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Ranger Confidential: Secrets of the National Park Rangers

True tales from the front lines--and behind the scenes--of America's national parks.

My first night on the job in Yosemite, I rode with Ranger Kent Delbon. Well aware of Yosemite’s reputation for being hard on female rangers, I was nervous. But the tall, cleancut young ranger with the soothing voice put me at ease immediately. He conversed in Spanish with immigrant visitors, communicated in sign language with a deaf firefighter, and swerved to miss a chipmunk crossing the road. At the end of our shift, he zoomed into a hairpin turn, forcing me to push back on his shoulder to avoid landing in his lap. "That’s how I get close to my dates," he said with a wink.

Inevitably, I fell for the tall ranger. Which is not to say all was "happily ever after." Ranger couples have to contend with geographically challenging assignments (you’re in the Grand Canyon, he’s in Yosemite), natural disasters (simultaneous flash floods and lightning strikes), and anxiously monitoring the radio to hear if your partner has returned from the midnight rescue mission.

Even the best part of a ranger romance–going on a backcountry date–can cause trouble. Especially in an environment where physical bravado sometimes trumps brains. Once, when Kent came to visit me after I had transferred to the Grand Canyon, I talked him into attempting an 18-mile dayhike to a remote Hopi sacred site. In July. During a heat wave. I should have known better, of course. I knew firsthand what 112˚F temps could do to the un-acclimatized. "Trust me," I said. "It’ll be fun."

Kent had the grace not to remind me of those words when he was struck down by heat exhaustion, miles short of our destination. When we ran out of drinking water, he remained positive, even when he threw up his breakfast burrito and his cheeks turned as ruddy as the sandstone cliffs. By the time we reached a spring, he was on all fours, panting after gagging on bile.

Incredibly, our relationship survived that disastrous date. Maybe it made us stronger.

One bright spring day, Kent invited me for a stroll to the Canyon rim. A thousand feet below, the redbuds were blooming. I leaned as far as I dared over the cliff. Kent grabbed my shirt, pulled me back from the edge, and asked me to marry him.

Three months later, a judge in Seward, Alaska, prounounced us man and wife. Then we backpacked through rain into the Chugach National Forest. On the first morning of our honeymoon, we found grizzly tracks in the mud outside of our tent. With our food stored a safe distance from camp, we decided the bear’s visit was a blessing.

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