Growing up in in the 1970s in nearby Hurricane, Jake Gibson didn't have grand ambitions. He didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a politician.
"I really had no idea what I wanted to do with myself," he now laughs.Rather he was content to live life as it unfolded. To Gibson, that meant working construction jobs here and there, doing a bit of cowboying and riding in rodeos when he got the chance.
It was rodeoing that changed Gibson's life forever. In 1978, five years out of Hurricane High School, Gibson was thrown from a horse during a rodeo at Ruby's Inn, near Bryce Canyon. He landed on his forehead, snapping his neck.
"One day I'm working construction and laying a water line in Panguitch, and the next day the doctors are telling me I'll never walk again," Gibson said. "It was one of those freak things."
But Jake Gibson did learn to walk again, albeit with some difficulty. And instead of life in a wheelchair, he has found a new life working for the National Park Service at Zion National Park.
"Jake's an amazing person in every way," says chief ranger Larry Van Slyke. "He's done so much when people told him he couldn't do it. He's an inspiration to those around him by what he does."
Jake doesn't feel special. Nor does he see himself as a role model for others with handicaps that forever changed the course of their lives.
"There are days when I wish they would have hit me in the head and finished me off when I was laying out there in that rodeo arena," he says. "I still remember what it was like to run and do things, and it's hard to accept that I can't do some things anymore."
Like rodeoing. Lying in a hospital bed in Panguitch, Gibson simply assumed he'd be riding in rodeos by Labor Day. "Labor Day still hasn't shown up yet," he says.
But the fact Gibson can stand is amazing. That he can walk about is a miracle. Doctors had initially diagnosed him as a complete quadriplegic, though he had a little movement left in his right side.
The doctors told him to get used to the fact he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. "I said I've got better things to be doing," he recalls. "Anything beats that wheelchair."
Months of rehabilitation turned into years. Slowly, he began to walk, though severely hobbled. Eventually, he returned to Hurricane and tried running a small farm. It was soon apparent he needed a more steady source of income.
In 1986, when it became apparent he would lose the farm, he was hired on as a seasonal worker at Zion National Park. After a couple years of maintenance, he was assigned to the entrance station at Springdale, where he is the first park official to greet visitors. Two years ago he was named "Outstanding Employee of the Year."
"I'd like to make it a career," says Gibson, who lives alone in neighboring Springdale. "I can't go back to the way I was before. There's a future for me now."
And it certainly beats the wheelchair.