Eloping in Joshua Tree: A Desert Love Story

Make no mistake, it gets cold in the desert. The wind kicks up just before sunset on a late-May evening and with temperatures in the fifties, the goosebumps on my arms have been hanging around for an hour now. My sleeveless wedding dress, slit to the knee, provides little warmth. My hair, bound only by a barette, is tossed with each gust. The photographers warn of rattlesnakes in the dirt, telling me to keep an eye out as my sandaled feet traipse around yuccas and cacti. During all of this however, I’m glowing. I feel beautiful. I feel completely loved, as I look over at my fiance-become-husband, who I love completely.

Gracie + Carl

A year ago I was proposed to in Joshua Tree National Park, where I stand now, a newlywed. On the day of the proposal I hiked with my boyfriend along the Boy Scout trail, breaking off onto the Willow Tree Grove for a picnic lunch. Filling up on cheese and bread, we stood to walk back, when Carl stopped me for a moment, saying he needed to ask me something. From his pocket he pulled out a turquoise and silver ring, and asked if I would be his travel buddy for life.

Gracie + Carl

There was no getting down on one knee. There was no one hidden in the bushes to document the moment. There was only the breeze in the willows, and the two of us, holding each other tearfully after the yes was happily given. I cherish the intimacy of that moment, of the way Carl’s voice got caught in his throat as he asked the question. Just as I cherish the place we’re in.

Joshua Tree is magical.

Gracie + Carl

Each tree is unique. There are baby Joshuas with only a few branches, and others that sag underneath their own weight. When the sun sets it bathes thousands of trees in that witching hour glow. At night the sky is clear and the milky way is pulled out with such vibrancy that as a city dweller, I have a hard time believing. I mean, how can the stars be out this much each night? Though it may be the desert, wildflowers bloom and an oasis of palm trees can be found.

I’ve had people ask me what it is I can find special about a dry landscape filled with stumpy trees. That’s the thing about magic — There always needs to be an element of deniability. If everyone is enchanted with something, it loses its spell. I remain bound to Joshua Tree. As does Carl. What better place to continue falling in love with one another, for our lives to remain parallel to one another, to make a promise to one another, than here.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Neither of us are into a big wedding that requires vast amounts of time, money and effort. After our engagement there was no announcement, just calls to parents letting them know the good news. Close friends and family we filled in as we saw them. It had been our plan for years that when the time came, we’d elope somewhere further away. We imagined a rolling hill in Ireland or an Icelandic fjord, an officiant and violinist being the only witnesses. But after our inaugural visit to Joshua Tree, the park catapulted to the top of the list. Ultimately we decided that our parents would be the only invitees, so now that we had a destination and a guest list, what was next?

A short Google search for “Joshua Tree officiant” led us to letsgetmarriedbymarie.com where for less than two thousand dollars we’d snag an officiant who would also provide the bouquet and boutonniere, custom vows, and a photographer. All we had to do was show up with our ID’s and marriage license on the big day, and she’d take care of the rest.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

We exchanged a few emails back and forth to agree upon a date, time and location within Joshua Tree, choose from several photographer options to find the best fit for us, individually fill out a (top secret, no peeking!) form asking some questions about the history of our relationship, and have a short Zoom meeting to ask questions, cover expectations and get to know each other a bit more. Otherwise we’d meet up on May 21st at 5:30pm at the Boy Scout Trailhead in the park.

The months leading to the big day were laid back. I ordered a dress online from BHLDN and it fit like a dream — All I needed was a hem. Carl would wear a Rag & Bone suit he grabbed a few years earlier to attend a black tie optional wedding. Two weeks before we were to fly west though, things got real. A last minute work trip took us to NYC for the week of the 6th, and while there, Carl’s sister gave birth and Carl became an uncle to a beloved baby girl. Friday the 10th we flew back to Pittsburgh, hopped in a car to Cleveland, and spent that Saturday meeting our tiny niece. Saturday the 18th, after a full week of work, we flew out to Palm Springs.

I often say that we’ll retire either to Palm Springs or the Hood River Valley of Oregon — While Hood River has waterfalls and breweries and the nearby quirkiness that is Portland, Palm Springs has art deco architecture and middle aged men in spiffy blazers and cocktail bars built for Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. I love how the city feels semi-surreal and La La Land-esque (sans the traffic) with the lawns of multi-million dollar homes immaculately landscaped with succulents, while snow capped peaks survey the scene. However, the biggest draw of Palm Springs, for me, is its proximity to Joshua Tree. You can make it to the park entrance from downtown in less than an hour, passing through the towns of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree along the way.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

36 hours before our elopement Carl and I check into our Airbnb that’s just a few minutes drive from the park’s northern entrance. Our lodging is delightfully desert-y, with a yard filled with dirt, cactuses, and lounge chairs for stargazing. Inside is a wood burning stove, bright orange walls and olive colored couches. I love it. We spend the afternoon hiking in the park. Spend the evening listening to live music at Pappy and Harriet’s in nearby Pioneertown (one of the best music venues I’ve been to in recent years, oozing desert charm). The day has been undoubtedly wonderful, but when Carl and I arrive back at the Airbnb, I’m somehow sad.

