I´m driving East on Highway 60 from Springerville into the sparsely populated outback of New Mexico. Hiway 60 follows a path taken by Mexican sheepherders in the 1850s driving their flocks West to markets in California. Later it was called the Magdalena Trail or the Beefsteak Trail. Ranchers in the White Mountains used it for over six decades to drive their sheep and cattle to the railhead in Magdalena. Across yucca flats and pinon- juniper clad hillsides it made it´s way from well to watering hole across 125 miles of high desert and through the Plains of San Augustin. The last drives were made in the 1950s. The trip was a coming of age experience for young Mormon cowboys and many a worried mother watched her child head out with the family herd, praying he would return safely from the dangers of the trail and the temptations of that rough cowtown called Magdalena. In the 1880s it bragged of two banks, two theaters, six hotels and twelve barrooms.
Chris Issacs, cowboy poet from Eager, told me a story of an old Snowflake cowboy who was persuaded by his wife to forgo the annual trail drive. She watched him stare longingly off toward the East each evening as he imagined the progress of the drive "Tonight they´re camped in White House Canyon". She saw to it that he didn´t miss the drive again.
For years I´ve thought about writing a song about the old Magdalena driveway and made a few lame starts. In my song a young cowboy on his first visit would fall in love with a good-looking whore. He would ride back to town each night from the camp of the homeward bound trail drive crew, hoofbeats ringing in the moonlight, just to see his beloved. Song writing, like sausage making should probably be done behind closed doors –out of sight from regular folks. I got as far as
She´d make buttermilk tortillas
In her silk underwear
Down in old Magdalena
She´d watch him from her window
Above the Eclipse Café
Down in old Magdalena
Magdalena lying in the sun
Magdalena when the long days work is done
Magdalena Boys I´ve had some fun
When I shared my efforts with Jim Cooke, historian and all around fine feller from Wickenburg, he told me this family story. His first wife´s mother grew up in Springerville. It was around 1900 when her 15-year-old brother begged the older brothers to let him accompany them on the trail drive to Magdalena. Against their mothers´ better judgment he went. When they got to Magdalena he fell in with a group of wild Texas cowboys driving a herd of longhorn cattle to the Northern plains. He took them up on the offer of a job and just like that he was gone over the horizon. Years went by with no word from little brother. Whenever a strange car would pull into the yard of the home ranch their mother would wonder if it was her wandering boy come home. Was he languishing in a dark prison? Buried in an unmarked grave on the endless prairie? His family never heard from him again.
Jim wrote this poem about the young cowboy. It´s such a good story .I´m going to shelve my song till the Muses come a´ calling. Jim´s brother Dean put a tune to the poem and for a nickel he´ll sing it to you.
This story´s rough and tattered ´cause nobody wrote it down
So I´ll tell it like I heard it when the family gathered round.
How Granny always wondered when a knock came at her door
If it might be her youngest son, who´d rode off years before.
He took the eastward trail folks call the Magdalena Stock Driveway,
Driving cattle to railroad pens at the end of the Santa Fe.
Grant was just fourteen, and he´d been throwed out of school,
So it was hard to tell him no when he begged to join the pool
Of his brothers and their neighbors who´d gathered quite a herd.
The older boys would keep Grant safe--they gave their mom their word.
The Magdalena stock trail headed east from Springerville,
Crossed the New Mexico border, past the wide spot called Red Hill.
They crossed the great divide in the mountains west of Datil.
They made about ten miles a day, nudging grazing cattle.
Thirty thirsty miles they went on the Plains of San Augustin,
The barest and the flattest place young Grant had
Magdalena savors its legend now, but then the town was young
Cowmen came to ship their steers and stayed to have some fun.
Drovers mixed with miners, to drink and strut and fight.
Steam engines shuffled stock cars, and chuffed into the night.
After they sold their cattle, the Thompsons joined the fun.
Then Hiram and Henry got a surprise from Mama´s youngest son.
He had hired on with a cattleman, heading for Colorado.
Grant was a big, hot-headed kid, out looking for El Dorado.
His brothers could rope him or fight him, but they let him go his way.
They headed home for Springerville, knowing there´d be hell to pay.
And it was the slowest kind of hell, and it lasted many years.
His mother waited the rest of her life, hoping Grant would reappear.
His dad wrote some letters to lawmen in places Grant might have gone.
The trails weren´t made of paper then, and his dad had no telephone.
They´d ask a traveler passing through, did he know Grant Thompson´s name?
There was never a yes, so they played a mournful wondering game.
He might have drawn on the wrong man, and be buried beside some trail.
Maybe a bad horse broke his neck, or he was locked in a distant jail.
Maybe Grant was alive somewhere, holding one job or another.
That didn´t seem very likely—he´d surely write to his mother.
Descendants called her "Granny" and told how she did mourn,
And worry about what happened to the youngest son she´d borne.
The old woman always brightened when a car came down the lane,.
Hoping it would be Grant at last—but her hopes were all in vain.
A hundred years have passed since Grant went seeking pastures greener.
A thousand cowboys followed him down the trail to Magdalena.
The folks who waited for Grant are gone--their grieving is all through.
I thought I´d write their story down before I´m history too.
Copyright 2006 by Jim Cook
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