Under Canyon Stars

“A perfect marriage is nothing other than two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other.”

-unknown

Simply breathtaking.

There was no other way to describe it. I paused for a moment to be still and soak up the scene in front of me. The sun was slowly creeping over the Grand Canyon, casting rays of golden light onto a deep blue sea of earth, granting approval to a day full of adventure and possibility. My husband, Dan, was running in front of me, cautiously crunching over a layer of early Spring ice on the iconic Bright Angel Trail. Together, we were adding another hefty notch to our extensive list of co-adventuring: The Rim to Rim to Rim Challenge.

Bright Angel Trail at sunrise

Though we’d run in the Canyon a few times before, this trip was especially significant as we were looking to finish the challenge to celebrate our 15th anniversary. 46 miles total across one of the Seven Wonders and back seemed like the ideal way to celebrate such a big milestone.

As I took in the view, I adjusted my heavy pack, and grabbed a swig of water. Today was going to be huge.

Dan glanced over his shoulder to check on me, “You good back there?”

“Yeah,” I shouted, ” just taking it all in!” I kicked up my pace to rejoin him, and we quickly settled back into our familiar easy rhythm–running, laughing, dissecting the meaning of life. Drinking in the world’s best views with a comfortability that only comes with years of doing life with a person.

“Us” hasn’t always been easy, though. Like with any long distance effort, there is the inevitable ebb and flow of ease and pain. There are highs, there are lows, and there are downright ugly times. And as the next 40 something miles played out through that canyon, I couldn’t help but draw the parallels in my heart.

Downhill.

As we descended toward the mighty Colorado, the canyon walls began to change color and texture. With each turn, we would “ooh and ahh” over the intricate beauty of the changing rocks and formations surrounding us.

Any mountain runner can tell you that running downhill is nothing short of euphoric. With gravity on your side, there’s very little effort involved. You simply have to let go, commit to turning your legs over, and nature will take care of the rest. It’s an exhilarating ride.

The first 9 miles of the R2R2R are nothing but downhill as you descend into the belly of the canyon. It’s a wickedly fun ride, and the scenery makes it that much sweeter. Beautiful and effortless. The same feeling you get when you’re young and falling in love…

Quick snapshot while descending Bright Angel

I’ll never forget when it happened to me. It was the summer of ’03. Dan and I were just kids. I was every bit of a rebellious sixteen, and he was the older, much cooler, seventeen. Though we had gone to the same high school, we’d never crossed paths until one day some mutual friends randomly got together, and suddenly we found ourselves mingling in the same group. A week later, Dan was driving our newfound teenage entourage to the local mall, and I was riding directly behind him in the back seat. Every time I’d look up front, I’d catch his deep blue-green eyes glancing back at me in the rear view mirror. After a couple of simultaneous “glances”, I knew it wasn’t coincidence. Especially when he paired that glance with a flash of his perfectly dimpled grin, melting me quicker than a snow cone on the Fourth.

I knew almost instantly Dan hit my heart differently, and it was clear the feeling was mutual. More than sparks, we’re talking firework chemistry. We fell hard and quick that summer into a wild teenage romance for the ages. We were reckless, we were dramatic, and we were completely obsessed and inseparable. Our friends and parents figured it wouldn’t last longer than a season or two, but much to their disappointment, time would prove them all wrong. Just two years later, we married young, had two dogs, a house, and a mini Dan- outrageous dimples and all. Life was good.

But what comes down…

After crossing the Colorado River, we stopped briefly at Phantom Ranch to fill up our packs with more water, and jumped onto the North Kaibab Trail. The next 14 or so miles of our run would be a gradual then brutal uphill towards the North Rim. The uniqueness of the R2R2R Challenge is that it’s backwards than most mountain efforts. Typically, a mountain run is an hour or two of climbing up towards a summit, soaking in the top, then bombing back down to your car. In the Canyon, you start downhill, then run up and up (and more up) to reach the Rim. And you repeat that pattern on the return trip.

Crossing the Colorado River

After Phantom Ranch, the North Kaibab Trail weaves its way alongside a windy creek with towering canyon walls before popping out into an exposed and unruly desert. Dan and I grew a little less chatty as we entered this section, as it was the first part of our “work portion”, the slow ascent towards the North Rim. The incline wasn’t steep enough to necessitate hiking, so we stuck with an awkward feeling jog/shuffle mix, just trying to keep moving forward. Especially with a very heavy and cumbersome pack on, this type of movement is oftentimes the hardest to maintain. It’s unfamiliar to the body and it works you. You have to learn how to adjust your expectations, as you’re not really running and you’re not really hiking. You’re simply grinding. Always forward.

