Hermosa Creek

Hermosa Creek


Wind howled through the canyon like a locomotive, snapping fire-blackened aspens and leaving a graveyard of widow-makers and deadfall in its wake. When we set camp, I had been excited to use my new tipi tent, the kind with the “three hands required for assembly” wood stove. Now I was going to die in it.

I looked over at Ronan, a friend with whom I had deployed twice overseas, for some solidarity in our last moments before being pulverized by whatever angry mountain god was responsible for this cacophony of exploding tree trunks and flying splinters. He was asleep, that son of a bitch. Alone with the demons, I crawled deeper into my bag and waited.

Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area sits within the San Juan National Forest, just north of Durango, Colorado. I picked that spot because it had all the right words. Wilderness, Colorado, Durango (I always wanted to be in a Western). It’s 37,236 acres of hog-backed ridges and incredible drop-offs into the abyss, which was exactly where I was headed anyway if I couldn’t figure out a way to clear my head.

2020 had been a bad year, and not just because of the pandemic, although that was part of it. In some far off place on the ragged edge of the empire, my new year broke with fireworks and a light show. Only, the fireworks were mortars and RPGs and the light show was enemy tracers snapping past with the distinctive “crack” every Marine knows from working pits at the rifle range.

Nearly a year later, I couldn’t get the boom out of my head. Making it worse, I lost my team to the confusion of a redeployment home amidst the chaos of the early days of the pandemic. By the time we figured out that COVID was bad, but not zombie apocalypse bad, we had all been working remote for six weeks and I was transferred to another unit. It felt like getting ripped out of bed in the middle of the night and forced under the covers with someone else’s wife.

I felt like I was imploding, needing room to get away from the pressure and expand back to true form. I needed space to think. Wilderness, Colorado, Durango. Yeah, all the right words.

In the spirit of “two is one and one is none,” I needed a wing-man. Immediately I thought of my friend, Ronan. Ronan was not a hunter, had never caught a fish, had never fired a gun outside of the military, but he was a man after my own heart. I knew that the first time we ever did anything together, and a miscommunication put us on opposite sides of the same mountain. Each thinking the other ditched at the last minute, we attacked our separate routes, only to run headlong into one another at the summit. I knew he would meet me at the top of whatever mountain we were about to climb.

As for me, I was raised in the woods. I grew up a houndsman, a deer hunter, and a waterfowler. Training for war in the swamps of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, felt to me like another coon hunt, just more serious. Like if the raccoons had guns and deadly intent. But the world of Western hunting was altogether new, and my depth of research consisted of a couple episodes of MeatEater. Naively, I figured if that guy could do it…

The day before getting to Durango, the day before sliding into one kind of abyss or another, I picked up Ronan from a small airport in northern New Mexico. He had just completed military free-fall parachute training, which made him officially “sky trash.” I could still smell the wind and terminal velocity on his clothes when he got in the truck. Everywhere he went you could hear Tom Petty’s Free Falling in the background. He was the high to my low. Balance.

After a dark journey through country I am certain was beautiful in the daylight, we pulled up the long dirt road to Hermosa Creek’s southern parking area about 0400. Along the way we passed a small parking lot with a wall tent and three pickups, but I was headed for the end of the road.

We were greeted by a full-blown outfitter camp. Horses, wall-tents, rifles and coffee were everywhere. Guides were packing mules for the ride in and hunters were lazily finishing up dishes of bacon and eggs. It looked like heaven, and we must have looked like a couple sinners strolling through the Pearly Gates. That’s the reception we got, anyhow.

Saint Peter, literally mounted atop his high horse and waving his hand in a 360-degree circle, looked down at us and said “You boys need to get out of here. We lease the hunting rights from the Forest Service for this whole area. All you had to do was call and ask.”

“We’re just trying to get to the public land,” I told him, incredulous that anyone could lease exclusive hunting access to a federally designated wilderness area.

