A Marriage On The Rocks by Barbara Noseworthy

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It’s 1981, and I’m 22 years old, about to graduate from college, trying to sort out what happens next. And there’s this guy I really like. He’s good looking, smart, funny, and a rock climber. I confess, I had this thing for rock climbers, especially those with large biceps.

by Barbara Noseworthy 

This story is published in Volume 13, now available 

We’d been together for a couple of years. In 1979, we hitchhiked from Michigan to Alaska for the thrill of it—and to see how well we got along. During this trip, we had some periods of intense closeness, especially while backpacking in the mountains or watching the aurora borealis. We also had some really bad fights, usually when I had to confront my fears: of heights and exposure, of a grizzly bear possibly outside our tent every night, of becoming hypothermic because my down sleeping bag was useless in the endless rain that summer.

However, no matter how difficult the day—standing on the side of a road for ten hours while ten cars passed us on the dirt road leading to Inuvik, Northwest Territories—we always managed to work things out before we squeezed into our one-and-a-half-person tent each night. After six weeks of taking rides with strangers, camping by the side of the road or in the mountains, worrying about our dwindling cash, all while having the adventure of our lives, we returned to Michigan the best of friends.

One day, as I’m contemplating what is to become of our relationship, this guy says to me, “I’ve just got a job offer as a geophysicist and am moving to Wyoming to work for an oil company. I think you should leave your family, everything you ever thought you might do”—Bicycle across the USA, join the Peace Corps, backpack through Europe, become an environmentalist are the thoughts running through my head as he says this—“I think you should move to Casper, Wyoming,” he continued. “We’ll live together for a year, and then we’ll get married.”

I figure this is as close to “I Love You” as I’ll ever get, so I say okay, and since I have nothing better going on, I move to Casper, Wyoming.

In the early 1980s, Casper was, to quote a relative, a “dusty, dirty little dessert town.” If you worked for one of the major oil firms, you were rolling in money. If not, you were doing whatever you could to get by. With my degree in psychology, I talked my way into a job that involved going into home–day care centers all across the state and on the reservation to teach nutrition and child development. Everyone who knew me saw how ridiculous this job was for me: my diet consisted of candy bars and Pepsi, and I was never one to bounce a baby in my arms or make those coo-cooing sounds adults do when talking to infants.

By June of 1982, we’ve been living together for eleven months. I’m still enduring this misfit of a job, and in my spare time, I’m protesting the MX Missile being stored in Wyoming, protesting US involvement in numerous countries, protesting apartheid in South Africa—and hanging out with my boyfriend, who works for big oil.

In Wyoming, the oil bidness was a man’s world. But there was a club for women associated with the business. GeoWives was formed in Casper in 1954 to help the wives married to oil-industry workers survive in desolate Wyoming, mostly by going to lunch every week. Casper in 1982 felt more like 1952 to me; I couldn’t imagine putting roots down in this town, maybe not even in this state.

Also, housing in Casper was tough to find. It wasn’t affordable housing. People making $35,000 in 1982 were renting hotel rooms by the month because there were no apartments to be had. After sharing a house with three guys, then briefly living in a creepy basement apartment, I had found a “great” basement apartment in a six-plex that even included a shared washer and dryer. Unfortunately, at that time, a landlord could get away with refusing to rent to anyone. In our case, this landlord had a clause in the lease that said “no cohabitation,” which meant a male and female couple had to be married to live together. I had, however, talked the landlord into renting to this guy and me because in my mind, we were “spiritually” married. I knew, though, that eventually he might ask to see our marriage license.

In addition to sketchy housing, an unfulfilling job, and feeling as if I had been transported back to the 1950s, I had an even bigger problem: all four of my wisdom teeth had to come out. At the time, this would have cost the equivalent of one year’s college tuition. I had no dental insurance. But if I were married, I’d have dental insurance.

During the eleven months we’ve been living together, he’s made no mention of getting married. One night, I blurted out that, “I don’t want to be your girlfriend forever. The landlord could kick us out at any time due to the no-cohabitation thing, my job sucks, this town is a dump, and I have to get my teeth fixed. What do you think we should do about this?”

To which he replied, “Well I suppose we could get married.”

To me, that sounded rather unenthusiastic, but I said, “Let’s do it—five weeks from now.”

Since neither of us attended any church—unless you count the church of the outdoors—we decided to get married on top of Devils Tower. One of the many indigenous names for the laccolithic butte is Bear Lodge. (See below for a more detailed list.)

I called a few friends to tell them my news. One friend, a fashion designer, exclaimed, “I’ll design your dress; I’ll bring it out; it will be a great wedding, blah, blah, blah.”

I can’t seem to explain to her that we’re getting married on top of “that place in Close Encounters of the Third Kind” wearing sweat pants. So we conceived a plan to have the first wedding be “A Marriage on the Rocks,” and two weeks later, we’d have a second wedding at a friend’s cottage on Casper Mountain.

