They met while hiking and fell in love. Two months later she was diagnosed with cancer
Patricia Salazar first saw Aaron Toro running along the breathtaking Peekaboo Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
Patricia was also tackling the trail, alongside two friendly women she’d just met. The July sun was blazing down and the surrounding copper rocks were bathed in a warm light.
The Peekaboo Trail is one of the most strenuous in Bryce Canyon. Patricia’s a hardcore runner and extreme sports enthusiast, but even she was finding it tough-going – so the fact that Aaron was running up the mountain like it was nothing was pretty impressive. Patricia couldn’t help but comment on his speed.
“Are you trying to be the fastest on the trail?” Patricia shouted at the stranger as he whizzed past.
Aaron stopped running, caught his breath, and smiled at Patricia. He brushed off the compliment, said a friendly hello, and offered to take a photo of Patricia and her new friends. The women thanked him, then he was off again, running into the distance. Patricia watched him go.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he looks like a Hemsworth brother.’ He was tan and buff, with blond hair. And so I was like, ‘Gosh, what a hunk. That’ll be a good story for later.’”
Patricia assumed she’d never see the runner again. But then, mere minutes later, she spotted him on another bend in the trail.
“The girls were like, ‘Oh, my God, there he is, there he is.’ And again, I had nothing to lose, nothing to gain – at least so I thought. And so I just hollered at him, ‘Hey, are you single?’”
Aaron stopped, turned around, and grinned.
“Yeah,” he said. “Single as a one dollar bill.”
“At that point, in my mind I was like, ‘Oh, no, what’s my follow-up?’” recalls Patricia.
“Do you want my number?” Patricia asked Aaron, spontaneously.
“Are you from here?” said Aaron in response.
“No,” replied Patricia. “Does it matter?”
“No, I guess not,” shrugged Aaron.
And so they exchanged names and numbers. Patricia told Aaron she was from California, and in town for a vacation. Aaron said he was based in Virginia at the time.
Patricia saved Aaron in her cell phone as “Trail Aaron.”
“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll text you,’” recalls Patricia. “Never thinking that I would hear from him or we would connect. And he went on his merry way and kept running.”
It was the summer of 2021. Patricia was 31 and enjoying what felt like a gradual return to “normal” following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I was single, living by myself, and I had been an endurance athlete for a few years,” Patricia tells CNN Travel today.
Patricia had never had much luck with dating apps. And meeting people in person in the Covid era felt pretty much impossible. That summer, she was feeling excited about the future and the opportunity to pursue her goals and dreams alone.
“I was just going to be the single endurance athlete. I loved cycling, I loved running, and that was just going to fulfill me enough, and that was great,” she says.
Patricia had also made a pact with herself: Each year, she’d take a solo trip somewhere to escape from the pressures of work and indulge her hobbies and passions. In summer 2021, with international travel still largely off the table, Patricia picked Utah as her destination. The state was home to some beautiful national parks, perfect for trail running. That July, Patricia drove to Utah from her home in California.
“That’s kind of where I was in life, just exploring on my own and being so happy to be in the driver’s seat – not only of my road trip, but of my life,” she says.
When he met Patricia, Aaron was in his late twenties. Like Patricia, Aaron was in a place in his life where he was focusing on himself, rather than dating. He was in the middle of a contract with the US Navy and had found being active-duty military didn’t lend itself to meeting prospective partners.
“We’re constantly traveling and moving and you’re all over the place all the time,” says Aaron.
He spent his down time enjoying endurance sports.
“I started training really hard. And I would devote all my time, essentially, to that – and I was okay with that,” he recalls.
In July 2021, Aaron was in his home state of Utah to catch up with his parents and sisters and to enjoy some quality time with loved ones before he started his next deployment.
“Going out to Utah, a week before I leave the country for six months – the last thing on my mind was meeting someone,” he says.
But Aaron was smitten with Patricia from the moment she’d unexpectedly hollered at him on the trail. He was delighted when she asked for his number.
“I left thinking, ‘Wow, she’s spectacular. Probably never hear from her ever again in my life.’ Because, you know, stuff like this doesn’t happen. So I’m like, ‘Oh, well, that was nice of her. But she’s probably just goofing with her friends. And I’ll probably never see her again.’”