I was beginning to lay out Forest Service maps on the tailgate, listening to “all you had to do was call and ask” being repeated over and over, while trying to figure a solution to this problem when the weather solved it for us. A tall man with a long gray beard walked over to Saint Pete and said, “Forecast looks bad, Steve. We need to get this camp and these horses out of here before it gets worse.” Despite his inferior stature and cantankerous mannerisms, I could tell that this Steve was in charge and had a tough decision to make. I could understand the predicament.

 After a few hand gestures and another “all you had to do was call and ask,” we were headed back to the little lot with the pickups and wall tent. I should have kept driving, all the way back to town. That’s what Saint Steve and his horse wranglers did a few minutes later. By 0500, they had packed up Heaven and left us in Hell. We just didn’t know it yet. Didn’t know Hell was cold, either. Was about to freeze over.

Watching Steve the Apostle and his entourage snake their way down the mountain, Ronan and I rucked up and walked back to where the outfitter camp had been. Smoldering ashes dumped from a wood stove and a few steaming piles of horse shit were all that was left. A ghost camp. That’s when it began to snow.

With the swirl all around us, Ronan and I started walking. But not the normal kind. I’d never hunted elk and he’d never hunted at all, so we defaulted to our common baseline experience; patrolling. We walked like we were living The Hills Have Eyes. Elk eyes. We crested every ridge with the same ceremony granted to Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. Each man moves to the flanks, head up, rifle at the ready. Unless contact is imminent, the rifles are swapped for glass as the observers scan, by quadrant, the opposing hillsides as they come into view. Nothing. Map check and continue to move. We hunted elk like elk were hunting us. It was both strange and familiar.

We barely spoke all day, our communication done with gestures and hand-signals. Once, seeing a cow elk at the edge of the burn we were entering, we practiced our setup and shot sequence, crawling up to the ridge line, placing rucks out front as rifle rests, and getting the spotter positioned to observe the shot. But with only a bull tag, we painstakingly reversed the process and left her to graze, undisturbed.

We moved like that for the rest of the day, cutting cross-country, deeper into the burn. For mile after jagged mile, the charred and blackened remains of what once was a forest rose like specters around us. We were alone, walking among them, the living in the presence of the dead.

Our first day ended in that canyon bottom, a place I thought would shelter us from the wind. A creek ran alongside, and the remains of yet another outfitter camp stood nearby, rings of river rocks marking the graves of campfires past. I took them for sign that this was as good a spot as any to set a spike camp. With water replenished, and a warm meal in our bellies we took shelter for the night, a thin layer of polyester and nylon encapsulating us from the accumulation building outside. That is when the wind truly began to blow.

In the summer of 2018, two years before we found ourselves encamped in the desolation of that canyon, a pair of wildfires converged on Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area. The 416 fire came from the east, ignited by embers from a coal-fueled passenger train, becoming the sixth largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Burro fire came from the west, source undetermined. Some fires, most fires, build resiliency in forest ecosystems. With the underbrush gone and pathways for sunlight opened to the forest floor, new growth and sources of sustenance are created. But if a fire gets too hot, if toomuch time passes without the nurture of flame, fuel sources build, heat burns through bark and cambium, soil becomes unstable, and the forest dies. From opposing sides of the same mountain, 416 and Burro had attacked their separate routes, running headlong into one another in the abyss of that canyon. At their confluence, the combined heat built to the level of inferno and they killed the forest. We knew none of that.

The wind grew to hurricane force. Like a wraith, enraged by the sentience of our presence, it howled over the broken bones of a dead landscape. The groan of falling trees built to a Shepard’s tone and each gust sounded the swing of snath and scythe. Skeletons of trees began to fall, halved at their shins, and the rattling of bones drew nearer, joints exploding under the weight of an unseen menace. With each swing of the reaper’s blade, each shattering of wood and of sanity, the squall intensified. The walls closed in around us, drifts of snow literally pressing against our bodies through the tent walls. And then it passed.

