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Out of Shadows, Into Light

How one park ranger found his park while watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon

By Gary Bremen, Biscayne National Park Ranger

In 1972, my parents took me on an extraordinary journey that continues to this day. We left our home in the Miami suburb of Hialeah in a sky-blue Ford pickup truck. Behind us, we towed a 15’ long Dutch Craft travel trailer. This would be our home for the next six weeks as we drove “out west.” We visited Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon and many other national parks. I decided that summer, at the ripe old age of 7, that someday I would become a National Park Ranger.

That dream came true in 1986 when I landed a job in the world’s longest known cave: Mammoth Cave. That was 30 years ago, and I still love the work I get to do, especially now that I help protect the national park at my own front door, Biscayne National Park.

I grew up around the bay, and knew it intimately as just a little guy.  With the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016, I’ve been thinking back a lot to the parks that have had the most impact on my life. Despite having worked to protect the reefs, keys, and mangroves of Biscayne National Park for nearly 20 years, the park that had the most powerful impact on me is much further away.

It was April on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I woke up early to find a blanket of snow covering everything, so I walked in darkness to take in the sunrise and the unfolding of a truly spectacular sight. The Canyon’s pinnacles, ledges, cracks and crevices were dusted with snow, creating beautiful contrast between icy white and golden stone.

At first I was alone, but soon lots of other people were out too, so I walked down the South Kaibab trail a couple hundred yards. That was all it took to get away from people, most of whom only gaze into the Canyon from above. I stepped to the side of the trail and sat down, elevated above the occasional hikers passing by. I was out of the wind and I was comfortable just watching the constantly changing light show before me.

I sat there for hours as long shadows became shorter and snow-filled crevices melted. At 32, I was coming to terms with who I really was. I began to look at the Canyon as a metaphor for my life. It was dark and coming out into the light. All the rough, craggy edges were smoothed out by the snow…like it was a brand new beginning. For over twenty years, I too had been lurking in the shadows; ashamed of whom I was because so many around me told me I should be.

I had never doubted that I was gay; I just never thought I would say those words aloud. But there, just below the rim of this incredibly beautiful place, I saw an opportunity for a new beginning. I was no different than I was a few hours earlier, and yet at the same time, I was entirely different. I pledged that when I got home, I would be honest with those I loved about who I really was.

It was tough at first, but surprisingly, it got better, and my life was richer and happier. Fast forward 14 months. Again I found myself on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was before dawn, and snow was again on the ground. This time, though, it was the North Rim, and I was not alone. I told Roger to close his eyes as I led him to the edge for his first view of the place that got me to this moment… this perfect moment when every pinnacle, ledge, crack and crevice of this perfectly imperfect place was revealed in the growing light. We sat, hand-in-hand, on the opposite side of this miles-wide gash in the earth, and watched the sun rise. Together.

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