Normally, we’re focused on celebrating and planning and being with couples who have recently become engaged and are preparing for marriage — and looking to find a photographer for their wedding.
On Saturday, we found ourselves in reversed roles.
As I told Anya 7,000 feet atop the Shaffer Trail in Ken Caryl Valley just outside Littleton, Colo., on Saturday, kneeling on a rock with a ring in by hand and a PocketWizard in the other (more on that later), I felt even before we were dating that I would ask her to marry me. We’ve known each other for nearly 3 1/2 years and been together for 2 1/2 years, part of that spent photographing weddings for our own A&D Photography.
So how did we get here?
I sent a message to Anya’s sister Emily in early December as I started looking at different rings. But before I proposed, there were a few things I needed to address. First, I asked and graciously received a blessing from her family and parents a few days before Christmas, right before I left for the East coast to visit family and friends. Second, we visited Florida over Christmas to see my grandparents — whom I wanted Anya to meet before I made it official.
Like the sane individuals we are, we planned to drive after the visit from Florida to New Jersey to be with my family there (Anya’s idea, I swear). We drove for 24 hours through 11 different states, with an overnight stop in western North Carolina, plus a train from Philadelphia to Trenton, N.J., to get to our destination. My college cross country coach, Steve Taylor, once told me — while relaying the story about how he knew his wife was right — that you learn much from a person by being confined in a car with them for a few days traveling. We hadn’t been on a road trip this long, and Anya had never seen any part of the southern United States. Anya’s a trooper: Long hours in the car, way too many rest stops to count, but a drive through some of the most beautiful land stretching through this country. The trip felt right and didn’t feel forced (and hey, we made it out alive!)
Anya actually thought I might propose along the way, which I expected (and no, I wasn’t going to that, because I wanted it to really be a surprise). By then, I had selected a ring that was being shipped from Denver to New Jersey, just in case I decided to propose there.
We arrived at my parents’ home and then the next day jumped on a train to New York City (no rest for the weary, eh?) to meet friends and see Coldplay and Jay-Z perform in Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve. I had told her in Florida this was her Christmas present — which I knew would be another disappointment — though she reacted with both excitement and smiles when I told her. When we left on Jan. 3, I packed the ring in my carry-on bag, successfully got it through TSA and carried it home (I was sweating going through security).
Now for the details: Days earlier, I had asked if she wanted to go on a hike in the valley of her childhood home — offering the reason that my dad, grandmother and mother had all overfed me during the trip (which was true) and that I needed to get a good climb in to work off some calories (also true). She’ll tell you that she thought I was crazy for wanting to hike in early January, with snow on the ground, little light and temperatures hovering near freezing. But the plan was set: We would hike on Jan. 5.
I consulted with one of my photography friends, Justin Edmonds, about the possibility of planting a photographer near the top to capture the moment. With little time, I scouted out the trail early that Saturday morning (telling Anya I needed to go for a run before our hike). And after hiking up part of the trail, and recalling the last time Anya and I had done the hike, I decided it would be too hard to get a photographer with a giant lens up to the top, scrambling over rocks. So, it would have to come down to me, a tripod, cameras and PocketWizards to capture the moment.
Our journey began in earnest in the early afternoon, later than I had hoped. We followed the long way to the lookout point — where it’s easy to see the valley where Anya grew up, the city of Denver in the distance and be in relative solitude. Anya had tried a few times to offer excuses for why we shouldn’t go or why we should turn back early, echoing those sentiments to her sisters and brother, all of whom knew about the plan ahead of time. Her entire family did wonderfully keeping the secret.
I had strapped a tripod to my backpack, which was filled with two PocketWizards — remotes used to trigger cameras without someone standing behind the lens — a camera, 17-35mm lens, a motordrive cord, a bottle of champagne, two plastic cups, and the ring — zipped in the left pocket of my red jacket. We moved quickly. I was growing increasingly concerned that the light was fading too fast, because the last place you want to be is on a trail where curious mountain lions roam once dusk sets in. Anya probably thought I was crazy for pushing as hard as I did, though I did my best to keep a straight face despite the possibilities racing through my mind. I offered the feeble excuse that I wanted to start hiking this late in the day because “I knew the light would be good for pictures.”
