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In sickness
and in health

This story first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Read the rest of the Summer 2020 issue here.

Not even pandemic can spoil couple’s ‘perfect day’

She had tears in her eyes as she gathered her lace dress and climbed out of the RV.

Her mother had styled her hair. Her father was on the other side of the country. Just two of the 35 invited guests showed up.

As her stepfather hummed the “Bridal Chorus” and her long, white veil dragged the earth beneath her, Ashley Johns walked across the rocks at Valley of Fire State Park toward her future husband.

It wasn’t the wedding she had planned, but it was more than she could have hoped for considering the coronavirus had left much of Las Vegas locked up tight.

Instead of getting ready in a luxury hotel room on the Strip, Ashley Johns prepares for her wed ...
Instead of getting ready in a luxury hotel room on the Strip, Ashley Johns prepares for her wedding in an RV at Valley of Fire State Park. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

“Will and I have been together for nine years now,” Ashley said of her fiance, William Hinder, hours before their March 24 nuptials. “So, at this point, I’m not willing to postpone until the world is ready. I waited my turn.”

There’s a fine line between “admirable determination” and “Bridezilla,” but she hadn’t crossed over to the dark side. She was upbeat — those tears were mostly of the happy variety — and resolved to make the very best of a bad situation. It was almost as though each obstacle presented a new adventure for the couple, whose love of the outdoors led them to choose the park’s Seven Sisters as a site long before the need for a wide open space.

Travel issues cropped up first. Ashley, a 28-year-old social worker, and Will, a 33-year-old graphic designer, moved to Las Vegas from Colorado two years ago, and their friends and family all live out of state.

The luxury hotel on the Strip they planned to use for the wedding prep was shuttered, so they got ready in the RV her mother and stepfather, Ellen and Steve Owczarek, had been traveling in since they arrived from his native Australia on Feb. 11.

After the ceremony, Ashley and Will Hinder don protective gear for photos to commemorate the da ...
After the ceremony, Ashley and Will Hinder don protective gear for photos to commemorate the day's unusual circumstances. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

A week before the wedding, the couple rushed to get their paperwork from the county’s marriage license bureau, hours before it, too, would shut down. “I called, and they said, ‘We’ll be open till midnight tonight,’ ” Ashley recalled. “And she had this tone (like) ‘not tomorrow.’ ”

Even the availability of Valley of Fire was in question right up until they arrived. Gov. Steve Sisolak hadn’t yet issued his statewide stay-at-home order, but officials already had limited gatherings to 10 or fewer. That wasn’t much of a problem, though. Including two observers from the Review-Journal, Ashley and Will could muster just eight attendees, as Macy, their German Shorthaired Pointer, and their cats, Glenda and Weezy, remained in the RV. The park closed to the public seven days later.

The couple was determined to keep the wedding date, because it carries a special significance: Her birthday is June 24; his is May 24.

“We just wanted a date that would be true to us,” Will said. He sheepishly added: “And one that would be easy to remember, of course, too.”

Ashley and Will Hinder pose for photos to celebrate their special day at Valley of Fire State P ...
Ashley and Will Hinder pose for photos to celebrate their special day at Valley of Fire State Park on March 24 during the pandemic shutdown. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

The thought of waiting another year, or even until the next available 24th, was a non-starter.

“Because we’ve been together so long anyway, it was just kind of like, at this point, it was just a formality,” he said. Told to be careful his soon-to-be bride didn’t hear him, Will laughed. “She knows. We both have said it.”

For him, Ashley was literally the girl next door.

They grew up across the road from each other in Churchville, Maryland, and were a part of each other’s lives from the beginning. They never dated back then, nor paid that much attention to each other, given the five-year age difference. After losing touch, they reconnected on Facebook in 2011. Their first date was on Will’s birthday that year, and they’ve rarely been apart since — hence the specialness of the 24th.

“My gorgeous girl! Is she gorgeous or what?” Ellen called out before the ceremony. “Her mother did her hair, poor little thing. She’s got no makeup on. But she’s getting married today!”

Ellen Owczarek hugs her daughter, Ashley, following her wedding as son-in-law Will Hinder, left ...
Ellen Owczarek hugs her daughter, Ashley, following her wedding as son-in-law Will Hinder, left, and her husband, Steve, look on. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

Ellen is a bit of a character, the kind you could politely describe as an extrovert.

“We’ve been under quarantine for way too long,” she admitted when the preparations, punctuated with raucous laughter, ventured into silliness.

“Oh, it’s just so good!” Ashley exclaimed through sniffles as she viewed the scaled-down decorations — some desert grass, vines and a cow skull adorned with flowers — through the lens of the digital camera she set up to record her big day.

She eventually had to be coaxed into getting on with the show by her mother: “Hey, Miss Photographer. Would you like to get married?”

Ellen walked her down the “aisle.” Steve served as the ring bearer, monitored the camera and did his best to stay out of the way.

“We’re making the most of it,” her stepfather said beforehand. “We’re really happy about today. We’re really happy that they’re doing it this way.”

Ashley Johns sets up her camera to record the ceremony, which was moved to Valley of Fire State ...
Ashley Johns sets up her camera to record the ceremony, which was moved to Valley of Fire State Park, when the pandemic shutdown forced the couple to alter wedding plans. Her stepfather Stephen Owczarek lends a hand. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

Ashley and Will donned surgical masks and gloves for their photos, but the ceremony was as traditional as could have been expected under the circumstances. They were definitely within six feet of each other, holding hands throughout the brief service.

“It was hard for me to just give them something tiny when I’d imagined something beautiful and awesome,” said Rachel Garcia, co-owner of Cactus and Lace Weddings, who planned the ceremony with officiant Amanda Monk.

It was the final ceremony overseen by the company that specializes in Valley of Fire weddings before everything shut down, right in the heart of its busiest season. Garcia could only describe the numerous cancellations as “heartbreaking.”

True to their outdoor nature, following their first kiss, the couple scrambled up one of the rock towers that make up the Seven Sisters for more photographs.

A week later, during what should have been their honeymoon — they took a day trip to Zion National Park instead — the newlyweds reflected on their wedding adventure.

The newlyweds share a pizza toast in the RV in which her mother and stepfather had spent the pr ...
The newlyweds share a pizza toast in the RV in which her mother and stepfather had spent the previous six weeks touring the country. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

“I think it was a perfect day, all things considered,” Ashley said. “The only thing that would have been better would have been if all of our parents could have been there. My biggest thing was just wanting my dad to walk me down the aisle.”

She may yet get the chance. Her father-in-law is planning to host a reception at some point, and they’re considering using the chance to renew their vows in front of their entire families.

“We’ll actually be able to have a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to be there otherwise,” Will added. “So, in a way, it kind of worked out for the best.”

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