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Know the West

A roadmap for nomadic love

One couple’s story of a long-distance relationship across the landscape.


This is a story about love and land management.

Danielle and I are seasonal federal employees. When we first met, in the winter of 2014, Danielle was a forestry technician in the Coconino National Forest, based in the bustling tourist town of Sedona, Arizona. I worked for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, in a ghost town 200 miles away.

Danielle’s job was to implement a wilderness education program for “city folk,” which often involved answering questions like, “When do you turn off the waterfalls?” My job was to help restore the habitat of an unremarkable but endangered gray bird called the southwestern willow flycatcher. This included chopping down invasive tamarisk and protecting streams from cows by putting up barb-wire fence. While Danielle typically talked to 300 tourists in a day, I sometimes went a week speaking only to Ghost, a feral cat who deigned to keep me company on the front steps of my cabin.

For the first year, Danielle was happy to drive eight hours every other weekend to see her lonely cowboy on Signal Road. I signed up for cell and internet service so that we could keep in touch between visits. In the fall of 2015, Danielle moved in with me at the ranch, which is where we typically spend our winter off-seasons. Our love seemed as serene as an alpine lake.

Every month or two, we met up halfway someplace, seeking out cheap hotels or tent-camping during three-day weekends. But most of the time, only the Continental Divide and our letters connected us.

Danielle and I are nomadic by nature. In fact, the work we do encourages it. In the spring of 2015, I was offered a position as a range technician for the Forest Service outside Taos, New Mexico, riding on the high desert plateaus and herding cattle into backcountry allotments. Danielle accepted a wilderness ranger job in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, leading a trail maintenance crew and riding horseback alongside a team of packhorses. Every month or two, we met up halfway someplace, seeking out cheap hotels or tent-camping during three-day weekends. But most of the time, only the Continental Divide and our letters connected us.

In July, Danielle, who is also a Type 2 wildland firefighter, was sent out on a hand crew for two weeks in Libby, Montana, and forced to cancel one of our precious meetings. Our shared disappointment erupted into a vicious argument. One night, when she called from fire camp, I told her that I felt we were running away from each other and in turn, driving ourselves mad. “Just cut me loose!” were my exact words. The distance, once romantic, had begun to feel suffocating. I suspected that Danielle loved her work more than she loved me, and she suspected the same of me. Though both of us were wrong, the distrust was painful. The day after that argument, I sent Danielle an apology in the form of a poem; such small gestures, along with the promise of the next reunion, coaxed us through the hard times.

In the winter of 2016, after being together for two years, I asked Danielle to marry me. It was a sweltering 92 degrees in mid-February. We backpacked into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness of Arizona, and I proposed at sunset on the yellowed cliff face of Battleship Mountain. We held each other and vowed that we would — somehow and soon — find work in the same place. Even though we had spent so much time apart, we couldn’t imagine our lives without each other.

But the spotty job market continued to put mountain ranges and a sea of lakes between us. In the summer of 2016, I accepted a position in Grand Teton National Park at the historic Elk Ranch. Danielle, in turn, accepted a permanent seasonal job as a lead wilderness ranger in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. Her job entailed up to several miles of daily paddling and portages, while my work was that of a typical Wyoming cowboy — hazing one-ton wild bison and keeping an eye out for grizzlies and wolves. One day, while visiting me in Moose, Wyoming, Danielle sat on a piece of driftwood and gazed into a cerulean lake. “I want you to come with me to Minnesota,” she said softly. She paused, waiting for a reply.

I realized that I couldn’t wait for the job market to cooperate: It was time for me to make good on my vow. And so, in the spring of 2017, Danielle and I will quietly part with the mountain forests and deserts of the West we so love. I’m looking for forestry work near my fiancée in Grand Marais, Minnesota. The prospect of marrying and settling down in the humble North Woods tickles Danielle and I even more than a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon or peak-bagging Teewinot. Maybe that’s just us, preparing for a new adventure.

Rafael Reyna is a graduate student in ecological restoration at Colorado State University. He currently resides in Wikieup, Arizona, with his fiancée.