Aaron kept running around Bryce Canyon, and eventually reunited with his family, who’d opted for a more leisurely hike. But as the group were leaving the park, Aaron saw Patricia again – now on her own, having bid farewell to the women she met earlier. Patricia said hi to Aaron and his family as she ran past.
“One sec, I’ll catch up with you,” Aaron told his parents, and, without really thinking, he decided to try to speak with Patricia again.
When he caught up with her – not easy, says Aaron, she’s super fast – Aaron asked if Patricia would like to walk the last half-mile together.
“We started talking,” recalls Aaron, “And it was a really good conversation. We both happened to be training for similar races at the same time. Obviously, she seems really cool. She’s way out of my league, so I was pretty surprised she was talking to me.”
Over the course of the conversation, Patricia and Aaron discovered they were both keen to run one of Bryce Canyon’s most famous trails – the beautiful Fairyland Loop – and agreed to meet the following morning to give it a go together.
“I felt like he could really be the adventure buddy I never thought I needed, but after meeting him, knew I wanted,” says Patricia.
From there, Patricia and Aaron went their separate ways. Patricia cycled back to her Airbnb, where she showered, put her feet up, and was just wondering where she could go for a drink and a bite to eat, when a text from “Trail Aaron” popped up on her phone.
Aaron and his family were hanging out at his uncle’s house that evening. He wondering if Patricia fancied joining for brisket?
“At that point, I’d eaten bar food and Clif bars for about a week and a half on the roads, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, home-cooked meal, for sure,” recalls Patricia.
“That actually sounds amazing,” Patricia typed in response. “Count me in!”
Meet the couples who fell in love while traveling
When Aaron sent the invite, he just figured he had “nothing to lose.” He really liked Patricia, and when she said she was up for coming round, he was thrilled.
He put down his phone and tracked down his family, who were preparing food in his uncle’s kitchen.
“Hey guys, so you know that girl in the green shorts that ran by earlier? Well, she’s coming over,” he said.
“Wait, do you even know her?” asked his family, confused.
But Patricia fit in right away. It was like she and Aaron had known one another for years, not for mere hours.
“I spent the whole night just meeting his family and playing pickleball and cornhole,” says Patricia. “I think his family was a little shocked, but it was an awesome night.”
“They’re great people,” says Aaron. “So they were more than welcoming.”
“When I got to the house and started talking to his family, I was like, ‘Oh, man, he checks all the dream boxes – comes from an amazing family, is in between two girls, has two sisters, his mom is his best friend, loves to hike, loves to bike…’” says Patricia.
Hours later, Patricia and Aaron were sitting out in the backyard together, chatting.
“He reached over and he held my hand,” recalls Patricia. “The moment he held my hand, I knew I was going to fall in love with him.”
Aaron felt the same way.
“There’s just something about her, she was so gorgeous. We had so much fun just hanging out, we connected on so many levels and we were just best friends right off the bat,” he says.
“And I don’t know why, but something just clicked in my brain that day and that night where it was like – she’s worth the risk. Seeing how she interacted with my family… Like I said, it was just like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’”
The next day, Aaron and Patricia ran the Fairyland Loop together. From there, Patricia was planning to head to Utah’s Park City to tackle more trails. She asked Aaron if he wanted to join her.
It was only then, when they were in the car en route, that Aaron mentioned he was in the military and was heading off on a six-month deployment in twelve days’ time.
When Aaron met potential partners, he never led with the fact he was in active service – he knew it wasn’t always an attractive prospect, given the inevitable long distance.
Patricia had never met anyone in the military. She wasn’t sure what to think. But she knew Aaron made her feel safe and excited for the future. She decided this news didn’t change anything.
When they stopped for gas, Patricia texted her best friend, “I met the man I’m going to marry on a trail,” she said.
“No you didn’t,” replied her friend.
“We drove for hours together, we’re staying in an Airbnb together,” said Patricia.
For her friend, this message was less exciting and more terrifying, setting off several alarm bells.
