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."