Claire Henley: Adventures West (A Wedding On The Trail)

Monday, September 28, 2015

(Editor's Note: Chattanoogan Claire Henley started an adventure of a lifetime on the remote Pacific Crest Trail in April. Along the way, she had many adventures and found herself a husband named Big Spoon).

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound…”

-Ephesians 5: 31-32

Before leaving for the PCT, I prayed to God to guide me to my husband. After starting the trail, it didn’t take me long to see Big Spoon was the one–the man God set apart for me to share my life with the rest of my days. 

Hikers say that a day on the trail is like a month in real life. What’s meant by this is that the connection you experience between people on the trail is so instant, so raw, so true, that after only hiking with a person for a few days, it feels as if you’ve known them for years. This was certainly the case for Big Spoon and I. For in a mere two weeks, from mile 235 (where Big Spoon caught up to me) to the KOA at mile 444, we spent our time on the trail together, showing each other our unmasked selves as we hiked through trying cold weather and tough uphill terrain. On this life altering stretch we asked each other the big questions about the meaning of life, our desires and hopes in life, and how they fit in with our beliefs about the Great Beyond. By mile 369, in the town of Wrightwood, Big Spoon and I knew intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally that we were meant to be together: we both knew and felt that God led us to each other, and though we had only known each other for a few weeks, we didn’t want to wait to seal the deal God had devised for us as husband and wife. 

Thus, what you are about to read is the story of how Big Spoon and I got married on the trail. And it is a story to tell indeed, because once the ball got rolling to finalize our lifelong commitment to each other as husband and wife, the events that occurred as a result were nothing short of Divine Intervention.

It was the morning after Big Spoon and I stayed the night in Wrightwood, in the charming log cabin of Trail Angels Clayton and Jan. We were sitting in the living room as sunlight streamed in through the open windows. I was drinking coffee and signing the guest book for hikers when Big Spoon leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Let’s elope.”

I had already thought the same thing myself–about eloping with Big Spoon–and so didn’t pause to consider the proposal and answered confidently, “Yes, let’s.”  

The next several days on the trail we planned out the wedding logistics. On Thursday, May 21, the trail led us to the KOA in Acton. By this time, we knew what we needed in order to obtain a marriage license, but we weren’t sure how or when we would go about the actual ceremony. A mile before reaching the KOA, however, something told us to stop on the trail and research if any County Clerk offices were nearby. We breaked in a sandy gully that shielded us from the heavy wind and Big Spoon pulled out his phone. In mere minutes he found the Los Angeles County Clerk in the town of Lancaster–a 30 mile hitch from the KOA–where we could both obtain our marriage license and have the wedding ceremony, the divine kicker being that Friday was the only day the office performed any weddings. 

It was a good thing we looked up the County Clerk office when we did, because at the KOA the cell phone reception was weak, and there was no internet connection. Thus, our next task was to figure out a ride to Lancaster for the next day, Friday. It was early afternoon and a cold, overcast day. Big Spoon and I convened in the KOA lobby where the phone number of a Trail Angel named Mary was posted on the wall. 

“Let’s go outside and give her a call,” Big Spoon said to me. 

We walked out to the gravel parking lot to make the call and who but Mary pulled in right as Big Spoon dialed her number. Mary was a wife, mother, artist, and joyous ball of energy who was there to pick up a fellow hiker. We talked to her as she waited for the hiker to come to her car and learned she was trail-angeling this season by driving hikers where they needed to go because she had never done it before and was fascinated by the thru-hiking culture, saying, “It’s just so cool to hear about you hikers’ motivation behind such a giant journey.” 

So when Big Spoon and I told her we were getting married the next day and needed a ride to Lancaster in the morning, Mary jumped for joy, shouted in praise, hugged Big Spoon and I tightly, and said without hesitation, “I’ll be here tomorrow morning at seven o’clock sharp.” 

Big Spoon and I called our parents next. We sat on a faded wooden fence near the parking lot and made the nerve wracking calls one parent at a time. We dialed my mom first. She was at work, and when I told her the news the first thing she said was, “I’m shocked.” I explained to her that Big Spoon and I would have a formal wedding ceremony back home in Chattanooga after we finished the trail in October, but that because we already knew in our hearts and minds we were meant to be married, we didn’t want to wait the four to five months before starting our lives together as one. This helped my mom come to terms with the gargantuan realization of her oldest child’s faraway wedding. By the end of the conversation she said, “Well, Sweetie, I guess I’m not surprised. Because remember I told you before you left this would happen, that you would find your husband on the PCT.”