To normal people, that remark might sound eccentric, but it’s not too far-fetched for me — not crazy enough to arouse any more than an eye-roll from Anya. I explained the tripod away by saying I wanted to take a real self-portrait this time, not a “selfie” with the camera either in my hand or precariously placed on a distant rock. Again, she bought it.
We trudged through snow, ice, a prairie dog field and up the mountain, through evergreens and Aspen tree fields, shade and sun. At one point, we were certain we were lost, but re-found the trail (who needs a map anyway?). Finally, after two hours, with me sweating profusely, we made it to our clearing and rock outcrop near some campgrounds with no other people in sight.
Anya hurried me along, asking me to set the tripod quickly so we could descend before dusk. But by now, the light was nearly perfect. I set up the camera with her on the rock, adjusted the lens, fired off a few shots with the remote in my hand, then walked next to her, took a photo of me standing next to her — again with the remote, and then told her, “I need to go back to make sure it’s exposed and focused correctly.” It was my chance to see if the picture had turned out. I looked at the back of the camera, then told her, “We need to take just one more.”
Finally, it was my big moment. By then, I was too tired from hiking to really stop and think too much more about what I was about to do (I had been rehearsing in my head the entire way up). And instead of standing next to her again, I knelt down on one knee, which prompted these romantic words from Anya:
“What are you doing?!”
If I hadn’t convinced her before the hike I was crazy, this was it. I pulled the ring out of my left pocket, opened it, put it in my right hand and the held the remote trigger in my left, away from the camera, and asked if she would do me the honor of being my wife. We met in the Denver Post newsroom, and weeks and months after that day in September 2009, after I finally convinced her to go on a date with me, I remember leaving the cafe and thinking: “I’m going to marry her someday.” I had never told her that before.
At some point between the tears gathering in her eyes, the hands touching her face in shock and surprise, and the shutter from the camera firing off way too frequently during my speech, she said, “Yes.”
The hike was (and I know this is going to sound trite) a metaphor for what I believe life will be: Some days I’ll be leading the way up the mountain, some days she’ll be. Sometimes we’ll traverse flat parts and open spaces where the path is easy to see and anticipate. Other times, you’re left unsure of what’s ahead, walking through thick forest in deep snow, occasionally having to ask others for help and guidance along the way. Eventually, you make it to the top so you can look back on everything that life gave you. But it’s always while working together — and never too far from each other.
So here we are. Anya Elise Semenoff is my better half. I say that without reservation and hesitation. In fact, I’d probably be living in the back room of the windowless Denver Post video studio if it weren’t for her influence, patience, steady guidance and encouragement. She celebrates my successes, and I celebrate hers. She picks me up during my disappointments and I — imperfectly at many times — try to do the same for her.
We are a team. We’re already best friends, and now instead of also just being business partners, we’ll be life partners, too.
Oh, and thanks to remote cameras and PocketWizards for making the images possible. 😉
Edit: For those asking, there was no photographer taking these pictures. I had a remote trigger in my left hand, away from view, pressing a button that fired the camera several times per second. I took nearly 200 frames in the span of a few minutes.
Editor’s Note (OK, that’s just fancy talk to give me an excuse to say hi): Hello, all! Anya here. I just wanted to pop in and offer my own thanks and gratitude to you all for your support and love. Dan took me by complete surprise this Saturday, but what a happy shock! We couldn’t be more excited. Thank you especially to my family and Dan’s for giving Dan their unwavering compassion as he planned what I can only imagine was a nerve-wracking moment for him. We love you all so much.
p.s. For those of you wondering, yes, I thought Dan was completely insane leading up to him getting down on one knee. OK, and maybe a bit after that, too. I think somewhere in the middle of his proposal I babbled something to the affect of, “I can’t believe you’re still snapping pictures!” as the shutter clicked over and over each time he hit the remote button. Luckily, I think our individual brands of crazy mesh well. I saw this quote once that said, “All you need is someone who joins in on your weirdness.” I couldn’t agree more. All right, we’ll be back soon with more photography posts and tales of our own wedding planning (mis)adventures!