Jesse Coleman Hunter Jr., who has been called J.C. for as long as he remembers, resembles a Texas tycoon about as much as an air rifle does an elephant gun. He lives with his wife, Mary, and two children in a simple frame house in Abilene, drives a three-year-old Buick and dresses in the style of early J.C. Penney. He is a deacon of the church and a Boy Scout leader who does not drink, smoke, bet or brag, and the only ostentatious thing he has ever done, says a friend, is to plant two 40-foot pecan trees in his bare front yard "because every house should have a tree." But it so happens that slight, schoolmasterish J.C. owns—in addition to a few dozen oil wells—all the elk in Texas as well as most of the mountain range on which they live. He also owns the state's only trout stream, its highest peak and its most spectacular canyon. Even by Texas standards this is hard to beat, but Hunter is working on it. For more than a year he has been trying to invite the entire population of the U.S. out to his place.
This is no gag or foolish fancy, as an impressive roster of government officials is discovering. Behind Hunter's astonishing invitation is solid common sense and concern for the future. Hunter would like to see most of his 72,000-acre spread turned into a national park so that everyone can share it with him. He may be about to get his wish; last year the 11-member Advisory Board of the National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments visited the area and recommended unanimously that it be made a park, and the board's recommendation may well become law under the new Congress.
The son of a Texas schoolteacher who founded the family fortune on little more than a set of textbooks and a preference for work over sleep, J.C. Hunter was born in the mountain town of Van Horn (current pop. 1,953), some 30 miles north of the Rio Grande. His father had gone there fresh out of Howard Payne College to teach in the one-room school. Before long the elder Hunter was serving as county judge, working part-time in the bank and acquiring ranch properties as fast as he could get the collateral to buy or lease them.
If young J.C. was aware of papa's burgeoning bank balance, the knowledge was purely academic. He continued to trudge to school on foot, wearing clothes as homespun as ever, earning spending money through his own labors. He was 14, in fact, before his father's oil interests moved the family to the prairie city of Abilene, 200 miles away. And by that time the wild Guadalupe Mountain country of West Texas had staked a permanent claim on him.
December 21, 1964
Throughout his high school and college years J.C. kept returning to the mountains, encouraged and often accompanied by his father. Carlsbad Caverns, just over the New Mexico border, had recently been discovered, and Hunter Senior was influential in having it established as a national monument. He then turned his attention—and J.C.'s—south to the Guadalupes.
Here, just under the border, is the most awesome and spectacular range of mountains in the state of Texas. For almost 100 miles their barren walls can be seen towering above the salt fiats, rising like stark sentinels out of the desert. The whole wedge-shaped Guadalupe Range is part of a giant barrier reef formed more than 225 million years ago beneath the Permian Sea. It has been described by the American Museum of Natural History as "the most extensive fossil organic reef known" and by less learned observers as the most magnificent sight in the Southwest.
At the point of the wedge is El Capitan. This sheer limestone cliff, 8,078 feet high, is the best known natural monument in Texas, as well as a familiar checkpoint for airline pilots. Directly north of it is Guadalupe Peak, the highest (8,751 feet) in the state. Completing the triangle is 8,362-foot Pine Top Mountain, and hidden within its for-bidding limestone walls lies a real-life Shangri-La.
Here, in a profusion of virgin splendors, is a wilderness lush with wildlife where the flora and fauna of the North, South, East and West come together on common ground. Sotol, mescal and mountain mahogany grow among Douglas firs, salmon-limbed madrones, big-tooth maples and yucca cactus. Wild cherries, ash, walnut and ponderosa pines stand side by side with chinquapin oaks, aspens and alligator juniper trees. Tall century plants cast shadows on the canyon floor, and wild flowers blossom everywhere.
Big herds of mule deer and white-tails browse through the brush, and elk bugle from far peaks. Wild turkeys roost in cool forests, and lean, sleek cats prowl the mountain darkness. An occasional bear forages in the woods, and signs of sheep and goats are present on the cliffs.
The most beautiful gorge in the Guadalupes is McKittrick Canyon. A cold, clear stream bubbles through it for four miles, then vanishes abruptly underground. Rainbow trout—the only ones in Texas—dart in its icy pools, and along the water's edge flat, silvery rocks sparkle like beds of pure white sand. Long ago, before its roof collapsed, McKittrick Canyon may have been part of the Carlsbad Caverns. Today, sheltered by lofty walls that rise 2,000 feet into the sky, it seems like an exquisite garden tucked deep in a magic mountain.
Nobody is sure how McKittrick Canyon was named, but old records show that a Kid McKittrick was shot not far away in 1894. When Hunter and his father came upon the canyon in the early 1920s, only a handful of prospectors and explorers even knew it existed. Mescalero Apaches were probably its first inhabitants, and remnants of their art and pottery have been found in some of the caves. Then came the Spanish Conquistadores, who twice rode north from Mexico in the 1500s but apparently turned back each time at the forbidding mountain barrier of the Guadalupes. Like modern jet pilots, early travelers used El Capitan as a signal peak but few on their journeys west stopped longer than was necessary for rest.
