into viewing everything that had been left, I thought we must be almost at the end of the walk; But when I looked up, I saw that we had looked at less than half of it and had much more to see. There were piles and piles of flowers, rotting in the sun, disgustingly sweet and pungent smelling. The memorial went on for several blocks, every inch of it covered in heartfelt tributes and offerings.
Some signs struck a chord with me. Reading a poster from a woman who had lost a friend in the Aurora Cinema Theater shooting nine years earlier felt like a punch to the gut. She had written her name and phone number and had added, “I know how you feel. If anyone needs someone to talk to, to help.” It’s enraging to realize that nine years has passed since the gut wrenching, too-close-to-home, movie theater shooting; Since then, the most notable change in our country has been an increase in guns and shootings. Gutless politicians on both sides, a stream of money from the NRA, and a deeply divided American people hold policies in place, making it as easy as ever for mentally ill people to get their hands on automatic weapons.
There was a beautiful sun-and-flowers painting that had been left, with the words, “For those who didn’t go home on March 22, 2021.” That gutted me. The thought that someone could zip to the supermarket for milk and eggs and not make it back home, right here in our South Boulder bubble, rocked my world.
Experiencing the memorial with Caroline, my youngest child, intensified it for me. I felt guilty, sickened, knowing that this is the America we are gifting to our children.
I’m still trying to grasp what has happened in our community, to really process it and integrate it into my being. I haven’t been inside a grocery store since before our trip to the Grand Canyon. With the pandemic still ongoing, ordering anything online has become an easy alternative to face-to-face shopping. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to go back. How will I feel safe standing in an aisle, choosing products, without frantically looking left and right for someone who might show up and be shooting people? Where do we go from here?
I’m volunteering to break down the memorial, to compost all of the flowers that have died, to save items for the Museum of Boulder. And I also need to find my way back to writing about our Grand Canyon trip, relishing in the connections we found between each other in the wilderness, sharing our photographs and stories. It feels wrong, knowing that while we were soaking up solitude and the beauty of the Canyon, this appalling tragedy was unfolding back in our neighborhood.
About the Author: Kim Brandenburg is a Boulder resident, writer, and outdoor enthusiast who works in tech. According to her blog, she has, “always enjoyed writing, capturing memories through recording the details. Recently, I’ve felt the desire to share my writing. I’m going to do a bit of that and see where it takes me.” You can read her work, including this original post, on kim-brandenburg.com.