By Lisa Shrewsberry
To Eden, a proud New Orleanian with an adventuresome spirit, the ideal place for her wedding was not a garden. Nor was it any of limitless options her decadently cultured Louisiana address afforded. She handpicked a mountaintop for her ceremony, one to enchant guests from their below sea-level existence into the otherworldly topography of the New River Gorge.
“The grass is always greener somewhere else,” Eden Heilman explains, an attorney who specializes in working with children. Her decision to marry inside a West Virginia June had lofty appeal, but it also had roots (her mom is originally from Pineville).
“I LOVE where I live — but all my friends have gotten married there. I always wanted a destination wedding and to spend more than one night with our guests.”
On the flipside of the grassy coin, southern West Virginia residents might find the notion of being sought after as “the destination” amusing, but according to Adventures on the Gorge Event Coordinator Jessica Campbell, she is busier than ever meeting requests to carry off the perfect mountain weddings, receptions, fundraisers and other gatherings, no matter the season.
“By the end of this fall, we will be closer to 45 weddings completed, not counting reunions and other events,” states Campbell.
The most she’s seen converging at once was three major events in one weekend — the weekend of Eden’s marriage. Still, it went off without unexpected hitches.
“Theirs was the neatest wedding because everyone came from everywhere — from other countries and states. They stayed six days. When family members from both sides come here and don’t know each other, they leave as best friends.”
Eden and Jan (sounds like yawn) Soeten’s union was, by New Orleans standards, considered small and intimate at 100 guests. Hitting triple digits in attendance, all those people willing to travel all the way to West Virginia surprised the bride and groom.
“We didn’t expect to have as many guests as we had,” admits Eden, but when the RSVPs came pouring in, “… nobody was saying no.”
Once the calendar advanced to the last week in June, Eden and her New Orleans fireman husband-to-be made the trip from home to Fayetteville. They rented cabins for themselves, for family and for their long-distance attendants.
There was only one non-negotiable rule — no wedding drama.
Bringing their idea of easy with them, the couple spent a comfortably lazy day obtaining their wedding license in Fayetteville and the next pontooning, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding on Summersville Lake.
“The water was gorgeous. We went underneath the falls in kayaks …” Eden recalls.
On Thursday before wedding weekend, their party took in bird’s eye views of the gorge on the Treetops Canopy zipline tour before a no-fuss rehearsal dinner at The Char in Beckley.
Eden says, “I remember going there as a child and I always loved it.”
Friday meant a motorcycle ride for the groom and final preparations for the bride, after which the couple welcomed guests at a low-key dinner by the infinity pool overlooking the Gorge on the AOTG complex. The only adrenaline on tap the evening prior to nuptials was a slight threat of conflagration. A floating lantern got stuck in a tree. With plenty of off-duty firemen present, including the groom, the situation was under control nearly before it began.
“All the firemen were just standing there staring at the tree,” says Eden, recalling the moment as more humorous than scary, and another to add to her collection.
Their ceremony happened late on Saturday, perched on the famous lower deck at Smokey’s on the Gorge. A cocktail hour at Sunset Point to live music by The Boatmen followed, with tubs of pre-made cocktails served in Mason jars.
Sunday, the party ended on a high note with whitewater rafting and final goodbyes. Eden and Jan were off themselves, with enough non-convention to spare, stopping for a time in Tennessee before heading back to Louisiana. Their official honeymoon will also encapsulate the unexpected — they plan to visit Turkey in September, where Eden’s parents lived for a time.
Friends proclaimed afterward that theirs was a wedding they’d not soon forget, ingrained in scenic beauty and punctuated by high adventure. But to Eden, the decision was more nostalgic than novel.
“(My family) would come up every year to visit grandparents and see cousins, aunts and uncles. Honestly, my single-handed goal was to show my friends how gorgeous West Virginia is. I’ve always known it.”
For those who thought they were headed for nuptials in the middle of nowhere, one or two have converted from beach vacations to planning free time in the mountains, entertaining their own leisure trips to West Virginia.
“The guests absolutely loved it and thought it was breathtaking. There was literally nothing I would’ve changed about our West Virginia wedding.”
For more information on events and weddings at the New River Gorge, visit www.adventurewestvirginia.com
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