Clay and Aimee Hanna were high school sweethearts trying to stick it out long distance through the college years when they first laid eyes on the Tetons.
The West Virginia couple was on an “American Ecosystems” road trip that Clay’s college had orchestrated the summer before his senior year, and one of the 15 or so national parks on the around-the-West tour was Grand Teton. The unforgettable jagged peaks cutting Jackson Hole’s western skyline lived up to their billing, leaving an indelible impression.
“We were literally here for probably 24 to 36 hours,” Aimee Hanna said. "When we were sitting at the Jenny Lake overlook looking up at Teewinot and I thought, ‘This is a place that has it all.’ And that was after having been to places like Sequoia, Yosemite, Mount Rainier.’”
It took all of a year for the duo to plot a return.
By 2003 Clay Hanna had graduated and applied to seasonal positions with Grand Teton National Park and Teton Science Schools. The park turned him down, but the Science Schools brought him on as an intern. He urged Aimee, then his girlfriend, to apply for the same Park Service naturalist position that he missed out on.
“She did apply,” he said, “and turns out she got the naturalist job.”
A return to Appalachia came with wedding bells the following summer, but by 2005 the Tetons’ notorious magnet effect held true. Both Hannas applied to be seasonal naturalists through the Grand Teton Association and were hired to work alongside each other. For the next five years they embraced the itinerant lifestyle of so many early career Park Service employees, stringing together seasonal jobs around the country though always managing to return to Jackson Hole for the summer or winter.
The seasonal circuit brought them to places like New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, Washington’s North Cascades and California’s Devils Postpile National Monument (a section of Yosemite National Park that was lopped off more than a century ago before being redesignated as a monument). Looking back, bouncing around national parks was a wild, memorable ride.
“For us it was a huge appeal,” Aimee Hanna said. “Having that in our history created some of our best memories. You get to move around the country and get to work in some of the most amazing places.
“Our network of friends literally spans the country,” she said. “We can find a couch anywhere we need it.”
Clay Hanna, meanwhile, landed his first year-round Park Service gig, an opportunity as a supervisory interpretive ranger at Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District. His wife stayed on in Teton park, although she did snare a seasonal stint at the Moab, Utah-area park that bridged the geographic gap.
Aimee Hanna gained clarity about her ideal professional Park Service path almost a decade ago while responding to a fatal car accident.
“I helped on scene, but I didn’t have the skills to help to the level that I wanted to,” she said. “Being there and seeing what the rangers were doing, I realized that I wanted to be involved in that.”
Fast forward to the present, and she is a law enforcement ranger who patrols territory nearest the Hannas’ Park Service home in the Colter Bay area. She’s drawn to the unpredictable, varied nature of the job. On the side she’s a member of the National Park Service’s nationwide “critical incident stress management team.” That involvement has given her a skill set that proves useful with perhaps too much regularity back home.
“We have an unfortunate amount of tragedies here that our folks have to respond to,” she said. “I’m passionate about taking care of responders and taking care of rangers.”
After a couple of years in Canyonlands, Clay Hanna came on year-round at Teton park, until recently working as the supervisory ranger at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve’s visitor center. Just this month he was formally promoted to branch chief of visitor engagement, a position that oversees visitor centers and ranger programs throughout the park.
Both Hannas aspire to continue climbing the ranks: Aimee’s ideal career capstone is chief ranger, while Clay’s ambition is to someday be a park superintendent.
But in the meantime both are satisfied with the lives they’ve carved out in Jackson Hole, a place that felt like home a long time ago, even when it was only a seasonal residence. The lifestyle and access provides great opportunities to pursue hobbies that both Hannas share, like cycling and skiing.
Twice over, they’ve hiked every named trail Teton park has to offer.
“Knowing each other at such a young age, I feel like we kind of grew up and grew together,” Clay Hanna said. “We learned together to do things in the outdoors like backpacking and biking.”
Downtime for him is often spent woodworking, a trade his father and grandfather practiced professionally. Keeping with the family tradition has filled the Hanna home with an assortment of handmade crafts, from their kitchen table to bookshelves.
“He’s pretty humble about it,” Aimee Hanna said. “He doesn’t use any power tools. And we have electricity, so it is an option.”