Next we called my dad whose reaction was loving and level-headed. Dad said he understood that Big Spoon and I had finally found each other and that it made sense we wanted to be with each other in every way, especially while on the PCT–our journey of a lifetime. He said he believed God had His hand in this, and that he trusted my judgment. During this call, Big Spoon spoke to my dad and asked him if he could take my hand in marriage.

“Thank you so much for asking me, Caleb. That shows your quality and style,” my dad responded, and after confirming that Big Spoon would honor and cherish me as long as we both lived, my dad gave his blessing for Big Spoon to marry me.

The conversation with Big Spoon’s parents and grandmother was shorter than with my parents, but it was nevertheless full of joy, support, and beautiful love. Big Spoon told his family it had slapped him in the face that I was the one, and he didn’t want to prolong an engagement. His mother, Ave, welcomed me to their family and said in a lively voice, “I’ve always told Caleb the greatest joy I know is being able to share life with the one you love.” His father, Barry, who Big Spoon had previously described to me as a strong man of little words and always watchful of what was going on, said in a solid tone, “God bless.” And Big Spoon’s grandmother, Mary Elizabeth, wanted to make it very clear to us that we were not eloping, because if we were eloping we would be sneaking around behind everyone’s backs and not telling anyone about it. Oh no, we weren’t eloping, the grandmother declared. Big Spoon and I were getting married. 


That night, amidst a field of thru-hikers  who were bundled in their tents, I sat with Big Spoon on the grass beneath the silver stars. Earlier in the day I had written him a letter on a piece of paper from my journal. In the letter I told him I knew we were getting married a lot quicker than most couples, but that I believed this was a marriage that would last like gold, and one in which I would be true to him and love him until death did us part. He read the letter while we sat side by side, and when he finished he took my hand and officially asked, “Claire, will you marry me?”

I answered yes.


We woke the next morning at sunrise. I readied myself in the KOA bathhouse with the help of Pandora who was coming with Big Spoon and I to Lancaster as our witness and Maid of Honor. Throughout my life, I never imagined I would look and dress the way I did that morning on my wedding day. I wore my white desert hiking shirt that was stained with dirt and sweat. My nose was sunburned and peeling, and my lower lip was split open and chapped. I had no make up to wear, and I did what I could with my tangly hair by tying it up in a bandana. The sports bra I wore was old; my tennis shoes were new; the bracelet on my wrist made of a braided purple rope was borrowed from Pandora, and the heart shaped earrings I had on were blue. 

Pandora and I met Big Spoon in the parking lot at 7:00. He wore his Robbin’s egg blue hiking shirt that brought out the soft blue in his eyes. 

“How are you feeling?” He asked me. 

“So sure about this,” I said. “And you?”

“The same, Claire.” 

Mary pulled in right on time, and as I put my backpack in the trunk of her car, she got out and presented me with a bouquet of bright pink roses. She had a rose for Pandora, too. They smelled heavenly sweet and completed my unique bridal ensemble. After the 30 minute drive to the County Clerk’s Office, Mary dropped the three of us off and said she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to pick us back up because she had to drive her 19 year old daughter to film school in Hollywood. We thanked her for her wonderful help and told her not to worry, that, after the ceremony, we would figure something out.

When Mary left, we had another 30 minutes before the office opened. It was a bright sunny day, the first in a while. Pandora–all smiles and exuberant with happy energy–took several pictures of Big Spoon and me as we waited to be let in. Once the doors opened, Big Spoon–a man of great action–stepped right in and began filling out our marriage license. I watched over his shoulder as he wrote my new name, Claire Henley Miller, and I didn’t feel nervous one bit. 

It cost $131 for the combination of the marriage license and wedding ceremony. A beautiful black woman named Nichole with blue streaks in her hair and 6? high heels checked us out then told us to wait by the door at the far end of the building. We moved our packs to the heavy door, and as we waited, Big Spoon, Pandora, and I huddled up and prayed to God to bless this marriage. 

The next minute the door opened, and we were pleasantly surprised to be let into the small, simple chapel by Nichole who now wore a long black judge’s robe. I called my mom, put her on speaker, and set the phone on the podium where Nichole conducted the ceremony. Big Spoon and I took each others’ hands in front of Nichole. The day was May 22, 2015, exactly one month after we both began the PCT and met. The ceremony began with Pandora reading Ephesians 5: 22-33, where apostle Paul preached for wives to submit to their husbands, and for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Then Nichole recited the traditional marriage vows, and afterwards Big Spoon and I proclaimed, “I do.” 

“Do you have rings to exchange?” Nichole then asked. 

Because everything between us had happened so fast, we hadn’t had time to get each other rings. However, we did have tokens of our love and commitment to each other to use for now. Mine for Big Spoon was a rainbow colored rock I found several days ago near Silverwood Lake. It was the size and shape of a small spear head and had a crystallized quartz at the end. 

