Photos by the incredible @mattballard_photography
About 6 months ago, I received a text from my friend Bobbi. I met Bobbi a couple of years ago at my gym and have always been so inspired by her. She’s an amazing mother and CrossFit athlete, and I really look up to her. In her text, she asked if Jeff and I could meet with her and her husband, Brandon, about an event Brandon had created. She sent me the website information, and we set a date to meet. I didn’t know much about Brandon, but I did know he was a firefighter for the Salt Lake City Fire Department.
“Our Mission is to pay tribute to First responders and the Men and Women of our Armed Services in a unique and challenging way. The creation of the Tribute Crucible combines the power of doing hard things with an opportunity to carry on the legacies of our heroes.” That was the one of the first statements I read about the Tribute Crucible. I was intrigued and ready to hear more about what this tribute had to offer!
As I sat across the table from Brandon, I watched tears fill his eyes as he talked about the Tribute Crucible. “You have to experience it for yourself,” he said as he tried to explain exactly what it entailed. A “tribute through action” is how he described it! He continued to explain how this tribute wasn’t just another hike dedicated to fallen heroes; it was a life-changing, mind-altering experience. OH, and PS… you will be awake for 32 hours experiencing physical and mental challenges and adventures. Wait, what?! Ha!
I could tell by the passion behind his message and the tears in his eyes that this meant a lot to him, and he really put his heart and soul into this experience. I was honored that he wanted Jeff and me to experience something so amazing. We had only ever paid physical tribute through hero WODs at CrossFit gyms or at a variety of different races. I could tell, even before it began, that this was something bigger and better. This was different in a few ways: for one, it was in dedication to firemen, specifically the ones who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. All 343 of them.
Jeff and I both love our country and feel blessed to live in a free land protected by brave men and women, so how could we say no?! To be honest with you, I was nervous about being ready, since the event was just 6 months after having Henry. I didn’t want to be the weakest link or seen as someone who couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group. Those hesitations wouldn’t stop me, though. I was going to prove my doubts wrong! And, at least this would be something that would motivate me and keep me accountable to my training. I had about 5 months to train, and other than physical training, we each were assigned a piece of the “Gettysburg Address” to memorize.
Ready or not . . .
Before I knew it, the weekend was here, and ready or not, I was excited and nervous to see what was in store for us. I wasn’t kidding when I said Jeff and I had no idea what to expect. We knew we would be up all night, and maybe some hiking would be involved, but that was about it.
There were 17 of us. A huge group. Just random men and women from all over the country, perfectly pieced together to make for an incredible experience. Some from New York and others from Utah. Firefighters and businesswomen. I didn’t know how they found out about the crucible or what inspired all of them to participate, but I knew we would all become very close to each other after 32 hours.
We gathered with our packs and listened as Brandon spoke about the morning of 9/11. He spoke about those brave men, those brave men that knew they wouldn’t be coming home that night. We were doing this for them. He told us all to randomly pick an army-style backpack. On the back was a name of a firefighter that had died in the towers. I stood there for a second, looking down at all the names on each backpack. I can remember 9/11 like it was yesterday, where I was and exactly what I was wearing, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually known the names of any of those heroes that day. It was a sobering thought.
When I picked my pack, I vowed at that moment to never forget Smith Jr., the firefighter to whom I was dedicating this tribute. We placed a sandbag in our packs and hiked up a big fat mountain. At the top, we sat and read about the men we were hiking in memory of. Leon Smith Jr. He was the engine driver for one of the rigs. He had known he wanted to be a firefighter since he was a boy and would often run away to the firehouse when he was young. He was always smiling, was kind to everyone, and was one of the African American firefighters that died that day. He left his wife and two beautiful daughters and headed into those towers knowing that he wouldn’t be coming out, along with the rest of his brothers.
It’s impossible for me to even begin to describe every single incredible moment that happened over those 32 hours (I hope you can get a glimpse through the photos), but I would love to share one moment that really touched me.
After we read about the lives of those firemen, we started the next part of our journey. Going DOWN the mountain. Or more like SCALING down the mountain, cutting our own trail as we went. We took a break about halfway down, and during that break, I swore I had recognized someone in our group. I asked where he was from and what he did, and he told me his name was Bob and that he was a firefighter for SLC.
Heroes hidden among us
That’s why I knew him! A few months prior, there was a firetruck that showed up right in front of our door to help our neighbor who had called 911. Of course, my kids were so excited about the firetruck, but I didn’t want to bother the firemen. I sheepishly went up to one of the firemen after they had checked out the situation with my neighbor and were packing up to leave. He was beyond kind and spoiled my kids rotten with a tour of the firetruck and stickers and all the kindness in the world.
A couple of weeks later, I went to the fire station with my kids to thank the firemen for their kind gestures, but there were other men working that day. They showed the same kindness to all of us and even took us on a ride around Sugarhouse in the truck (or engine, I can’t remember what they call it). Those two moments were so special to me as a mother. To meet fireman Bob again on the mountain, during this tribute, was not just special, but was almost meant to be.
