The panic set in like food poisoning: A twinge in my stomach followed by the sinking realization of a new, uncomfortable reality.
I imagine the afternoon hours between Jon’s phone call and his return as quick and silent, though I know that is inaccurate. I know I paced the concrete floor of his urban loft and called the two strongest women I knew for support. Had I known we were beginning the adventure of a lifetime, my calls might have taken a different tone.
I gathered my composure by the time Jon got home. He set his bag down by the bed and, without a word, came to my side and wept.
We peer up at the metallic hat atop the West Virginia capitol building. The dome, gilded in 23 and a half karat gold leaf, contrasts beautifully with the deep, healthy green of the grass and trees below. It is day one of our journey.
We’d had a blissful month and a half since Jon knelt down on one suited knee in the Decatur town square.
The proposal was followed by my graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which in turn was followed by a blur of congratulations, job searching and wedding planning. We’d set a date and booked a venue and planner. I had traveled to San Francisco to compete in a collegiate journalism competition, my fiancé by my side to whistle after my name was called at the awards ceremony.
Everything was going according to plan, aside from having not yet found a job in Atlanta, where Jon had spent the last five years working for CNN. I’d met him on the MARTA—Atlanta’s excuse for a public transit train—while in the city for an internship with the same company a year earlier. Though uninterested in a relationship at the time, I had found myself rather taken with the stylish man who, after sitting with me on the train every day for two weeks, invited me to his apartment for a Wes Anderson film and homemade Italian ice.
The steel arch looms 630 feet above us, blinding sunlight reflecting off the stainless-steel skin and into our eyes. The line for the restrooms beneath “The Gateway to the West” is too long, so soon we head to lunch. It is day two of our journey.
Jon never called during the day, and I was immediately nervous to see his face light up my iPhone’s screen mid-afternoon on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday in June.
“So,” he said, exasperated, “I just lost my job.”
He explained more, about how the company had decided to cut CNN Radio altogether, that Friday would be the last show, but my mind was already elsewhere.
What did this mean for us? For the wedding?
I had no job and no savings aside from the scholarship I’d won in San Francisco. There weren’t any job prospects in Atlanta that interested me. Was there any reason to stay?
We took turns being openly panicked. He went first, sobbing in my arms when he returned from the office. I collapsed into my own doubt later that week, admitting I wasn’t sure at all of the comforts I’d professed only days earlier.
There was record rainfall that month in Atlanta. We grappled with fears of failure and financial desperation. We cried with the sky when family members pushed back, unsupportive of our idea to marry early in case we had to move, confused by our conviction that marriage should be the priority. We sat inside attempting to answer a question that could define our life together: What would be our top priority? Careers, financial security, family, or our marriage?
The world’s largest easel stands in Goodland, Kansas, supposedly. It looks large to us, with Jon and the dog standing beneath the 80-foot structure for scale, but we have no other large easels to compare it to. It is day three of our journey.
We chose marriage.
We had both entered the relationship with strong opinions about the union: That marriage isn’t about maximizing individual happiness, but about becoming better people. That the relationship is only healthy when both parties are all in, putting one another above all things. The temptation to delay tying the knot until we felt secure was understandable. It would have been logistically and emotionally easier to get our ducks in a row before planning a wedding. But we dove in headfirst. Marriage wasn’t a happy ending to our story, it was a solid beginning.
We decided to wed in one month. We didn’t know how soon we’d have to move for a new job. The coming months could bring struggle, new adventure, or both. We wanted to face it together.
We forfeited deposits we’d paid for a December wedding and shifted into an altered state of planning hyperdrive. We ordered flowers, reserved a venue, had attire tailored and selected a menu. There would be no cake, no first dance, no DJ or band. Letting go of the big day we’d both envisioned for years somehow left us relieved. We forced ourselves to live out a value that is easily forgotten: A wedding isn’t about the spectacle.
We interviewed for jobs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and New York. We hand made cardstock signs for the wedding reception and tied bows on each tiny favor jars of Reese’s Pieces. “We love you to pieces!” was printed on each.
Somehow, we did it all.
I climb on top of one of “the big red things,” as I called them in my childhood. The view of Arches National Park is more magical than I ever imagined. Jon photographs my silhouette against the afternoon sun, and it looks like a Luna Bar advertisement. It is day four of our journey.
Our timing was perfect. I received a formal job offer from The Oregonian the week before the wedding. I negotiated employment terms in the hotel lobby while friends and family settled into their rooms before the rehearsal dinner.
“I can’t believe you’re on the phone with me the day before your wedding,” the managing editor said, laughing. Neither could I.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. Aug. 10, I took my father’s arm. We walked through the garden and down the white aisle we’d laid in the town square’s gazebo. Cream rose petals rolled beneath the lace of my gown and “Come Thou Fount,” Jon’s favorite hymn, floated from our friend’s violin. I remember very little of what the officiant said, of what I said, only the firmness with which Jon held my fingers. When the officiant pronounced us man and wife, Jon thrust our hands into the air victoriously. We did it, we made it.
We drank and ate and kissed and laughed. My father addressed a crowd for the first time in my life, and a friend composed and sang a customized rendition of “Sweet Caroline,” apparently unaware a song titled “Sweet Melissa” already existed.
The next morning we boarded a flight for Mexico, destination Riviera Maya. We lounged in covered beds on the beach and sipped intoxicating slush for six days, reveling in our success and happiness.
