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