How We: Planned Our Laid-Back, Utah National Park Wedding

A labor of love, put together by family and friends

Misti, Backcountry Ranger & Jared, Archaeologist

One sentence sum-up of the wedding vibe: A simple outdoor ceremony followed by a casual dinner, lawn games, a little dancing on the porch, and really great beer around a campfire. With cake.

Planned Budget: $8,000

Actual Budget: $11,000

Number of Guests: 85

Where we allocated the most funds

Food, venue, and photography. About half of our budget was food and drink. Our friends at the fabulous Rocking V Café of Kanab, Utah, helped set a deliciously simple and laid-back tone for our day with deep-dish enchiladas and black bean cakes. It’s a business we are proud to support, and it was great to have a meal that effortlessly accommodated a range of dietary restrictions. Chips and salsa appetizers came from our other favorite restaurant in town, Escobar’s Mexican Restaurant. The beer was mostly Flagstaff local brews and wine came from Trader Joe’s, but still added up.

The venue, a rustic cabin set on the edge of a canyon with views of the cliffs around Zion National Park, took care of ninety-nine percent of the decorating needs. It also doubled as lodging for my out-of-town family. We won an APW contest for photography (more on that below), which put professional photography entirely within our reach—and that turned out to be one of the best decisions we made.

Where we allocated the least funds

Decor and music. The cliffs and canyons near our home in southern Utah just don’t need much dressing up. Friends in town generously gifted us the straw bales, and most of the folding chairs were on loan. We made tables by placing doors leftover from a home renovation on sawhorses. Flowers were wholesale from VistaFlor, with vases straight out of our recycling. My mother borrowed quilts from friends. The cakes were purchased at a local grocery store and decorated by my sister and a family friend. Jared and I painted all the signs and just generally went a little crazy with spray paint.

My cousins played at the ceremony and the reception music was a playlist carefully crafted by my dad for my sister’s wedding six years ago. My brother-in-law DJed using his iPhone and the speakers from our house. With the slight exception of “I Got it From My Mamma” somehow slipping into the mix, the playlist held up well!

What was totally worth it

We put a lot of thought into how to include our friends and family as participants in our wedding. Sometimes friends showcased their talents and skills, but a lot was just showing up and putting in the work to make a party for eighty-plus in a non-traditional wedding venue possible. One of my aunts was my day-of coordinator; my uncles helped keep things on schedule with the drinks and decor; my cousins and another uncle ran the lawn games. Jared’s mom and the bridesmaids assembled bouquets. And the NAU Mafia (Jared’s graduate school cohort) did everything from purchasing the booze to transporting all the stuff from our house to the venue. It was a lot of work, but we were so glad we chose to do it together.

The Instax guest book would have been worth it just for the fun I had in assembling the scrapbooking materials beforehand, but it was also a hit! Our guests created such a fun record of the day. Apparently some guests got so involved it took several stern looks to peel everyone away from scrapbooking to get seated for the ceremony.

Looking back, it seems inconceivable that we weren’t always planning to have Holly photograph our wedding. Fortunately, the universe was looking out for us in the form of a photo contest on APW last fall! Other than the pastor, Holly and her assistant Chris were really the only wedding professionals present. In addition to stunning photography, she had a knack for knowing when to fade into the background (yes, like a ninja), when to provide a little direction, and when to whisk us away for private sanity breaks. We are kind of obsessed with the landscapes where we live and work in southern Utah. Now we can’t even imagine the wedding without Holly and the stunning images she captured!

To explain how awesome Holly is: when she asked for the dress to take detail photos three hours before the wedding and I handed her two dresses and told her I hadn’t made up my mind yet, she didn’t even blink. That’s a professional.

What was totally not worth it

Doubt. It was sometimes difficult for family members who lived far away to visualize how our crew could tackle such a big job and still have fun. In fairness we asked A LOT of our people, but they came through. At the outset, I felt so sure about making those requests, but I started to let doubt creep in as the months went by. Totally not worth the stress.

A few things that helped us along the way

Obviously this was a big collaborative effort. To be honest, we had more than one discussion about just running off and getting married in a canyon somewhere. However, as we may have mentioned a time or two, our friends and family are unbelievably awesome, and it was special to be able to do this with them.

The friends who gave us the bales also tipped us off to the most wonderful pastor, who was such a rock and has become a new friend in town. He was so calm and positive; it was hard not to have faith that everything was going to be okay.

We outright stole lots of ideas from the APW website and book: our rings, my hair, the spreadsheets, double piñatas, etc. More importantly the concept of DIT, the reminder to know your crowd, and the idea that a wedding doesn’t have to look a certain way became invaluable mantras for keeping this simple and true to us.

When we were struggling to explain how simple we actually wanted this to be, we used the questions in the book as the core of a nine-page detailed wedding plan with a mission statement, two pages of photos (some details, mostly of feelings), and four sheets of schedule based on the spreadsheets. Seemed like a bit much, but in retrospect the plan served as a touchstone to our intentions, told us when to ask for help, and ironically, helped us to keep things simple. Getting to hand “the plan” off the afternoon of the wedding cued my zen. Nine pages is probably a bit much, but having a plan kept me calm.

My best practical advice for my planning self

Faith. Or, in Jared’s words: “Have more confidence in our ability to get shit done and that our friends are badasses.” Because you know, we can, and they are.

Also… I wish I had planned more DIY projects. Know yourself, but in my case idle hands made for lots of stress. My happiest times were designing and assembling the invitations, painting the door tables, and stenciling the signs. By the last week, we were just coming up with shit to paint to keep me sane, resulting in a colorful giant Jenga set and some kick ass copper Jack Daniels bottles. I was more than okay with the fact that some of it never got used, but I ended up regretting the things I didn’t make (big blue bows for the fence posts, for starters) because I had some silly notion about not being “that kind of bride.”

And, for the sake of your sanity and every relationship in your life, do not talk about your wedding with anyone who isn’t your spouse for at least two weeks after you get engaged. Just don’t.

Favorite thing about the wedding

Misti: When the wedding zen finally (finally) descended, and we stopped throwing a giant too-fancy party and instead just got married around people we loved. The campfire “after party” to release a year’s worth of stress. Rewarding ourselves by spending the next week alone together backpacking and camping in the canyons of Escalante.

Jared: The food and the beer.

Other Notes

You remember when Holly Gardener Photography had the contest during the government shutdown last year? Well, we happened to be two laid-off government employees planning a wedding right next to some pretty cool National Parks. So… we gave it a shot.

Anyway, long story short, that’s us! How incredibly lucky are we?!


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