Two hundred miles west of the Triangle, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, two waterfalls begin at the head of Linville Gorge. As they cascade down a series of tiers, they merge into one before plunging through more than forty feet of open air. To the Cherokee people, this was “the river of many cliffs,” but eighteenth-century colonizers renamed the area after a white family killed in the gorge by Native Americans, who were also said to use the falls to execute prisoners.

At risk of less hyperbole than you might imagine, that’s what the institution of marriage seemed like to me: a loss of individuality followed by a precipitous drop into the rest of your life, a scenic vista stained with uneasy history. Nevertheless, on short notice and without any particular qualifications, I had been summoned to Linville Falls to officiate a wedding ceremony.

On paper, this made no sense. I wasn’t religious. I’d gotten no license online. As I’ve implied, I regarded traditional marriage as a dreamy swoon into an enticing but deceptive story at best, a bald-faced system for consolidating resources down patriarchal lines at worst, or, most neutrally, a legal structure for people who wanted to raise families. The idea of presiding over a wedding made me feel stressed and a little scared, so I figured I should do it.

Anyway, my friend asked me to, and really, I understood why. He and his wife weren’t religious, either, so the whole god thing didn’t need to be dealt with. They were making it legal through the proper bureaucratic channels, so certification wasn’t an issue. And they weren’t precious about their marriage, which represented a genuine commitment but also had a certain necessity for them as a transnational couple.

They really just needed someone in North Carolina, near where the groom lived, to say some words at a party. He was my oldest friend; I knew him and his family. I was writer. I could say things. When I started to think about it this wayas putting a veneer of ritual and circumstance on this wonderful, unexpected, slightly mad thing someone I loved was doing with someone he lovedI got it.

Still, I had no idea what to say. Subtracting god, government, and a long backstory for the couple, what was left?

I struggled with the ceremony in the week or two I had. More truthfully, I stared at a blank page. The groom had given me only the vaguest outline of what this magical mystery secular-casual wedding ceremony might contain. The biggest problem was that I had met the bride only two or three times because the courtship happened mostly overseas. I liked her a lot, but I didn’t know her. I worried that anything I wrote would be his story, not theirs.

In the end, I had to fall back on what I knew. So on the morning of the wedding, I drove off to the mountains with no ceremony in hand.

Look, if you’re officiating a traditional wedding, this method may not work for you. There are all kinds of arcane rules about when a bride can be looked at and the kinds of things she can be bothered with. I imagine asking a couple to sit down mere hours before their wedding to be interviewed by the officiant as he typed out their service like a sweaty journalist on deadline would contravene many of these rules. But that’s what I did, and it worked out pretty great, building the ceremony not from the beats of the ritual but from their voices and story, its improvised rhythm. This is what I needed to center myself in the meaning of the momentthe pair of falls behind the plunge, how and where they blended.

It wasn’t the most solemn affair, though it was joyous and earnest. The ceremony included words like “Tinder” and “hot lumberjack.” But at the end, we did do a proper, old-fashioned exchange of vows, and by the time we got to the rings (“which I know you both regard as symbols of permission to give and receive unconditional love rather than as symbols of ownership”), I confess I could feel tremors of liturgical power, pronouncing such old words in an old rhythm.

Paradoxically, it was then, through stark contrast, that I could most sharply feel marriage as something that could transcend the institution’s history, something unique to these people in this momentand just maybe, one day, to me. Maybe.

“You may kiss the groom,” I said. Then we drank.