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.
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.