“It’s OK, I signed up for this.”
That was Michelle, in her just-completed professional hair and makeup, pristine wedding gown and Jimmy Choos, as Dan, clutching his arm, muttered to himself over and over, “I ruined everything.”
The thing she signed up for? Her fiancé dislocating his shoulder the morning of their wedding, after attempting to climb onto the roof of their hotel room from the balcony. Dan is a climber, and, well, climbers gonna climb. The rest of us (that’s Erin, Ben and Chrisman Studios videographer Vlad) had been in the other room of the suite, photographing and filming Michelle getting into her wedding dress. No one even knew Dan was outside until we heard a thud and a howl of pain.
Michelle’s words, to me, said everything about marriage and why you choose the partner you do. Michelle wasn’t mad at Dan. She is someone who wants him to be exactly who he is. She wants him to pursue his passions, act on his whims, take risks, and be a little crazy sometimes. After all, those are the reasons she fell in love with him. And Dan didn’t ruin anything at all. They had three more days to travel the West, make portraits and get married somewhere in between. Besides, Michelle’s pretty good at doing her own hair and makeup.
Colorado Wedding Day
Michelle and Dan did not get married that day. Instead, they spent four hours in the emergency room in Santa Fe. When they were finally released, after picking up pain pills and tacos, we all set out on the road. We managed to get a few portraits in before the sun went down. That night, with everyone exhausted and mentally spent, we drove from Santa Fe up to Durango, Colorado. And it was there, the next morning, that Michelle did her own hair and makeup, and put the dress and the Jimmy Choos back on.
It was there that we picked up the marriage license and found the perfect ceremony location, at Lion’s Den Park (thanks Brett Butterstein for the suggestion!). It was there that Michelle and Dan married each other, with only us, Vlad, and a (secretly shipped to Vlad a few days before) cardboard cutout of their best friends in attendance. Of course, two snakes showed up just before the ceremony, freaking everyone out (except Dan, who wanted to play with them). But, at that point it was all just par for the course.
This destination elopement, through the Four Corners of the American West, was crafted to be an adventure. Therefore, we purposely made a very loose plan so we could follow the light and the landscapes, and see what felt right in the moment. The wedding celebration was pizza, tequila shots and margaritas in downtown Durango, before getting back on the road to drive west to Utah. The rest of the trip was over to the Valley of the Gods, then cutting through the top right corner of the Navajo reservation through back roads (thank you Michael Benanav for that route), and into Arizona before ultimately ending up in Shiprock and then Santa Fe.
This wedding was unlike anything we have photographed before. For four days out on the road, we were a family. We were photographers. We were ambulance drivers. We were wedding guests. We were all each other had in sometimes very desolate lands. We shared all the responsibilities – DJ’ing, drink-making, food-procuring (including a midnight McDonald’s drive-thru run on foot that none of us are proud of), packing, unpacking, re-packing, hauling suitcases and gear in and out of hotel rooms.
The photo story here is as real as it gets. We easily could have left out the hard parts and shown only the fantasy wedding photos where everything looked perfect against stunning landscapes. But that wasn’t the story at all. These photographs are evidence of two people choosing each other and committing to take care of each other for life. They are evidence of two people committing to have fun together, to laugh, to make mistakes together and to forgive each other.
This trip was a small symbol of what marriage really is. It’s not the pretty wedding portraits that you’ll inevitably put on your walls. It’s not even the vows you say to each other on that day. It’s everything that happens in between. You are thrown so many curve balls. Things happen that you never could have imagined. And you handle them together, as a team. Michelle and Dan weren’t in this for the perfect wedding day. They are in it for life. And that is a story we are proud to tell.
See Vlad’s video here: Michelle and Dan’s Road Trip Elopement
[An explanation of the Starbucks photos: Michelle and Dan met because Michelle was the manager of a Starbucks, and Dan’s photography studio (he’s a photographer and filmmaker) was just below it. After running into each other a few times, he asked for her phone number, which she wrote on the back of a Starbucks coffee cup sleeve. So the morning of their wedding, we found a Starbucks in Durango. The manager agreed to let Michelle put on her apron and make Dan a drink behind the counter. Dan STILL has that coffee cup sleeve with her number on it.]