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Letters to Yosemite

When it comes to relationships, they always say opposites attract. But it took a summer of writing letters to her girlfriend deep in the backcountry of Yosemite for Emily Dugdale to realize she didn’t buy that. (0:08).

The letters from Rachel came like clockwork every two or three weeks – depending on how quickly the pack mules could make it out of the forest. Pieces of notebook paper that smelled like campfire.

I was at my parent’s house in Seattle when I got the first one. Rachel had no phone – and we hadn’t spoken in a month at this point. I was really missing her. I sat on the steps outside the mailbox and ripped open the envelope. My first reaction? Shock. The letter was so expansive – her words spilled out like one long stream of consciousness into every available space on the page. She’d even crammed things into the margins.

But this was not the Rachel I knew.

The Rachel I’d fallen in love with was a classic definition of an extreme introvert. She only spoke when necessary – unless we were with close friends. She gave me the space to say and do what I wanted – and I liked that. I made our plans. I led our conversations. And I even dictated our future – like encouraging Rachel to apply for this backcountry position in the first place. And then when she was done, move in with me to New York.

Her silence was the backbone of our almost two year relationship. And that’s why my jaw dropped as I read the letters. Her relationship with the woods opened up a side of her I’d never known. She was … talking. She described everything she saw in detail. She wrote about giant waterfalls that she’d eat lunch next to where, “if you peered over the edge,’ she said, “you could see where the water smacks against a large rock and kind of pinwheels down.”

I’d spend hours writing her back. I’d talk about how nervous I was to leave the West Coast and start journalism school. I’d write, “Have you told your mom you’re moving in with me yet?.” And I’d worry, “What if I can’t find a great one-bedroom?” “What am I going to wear when it gets cold?!” She’d send me sketches of our future apartment and pressed wildflowers with words of encouragement.

She never stopped sharing – for the first time in our relationship.

She’d also write things that excited me, but deep down, I knew I wasn’t ready for. Things like an engagement ring. And asking my parents for their blessing.

Yet I still clung to these letters while I said goodbye to the West Coast and headed into the commotion of a New York City summer. I checked my mail compulsively. When the letters arrived, I read them dozens of times, impatiently waiting for the next one to arrive.

In these gaps, I was creating this new Rachel.

So when I finally got that first phone call from her when she emerged from the woods, it was a shock all over again.

The conversation went something like this. “Hiii, how are you?!,” I said. “I’m cool,” she says. “Uhh, how was your day? “It was cool.” I’ll admit – this was not weird for us. But after all these months of passionate letter writing, the silence suddenly felt so unfulfilling.

But now I understand that we’ll do just about anything to get through long distance relationships. In my case, it was ignoring that perhaps Rachel and I were a little bit doomed from the start. And the letters were my way of pushing down that gnawing voice in the back of my head that questioned whether two people who are so different can really grow together into the next stage of their lives.

I broke up with Rachel shortly after Christmas this year. She moved back to California, and went straight back into the woods. This time, there won’t be any letters.

OUTRO: Emily Dugdale now screens all potential dates on the Myers Briggs scale.


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