“Okay, well you need to send me your location,” she wrote back. “We’ve all heard this story before on whatever news network.”
After concluding her Utah trip, Patricia was planning to drive back to California, visiting family en route. Knowing that Aaron would be leaving the country within days, she decided to take a leap.
“Hey, I don’t want to waste any time,” she said. “Why don’t we just go together, and you can meet my family?”
Aaron said sure – she’d already met his family, after all – so Patricia rang her mom to tell her she was bringing along a plus one.
“I met this guy on a trail, I really like him,” she said. “I think this is it.”
“Wait, who is he?” asked Patricia’s mother, confused.
“I think I’m falling in love,” said Patricia. “This is crazy.”
En route to Patricia’s parents’ house, Patricia and Aaron stopped over in Salt Lake City. They stayed up into the early hours, talking.
“It was the night in Salt Lake that we decided to really go all in,” says Patricia. “We had a lot of serious conversations right off the bat – where we were financially, what our aspirations were, where we were politically, what our relationships with our family were like, and what we really wanted out of life if we were going to have another serious relationship.”
Aaron says it was clear the two were aligned, and also ready to meet each other where they were at.
“We were both very much on our own path, and we were both taking our lives and our careers very seriously,” he says. “So we just laid that all out on the table for each other. We both said, ‘If I do a relationship again, it’s for real, it’s not just dating around for fun.’”
Their talks were sometimes “heavy,” he adds.
“I think we were both at that same mental place, and we were both mature enough to just put that all out on the table.”
The two came up with a “five-year plan right off the bat,” as Aaron puts it. He knew he didn’t want to stay in the military indefinitely, for example, and both he and Patricia were keen to get married, but liked the idea of an elopement over a big wedding.
They’d covered almost everything when Patricia suddenly realized she’d forgotten to check just how long Aaron’s deployment would last.
He explained it would be six months, and he’d mostly be stationed in Spain.
Patricia had been expecting something way longer, and way further afield. Six months seemed doable.
“Let’s do this thing,” she said.
The two became official there and then.
“We had a pretty good foundation of what to expect out of each other, out of our relationship and out of our lives. So the rest was easy after that,” says Aaron.
“With that small hiccup in the middle,” says Patricia. “That whole cancer thing.”
For the first few months, Patricia and Aaron found long distance relatively easy. They FaceTimed every day, enjoying more long, deep chats. Within weeks, they told one another they were falling in love. Patricia booked a trip to Spain for September. Their leap of faith back in July seemed to be paying off.
“It was really manageable – we felt very lucky how successfully we navigated long distance,” says Patricia.
Then fall came, and Patricia had an abnormal pap smear result. She didn’t think too much about it. She went on the planned trip to visit Aaron in Spain. Back in the US, Patricia’s doctor booked her in for a colposcopy. She kept Aaron in the loop.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” says Patricia. “I think in the back of his mind, he was a little more worried than I was.”
Then the results came through: Patricia had stage two cervical cancer.
She wanted to tell Aaron the news on FaceTime rather than via text. By then, he was based somewhere in Africa.
“I remember just waiting up late that night for him to wake up to tell him,” says Patricia.
She was in a state of shock. How could she tell this man she was falling for more and more each day, who was currently hundreds of miles away across oceans, that she had a crushing diagnosis and uncertain future?
“I sat in the living room, and FaceTimed him, and I said, ‘This is my diagnosis,” recalls Patricia.
In one of their deep conversations in Salt Lake City, both Patricia and Aaron had expressed a desire to have kids. Now, Patricia’s doctor had said it was unlikely she’d be able to have biological children. And the journey to recovery was set to be long, complicated and uncertain.
“If this isn’t the path that you want to walk on with me, I completely understand,” Patricia told Aaron that night. “I love you, you love me. And so it’s been fun, but I’m not going to make that choice for you.”
Aaron jumped in right away.
“No, I want you forever more than I want anything else,” he said.
“I wanted to reach through the phone, ‘What are you talking about?’” recalls Aaron today. “We’re in this for the long-haul, no matter what, cancer’s not going to get in the way of that, it’s just one more thing.”
