Finding Love in the Backcountry 

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I lean onto my elbow and point out the obvious. ‘Do you realize, since we met, we’ve shared more nights cramped in a tent than we have in a bed?’ I watched the appreciation of what I was saying creep over his face.”

By Nicole Atkins

I roll onto my back. The sun feels warm on my face. All I can hear is the whisper of the desert breeze. That, and the soft snoring escaping my boyfriend. I stare at his chest, watching it rise and fall. He’s so peaceful in his sleep. 

For those of us looking for love, we want a surefire way to know if we’ve met “the one” — as if there’s some metric that gives you a definitive “yes” or “no” if you ask the right question. Sounds like science fiction to me. But I can tell you one way to test the tenacity of a relationship: Spend your time together in the backcountry.

A joyful mountaintop selfie by Rob

I met my husband, Rob, when romance wasn’t on my mind. We spent our first date hiking in the mountains. 

I can tell you one way to test the tenacity of a relationship: Spend your time together in the backcountry.

I remember asking, “Do you meet many women who will trade mascara for boob sweat on the first date?” His face lit up in spirited laughter.

A few weeks later it was time for our third date. I asked, “How do you feel about popping on over to Colorado for a quick day hike?” Part of me wanted to see how he would react to my spontaneity. A 12-hour drive to another state, for a day hike, isn’t out of the ordinary for me. He paused for deliberation; probably gauging my sanity, or how he could make a sensible exit. But, instead, he said, “Yeah, sounds fun.” That was the beginning of many long-distance trips together.

In our first year, we shared 183 days in the backcountry. We fought in the backcountry, laughed in the backcountry, philosophized in the backcountry. But most importantly, we fell in love in the backcountry. We set aside any lingering skepticism and gave ourselves over to each other. Surrounded by towering mountains, crystal lakes, and expansive deserts, two people found love. The intimacy of the outdoors provided a safe environment for our vulnerability.

 

The summer after we met, we were trekking through the Rockies. I was nursing a migraine and needed a break. We got into an actual argument about Rob carrying my pack.

In our first year, we shared 183 days in the backcountry.

“You’re not carrying my stuff. I’m a capable, strong, independent woman!” He looks at me patiently, with his hand out. I quip again, “Dude, no. I’ll carry it. I’ll carry YOUR stuff. I don’t need your sympathy.”

“I know you don’t need my help. But we’re a team, and I want to help. If I were in pain, I’d want your help.” Ugh, logic, my weakness. I look past him and drink in the view: The rugged peaks of the Tetons, reaching to the sky. The endless meadows of wildflowers in every direction. The icy blue lakes scattered in the distance, a refreshing juxtaposition.

This place is magical. I’m suddenly grateful to share the experience with Rob. Looking up at him, it hits me. I love this man. I trust him with my life, my secrets, and my pride. Conceding, I hand over my pack.

“I love you,” I say. But he knows. I can see it on his face. I’m not good at hiding emotions, and he’s telling me that with his eyes. “I love you too,” he replies, grinning. And I realize, I know too.

Just as we cultivated love in the backcountry, we strengthened love in the backcountry. Sharing the outdoors is a source of joy and comfort for us. We continued to explore, adventure, and play together amongst the pines.

“Do you realize, since we met, we’ve shared more nights cramped in a tent than we have in a bed?”

One day, we were hiding in our tent from a torrential hailstorm. Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I lean onto my elbow and point out the obvious. “Do you realize, since we met, we’ve shared more nights cramped in a tent than we have in a bed?” I watched the appreciation of what I was saying creep over his face. Maybe it was the delirium of the waterlogged boondocks we were hiding in. But I prefer to think it was an unspoken agreement that those nights brought us closer to romantic utopia.

It’s fitting that my boyfriend would propose marriage in the backcountry. He almost blew it. We were standing next to an alpine lake in the Canadian Rockies. He said, “I have something special for you.” Of course, my natural reaction was, “I hope it’s cheese.” No. It wasn’t. But he took a knee and offered something almost as good. Marriage wasn’t a path I thought I’d take, but I wasn’t going to pass up a man who shares my dreams and can load a dishwasher.

Our wedding was also in the backcountry. The benefit of two low-maintenance people is that they have modest expectations. The wedding took five minutes to plan and cost less than $300. We said our vows in the backcountry of Glacier National Park.

We stood on a cliff looking over a glacial lake, surrounded by an amphitheater of canyon walls. No floral arrangements, the mountain meadows provided those. No band, the songbirds brought the soundtrack. No expensive rings, we opted for tattoos. Joined by an intimate group of family and close friends, we sealed the deal. 

 

And yes, of course, we spent our honeymoon in the outdoors. A camper van is as extravagant as it gets for these lovebirds.

It’s been some years now. We’ve learned, grown, and continued to love. We’re still sharing tents, exploring landscapes, and leaving the wilderness bathroom door open. Our marriage is set against a wild backdrop that brings both peace and yearning. We live the cabin life now, so we’re in the wild 24/7, and we love every minute of it.


Banner photo and portraits (unless otherwise specified) are are by Luke Mislinki Photography.

Giving up an academic career, Nicole Atkins decided to put her 30+ years of outdoor experience to use as an educator, writer, and photographer. She contributes to many respected outdoor sites, has her own award-winning blog, teaches workshops, and consults on special educational projects. Galleries across the US have featured her nature photography. Find more of her work at modernoutdoors.net and on Instagram @modern_outdoors.