An Autumnal Wedding at a Ranch in Peoa, Utah
Even though time and distance have tested Vanessa McDonough and Hunter Virden, their connection has never faltered. It all started back in 2004 when the two met during sophomore year of high school. They dated for the next three years, and once they got to college, the duo decided to try long distance. By the end of their first semester, Vanessa and Hunter realized that dating at a distance was more challenging than they expected. So, they parted ways but still remained friends.
In 2013, the two had plans to meet up and grab lunch. “I thought this was just our usual friendly catchup,” Vanessa notes. “Hunter, on the other hand, did not.” After Hunter asked Vanessa out (again), the rest was history.
Six years later, Vanessa and Hunter visited Rosemary Beach in Florida with their families. One night before dinner, the couple decided to take a stroll. Little did Vanessa know that Hunter was actually stalling her, so his mom and sister could arrange a blanket with candles, rose petals, and Champagne. “As we headed back to the house, we came across that little romantic moment. Hunter got down on one knee—nervously sweating and barely able to get his words out—and asked me to marry him,” Vanessa remembers.
The pair initially planned a 2020 wedding, but once the pandemic took shape, they had no other choice but to postpone their celebration. Even though the planning process was stressful for Vanessa and Hunter, their vendor team helped everything fall into place. “I was so fortunate to know quite a few people in the industry and wanted to use them from the beginning,” the bride says. They also made sure to prioritize diverse talent. “I didn’t want to use all of the same vendors as every bride in Utah,” Vanessa explains.
Another seamless part of the process was selecting their venue. When Vanessa and Hunter attended another wedding at 4U Ranch, they had a feeling they would be returning for their own big day. “I am a city girl, and Hunter is more country or laid-back,” the bride shares. “4U felt like a great reflection of our two personalities.”
On October 2, 2021, Vanessa and Hunter invited 180 guests to celebrate their fall wedding in Peoa, Utah. Keep reading to see how their special day came to life, which was planned by Michelle Leo Events and photographed by Megan Robinson.
Hunter dressed himself in a burgundy tuxedo with black satin lapels, black tuxedo pants, and black patent loafers for the grand event. The tux he ended up wearing wasn’t the one he initially customized though. When the couple realized that the original ensemble wasn’t going to arrive until the day after the wedding, they had to find a replacement as quickly as possible.
“The tailor ended up sourcing an entirely different suit for him, tailoring this new suit the day before our rehearsal dinner, and then again the day of our wedding,” Vanessa reveals. “Hunter still looked great, but it became amusing to us when our friends complimented his ‘custom suit’ all night long.”
The groom paired his outfit with accessories that held sentimental value. To honor his grandparents who both have passed, he wore his grandfather’s gold watch and a gold bracelet made from one of his grandmother’s chains, which was a wedding gift from Vanessa.
Instead of a traditional wedding party, the couple had their family members stand by their side. The men donned classic black suits, so Hunter’s burgundy getup would stand out. Since Vanessa’s father is a retired lieutenant colonel, he sported his army uniform.
After getting ready, Hunter and his squad toasted the day with a 20-year-old bottle of whiskey, which the groom had been saving for a special occasion.
Vanessa spent the morning of her wedding day getting glam in gray sweatpants and a white tank top. For her makeup, the bride went with a natural and glowy look, which included glossy lips and thick lashes. “I just wanted to look like myself but a tad more chic,” she elaborates. She also decided to embrace her curls, so she settled on an updo with a floral hair pin. “My hair is big and curly,” Vanessa says. “It’s kind of signature, and I couldn’t see myself any other way than natural on the day of my wedding.”
It was everything opposite of what I thought I wanted, but the dress fit like a glove.
The bride stunned in an off-the-shoulder lace mermaid gown by Galia Lahav. Just like Hunter, the dress she donned down the aisle wasn’t the one she intended to wear. Vanessa first purchased a gown in April 2020, but the pandemic posed difficulties with the delivery. So, in January 2021, the bride went to a trunk show, hoping to find that same dress. She ended up with something entirely different. “It was everything opposite of what I thought I wanted, but the dress fit like a glove, and the experience was easy,” Vanessa recounts.
Then, the alterations went all wrong. Two weeks before the wedding, the bride took the dress to another seamstress, who luckily resurrected it. “It was a hot mess and not an ideal situation at the moment, but when I look back at my wedding, my dress is the last thing I think about,” she admits. “It’s now just a funny story to tell.”
Since Vanessa wanted a family-only bridal party, she enlisted her sister as her maid of honor and Hunter’s sister as her bridesmaid. They both wore burgundy dresses. “I knew I wanted them in the same color,” the bride explains. “They are both fair-complected and blonde, completely opposite of me. I wanted them to pick something they loved and felt good in.”
Although the couple didn’t do a first look, they took portraits before the ceremony to remember the moment and capture the magical fall scene.