"My dad really cared about these mountains," Hunter says, "and about preserving them in their original state. He believed they were unique in the country and that it was a privilege to protect them for the future. When he died in 1945 he had bought up about two-thirds of the land. Since then, I have bought the rest and have tried to keep it as he would have done. The canyon has never been grazed, nor has any of the timber been cut. It looks today almost exactly as it looked in the days of the Apaches."
The most obvious addition to the canyon since Geronimo is the Hunter Lodge, which was built in 1927 and has changed little since. Like everything else connected with J.C. Hunter, it is thoroughly unpretentious: a rambling C-shaped series of rooms linked to each other by a long, rickety porch that is really an outside hallway. The walls are made of wide, roughhewn planks. They are pitted with knotholes and heavily chinked—about as soundproof as gauze. The draperies are Woolworth, the furniture is Salvation Army and the tubs in the several bathrooms squat stoically on short fat legs. But the heaters all work, the water is steaming hot, the baths are filled with dozens of big, thick towels and the great old iron beds are buried in mountains of eiderdown.
The heart of the lodge is the kitchen, which looks like a well-stocked supermarket on delivery day. Rows and rows of neatly stacked canned goods line the walls, two giant deepfreezes bulge with filet mignon, a fat-bellied stove glows pink with roaring flame and a long, oil-cloth-covered table creaks under large bowls of creamed squash, fresh green beans, baked potatoes drowned in Roquefort sauce, good salads, hot butter-milk biscuits that drip with melted butter and hot homemade pies. At a meal for 10 there is food for at least 20, all served under the careful eye of J.C, who bustles about passing bowls, stirring sauces, seeing that everyone is comfortable and fussing like an elderly spinster playing hostess to the vicar.
Throughout the year, legions of geologists, paleontologists, zoologists, archaeologists, stratigraphers and naturalists visit the ranch, along with Hunter's boy scouts, his friends and his family, who enjoy the mountains and the canyons almost as much as he does. When his 19-year-old daughter Carolyn graduated from high school two years ago (like her father and brother, she was valedictorian of her class and went on to the University of Texas), she chose to celebrate at the ranch with 40 of her classmates. Two of the boys decided to tackle a cliff on their own and wound up marooned for more than 24 hours on a ledge 1,700 feet above the lodge. They had to be rescued by a professional team flown in by helicopter from El Paso.
J.C.'s adult guests seldom get into this kind of trouble, mainly because they are smart enough to follow his directions. For some 15 years now Hunter has been leading groups of friends through the Guadalupes, originally after deer, and for the past five years after elk.
The elk were not always there. Hunter's father brought them by special railroad car and truck from the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1928. He lost a few along the way but managed to release 44 in the mountains around McKittrick Canyon. He also stocked the streams with trout and released antelopes, chukars, pheasants and Mexican quail, but only the trout and the elk survived. The elk have survived so well, in fact, that they now number close to 1,000 and are hunted each December by special permit. The permits are issued by the Texas Game Commission but, since the elk are all on his property, Hunter issues the invitations to use them.
It is possible to get an elk simply by walking a few hundred yards from the lodge, but the big trophy bulls are all on top of the mountains, a good day's pack by horseback straight up the canyon walls. J.C. keeps about 40 pack-horses that are bred and trained specifically for navigating the treacherous limestone cliffs. He personally plans and checks out every detail of a hunt. He helps to put up the tents, gather the wood, lay the fires, order and pack in the provisions. There is no job he asks of his staff that he has not done himself and few jobs that any of them can do better.
Along with an invitation to his annual hunt, J.C.'s guests receive minutely detailed schedules of each day's activities, the kinds of clothing, gear, artillery, even toilet articles to bring, Geodetic Survey maps, a brief history of the area and J.C.'s own suggestions for enjoying the hunt. "The shooting is really secondary," Hunter says. "We all have a wonderful time just getting out in this kind of country. Most years I don't shoot at all. I guess I am basically a conservationist. I have taken my share of game here and in Idaho and New Mexico, but mostly I enjoy hunting along with my friends and leaving the shooting to them.
"If the Guadalupes become a national park, this will mean the end of these hunts," he adds wistfully, "but it won't mean an end to elk hunting in the state. The way elk migrate they eventually will spread out all through the neighboring areas, so it will still be possible to hunt them on a number of private ranches."
"You know," said J.C. recently as he let his eye roam affectionately along the horizon, "there is quite a legend about lost gold in the Guadalupes. People have been searching for it ever since Geronimo, and all the time they have been looking right at it. The real treasure of the Guadalupes is all around us."