I know I want to marry Carl more than anything, but things feel off — My skin, which had spent days over the last two weeks in various planes, trains and automobiles has been flaking in patches around my mouth and jawline, which no amount of ointments, including my emergency trip to Kiehls in Palm Springs has been able to remedy. The weather for tomorrow is expected to be in the mid-fifties and incredibly windy, not ideal for an outdoor elopement. While I never had a “bridezilla” moment, I finally understood the desire for everything to be perfect. In the end, my bout of sadness lasted only a few minutes. Carl took me outside to stargaze, held me in his arms, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed for everything to be OK again.

Gracie + Carl

The next morning we spend hiking, breakfasting and lunching at Natural Sisters Cafe next to the park entrance (a seriously fantastic vegetarian spot I cannot recommend enough, even for the meat eaters out there). We lie down for a nap mid-afternoon while the winds kick up and send branches scratching across the house. Our parents arrive as I’m getting ready. My mom stands behind me in the tiny tiled bathroom, watching as I put on my makeup. She has that beaming look on her face that only a mother can make, commenting as I put on mascara and lip stain. She zips up my dress and fastens the vintage barrette into my hair, looking a bit misty eyed the whole time.

I’ve asked Carl what thoughts he had as I stepped out into the living room in my dress. His response: “I was just happy”.

Gracie + Carl

At the trailhead parking lot we meet Marie and our photographers, Jenn and Pawel (whom all photos in this post are taken by), a husband and wife duo. It’s all just as informal as I was hoping — We’re introduced, exchange some paperwork, and within five minutes Carl and I are being photographed among the trees. Neither of us are very photogenic. Carl frequently declines having his photo, even in front of destinations like the Colosseum. I tend to freeze up as soon as a camera is pointed at me, and do this weird squidgy thing where one eye is always shut in pictures.

Jenn and Pawel made me feel incredibly comfortable and managed to make Carl and I look quite the dashing couple, if I may say, myself. Even our windswept hair looks great, giving us an unintentionally boho-chic / little-house-on-the-prarie vibe. We established a rhythm with the cold, alternating between jacket and no-jacket, and I’d never been happier with my years old floral coat.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Mid-way through photos we break for the actual ceremony. In under ten minutes Marie delivers a short speech covering how Carl and I met, what we love most about each other, and how we will continue to grow together as a couple (all taken from the form we’d filled out months before and had nearly forgotten about). We gaze deeply at one another and I try my best not to ugly sob. A tear or two falls, by I flick it away quickly. Together we grab some of the earth at our feet to commemorate the moment, to feel between our fingers the land where we said our vows and made a promise to one another. We each take some dirt, move it slowly through the palm of our hand, over our fingertips, then release. Then breathe.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

There are kisses and hugs. Our parents swarm us. More hugs follow. If this sounds a bit too saccharine, it’s because it is.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

It’s now the golden hour – 6:30pm. The sun is tucking into the surrounding boulders in Joshua Tree, peeking through cracks and casting a glow on everything, ourselves included. Temperatures are dropping quickly and the goosebumps that have flecked my skin on and off over the last hour are now permanent. Jenn and Pawel keep us going by asking little questions like which Game of Thrones character each other was most like (the last season was airing at the time). We’re gleeful to the point of annoyance. I take Carl’s hand in mine and nibble his knuckles. His fingers constantly graze the small of my back. We feel silly and giddy and in love and look at each other with googly eyes.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

When the sun finally drops past the desert horizon and the Joshuas are put to bed, we say our thanks and farewell to Marie, Jenn and Pawel, then make the drive to our wedding dinner. Our venue is the Joshua Tree Saloon. Our chariot is my parent’s rental car.

The saloon takes no reservations. On the menu are ribs and burgers and draft beer. We’re told it will be a 40 minute wait when we arrive, but we’re sat in 15 (Carl believes the wedding dress I’m donning explains the cut in wait time). I feel a tad bit silly hiking up my dress to plop onto a picnic table bench, but that’s all part of the experience.

Built in the 80’s, the saloon looks like the backdrop of a Spaghetti western — The wooden facade is intentionally weathered and decorative oil drums shouting “Saloon” in that wild-west-y bubble font dot the entrance. Inside diners chomp away from wooden booths and picnic tables while drinkers guzzle along a laquered wooden bar that’s twenty feet long and half the length of the saloon. In the back is a stage and in the front is a pool table. It’s cozy and comforting and I imagine what it’s like here in other seasons…In the winter when the days are short and there’s little else to do at night in this western landscape..In the summer when the patio opens outside and the crowds gather under the stars…And again, I feel that desert magic kick in and a desire to linger.

The burgers are pretty good too.

Together the six of us dine on fish tacos and onion rings, bacon burgers and racks of ribs. We drink beer and toast and pat hands and rub shoulders. Everything that families do together, especially when families become a bit bigger.

Back at the Airbnb it’s just the two of us. I ask Carl if I can have our first dance as husband and wife. In the past I always imagined that Naive Melody by The Talking Heads would be my future wedding song. Now though, now, I play Postcards From Italy by Beirut. I play it because it fits. I didn’t choose a song I later had to wedge into our relationship, or our lives together. I choose what’s already been there. What falls into place between us.

It was a year ago that Carl asked me to marry him underneath the willows. In just a few minutes we’ll go outside and hold each other close, cuddling beneath the milky way. But now, now we dance cheek-to-cheek to the words:

And I will love to see that day

That day is mine

When she will marry me outside, with the willow trees

And play the songs we made

They made me so

And I would love to see that day

The day was mine

The day was ours. As is whatever is next.

Gracie + Carl

Gracie + Carl

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