Meanwhile, this guy was developing new routes in Fremont Canyon every weekend. He’d go off with his climbing partner, who was in the process of getting a divorce. Every weekend, he’d come back and say, “This marriage thing, I just don’t know.”

He’d be in a funk, which then put me in a funk, and my teeth were still giving me problems. We agreed we’d play this marriage thing year by year. Forever was not part of our mind-set. We’d assess our relationship on our anniversary, and if it wasn’t working out, we’d get a divorce. Whatever.

So we found a minister who was rock climber: he had found God on a fall in Yosemite. We were going to climb the Durrance Route, a 500-foot 5.7 (sandbag) crack climb. I had been following some multipitch climbs in Wyoming and northern Colorado, but rock climbing was not something I was passionate about. I just couldn’t seem to calm my mind when looking at a six-hundred-foot drop. But, I would find a way to shimmy up this route and rap down without becoming an emotional basket case. For our witnesses, we invited two friends from Florida who had never climbed a hundred feet and put them through a mini rock climbing clinic. I don’t think they fully comprehended what they were in for.

Sunday, July 25th, we drove up to the tower, set up our camp, and discussed the next day’s route. Our minister wanted to start at sunrise because he realized how slow we were going to be. But I explained that we couldn’t leave before 8:00 a.m. because we both have to call in sick from a pay phone. We each only had two weeks of vacation time, and we weren’t going to squander precious vacation time getting married.

The morning of the climb, I was quite nervous. Not because we were getting married, but because the route was harder than anything I had climbed. As a party of five, we were extremely slow, and several times my maid of honor and I had to get an assist from our belayer. It was probably my most inelegant climb, with lots of grunting, swearing, and occasionally even using my knees.

But I kept it together emotionally, and instead of looking down at the long drop, I stayed focused on the route and what I had to do next. After hours of climbing, we finally reached the top where the minister conducted a brief ceremony.

The author, James Cunningham, Teresa Beckum, and Randy Smith on the summit of Devil’s Tower. Photo: Barbara Noseworthy Collection

Next would come the long process of rappelling the route. For me, this was the most unnerving part—I really did not enjoy looking at a rope at my feet, trying hard to trust the anchors, and then leaning back. More frightened of rappelling than of getting married, I was so relieved to finally make it down as the sun was starting to set.

By the time we reached the town of Gillette, there was not a restaurant open. We ended up at the McDonald’s for our wedding-night dinner where we wolfed down greasy burgers and signed all the paperwork. As we were preparing to leave, our minister said, “Barbara, do me a favor, send that paperwork in, ok?”

Sure thing. Well the next day, I got cold feet about making the marriage legal. So, I put the paperwork aside.

Two weeks later, we had the Casper Mountain wedding. Now, if you’re not serious about getting married the first time, you should not have two weddings. But, we did, and everyone came out—my mother, father, his mother, my designer friend with the dress. It was a wonderful day.

And yes, I got my teeth fixed, and we lived in that basement apartment for three years. We were young and happy and in love.

Over time, difficult things stressed our relationship. I couldn’t find meaningful work. He was focused on rock climbing every weekend. I found a job that I loved, but it required many more than forty hours each week. We pursued different passions. The relationship waxed and waned through periods of intense closeness and then distance. Sometimes a compromise just couldn’t be reached, and we were forced to make painful, difficult choices.

Fast forward to January 2018 in Durango, Colorado. While at the Raven Narratives—a storytelling event— I ask the guy I came with, “Hey, did you ever send in that marriage paperwork? Do you think we’re legal?”

To which he replied, “I thought you were going to take care of it.”

Barbara Noseworthy and James Cunningham (the guy) were married on top of Devils Tower (Bear Lodge) on July 26, 1982 and again in Casper, Wyoming, on August 8, 1982. To the best of the Park Service’s knowledge, they were the first couple to be married on top of the tower. They spent their first honeymoon on separate holidays: Jim and a buddy climbed the north face of the Grand Teton while Barbara and a friend backpacked around the Tetons. Their second honeymoon was spent together, bicycling through Yellowstone National Park. This July, they will have been blissfully married for thirty-six years and have lived in Michigan, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, New York, Kenya, Italy, and Colorado: all places where Jim has climbed. Barbara took up whitewater rafting, kayaking, bicycling, and hiking. They currently live in Durango, Colorado, with their thirteen-year-old dog, Bono. 

The Climbing Zine supports the voluntary ban on climbing for Devil’s Tower during the month of June. For more information on this closure visit the Access Fund’s website.

The Zine would also like to note that Bear Lodge is just one of many indigenous names for what we now call Devil’s Tower. The Arapahoe name for it Bear’s Tipi. The Cheyenne names are: Bear’s Lodge, Bear’s House, Bear’s Tipi, and Bear Peak. The Kiowa names are: Aloft On A Rock and Tree Rock. In addition to calling it Bear Lodge, the Lakota names are: Bear Lodge Butte, Grizzly Bear’s Lodge, Mythic Owl Mountain, Grey Horn Butte, and Ghost Mountain. Source: National Park Service.

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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