Our last-minute wedding was more than a public declaration of our commitment to one another. It was a public declaration that our commitment to one another came first, always.
We sit in an uncomfortable wood pew admiring the twelfth largest pipe organ in the world, which stands in the Tabernacle in Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah. A young woman demonstrates the exceptional acoustics by dropping a pin into a bowl on the stage. We hear it like she’s two feet away. It is day five of our journey.
Jon wholeheartedly supported the move to Portland, even though he had no job leads in the rainy City of Roses. I accepted The Oregonian’s offer the morning after we returned from Mexico. We flew to Portland to find an apartment, and then to Chicago for a post-wedding bridal shower with his family. We spent half the visit on the phone with prospective moving companies and loaded a truck three days after returning to Atlanta.
We slept on an air mattress that last night in the humid city. It had a hole, and the floor was cement. It was arguably the most trying night of all.
We spent a week with my family in North Carolina, saying goodbye and killing time while our belongings slowly traversed the country. We booked hotels and planned fun stops along the 2,840-mile route. We celebrated Jon’s twenty-eighth birthday.
We embarked on a Saturday morning. Our first stop was lunch and a visit to the capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia.
The Snake River is a bright turquoise, and still. Water levels are so low Shoshone Falls, known as the “Niagara of the West,” don’t fall. The ravine is jagged and gray, like earth only recently ripped apart. It is one of the most beautiful scenes we have seen yet. It is the last day of our journey.
We saw the country together: The bridges, the plains, the easel, the Rockies, the big red things, the plateaus. We listened to 44 episodes of This American Life — the early ones, from 1995 to 1996. Lil’ Bear slept in the backseat, enjoying the peace that half a Benadryl tablet every four hours brings to a 20-pound dog.
It was a second honeymoon of sorts. We were alone, behaving like tourists, living out of suitcases. We explored one another, but not the same way we had in Mexico. This time it was verbal, mental. After all, we were strapped to our seats. We shared opinions on topics we likely never would have discussed if it hadn’t been for Ira Glass, such as the distinction between odd days and even days, and gay men who marry women.
We bonded there, in the front seats of my hybrid sedan, in a way I hadn’t expected. Financial crisis had been averted, the wedding was behind us. We’d managed to find movers and pack everything, and even squeeze in a honeymoon and wedding shower. We were on the road, moving forward, leaving the memories of panic behind us. Ahead of us was the unknown: A new city, a new life together. We would have to make new friends; I’d start a new job and Jon would have to find one.
It was there, on U.S. Highways 64, 70 and 84, that I finally had time to reflect on how quickly life can change.
We settle on the carpet in front of the gas fireplace, as there is no furniture in the apartment yet. Jon pours the champagne (a gift from our reception venue) into the plastic stemmed cups that came with our new picnic set (a gift from our apartment complex). We toast to our new life together. A new journey has begun.
I climb past the other beach-goers, beyond the slimy boulders that have gathered at the base of Haystack Rock over the years, spread around the monolith like permanently bowed worshipers. I step lightly on the oysters. I climb until a sign threatens me with prosecution if I continue up the giant rock.
Before me is the Pacific, gray and cold. I turn, and cannot help but let out a laugh when I see my husband frantically scampering for high ground as the frigid December tide sweeps in. He waits for the water to withdraw, then tries again to capture a close-up image of the starfish he’s found, twisting awkwardly for the right angle.
I am thankful for this moment, watching him delight in nature—in anything—without the burden of restlessness and fear. He accepted a job at a local creative marketing firm just two days ago, and he is glowing. Our two and a half months in the Northwest have been difficult for him to enjoy. But he has loved me better than I have ever seen a husband love his wife, putting me first in all things.
“We’re finally home, baby cakes,” he told me after accepting the offer. “We’ve been here for more than two months, I know, but now I finally feel like this is home.”
I am amazed by our luck. With more than 10 million people unemployed in the United States, it is nothing short of a miracle that we both found jobs—excellent jobs—in the same city within a few months. We can see Mt. St. Helens from our bedroom window in our apartment, which we found easily despite the city’s shortage of affordable units. We pulled off the perfect wedding with only a month to plan, found movers on short notice and drove across the country without a single roadblock.
The Pacific is unbelievably vast, and our life is unbelievably blessed. I am in awe of both.
I glance up the monolith. There is so much left to conquer. We want the usual: A sturdy house, healthy children and proper career advancement. Jon wants to run a marathon and to spend more time with a brush in his hand. I dream of relief from an eight-year-long, undiagnosable headache and a Pulitzer, preferably in that order.
But the last few months have reminded us life doesn’t always go according to plan and crisis can come at the most inconvenient time. We don’t have control over our employer’s decisions or even over our own bodies. Children may not be in our future; a pain-free day may not be in mine. One or both of us might lose a job, and the house we don’t yet own might succumb to termites.
We will be all right, I think, smiling at the plum-colored starfish near my feet. We do have control over our priorities.
A spitting cloud overtakes sky, and I tighten the hood of my coat. I cross the oyster beds and carefully descend the wet face of the rock. I go to where Jon stands on the sand, his hand extended toward me. I take it, and we walk the beach a little longer, despite the wind and ensuing darkness.
If there is anything we’ve learned the past few months, it is how to weather a storm.