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It’s September in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, and Danny, my boyfriend of eight months, and I are not expecting snow. We awaken to the eerie silence of woods gone white, our tent listing under the weight of the world. We trudge along our off-trail route at less than a mile per hour, flakes still falling. Above treeline, a short section of boulder-hopping becomes a minefield of slippery rocks and ankle traps. We can hardly see the pass we’re supposed to climb. “Let’s just stop here for tonight,” I finally suggest.
It’s an awful campsite, exposed to the raging winds, but turning back seems worse than enduring it. Danny’s feet have turned white and icy in his soaking-wet boots; I press them against my stomach for as long as I can bear. Every minute or two, a gust sends the walls of our tent tilting in one direction or another. We brace ourselves to hold the shelter steady, neither of us willing to ponder what might happen if the poles snap. Sometime in the middle of the long, long night, I start crying, and he kisses the wetness off my cheeks.
By the time the sun finally burns off the clouds, we don’t just think we can get through hard times together. We know it.
I figured I’d first feel that kind of love in a tent in the wilderness. On my very first backpacking trip, with my college outdoor group, I discovered the intimacy of stories shared by headlamp, of limits pushed and overcome, of adversity conquered together. The relationships I formed on that trip felt truer, deeper, and more real than any I’d ever known. I immediately realized that if you couldn’t understand the power of facing the wilderness, and didn’t love backpacking, too, you couldn’t really understand or love me.
I met Danny in a karate class around this time. We had many things in common and became friends. But he was not a backpacker. When he confessed his affection for me, I gave him a hug and sent him away.
Then he moved to Alaska to build trails. From the refuge of his tent in the never-ending daylight, he wrote me letters about his adventures: dropping his bear canister in Denali and watching it explode down a slope below him, running from the tides in Kenai Fjords. He was not doing this for me—that would be ridiculous—but, unbeknownst to him, he was forging himself into the kind of person I could admire, respect, adventure with.
A year after I’d deflected his advances, we went on our first date. A month later, he joined me, in Utah this time, for a job doing backcountry trail work—together.
It turns out backpacking isn’t just a good way to begin a relationship, and not just a good way to test one; it’s a good way to help one thrive, too. As the years click by, it becomes clear to both of us: Danny and I are at our best together on the trail. Life’s thorny tangles and big decisions get their proper consideration during long, slow conversations on long, slow hikes. What do we want to do with our lives? Where should we live? What jobs should we take? Should we get married?
On a trip to the wilderness, we circle around the question of the moment, grinding it down with our footsteps, taking the long view from atop every pass and peak, holding it close in the comfort of our tiny, two-man tent.
Four years after that snowy, wind-bound night, we’re in the woods again, in California’s Granite Chief Wilderness, when he slips an engagement ring on my finger under the shooting stars. We backpack on our honeymoon, backpack on our anniversaries, backpack every long weekend and vacation we can manage.
As our marriage evolves over the years, the wilderness remains our training ground and our refuge. Out there, we rehearse our partnership, wobbling in the face of adversity and finding our balance again without all the distractions of life indoors. We take turns being the strong one who doesn’t mind fetching water, the tired one who just needs a cup of tea. It helps that the tasks at hand are usually concrete and visible, our partner’s struggle tangible and clear. We remember how nice it feels to be able to help. We remember we have someone there who wants to.
There’s a moment that comes on nearly every hike, after we’ve paused to have a snack, when the one in front just stands there, blocking the trail. We both understand the game: Forward progress requires a kiss. As I lean in, I smell the funk of long trail days, taste the salt edging his lips, and know, just like I knew it on the night he pressed his freezing feet against my stomach, that this is love. Not despite the mess—because of it.