Jumping forward to that night, after more incredible experiences and moments, we were sitting around the fire listening to the recordings of the firemen during the 9/11 tower attacks. After we listened to those recordings, Brandon opened the floor for us to talk about our experiences when 9/11 happened. That same firefighter, Bob, stood up and started sharing his experience. He had been a firefighter for a long time, long enough to have the opportunity to be on a task force that went to Ground Zero and helped with the clean-up. His stories were sacred and devastating. I won’t share them here, but it was very clear that particular experience really changed him. After that experience, he then told us that he ended up with cancer because of all the chemicals in the air from the destruction. And without any hesitation, he then said, “And I would do it again tomorrow.” After chemo, he was now cancer free and honored to, yet again, pay tribute to those who lost their lives.
These were the kind of men and women that I was honored to rub shoulders with that weekend. Strong. Resilient. Incredible people. I had no idea Bob had gone through all of that. To me, he was just a nice firefighter who had been nice to my kids. It’s incredible the heroes that surround our lives every single day. It was a beautiful moment that happened within the crucible to help me remember to stop. Listen. Look at people in the eye. They could be heroes. They could be gone tomorrow. That Tribute Crucible wasn’t just a tribute for those who had died, but a tribute to mankind!
I have chills still thinking back to that night, listening to the handful of the men share their stories about that day. Even the two friends from New York opened their hearts and shared some of their emotions.
The wounds created that day are still very much open and raw. But that weekend. With those people. Was not only overcoming challenges and obstacles, but also learning so much about what these men and women have to do for training. It was incredible and healing for many of us in the group.
We became a family and stepped up to every challenge.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”
That moment I read about Leon at the beginning of the crucible will be a moment I will never forget. At that moment. That tribute. That hike. That challenge. That dedication. Whatever I had to do or was going to do, it was going to be nothing compared to what those men gave that day. I can hike mountains and scale ANYTHING in honor of those men. And whether I felt ready or fit or adequate enough, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was there. That I was taking one step after the other. That I was taking ACTION. Action to honor those brave men. Men that didn’t have a name until I had placed that pack on my back. Just 16 years after that horrible event took place. And as more years come and go and as space continues to grow between the present and that moment in history, those names will fade and people will forget.
We must not ever forget. We must pay tribute. We must honor.
And if you can, PLEASE put this on your bucket list to do with your significant other.
We cried together and struggled together.
There were a couple of moments during those 32 hours when Jeff was taken to stages of weakness and physical growth that I had yet to see since I had known him. It really had an incredible impact on him.
I will be forever grateful that we experienced that together.
I asked him to share his experience below.
“I still remember the morning of September 11th. I remember waking up to get ready for school and turning on the TV to watch the news and seeing the news about the Twin Towers. I was glued to the news all day long. No matter where I went, we had the TV on throughout the day to follow along with the news. I couldn’t believe a group of people could have so much hatred towards us to go through with such a senseless act. No matter who you talk to, everyone remembers where they were on September 11th. It’s a day that nobody forgets.
When Sadie and I were asked to participate in the Tribute Crucible, I honestly didn’t feel any desire to attend the crucible. I understood the reason was to pay tribute to all the amazing and wonderful firefighters that sacrificed their lives that day to save everyone. I didn’t feel that I had any sense of connection with the amazing men and women that sacrificed themselves that day. I had agreed to attend the crucible for the fact that it would be a fun challenge.
I still remember about 3-4 hours into it I asked someone their “why” for what they were hoping to gain out of the crucible. Were they focused on reinventing themselves, gaining a deeper appreciation for the men and women who sacrificed themselves, etc.? It wasn’t until 3 a.m. on Saturday morning when we had just finished going into the reservoir together as a group and were huddled around the fire that I understood the magnitude of the crucible. We sat around the fire to warm up together and listen to the live recordings of the fire department dispatcher talking to the fire chiefs, as they reported what was taking place at the towers. You could gain a real sense of the pain and agony and stress that was taking place. But most importantly, you could feel the bravery and courage radiating through their voices as they reported what was taking place. They were so valiant and courageous heading into the tower.
It wasn’t until the final hour of the crucible that I gained an answer to my own question, “What am I going to gain out of this?”
I gained a new appreciation for the wonderful men and women that sacrifice their lives to keep us protected from fires, criminals, drunk drivers, maniacs, etc. I gained a new family and a connection to the men and women that passed away on 9/11. I would recommend that everyone experience the humbling Tribute Crucible. You will walk away being proud of your country and having a new appreciation for the country you live in. I’m so grateful that we were given the opportunity to attend, and I hope others will be able to have the same experience I had.”
Jeff and I both agree that this was something we would recommend to ANYONE!
I didn’t know Brandon well before the tribute, but now I can easily say that I have never met someone so passionate about this country. He has dedicated his life not only to paying tribute to fallen firefighters and soldiers, but also to creating a place where Americans can pay tribute, have experiences, learn life lessons, and be forever changed.
Thank you, Brandon. We are honored and blessed to call you a forever friend!