So Aaron said all the right things, and did his best to comfort Patricia from afar. But he was horribly aware of the distance. And the creeping fear.
“There’s nothing I could do other than just try to comfort her through a phone,” he says today.
Over the next few months, Patricia had another biopsy, to determine the cancer hadn’t spread, and started fertility treatment, as she still hoped to have biological children one day. Aaron supported her throughout and was always there, even if he couldn’t be physically there.
“He was there every day for me and, I kid you not, there were nights that I cried myself to sleep with him on the phone, on FaceTime,” says Patricia.
“I hated to Google what the doctors were sending me and so he would Google for me and be like, ‘Don’t Google that.’”
Things “got worse before it got better,” as Aaron puts it.
At first, it seemed like a dose of radiation could target Patricia’s cancer. Then doctors started discussing surgery and concluded Patricia needed a hysterectomy. This would be an invasive procedure with significant recovery time.
Aaron was granted emergency leave to go home to the US to support Patricia in person in the weeks before, during and after the surgery. He’s eternally grateful for this.
In late 2021, Covid-related rules still restricted Californian hospital visitors. But whenever he was permitted to be in the building, Aaron was by Patricia’s side.
“That was a huge, I guess, strength-builder in our relationship,” says Patricia of this period. “I didn’t know if we could get stronger than we already were. And then that happened.”
While Patricia was in hospital, Aaron met Patricia’s grandparents, who she’s very close with, for the first time. Patricia’s grandmother immediately took Aaron aside.
“Her grandma takes me into the other room. And she gives me Trisha’s great-grandma’s engagement ring, which is a family heirloom ring,” recalls Aaron. “She’s like, ‘This is for when you ask Trish to marry her.’”
Aaron remembers sitting in his car in the hospital parking lot, turning the beautiful ring over in his hands.
“I had the family ring, and I was literally just sitting there for hours outside the hospital in the rain,” he says, getting emotional at the memory. “I knew as soon as she came out of hospital that I was going to ask her to marry me.”
On Christmas Eve 2021, Aaron proposed to Patricia.
“I was laying on the couch. We were in matching Christmas onesies,” recalls Patricia. “And on Christmas Eve, my family usually lets us open one Christmas present. So I said, ‘Let’s keep that tradition going, let’s open one Christmas present.’”
She gave Aaron a pair of slippers. Then he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him, presenting her with the family ring.
“I could barely move, nine days after my surgery. But I jumped up off of that couch so fast to say yes,” recalls Patricia. “It was very exciting, and our families were so thrilled for us.”
Over the first half of 2022, Patricia continued to recover from surgery and went through five weeks of radiation.
“I knew there was a finish line and Aaron would be waiting at it, so I took it day by day,” she says.
Then, in September 2022, Patricia and Aaron got married. As they’d always planned, they eloped. The ceremony took place amid the red rocks in Snow Canyon, Utah, not far from where their relationship first began.
“It was exactly what we wanted,” says Patricia, who took Aaron’s name, becoming Patricia Toro. “We left out of our vows, ‘through sickness and health,’ because we’ve already gone through that, we know we can accomplish that.”
Fast forward to today, and Aaron’s finishing up his final navy deployment and Patricia’s in remission. The couple are looking forward to the future.
“The sky’s the limit. We’re not 100% sure where we’re going to end up but we have a few plans in place, and it’s all looking up from here,” says Aaron.
It’s not even two years ago that Patricia and Aaron first met, but the two feel like they’ve crammed a lifetime of ups and downs into their relationship so far.
It’s surreal to think about, especially when they consider the slim chances of them meeting in the first place.
“It doesn’t feel real, it feels like we’re living in a simulation, because it’s just ridiculous,” says Aaron. “We live on opposite coasts, we both happen to be in Utah, in the same National Park, same day.”
“I am not a super-religious person, and neither is Aaron. But we both feel that there was something that put us on that trail that day,” says Patricia. “And I don’t know if that something knew the struggles that I was going to go through three months later. Or if they knew that he’s going to need me in his life at one point. But we were there for a reason that day. And I know that my journey these last 17 months would have been a lot different had Aaron not been there.”