The dawn brought a scene almost surreal.  Under the rising sun, the corpses of wind-felled trees were arranged like a dry-ground replica of those old museum photos from the logging boom, the ones in which a thousand timbers float down an impossible rapid, young men with axes precariously perched on the pinnacle of their accomplishment. And right in the middle of that river was our tent. Fire and wind had distorted the reality of the mountain. The deeper truth? Maybe it was that shit happens, and sometimes you survive.

Whatever the lesson, we needed to get out of that holler. Altitude sickness had set in, and I was losing weight from both ends. Ronan, having just spent six weeks at 13,000 feet (at least until the light turned green and he jumped), remained unaffected. He out-hiked me to the point of embarrassment. When he offered to share the load, I was slumped into a snow drift, my pants around my ankles and head between my knees. “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine,” I told him. I held onto my rifle like the last vestige of dignity that it was. I’d as soon die as hand thatover. I did let him carry the tripod, but we don’t talk about the tripod.

We wanted out, but the mountain opposed us, positioning the twin impediments of deadfall and snow drift like an abatis. And so, as the hours drug on, I accepted the gift of time and pondered. Wasn’t that why I’d come to this place? This place with all the right words?

What are those words, the right ones? How does one field dress, with words, the complexities of war, guilt, and responsibility? How to give voice to that which drives man to seek shelter in the wilderness? What spell must be spoken to dislodge what lurks in the unswept corners of the mind? As we climbed, these things I pondered.

At some point, we navigated the last obstacle and broke from no-man’s land into open country. The wind-swept and ash-strewn gave way to an expanse studded with life. We stopped to rest and refit. Whether from altitude sickness or some deeper struggle I do not know, but my insides desperately wanted to become my outsides and I did the one thing known to conjure opportunity at the worst moment; I stepped behind a bush and dropped my drawers. “Elk!,” yelled Ronan. Push, wipe, drop a rock on it.

Yellow forms crested a ridge 1,500 meters to the east, and one by one dropped into a south-facing meadow. Two bulls, one much larger than the other, trailing a herd of thirty cows.

We ran to beat the sunset. Wind at their backs and sun in their eyes, the elk did not notice the two forms moving to intercept them. We dropped rucks and checked the range; 500 yards on the nose, qualifying distance on the rifle range. The rifle barked, and the larger of the two bulls only flinched as he looked for the source of discomfort.  The distance, the wind, and the terrain made locating us impossible, and the herd stood like statues in the meadow. Three more shots and the bull dropped in place, exactly where he stood when I began firing seconds before. When we reached him, four entry wounds pockmarked a softball-sized space behind his shoulder, all exiting from what appeared to be the same hole on the opposite side.

The next day’s pack-out took 10 hours, and we reveled in the brutality of it. That night, at a roadside café on Hwy 160, I cut a piece of cake and gave it to Ronan in celebration. The date was November 10th, 2020, the 245th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.

The bull’s skull hangs over my wife’s piano. Place of honor. I had him painted in the Southwestern tradition of Día de Los Muertos, Day of The Dead. I want him to know I value his place in my household, more than just antlers and bragging rights. I don’t want Elk Head Woman looking for her calf in my living room. He rests there, watching over my children as they turn his flesh into questions about what his life was like, where did he come from, does he miss his family? In being remembered by us, honored by us, he lives with us. You may not understand that, but you may not be human either.

His presence is a powerful reminder of the mountain’s timelessness, and of our responsibility to it in the time we are given by it. I entered into our union a laborer in the sweat of my labor. I left in repose, convinced through storm and struggle that Thoreau was right; in wilderness is the salvation of the world. It was of mine, anyway. I found it that day on the mountain, the day Ronan helped me shoulder the load as we climbed out of the abyss, in a place with all the right words.




This story is dedicated to Lauren, who had the grace to let me go. And to Ronan, who had the audacity to go with me.


About the Author: Jake Lunsford is a BHA member and Georgia native. Currently, he serves as a National Defense Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. All views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Naval Service, or the United States Marine Corps.




About Jake Lunsford

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