Huérfano is Spanish for orphan. In this case a perfect description of the landform—a solitary spire or hill left standing by erosion apart from kindred landscape features. Also called a “circumscribed eminence,” a lost mountain, or an island hill, it is a kind of existentialist monument, an island in the sky: no man is an island, but a huérfano is. You could make the argument that Devils Tower in Wyoming is the mother of all huérfanos. Alternately, a huérfano can be a hill or mountain of old rock completely surrounded, but not covered, by younger rock. A disk-shaped huérfano is known as a tejón. A huérfano is also known as a lost mountain and an island hill. In 1842, John C. Frémont, a second lieutenant of the newly formed Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, was greatly enthusiastic about Huérfano Butte in southern Colorado. Once considered a geological mystery, its origins were the subject of some debate: was it a volcanic plug or something else? Evidence suggests that this solitary cone, sitting adjacent to I-25, is the remnant core of an igneous intrusion— a volcano that never erupted; when the surrounding layers of rock subsequently eroded away, they left what writer and photographer Curtis Von Fange calls “an orphan in stone.” These orphans will always serve as cinematic and literary short-cuts to a western mythos. In Sinister Pig, Tony Hillerman writes: “It was a pleasant location with a fine view . . . of traffic speeding along New Mexico Highway 44, of Chaco Mesa far to the west. . . . Visible through the side window were the towering walls of Huérfano Mesa.” A section of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico has the local label The Huérfano.

Luis Alberto Urrea