During the photo shoot, Vanessa flaunted her bouquet of butterfly ranunculus, honey dijon roses, lisianthus, black scabiosa, and ruby silk grass, which complemented her gown. To add a personal touch to the assortment, Vanessa attached a cross filled with her grandmother’s ashes.
“The ceremony took place in the most stunning riverside location,” reflects the couple’s florist, Amber Dickson of Amber Reverie. “It was surrounded by golden trees and a warm setting sun, so I went for higher contrast in the ceremony design to stand out and complement the natural scene.” An asymmetrical floral arch framed the couple’s vows and fall-inspired arrangements lined the aisle, appearing as if they grew out of the ground. Ghost chairs blended into the surrounding landscape.
I waited so long for this moment to happen, and Vanessa looked so beautiful.
Both of Vanessa’s parents walked their daughter down the aisle while a live guitarist strummed “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts. Hunter couldn’t help but get emotional once he saw his bride making her entrance. “I waited so long for this moment to happen, and Vanessa looked so beautiful,” Hunter says. “I will never forget it.”
The couple personalized their ceremony by writing their own heartfelt vows. Vanessa’s were light-hearted and earnest, filled with quotes from The Office and promises of commitment. Hunter’s vows grasped his love for Vanessa. “Really, I spoke from the heart,” Hunter recalls. “She is the love of my life and has been since I was 16 years old.”
After they were pronounced husband and wife, the newlyweds exited the ceremony to “Love on Top” by Beyoncé.
Cocktail hour took place outside of the venue’s barn. The duo had high-top tables draped in yellow velvet linens and accented with small arrangements. A lounge area with white furniture and heaters provided warmth and comfort. Guests noshes on Southern soul food appetizers, such as fried macaroni and cheese bites with barbecue sauce, fried okra with pimento aioli, and bacon-wrapped dates with smoked goat cheese crema and a honey drizzle.
For their escort cards, the couple distributed bottles of hot sauce they made from scratch using ingredients from their garden. “We decided on hot sauce for several reasons,” Vanessa begins. “First, when we moved into our house together, Hunter had an insane amount of hot sauce bottles—like 40. Second, we have a fantastic garden. Gardening became a hobby we did together. I would plant and grow everything, and Hunter created magic in the kitchen with our harvest. Lastly, all the food for the evening was Southern-inspired, so we felt our guests needed a little hot sauce.”
Inside of the barn, long wooden tables and black ghost chairs presented a blank canvas for the autumnal décor. “We dove headfirst into the golds, coppers, and burgundies outside with abundant tablescapes filled with sculptural lines and texture,” Amber notes. White ceramic compotes held golden ferns, muted garden roses, yellow butterfly ranunculus, bronze lisianthus, chocolate lace, branchy calcina, and translucent lunaria. Pink taper candles in glass hurricane holders also lined the tables.
Each place was set with black chargers, goldenrod velvet napkins, lucite place cards, semicircular menu cards, a sprig of fresh flowers, ribbed glassware, and gold and wooden flatware. The couple went with minimalist and neutral place settings, so the napkins would pop.
The newlyweds shared a romantic moment together during their first dance. The couple also made sure to save a dance for their parents. Vanessa swayed to “Daddy’s Little Girl” by The Shires with her dad. Meanwhile, Hunter and his mom spun around to “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd during the mother-son dance.
One of the most memorable moments for Vanessa was listening to her dad give a speech. Since the bride’s parents separated when she was younger, her favorite part was hearing her father thank her mother for raising Vanessa. “My dad has never expressed these feelings to me or my mom before,” the bride reveals. “It was a complete shock to hear him be vulnerable and transparent for the first time, especially in such a public space. I did not want that moment to end. It was beautiful. His speech has become one of the most precious 10 minutes of my life.”
“We wanted our meal to pull from our roots,” the bride illustrates. “I am African-American, and Hunter is from the South. There is no question that the menu had to center around soul food with a splash of Utah, our home.” For dinner, guests started on a fresh salad with rainbow chard, local peaches, burrata, and candied almonds tossed in a honey citrus vinaigrette. Their main entrée was a choice of red trout with tomato jam or skirt steak with a side of collard greens and cheesy grits. For a plant-based option, guests dined on roasted acorn squash with quinoa and seasonal vegetables.
The duo cut into a four-tier sculptural cake with a watercolor design and faux petals. Inside the creation was a vanilla rosemary olive-oil cake with lemon, raspberry, and ricotta flavors. They also had a dessert station with pecan pie (a childhood favorite for the couple), German chocolate cake (inspired by the bride’s grandmother), and shortcakes with fresh peaches.
The pair’s special day was everything they’ve ever dreamed of. Having picture-perfect fall weather and endless support from their loved ones made their wedding unforgettable. “Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t seen many of our friends and family for two years,” Vanessa admits. “All I wanted to do was soak up as much time with our guests as possible. I stood back and took in the moment a few times, cherishing them. I have never had this many loved ones in one space.”