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“We’re here,” Andy exhaled while turning off the car’s engine. He was looking straight ahead into the forest then at me, smiling the most large and handsome of smiles – the type that causes light wrinkles to form next to his eyes.
“You’re smiling with your eyes,” I always tell him and did then, too, as I ran my fingertip across his wrinkles.
For the most part, it had been a normal trip to the mountains — It was the overlooked day of Wednesday, but it also was July 15 — the exact day we met, which also means the day our lives were altered forever. This drive to Shenandoah National Park was no different than all from the beginning — We giggled then belly-laughed and then smiled; and we held hands then danced and sang while tunes from our created playlist swirled around us; and we fell into deep conversations then took comfort in the silence of not talking.
The day felt a multitude of contradictions because it was the most ordinary day and yet most extraordinary. Andrew and I were on our way to get married.
Only two people met us our wedding location – our photographer (who was also our florist) and our officiant; and as odd as this sounds to some, it was exactly what we spoke of each time when we hiked in our state all the way to when we envisioned walking the Appalachian Trail.
“What if we just happened upon these two people right now,” we’d say one another as trekked down paths or stood at vistas, “and we asked them to marry us and take pictures of our wedding.” True, it wasn’t glamorous, but we didn’t aim for glamour – We solely hoped for a spontaneous mountain wedding at a time when we felt most carefree and happy.
“I’m smiling with my eyes because we’re getting married!” Andy’s whisper came as I smoothed my finger over the soft skin at the corner of his eye. Though his words were hushed, they contained an excitement that made him a blur as he leaned over the car’s console to kiss me and then outside to get ready.
While he got changed, I looked at our bouquet and boutonnière filled with unique and beautiful flowers locally grown then cut and arranged by our florist/photographer.
Then it was my turn to get ready and move to Andy where he tucked small stray blooms in my braid before I pinned on his boutonnière . . .
To some, understanding why we chose to elope has been confusing. We have been asked why we did not want to wait for a time when family and friends could be there and we have been questioned why we did not want to have a wedding event . . . and, in truth, we have struggled to answer these questions. Our answer, I suppose, lies in their confusion: We simply couldn’t imagine any of that . . . and so we didn’t.
We chose to elope for a variety of reasons but ultimately because it fit us and, therefore, felt right. We craved the intimacy of our tiny tucked-away cliff where Andy proposed more than three years earlier. We longed for that indescribable feeling of being infinitesimal and yet mighty at the same time. We sought a protection found only under tree leaves and a strength only gathered from forests.
Here, we are whole and at home within one another.
Our walk-down-the-aisle instead was a walk-down-the-trail – our coveted Appalachian Trail that we still hope to backpack. As we passed, wild ferns and flowers stretched forth; and our wedding music came from chirping birds and buzzing insects that whirled by. Before we parted the brush to our cliff, we hugged, seeking all the support we needed within ourselves. In front of us, the sun cast rays so brilliant that some type of symbolism had to exist, and here our vows were exchanged — our deepest promise to one another. Moments later, we heard the breaking of twigs under deer hooves before seeing a doe walk confidently from the forest.
It was all beautiful — so beautiful in the most simplistic way.
After Andrew and I exchanged vows, we slipped to the ground to sit on the edge of the cliff and here, time stops. For a few quiet moments, we sat as we had done for one of our first camps when we watched the sunset before leaning against the rocks to stargaze. Despite the summer then, the air was cool and so we had crept back to our tent for our sleeping bags only to wrap them around us so that we could return to the cliff once more. Then, under a starlit sky, we fell asleep outside as the International Space Station drifted overhead . . .
We had talked about camping here again — pitching a tent and starting a fire in our wedding outfits to spend our ‘honeymoon’ night in this bit of refuge — and even though that embodied ‘us,’ we chose instead to continue on so we walked back down the AT hand-in-hand — husband and wife — with the goal of stopping in a field for the sunset . . .
As Andy drove, I closed my eyes to flashes of sunlight that played over my face — a dance of kaleidoscope-colors and shapes behind my eyelids. The flickering light made our wedding seem more surreal and seem sudden . . . yet at the same time, our wedding was years in planning because in truth Andy and I had more often decided when not to get married . . .