Running towards the desert and North Rim

Our marriage “work and grind” followed a similar pattern. After our “I Do’s” we moved in together and took on a mortgage and a baby in the same year. Hard, sure, but we were happy. A couple years later though, the real storm hit. In 2007, shortly after the birth of our little girl, the economy completely tanked, and Dan lost his job. He ended up taking an engineering job 3 hours away, and I worked odd hours as a personal trainer while taking care of our two babies. Dan also started school to try to get us on level ground eventually. As a result, the next few years turned into total survival mode.

It was during this time that we entered the arduous “slow climb” of our marriage. When you reach the point that you never know if water will come out of the faucet, or if you’ll come home to lights that work, or if the 5 dollar pizza will bounce your checking account… When you barely see each other…love starts to look a little different. It starts to look a little more like work.

And work isn’t always fun.

You can try everything in the book to disguise it, but when it comes down to it, hard work will always be hard work. And as we finished up our awkward shuffle across the canyon, we knew the real hard stuff was on its way.

We stopped at the base of our first major climb to restock water and eat for a minute. We were roughly 18 miles in, and the next 6 miles to the top were going to be steep and painful.

“Let’s keep movin'” I said to Dan, closing up my pack and putting my food away, “No point in delaying the inevitable!”

“Hey…I’m waiting on you!” He laughed, jumping in front of me onto the trail.

As we began the quad crushing pain, we simultaneously began distracting ourselves with random topics. Deep thoughts like “so do you think in Heaven”—*gasping for air*–“our dogs will talk to us like humans?” …you know, important trail conversations.

But as the intensity spiked, we eventually had to shut up, stop disguising things, and do hard work. Each mile brought several hundred feet of vertical gain with it. The wind was blowing fiercely, and with the higher elevations, and deep ice all over the place, footing was unstable. There was no point in talking about how bad it sucked. We both knew it. We both felt it. It was an inevitable part to achieving our goal though. So we put our heads down, put our hands on our knees, and marched onward.

Dan climbing North Kaibab

Much like the Canyon, around the middle of our marriage, we hit our biggest workload yet. With low income, tiny kids, and every day feeling like the universe was rallying against us, resolve began to fade. For me, mental health was nonexistent and I was a mess. Mistakes were made, trust was broken, and the damage was extensive.

I almost wrecked us completely.

But Dan– the hero that he is–still loved me. He loved me despite my long list of failures, and he was committed to making our marriage work. He had every reason to walk away from me, but he put himself and his hurt aside, and instead he loved me harder. Every single day.

We both knew that a love like ours was worth fighting for, so we fought tooth and nail for it. We clung to God and to each other, and though it hurt like hell, we put one foot in front of the other, and we climbed the freaking mountain.

…About a mile from the top, just as he’d been doing all day, Dan looked back over his shoulder to check on methe more experienced climber of the two of us— just to make sure I was hanging in there. Pay no mind that it was his first time going over 30 miles, and it was my hundreth. That’s just how Dan is.

His selflessness will always be my saving grace.

Just below the North Rim

Summits

Eventually, our climb toppled out at the North Rim, which was completely covered in a thick layer of ice and snow. We were completely numb. We laughed as we tried to open our snacks with cold sweaty fingers. We sat for a minute, and tried to comprehend the magnitude of what we’d just conquered. We’d crossed the Grand Freakin’ Canyon. TOGETHER. We had no choice but to get back now, and the confidence of making it halfway was a huge boost.

It would be hard, but we believed in “us”.

Snowy North Rim!

We were roughly 24 miles in, Phase 1 was done, and the next portion of our run would be the easy fun downhill stuff for awhile. We took off from the North Rim with energy, and laughed the entire way downhill, connecting and bonding like always over endless inside jokes and thoughts.

Descending North Kaibab

After we descended and headed back into the desert toward Phanton Ranch, I let Dan gain a little bit of space on me as I trailed back behind, lost in a wave of gratitude. As I watched him run into the sun, surrounded by unfathomable creation, I just kept thinking how lucky I was to have him, and that surely I didn’t deserve a love like this. I was so overwhelmed and lost in the moment. The stream of emotion turned into a river, and before I knew it I was choking back a weird mix of crying and laughing.

