There is a place, far up a mountain trail in the West Elk Wilderness that most people pass by without a thought. To reach it takes hours on foot or horseback. Most day’s start before dawn - hours of catching, saddling, and loading horses, just to get us to the trailhead. As the pack string hits the trail we cross the wilderness boundary in the first quarter mile. Three hours later deep in the wilderness, the place comes into view. The trail narrows, hugging the top of huge cliffs with an unforgettable view of the Gunnison Valley. Then the trail moves away from the cliffs and as it heads back into the timber something seemingly out of place comes into sight.
There is a large fir tree just off the trail with a small wooden box attached. When I first rode by over 15 years ago I was confused at the sight of this thing. It was roughly the size of a mailbox and was in pretty good shape. Inside the box where I expected to find a register or some kind of information, I found only spider webs. Later back in camp I asked a few of the older guides the purpose of this box and they explained that long ago - no one was sure when - the box marked the old wilderness boundary.
It took me years of riding by before it came clear that this place marked an outdated line on a map that years before people had worked to protect forever as wilderness. I have guided summer guests and elk hunters in this country for about half my life. Days and months I have made the country my home. I love the place with a passion and know firsthand the effect this place has had on me. I have also seen the impact of these lands on countless clients, and other wilderness visitors. Each goes home with their own experience, but very, very few are not touched by these wild lands.
Several years ago the tree holding the box fell down. After that, the box only survived a couple more seasons attached to the stump until it finally fell off. It lays below the tree with two lag bolts above, still attached to the tree. Very few people can see it now. But I know where it lays in the tall grass next to the stump of the tree. This place is a part of my soul now, and I love to sit in silence there in the grass surrounded by wilderness. For me, this box represents the hard work of the past to expand the wilderness and protect these wild lands.
For many years observant people would see the box, and ask about its purpose. I explain the reason for the box, and try to put the thought of public land protection in the minds of my guests. Now I must try to point it out, and people probably think I’m crazy when I ask “Can you see those lag bolts over on that tree?”
As Colorado Public Lands Day approaches, I reflect on the people who worked to protect this place and I am forever grateful. I don’t know who it was, but I owe my lifestyle to these passionate people. I also know that the place where the box lays would not be the same if the wilderness boundary had not be expanded all those years ago. We as a community have the possibility to protect other lands in front of us now and the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative is our chance. Please take a look at their website www.gunnisonpubliclands.org and support the work they are doing to preserve our County’s lands and way of life. These are the places where we can experience wildness, have countless adventures, and pass on those adventures to future generations.
The Gunnison landscape is world class in so many ways and we can't take it for granted. Think of how much has changed in the last 38 years since the box last marked the boundary of the wilderness. What will this place we are so lucky to call home look like in another 38 years? If we take up the challenge, we can protect some of these places forever.
Bruce “LB” Mullin Jr.
West Elk Wilderness Outfitters