CARLSBAD – It was not your great-grandfather’s cattle drive, but the four-day, 45-mile-long journey a group of cowboys and adventure tourists made on horseback, pushing cattle from a Lea County ranch to Carlsbad, was enough to be billed the “Cattle Drive of the Century.”
The cattle drive, which began Wednesday from the 35,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch in Lea County and ended Saturday morning at the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse Arena for an auction, was organized by Lea and Eddy county committees as part of the state’s centennial celebration.
One of the chief organizers, rancher Bert Madera, owner of the Pitchfork, which supplied the nearly 90 head of cattle for the drive, boasted the event was “the largest centennial celebration in the state of New Mexico.”
For the participants, which included two women from Austria who previously worked on Madera’s ranch and several others from out of state, the event was a chance to put themselves in the boots, and saddles, of the ranchers who played a key role in the history of New Mexico and the West.
“This is kind of a historical connection to the cattle drive,” said Frank Goodrich, a medical technologist from Council Grove, Kan., who likes to use his spare time helping ranchers in his area graze cattle in the tall, blue stem grass of the prairie. “The days of the long cattle drives, unfortunately, are over. It’s more of a nostalgia thing for me.”
Eiblis Goldings, a 48-year-old medical researcher from Boston, Mass., said she has spent several vacations working one-way cattle drives in Idaho and Wyoming and decided to pay the $1,800 fee to see some New Mexico country on the four-day ride. While Goldings said the appeal of a cattle drive for her is connecting with the cowboy lifestyle, experiencing those “meditative moments” in the saddle and testing her limits, the drive through New Mexico’s southeast corner “was not roughing it. … You had porta-potties at every campsite.”
More than 80 riders, and a 1906 wagon driven by Carlsbad resident Lanette Irby, arrived Saturday morning in Carlsbad on the last six-mile leg of the journey.
Each night, buses ferried visitors from Hobbs or Carlsbad to the camp site of the cattle drivers. For $75 per head, visitors were provided a “chuck wagon dinner” – brisket, ribs, rice and broccoli casserole and beans on Friday night – and entertained around campfires by Western folk singers and cowboy poets. The group of entertainers was headlined by Michael Martin Murphey, a friend of Madera’s and perhaps best known for his 1975 hit, “Wildfire.”
Water was trucked in to the campsites for the cattle and the riders. The first two days of the drive, the trail largely paralleled state highways, but on Friday the group got a chance to cross open country.
Gov. Susana Martinez greeted the group Thursday along a portion of the trail near a highway.
The drive touched part of the historic Goodnight-Loving Trail, named after ranchers Charles Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving who herded cattle up the Pecos River to Fort Sumner to sell to the Army in the 1860s. Loving’s narrow escape from Comanches and subsequent death in 1867 from a gunshot-related injury while driving 2,000 head of cattle to Fort Sumner formed the basis for Larry McMurtry’s Western novel “Lonesome Dove,” said Calvin Smith, executive director of the Western Heritage Museum Complex and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame in Hobbs.
The great Western cattle drives largely went by the wayside by the end of the 19th century, with the closing of trails and the reliance on railroads for shipping beef to market. But drives of shorter distances still persist in various locations.
Madera noted that his own father, who operated the Chico Ranch 18 miles south of Guadalupe Peak and across the Texas line, once drove a herd 100 miles west to water in Jal during a drought in the 1930s.
Lawton, Okla., retiree Penn Rabb said he read about the centennial cattle drive in New Mexico Magazine and, despite the fact he had hip replacement surgery about 10 years ago and has hardly ridden a horse since he was a young man, he considered the event “the opportunity of a lifetime I didn’t want to pass up.”
“My wife said, ‘You can’t do that,’ but I finally won her over,” Rabb said. “She said, ‘If you want to do it that bad, you go ahead.’ ”
Rabb said he trained for the event by riding a horse once a week in the two months before the May 9 start. During the drive, three men would hoist him into the saddle, because he could not lift his leg high enough to put his foot into the stirrup, and three men would help him off the horse at the end of each day.
“I was determined I would make it,” Rabb said. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade.”