Seriously though, God? You must really love me... I said out loud.

Then I wiped my eyes, snapped back to running reality, and shouted, “Aye!!! Slow your roll, babe! I can’t keep up, dangitt.” And I picked up my pace once again to reach my best friend.

Trailing Dan through the desert

Growth.

Love is a decision, and love is a discipline. So is running. Over the years following our hardest climb, Dan and I learned how to put in work by way of combining the two. We spent our quality alone time doing weekend mountain running. We tackled hard climbs and even harder conversations, and together we grew stronger than ever. Our kids grew, our finances grew, our love grew, and most importantly...our faith grew, too. So as we began our last big climb out of the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail, I had nothing but confidence in our ability to conquer the final beast together.

The colorado behind us, heading into our last big climb.

The sun began to set over the canyon, sending farewell hues of deep gold and red over the tops of the canyon castles. I looked down at the Colorado, carving its way through the rock one final time, feeling awestruck at how small and insignificant I felt compared to such a magnificent wonder. I felt a deep grin take hold of my face. I would never forget this day.

“We’ve put in a ton of work to prepare. This won’t be too bad.” Dan noted as he pulled out his headlamp.

I nodded in agreement, pulling out my own.

The South Kaibab Trail was significantly wider than the North, so the two of us could climb in sync next to each other. As we hiked, the night settled in, and the wind begin to howl. I instinctively grabbed Dan’s hand for more security, weaving my fingers into his. Perfect fit.

The moon inched up over us, and under its approving glow we hiked and talked quietly about our years together. Reminiscing about how stupid we used to be, belly laughing over memories, disbelieving that our babies are now teens, and sharing musings about what they might be like as adults. We marveled at the huge growth we’d made over the years, and thanked God for honoring our efforts and commitment.

“Hey,” I interjected, “Thank you–thank you for loving me like you do. Like you always have. Seriously. I know it’s not ever been easy.”

“Wrong.” Dan said, leaning over to kiss my forehead, “You’ve always been easy to love.”

And with that, I decided words were unnecessary, so I tucked my hand a little deeper into Dan’s. We continued to work together toward the South Rim, our final destination, with a shared strength and confident discipline guiding us. We tackled the last few miles of our adventure remaining hand in hand, under a silent blanket of stars.

When we finally crested the steps of the last climb, we turned and hugged each other deeply, with no one but God watching from above. 46 miles…15 years…

We did it.

Finally.

All the work. All the time. All the love… It was beautiful and it was good. It was whole. It was the perfect celebration of our journey together so far.

And in that instant, I knew deep in my heart–that though I’ll never understand why– God truly does love little ole messy me. Very, very much.

18 Replies to “Under Canyon Stars”

  1. Truly inspirational….needs to be shared at ALL marriage conferences and so eloquent.
    Your words brought me to the place you were in that moment and I could feel your heart, your history, and the beauty of what you were seeing!
    What I love about you Ashley is that you bring God to people in a very different way. I remember your beliefs being so strong but non confirming to what others thought and expected of you! Being a part of your life during some of rise years was inspiring to me and I remember many conversations we had about some of the mistakes you talk about …and look where you’ve come. You’ve been In places that others cannot understand ..except those who may have travelled similar paths and only you can be a light to them and an encouragement to know that they can be where you are in life in they “put one foot in front of the other” and keep moving forward on their journey whatever that looks like for them.
    I am honored to call you friend and would love to share your story 💜. Judy W

    1. JUDY!! WOW, what kind words. Thank you so much for commenting this. You were always so patient and sweet to lend a listening ear back in the day, and even now, I’ve aways felt comfortable talking with you.. Thank you for your constant support and encouragement. You are always a light in my life!

    1. Thank you for sharing your love story, your God story. Save this story for your children do they will have a road map for marriage! PS The Grand Canton is beautiful.

  2. So blessed to have known you both through the highs and the lows… y’all are the “ real deal”..
    Love you both.
    So beautifully written Ashley..

  3. Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing! I love the parallel of marriage and the climb! I remember some of those hard days! I love that I had the chance to get to know you and Dan! You are a great and inspiring couple!
    Amy

  4. Ashley. This is so beautiful. It gave me chills. What a beautiful love story you have. Y’all are truly amazing and such an inspiration. I love you my friend.

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