Aug. 10, 2014 at 8:33 AM ET
Melissa and Ryan Dombrock were so dead-set on having a Yosemite National Park wedding that only an extreme act by Mother Nature could derail their plans.
After both making it through the United States Air Force Academy, training, and years of long-distance dating, their biggest challenge as a couple came just days before their wedding in the form of a historically destructive wildfire — which also turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The couple met as students at the academy in Colorado and later became close as post-graduate students in Monterey, California. Their first official date was a trip to the county fair.
“She had a ton of energy. And she was a very attractive, athletic blonde. I was trying to get her on a date for a while,” Ryan, 31, told TODAY.com.
Their love story began to take shape while they were stationed apart all over the country, and continued to unfold amid feelings of uncertainty about what the future held.
“We’d gone through a lot of being stationed apart and being long distance for parts of our relationship. We said we’d wait until we were stationed in the same place and plan a wedding together,” Melissa, 31, explained to TODAY.com.
But Ryan couldn’t wait.
“I wanted to make the future certain one way or another. I was ready to move forward and wanted to make sure she was,” Ryan said of his feelings in 2011 when he was stationed in Florida and Melissa was in California.
“We spent a lot of time on our careers and let outside factors control where we were going," Ryan said. "It was time we made the decisions and adjusted accordingly.”
The two went to Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin for July 4th weekend that year, and he popped the question during a hike in a park that his grandfather helped build years before. The following year, Ryan visited Melissa in California and they took a weekend trip to Yosemite.
They decided it was the perfect setting for the outdoorsy, lodge wedding of their dreams.
They chose Evergreen Lodge as the site of their nuptials and set the date for August 24, 2013. Guests began rolling into town a few days before the wedding and started settling into their cabins, while a wildfire raged not too far away.
The manager of Evergreen assured the Dombrocks that it would turn the other way and their big day would be unscathed.
But during a hike with friends on the Wednesday before the wedding, Melissa received a message letting her know the fire was headed their way and the lodge had to be evacuated.
“I was in a little bit of denial. I didn’t think it could really be that extreme,” Melissa said of the moments after she heard the news. She and Ryan were alone on the trail at the time, and they processed it together.
“The whole way down, we were going through all the stages of grief. We thought, ‘Our dream wedding is falling apart! Is it a sign from God that we’re not supposed to get married?’ But then we went into action mode.”
They woke up on Thursday morning with 48 hours until their scheduled wedding and rallied their troops in the conference room of a Hampton Inn in Modesto, California, about 2.5 hours from the original location. They were back at square one: in search of a venue, and food, alcohol and flower vendors.
Luckily, the bride’s mother was at the lodge at the time of the evacuation and was able to grab her wedding dress, but other guests were left stranded without their clothes, wallets and car keys.
Furious Googling for last minute venues in Modesto yielded few desirable results, and they were about to lose hope when Melissa’s mother got a tip about a beautiful farm 30 minutes away that hosted weddings. She drove there right away, “to the middle of nowhere,” and though she was impressed by the farm’s beauty, she knew it would require a lot of work.
But an extreme act of generosity by the farm’s owner changed everything — she offered the couple the space for free.
“She decided that it was a gift,” Melissa said. “She loved hearing our story. Not only us being in the military, but being evacuated from the fire and everything we were going through. I was so excited. We were already at the end of our rope and it was such a blessing.”
Everything fell into place, with the help of their family and friends.
“One thing I’ll always remember is having so many people close to use pitching in and becoming an intimate part of recreating the wedding,” Ryan fondly recalled.
“A lot of times the couple does all the work and then everyone shows up and celebrates. But I have distinct memories of friends and family coming through on specific details for us.”
Their wedding took place on August 24, as planned, and as soon as the playlist the couple had carefully curated started, they were both able to relax.
“We were in a totally different place, but had the exact same music, the exact same words that we were going to have at the other wedding,” Ryan said. “It was still our wedding even though it was not what we had planned.”
“Once everything started, I had this big sigh of relief. I realized no matter where we were in the world, we were still getting married, just the two of us,” Melissa added.
The ceremony, written entirely by the bride and groom, was officiated by their friend from the Air Force Academy, John Feely. A reception followed, with a touching poem recited by Melissa’s father and an original song written and performed by Ryan’s brother Kevin, with help from their father.
And the stress and anxiety of the prior two days melted away, thanks to cases of wine from Napa, delicious barbecue, cake, and the overwhelming feeling of love in the air.
“When was all was said and done, the wedding we had was more beautiful and more fulfilling because of everything we had been through,” Melissa said.
On the eve of their one year anniversary, the couple is setting off on their next adventure: Melissa has been accepted into a three-year Department of Defense-sponsored study abroad program in Morocco, and Ryan is, of course, going with her. After making it through their wedding week, they know they can make it through anything.