We flew to Montana for a wedding, ostensibly. A childhood friend of mine had been working with wolves there, living in a trailer by herself in the forest, lonely, and met a guy for dinner, a guy she’d met online who, he said, was just passing through. He’s wonderful, she later said, drinking beer with me at Thanksgiving, sitting on a desert patio strung with paper lanterns. They texted, they rented a cabin in a park that winter, they spent New Year’s together and she got pregnant, and they decided to stick it out. Now, a year after their son was born they were getting married in early October in the tiny town outside of Yellowstone where they’d met that night for dinner, away from the wolves and the thick silence of the woods.
We thought about geysers as we sent in our response cards and booked our airplane tickets. We thought about bison as we secured vacation days, allotting half a week before the wedding to visiting national parks. A big, dark sky and stars and mountains. Open space and bright fall air. We reserved a room at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and counted down the days.
But soon something started churning in the air and on the news, which first we watched nonchalantly, then with growing trepidation. Congress was at odds about healthcare and funding, and its inability to reach a resolution threatened to shut down the government. We laughed at the timing and brushed it off as an empty threat. These things get resolved, we remembered—the government, after all, is precious. But as October tiptoed closer and Congress continued to disagree, we eyed our calendars and refreshed websites, which only promised that in the event of an actual shutdown the gates of all national parks would close to visitors completely. Yellowstone’s elk would roam uninterrupted and its geysers erupt for no one, as once they had done for centuries, as if they were not spectacular.
We waited for Congress to untangle its knot, but on the first day of October 2013 the government closed for the first time in eighteen years, 800,000 federal employees were sent home, and four hundred National Park Service sites, including all 59 parks, closed.
More than 700,000 people visit the country’s national parks a day and pay a daily $76 million for those notorious geysers, for otherworldly sequoias, saguaros, and Joshua trees, for the canyons and caverns and glaciers carving their unhurried paths through time. The shutdown itself caused an uproar, but so did the closing of the parks; people pleaded with the president to keep them open, to make an exception for nature, for national treasures. Some state governments began to funnel their own funds into their parks, circumventing the shutdown: Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and others reopened in Utah. Arizona and New York kept the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty afloat. Colorado reopened the Rocky Mountains. But most states couldn’t—wouldn’t—swing it, and Montana, staid and cold, played Yellowstone close to the vest. Glacier National Park stayed closed too, and so did Wyoming’s nearby Grand Tetons, all precariously perched at the mercy of Congress.
For those first few days of October, we’d wake up in our small apartment and check the news, waiting for things to fall back into place, for the return of a status quo and a fully functioning country. But in those first few days, nothing happened—Republicans refused to compromise and Democrats would not let their legislation go, and we boarded a plane to spend a few days in Montana with a wedding in sight and nowhere to be in the meantime. We landed in Bozeman at midnight, in October snow, and worked to formulate a plan, our hopes slowly draining of visiting the parks we’d never been to. We spent the night consulting the map we hoped would lead us somewhere, show us something, burst open that legendary big Montana sky where the night is infinite and the stars are diamonds and nothing else exists.
We weren’t lost in Montana, at least not in the way I’d been lost before, in border towns with mountain dogs, where ocotillos stand sentry against red rocks and creosote smells like tortillas as the desert waits for rain. I’d been undoubtedly lost then, that day in the desert, with the bride-to-be, unsure of what we wanted; we were kids staring at the desert’s crystal ball of a moon, yellow and enormous. We didn’t know where we were or where we should be going, and the dogs were scared, the mountains looming.
Back then we did a lot of thinking, exploring, lying around in pools, and envisioning the future. Where would we be ten years from now or twenty, a nearly unfathomable stretch. I want to marry a horse, my friend used to say, until she grew out of it and we inevitably took to spinning elaborate visions of wedding dresses and honeymoons and dream houses with bay windows and front porches and land. Rooted in Disney and magazines and relentless optimism, we had our futures spelled out in detail, we had impossibly high standards.