We most recently threw our wedding fund into an online auction for our rare fifty-five-year-old motorhome that we are currently restoring, modernizing, and customizing.
Before that, our international trips — particularly Canada — held promise for eloping abroad; however, cancelled flights, missed connections, and late starts continued to plague us by preventing spare time to slip away.
Still, the closest we came to getting married was when we began to arrange one with an Italian wedding planner who helped select an officiant, translator, and photographer for our Dolomite dream wedding. We even had the venue chosen for our wedding night and had detailed mapped routes and full itineraries for traveling the country in an extended honeymoon.
Then a global pandemic struck.
COVID singlehandedly brought our deepest worry back to the forefront of our minds because the virus threatened our relationship — From the start, we had been in a tug-of-war with the American government — a push-and-pull to fight simply for a ‘today’ relationship. However, the further the virus spread and the longer it continued, the more businesses suffered and Andy’s company was not exempt. Because of this, the reality was his job was at high risk and I would be lying if I said we did not live many days to months holding our breaths with elevated heartrates when his phone rang. Simply put, Andy could be let go at any time and if he was, he no longer had a valid visa to stay in America. This meant the American government would force him to pack his bags and immediately move back to England. The answer to be together then relied on me moving to his country, and while I still look forward to this, the timing was problematic. The virus closed borders so there was no guarantee that I could even start a new life in England with him. However, even if I could go, the move was risky on multiple fronts: travel increased our chance of contracting COVID and with my weakened immune system, that scared me. Also, leaving would mean casting aside the only guaranteed job either of us had and further that meant me searching for new employment at a time when companies were cutting employees. Our answer was clear, though one we did not want: We could not risk me moving with Andy so if he had to leave America, he had to leave alone. That also meant our goodbye would have no known reunion date.
In the end, we were willing to risk much but we refused to chance our relationship any longer and so we opened the gift of a future together by getting married.
As the car swirled around bends in the mountain road, Andy flashed a smile my way. The mountains now brought promise and security.
“I can’t believe we just got married,” he exclaimed, echoing my thoughts because it had taken a mere one month from making our wedding a priority to exchanging our vows.
As the sun descended in the sky, we raced across the road where land opened before us. Instead of choosing one path, we picked both before collapsing in the tall grass. There was an innocence and lightness in the air — A cricket greeted us by jumping onto my green skirt and the plants seemed to lean in as if providing congratulatory hugs.
The day was ours and I so desperately wanted it to stretch without end, but the day was also coming to a close . . .
Our photographer/florist/friend had stayed past time and had a long journey home in the dark so we threw numerous waves and thank yous her way as she left . . . and then it was only us.
The wind blew. The crickets played melodies of their own. Other than that though — silence. We sank once more to the grass — to listen, to breathe.
“I’m so happy we eloped,” one of us said — It doesn’t matter who because we both felt that way. Eloping meant this — him and me, intertwined fingers, talking and truly seeing one another.
While I know people saw our wedding as unorthodox and I know we envisioned our marriage differently, in the end our elopement was perfect and beautiful and right. There were no people and voices and party and motion and . . . distraction. It was us — only us.
We took pictures to send to our families as they shouted best wishes and praise, and then we stood together and let the silence sink into our bodies.
By this time, the sun had set the sky ablaze and so we watched the colors melt from orange to the deepest of blues.
“Are you ready?” Andy asked.
“I think so,” I told him but in truth I could have stood there for another day — for weeks, months, unlimited time — and so I let him lead me to the car.
Off we winded down back roads, slowing only for herds of deer. Our suitcases shifted their weights in the backseat and I felt as if we were gliding in the black starless sky. We were heading deeper into the mountains to a tiny, private inn for our so-called mini-moon . . .
“Andrew?” I said. I could not see him but could only feel him next to me.
“Yeah,” I heard him respond.
“I love you. I absolutely love you.”
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Today is January 15 — our six-month anniversary. Six months — a tiny blip in time and yet the start to our lives together. I could not be more grateful.
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For more on our wedding . . .