“A solid rock to symbolize the solid marriage we’re entering into,” I said and handed Big Spoon the rock. 

To my great surprise, Big Spoon then pulled out the herkimer diamond his mother had given him–the one that was in my dream the night Big Spoon caught up to me on the trail. In my dream, the diamond was fashioned so a chain could be strung through it to make it into a necklace. Therefore, in the chapel, my eyes widened in sheer amazement when I saw Big Spoon had turned the herkimer diamond into a necklace with thin black twine. I thought in deepest reverence, “Oh, my God! My dream has come true.”

The Divine Intervention continued after Nichole announced to Big Spoon, “You may kiss your bride.” It turned out Mary’s daughter had a stomach bug and decided to miss school that day. As a result, Mary was able to pick Pandora, Big Spoon, and me back up from the County Clerk’s office and said that, because it was our wedding day, she would drive us wherever we wanted and for however long. 

By now, we were all starving; but daylight was burning and we had 10 miles to hike that day from the KOA to Augua Dulce. Thus, in concurrence with the non traditional day, we had Mary drive us through the fast food restaurant, Jack in the Box, for bacon double cheese burgers and curly fries. From there, we ran our ressuply errands: first to the bank to get cash out of the ATM, then to the grocery to restock our food, and lastly to the post office where I shipped home my tent. 

We were back on the trail by 2:00, after saying a grand goodbye to Mary, the lovely Trail Angel who drove me to my wedding. I carried my roses on top of my pack for the stretch through the famous Vasquez Rocks–the immense flowing stone that rose above us like ocean waves. We made Augua Dulce by dinner time, the plan being to eat a celebratory dinner at the Mexican Restaurant Maria Bonita, then hike a couple of miles out of town to camp.

We walked into the busy restaurant with our backpacks on and were seated at a booth in the far corner. Pandora ordered a round of margaritas and said for Big Spoon and I to get whatever we wanted, that tonight’s meal was on her. We ate, drank, and were merry. Near the end of our meal the waiter came up with another round of margaritas that we hadn’t ordered. 

“From that couple over there,” the waiter said and pointed to the generous middle-aged couple at the other end of the restaurant who were looking our way and waving. Big Spoon got up from the table to go thank them. When he returned, he said the couple named Doug and Candi saw us walk in with our packs and wanted to do something nice for us since they knew it couldn’t be easy doing what we were doing by hiking the PCT. Big Spoon told them that he and I had just gotten married, so the offering of the margaritas was special in more ways than one. 

Doug and Candi stopped by our table on their way out of the restaurant to congratulate Big Spoon and me. They asked where we were staying for the night, and we told them our plans to camp a few miles down the trail. They looked at us like we were crazy because it was now dark outside. Regardless, they wished us well and went on. Not even a minute later the couple returned and said, “We have a motorhome outside our house with a back bedroom and pull-out couch in the front if you three would like to stay there. We would be more than happy to have you.” 

Pandora, Big Spoon, and I looked at each other for a quick examination of everyone’s thoughts. The answer to Doug and Candi’s proposal was a resounding yes. “The only catch,” the couple said as we loaded into their pick up truck, “is that we have three peacocks that caw very loudly at night.” 

Candi gave us the tour of the house off Wagonwheel Road while Doug readied the motorhome and turned on the hot water for showers. Their house was built on a desert hill and had an open view of the California mountains. Cacti and cherry trees grew from their yard, and a chicken coop where the chickens and peacocks roamed was next to the house. Inside the house were beautiful hardwood floors, granite counters, and even an indoor pool. This was Doug and Candi’s first time to house hikers; now that their two children were grown, they were curious and thrilled to open their home to those on the trail. 

Though it wasn’t your typical situation, I wouldn’t change a thing about my wedding day or night. The motorhome slept us beautifully, and the next morning Doug and Candi made the three of us a mouth watering bacon and egg breakfast, using the exceptionally fresh eggs their chickens had laid. We drank gourmet coffee at the dining room table and had fun answering the couples’ many questions about life on the trail. 

After breakfast, we hugged Candi goodbye, and Doug drove us back to where we left off on the trail. It was a sunny Saturday, and I was a married woman now–married to man of terrific talent, intellect, and love. All was brilliantly well with my soul. 

“You’re my wife,” Big Spoon said to me before we started walking. 

“And you’re my husband,” I said to him back. 

Then we took to the beautiful trail–together having a long, hard, and glorious ways to go.

* * *

Claire's first book on her adventures while living in Colorado can be ordered here:

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