Serendipity smiled on us when we met Bruce Clatterbaugh of Adams Lodge Outfitters.
One of our staff was attending the Sportsmen’s Expo in Denver, approached Bruce’s outfitters exhibit, and told him about Freedom Alliance.
That summer Bruce donated a trip into the Flat Tops Wilderness of Colorado’s White River National Forest. There, four wounded servicemen spent some days recuperating at one of the outfitters’ fishing camps.
Seeing the good it did them, Bruce donated again the next year, and this September marks the third Freedom Alliance trip with Adams Lodge Outfitters. Now the Flat Tops Wilderness event is one of the finest in our Outdoor Adventure Series for veterans.
For last month’s trip we chose six Marines who were all martial arts instructor trainers with the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP). This program, led by retired Lt. Col. Joe Shusko, integrates martial arts discipline with character-building Corps values.
Coming from the airport in Grand Junction, the Freedom Alliance Marines journeyed to Meeker, Colorado, the home town of Adams Lodge Outfitters. Since this was Bruce’s third year partnering with Freedom Alliance, the townsfolk knew to expect us.
“They all came to me offering to help,” Bruce said of his neighbors. And help they did.
The White River Inn donated three rooms for the night; local Italian restaurant La Famiglia hosted our dinner; and when we ate breakfast at Wendll’s coffee shop, the owner informed us that our meals were on the house.
After spending the night in Meeker, we drove to the Adams Lodge Outfitters corral, which is stationed at the Marvine Campground, where we would take the trail into the Flat Tops Wilderness.
The rest of this story will be mostly told in the words of the Marines. The tranquil setting and stunning scenery of this remote destination inspire expression, and our guests couldn’t hold it in.
Steve, an infantryman who later served as a combat advisor in Afghanistan, described the start of the trip:
“When I met Bruce of Adams Lodge Outfitters at the trailhead, I had envy coursing through my veins. Here before us stood a real cowboy.
“Our group of jarheads had horse experience ranging from ‘I kind of know what I’m doing’ to ‘those are some funny looking camels.’ Ole Bruce could see it and he set each guy up with a horse according to his experience…
“What a show, watching the greenhorns getting on their prospective horses,” Steve laughed.
Highhorse, a Native American who participated in Operation Silent Lance in the Adriatic Sea, introduced us to his horse. (Despite his name, Highhorse had never ridden independently before.)
“Somehow I ended up with the horse that kept catching my eye,” he said, and he thought the attention was mutual. “Hidalgo was the horse’s name. I felt like I bonded with him, even if our time together was relatively short…
“Hidalgo took good care of me. I felt strange having to put my trust into a horse to not get me hurt. Hidalgo didn’t let me down. The ride was so peaceful.”
It was a seven-mile, two-and-a-half-hour ride, with a climb of 1,300 feet to reach the Upper Marvine Lake.
Steve recalled, “Everybody acted tough and never wanted to say our hind ends were getting sore, but when Bruce would stop on the trail for a break, you could see the relief…”
Nevertheless, he said that Bruce and his trail hands “never let on that we were tenderfoots.”
“Immediately after getting started up the trail, the beauty of the Flat Top Wilderness was apparent. Bruce took us on a trail through the evergreen forests … up mountainous terrain, where we had the opportunity to peer off the cliff’s edge at the flowing river that would appear out of nowhere… We even got to cross it a couple of times, making us feel like we were in a scene of an old western movie.”
What awaited the men when they emerged from the woods was a pristine lake, which mirrored the towering, flat-topped mountains that encircle it.
Steve marveled, “Once we got to the Marvine Lake, our backs became straighter in the saddle and eyes were a little wider as every camera was pulled out to take pictures…”
Bruce and his men led the horses away, leaving the Marines to enjoy three days at the camp site, which included three canvas tents with beds and a “wilderness” kitchen with a wood stove.
There was much fishing to be done after reaching camp, and Steve and another retired Marine, Jim, got down to business.
Jim is one of the founders of MCMAP and still serves with the Marines as a civilian. He had just gotten back from a deployment to Afghanistan, in fact.
Jim and Steve, the oldest of the group, snagged a rowboat and took off catching trout. In no time they had enough fish to feed all the campers.
These two were not only good at fishing.
“We talked so much trash while we were catching fish—as only Marines know how,” said Steve. “We were laughing and talking trash about the others not catching anything!”
The other Marines cleaned and seasoned the catch, cooked the fish in the campfire, and served it over a bed of rice.
Indeed, the eating was good … and the landscape even better.
“The scenery was beautiful,” Highhorse said. “The air was so clean and the tranquillity of the outdoors allowed me to let the hustle and bustle of the world slip away. I really gained some peace out there.”
The campfire, like the kitchen table in a home, was like the heart of this trip. Regardless of the day’s activity, each morning and night, the Marines gathered around the fire. Since some of them hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, they had a lot to talk about.
Dayton, a fire support man in the Marines, deployed four times to Iraq in five years, and three times to Afghanistan in three years. We asked him what was being discussed around the fire.
“Catching up on old times,” he said, “talking about who can catch more fish, bad times as well as good times in the Marine Corps, and what we can do to mess with each other!”
There was plenty of good-natured teasing, and lots of support. These men counseled one another and even turned into competent medics when one of their comrades fell ill.
“This trip allowed me to release my stress, connect with what I know, and … come back home with a fresh perspective on life,” said Highhorse.
We asked Steve what was his favorite part of the trip. It was hard for anyone to narrow it down.
“I know that even as I was fishing,” Steve said, “I was thinking about getting on a horse and riding out like I was Captain Woodrow F. Call from Lonesome Dove!”
Highhorse summarized the experience for us:
“The horse ride was magnificent. the camping was fantastic. The quality of the fishing was excellent. The scenery was breathtaking… I spent time in the company of Marines that I had so much in common with. I loved the quality time of sitting around the campfire telling stories and jokes and just being ourselves.”
When Bruce and his team returned with the horses on the fourth day he found the Marines changed for the better. This trip means a lot to the veterans, and it accomplishes a lot, too.
A Freedom Alliance team member said, “The solitude, beautiful scenery, equine therapy, and campfire camaraderie make this one of Freedom Alliance’s most treasured event.”
Bruce, we can’t thank you enough. You’ve given our heroes time to heal, a space to be themselves in, and an adventure they will never forget.