“I felt like hunting was branded on my soul,” Burbank said.
Wanting to assist with her son’s passion, Lora Bush decided to help him chase his dream. So together they bought a .270 and alone they planned their chase.
The first season was a failure. They struggled to learn the regulations, interpret the land and, despite seeing deer on the sides of the road on the way to their hunts near Lander, they couldn’t get a deer in front of them to harvest.
The following season, at the age of 13, Burbank and his mother finally got a little luck. But the hard work didn’t end with the well-placed shot. They took the doe home, hung and aged it and together they learned to butcher the deer. They were inexperienced, but they wanted to have total quality control from the field to the table.
“That first harvest was epic in so many ways,” Burbank said.
They started off with steaks and jerky, then moved to burger with an underpowered grinder. From the very beginning they were insistent they not lose the intimacy of the experience by having their game processed by a stranger. They struggled, but they did it all together. And in the process the two grew close.
Through high school, Burbank — the 2003-04 Wyoming state pole vault champion — continued to hunt. He studied every aspect of hunting, calling his obsession “nerding out” on the process. Burbank is a problem solver and what knowledge he didn’t have, he pursued through research.
Always seeking a more intimate experience during his hunts, Burbank saw a mature 5x6 bull elk in a meadow, but instead of taking a tough shot he decided to attempt to get as close as possible before firing. For a couple hours he slowly belly-crawled through the brush, careful not to spook his prey. Finally at 18 yards, Burbank harvested the bull and found his new obsession.
“My senses were heightened to another level and I was hooked,” he said.
Addicted to the thrill of hunting from close range, he immediately took up the bow. He also appreciates the timing of the early archery seasons, having less risk of being caught in a snow storm and seeing more movement of his prey during the day.
Burbank fell in love with Becky Kleinfeldt, of Powell, while attending Chadron State College in northwest Nebraska. They married after a year and started a family. They have two children, Nova, 4, and Lincoln, 18 months. Nova is a big fan of wild game and loves watching her father process the family food.
“Nova draws licenses for me while we’re in the park trying to convince me to take her hunting,” he said.
Lincoln already knows bear and elk noises while most children are more familiar with cows and chickens.
Becky will be hunting for the first time this year after drawing an elk tag. Having subsisted on game meat by choice throughout the couple’s marriage, participating in the hunts seemed like a natural progression in their relationship.
Bush, who worked in the state school, was having chronic pain in her neck and back and was having a hard time traveling to spend time with her grandchildren. It was heartbreaking for her son. He had a hard time accepting the limited exposure his children had with his mother and best friend.
Then tragedy struck the tight-knit family. Lora became sick with a combination of spinal meningitis and Mrsa infection. Mrsa causes infections in different parts of the body and is difficult to treat because it’s resistant to antibiotics. Bush, 52, died on July 2, 2016 — two days before her son’s birthday. Garrett slipped into a deep depression. In his despair, memories of a trauma-filled childhood surfaced and he went to a dark place. At a very young age he had witnessed acts of violence on family members by his father.
“Watching my mother gasp for air as she was dying brought back memories of helplessly watching my father choking her,” Burbank said.
The mental images of his mother’s struggle for breath was a trigger for his dark thoughts. He sought help and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, through counseling, his suppressed memories came pouring out.
“I unpacked the past I was carrying,” he said.
And then he went back to the wilderness. He found the beauty and isolation of the mountains to be soul healing.
“You’re grounded and rooted in the moment. You have no other choice,” he said. “Overcoming the challenges of the wilderness gives you strength in the world.”
At the same time a friend from work, Dana Sander, invited Burbank to a Bible study with a group that included several veterans suffering from PTSD. The release of emotions changed Burbank. He caught fire.
Sander and those in the group witnessed the dramatic change.
“Garrett unloaded his life story. Then I saw his life change,” Sander said.
No longer hiding the secrets of his childhood he felt vulnerable, but free. While sharing his form of wilderness therapy with the Bible study group, the idea of immersing yourself in an outdoor experience to assist in the emotional healing process sparked a plan.
“We knew he had to build a secure place for sharing while mixing in outdoor adventure,” Sander said.
Working together, they developed a program to get veterans both outdoors and into groups for counseling. They started monthly outdoor adventures in March for those looking for the healing powers of mother nature and in September, their inaugural 12-week program, Down Range Warriors, begins.
Burbank is excited by the opportunity to help his fellow man.
“I want to share how I was given the courage to follow my passions through wilderness therapy and not be defined by my failures,” he said.
His goals are lofty, but he’s taking it slow.
“I’m concentrating on the next step. I’m not going to worry about the following 50,” Burbank said.
More than 100 people came to the last adventure outing, a barbecue, biking and water sports extravaganza at Beck Lake, in Cody. The group has also gone on hikes — providing transportation for those physically unable to participate — and off-road ATV and motorcycle adventures.
For more information on Down Range Warriors, call 307-250-2018.