When darkness falls across a vast sky, stars come to light. They are so bright, so undeniable in their presence, and they burn this way—from our world’s perspective—for eternities. By grand comparison, our staff photographer at Missoula Valley Lifestyle has found her true love in a similar way, knowing in her heart of hearts which light burns the brightest against a dark background.
From her humble beginnings in Circle, Montana where she was born and grew up, Erika has covered a lot of ground. Montana, though, was arguably her first and forever love. Her past relationships are a mixed bag of humans-in-the-making, still on the path of pursuit when it came to their deeper selves and the desires that exist there. For one reason or another, those past romances fell away as their core values reached the surface. Complimented by a lifelong friend, Erika is lovably admired for her ability to call it quits when something isn’t right for her. She has been in the practice of self love, not settling for anything that tried to distort her soul. And sometimes, when you’re not really looking, a shooting star appears.
Enter Tanner Saul—local creator, producer, television host, and wildlife biologist. You may remember him from our June “Men’s Issue.”
With a shared belief in the universe working to provide opportunity, Erika and Tanner were gradually brought closer together over the last year by several episodes of compete randomness. The first, on June 26, 2021: a wedding in which Tanner was the videographer and Erika was the photographer. Flash forward that same summer, it’s August 26 and Erika posts an ISO for huckleberries. Tanner answers with, “I have some!” The only issue was timing. As one was committed to another relationship, the other was single. And then vice versa. It wasn’t until Tanner’s bold admission of love for Erika that the winds would change completely in their favor.
“I haven’t had to change who I am at all,” says Erika. “In the past, I was always trying to fit these molds or these boxes that other people had for me.” And when two animal-loving adventurers unite, that bond grows thick like a forest.
“I flew to Oregon and drove down to Bend to ask Tanner’s mom for her blessing,” says Erika. That’s right, she picked out a ring. “Something Tanner and I have always talked about is we don’t need anybody’s approval because this is our relationship and we’ve kept it very intimate that way, but he and his mom are very close…she’s a big adventure lady as well—she’s exactly as I imagine myself to be in the future.”
Sharing some one-on-one time, Erika and Tanner’s mother went paddle boarding so Erika could pop the preliminary question.
“I asked if she wanted to be part of planning something special for Tanner,” says Erika. And much to his mother’s surprise (and delight), Erika learned that Tanner had asked his mom to take Erika ring shopping.
“Hashtag SWL,” chimes in Tanner, with a giddy chuckle.
“Tanner and I always say we’re SWL—same wavelength,” says Erika.
At that moment in time, Tanner knew nothing about this very large coincidence, and Erika had some plans to carry out when they returned to Montana. She was going to make the night they met—August 26—a night to remember for their one-year anniversary.
“I rented this A-frame style cabin—it’s called The Blind—and it’s themed to be a hunting blind overlooking the mountains, and Tanner’s a big hunter so it seemed appropriate,” says Erika. “It opened up to the night sky. The ceiling kind of opens up so that you’re able to see the starry sky, and it was a two-night minimum so I went up the night prior, just me and Oynx (beloved black Labrador). I knew when I was going to propose to Tanner that I was going to lose every thought that I had, so I recorded myself in the middle of the night in this cabin while looking at the stars, saying everything I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say.”
She brought with her a star map that illustrated the night sky on the day they met, from TheNightSky.com, and she had a note printed on it that they could look back on in times of trouble. She named a star for the two of them to share, wherever they are, no matter where. “I named it Stella Saul, and Stella means star,” says Erika. Stella can be found via QR code so whether it be a camping trip that extends far into the wilderness (quite common for these two) or right at home here in Missoula, their shining diamond can surely be spotted on a cloudless night.
The dreamy setting and the preparation were set. Erika had an easy part two of this plan: go on an adventure that leads back to this cabin. Normally, this would be the challenging part of a proposal but charcuterie in cups while paddle boarding with dogs and then going to a fancy dinner and then spontaneously retreating to the woods for a night’s sleep is truly part of their day-to-day lives.
“This is something that wasn’t really out of the ordinary for us,” says Tanner. Their joy exists in the moment, not in the precise execution of perfect plans. He admits skipping down the dirt driveway because what could be better than this special spot in the woods? He was about to find out. “She set the camera up in the corner and I remember thinking it was weird because she pressed the button and the light wasn’t blinking for the self-timer.” After a brief scare that she might very well break up with him, she popped the question and they both admit having outter body experiences.
Six days later, Tanner’s dad showed up with his mother’s diamond to be fitted into a setting that Erika picked out. The happy couple are entwined in wedding plans for a 2023 wedding.
Congratulations, Erika & Tanner!