But soon, we were seeing people we didn’t like that much, growing embarrassed when friends gave us blank stares as we held hands with our boyfriends, clenching and unclenching fists and convincing ourselves we had exactly what we wanted. I’m resigned to being a Marine wife, the bride-to-be would say and sigh about a different man who didn’t last. It’s what I want, she’d say and blink into mojitos. Where was her horse with its golden mane? Where were any of our long-awaited futures?
If we’re lucky, we eventually come to our senses. We relinquish the things that are broken and slough off the hazardous skins. I came to Montana to revel in senses: the astonishing mountains against the backdrop sky, the overt silence of the wilderness and its inevitable loudness: birds, water, wind. The huckleberry sweetness, the smell of dirt and forest mushrooms, and the feeling of feeling all right.
Eventually, the bride-to-be and I made it home from those treacherous desert mountains, fighting like moths to get down to the bright lights of the city.
We left Bozeman the next morning and drove south. The college town and its farmland outskirts gave way to coniferous forests snowy and silent, to empty roads, to herds of cattle and unabashed goats. We didn’t quite know where we were going, but the map of Montana is sparse: few roads lace the state and towns are far between. On that first day of driving we saw more animals than cars and stopped for a while in the woods, supersaturated, dark green, a waterfall drowning words and exceeding expectations. They call it Big Sky, but it took going there to understand how the nickname is not a misnomer.
What can be said about Montana but that it’s beautiful? The next few days were beautiful, even as we hovered around the tiny town of West Yellowstone, hoping the park would reopen, hoping the government had come to a miraculous, sudden compromise as we slept; even as we saw the Yellowstone National Park welcome sign obstructed by a white-and-orange sandwich board reading: CLOSED Yellowstone Park, Government Shutdown, No Visitor Access; even as we watched tourists spill out of buses to take pictures in front of the sign, as if it, itself, were the attraction.
But it didn’t matter, not really, because we left and spent those few days in state parks that hadn’t closed, at lakes where the water was as blue and still as the sky, the horizon a mere formality. We spent them in loud laughter to scare off bears as we hiked, and spent them watching fishermen, knee-deep in rivers, work their magic. We visited Ennis, the fly-fishing capital of the world, and its one restaurant (that doubles as a bowling alley) and one bed-and-breakfast. We walked out at midnight and craned our necks to find the dippers awash in millions of stars and the Milky Way, that ancient river, cutting its glistening path through the velvet blackness of the night. If there were ever a place to make a wish, this was the place to do it, the darkness and silence and midnight glitter conspiring to give you everything you’d ever wanted. We spent our few days in Montana at wildlife preserves, ghost towns, hot springs, and self-proclaimed gypsy arcades, eating huckleberry pancakes and drinking huckleberry margaritas, and surrounded by roadside bison, endless constellations, and mountains and landscapes and empty fields that did not in any way seem real, especially with that sky—always that sky—that did not relent, that did not subside, but always loomed large and so blue and so vast that we felt we could simply drown in it.
By the time we arrived in Gardiner for the wedding, the shutdown still hadn’t ended and wouldn’t for another week, but we were drunk on sky and altitude. We drove to the tiny stone church on the outskirts of town and watched the bride walk down the aisle arm in arm with the groom, beaming, sparkling, happy. In the end, perhaps, we all get what we want.
Gardiner contains one of the four entrances to Yellowstone, and after the ceremony, the hymns, the tears, we drove to the Roosevelt Arch entrance: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” it says, inscribed in stone. Below that, a white-and-orange barricade. We stood on the other side of the arch, so close to Yellowstone yet pushed away, watching the gray fall park and the mountains. And as we stood there in high heels and fancy clothes, an elk walked out of the park and through the arch toward us, then another, and another, nonchalant, unafraid, unwavering. They bugled, high in pitch and eerie in the windswept silence, and in the waning light of the afternoon, more silhouettes of elk appeared on the ridge, and more came down through the arch, sidestepping the barricade, determined to show themselves to us, as if they knew why we had come here, as if they knew that we’d been forbidden from, of all things, seeing them.
Iza Wojciechowska is a writer and translator living in Durham, NC. She has an MFA from Columbia University, and her essays have appeared in The Common, Sycamore Review, Misadventures Magazine, and elsewhere.